Chatur Varna: The four choices of service

Contributed by Shri Keshva Arya

On account of the impressions and influences which the Soul carry with them from life to life, each individual soul has its own tastes and inclinations, talents and capacities. Even a child knows that no two individuals are alike or equal to each other in every aspect. The difference in inclinations and capacities are fundamental, and as such they cannot be erased totally by applying any external pressures. The manufacturers of automobiles may be able to manufacture a few thousand vehicles of same shape, size, colour and power. But, it is not possible for even the most efficient, widely read, profoundly learned and scientifically advanced teacher to train two of his students to be equal to each other in every respect; and there is no wonder about it. Insentient things can be molded entirely to our likings but sentient and scient beings, that we human are cannot be shaped wholly according to our ideas and ideals. So, Wisdom lies in recognizing these innate differences in the individuals and trying to help them to develop their personalities(in a constructive way) according to their own tastes and capacities. The Vedas speak quite unequivocally about these inborn differences :

Naanaanam vaa u no dhiyO vi vrataani janaanam | Taksha rishtam bhisak brahma sunvantamicchanthindrayendo pari srava || (Rig 9.112.1)

(Naah dihyah) Our intellectual capacities, (naanaanam u) are indeed diverse and different, (vrataani) spiritual resolves and austeries too, (janaanaam) of the people, (vi) are various and divergent, (taksha) among us the carpenter, (icchati) likes to have, (rishtam) a saw, (bhisak) the doctor, (rutam) an ailing person and (brahmaa) the one well versed in Vedas, (sunvantam) a performer of a sacrifice, (indo) O Supreme moistener, (parisrava) shower thy mercy, (indraaya) for the sake of the soul endowed with perceptive faculties. Recognizing these natural differences, the Vedas describe four spheres of activities and provide each individual with the scope to develop himself or herself according to his/her choice.

Each sphere of activity based on the solid ground of individual choice, is styled VARNA.

The Varnas are 4 in number and they are termed

1> Brahmana or Intellectual.

2> Kshatriya or Martial.

3> Vaishya or Commercial.

4> Shudra or Manual.

These varnas are not invariably based on birth; and as such , they cannot be equated with the present day castes which run into thousands. The Varnas are scientific and rational divisions of mankind, aimed at progress of the individual as well as of the society, but the present day caste system is a bane on whole humanity, as it is based on birth of individuals, creating a lot of heart-burn and blood with its notions of superiority and inferiority. Though the present day caste system is remotely related to Vedic Varna Vyavastha, it is wrong to give a bad name to the latter, for, when ignorance, inertia and selfishness gain an upper hand , even the best principle can be reduced to a scourge. Even in case of some religions which was started for good of humanity, we can find that now they have become a centre of all demonic ideologies. Has not God been made an instrument for spilling precious human blood? Has not religion been defaced and reduced to a demonic terrorism force. Can any person turn against God or Dharma on that account? Varnas are natural and rational divisions that promote the cause of human welfare. According to the varna-system , all the activities or professions that human being can possibly adopt are broadly divided into 4 classes; and each individual is at liberty to choose any one of them and belong to it, ofcourse bearing in mind, his/her own inclinations and capacities. Birth in a particular prevailing varna may be helpful to some extent in making one’s choice, but it is neither necessary nor inevitable for a Brahmin’s son to be a Brahmin or a kshatriya’s son be a kshatriya. A lawyer son may or may not be a lawyer. It is not necessary that a doctor’s son should invariably become a doctor. The fundamental basis of varna system, according to the Vedas is the merit, profession and the nature of each individual(Its not based on birth at all). Birth in a particular family supposed to belong to a varna may cast its influence and may also help to impede, to an extent, the individual to make his or her choice. But it is of secondary importance.

Let us see what Vedas have to say on this subject.

In Yajur Veda , we read the following mantra : – Bṝahmanosya mukhamaasidbaahu raajanyah krtah | Uru tadasya yadvaishyaha padbhyam shudro ajaayata|| Yajurveda 31.11 (Brahmanaha) Brahmin, (aaseed) was , (asya mukham) its face, (rajanyaha) kshatriya, (krutaha) was made,(bahu) its arms, (tad) he (yat vaishyaha) who is vaishya (asya uru) was its thighs, (padbhyaam) for sake of, or , in the place of the feet, (ajaayata) was there, (sudro) the shudra.

The traditional interpretation of this mantra as presented by scholars of pouranic thought, is this : “Brahmin came out of Brahma’s mouth, the kshatriya was born from the arms of brahma, the Vaishya came from his thighs and the shoodra from his feet”. It is extremely ridiculous and totally incredible; for nowhere in the whole sukta does this four faced brahma appear. Instead of it, in literal sense, we see there in a purusha, a gigantic person with a thousand heads, thousand eyes and a thousand feet. There is no reference to his arms. Infact, that is not the description of any corporeal being at all. It is a figure of speech, we may say a personification, in which omniscient, omnipercipient and omni-present God, though absolutely formless, is personified.

He created the world (“tato viraadajaayata” – Yaju 31-5).

Then it is said again figuratively, that whole virat i.e , the whole creation was He, He being immanent. Thus “Virat Purusha” , the “universal person” was conceived. Thereafter with reference to this universal person, we find these questions :-

mukham kimaasyaaseet kim baahu kimuru paadaavuchyete ? | (Yaju 31.10) (Kim) what, (aaseet asya mukham) was the face of the universal person? (kim baahu) what were the arms? (kim) what again, (vuchyete) are said to be, (uru paada) the thighs and feet? In answer to these questions , the mantra appears. And what a fine metaphor. Is the pouranic interpretation any answer to these questions? Definitely not ! Though the word “Viraat” literally means “universe”, it should be taken to mean “human world” or “human society” as only mankind is in need of service of the intellectual, martial, mercantile and manual classes, and not the sub-human and insentient world. Secondly, all the message of the Vedas are addressed to mankind and not other living being, who have to achieve welfare only through mankind. Thus by reviewing the above verses in light of Vedas the whole thing is clear as day light. He who carries out in society the functions performed by the face in body of an individual is a Brahmin. All the organs of perception the visual, the olfactory, the palatal, the auditory and the tactile are located in the head.

Collecting knowledge and communicating it to the soul is the function of head. It is precisely this function that a Brahmin does in society. He who fulfills in society the functions carried on in the body of an individual by the arms is a kshatriya. The arms are the administrative as well as the protective organs of the body. It is precisely this thing that a kshatriya does in society; He rules and protects. What are the functions of the body central? The thighs represent the central part of the body.

The Atharva Veda clarifies the point further :- Braahmanosya mukhamaasidbaahu raajanyo abhavat | Madhyam tadasya yad vaishyaha padbhyaam shudro ajaayata || (Atharva 19.6.6)

(Brahmanaha) Brahmin, (aaseed asya mukham) was his face, (raajanyaha) Kshatriya, (abhavat asya baahu) was his arms, (tat)He, (yat vaishyaha) who is vaishya,(asya madhyam) was the central part of his body,(padbhyaam) for the function of the feet, (ajaayata)was, (shudraha) the Shoodra. In the central part of the body, from neck downwards are situated the heart, the lung, the stomach, the alimentary canal, the organs of procreation – in short all important organs that keep the body alive and help its development. These organs jointly produce energy and distribute it to all the parts of the body from the top of the head to the tip of the toes. He who does the same thing in society i.e who produces wealth and utilizes for the benefit of the society is a vaishya.

In the very nature of things, vaishyas are in a majority, so much so in the Vedas, the vit means vaishya is used to signify praja or subjects as in “tvaamvisho vrinataama raajyaaya(Atharva 3.4.2) i.e let vaishyas elect you to rule over the land. Let there be no mistake about it. It is not as though the ruler has to rule only over the vaishyas. It is only to be understood that because of their preponderance among the subjects, the word vit has been used as a synonym for the word praja. And, just as legs, carry it to the desired place, lower limbs, or say the feet uphold the whole body, He who carries the whole weight of the society is a Shoodra. No question of looking him down as sub-human or a slave arises at all. If one gives a little more attention he can feel the beauty and perceive the significance of this analogy. Suppose a thorn pricks the foot- the shoodra, it is the head , the Brahmin that sighs in grief first, It is the arm, the Kshatriya who hurries to remove the thorn through the thighs , the vaishyas moved accordingly to help the arm to remove the thorn. Thus in a society all these 4 varnas are inter-related and inter-linked. There is no question of superiority and inferiority among them. Each varna is equally great and useful in the spheres of their activity for the common good off the society. The Vedas strike at the very root of the sense of superiority and inferiority.

The Rig Veda says :- ajyeshtaso akanishtasa yete sam bhrataro vaavrdhuh saubhagaaya | yuvaa pitaa swaapaa rudra eshaam sudughaa prushnihi sudinaa marudbhyaha || (Rig 5.60.5)

(Ete) These men , (ajyeshtasaha) are without superiors, (akanishtasaha) without inferiors, (bhraataraha) they are mutual brothers, (vaavrudhuh) they march onwards, (saubhagaaya) for prosperity, (yuvaa) the eternally youthful, (svapaa) the soul protecting, (rudraha) grief alleviating God, (yeshaam pitaa) is their father, (sudughaa) the richly feeding, (prushnihi) mother earth, (sudinaa) produces happy days, (marudbhyaha) for these mortals.

Again, Te ajyeshtaa akanishtaasa udbhido amadhyamaaso mahasaa vi vavrdhuhu | Sujaataso janushaa prusnimaataro divo maryaa aa no acchaa jigaatana || (Rig 5.59.6)

(Te) among these men, (ajyeshtaha) there are no superiors, (akanishtasaha) no inferiors, (amadhyamaash) no middle ones either, (udbhidaha)they become great from smaller beginnings, (vi vaavrudhuhu) they make progress in different ways , (mahasaa) by dint of their merits ;; (janusaa) by birth, (sujaatasaha)they are all high born, because (prusnimaataraha) they are all children of mother earth, (divaha maryaaha) o ye, men of lord refulgent! (aa jigatana) be available to us, (acchaa) in a loveable manner or, (aa jigaatana) grow into praise worthy souls, (acchaa) in fairways. No one can deal a death blow to the feelings of superiority and inferiority more effectively than the Vedas. People of all varnas are equal in the eyes of God and his revealation, the Vedas.

Here is an incontrovertible proof of it :- Samaano mantaha samiti samaanee samaanam vratam saha chittamesham | Samaanena vo havishaa juhomi samaanam ceto abhisamvishadhvam || (Atharva 6.64.2) (Mantraha) may our thoughts and hymns, (samaanaha) be common, (samitihi) may your assembly, (samaani) be common, (vratam) may you austere vow, spiritual resolve, (samaanam) be common, (chittam)may the mind, (esham) of you all, (saha vah)be alike and united, (juhomi vaha) I provide you all, (samaanena havisha) with common food and other needs of life, (abhi sam vishadvam) enter from all sides, merge entirely in, (samaanam cetah) the common consciousness.

A message of equality cannot be more candid, more appealing than that of the message of Vedas. One may be a Brahmin, a kshatriya, a vaishya or a shoodra;that makes no difference. They are all equal and enjoy equal rights, besides commanding equal respect. There is no doubt, ample room for criminal, heinous and bewildering inequality in the caste system; but the varnas are definitely not castes. Whereas castes are supposedly inherited; varnas are invariably acquired by choice. While castes are believed to be based on birth, which is a pure chance; varnas are rationally based on merit, profession and inclination of the individual. According to traditional belief , inter-caste dining and inter-caste marriages are taboo; but varna begins a matter of one’s own choice, of course, with the scientific basis of the cardinal factors as explained above. Thus the question of inter varna marriages does not arise at all. With the object of maintaining complete harmony, mutual attraction and undivided devotion to each other in married life, a man and a woman of like merits professions and inclinations must get married; whether they hail from the same caste or different ones is immaterial. From this stand point, “inter-caste marriage” is a misnomer, because, a man marries only a woman and they both are human beings(by birth). They belong to the same caste, we mean human species. If a man were to marry an animal or a bird, there would be something in it to deserve the name ‘inter-caste-marriage’ and inter-dining is no problem at all, again, in the varna system.

samaani prapaa saha vo annabhaagaha samaane yoktre saha vo yunajmi | samyanco agnim saparyataaraa naabhimivaabhitaha || (Atharva 3.30.6)

O you men,(vaha prapaa) may your water reservoirs, (samaani) be common, (annabhaagaha) may the shares of food, (saha) be enjoyed jointly, congregationally, (yunajmi) I unite, (vaha) you all, (samaane yoktre) under the yoke of a common code of conduct, (saha) with the other, (saparyata) worship, (agnim) the lord of luster, (samyancaha) congregationally, (iva) just as , (aaraaha) the spokes, touch , (naabhim) the hub, (anhitaha) from all round.

Common eating places, common places of worship, common associations are nothing new, they are all as old as the Vedas themselves. It is only the superstitious rigidity of the caste system, that stood in the way of a free and common social life as said in Vedas. Now lets try to grasp the Vedic concept of Varna-vyavastha :

Who are Brahmins ?

The Vedas say : Braahmanaasaha somino vaachamakrata brahma krunvantaha parivatsareenam | Adhvaryavo gharminaha sisvidaanaa aavirbhavanti guhyaa na ke cit || (Rig 7.103.8)

(Sominaha) devoted deeply to God and enjoying his bliss, (adhvaryavaha) absolutely non-violent and engaged in conducting yagnas , (gharminaha) brilliant with the splendor of knowledge and engaged in penace, (sisshvidanaha) sweating with severe discipline, (krunvantaha) propagating, (parivatsareenam brahma)the universal and divine vedic knowledge, (braahmanaasaha) the Brahmins, move about openly, (kechit na guhyaha) though they were hidden before, and, as though, (aavirbhavanti) they now come out with flying colours, after completing their spiritual activities like the deep study of scriptures, concentration, meditation etc. Devotion to God, a pleasant attitude of mind, non-violence, the performance of sacrifices, the light of knowledge, severe penance, the propagation of Vedas through discourses, common accessibility well, these are the characteristics of Brahmins according to the Vedas. Brahmins then, are the intellectuals liberal and unselfish by nature, learned and enlightening with knowledge, steadfast in devotion to God and services to mankind. The so called “caste” into which they are born is of no consequence, if those characteristics are found in them.

Who are Kshatriyas ?

The Vedic concept of a Kshatriya is as follows :

Dhrutavrataha kshatriyaa yajnanishkruto bruhaddivaa adhvaraanaamabhisriyaha| Agnihotaara rutasaapo adruho apo asrujannanu vrutraturye || (Rig 10.66.8) (Dhrutavrataaha) steadfast in abiding by spiritual resolve, (yagnanishkrutaha) purified by noble deeds, (bruhaddivaa) effulgent with profound knowledge of political science, and having, (adhvaraanaamabhishriyaha) the grace and luster of non-violent activities, (agnihotaraha) worshippers of Reffulgent and Omniscient Lord, (rutasaapaha) upholders of truth, justice, righteousness and divine knowledge and (adruhaha) free from malice and treachery, (kshatriyaaha)the kshatriyas, (asrajan)accomplish, (apaha) great deeds, (vrtraturye)by destroying inimical forces that intrude and invade.

Adherence to spiritual resolve, purity of character, erudition in political and administrative science, zeal to promote non-violent activities, undivided and single minded devotion to God, constant endeavour to uphold truth and injustice, righteousness and divine revelation and all comprehensive protection of the subjects at times of peace as well as of war by accomplishing noble deeds- these are the traits that mark out the kshatriyas.

Who are the Vaishyas? Indramaham vanijam codayaami san a aitu pura etaa no astu | Nudannaraatim paripanthinam mrugam sa ishaano dhanadaa astu mahyam || (Atharva 3.15.1)

(Aham) I, (codayaami) inspire, (indram) the affluent, (vanijam) man of commerce, (sah aa etu naha) may he be favourably disposed to us, (astu) may He be, (naha pura etaa) our fore-runner, our guide on the path of prosperity, (nudan) crushing, (araatim) miserliness and , (mrigam pripanthinam) the inimical sense of greed, (ishaanaha) being the master of wealth, (saha astu) may He be, (dhanadaa) the giver of wealth, (mahyam) to me. Thus it is this class of people who gives job and guide others in the job and provide the wealth(salary). SHUDRAS : The Rig Veda says that the Shudras are not a despicable lot. Just because they were incapable of taking to any other work than manual labour they should not be overlooked down upon. They have there own virtues that are praise worthy indeed .

Trudilaa atrudilaaso adrayo ashramanaa ashrathitaa amrutyavaha | Anaaturaa ajaraaha sthaamavishnavaha supeevaso atrushitaa atrushnajaha || (Rig 10.94.11)

(Amavishnavaha) desirous of protection from others, (Trudilaha) bereft of high attachments, (atrudilaasaha) still not detached from the world, (asramanaaha) untiring, (asruthhitaaha) indefatigable, (amrutyavaha) unfrightened by death, (anaaturaaha) unailing, (ajaraah) undebilitated by old age, (supivasaaha) strong and sturdy, (atrushitaaha) free from ambitions[because of which they have failed in studies], (atrushnajaha) free from greed, (adrayaha) rocklike in strength and respectable are the shudras. We need to repeat all these characters of Shudras, if anyone thinks that shudras are considered an inferior species in Vedas. Then, he would do well to cleanse his own mind of his preconceived notions and will read afresh the Divine scriptures, the Vedas. It is on the Shudras selfless and sacrificial service that the whole human society relies, and it is on account of their toils that it makes progress. The word “adrayah” in the above sukta which is interpreted by Yaskacharya as aadaraniyaha i.e respectable, is to be taken note of by those who look down upon shudras as though they belong to some inferior species. In Yajur Veda it is said that the shudra bring real cheer to all other sections in the society.

Tapase Shudram (Yajur Veda 30.5) We have to read this phrase along with either the verb “havaamahe” which is in the third mantra or the verb “aalabhate” which is in the 22nd mantra of this chapter. In the first case, it means “We invite Shudra for hardwork” . In the second case it means “the prajaapati or the ruler appoints the hardworker Shudra to a suitable job.” A shudra is not inferior, not is a vaishya, kshatriya or a Brahmin superior. They all are absolutely equal, serving society, as also themselves according to their capacities and inclinations. The varnas are not water-tight compartments. Different members of the same family may belong to different varnas and yet live under the same roof. There is no segregation of these four classes. The construction of separate colonies of these varnas has led to the degeneration and fallenness of shudras; it has caused their non-contact with and segregation from, the enlightened sections of the society; this, inturn, has resulted in the emergence of another class known as “untouchables”. The Vedas are dead-set against the tearing asunder of the human society on such grounds.

We read in the Rig Veda: kaaruraham tato bhishagupalaprakshini nanaa| naanaadhiyo vasuyavo anu gaa iva tasthimendrayendo parisrava || (Rig 9.112.3)

(Aham kaaruh) I am an industrial worker, (tataha) another of my relatives is (bhishak) a doctor, (nana) my daughter is, (upalaprakaashini) a sculptor, (naanaadhiyaha) we are all desirous of earning wealth, (anu gaah iva tasthima) we stand united, as though one follows the other, (indo) O spiritual moistener! (parisrava) shower thy mercy, (indraaya) on each one of us embodied souls. It is now clear that varna vyavastha is an ideal and rational institution, while the caste system is a hellish bane on humanity. We shall end this article with two Vedic mantras that throw light on the feeling of a follower of Vedic Dharma on this subject :

Rucham no dehi braahmaneshu rucham raajasu naskrudhi | Rucham vishyeshu shudreshu mayi dehi ruche rucham || (Yajur Veda 18.48)

O Lord! (dehi rucham naha) fill us with love, (braahmaneshu) towards Brahmins, (krudhi) awaken, (rucham)love,(naha raajasu) towards kshatriyas,(rucham vishyeshu shudreshu) fill us with love towards vaishyas and Shudras, (dhehi)instill, (rucham mayi) awaken love in me, (rucha) with thy divine love. Priyam maa krunu deveshu priyam raajasu maa krunu | Priyam sarvasya pashyata uta shudra utaarye || (Atharva 19.62.1)

Lord of affection! (maa priyam krunu) endear me, (deveshu) to the intellectual souls, (maa priyam krunu) make me a loved one, (raajasu)amidst the people of martial valour, (priyam) endear me, (sarvasya pashyataha) to all those who can see, (uta shudre uta aarye) among the manual workers and the commercial community. Those who seek truth should remember the etymological sense of the word “Shudraha” – “shu aashu dravati iti shudraha – sucha dravati va”. Thus he who is always swift and active is a shoodra or he who moves with lustre born of unselfishness is a shudra. So, names may change; outward appearances also may change; but the classes given to the intellectuals, martial, mercantile and manual labor have always been there in all the countries; they will always be there in all countries in future too, whether the states are communist or socialist, capitalist or imperialist, theocratic or secular. The Vedic principle are eternal and universal. No nation, no society, no individual can evade them, without detriment to itself, himself or herself.

Bibliography : For those interested in knowing much more about Vedic glory, we request to read Sri Sudhakar Chaturvedi’s book “Grace and Glory of Vedic Dharma”.


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