The Bhagavad Gita is arguably the most revered text in the Hindu religious tradition. It is almost universally regarded as one of the three canonical texts of Hindu philosophy (Prasthanatrayi) with the other two being Badarayana’s Brahma Sutras and the Mukhya Upanisads. Relative to other Hindu texts the popular interest in the Gita has increased over the past couple of centuries partly because of the very large number of translations of the Gita in English and also partly because of the centrality of the Gita to several modern Hindu movements that have gained traction in the West, particularly ISCKON and Yoga.
Given its centrality, what the Gita has to say on a number of topics of contemporary debate becomes very relevant. One such topic is Caste / Varna, a much contentious feature of Indian society that evokes very strong opinions both within India and without. This essay is an attempt to trace down all references to either caste or “Varna” in the Bhagavad Gita, and understand the context, meaning and implications of these references.
Background on the Gita
The Gita is a relatively short poem of 700 verses that takes the form of a dialogue between the two main characters in the Mahabharata war – Krishna and Arjuna, in the middle of the battlefield. At the start of the Great War, Arjuna loses heart when confronted with numerous relatives and friends, and refuses to fight. The Gita in essence is Krishna’s exhortation to Arjuna to shed misplaced sentimentality and fight resolutely to defend Dharma.
The poem features in the middle of the Mahabharata epic in the 6th book titled Bhishma Parva and is spread over 18 chapters in this book (chapters 23 to 40). Dating the composition of the Gita is a difficult exercise given the multiple layers in it. However the common scholarly consensus is to date it to the period between 400BCE and 300CE.
While the narrative significance of the Gita and its contextual relevance to the events in the epic are known to practically all Hindus, its actual contents and message are less well known, largely because of the language of the Gita (pre-classical Sanskrit) and the somewhat impenetrable nature of several translations.
Most Hindus learn the Gita through second hand sources. And just about every single one of them holds a few simplified (and dare I say simplistic) notions about the Gita. Here are some of those popular notions. I have focused on those that concern caste and social order:
- Krishna exhorts Arjuna to fight by appealing to his caste duty. Caste honour should take precedence over misplaced sentiment.
- The Gita is a fatalistic text that advocates duty for duty’s sake and appeals to its listeners to pay no attention to the consequences of action
- The Gita strongly supports a hierarchical order based on the “Chaturvarnas”
- The Gita is opposed to the intermixing of the Varnas – i.e Varna Sankara, and regards it as evil.
Based on a study of the text I contend that none of these four points is entirely accurate. While 1, 2 and 3 are significant distortions of what Gita has to say on these points, 4 is downright false.
While it is tempting to put down these distortions to ideological predilections, Indophobia or Marxist ways of reading ancient texts, I desist from doing so. I think the Gita is indeed a very subtle book as well as a somewhat difficult read. It definitely appears to have been composed over a long period of time and arguably has multiple layers to it. This inevitably means one has to grapple with internal consistency and interpret it carefully to ensure a consistent reading experience. I am sure the original interpolators who worked on these 18 chapters over 2000 years ago did seek internal consistency and we must do so as well!
Background on Varna
“Varna” is a Sanskrit word that literally means “type”, “class” or “colour”, but is primarily used in Indian literature to refer to the four-fold division of Indian society. While its earliest usage is in the Rig Veda, it is most extensively used in the Smriti texts (Eg: Manu Smriti) which deal, among other things, with the rights and duties of each of the four social classes. The four classes are –
- Brahmana : Priests, scholars, teachers
- Kshatriya : Warriors, Rulers, administrators
- Vaishya : Agriculturists (later referring mainly to Merchants)
- Shudra : Labourers, service providers
The Varnas are not uniquely Indian in conception, as similar three-fold divisions are not alien to other Indo-European societies of the 2nd millennium BCE. But it is in India that this institution has had a cultural and civilisational continuity, although it has transformed greatly over the past 3000 years. The flexibility within the Varna system has often been understated by academic historians and the Hindu establishment alike.
The Gita has 21 direct or oblique references to Varna in as many verses, which clearly suggest that the Varna system was very much prevalent at the time of its composition.
Having said that, “Caste” (or Jaati) is a relatively modern phenomenon that only bears a very tenuous link to the ancient system of Varna. All the twenty one references in the Gita are “Varna” references and have little to do with Jaati. But nevertheless, since “Caste” and “Varna” are used interchangeably in modern discourse (perhaps unwisely), I have taken the liberty of using “caste” in the title of the post.
Now let’s dig into the source text and examine what Gita has to say about Varna and attempt to validate the four popular notions regarding Gita and caste that I outlined above.
Does the Gita support a hierarchical order in society based on the Chaturvarnas?
There are eight verses in the Gita that make references to the relative status of the Varnas in direct or oblique ways. A close reading of these verses suggest that while the Gita is not opposed to the Varna based classification of society, it does not endorse a strict hierarchical order wherein one Varna is more privileged than the others. Nor does it deny the possibility of salvation to individuals or groups on account of their Varna.
Now let’s look at the eight verses in question –
This is a verse uttered by the Kaurava prince Duryodhana in the first chapter of the Gita. As the battle is about to begin, Duryodhana aproaches his preceptor Drona and names some of the great warriors assembled on either side for rhetorical effect. He first names a few distinguished warriors on the Pandava side. Then he turns his attention to the Kaurava army and says –
Translation: “O Best of the twice born (dwijottama), now please learn the names of the excellent warriors among us. I name them now by their proper names”
This is the first reference to Varna in the Bhagavad Gita, in which Duryodhana calls Drona as the greatest among the “twice born” classes. This is an acknowledgment of the existence of the Varna system, but is a superficial reference without implying any hierarchy.
Next we turn our attention to the much celebrated second chapter of the Gita. The 42nd and 43rd verses in this chapter are particularly piquant.
Translation : “Undiscerning people delighting in Vedic lore utter flowery speech and value it over everything else. These men have desire in their souls, seek heaven and a good re-birth as the fruit of ritual action and have many special rites for the attainment of this objective”
This verse can be interpreted as a radical critique of a purely ritualistic life championed by atleast a part of the brahminical establishment. Krishna in fact expresses his mild disapproval of this by the use of the term “Undiscerning” (Avipaschitah) to describe its votaries.
In the 18th verse of the fifth chapter Krishna takes this spirit of radicalism one step ahead –
Translation : “A truly learned pandit is the one who can view everyone at the same level (samadarshinah) be it an understanding and cultured brahmin, an elephant, a dog or for that matter a “dog cooker”.
This is a very nuanced verse which deserves more attention. On one hand, it does acknowledge the varying levels of sentience and culture in the living species. After all a dog isn’t the equal of a human being! But at a different level, it is exhorting us not to be prejudiced by the “differences”, but make an attempt to treat everyone on their own terms be it a cultured brahmin, a dog or a dog cooker “Shwapaka”.
The “Shwapaka” is a “lowly” outcaste in classical India which finds mention even in Manu’s Dharmashastra.
By seeking equal unprejudiced treatment for a brahmin and dog-cooker alike, Krishna here is definitely taking a stance that is far removed from the stereotypical hierarchy associated with the Varna system. Having said that he has no qualms acknowledging the diversity in attributes and virtues that are not necessarily randomly distributed in the population.
Next we move to a couple of verses in the ninth chapter.
Translation : “O Partha, those who take refuge in me will attain the “supreme course”, even if they are born from sinful wombs, or are women, vaishyas or sudras, let alone meritorious brahmanas or devoted royal seers. Since you have attained birth in this transient and joyless world, submit to me”
This anticipates by several centuries the democratic thrust of the Bhakti movement that took root first in Southern India and later in the North during the middle ages. Krishna is opening the door to salvation (though he doesn’t use that word instead preferring the term “supreme course”) to all social classes. Perhaps the poet made it less radical by the choice of the phrase “Param gatim” instead of “Moksha”.
The above five verses are all suggestive of a healthy scepticism on the part of the author towards a strictly hierarchical conception of Varna.
However having cited these verses, it nevertheless becomes necessary to acknowledge that the legitimacy of the “Chatur-varna” (4-classed) society is never challenged or opposed by the poet. While he definitely does not specify an ordering of classes, he accepts Varna as a social reality. A couple of verses, one from Chapter 4 and another from Chapter 17 bear this out.
Translation : “The Chaturvarna system (class quartet) was created by me with actions and gunas (basic attributes) appropriately apportioned across classes. Although I am the author of this creation, know me as the immutable non-doer”
The second part of this shloka is abstruse, but the first half is categorical in giving divine sanction to the Chaturvarna system. But Krishna also acknowledges that this system is not arbitrary in the allotment of individuals in each varna, but is based on their “natural qualities” (Gunas) and the natural diversity in the “actions” (karma) of different individuals.
This is significant because the non-arbitrary nature of the Varnas as deemed by Krishna implies that he would disapprove of a system where individuals are arbitrarily assigned Varna by virtue of birth alone, but they would need to earn it by virtue of their Gunas and Karmas.
While the verse is not necessarily a denial of the hereditary nature of Varna at the time of the Gita’s composition, it does give room for an evolution of the system into one that is not solely based on birth.
Translation : “Austerity is practiced by respecting the Gods, the Dwijas (twice born), the teachers, and the wise men. It is also practiced by adhering to purity, uprightness, chastity and non violence (ahimsa)”
The reference to Dwijas in this shloka can be problematic to modern readers given the implicit equivalence drawn between the “twice born” and the devas. Again this verse suggests the conservative acceptance of the social set up by Krishna and this is arguably the closest that the poet gets to acknowledging a certain hierarchy in the status of the varnas. But the same hierarchy is also questioned in 5 other verses as we’ve noted.
Does Krishna exhort Arjuna to fight by appealing to his caste duty or caste honour? What is Gita’s take on caste based division of labor?
This is a central argument made by many Indologists / Gita commentators. While there is some truth to this argument, the poet of the Gita does not directly invoke “caste / Varna honour” to convince Arjuna. Krishna persuades him mainly by appealing to his Swadharma. Here are a couple of verses from the second chapter, very early in the poem
Translation : “As a Kshatriya, your Swadharma is to fight a lawful war, and there is nothing that is superior to that. A warrior must be happy when encountered with an opportunity to wage a battle that will open the gate to heaven for the fighter”
While this is clearly a not-so-subtle clarion call, Krishna does qualify the exercise of “Swadharma” by mentioning “Dharma Yuddha”. This is not a wild exhortation to fight just because one is a Kshatriya. The Swadharma here is clearly qualified.by the fact that it is to be exercised only if the war is just and the cause is just.
It is worthwhile noting that the same Krishna was engaged as a peace envoy earlier in the epic wherein he persuades Duryodhana not to fight (even though Kshatriya Dharma would suggest that Duryodhana should take up arms to defend his kingdom against Pandavas). Krishna argues against Swadharma in that context because he believes Duryodhana’s Swadharma contradicts the larger principle of righteousness that transcends Varna.
Nevertheless Swadharma is a running theme in the Gita. It resurfaces in the 18th chapter where the poet discusses the attributes associated with the different Varnas that make them best suited for their professions.
“O Paramtapa, the division of labour among brahmins, kshatriyas, vaishyas and sudras is not arbitrary but in accordance with the innate qualities of their own being. Calm, restraint, austerity, purity, patience, uprightness, the quest for both Jnana (true knowledge) and Vijnana (worldly knowledge), piety – these are the distinguishing traits of a brahmana (priest). Courage, vigor, steadfastness, resource, generosity and a regal disposition =- these are the traits of a warrior (kshatriya). A disposition to undertake agriculture, cattle-tending (goraksha), and trade (vanijyam) distinguish a merchant (vaishya). While a sudra is distinguished by a disposition to do service”
Again the emphasis that the poet puts here is clearly on the Svabhavas, as opposed to purity of blood or clan. While he does suppose that there is a nice correspondence between heredity and the transmission of specific attributes in specific Varnas, he does not explicitly declare this correspondence. Faced with a situation where the Swabhavas do not correspond well with the accident of birth, the poet would likely reject a division of labor based purely on birth.
Following this discussion, the poet pushes his case very strongly with verses 47 and 48 in the same chapter where he uses the concept of Swadharma to emphasize the need to excel at one’s assigned task as opposed to dabbling at the tasks assigned to others.
Translation : “It is better to perform one’s own dharma imperfectly than to perform another’s action very well. Performing one’s own dharma (as dictated by one’s innate “swabhava”), one does not accumulate guilt.
The importance of this line of thought cannot be understated as it does feature even in the third chapter, much earlier in the Gita –
Translation : “It is better to imperfectly carry out one’s own dharma than perform another man’s dharma well. It is better to find death in the performance of one’s Swadharma, as the dharma of another person is fear-instilling”
Is Gita a fatalistic text that advocates duty for duty’s sake without regard to consequences?
Fatalism is an attribute associated with Indian culture by most outside commentators. Undertake your duty without attachment to results – that’s a cliche which most Indians grow up with and this is usually said to take its genesis from this celebrated 47th verse in the Gita’s 2nd chapter –
Translation : “You have a rightful interest only in your action, never in its fruit. May you never make the fruit of action your motive. May you never get attached to inaction”
While this is undoubtedly an important verse and arguably the one verse that more Indians are familiar with than any other verse in the Gita, it has to be interpreted carefully keeping in mind verses elsewhere in the text. It clearly does not imply uninterested performance of action and indifference in one’s duty. Quite the opposite in fact.
To refute the allegations of fatalism and uninterested-ness one would do well to fast foward to the 18th chapter and read verses 23 to 26.
Translation : “The action which is necessary and which is performed without attachment or passion or aversion or craving for the fruit is Sattvic. The action that is performed with great strain, and out of ego-sense, with a craving for selfish desires is Rajasik. The action that is undertaken through delusion without regard to the consequence to one’s capacity is called Tamasik. The agent who is free of attachment and ego but who is endowed with steadfastness and zeal and is unchanged when faced with success and failure is truly Sattvic.”
Now the key points to note here is that the poet is upholding competence as a virtue. Mere undertaking of one’s duty out of sheer habit without regard to consequence, does not win the approval of the poet. He views such actions as “Tamasik” which carries a negative connotation throughout the poem.
Yes, the ego-sense is deprecated. So is a sense of attachment and passion /craving for the fruit of action. But nevertheless, competence is upheld. So is zeal (Utsaha) and steadfastness (dhrti).
So it would be very incorrect and internally inconsistent to use the “Karmanyev adhikaraste” shloka from the 2nd chapter to make a case for fatalism and lack of regard for outcome in the performance of one’s Swadharma.
Is the Gita opposed to the inter-mixing of Varnas?
Now we turn our attention back to the 1st chapter which deals with Arjuna’s outbreak of despondency. This contains some of the most controversial verses in the Gita w.r.t Varna. It features as many as three verses that deplore the mingling of Varnas, that is inevitable when there is a war, death of family men and premature widowhood of women.
But the important point to note is that these concerns over Varna Sankara are not voiced by Krishna but by Arjuna! Here are the verses –
Translation : “When lawlessness prevails, the women of the family are corrupted. Once the women are defiled, the varnas intermingle. This intermingling leads to the destruction of the family and the discontinuance of “Pindodakakriya” (sacrificial offerings to ancestors). With the intermingling of caste, the eternal family law is destroyed”
While these may be very valid concerns, the fact remains that these are Arjuna’s concerns and not that of the Bhagavan.
So when readers of the Gita quote these verses to oppose inter-caste marriages today, they are being very obtuse, as these verses shouldn’t be regarded as “Gitopadesha” though they are technically a part of the Gita.
How does Krishna respond to the despondent Arjuna who puts down his arms immediately after voicing the above concerns?
Translation : “From where did this weakness come over you in a difficult situation? Your attitude does not befit a noble person and is not conducive to the attainment of heaven, and brings disrepute. Do not adopt unmanliness, O Partha, for this is unbecoming of you. Give up this base faintheartedness. Rise O Paramtapa!”
Krishna does not encourage Arjuna’s fears at all. He regards them as unmanly and disreputable. His focus is entirely on the upholding of Dharma and ensuring victory for the Pandavas. There is no concern over Varna Sankara that Krishna ever voices in the whole of the Gita.
This piece is based on an examination of every reference to Varna in the 700 verse poem. This textual examination, at the very least, calls into question some of the popular perceptions about Gita, caste and karma that are common currency among the public. Here are some tentative inferences based on my reading of the text –
- The Gita does not oppose Varna Sankara
- The Gita does recognize the existence of Varna, but goes to great lengths to draw associations of specific Gunas / Swabhavas with each Varna. Varna identity is one based on Swabhavas as opposed to one based on purity of ancestry.
- The Gita recognizes the non-random prevalence of virtues of different types in the general population, but does not attempt to establish a hierarchical order of Varnas based on these observations, except for the odd remark on the respectability of the Dwija castes in one verse.
- The Gita definitely upholds the righteousness of Swadharma but qualifies Swadharma with the need for a more overarching righteousness. For eg : Swadharma does not justify an inherently unjust war.
- The Gita, while definitely advocating “Nishkaam Karma” does not advocate fatalism and routinized work that is bereft of zeal or steadfastness. In fact it explicitly deplores work undertaken with a lack of interest as “Tamasik”.
So where does this leave us? While India urbanizes rapidly by the day, it remains “exceptional” atleast in one respect and that is its preservation of Varna and Jaati albeit in bowdlerized forms. Indian “exceptionalism” lies in its reluctance to completely embrace the liberal ideal of an atomized individual, first conceptualized by the early 17th century political philosopher Thomas Hobbes whose “state of nature” is a “war of all against all”. Life in the “state of nature” is “nasty, brutish, and short” and this results in individuals coming to terms with this harsh truth and tempering their desires and urges. This “state of nature” doctrine was accepted by Hobbes’s successor John Locke, who further refined western classical liberal theory by developing the idea of individual property rights and rule by “consent”.
While India has undoubtedly assimilated some of these liberal, Anglo-Saxon ideas, we remain peculiar as a civilization with our distaste for an atomized view of the individual and our tendency to view collectives with their distinguishing virtues and foibles. This is an outcome of the 3000 year old Varna system and the more multifarious Jaati system, which survives into our times.
Hence understanding the Varna system from the source texts becomes important. Equally important is the attempt to harmonize our modern western notions of the individual with the idea of the collective inherent in our civilizational past.
Studying the Bhagavad Gita, a critical Indic source text, suggests that the harmonization is not a futile exercise. The Gita with its emphasis on Guna and Swabhavas and their linkage to Varna provides the seed for reconciling the idea of the collective with individual genius which may not always be aligned with the stereotypical truth one associates with the collective!
The Bhagavad Gita remains particularly relevant as Indian society looks to move forward while taking inspiration from its checkered past.
Note: This post was first published in the website Akshara in August 2017