IV.13 The four-class system was created by Me
In accordance with distinctions of guṇa-s and results-of- actions (karma).
XVIII.41–4 The actions of Brahmins, of warriors, of businessmen, and of those who do service,
Are distinguished according to the guṇa-s that come up out of their inborn nature.
Calm, self-control, austerity (tapas), purity, patience and uprightness,
Knowledge theoretical and practical, faith – are the nature- born behaviour of the Brahmin.
Heroism, majesty, firmness, resourcefulness, not yielding in fight,
Generosity, dignity – are the nature-born behaviour of the warrior.
Farming and trade are the nature-born behaviour of businessmen;
Service is the nature-born vocation of those who are drawn to it.
The Laws of Manu lay down general rules that a Brahmin, for instance, should be the son or daughter of two Brahmin parents. However this represents a hardening into a fixed social rule of what is merely a natural tendency – that the son of a carpenter (a much more important profession then than now) will probably develop an aptitude for building, or the son of a scholar, for scholarship. Manu himself recognizes in places the defects of a fixed rule of heredity; he says in II.87: ‘he who befriends all creatures is declared to be a Brahmin’, and elsewhere: ‘a Brahmin who lacks piety and learning, and an elephant made of leather – there is nothing there but the name.’
In the oldest spiritual classics the divisions were not made automatically on the basis of heredity, as they later tended to be. In the Chāndogya Upaniṣad, one of the oldest, a would-be pupil who is illegitimate, is asked by the teacher about his parentage. He answers: ‘Sir, I am illegitimate; and I know only my mother’s name.’ The teacher says at once: ‘I will take you as a pupil. Only a true Brahmin would thus fearlessly speak out the truth.’ This shows that the determinant of spiritual class was the inner character, not parentage.
The Gītā several times refers to the four classes: Brahmin, warrior, businessman, and server. It nowhere says that they are determined by parentage; rather it is by their inborn tendencies, which have however to be cultivated. They correspond to what today we should call a vocation. As the Gītā says, the vocation may be missed: ‘the vocation of another brings on anxiety.’
The Gītā speaks of the duties (not of any rights) which a given role entails. The Brahmin, for instance, was to be non-violent, but he had to speak out the truth fearlessly regardless of consequences to himself. There are striking illustrations of this in early Upanishads, where the Brahmin has fallen away from his vocation and become a ritualist, with only a theoretical knowledge of the Self. In some of these passages, it is a king who teaches the Brahmin the kingly secret of yogic action, on a far higher plane than rituals.
One element in the Brahmin’s role was to be a transmitter of these sacred texts, and it is a tribute to their integrity that they faithfully preserved even such sections where the Brahmin comes off second-best to the king. The Gītā, given by a warrior to a warrior, is in the same tradition of the kingly secret. There is a notable example in chapter X, when the Lord is teaching that He is to be seen as the best of each class of things: ‘Of men, I am the king’ (X.27).
A great temptation for the warrior was power, whereas the businessman was regarded as specially in danger of selfishness. But the Gītā emphasizes that if they pursue their occupation faithfully as an offering to the Lord, in serenity of mind, they attain the same inner purity and clarity as any Brahmin. And so too with the role of service. They all qualify for Knowledge and the Knowledge path, as Śaṅkara states unambiguously in his commentary to XVIII. 46.
When the system hardened into hereditary succession, the servers or südra class finally became desperately downtrodden. But this was not the intention. There are many who do not feel equal to facing the changes of fortune by their own power. They wish to join some group which they respect, and serve it without having to take much responsibility for decisions. They can do immense good with their unselfish service to some admired reforming movement, though not understanding everything about it. Leaders who begin to look with contempt on such faithful followers undermine, and finally destroy, their own movement.
In fact, the Gītā presentation of all four classes is in terms of service: duties, not rights. The Brahmin served Truth, and served others with truth; the warrior served with organization, and protection of the weak; the businessman served by creating wealth for the community; the servers served directly, as members of a group.
The key to the Gītā allocation of vocations is given in the next two verses:
XVIII.45 Taking delight in his own special role, the human being attains perfection:
Listen now to how it is reached, by one delighting in his own special role:
46 One attains perfection by worshipping the Lord with his own appropriate action,
The Lord from whom comes all action, and by whom all this is pervaded.
The word ‘delight’ shows that the role proper to that person is one which will give inner fulfilment; it is not a question of duty done, a pledge honoured, an undertaking doggedly carried through. There is to be a delight in it, attesting that it is creative. Dr Shastri used to tell his pupils that there is for everyone a particular way in which he or she can serve in worship, and that such service when discovered and performed gives a deep inner satisfaction.
It arises from the Lord who is the Self. It is not a matter of having been born in a particular ‘caste’ (which is a Portuguese word). Dr Shastri himself was born in a Brahmin family, with a lineage going back to Upaniṣadic sages. But he followed his father in giving up Brahminical privileges and distinctions as they were then claimed in India. ‘One who seeks for Brahman is a Brahmin,’ he used to quote to his students.
At the beginning of the Gītā, Arjuna laments hysterically the disastrous effects of war on family and class lineage, and says he will not be guilty of such a sin. But it is clear that all this is merely an excuse for getting out of what he does not want to do. If these were his true convictions, he would have thought of them before, instead of boasting of what he was going to do in the battle. As a matter of fact, at the time of the events related by the Gītā, there was not this rigid idea of class distinction by birth. The matter can be tested by looking at a few of the most prominent figures in the Gītā.
Vyāsa (the word is a title meaning ‘compiler ‘), who arranged the Vedas, might be expected to be a pillar of orthodox descent. But he was illegitimate, offspring of a casual amour. His mother Satyavatī, later a famous queen, went to an islet in the river to bear him, and named him simply Kānīna (Bastard). He was subsequently called Kṛṣṇa, ‘dark’ (from his dark colour), and Dvaipāyana or ‘island-born’. Satyavatī married a king, by whom she had two sons, both of whom died childless. The king also died. As with other early societies, in which many children died, in such a case a brother could be asked to deputize for a dead husband. Vyāsa was only half-brother, and himself illegitimate; however he acceded to Satyavatī’s request. The king had left two widows, who gave birth respectively to Dhṛtarāṣṭra, born blind but later the king, and Pāṇḍu.
The five Pāṇḍava heroes take their patronymic from him (Pāṇḍu: Pāṇḍava). But here again they were not his sons, but only adopted. Pāṇḍu’s wife Kuntī had received the boon of being visited by six gods, by whom she had six children: Yudhiṣṭhira, Arjuna, Bhīma, two twins who do not figure in the Gītā, and Karṇa whom she abandoned. He was found and adopted by a charioteer. So all the Pāṇḍavas were also illegitimate, including Arjuna. That was doubtless why he was so sensitive on the point, repeatedly sneering at Karṇa as ‘that son of a charioteer’ (Gītā XI.26).
Of other great characters referred to in the Gītā, Bhīṣma was only half human, one parent being the spirit of the Ganges. Droṇa did not have a mother at all; nevertheless he counted as a Brahmin, and his killer paid the penalty of slaying a Brahmin.
Thus the main characters of the Gītā itself were of irregular parentage. Some of the accounts may well be symbolic, but their acceptance shows that in the Gītā view the so-called caste distinctions were not at all rigid. Caste is from the Portuguese, the original Sanskrit word being varṇa, literally colour. It has been proposed that there was an intention of distinguishing the later invaders, fairer-skinned Aryans, from the earlier invaders, the dark-skinned Dravidians. However, as noted above, one name for Vyāsa, arranger of the Veda, the sacred scriptures of the Aryans, was Kṙṣṇa, meaning dark, blue-black, or black. It is also the name of the avatāra or divine descent who gives the Gītā itself. He is dark. It is his brother, Balarāma, who is fair-skinned.
The conclusion is that in the Gītā the distinctions are based on inner vocation. The proper role in life is literally a ‘calling’, and not an accident of birth. But there is the likelihood that in many cases the circumstances of a family profession or trade would tend to bring out any latent tendencies in the same direction. Śaṅkara points out that when the highest calling comes, the calling to Self-realization, it supersedes the seemingly absolute claims of worldly roles, and the Gītā says to the advanced pupil:
XVIII.66 Giving up all duties, turn to Me alone.
I will free you from all difficulties: do not grieve.
© Trevor Leggett