Caste and Karma

[Worship]“Peacefulness, self-control, austerity, purity, tolerance, honesty, wisdom, knowledge, and religiousness – these are the qualities by which the brahmanas work.” (Lord Krishna, Bhagavad-gita, 18.42)

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śamo damas tapaḥ śaucaṁ

kṣāntir ārjavam eva ca

jñānaṁ vijñānam āstikyaṁ

brahma-karma svabhāva-jam

It’s natural to be proud of your family and the heritage that dates back far into the past. The parents are the first guru, or respectable personality. Man is like an animal when first emerging from the womb. It doesn’t know much as far as what to do. There is some inherent intelligence for sure, as explained in the Bhagavad-gita.

sarvasya cāhaṁ hṛdi sanniviṣṭo

mattaḥ smṛtir jñānam apohanaṁ ca

vedaiś ca sarvair aham eva vedyo

vedānta-kṛd veda-vid eva cāham

“I am seated in everyone’s heart, and from Me come remembrance, knowledge and forgetfulness. By all the Vedas am I to be known; indeed I am the compiler of Vedanta, and I am the knower of the Vedas.” (Lord Krishna, Bhagavad-gita, 15.15)

The child knows how to eat because of the intelligence given by the Supersoul, which is God’s expansion residing within the heart. Still, the same child needs help in finding the food to eat. It needs to be taught how to read and write. Moreover, many important moments of life are entered into reluctantly. The parents must watch over the child to ensure that they wake up on time, go to school, complete their assignments, and show proper respect to deserving personalities.

If we respect our parents, we should respect their parents. The grandparents had their own parents, and in this way you travel up the chain as far as you can go. In traditional Vedic culture the marriages take place under arrangement. Not just on a whim, through personal desire, but rather after consulting with expert priests, matching up the qualities of the children, parents from both sides make the arrangement. The idea is that the varnas should not be mixed. Varna is a Sanskrit word that means “color.” It can also mean “occupation.” When the varnas are mixed, there is an increased chance of unwanted children, which leads to the destruction of family traditions.

doṣair etaiḥ kula-ghnānāṁ


utsādyante jāti-dharmāḥ

kula-dharmāś ca śāśvatāḥ

“Due to the evil deeds of the destroyers of family tradition, all kinds of community projects and family welfare activities are devastated.” (Arjuna, Bhagavad-gita, 1.42)

Since this system of marriage was followed for so long, by people living in the same geographic area, people today can trace their family lineage back to an important figure from ancient times. These figures were priest-like, known as brahmanas by occupation. A person directly descending in their line can proudly claim to have ties to a brahmana.

[Shrila Prabhupada]But does this mean that the descendants are automatically priest-like? Is the “brahmana” a caste or is it a class based on occupation? His Divine Grace A. C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada clears up the confusion by many times referring to the occupation of doctor. I may be a well-respected physician, who passed medical school and has been practicing in the field for years. This doesn’t mean that any child born to me is automatically a doctor. They get the respect accorded to a doctor’s child, but they have to earn their way in life in order to reach the same position.

The brahmana is a varna, or class, determined by qualities and work. The qualities are known as gunas in Sanskrit. Work in Sanskrit is “karma.” If there are any doubts on the matter, one can simply consult the Bhagavad-gita, a text which is older than the system of varna and ashrama. The Bhagavad-gita predates the brahmana class itself.

cātur-varṇyaṁ mayā sṛṣṭaṁ


tasya kartāram api māṁ

viddhy akartāram avyayam

“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)

The Supreme Lord creates the varnas, and He speaks the Bhagavad-gita. This makes the Gita the ultimate authority in determining what makes a varna. In another section of the same work, Shri Krishna gives specifics about the qualities of a brahmana. Among other things, they should be peaceful, truthful and pure.

The Sanskrit words that make up the verse are very instructive. If the varnas were determined by birth, the word “janma” would be included. Instead, we find mention of “karma” once again. Karma is fruitive activity; it’s the work you do that has reactions. Bhakti is work that is free of karma. It does not build future results tied to a temporary body. Thus the varnas are part of the material world, and the brahmana is an occupation within that world.

One argument is that the qualities of an individual, their gunas, are determined by birth. By being born to brahmanas, a person inherits the qualities of a brahmana. There is no doubt that someone assumes a certain set of qualities when they are born. Still, the word “karma” is used by Shri Krishna. The work must be there. If a person shows the qualities of truthfulness, cleanliness, tolerance and wisdom in their work, it should be assumed that they are a brahmana, even though they may not officially be recognized as such.

[Krishna's lotus feet]A caste is a degraded system of hierarchy determined by birthright, and varna is part of the scientific system of division of society based on occupation handed down by the Supreme Lord Himself. Devotion to the author of the Gita is above both. A person can be in any varna, officially recognized or not, and practice devotion to the Supreme Lord. Thus even those who are not recognized properly by others, who may have no reputation at all, can become dear to Shri Krishna. Through their devotion all good qualities will automatically come.

In Closing:

Brahmana considered highest varna,

But determined by guna and karma.


Not solely based on heredity,

Today degraded system of hierarchy.


Despite having social standing none,

All good qualities to one can come.


When to Supreme Lord becoming dear,

Worshiping Him always, in consciousness near.

Categories: religion

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