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Caste and Karma

Part 36 of the Bhagavad Gita for Awakening

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Action–karma–is the basis of our continuing existence within the realm of relativity, even though our essential nature, the Self (Atman), transcends all relative modes of being. In other words, it is action that binds us. Fortunately, action can also free us, so Krishna is explaining to us all about action, its nature, purpose, and effects.

The word karma is derived from the Sanskrit root kri, which means to act, do, or make. Karma is any kind of action, including thought and feeling. It also means the effects of action. Karma is both action and reaction, the metaphysical equivalent of the principle: “For every action there is an equal and opposite reaction.” Saint Paul expressed it perfectly when he wrote: “Whatsoever a man soweth, that shall he also reap” (Galatians 6:7). It is karma operating through the law of cause and effect that binds the jiva or the individual soul to the wheel of birth and death.

Karma is both the cause and the effect of our evolution and of our duty (swadharma), which includes caste in its metaphysical sense.

Caste “ism” and caste “system”

Before looking at the next verse which is about caste, we should consider what Krishna is not at all speaking about, even though for centuries–if not millennia–it is assumed in India that he is.

First, he is not at all speaking of a rigid, imposed system of social stratification where people are assigned a place in society simply because their parents occupied that place. In actuality, birth is not a determining factor in caste, although it can sometimes reflect it. Second, he is not speaking of valuing a person according to his imposed caste position or birth. Caste “ism” and the caste “system” have no place in Krishna’s teaching, but are a corruption of caste based on ignorance, oppression, and egotism. The early scriptures of Hinduism bear this out, speaking of people’s caste being determined by their character, and even telling of those who moved from one caste to another in a single life because of their personal development. For example, the philosopher-king Janaka, a kshatriya, in time was recognized as a brahmin.


Although he will be expounding the subject of caste and caste-duty in the final chapter of the Gita, Krishna briefly introduces it, saying:

The fourfold caste was created by me, based on guna and on karma (4:13a).

The word translated “caste” is varna–color. Krishna says: Chaturvarnyam maya srishtam–“The four castes [colors] were created [brought forth] by me.” Krishna is saying that the Supreme Spirit has brought forth into manifestation human beings of a fourfold kind. And this Supreme Lord has not “created” human beings as four types, but has manifested them guna karma vibhagashah–“according to the sharing of their guna and karma.” That is, all human beings fall into four very broad categories according to the evolutionary level of their development: according to the quality (guna) of the energies of which their subtle and gross bodies are formed, and according to the karmas which they have been born to fulfill. The “color” of each caste is either symbolic or a matter of the dominant color that can be clairvoyantly perceived in their aura. In either case, our caste is determined solely by the innate vibratory qualities present within us. No one assigns us a caste, though others may be able to perceive it, perhaps better than we do.

It is essential to grasp the fundamental fact that caste has absolutely nothing to do with a person’s livelihood, though caste will certainly influence what we will gravitate to as our profession. Consequently, the general and natural situation was for shudras to be the servant class–those who assisted the three other castes in their respective functions; vaishyas to be the artisan/merchant class (which included agriculture); kshatriyas to be the warrior/ruling class (which included law enforcement); and brahmins to be the teaching/priestly class (this included the making of laws and magisterial duties).

All castes had their function that was essential to society. All were respected for their skills and for the benefits they provided for all in common. It is extremely necessary for us to see that the shudras were not half slaves at the bottom of society in mere servitude. Certainly some were in domestic service, but many–if not most–were found at the side of the other classes to help them in their work.

The idea of outcastes who would be relegated to the work everyone else was considered too superior to do, was absolutely unknown. The only “outcastes” practically speaking were criminals doing voluntary penance outside the context of normal society, and they would be reinstated once their penance had been completed. The outcastes of today are the descendants of incorrigibles who refused to observe the penances (not punishments) imposed on them by the brahmin judges and instead took to a wild and wandering life that often included crime.

In modern times certain very traditional institutions such as the Arya Samaj provide the means for these people to be reinstated into normal Hindu society if they desire. (Most do not–so it is their choice to remain in degradation.) In the last century Pandit Anandapriya of the Arya Samaj enabled over half a million of these and other estranged groups to return to traditional Hinduism. Vishwanath Brahmachari of Bombay (Galgoan) also returned many “no-castes” to Hinduism by giving them a caste status based on guna and karma. Like the Arya Samaj, he also enabled many non-Indians to also adopt Sanatana Dharma in the fullest traditional manner, assigning them a caste, as well.

Color (varna)

So what are the “colors” of the four castes? There may be more than one answer to this, however in the dharma (or grihya) sutras, ancient texts dealing with the gurukula, the place where Indians were originally educated, we find colors assigned to the clothing of the four castes. (Notice that all four castes were going to attend the school, not just some “higher” castes.) White was the color of shudras; yellow the color of vaishyas; red the color of kshatriyas, and orange the color of brahmins.

White is actually not a color, but all colors combined. This would be appropriate for shudras, since they were involved in the duties of all the castes. It also expresses their social fluidity, for originally the shudras were the most frequently transferred into other castes.

Yellow is the auric color of intelligence and initiative–an essential trait for agriculturalists, artisans, merchants, and those that comprise the vaishya caste.

Red is the color of dynamic power, discipline and assertiveness, so it naturally fits the kshatriyas.

Orange (gerua) is a combination of yellow and red, for brahmins must have the mental acumen and vigorous personal energies of the vaishyas and kshatriyas combined with a dominant spiritual consciousness. Fire is the essence of the original sacred rites of India, so its orange color represents spiritual consciousness and its transmuting powers.

It is interesting that all four colors are to be found in levels of the Indian monastic life. The standard color of full sannyas is appropriately orange, for it is the color of the crematory fire in which the earthly body is consumed, and the sannyasi’s aim is to reduce to ashes all that is earthly within himself by means of the fire of spiritual realization.

The gurukula

In primeval Indian society, the male children were sent at an early age to live in a gurukula, the home of a teacher, until reaching adulthood. The vastly comprehensive education in a gurukula could last from fifteen to twenty years. At the end of his education, the young man returned to his parents, was married, and established his own household. By that time it was necessary that his caste be known so he could fulfill his caste duties. The gurukula was the place where his caste was determined by careful observation on the part of one or more teachers. Only after careful analysis of his personality was his caste determined.

Although there are many progressive educational institutions in India that are based on a spiritual viewpoint, it was only in the schools of Swami (later Paramhansa) Yogananda Giri that the ancient gurukula system was revived in its fullness. Yogananda drew up a Psychological Chart for the use of the teachers in his schools. Through the years each student was observed by those teachers and was finally classified according to his guna and karma, just as it had been done thousands of years before. This was something absolutely extraordinary and revolutionary, and even today is hardly recognized for what it is (was). If he had not come to America, who can say what modern Hinduism might have become through Yogananda’s influence.

Personal meaning

For us living in the West in the twenty-first century, caste has meaning for us since knowing the character of our guna and karma is part of the knowledge that can lead to Self-knowledge. Although it may be a purely personal matter, it is good for us to know what our caste is, and live our lives accordingly.

In reality, each one of us is a kingdom, a “nation” to ourselves, and all four castes can be found within our psychological makeup. There are times when we must be shudras, others when we must be vaishyas, and so on. When there is “caste mixture”–that is, when in one aspect of our life we live according to a manner inappropriate to it–great harm can result. For example, in religion we must not be vaishyas, turning it into a business, nor must we be kshatriyas, trying to use it to coerce others to accept our spiritual ideas. Instead we must be brahmins–simple and self-contained, oriented only toward our spiritual development, making our religion truly a matter of consciousness, free from materiality. On the other hand, in practical (including economic) matters we must not be materially indifferent brahmins or aggressive kshatriyas, but worthy vaishyas. When considering principles of personal conduct or dealing with negativity, we must be valiant kshatriyas, giving no thought to economic gain or loss, or conciliatory compromises.

The subject of caste merits our attention and application as sadhakas. For caste duty is more than social, it is the way to hasten and facilitate our endeavors in personal evolution.

Read the next article in the Bhagavad Gita for Awakening: Action–Divine and Human

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Introduction to The Bhagavad Gita for Awakening

Preface to The Bhagavad Gita for Awakening

Bhagavad Gita for Awakening links:

  1. The Battlefield of the Mind
  2. On the Field of Dharma
  3. Taking Stock
  4. The Smile of Krishna
  5. Birth and Death–The Great Illusions
  6. Experiencing the Unreal
  7. The Unreal and the Real
  8. The Body and the Spirit
  9. Know the Atman!
  10. Practical Self-Knowledge
  11. Perspective on Birth and Death
  12. The Wonder of the Atman
  13. The Indestructible Self
  14. “Happy the Warrior”
  15. Buddhi Yoga
  16. Religiosity Versus Religion
  17. Perspective on Scriptures
  18. How Not To Act
  19. How To Act
  20. Right Perspective
  21. Wisdom About the Wise
  22. Wisdom About Both the Foolish and the Wise
  23. The Way of Peace
  24. Calming the Storm
  25. First Steps in Karma Yoga
  26. From the Beginning to the End
  27. The Real “Doers”
  28. Our Spiritual Marching Orders
  29. Freedom From Karma
  30. “Nature”
  31. Swadharma
  32. In the Grip of the Monster
  33. Devotee and Friend
  34. The Eternal Being
  35. The Path
  36. Caste and Karma
  37. Action–Divine and Human
  38. The Mystery of Action and Inaction
  39. The Wise in Action
  40. Sacrificial Offerings
  41. The Worship of Brahman
  42. Action–Renounced and Performed
  43. Freedom (Moksha)
  44. The Brahman-Knower
  45. The Goal of Karma Yoga
  46. Getting There
  47. The Yogi’s Retreat
  48. The Yogi’s Inner and Outer Life
  49. Union With Brahman
  50. The Yogi’s Future
  51. Success in Yoga
  52. The Net and Its Weaver
  53. Those Who Seek God
  54. Those Who Worship God and the Gods
  55. The Veil in the Mind
  56. The Big Picture
  57. The Sure Way To Realize God
  58. Day, Night, and the Two Paths
  59. The Supreme Knowledge
  60. Universal Being
  61. Maya–Its Dupes and Its Knowers
  62. Worshipping the One
  63. Going To God
  64. Wisdom and Knowing
  65. Going To The Source
  66. From Hearing To Seeing
  67. The Wisdom of Devotion
  68. Right Conduct
  69. The Field and Its Knower
  70. Interaction of Purusha and Prakriti
  71. Seeing the One Within the All
  72. The Three Gunas
  73. The Cosmic Tree
  74. Freedom
  75. The All-pervading Reality
  76. The Divine and the Demonic
  77. Faith and the Three Gunas
  78. Food and the Three Gunas
  79. Religion and the Three Gunas
  80. Tapasya and the Three Gunas
  81. Charity and the Three Gunas
  82. Sannyasa and Tyaga
  83. Deeper Insights On Action
  84. Knowledge, Action, Doer, and the Three Gunas
  85. The Three Gunas: Intellect and Firmness
  86. The Three Kinds of Happiness
  87. Freedom
  88. The Great Devotee
  89. The Final Words
  90. Glossary

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Read the Maharshi Gita, an arrangement of verses of the Bhagavad Gita made by Sri Ramana Maharshi that gives an overview of the essential message of the Gita.

Read The Bhagavad Gita (arranged in verses for singing) by Swami Nirmalananda Giri (Abbot George Burke).

Read about the meanings of unfamiliar terms in A Brief Sanskrit Glossary

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