Varna Dharma (वर्णधर्मः)
Varna Dharma (Samskrit : वर्णधर्मः) refers to a social order based on dharma. In this framework, brahmana, kshatriya, vaishya and shudra form the components of the society.
- 1 परिचयः ॥ Introduction
- 2 वर्णविचारः ॥ The Concept of Varna
- 3 वर्णमीमांसा ॥ Varna Mimamsa
- 4 वर्णव्यवस्थायाः मुख्याङ्गानि ॥ Key Elements of Varna Vyavastha
- 5 पुरुषार्थः वर्णधर्मश्च ॥ Purushartha and Varna Dharma
- 6 संहृतिः ॥ Synopsis
- 7 References
परिचयः ॥ Introduction
Varna Vyavastha (वर्णव्यवस्था) is a vision presented by dharma traditions wherein diversity is not only recognized as a fundamental reality of the human society, but is also made the foundation stone of human welfare. Dharma means “that which upholds” and hence, a social order based on the dharma should be such that it leads each individual to well-being and fulfillment, all the while establishing justice and harmony in the society, a notion well summarized in the popular saying
लोकाः समस्ताः सुखिनो भवन्तु । lokāḥ samastāḥ sukhino bhavantu ।
Meaning : let all beings in the world attain happiness.
वर्णविचारः ॥ The Concept of Varna
The Rshis and the authors of dharmashastra conceived of a social order wherein the uniqueness in temperaments and capabilities of every individual was not only recognized, but was made the central piece of the entire conceptual social structure and called this conceptual framework Varna Vyavastha. Thus, it is important to identify the designation and structuring of varna as a conceptual framework and not a social stratification.
Scholars have often understood varna as a social organization, as caste and/or class that refers to definite social grouping, which has led to mistaken notions that make varna, jati, kula and caste synonymous. While kula and jati refer to social groupings based on kinship relationships and ethno-cultural identities, varna is a conceptual framework that aims to provide a conceptual basis for building a social order that promotes harmony and overall wellbeing of everyone.
वेदे वर्णः ॥ Varna in the Veda
Though, varna system has often been understood as a reference to “caste system” or “class system” representing a social grouping, the primary usage of the term in the veda and dharmashastras has been that of a “conceptual framework". Rigveda Purushasukta (verse 12) provides an earliest reference to the conceptual framework of varna. It uses the metaphor of human body to represent the universe as a cosmic Purusha with his limbs denoting various aspects and functions of the universe.
ब्राह्मणोऽस्य मुखमासीद्बाहू राजन्यः कृतः । ऊरू तदस्य यद्वैश्यः पद्भ्यां शूद्रो अजायत ॥१२॥ (Rig.10.90.12)
brāhmaṇo'sya mukhamāsīdbāhū rājanyaḥ kr̥taḥ । ūrū tadasya yadvaiśyaḥ padbhyāṁ śūdro ajāyata ॥12॥ (Rig.10.90.12)
Meaning: The Brahmana (representing spiritual wisdom and splendour) was His mouth; the Kshatriya (constituting administrative and military prowess) became His arms. His thighs were the Vaishya (who formed commercial and business enterprise); of His feet the Shudra (repository of the productive and sustaining force) was born.
The sukta mentions how brahmaṇa, kshatriya, vaishya and Shudra manifested out of Cosmic Puruṣa’s head, hands, thighs and feet, respectively. It is to be understood here that the different limbs of a body, though being inseparable part of the body, are distinct from each other in their nature and function. For example, the quality of the head is intelligence and accordingly its function is thinking and decision making. Distinct from this are the feet, which have the quality of movement and hence a function of carrying the body to different places. The same is the case with other organs.
स्मृत्यां वर्णः ॥ Varna in Smrti
Manusmrti (1.87) describes how cosmic Purusha allotted different duties to people born from His different limbs for the sake of protecting and sustaining the universe. Talking of the purpose of the Varna Dharma, Manu says,
सर्वस्यास्य तु सर्गस्य गुप्त्यर्थं स महाद्युतिः । मुखबाहूरुपज्जानां पृथक्कर्माण्यकल्पयत् । । १.८७ । ।
sarvasyāsya tu sargasya guptyarthaṁ sa mahādyutiḥ । mukhabāhūrupajjānāṁ pr̥thakkarmāṇyakalpayat । । 1.87 । ।
Meaning: With a view to the protection of this entire creation, the Resplendent One ordained the distinct functions of those who sprang from the mouth, the arms, the thighs and the feet (1.87).
महाभारते वर्णः ॥ Varna in the Mahabharata
Mahabharata (12.188) assigns a color to each varna that symbolically represents the attributes/svabhava associated with that varna, reflecting the three qualities of the nature (prakrti): sattva, rajas, and tamas.
It is said in the Moksha Dharma Parva in the Shanti Parva of the Mahabharata that,
ब्राह्मणानां सितो वर्णः क्षत्रियाणां तु लोहितः । वैश्यानां पीतको वर्णः शूद्राणामसितस्तथा ॥ ५ ॥
brāhmaṇānāṁ sito varṇaḥ kṣatriyāṇāṁ tu lohitaḥ । vaiśyānāṁ pītako varṇaḥ śūdrāṇāmasitastathā ॥ 5 ॥
Meaning: The colour of the brahmanas is white, kshatriyas is red, vaishyas is yellow and that of the shudras is black. Explaining how this difference of Varna came about it is said,
न विशेषोऽस्तिवर्णानां सर्वे ब्राह्ममिदं जगत् । ब्रह्मणा पूर्वसृष्टं हि कर्मभिर्वर्णतां गतम् ॥ १० ॥
na viśeṣo'stivarṇānāṁ sarve brāhmamidaṁ jagat । brahmaṇā pūrvasr̥ṣṭaṁ hi karmabhirvarṇatāṁ gatam ॥ 10 ॥
Meaning: O sage, in the beginning, there was no difference among the varnas. Having originated from Lord Brahma, the entire universe was Brahmana. Later, due to the the various karmas (activities), they were differentiated on the basis of Varnas. It is further said that,
कामभोगप्रियास्तीक्ष्णाः क्रोधनाः प्रियसाहसाः । त्यक्त्वस्वधर्मारक्ताङ्गास्ते द्विजाः क्षत्रतां गताः ॥ ११ ॥
kāmabhogapriyāstīkṣṇāḥ krodhanāḥ priyasāhasāḥ । tyaktvasvadharmāraktāṅgāste dvijāḥ kṣatratāṁ gatāḥ ॥ 11 ॥
Meaning : Those who, having foresaken the duties appropriate for a brahmana, favoured material enjoyment, had sharp nature, anger and were known for their valorous deeds; and whose body became red due to this very reason, (those brahmanas) attained the Varna of a kshatriya.
गोभ्यो वृत्तिं समास्थाय पीताः कृष्युपजीविनः । स्वधर्मान् नानुतिष्ठन्ति ते द्विजा वैश्यतां गताः ॥ १२ ॥
gobhyo vr̥ttiṁ samāsthāya pītāḥ kr̥ṣyupajīvinaḥ । svadharmān nānutiṣṭhanti te dvijā vaiśyatāṁ gatāḥ ॥ 12 ॥
Meaning: Those who accepted cattle rearing and farming as the means of livelihood due to which their colour turned yellow and who abandoned the duties of a brahmana attained the Varna of Vaishya.
हिंसानृतप्रिया लुब्धाः सर्वकर्मोपजीविनः । कृष्णाः शौचपरिभ्रष्टास्ते द्विजाः शूद्रतां गताः ॥ १३ ॥
hiṁsānr̥tapriyā lubdhāḥ sarvakarmopajīvinaḥ । kr̥ṣṇāḥ śaucaparibhraṣṭāste dvijāḥ śūdratāṁ gatāḥ ॥ 13 ॥
Meaning: Those who deviated from cleanliness and good behaviour and favoured violence and untruth, and took up livelihood involving actions that are not praiseworthy due to greed and thereby had their bodies turn black, (those brahmanas) attained the Shudra Varna.
इत्येतैः कर्मभिर्व्यस्ता द्विजा वर्णान्तरं गताः । धर्मो यज्ञक्रिया तेषां न नित्यं न प्रतिषिध्यते ॥ १४ ॥
ityetaiḥ karmabhirvyastā dvijā varṇāntaraṁ gatāḥ । dharmo yajñakriyā teṣāṁ na nityaṁ na pratiṣidhyate ॥ 14 ॥
Meaning : This is how due to the karmas (activities) those brahmanas got separated from their brahmanatva and attained the various Varnas. However, they have not been denied adherence to dharma and performance of Yajnas in day to day life.
गीतायां वर्णः ॥ Varna in the Gita
चातुर्वर्ण्यं मया सृष्टं गुणकर्मविभागशः | cāturvarṇyaṁ mayā sr̥ṣṭaṁ guṇakarmavibhāgaśaḥ । 
and that the duties have been allotted based on the guṇas that arise from svabhava (verse 18.41).
ब्राह्मणक्षत्रियविशां शूद्राणां च परन्तप । कर्माणि प्रविभक्तानि स्वभावप्रभवैर्गुणैः ॥१८- ४१॥
brāhmaṇakṣatriyaviśāṁ śūdrāṇāṁ ca parantapa । karmāṇi pravibhaktāni svabhāvaprabhavairguṇaiḥ ॥18- 41॥
भागवतपुराणे वर्णः ॥ Varna in Bhagavata Purana
Bhagavata Purana (11.17.13) also stresses that the four varnas that originated from the supreme Purusha are to be recognized/designated by their atmachara (natural activities or personal duties according to inherent nature).
विप्रक्षत्रियविट्शूद्रा मुखबाहूरुपादजाः । वैराजात् पुरुषात् जाता य आत्माचारलक्षणाः ॥ १३ ॥
viprakṣatriyaviṭśūdrā mukhabāhūrupādajāḥ । vairājāt puruṣāt jātā ya ātmācāralakṣaṇāḥ ॥ 13 ॥
वर्णमीमांसा ॥ Varna Mimamsa
From the Rigvedic account of Varna enumerated above, two key hermeneutic principles for understanding and interpreting the meaning of varna and their usages in different Sanatana Dharma texts can be derived, namely:
When these principles (viz quality and function) are applied to individuals, the inner temperaments of an individual called as svabhava will represent the quality or defining factor of the individual whereas the actions and duties in sync with this inner calling (svabhava) called as svadharma will represent the function of the individual. Explaining the interplay between these hermeneutic principles, R. K. Sharma in his work 'Indian Society, Institutions and Change' notes: “within the person svabhava is the guiding principle. One who acts on svabhava acts spontaneously… Thus, following svabhava results in harmony… And the result is happiness… Svadharma means one’s duties in society. These duties should not be imposed from outside. In order to be natural, spontaneous and divine, the duties must be based on svabhava. Thus, svadharma and svabhava should be identical. Svabhava should decide svadharma.”
It is interesting to note that the very terminology of varna embeds within itself these two key features. The term varna is derived from the verbal root ‘vr’, which has a number of meanings, prominent among them being: color and choosing. While the color highlights the aspect of svabhava, the choosing highlights the aspect of svadharma.
Mahabharata (Anushasana Parva, Chapter 143) says, “Neither birth, nor the purificatory rites, nor learning, nor offspring, can be regarded as grounds for conferring upon one the regenerate status. Verily, conduct is the only ground. All brahmanas in this world are brahmanas in consequence of conduct.”
न योनिर्नापि संस्कारो न श्रुतं न च संततिः । कारणानि द्विजत्वस्य वृत्तमेव तु कारणम् ॥५०॥
na yonirnāpi saṁskāro na śrutaṁ na ca saṁtatiḥ । kāraṇāni dvijatvasya vr̥ttameva tu kāraṇam ॥50॥
It further says, “The status of Brahman, O auspicious lady, is equal wherever it exists. Even this is my opinion. He, indeed, is a brahmana in whom the status of Brahman exists,–that condition which is bereft of attributes and which has no stain attached to it.”
ब्राह्मः स्वभावः सुश्रोणिः समः सर्वत्र मे मतिः । निर्गुणं निर्मलं ब्रह्म यत्र तिष्ठति स द्विजः ॥५२॥
brāhmaḥ svabhāvaḥ suśroṇiḥ samaḥ sarvatra me matiḥ । nirguṇaṁ nirmalaṁ brahma yatra tiṣṭhati sa dvijaḥ ॥52॥
Thus, varna can be understood either as a reference to the svadharma (personal duty/purpose of life) chosen by each individual in his/her life according to his/her svabhava (inherent nature) or more appropriately as a descriptor tag referring to the svabhava that drives people to spontaneously choose particular paths of life as their svadharma. Wherein, “spontaneous choosing” is a reference to our inclinations to certain activities, certain professions, which come naturally to us. As B.V.V.Shastry in his work Traditional Taxonomy of Varna - Jati and Kula notes, "Varna refers to unique descriptor tags, unique features which can be used for identification of individual entity for a specific identity.”
Another key principle that can be derived from this account is that the conceptual arrangement of varnas are neither pyramidal, nor hierarchical, as often understood. Talking of a conflation of Varna with Jati it is said, Varna consists of tags and features that add up to define the traits of an individual according to a pre-defined scheme of classification. While, when individuals become a group, the common trait that defines the group is the jati to which the individuals belong. For eg. The ‘appleness’ of an apple is its varna and when you have a bag of apples and oranges, their jati would be fruit. As per this description of varna, there is nothing to suggest any hierarchy in the relationship between different varnas. An apple is different from an orange, not better or worse, objectively speaking.
Just as different limbs of a body perform different function and are vital for the health of the entire organism, different varnas represent different functions in the society as well as in the cosmos with each being vital to the functioning of the whole. If there is a hierarchy, it is only in terms of understanding the goals of life at the level of individuals and not at social level.
वर्णव्यवस्थायाः मुख्याङ्गानि ॥ Key Elements of Varna Vyavastha
The relationship between svabhava and svadharma (as seen above) are those of cause and effect. But, in the specific case of Varna, in addition to its role as an effect, svadharma also reinforces the cause and ultimately helps an individual to transcend it. A person with kshatriya svabhava i.e. rajo guṇa, for example, will adopt a kshatriya life as his svadharma and will learn various kshatriya skills like fighting, waging wars, conducting administration etc., which will in-turn strengthen his kshatriya svabhava and plug any faults. Additionally, performance of kshatriya svadharma will also result in purity of mind, which would slowly change his rajo guṇa into sattva guṇa and hence make him competent for brahmaṇa svadharma. This transformation being a slow process may stretch over many lives. It is for this reason, Bhagavad Gita (3.35) stresses performance of svadharma. It says,
श्रेयान्स्वधर्मो विगुणः परधर्मात्स्वनुष्ठितात् । स्वधर्मे निधनं श्रेयः परधर्मो भयावहः ॥३- ३५॥
śreyānsvadharmo viguṇaḥ paradharmātsvanuṣṭhitāt । svadharme nidhanaṁ śreyaḥ paradharmo bhayāvahaḥ ॥3- 35॥
Meaning : It is far better to discharge one's prescribed duties, even though faultily, than another's duties perfectly. Destruction in the course of performing one's own duty is better than engaging in another's duties, for to follow another's path is dangerous. Manusmṛti (10.97) likewise stresses the same. It says,
वरं स्वधर्मो विगुणो न पारक्यः स्वनुष्ठितः । परधर्मेण जीवन्हि सद्यः पतति जातितः । । १०.९७ । ।
varaṁ svadharmo viguṇo na pārakyaḥ svanuṣṭhitaḥ । paradharmeṇa jīvanhi sadyaḥ patati jātitaḥ । । 10.97 । ।
Meaning : Better is one's own duty imperfectly performed, than the duty of another performed perfectly; he who subsists by the function of another, instantly falls off from his caste. Mahabharata (Anushasana Parva, Chapter 143) also enunciates how people of lower varna can attain higher varna in subsequent lives by the practice of respective svadharmas in this life.
एतैः कर्मफलैर्देवि न्यूनजातिकुलोद्भवः। शूद्रोऽप्यागमसम्पन्नो द्विजो भवति संस्कृतः ॥४५॥
etaiḥ karmaphalairdevi nyūnajātikulodbhavaḥ। śūdro'pyāgamasampanno dvijo bhavati saṁskr̥taḥ ॥45॥
That is, while svabhava determines the svadharma of an individual, the performance of svadharma will transform the svabhava from its current condition to a higher condition. Therefore, as Sri Sachchidananda Shivabhinava Narasimha Bharati Mahaswami says, “The activities which can really help us in our present stage and lead us to a higher stage are known as svadharma.” Because, as Sureshvaracharya notes “From the performance of obligatory actions, righteousness arises. From the arising of righteousness, sins are destroyed and purity of mind ensues.”
नित्यकर्मानुष्ठानाद्धर्मोत्पत्तिर्धर्मोत्पत्तेः पापहानिस्ततश्चित्तशुद्धिः .... ।
nityakarmānuṣṭhānāddharmotpattirdharmotpatteḥ pāpahānistataścittaśuddhiḥ .... ।
Using this interplay between svabhava and svadharma, key elements of varna vyavastha can be identified and a conceptual framework based on it can be developed. Defining varna as a reference to the svabhava that drives people to spontaneously choose their svadharma as mentioned above, rises the need for a social vision, a conceptual framework that facilitates people to first correctly identify their svabhavas and then practice relevant svadharmas. Thus, the key elements of this conceptual framework would be:
- Identification of the different temperaments of individuals
- Classification of people at a conceptual level into different groups according to their inherent nature and capacity
- Assignment of different duties/actions/paths of life most suitable/applicable to each group, such that people belonging to all the groups can attain overall wellbeing by performance of those duties
प्रत्यभिज्ञानम् ॥ Identification
The very first element required to construct a conceptual social order based on varna is a proper “mechanism” using which varna of an individual can be identified. And such a mechanism has been provided to us in Bhagavad Gita, which says that the duties of various varnas are to be classified based on the guṇas born from svabhava (verse 18.41). A similar view has been expressed by Lord Shiva in Mahabharata (Anushasana Parva, Chapter 143). Thus, “svabhava” of an individual is the key for identifying the varna of that person.
But, this svabhava of an individual is in-turn determined by two factors:
- the natural tendencies inherited from one’s parents
- the mental impressions (samskaras) one inherits from previous lives
and both these factors are in-turn dependent on prarabdha karmas that decide where and in which family a person takes birth into, the life challenges that he or she will be facing in life, etc. It is for this reason, ‘birth’ or ‘janma’ was used as an identifying factor for determining varna. But, here the reference is to the ‘prarabdha karma’and the svabhava one inherits due to prarabdha and not necessarily a reference to being born in a tribe, caste, class, or family.
Mahabharata notes that people attain different varnas due to “nature”, i.e. inherent svabhava.
ब्राह्मण्यं देवि दुष्प्रापं निसर्गात् ब्राह्मणः शुभे । क्षत्रियो वैश्यशूद्रौ वा निसर्गादिति मे मतिः ॥६॥
brāhmaṇyaṁ devi duṣprāpaṁ nisargāt brāhmaṇaḥ śubhe । kṣatriyo vaiśyaśūdrau vā nisargāditi me matiḥ ॥6॥
After explaining how conduct (svadharma) and quality determines varṇa, it further notes that the distribution of varnas using birth is only for the sake of classification, i.e. birth was used only as easy reference to inner svabhava and hence, it is svabhava and not birth into a family, which is the real criteria for determining varṇa.
एते योनिफला देवि स्थानभागनिदर्शकाः । स्वयं च वरदेनोक्ता ब्रह्मणा सृजता प्रजाः ॥५३॥
ete yoniphalā devi sthānabhāganidarśakāḥ । svayaṁ ca varadenoktā brahmaṇā sr̥jatā prajāḥ ॥53॥
Though, some like Sri Jnanananda Bharathi believe that birth in a particular family, caste, or community is an index of previous store of actions, which by themselves cannot be seen. Hence, birth in a particular family in itself determines varṇa. However, Mahabharata (Anushasana Parva, Chapter 13) itself notes: “Even a Shudra, O goddess, that has purified his soul by pure deeds and that has subjugated all his senses, deserves to be waited upon and served with reverence as a brahmaṇa. This has been said by the Self-born brahmaṇa himself. It further says in verse 50 that "Neither birth, nor the purificatory rites, nor learning, nor offspring, can be regarded as grounds for conferring upon one the regenerate status. Shudra, if he is established on good conduct, is regarded as possessed of the status of a brahmaṇa. The status of Brahma, O auspicious lady, is equal wherever it exists."
कर्मभिः शुचिभिर्देवि शुद्धात्मा विजितेन्द्रियः । शूद्रोऽपि द्विजवत् सेव्य इति ब्रह्माब्रवीत् स्वयम् ॥४८॥
karmabhiḥ śucibhirdevi śuddhātmā vijitendriyaḥ । śūdro'pi dvijavat sevya iti brahmābravīt svayam ॥48॥
स्वभावः कर्म च शुभं यत्र शूद्रोऽपि तिष्ठति । विशिष्टः स द्विजातेर्वै विज्ञेय इति मे मतिः ॥४९॥
svabhāvaḥ karma ca śubhaṁ yatra śūdro'pi tiṣṭhati । viśiṣṭaḥ sa dvijātervai vijñeya iti me matiḥ ॥49॥
Similarly, Bhagavata Purana (7.11.35) explicitly states that a person’s svabhava must be the driving factor behind assignment of a particular varṇa to him, irrespective of the social class, he is born into.
यस्य यल्लक्षणं प्रोक्तं पुंसो वर्णाभिव्यञ्जकम् । यदन्यत्रापि दृश्येत तत्तेनैव विनिर्दिशेत् ॥ ३५ ॥
yasya yallakṣaṇaṁ proktaṁ puṁso varṇābhivyañjakam । yadanyatrāpi dr̥śyeta tattenaiva vinirdiśet ॥ 35 ॥
Thus, birth into a family or community can at best serve as a provisional indicator of one’s varṇa, and not as an absolute criteria. This is especially true for kaliyuga, wherein, unlike previous yugas, there is very less sync between birth in a family, svabhava, and our livelihood activities. Nevertheless, birth cannot be altogether done away with, since, the svabhava-s inherited from the parents still play an important role in determining svabhava of the children and hence may be provisionally used as one of the determining factors.
वर्गीकरणम् ॥ Classification
With guṇa and svabhava as the identifying factor, Sanatana dharma texts have created four conceptual categories: brahmana, kshatriya, vaishya and shudra. Adi Shankaracharya, while commenting on Bhagavad Gita (4.13 & 18.41) says that brahmaṇa is a designation given to one in whom there is a predominance of sattva; kshatriya is one in whom there is both sattva and rajas, but rajas predominates; in vaishya, both rajas and tamas exist, but rajas predominates; and shudra is one in whom both rajas and tamas exist, but tamas predominates. These gunas are revealed by the natural temperaments and behavior exhibited by the person.
गुणकर्मविभागशः गुणविभागशः कर्मविभागशश्च। गुणाः सत्त्वरजस्तमांसि। तत्र सात्त्विकस्य सत्त्वप्रधानस्य ब्राह्मणस्य शमो दमस्तपः इत्यादीनि कर्माणि सत्त्वोपसर्जनरजः प्रधानस्य क्षत्रियस्य शौर्यतेजः प्रभृतीनि कर्माणि तमउपसर्जनरजः प्रधानस्य वैश्यस्य कृष्यादीनि कर्माणि रजउपसर्जनतमः प्रधानस्य शूद्रस्य शुश्रूषैव कर्म इत्येवं गुणकर्मविभागशः चातुर्वर्ण्यं मया सृष्टम् इत्यर्थः। (भ.गी.४.१३-शाङ्करभाष्यम्)
guṇakarmavibhāgaśaḥ guṇavibhāgaśaḥ karmavibhāgaśaśca। guṇāḥ sattvarajastamāṁsi। tatra sāttvikasya sattvapradhānasya brāhmaṇasya śamo damastapaḥ ityādīni karmāṇi sattvopasarjanarajaḥ pradhānasya kṣatriyasya śauryatejaḥ prabhr̥tīni karmāṇi tamaupasarjanarajaḥ pradhānasya vaiśyasya kr̥ṣyādīni karmāṇi rajaupasarjanatamaḥ pradhānasya śūdrasya śuśrūṣaiva karma ityevaṁ guṇakarmavibhāgaśaḥ cāturvarṇyaṁ mayā sr̥ṣṭam ityarthaḥ।
अथवा ब्राह्मणस्वभावस्य सत्त्वगुणः प्रभवः कारणम्, तथा क्षत्रियस्वभावस्य सत्त्वोपसर्जनं रजः प्रभवः, वैश्यस्वभावस्य तमउपसर्जनं रजः प्रभवः, शूद्रस्वभावस्य रजौपसर्जनं तमः प्रभवः, प्रशान्त्यैश्वर्येहामूढतास्वभावदर्शनात् चतुर्णाम् । (भ.गी.१८.४१-शाङ्करभाष्यम्) 
athavā brāhmaṇasvabhāvasya sattvaguṇaḥ prabhavaḥ kāraṇam, tathā kṣatriyasvabhāvasya sattvopasarjanaṁ rajaḥ prabhavaḥ, vaiśyasvabhāvasya tamaupasarjanaṁ rajaḥ prabhavaḥ, śūdrasvabhāvasya rajaupasarjanaṁ tamaḥ prabhavaḥ, praśāntyaiśvaryehāmūḍhatāsvabhāvadarśanāt caturṇām ।
Elaborating on this, Bhagavata Purana (11.17.16-19), lists what temperaments and behavior indicates what varna designation is to be assigned to a person. It says: the control of mind and senses, austerity, cleanliness, satisfaction, tolerance, simple straightforwardness, devotion to the divine, mercy, and truthfulness are the natural qualities of the brahmanas; dynamic power, bodily strength, determination, heroism, forbearance, generosity, great endeavor, steadiness, devotion to the brahmanas and leadership are the natural qualities of the kshatriyas; belief in the divine and Vedas, dedication to charity, freedom from hypocrisy, service to the brahmanas and perpetually desiring to accumulate more money are the natural qualities of the vaishyas, service without duplicity to others, cows and deities and complete satisfaction with whatever income is obtained in such service, are the natural qualities of shudras.
शमो दमस्तपः शौचं संतोषः क्षांतिरार्जवम् । मद्भक्तिश्च दया सत्यं ब्रह्मप्रकृतयस्त्विमाः ॥ १६ ॥
तेजो बलं धृतिः शौर्यं तितिक्षौदार्यमुद्यमः । स्थैर्यं ब्रह्मण्यतैश्वर्यं क्षत्र प्रकृतयस्त्विमाः ॥ १७ ॥
आस्तिक्यं दाननिष्ठा च अदंभो ब्रह्मसेवनम् । अतुष्टिः अर्थोपचयैः वैश्य प्रकृतयस्त्विमाः ॥ १८ ॥
शुश्रूषणं द्विजगवां देवानां चापि अमायया । तत्र लब्धेन संतोषः शूद्र प्रकृतयस्त्विमाः ॥ १९ ॥
śamo damastapaḥ śaucaṁ saṁtoṣaḥ kṣāṁtirārjavam । madbhaktiśca dayā satyaṁ brahmaprakr̥tayastvimāḥ ॥ 16 ॥
tejo balaṁ dhr̥tiḥ śauryaṁ titikṣaudāryamudyamaḥ । sthairyaṁ brahmaṇyataiśvaryaṁ kṣatra prakr̥tayastvimāḥ ॥ 17 ॥
āstikyaṁ dānaniṣṭhā ca adaṁbho brahmasevanam । atuṣṭiḥ arthopacayaiḥ vaiśya prakr̥tayastvimāḥ ॥ 18 ॥
śuśrūṣaṇaṁ dvijagavāṁ devānāṁ cāpi amāyayā । tatra labdhena saṁtoṣaḥ śūdra prakr̥tayastvimāḥ ॥ 19 ॥
Therefore, dharmic texts clearly give a wide framework by which people can be designated and classified according to their inherent temperaments. But, this four-fold classification is essentially a conceptual classification based on four ideal svabhava conditions (i.e. having a clear cut svabhava). For example, Manusmrti notes that there are only four varṇa and there is no fifth one.
ब्राह्मणः क्षत्रियो वैश्यस्त्रयो वर्णा द्विजातयः । चतुर्थ एकजातिस्तु शूद्रो नास्ति तु पञ्चमः । । १०.४ । ।
brāhmaṇaḥ kṣatriyo vaiśyastrayo varṇā dvijātayaḥ । caturtha ekajātistu śūdro nāsti tu pañcamaḥ । । 10.4 । ।
Yet, it does note a number of sankara jatis with mixed svabhavas, which at a later stage became consolidated under “Pancama”. The point to note here is that these are not classifications intended to stratify the society at social level, but only an attempt at understanding different guna – svabhava of people. Thus, while the four-fold classification represents four ideal cases of clearly defined svabhavas based on interplay of gunas, people on the ground may have a svabhava which would be a combination of these four-primary svabhavas. Such combinations can be enormously huge, which would be impossible to either identify or classify, hence the Manu’s statement that there are only four varṇa-s. Therefore, the classification of varna may not always reflect a ground situation, especially in kaliyuga in general and at current times in particular, as society is stratified along caste, profession, etc. and the concept of guṇa and svadharma no longer drives the society.
Nonetheless, this four-fold guṇa based varna and the assignment of ideal duties that a person with a particular svabhava must practice, will act as general guideline, which would not only help societies to evolve their own practical models according to their own unique social conditions, it will also help each individual to examine one’s own temperaments and inner leanings and compare and evaluate with respect to four-fold conceptual model and understand where he/she stands in life, such that people may choose their svadharma accordingly to attain material and spiritual success.
धर्मनियोजनम् ॥ Assignment
After successful identification and classification of the varnas of people, the final stage is the assignment of duties or svadharma for each person according to his/her own inherent temperaments. Bhagavad Gita (18.42-44) assigns following duties to people exhibiting different varna svabhava:
- brahmanas are assigned: control of the internal and external organs, austerity, purity, forgiveness, straightforwardness, jnana (Knowledge of the scriptures), vijnana (experiential understanding of what is presented in the scriptures) and astikya (faith and conviction in the truth expounded in the scriptures regarding the divine, etc.), as their duties.
- kshatriyas are assigned: heroism, boldness, fortitude, capability, and also not retreating from battle, generosity and lordliness.
- vaishyas are assigned: agriculture, cattle-rearing and trade.
- shudras are assigned service as their duty.
शमो दमस्तपः शौचं क्षान्तिरार्जवमेव च । ज्ञानं विज्ञानमास्तिक्यं ब्रह्मकर्म स्वभावजम् ॥१८- ४२॥
शौर्यं तेजो धृतिर्दाक्ष्यं युद्धे चाप्यपलायनम् । दानमीश्वरभावश्च क्षात्रं कर्म स्वभावजम् ॥१८- ४३॥
कृषिगौरक्ष्यवाणिज्यं वैश्यकर्म स्वभावजम् । परिचर्यात्मकं कर्म शूद्रस्यापि स्वभावजम् ॥१८- ४४॥
śamo damastapaḥ śaucaṁ kṣāntirārjavameva ca । jñānaṁ vijñānamāstikyaṁ brahmakarma svabhāvajam ॥18- 42॥
śauryaṁ tejo dhr̥tirdākṣyaṁ yuddhe cāpyapalāyanam । dānamīśvarabhāvaśca kṣātraṁ karma svabhāvajam ॥18- 43॥
kr̥ṣigaurakṣyavāṇijyaṁ vaiśyakarma svabhāvajam । paricaryātmakaṁ karma śūdrasyāpi svabhāvajam ॥18- 44॥
Manusmṛti (1.88-91) has further elaborated the duties for people having the four varna gunas thus.
- Teaching and studying, sacrificing for their own benefit and for others, giving and accepting (of alms) as duties of brahmanas;
- Protection of the people, giving charity, to offer sacrifices (yajna), to study (the veda), and to abstain from attaching himself to sensual pleasures as duties of kshatriyas;
- To tend cattle, giving charity, to offer sacrifices, to study (the veda), to trade, to lend money, and to cultivate land, are the duties of vaishya;
- and serving the other varnas, i.e. rest of the society by means of various professions like arts, sculpture making, wood carving, etc.(Manu Smrt. 1.100)
अध्यापनं अध्ययनं यजनं याजनं तथा । दानं प्रतिग्रहं चैव ब्राह्मणानां अकल्पयत् । । १.८८ । ।
प्रजानां रक्षणं दानं इज्याध्ययनं एव च । विषयेष्वप्रसक्तिश्च क्षत्रियस्य समासतः । । १.८९ । ।
पशूनां रक्षणं दानं इज्याध्ययनं एव च । वणिक्पथं कुसीदं च वैश्यस्य कृषिं एव च । । १.९० । ।
एकं एव तु शूद्रस्य प्रभुः कर्म समादिशत् । एतेषां एव वर्णानां शुश्रूषां अनसूयया । । १.९१ । ।
सर्वं स्वं ब्राह्मणस्येदं यत्किं चिज्जगतीगतम् । श्रैष्ठ्येनाभिजनेनेदं सर्वं वै ब्राह्मणोऽर्हति । । १.१०० । ।
adhyāpanaṁ adhyayanaṁ yajanaṁ yājanaṁ tathā ।dānaṁ pratigrahaṁ caiva brāhmaṇānāṁ akalpayat । । 1.88 । ।
prajānāṁ rakṣaṇaṁ dānaṁ ijyādhyayanaṁ eva ca ।viṣayeṣvaprasaktiśca kṣatriyasya samāsataḥ । । 1.89 । ।
paśūnāṁ rakṣaṇaṁ dānaṁ ijyādhyayanaṁ eva ca । vaṇikpathaṁ kusīdaṁ ca vaiśyasya kr̥ṣiṁ eva ca । । 1.90 । ।
ekaṁ eva tu śūdrasya prabhuḥ karma samādiśat । eteṣāṁ eva varṇānāṁ śuśrūṣāṁ anasūyayā । । 1.91 । ।
sarvaṁ svaṁ brāhmaṇasyedaṁ yatkiṁ cijjagatīgatam । śraiṣṭhyenābhijanenedaṁ sarvaṁ vai brāhmaṇo'rhati । । 1.100 । ।
It is clear from the above discussion that the duties assigned to people are
- in sync with their inherent temperaments
- duties further seek to reinforce and strengthen the already present inner talents and temperaments
- through performance of these duties, though different for different persons, all will attain complete success and overall welfare. (Bhag.Gita.18.45)
स्वे स्वे कर्मण्यभिरतः संसिद्धिं लभते नरः । स्वकर्मनिरतः सिद्धिं यथा विन्दति तच्छृणु ॥१८- ४५॥
sve sve karmaṇyabhirataḥ saṁsiddhiṁ labhate naraḥ । svakarmanirataḥ siddhiṁ yathā vindati tacchr̥ṇu ॥18- 45॥
It is also clear that, contrary to popular understanding, varna does not refer to any particular vocation. Instead it provides guidelines of a general nature regarding suitable duties for people with different temperaments, which they can in-turn implement through choosing any of the vocations, which are in sync with their svadharma. A brahmaṇa varṇa person, for example, may be a teacher teaching wide range of subjects, or a priest at a temple, or a Rtvik, etc. who performs yajna, or a scholar in any of the vidyas. Similarly, a Shudra may well have been a painter, wood carver, architect, sculpture, labor, artisans, or in any other profession in the service industry. In other words, varna grouping is clearly a conceptual classification and has no direct connection to kulas or clan groupings based on trade and skills. Similarly, varna grouping is not related to ethno-cultural jati groupings or the colonial formulation of castes.
It is important here, to distinguish between
- jati as it appears in dharmashastra texts like Manu
- the jati as an ethno-cultural group
- jati – kula groups derived from trade guilds.
While the ethno-cultural group was a social group with endogamy etc., the usage of the term jati in texts like Manusmṛti is not in reference to such groups. On the other hand, from chapter 10 of Manusmṛti we can see that jati has been used as a term to refer to people with svabhava of mixed varṇa. While four clearly distinguished svabhavas are called four varṇa, mixed svabhavas are called varṇa – sankara or jatis.
However, it must be conceded that whenever a practical social model is derived from this conceptual framework of varna, it is bound to result in overlapping with different social groupings and identities: be it social-economic groups, ethno-cultural groups (jati), or groups based on clans and/or professions (kula). But, the mere presence of such overlapping does not mean that varna based social model will become identical to social stratification along the lines of castes, jati, or kula. Instead, Bhagavata Purana (7.11.35) explicitly states that a person’s guṇa must be the driving factor behind assignment of a particular varna to him, irrespective of the social class, he is born into. That is, meritocracy will be the central driving force of such a varna-based social order.
Thus, it is important to distinguish the conceptual framework of varna from different social groupings like kula, jati, and caste present in the society. And it is also vital to recognize that any practical social model constructed with varna as a basis will have to evolve means to address these social stratifications.
पुरुषार्थः वर्णधर्मश्च ॥ Purushartha and Varna Dharma
Sanatana dharma conceives a four-fold goal of human life called “purusharthas”: dharma, artha, kama and moksha. This framework of life wherein each human being has an obligation to pursue the four-fold goals in his or her life is a unique and very important contribution of Sanatana Dharma. Since, human life is considered very unique due to them having free-will and the ability to make choices, the dharma traditions have conceived four purusharthas to provide a guidance for the exertion of this free-will in a righteous and meritorious way.
While artha and Kama refer to pursuing worldly pleasures and prosperity, respectively, moksha refers to pursuing spiritual emancipation in the form of ultimate liberation from the cycle of birth and death. Dharma, on the other hand, is the connecting principle, which on the one hand facilitates an individual to attain artha and kama, all the while taking one closer and closer to moksha as well. Because, “Achieving moksha becomes possible only when a life pursuing desires (kama) and wealth (artha) has been led consistently within the framework of dharma. Dharma thus plays a very crucial role in not only ensuring a good life here and now, but also in enabling one to attain the state of supreme good or liberation, from which there is no lapsing back to karma and rebirth.”
Purusharthas are very vital for people to lead their lives to the fullest. An individual will only find self-fulfillment and contentment, when he is able to understand his inner potential and work towards realizing them on the ground, all the while also fulfilling his other basic needs, on the one hand and slowly moving towards spiritual emancipation, on the other. Thus, performance of svadharma or righteous duties constitute the key to attaining overall wellbeing by an individual.
Dharma traditions enunciate these righteous duties as having two aspects.
- सामान्यधर्मः ॥ Samanyadharma : This deals with the ethical principles like truth, non-injury, non-stealing, etc., which are common duties of all beings.
- विशेषधर्मः ॥ Vishesha dharma : These are special duties, which are unique to every individual depending on the kala (time), desha (place), varna and ashrama. Among these different elements of vishesha dharma, it is the varṇa dharma along with ashrama dharma that caters to different stages in a person’s life, which can be considered as the most defining principles of svadharma or righteous duties with respect to an individual, since they alone cater to the unique temperaments, potential competencies, and inner calling of an individual.
Notably, the varṇa model places knowledge, particularly spiritual knowledge (adhyatma vidya) and transcendent knowledge (atma vidya) at the top, like the head of a human being and a whole conceptual framework has been conceived such that all other mundane activities be it politics, commerce, or labor, are perceived as actions that facilitate individuals to eventually reach the ultimate goal of jnana and moksha. In fact, a clear correlation between varna–ashrama, on the one hand, and purusharthas on the other hand can be established. Though, the four purusharthas are equally applicable to all human beings irrespective of their varna, there is also a clear correlation between the svabhava of a person and the purushartha he is most likely to consider as central to his life.
- Shudras i.e. those with Shudra svabhava are simple minded who have a mundane and worldly outlook. Thus, their primary concern is often limited to their everyday life, family, children, and happiness. In other words, their primary goal is ‘kama or fulfillment of worldly desires of themselves and their families. It is for this reason, Shudra varṇa is also considered to have only one ashrama (stage in life) of grhastha (householder), wherein they can satisfy their worldly desires.
- Similarly, vaishya varṇa is associated with the purushartha of ‘artha’ (gathering of wealth), because their svabhava drives them to pursue wealth and prosperity.
- kshatriya is associated with dharma, because their foremost duty is the protection of dharma and the welfare of citizens, and not pursuance of personal desires or wealth
- brahmanas are associated with moksha, because it is the ultimate calling of the brahmana and they are by svabhava spiritual in outlook.
In fact, Vajrasuchika Upaniṣad (Verse 10) says, a true brahmana is one who has established himself in Brahman i.e. Attained moksha.
यः कश्चिदात्मानमद्वितीयं जातिगुणक्रियाहीनं षडूर्मिषड्भावेत्यादिसर्वदोषरहितं सत्यज्ञानानन्दानन्तस्वरूपं स्वयं निर्विकल्पमशेषकल्पाधारशेषभूतान्तर्यामित्वेन वर्तमानमन्तर्यहिश्चाकाशवदनुस्यूतमखण्डानन्द-स्वभावमप्रमेयमनुभवैकवेद्यमपरोक्षतया भासमानं करतलमलकवत्साक्षादपरोक्षीकृत्य कृतार्थतया कामरागादिदोषरहितः शमदमादिसम्पन्नो भावमात्सर्यतृष्णाशामोहादिरहितो दम्भाहङ्कारदिभिरसंस्पृष्टचेता वर्तत एवमुक्तलक्षणो यः स एव ब्राह्मणेति श्रुतिस्मृतीतिहास-पुराणानामभिप्रायः । अन्यथा हि ब्राह्मणत्वसिद्धिर्नास्त्येव ।
yaḥ kaścidātmānamadvitīyaṁ jātiguṇakriyāhīnaṁ ṣaḍūrmiṣaḍbhāvetyādisarvadoṣarahitaṁ satyajñānānandānantasvarūpaṁ svayaṁ nirvikalpamaśeṣakalpādhāraśeṣabhūtāntaryāmitvena vartamānamantaryahiścākāśavadanusyūtamakhaṇḍānanda-svabhāvamaprameyamanubhavaikavedyamaparokṣatayā bhāsamānaṁ karatalamalakavatsākṣādaparokṣīkr̥tya kr̥tārthatayā kāmarāgādidoṣarahitaḥ śamadamādisampanno bhāvamātsaryatr̥ṣṇāśāmohādirahito dambhāhaṅkāradibhirasaṁspr̥ṣṭacetā vartata evamuktalakṣaṇo yaḥ sa eva brāhmaṇeti śrutismr̥tītihāsa-purāṇānāmabhiprāyaḥ । anyathā hi brāhmaṇatvasiddhirnāstyeva ।
Meaning: Whoever he may be, he who has directly realised his Atma and who is directly cognizant, like the myrobalan in his palm, of his Atma that is without a second, that is devoid of class and actions, that is free from the faults of the six stains and the six changes, that is of the nature of truth, knowledge, bliss, and eternity, that is without any change in itself, that is the substratum of all the kalpas, that exists penetrating all things that pervades everything within and without as akasha , that is of nature of undivided bliss, that cannot be reasoned about and that is known only by direct cognition. He who by the reason of having obtained his wishes is devoid of the faults of thirst after worldly objects and passions, who is the possessor of the qualifications beginning with shama, who is free from emotion, malice, thirst after worldly objects, desire, delusion, etc., whose mind is untouched by pride, egoism, etc., who possesses all these qualities and means he only is the brahmana. Such is the opinion of the vedas, the smrtis, the itihasa and the puranas. Otherwise one cannot obtain the status of a brahmana. Noting the correlation between varṇa and ashrama, Vaikhanasa Dharmasutra (1.1), notes that brahmaṇa has eligibility to all the four ashramas, kshatriya to three and vaishyas to two.
ब्राह्मणस्याश्रमश्चत्वारः क्षत्रियस्याद्यास्त्रयो वैश्यस्य द्वावेव ... । brāhmaṇasyāśramaścatvāraḥ kṣatriyasyādyāstrayo vaiśyasya dvāveva ... ।
What is important to note here, is that, in a social order derived from and rooted in the conceptual framework of varna individuals would be able to freely pursue their inner-calling and attain complete well-being.
संहृतिः ॥ Synopsis
The varna framework recognizes each individual as a unique person with unique temperaments, capabilities and inner-callings, fulfilling which alone will bring happiness, contentment and spiritual emancipation to that individual. This making of self-actualization, the interplay between svabhava and svadharma as the linchpin of the dharmic vision for a harmonious social order that upholds merit and preserves diversity is perhaps the most important contribution of Sanatana dharma traditions to the world.
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