THE VEDIC VARNA SYSTEM
Varna is the fundamental principle of existence. Varna system is dependent on the karmas (actions) and guna (nature of a person). Varna is the basic distinction among the people. Four powers are required for the existence of this world. They are the intelligence, decision making, planning and execution. In the Vedic period this is referred as the Brahmana, Kshatriya, Vaisya and Sudra. The entire human race has been divided in to four Varnas based on the qualities of nature – Sattva, Rajas and Tamas. The caste system that is prevalent in modern India is based on the ancient Varna system, but it is practiced in an entirely different manner. Social stigma and discrimination are a part of modern caste system, but in the Varna system everyone are treated as equals and there is no place for any stigma. They performed their duties according to the Varna, and gunas played an important role in the Varna system.
Basically there are three types of gunas (qualities), they are sattva, rajas and tamas. “Purity, passion and inertia – these qualities, O Arjuna, born of nature, bind fast in the body, the embodied, and the indestructible”, (Bhagavad Gita, 14, 5). These three qualities indicate the triple mentality. They together produce attachment in the individual’s soul, delude them and bind them down. These qualities become an obstacle in the path of realizing the truth. Gunas are the primary constituents of the nature and are the basis of all substances. One must transcend the gunas to realize the true nature. These three gunas were at equilibrium at the primordial state. During manifestation their equilibrium was disturbed and they became distinct. Still, there is no clear distinction between the three gunas. At a time, only one guna predominates than the other two and from this we can infer that this particular guna is prevalent at that period of time. This manifested world is considered as the twisted rope of these three gunas, the primary constituent of the nature.
The nature of the three gunas
Sattva – sattva is the most pure nature. It gives cheerfulness, blissfulness and helps to realize the truth. Sattva attaches to happiness, absence of pride, contentment, divine nature. “When through every gate (sense) in this body, the wisdom-light shines, then it may be known that sattva is predominant”, Bhagavad Gita, (14,11).
Rajas – the nature of desire, anger, greed, pride, envy, egotism, jealous and passion and so on belongs to rajas. “Know thou rajas to be of the nature of passion, the source of thirst (for sensual enjoyments) and attachment; it binds fast, O Arjuna the embodied one by attachment to action”, Bhagavad Gita, (14, 7).
Tamas – the main nature of tamas is inertia. It makes things to appear to be what they are not. Ignorance, dullness, sleep, thinking of impossible things, delusion and so on belongs to tamas. “But know thou tamas to be born of ignorance, deluding all embodied beings, it binds fast, O Arjuna, by heedlessness, indolence and sleep”, Baghavad Gita, (14,8). All the three gunas exist in a person, but only one guna will be dominating. The gunas are at different combinations in a person. When the mind selects a guna, it performs its related functions. If a particular guna dominates in a person for most of the time, then that person is known to have that guna. Mostly sattva predominates in a person in the early morning, in the mid day mostly rajas predominates, in the night tamas predominates. The three gunas are very important for a person. If sattva predominates in a person for most of the time, then that person tend to be a very intelligent person. If rajas predominate most of the time, then he will be a very active, passionate and highly ambitious person. If tamas predominate at most of the time, then he will be a very dull person. Human temperaments and tendencies vary according to the gunas. According to the nature of the gunas will be the degree of evolution.
Gunas cannot manifest themselves without a cause. Nature is the tendency, samskara or vasana (impressions) in the living beings. Tendencies and Impressions are acquired from the past births. They manifest itself in the present birth and produce its effects. This nature is the source of the gunas. Every individual is born with his or her own svabhava (nature). The gunas operate according to the respective natural tendencies of a person, which impel him to perform his own duties as their natural effects. At any point of time it is possible to change the lower nature (tamas) to the higher nature (sattva). The change should be step by step; else it is not possible to continue in the higher nature for a long period of time.
The Vedic Varna system is based on the gunas. The duties are allotted to the four Varnas in accordance with the gunas of the individual. There are four Varnas – Brahmana, Kshatriya, Vaisya and Sudra. These four divisions are needed for the governance of the manifested world. Basically these four Varnas represent the skill and mentality. “The fourfold caste has been created by Me according to the differentiation of gunas and karmas, though I am the author thereof know Me as non-doer and immutable”, Baghavad Gita, (4, 13).
The nature of Brahmana is sattva, and so he is of serene nature. Brahmana is a person who is endowed with spiritual knowledge. A person who has the knowledge of Brahman is a Brahmana. In the ancient period, even the rulers of the nation respected the Brahmanas as their guru. He is expected to perform the purificatory rites, by that he keeps the body and mind clean of impurities. They are assigned with the duty of studying the Vedas, giving gifts, performing sacrifices etc. They earn their living by performing sacrifices and teaching Vedas. They are considered as very noble persons. They will not have the least pride about their knowledge; they do not insult or discriminate the other Varnas. The mental traits of a Brahmana are restraint of the mind and senses. Even if a person who belongs to the other Varna has the knowledge of Brahman, then he is considered as a Brahmana. The knowledge of Brahman is more important to be a Brahmana than his birth as a Brahmana. Brahmin hood is not a mere social status, it is the status attached with the knowledge of Brahman. The Brahmin caste system that is prevalent in the modern India is poles apart from the Vedic Brahmana Varna.
The nature of kshatriya is rajas and sattva. Rajas predominate and sattva is subordinate to rajas. They posses lordliness. They were the ancient rulers of India. Their duty is to govern and protect the people. In the discharge of this duty, he collects taxes from all expect the Brahmana. He is considered by the other Varnas as the protector and not as a dictator. Kshatriya is characterized by heroism, valor, fortitude, impressiveness, Self-control, patience, devotion to holy men, optimistic aptitude, and readiness to offer protection to the weak.
The nature of the Vaisya is rajas and tamas. Rajas predominate and tamas is subordinate to rajas. He does various sorts of activities or business to earn money. His profession is agriculture and trade. His mental trait is to take effort for the fulfillment of duty, securing of wealth and pleasure, perseverance under all circumstances and faith in God and Vedas. They are the great devotees of the Lord. The kshatriya’s income is dependent on the Vaisya.
The nature of the sudra is tamas and rajas, tamas predominate and rajas is subordinate to tamas. His mental traits are humility, purity, straight forwardness, service to the three Varnas, truth and care for the Brahmanas and their cows. Their main occupation is to do service for the other Varnas. This does not mean that they are socially degraded people. They are not mistreated by the other Varnas at any point of time. “Of Brahmanas, Kshtriyas, and Vaisyas as also of Sudras, O Arjuna, the duties are distributed according to the qualities born of their own nature”, Baghavad Gita (18, 41).
There was no discrimination among the Varnas in the Vedic period; however Brahmans are entitled for Vedic rites because of their serene nature and knowledge. Each individual devoted to his own duty attained perfection. The duties are allotted to the four Varnas in accordance with the gunas of the individuals. In the Vedic period each Varna had mutual respect for the other. No Varna is barred from the knowledge of Brahman, provided they are evolved to absorb that superior knowledge.
All the four Varnas are important for the society. Society can exist in a flourishing state if the four Varnas do their duties properly. Otherwise there will be chaos, rupture and fighting. No Varna is considered as superior or inferior to the other, because the society needs all the Varnas.
The Varna system is not only present in the society. It is also found in the families, in individuals, in firms etc. A Varna means basically the duties allotted to an individual according to their gunas. In a family, each member has different gunas, and accordingly they perform their duties. Intellect is associated with sattva, mind is associated with rajas, and body with tamas. Some members of the family may have sattva guna. They understand everything easily, it is purely based on the intellect and it is Brahmana nature. Some members will be good decision makers and it is the nature of the kshathriya . Some will be excellent in planning and it is the nature of Vaishya. Some will be good in executing the plan and it is the nature of the Sudra. Even in an individual these Varnas are present. When sattva dominates in us, we understand everything and it is Brahmana nature. When rajas dominates in us we take correct decisions, it is the nature of kshatriya. When rajas dominate along with the combination of tamas, we will be busy planning for something, it is Vaishya nature. When tamas dominates with rajas as subordinate, we execute the duties; it is the nature of Sudra. Each and every individual is under the Varna system personally. In the same manner, according to the gunas and the duties allotted, the Varna system can be applied to all the organizations. Therefore, even in the modern India the Varna system can be slightly traced, but it is not recognized and it is submissive, and the caste system dominates. One has the capacity to go from one guna to the other and subsequently from one Varna to the other else we will be stagnated.
Each Varna purifies them by doing Vedic purificatory rites and makes one physically and mentally fit for grasping and practicing high ideals. When the time rolled on, the Vedic Varna system diminished and became an organized distinguishable social form as caste system. The modern caste system of India should never be identified with the Vedic Varna system, in which the man’s guna (constituent nature) and karma (work) are the clue to his Varna. The modern caste system is made by the dominating people of the society for their own convenience and it is entirely different from the sensible Vedic Varna system.
The Baghavad Gita, (trans, Swami Sivananda), The Divine Life Society, Himalayas, 2003
Srimad Bhagavata, Vol 1&2 (trans, Swami Tapasyananda), Sri Ramakrishna Math, Mylapore
Vivekacudamani Of Sri Sankaracarya, (trans, Swami Turiyananda), Sri Ramakrishna Math, Mylapore