“According to the three modes of material nature and the work ascribed to them, the four divisions of human society were created by Me. And, although I am the creator of this system, you should know that I am yet the non-doer, being unchangeable.” (Lord Krishna, Bhagavad-gita, 4.13)
When taught about Indian culture, students in America and around the world are invariably informed of the infamous caste system. “Indians believe that people belong to specific castes based on birthright. People in the lower classes are deemed unworthy and untouchable, while the higher castes are afforded the greatest respect.” This practice may indeed be in place today but it is a degraded form of the original system created by God.
The Vedas, created by Krishna, the Supreme Personality of Godhead, represent true infallible knowledge. Scientific research and psychological studies involve various hypotheses and theories, with people saying that it “may be like this” or “perhaps it is like that”, but Vedic knowledge is absolute and flawless. The purpose of the Vedas is to teach everyone how to know and love God. In order to achieve that end, they give recommendations for all areas of life. For the proper functioning of society, the recommended system is varnashrama dharma. Varna refers to the four divisions of society based on quality and work: brahmanas, kshatriyas, vaishyas, and shudras. The brahmanas are the priestly class of men, engaged in studying the Vedas, performing sacrifices, and teaching spiritual knowledge to the rest of society. The kshatriyas are the warrior/administrator class. Their duty is to provide unflinching protection to the rest of society, acting in accord with the injunctions of the shastras as explained to them by the brahmanas. Kshatriyas therefore must be brave, courageous, and steady of mind. The vaishyas are the mercantile class, the businessmen. Society needs food in order to survive, so the vaishyas’ main business is to produce food grains and to sell this food on the open market. The shudras are the fourth division, and their dharma, or occupational duty, is to provide service to the other three classes. All four divisions are required in order for society to function properly.
The analogy of the body is given in this regard. The brahmanas represent the brain. They are the guiding force, determining how the body will operate. The kshatriyas are the arms. The arms are used to give in charity, worship the deity, and provide protection. The vaishyas are the stomach. If the stomach is empty, then the rest of the body will not function. There will be no energy and thus the life force will gradually diminish. The shudras are the legs. The legs humbly serve the body by taking it place to place. Without legs, we would be invalids or cripples, meaning the utilization of our body would be severely hampered. For this reason, God instituted this system of four varnas. It is not that one class is to look down on another, but rather everyone should perform their occupational duty with detachment.
“Be steadfast in yoga, O Arjuna. Perform your duty and abandon all attachment to success or failure. Such evenness of mind is called yoga.” (Bg. 2.48)
“It is better to engage in one’s own occupation, even though one may perform it imperfectly, than to accept another’s occupation and perform it perfectly. Prescribed duties, according to one’s nature, are never affected by sinful reactions.” (Bg. 18.47)
An important point that must be stressed here is that these classes are determined by one’s qualities and the work they perform, guna and karma. Simple birthright is not enough to be classified as a brahmana, kshatriya, or vaishya. The original system was never implemented solely on birthright. In Vedic times, children would take instruction from a guru, or spiritual master. A brahmana living a meager lifestyle, the guru would host children at his home in what was known as the gurukula. This was the school system. The guru wouldn’t charge a fee, but in order to maintain his livelihood, the students would regularly go out and beg alms from the grihasthis, the householders. The alms were then given to the guru, who would in turn distribute them to his students. In this way, the students learned austerity, penance and respect, all of which are necessary for one striving for spiritual advancement. A bona fide brahmana, acting as the brain for society, actually knew the ins and outs of all the varnas, not just that of the brahmanas. For this reason, he was capable of training students to become brahmanas, kshatriyas, and vaishyas. Vishvamitra Muni is a great example in this regard. In Krishna’s avatara as Lord Rama, the Lord and His brother Lakshmana took birth in a great kshatriya family. They both received instruction in their youth from their spiritual master Vashishta. Still, later on in life, they took even further instruction from the sage Vishvamitra, who imparted on them various mantras to be used when shooting arrows from their bows. Vashishta and Vishvamitra were both brahmanas by trade, but they still had perfect knowledge of the military arts.
"If the characteristics of a brahmana are found in a shudra and not in a brahmana, that shudra should not be known as a shudra, and that brahmana should not be known as a brahmana.” (Mahabharata, Vana Parva)
The degraded caste system of today came about in this way: Since the gurus could train a student in any discipline, they would usually train sons of brahmanas to be brahmanas, sons of kshatriyas to be kshatriyas, and so on. Still, this training was provided only after measuring the qualities of the student. This is where guna comes in. For something to be defined as material, it must possess gunas, or material qualities. These qualities are goodness, passion, and ignorance. Goodness is knowledge, passion is fruitive activity, and ignorance is the lack of both knowledge and fruitive activity. The brahmanas are considered to be in the mode of goodness, kshatriyas in the mode of passion, vaishyas in a mixture of passion and ignorance, and shudras in ignorance. So the guru would take stock of the student’s qualities and then decide how to train them. In most cases, students were taught in the same discipline as that of their father.
Gradually over time, this system degraded to the point where people started claiming brahmincal status simply off birthright. They didn’t receive the proper training from a guru, but they nevertheless openly declared themselves as being in the mode of goodness. It’s not surprising that such a situation would occur. Cheaters are always looking for an edge. If someone is prone to cheat and steal, they will look for any way to advance their agenda. Being born as a brahmana is a great way to do this. The Vedas actually have a word to describe these people, dvija-bandhu, meaning a person born of a brahmana who doesn’t exude the qualities of one.
Herein lies the other key point relating to brahmanas. For one to be considered in the higher castes, they must take a second birth and be given the sacred thread. For this reason, the brahmanas are often referred to as dvija, meaning twice-born.
“Vasudeva had his son initiated by sacred thread as the token of second birth, which is essential for the higher castes of human society. Vasudeva called for his family priest and learned brahmanas, and the sacred thread ceremony of Krishna and Balarama was duly performed… Both were initiated by Their family priest Gargacharya, usually known as Gargamuni, the acharya of the Yadu dynasty. According to Vedic culture, every respectable person has an acharya, or spiritual master. One is not considered to be a perfectly cultured man without being initiated and trained by an acharya. It is said, therefore, that one who has approached an acharya is actually in perfect knowledge. Lord Krishna and Balarama were the Supreme Personality of Godhead, the master of all education and knowledge. There was no need for Them to accept a spiritual master or acharya, yet for the instruction of ordinary men, They also accepted a spiritual master for advancement in spiritual knowledge.” (Krishna, the Supreme Personality of Godhead, Vol 1, Ch 44)
Our first birth is insignificant if we don’t eventually become trained in the Vedas. Upon taking birth, we are actually no different from the animals. Unless and until we understand God, we cannot claim to be smarter than any other species. For this reason, the Vedas declare that one must take a second birth, that of initiation from a spiritual master, in order to have claim to the higher statuses. Initiation involves investiture of a sacred thread, with the student promising to abide by the orders and regulations of the spiritual master.
Yet even this system has degraded. It is a common practice today to simply call for a brahmana, give him a few dollars, and voila, the child is given a sacred thread with no further responsibilities. The investiture of the sacred thread actually marks the beginning of spiritual life, where the student humbly and seriously commits himself to take instruction from the guru.
“The duty of the spiritual master is to initiate a disciple with the sacred thread ceremony, and after this samskara, or purificatory process, the spiritual master actually begins to teach the disciple about the Vedas. A person born a shudra is not barred from such spiritual initiation, provided he is approved by the spiritual master, who is duly authorized to award a disciple the right to be a brahmana if he finds him perfectly qualified.” (Shrila Prabhupada, Chaitanya Charitamrita, Adi 1.46 Purport)
The degraded caste system has led to a pretty miserable condition. The caste brahmanas wield great influence and they use their power to shut others out of temples and other religious functions. This sort of action took place even five hundred years when Krishna came to earth as Lord Chaitanya. Born in a brahmana family, Lord Chaitanya spread love for Krishna throughout India to anyone who was willing to receive it. He had many close associates, one of whom was Haridasa Thakura. Since he was born in a Muslim family, Haridasa Thakura was not allowed entrance into the temple of Lord Jagannatha. Not wanting to raise a commotion, Haridasa would quietly sit outside the temple each day and wait for Lord Chaitanya to send prasada of Lord Jagannatha. Through this wonderful action of Lord Chaitanya, Haridasa actually received a greater benediction than any caste brahmana could ever dream of; the delivery of prasadam from God Himself.
“Peacefulness, self-control, austerity, purity, tolerance, honesty, wisdom, knowledge, and religiousness—these are the qualities by which the brahmanas work.” (Bg. 18.42)
In India, caste brahmanas are usually given great respect. The reason for this is that they have a family lineage that traces back to a great saint. One’s lineage is referred to as their gotra, and there are gotras for sages like Vashishta, Upamanyu, Katyayana, and Bharadvaja. Taking birth in one of these lines certainly presents a great opportunity, and we should certainly show respect to every person in society. Nevertheless, simply having a family lineage to Bharadvaja doesn’t make one a brahmana. One must be able to demonstrate the proper qualities and work. The example of a doctor and son is appropriate in this regard. A doctor is very well respected since he can heal the sick. A doctor’s son is certainly given great respect based on the status of his father, but still, one would never mistake the son to be a doctor simply off birthright. Unless one goes through the proper training, they can never be considered a bona fide doctor. The same principle holds true with brahmanas.
“kalau shudra-sambhava (In this age of Kali, everyone is born a shudra)” (Vedas)
In this age of Kali, the Vedas declare that everyone is born a shudra. In the past, people would adhere strictly to the various samskaras, or reformatory processes. A child could be respected as a brahmana if the garbhadhana-samskara was performed by brahmana parents prior to conception. In the absence of this, one cannot be born a brahmana, kshatriya, vaishya, etc. Since this seed-giving ceremony is rarely performed today, everyone is considered a shudra by birth, and it is left to the spiritual master to judge whether a child can be qualified as a brahmana or not.
Aside from being involved in labor, the real definition of a shudra is one who is untrained in any Vedic discipline. For this reason, the characteristic trademark of a shudra is that he easily laments, especially over things pertaining to the gross material body. Adult movies have ratings attached to them which prohibit young children from viewing them. This restriction is applied because children don’t have the necessary training and knowledge to understand violence and sex. The concept of a shudra is the same in this regard. If one has no knowledge of Krishna, or God, then they are considered a shudra, regardless of their family lineage.
Since everyone is born a shudra in this age, does that mean anyone can perform Vedic functions and rituals? Bona fide brahmanas are still required for this. We don’t let just anyone drive an automobile. They must first pass an exam and then be able to demonstrate proficiency behind the wheel. The concept holds true for Vedic sacrifices as well. If one does not receive proper training from a guru, then their performance of austerities and other yajnas (sacrifices) can be very dangerous.
So what are we to do then? Luckily for us, God has given the people of this age a yajna that can be performed by anyone, the sankirtana yajna, congregational chanting. Chanting the holy name of God is open to anyone and everyone. This beginning stage of self-realization can even be taken up by children.
“O son of Pritha, those who take shelter in Me, though they be of lower birth-women, vaishyas [merchants], as well as shudras [workers]—can approach the supreme destination.” (Bg. 9.32)
The point of human life is to know and love God. Love knows no barriers. The varnashrama system is there as a guide, but one is still required to rise above mundane class distinctions if they are really serious about making spiritual advancement. God judges us by what’s in our hearts, not what our societal designation is. Guha, the Nishada chief, is a great example of this. When Lord Rama, Sita Devi, and Lakshmana set out for their journey in the forest, the first stop they made was at Guha’s camp. In those days the Nishadas were a race of forest dwellers, not considered civilized enough to live in the towns. In essence, they were viewed as less than shudras. Nevertheless, Guha was a great devotee, someone who had pure love for Rama. Because of this, Rama and His group stayed with Guha and took service from Him. Rama made it a specific point to tell Guha that He had been well received. There are many other such examples of God’s mercy in the Vedic literatures.
“If one shows the symptoms of being a brahmana, kshatriya, vaishya or shudra, as described above, even if he has appeared in a different class, he should be accepted according to those symptoms of classification.” (Narada Muni, Shrimad Bhagavatam, 7.11.35)
God is so nice. He knows that not everyone will take to devotional service right away, so He created various religious systems and institutions so as to allow people to make gradual progress. Anyone, regardless of their birth, can take to chanting the holy names of God, “Hare Krishna Hare Krishna, Krishna Krishna, Hare Hare, Hare Rama Hare Rama, Rama Rama, Hare Hare”, and to following the four regulative principles: abstention from meat eating, gambling, illicit sex, and intoxication. Following these guidelines, one become a bona fide brahmana, and even more importantly, become a true Vaishnava.
Categories: varnashrama dharma