Bhagvadgita on Caste

Bhagvadgita on Caste
by Rajiv Malhotra

The word ‘caste’ was an English adaptation from the Portuguese term ‘casta, which was first used by the Portuguese’ in describing what they perceived to be India’s social structure. There is no term ‘caste’ in Sanskrit or any Indian language. The only reference to such social structure in the Gita is verse 13 of chapter 4, where the notion of ‘varna’ has been explained. Varna was mistranslated as ‘caste’, and after generations of repetition, it became the prevailing view even amongst Hindus educated under the British system. This interpretation became a self fulfilling prophecy since the British census of India used rigid caste boundaries into which they force fit the entire population. Entire communities were classified into a single occupational category, and this engineered the identity of Indians. Later, India’s own government continued this caste division as a way to promote affirmative action, thereby exacerbating such divisive identities. Politicians found in the caste categories, what has been called ‘vote banks’ and this method of harvesting votes has caused social problems. Unfortunately, all this has been blamed on Hinduism by western scholars and their Indian followers.

This British impact on India’s caste has been researched in detail and written in “The Indian Caste system and the British”, by Kevin Hobson. The abstract of the article states: “Today, people think that the rigid caste system operated in India is the result of ancient requirements of religion. But just how much of this rigidity was due to their religion? Or how much was it due to a conscious direction by the British to create artificial divisions in order to make it easier to divide and rule the sub-continent and its people?”

In order to get an authentic interpretation from within the Hindu tradition, I decided to go back to the Gita as my original source, and see what it has to say in this important verse 4.13. I used three prominent interpretations of the Gita: Radhakrishnan, Paramahansa Yogananda, and Chinmayananda. Below is what each of them wrote about verse 4.13.

[“The Bhagavadgita”, By S. Radhakrishnan. Published in Great Britain by George Allen & Unwin Ltd. in 1948. Indian Reprint by Blackie & son (India) Ltd. 1977, Bombay India. Pages 160-161.]

Literal translation: “The fourfold order was created by Me according to the divisions of quality and work.”


caturvarnyam:: the fourfold order. The emphasis is on guna (aptitude) and karma (function) and not jati (birth). The varna or the order to which we belong is independent of sex, birth or breeding. A class determined by temperament and vocation is not a caste determined by birth and heredity. According to the Mahabharata, the whole world was originally of one class but later it became divided into four divisions on account of the specific duties. Even the distinction between caste and outcaste is artificial and unspiritual. An ancient verse points out that the Brahmin and the outcaste are blood brothers. In the Mahabharata, Yudhisthira says that it is difficult to find out the caste of persons on account of the mixture of castes. Men beget offspring in all sorts of women. So conduct is the only determining feature of caste according to sages.”

“The fourfold order is designed for human evolution. There is nothing absolute about the caste system, which has changed its character in the process of history. Today it cannot be regarded as anything more than an insistence on a variety of ways in which the social purpose can be carried out. Functional groupings will never be out of date, and as for marriages they will happen among those who belong to more or less the same stage of cultural development. The present morbid condition of India broken into castes and sub-castes is opposed to the unity taught by the Gita, which stands for an organic as against an atomistic conception of society.”

[“God Talks With Arjuna: The Bhagavad Gita – Royal Science of God-Realization”, By Paramahansa Yogananda. 1955. ISBN: 0-87612-030-3. Published by Self-Realization Fellowship, Los Angeles, CA. Pages 455-460.]

Literal Translation: “According to the differentiation of attributes (gunas) and actions (karma), I have created the four castes.”


“THE LORD, AS THE COSMIC CREATOR, has fashioned a world of beings patterned after the activities of His own nature: Cosmic Intelligence, Cosmic Energy, Cosmic Organization or Orderly Law, and Cosmic Motion. In man, these activities are expressed under the differentiating influence of the three gunas or qualities with which the Lord has imbued Nature: sattva (elevating), rajas (activating), and tamas(degrading). From the actions and the good, active, or evil qualities of man arise the four natural castes: spiritual (Intelligence, or Brahmins), ruling and protecting (Energy, or Kshatriyas), organizing or business cultivating (Orderly Law, or Vaishyas), and labor (Motion, or Sudras). God’s consciousness, pure and beyond all attributes, assumes an outward appearance of differentiation when expressed through the variety of human qualities and behavior. As a pure white light remains unchanged and yet appears different when viewed through glasses of different colors, so the one Spirit expressing through the good, active, and evil qualities and characteristic activities of human beings looks different in each case, but is nevertheless the one Spirit.”

“THE SUN, MOON, STARS, planets, creatures, man, are the result of God’s intelligence, energy; and motion moving through space in an organized manner. Intelligence is God’s “brain”; energy is His “life”; motion is His “body”; and organization or orderly law is His plan of the universe. These four activities were combined into the form of the human being. Intelligence became the head. Cosmic Energy provided the life and vitality in the body: Motion created the feet. And organization in the body came from orderly law, God’s organizing power.”

“These four activities are the blueprint from which all races are made. (1) The intelligentsia, or wisdom-guided. They are the natural Brahmins who live close to God and reflect His Intelligence by discriminative thought and spiritual activity: (2) The energetic warriors and rulers. They are the natural Kshatriyas. The direct result of God’s Energy; they like to be active, to fight for a cause, to defend their country, to protect the defenseless and the weak. In every society, there are those who become evil and have to be checked by the idealistic strong. (3) The organizers. These are the business leaders. They are the natural Vaishyas. As an outgrowth of God’s orderly activity, they have an ability to organize the economic and labor structures of society: (4) The laboring class. They are the natural Sudras. They express the motion of God, without which the universal and social machinery would come to a halt.”

“The differences in these four natural castes of activity do not make one greater or less than the others. All are necessary to the Cosmic Plan. When in man’s body the brain, or the feet, or the hands, or the orderly life functions refuse to cooperate, the whole body suffers as a consequence. If in a society the superior intellects, the rulers and soldiers, the business leaders, and the laborers all fight each other, they will all suffer and perish. The welfare of one group cannot be sacrificed for the aggrandizement of another group falsely considered more elite or important.”

“Scriptures and history show that among all peoples, savage and civilized alike, a fourfold division of men has been made for the proper government of a large clan, race, or nation. Even from primeval times there seems to have been in all races a God-ordained natural classification of peoples into types-based not on heredity but on inherent characteristics.”

“In India certain powerful religious leaders among the Brahmins – not unlike the Pharisees in the time of Christ – arranged to base the caste system entirely on heredity to suit their own despotic purposes. For a long time the general masses fell prey to the theory that the vocation of priest or warrior or businessman or laborer should be determined according to heredity, and not according to innate tastes or abilities. The son of a Brahmin was automatically a Brahmin even if he knew nothing of religious or philosophical life, or even if he had tendencies to act like a businessman or a warrior or a sense slave. When the warriors in India lost out against foreign aggression, the businessmen, laborers, and priests stood by; inactive, saying, “Too bad the Kshatriyas (warriors) lost; it is, of course, against our hereditary custom for us from the other three castes to fight.” This wrong attitude is one of the reasons why India lost her liberty when the land was invaded by enemies.”

“This accursed hereditary view of caste always has been condemned by wise swamis, yogis, and other enlightened men of India. Shankara, the founder of the Swami Order, wrote: “No birth, no death, no caste have I.” He renounced the Brahmin caste in which he had been born. The followers of Mahatma Gandhi and of other modern leaders in India are doing much good in reforming the caste system.”

“Of course, it can be rightfully assumed that through the influence of heredity and environment, the offspring of priests, warriors, businessmen, and laborers are usually bound to show many “family” traits. It may be easier for a son of a priest to become a priest, and for a son of a warrior to become a soldier. But it is also true that the strongest instincts in offspring do not always reflect the qualities of the parents. The sons of ministers are proverbially known to choose other vocations; and so it is with the other “castes.” The son of Napoleon was by no means a military genius! Two children whose natures are in direct opposition are often found in one family: A single cause of affinity, such as a love of harmony, is responsible for the re- birth of a materially inclined person in a spiritually harmonious family.”

“It is therefore pure ignorance to classify castes according to heredity, for we know that a laborer’s child may be a musical genius, and that the son of a warrior may be a good businessman. In accordance with modem military draft laws, sons of clergymen, businessmen, and laborers – and not only the offspring of warriors – have been drawn into the vortex of war; all classes have shown equal reluctance – and equal bravery!”

“Each man, the reincarnation of an ego with various personal traits and instincts, born in a family whose characteristics may be quite foreign to him, should be allowed to pursue the work most congenial to him.”

“THIS VERSE OF THE GITA, mentioning the creation of the four castes, refers not only to the activities toward which man is naturally inclined, but also to the fact that, although souls have all been made in the same image of Spirit, yet, when introduced into various bodies, they are allowed free choice to be influenced by the three gunas of Nature. These three qualities produce the four natural qualitative castes. All men display an admixture of all the gunas, thus accounting for the bewildering variety of human nature in general, and also for the bewildering variety sometimes found in one person!”

“Each man is marked with his natural caste by the predominance in himself of one of the following gunas or guna-mixtures: (1) sattva (good qualities), (2) sattva-rajas (mixture of good and active qualities), (3) rajas-tamas (mixture of active and materialistic qualities), (4) tamas (dark or evil qualities).”

“In accordance with personal karma, a man is born into (1) the natural Brahmin caste, “knowers of Brahma or Spirit,” or (2) the natural Kshatriya caste, in which a mixture of good and activity-loving qualities predominates, or (3) the natural Vaishya caste, marked by a mixture of activity-loving and materialistic tendencies, or (4) the natural Sudra caste, characterized chiefly by love of bodily pleasures.”

“These four guna-states also influence meditation. In the attainment of yogic realization, the first state of meditation is surrounded by darkness. (“And the light shineth in darkness; and the darkness comprehended it not.”) The devotee is spoken of as being in the Sudra state when his mind is fully engrossed in the muscular and sensory restlessness of the body: When the yogi meditates deeper he beholds a reddish light on a dark background; he begins to cultivate the seeds of various spiritual perceptions on the soil of intuition, and has then risen to the next or Vaishya state.”

“The yogi develops further; with his divine-and-active attributes, he begins consciously to win the battle between sense distractions and soul intuitions. He becomes a veteran warrior, able to destroy successfully his invading sensations and subconscious thoughts by switching off his life force from the sensory-motor nerves. This is the sense-victorious Kshatriya state, in which the yogi sees a white light with a reddish glow – the light of the accumulated energy that has been withdrawn from the senses.”

“He learns how to withdraw this energy from the six spinal fortresses where the senses and the superior perceptions are ever locked in a battle between body consciousness and spiritual perceptions. In this fourth state, the yogi is successful in disconnecting his consciousness from earthly possessions, bodily sensations, subconscious thoughts, and life forces, and takes his ego (pseudosoul) through the sensory and motor nerves, the six spinal knots of flesh and mind to the frontal lobes of the brain in the fontanel region, and becomes united with the indescribable white light of the Omnipresent Spirit (Brahman), manifestly expressed or seated on the subtly luminous throne of thousand-rayed spiritual perceptions. This is the supreme state of the natural Brahmin.”

[“The Holy Geeta”, Commentary by Swami Chinmayananda. Published by Sri Ram Batra, Central Chinmaya Mission Trust, Bombay, India. Pages 233-235 .]

Literal translation: “The fourfold-caste has been created by Me according to the differentiation of GUNA and KARMA.”


“This is a stanza that has been much misused in recent times by the upholders of the social crime styled as the caste system in India. Varna, meaning different shades of texture, or colour, is employed here in the Yogic-sense. In the Yoga Sastra, they attribute some definite colours to the triple gunas, which mean, as we have said earlier, “the mental temperaments”. Thus, Sattwa is considered as white, Rajas as red, and Tamas as black. Man is essentially the thoughts that he entertains. From individual to individual, even when the thoughts are superficially the same, there are clear distinctions recognizable from their temperaments.”

“On the basis of these temperamental distinctions, the entire mankind has been, for the purpose of spiritual study, classified into four “castes” or Varnas. Just as, in a metropolis, on the basis of trade or professions, we divide the people as doctors, advocates, professors, traders, politicians, tongawalas, etc., so too, on the basis of the different textures of thoughts entertained by the intelligent creatures, the four “castes” had been labeled in the past. From the standpoint of the State, a doctor and a tongawala are as much important as an advocate and a mechanic. So too, for the perfectly healthy life of a society, all “castes” should not be competitive but cooperative units, each being complementary to the others, never competing among themselves.”

“However, later on, in the power politics of the early middle-ages in India, this communal feeling cropped up in its present ugliness, and in the general ignorance among the ordinary people, at that time, the cheap pandits could parade their assumed knowledge by quoting, IN BITS, stanzas like this one.”

“The decadent Hindu-Brahmin found it very convenient to quote the first quarter of the stanza, and repeat “I CREATED THE FOUR varnas“, and give this tragic social vivisection a divine look having a godly sanction. They, who did this, were in fact, the greatest blasphemers that Hinduism ever had to reckon with. For Vyasa, in the very same line of the couplet, as though in the very same breath, describes the basis” on which this classification was made, when he says, “BY THE DIFFERENTIATION OF THE MENTAL QUALITY AND PHYSICAL ACTION (OF THE PEOPLE)”.

“This complete definition of the Varna not only removes our present misunderstanding but also provides us with some data to understand its true significance. Not by birth is man a Brahmana (Brahmin); by cultivating good intentions and noble thoughts alone can we ever aspire to Brahmanahood; nor can we pose as Brahmana merely because of our external physical marks; or bodily actions in the outer world. The definition insists that he alone is a Brahmana, whose thoughts are as much Sattwic, as his actions are. A Kshatriya is one who is Rajasic in his thoughts and actions. A Sudra is not only one whose thoughts are Tamasic, but also he who lives a life of low endeavours, for satisfying his base animal passions and flesh-appetites. The scientific attitude in which this definition has been declared, is clear from the exhaustive implications of the statement: “ACCORDING TO THE DIFFERENTIATION OF “guna” AND “karma“.”