The Truth about Caste

  • Article seeks to remove the misconception that Caste is sanctioned by Hinduism and its scriptures. The author, an Indian American, has an interesting approach.

Humans carry many identities-a few common ones include nationality, ethnicity, gender, language, and occupation. For most Hindus, this list includes caste. Caste plays a relatively small (if any) role in day-to-day life; however, in India, caste often has important implications esp. during elections. 


The word caste is derived from the Portuguese/Spanish word casta, which means “lineage”. When this word was introduced to the Indian lexicon, Sanskrit already contained a word with the same meaning (गोत्रं, gotram). Unfortunately, like many aspects of Indian society, the native element was largely forgotten in favor of the foreign.


Similiarly the Indic word for “caste” (जाति, jaati) was distorted and misrepresented. For example, Lord Hanuman & King Sugriv belonged to the वानर जाति (vaanar jaati, the race of part-human/part-ape), Ravan and Vibhishan belonged to the राक्षस जाति (raakshas jaati, the race of demons/asuras), and Lord Ram & Ma Sita belonged to the मानव जाति (maanav jaati, the race of humans).


Contrary to popular belief, the four “castes” in contemporary Indian society (Brahmins, Kshatriyas, Vaishyas, and Shudras) were neither “races” nor “lineages”. The Sanskrit word to describe these four categories is वर्ण (varn), the meaning of which is “classification” (similar to the Hindi word वर्ग, varg, which means “category” or “classification”). Thus, unlike the word “caste”, the original Sanskrit word had no relation to either race or lineage.


The single most common misconception about Hinduism is that caste is part of the Hindu religion.


In ancient India, varnas pertained to society, not religion. In order to understand the difference between society and religion, consider the following: Lord Ram had 1 wife (monogamy), whereas Lord Krishna had numerous wives (polygamy). Does this mean that one was “correct” and the other was “incorrect”? Does this mean that there is a contradiction in Hinduism about espousing monogamy versus polygamy? The answer is simply that monogamy or polygamy was an element of society during that particular time period, and not connected with religion. An analogous situation exists with caste.


The need for a division of labor in any society is self-evident. Every society needs religious direction (Brahmins),  warriors/security/administration (Kshatriyas), businessmen (Vaishyas), and construction/logistics (Shudras). This is largely no different from Western society, which has its own varnas: priests (Brahmins), military/government personnel (Kshatriyas), CEOs & small business owners (Vaishyas), and construction workers (Shudras). 


In Vedic times, there was social mobility and each varna complemented each other nicely–Brahmins had the highest morality, Kshatriyas offered the strongest leadership, Vaishyas were the most wealthy, and Shudras experienced the most wordly enjoyment. All four are emblematic and representative of the four goals of every life- धर्म (dharm, duty – Kshatriya), अर्थ (arth, wealth – Vaishya), काम (kaam, desires – Shudra), and मोक्ष (moksh, liberation - Brahmin).


Despite the information discussed until this point, many people may still assert that they belong to a particular caste. If so, consider the following simple question: does the soul have a caste too, or is it just limited to the body? Undoubtedly, caste is a property of the body and not the soul.


A fundamental tenet of Hinduism is that the body is not real because it experiences birth and death, therefore described as transient (in Sanskrit, अनित्यं, anityam). However, the soul is real because it is never born nor dies, therefore described as everlasting (in Sanskrit, नित्यं, nityam). Because caste is a characteristic of the body and not the soul, it can never be real.


Caste is just as fleeting as the body because caste perishes when the body perishes. Therefore, the people who believe that they belong to a particular caste simply cannot tell the difference between the real and the unreal-if they believe that caste is real, they probably also erroneously believe that the body is real as well.


There is a great deal of ignorance regarding Hinduism. Without reading the scriptures, it is virtually impossible to ascertain the facts about caste and Hinduism. The truth is clearly explained in many holy books.


The first known scripture in humanly existence is the Rig Ved. The concept of varnas are not mentioned even once in the original Rig Ved. The only instance it occurs is in the 90th verse of the final (tenth) book, also known as the Purusha Suktam, which states “ब्राह्मणोऽस्य मुखमासीद् बाहू राजन्यः कृतः। ऊरू तदस्य यद्वैश्यः पद्भ्या शूद्रो अजायत (Brahmanosya mukhamaaseed baahu raajanyah kritah | Ooroo tadasya yadvaishyah padbhya shudro ajayata)”


The verse pertains to the Creator of the Universe (referred to as the Purusha), and the verse mentions that Brahmins originated from the Creator’s mouth (face), Raajans (Kshatriyas) from the Creator’s arms, Vaishyas from the Creator’s thighs, and Shudras from the Creator’s feet. The interpretation of this verse is that all varnas originate from God. Although proponents of caste misinterpret this to mean that Brahmins are most superior because they originate from the mouth of God, this is very short-sighted because no part of the Supreme that are “less” or “more” holy than others (similiar to the medical notion that all parts of the body are essential). 


Further, it should be noted that the tenth book of the Rig Ved was a later addition to the original Rig Ved (which only consists of Books 2-7, and potentially 8-9 as well). This is evident because three verses prior to the cited verse above makes reference to the Saam Ved and the Yajur Ved, which obviously did not exist at the time of the original Rig Ved.


Another clear example comes from the Skanda Puraan (Volume 18, Book 6, Nagar Kaand, Chapter 239, Verse 31), which states “जन्मना जायते शूद्रः संस्कारात् द्विज उच्यते (Janmanaa jaayate shudrah sanskaaraat dvija uchyate)”


This means that “at birth, [one] is a Shudra; through various sanskaars (in this context, referring to one’s actions or thoughts) can one elevate to becoming a “twice-born” (denoting a “spiritual rebirth” as a Brahmin, Kshatriya, or Vaishya). Taken together, this verse clearly supports the Hindu viewpoint that one’s varna is determined by one’s nature and actions.


In the Mahabharat, there is a relatively famous story pertaining to the time when the Pandavas were in exile in the forest. The Pandavas were chasing a deer that had stolen a sage’s equipment to start a fire for a Vedic ritual. Yudhisthir became tired and thirsty and asked his brother Nakul to obtain water for him. Nakul went to a lake that was inhabited by a race of celestial beings known as a यक्ष (Yaksha), who warned that Nakul would die if he took the water without answering the Yaksha’s questions. Nakul ignored the warning and died. The same then happened sequentially with the remainder of the brothers until Yudhisthir himself came to the lake, only to find the dead bodies of all his brothers. He agreed to answer the Yaksha’s questions.


In this exchange (located in the Aranya Parv, section 311 of Book 3, also known as the Vaan Parv), Yudhisthir states that characteristics of Brahmins include studying the Vedas, penance, and absence of insulting others. Characteristics of Kshatriyas include expertise with weapons, celebration of sacrifices, and protecting Dharma. More importantly, Yudhisthir explicitly mentions that one does not become a Brahmin by birth, study, or learning – the only factor is behavior. He goes on to state that even knowing the 4 Vedas is meaningless if one does not keep proper conduct and one’s senses under control. This illuminative dialogue from the Mahabharat is consistent with the excerpt from the Skanda Puraan above, and additionally supports the viewpoint in the Shrimad Bhagvatam and other scriptures that in today’s age those who deserve to be called Brahmins are rarely found.


In the Bhagavad Gita, Lord Krishna further provides a direct explanation of how the varnas are not dependent on birth, but rather by one’s nature, qualities, and actions. Verse 13 of Chapter 4 states “चातुर्वर्ण्यं मया सृष्टं गुणकर्मविभागशः (chaaturvarnyam mayaa srishtam gunakarmavibhaagashah)” meaning that the 4 varnas were created by God and are divided according to gunas (qualities and traits) and karma (one’s actions). This is again mentioned in Verse 41 of Chapter 18: “ब्राह्मणक्षत्रियविशां शूद्राणां च परन्तप। कर्माणि प्रविभक्तानि स्वभावप्रभवैर्गुणै: (brahmanakshatriyavishaam shudraanaam cha parantapa | karmaani pravibhaktaani svabhaavaprabhavairgunaih)” which translates to “Brahmins, Kshatriyas, Vaishyas, and Shudras, Arjun, are categorized based on स्वभाव (svabhaav, one’s inherent nature) and gunas.


The three gunas are satva (purity), rajas (passion and attachment) and tamas (ignorance). These three Gunas are present in every human in different proportions, and determine the Varna of every person. Accordingly, depending on one’s Guna and Karma, every individual is free to select his own Varna.


Note that a number of ancient Hindu rishis belonged to the so-called lower castes. Valmiki, author of the Ramayana, was a low-caste robber. Vyasa, author of the Mahabharat, was the son of Satyawati, the daughter of a fisherman and a wandering sage. Tiruvalluvar, the Tamil poet-saint, was a weaver by caste. Tirupann, the Alvar saint was panar, an untouchable caste, Sant Tukaram of Maharashtra was a low-caste (shudra) peasant. Ramananda, the Vaishnava saint of North India, taught the fundamentals of Bhakti to Ravidasa, a cobbler.

As if all of the above scriptural evidence is not enough, the vast majority of Hindus do not even know that Hinduism has a whole Upanishad dedicated to describing the classification of the 4 varnas–the वज्रसूची उपनिषद् (Vajrasoochi Upanishad).


This text only comprises a single chapter and the name refers to a needlelike (soochi) hard weapon (vajra) that destroys ignorance (the ignorance that is reflected upon the people who do not know the facts about caste). The text begins by positing that there are 4 varnas. It then asks a series of rhetorical questions regarding who is a Brahmin. It states that the soul is not a Brahmin, because the same soul is present in various births of various varnas. It then confirms that the body is not a Brahmin, because every person’s body, regardless of varna, is made from the same elements. It then mentions that jaati does not influence being a Brahmin, citing the example that many holy sages have been born of various races and lineages (see above). It then asks if knowledge, actions, or dharm are specific to being a Brahmin, but none is a reliable marker of being a Brahmin (this does not contradict the Gita because both scriptures acknowledge that a multitude of factors contribute to being a Brahmin). To read Vajrasoochi Upanishad 


According to the Vajrasoochi Upanishad, the only factor most specific or indicative of a Brahmin is “यः कश्चिदात्मानमद्वितीयं जातिगुणक्रियाहीनं (yah kaschidaatmaanamadvitiyam jaatigunakriyaheenam)”, or Realization of the Self (aatmaa), and that which lacks jaati, guna, and kriya (actions).


For those unfamiliar with Vedanta philosophy, the Self and The One refer to the formless, shapeless God, which is the only single entity in existence (“first”, without any other “second”). This verse is followed by a brief mention of other listed qualities of a Brahmin (e.g. lack of desire for worldly objects/passions, lack of pride/egoism, free of emotions, etc).


This verse is one of the most important in the Vajrasoochi Upanishad because of its main message: a true Brahmin fully understands that he/she is not a Brahmin. Why? True Brahmins understand that they do not exist – they know that only God exists, and God has no jaati, guna, and kriya because God simply is.


The deep wisdom of core Hindu philosophy is hence a very far cry from the modern day (Kali Yug), wherein the vast majority of people are very eager to call themselves Brahmins or any other caste.


Although the above examples from a variety of Hindu scriptures do not represent an exhaustive list, it is also important to examine the aspects of caste/varnas that Hindu scripture does not mention.


Explicitly stated, the word दलित (dalit, popularly referred to as “untouchables” who are supposedly excluded from the four varnas), does not appear even once in any Hindu scripture. Just like the words ‘South Asia’ came into prominence in the 1970’s so did not the word Dalit come into prominence since the 1990s. There are national commissions for the scheduled castes and backward classes but nowhere is the word Dalit used. Also read History of word Dalit Despite this, the word Dalit is used a myriad times in modern media. If only they read Hindu scriptures! 

In summary, it is clear that human society has fallen from Vedic times. Change in society is a result of external and internal events. Freedom-fighter Kulapati K M Munshi wrote in foreword to volume 4 of The History and Culture of Indian People, “Vast social and cultural changes followed the Huns invasion. Varnasrama-dharma, instead of being a social organization of the higher three castes became rigid. Inter-caste marriages came to be looked upon with disfavour. Instead of being associated with the masses at its natural leaders, Brahmanas and Kshatriyas became dominant minorities.”


As correctly stated by scriptures such as the Shrimad Bhagvatam, the main hallmark of the fall of humankind in Kali Yug has been an exponential rise in ignorance (in Sanskrit, अविद्या (avidyaa) or अज्ञान (agyaan or ajnaan)). This ignorance has clearly manifested with regard to caste, despite the presence of overwhelming evidence from Hindu scripture. 


A fundamental characteristic of ignorance is the lack of regard for the Truth. Many remain supremely ignorant because they refuse to heed the Hindu Scriptural Truth regarding their caste. They ignore the Truth, scriptures, and Hinduism itself in order to pacify the ego (in Sanskrit, अहंकार (ahamkaar)).


Author Vivek Verma, MD, was born and raised in Pittsburgh, PA, USA, where he resides. He is a part-time radiation oncologist and full-time Hindu.


Also read

1. When caste was not a bad word

2. Impact of Census 1881 by Dharampalji

3. Vedas and other scriptures on Caste

4. Why we cannot be so one-dimensional on caste

5. Caste as social capital

6. Caste in Sikhs

7. Shivaji’s Karmas matter not caste

8. Caste is a socio political institution  

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