I usually tend to accept most of the teachings of Gita pretty easily. However, I can not easily digest the verse 18.47:

It is better to engage in one's own occupation, even though one may perform it imperfectly, than accept another's occupation and perform it perfectly. Duties prescribed according to one's nature are never affected by sinful reactions.

—Bhagavad Gita As It Is, by founder of ISKCON Acharya

It is a common belief that nepotism and similar practices lead to the lowering of efficiency and are not ideal for Darwinism—and by extension capitalism, which is by far the most successful socio-economic model we have devised as a species. The best example can be given by the Indian political situation itself. If Modi were not as good as Rahul in public relations and politics, he would not have been elected. But, had the system directly prevented Modi from participating in politics, the "fitter"—and thus arguably more competent—victor would not have been able to rule. The varna system gives a considerable disadvantage to the society practicing it because of its inherent talent waste.

I have not read (nor do I understand) the Sanskrit version of Gita. I have only read the above English version. My questions is whether any of the following situations are possible:

  1. The English translation is extreme and conveys a false/misleading meaning.
  2. My interpretations of the verses are wrong.
  3. Lord Krishna said this for that time, place and circumstance.

Otherwise, can you provide an explanation for why Lord Krishna said something that directly harms his followers and a "dharmic" society?

  • This is something always misunderstood by people. The Varna system was not meant for dividing people. It's more about running a society properly. One is open to choose one varna. Its not like one is bounded. Also the meaning of shloka you mentioned, its correct if you see the way you should see. It means if you choose your varna as Kshatriya , you must continue fighting for good. – TheLittleNaruto Apr 1 '18 at 8:04
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    When in doubt about translation, always first try to find a neutral translation of each shloka, by reading how various different sects translate it, and then make up your mind . Best way to do it is goto gitasupersite.iitk.ac.in/srimad – zaxebo1 Apr 1 '18 at 8:05
  • Related: Communism and class hierarchy – iammilind Apr 1 '18 at 11:06
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    This is undoubtedly a very shrewd question. The old caste based interpretation of the Gita cannot simply be reconciled with the realities of the modern world. – Pradip Gangopadhyay Apr 6 '18 at 13:02
  • "capitalism, which is by far the most successful socio-economic model we have devised" This is highly debatable depending on one's definition for "successful." – Rubellite Yakṣī May 6 '18 at 19:09

(Disclaimer: There is no caste system in Gita and Varna was not birth based originally)

Let us first see the shloka:

श्रेयान्स्वधर्मो विगुणः परधर्मात्स्वनुष्ठितात्।
स्वभावनियतं कर्म कुर्वन्नाप्नोति किल्बिषम्।।18.47।।

observation1: It does not even mention 'Varna" as word. It mentions "swadharma" and "par-dharma"

See various translations of it at Gita Supersite

English Translation By Swami Adidevananda

18.47 Better is one's own duty, though ill done, than the duty of another, though well-performed৷৷৷৷৷৷ When one does the duty ordained by his own nature, he incurs no stain.

English Translation by Swami Gambhirananda

18.47 One's own duty, (though) defective, is superior to another's duty well performed. By performing a duty as dictated by one's own nature, one does not incur sin.

English Translation by Swami Sivananda

18.47 Better is one's own duty (though) destitute of merits, than the duty of another well performed. He who does the duty ordained by his own nature incurs no sin.

English Translation Of Sri Shankaracharya's Sanskrit Commentary by Swami Gambhirananda

18.47 Svadharmah, one's own duty; though vigunah, defective-the word though has to be supplied-; is sreyan, superior to, more praiseworthy than; paradharmat, another's duty; su-anusthitat, well performed. Kurvan, by performing; karma, a duty; svabhavaniyatam, as dictated by one's own nature-this phrase means the same as svabhavajam (born from Nature) which has been stated earlier-; na apnoti, one does not incur; kilbisam, sin. As poison is not harmful to a worm born it it, so one does not incur sin by performing a duty dictated by one's own nature. It has been siad that, as in the case of a worm born in poison, a person does not incur sin while performing his duties which have been dictated by his own nature; and that someone else's duty is fraught with fear; also that, one who does not have the knoweldge of the Self, (he) surely cannot remain even for a moment without doing work (cf. 3.5).

English Translation of Ramanujacharya's Sanskrit Commentary by Swami Adidevananda

18.47 One's proper Dharma is that which is suitable for performance by oneself, in the form of worshipping Myself, relinishing agency etc., as has been taught. For, Karma Yoga, consisting in the activities of sense organs, is easy to perform by one in association with Prakrti. Thus, Karma Yoga, even if it is defective in some respects, is better than the Dharma of another, i.e., than Jnana-yoga, even for a person capable of controlling his senses, which is an attainment liable to negligence, because it consists of control over all sense-organs; for, though this may be well performed occasionaly, one is always liable to deflection from it. He explains the same: As Karma consists of the activities of the sense-organs, it is ordained by Nature for one who is conjoined with Prakrti, i.e., the body. So by performing Karma Yoga one does not incur any stain. But Jnana Yoga is liable to negligence, because it reires the control of the senses from the very beginning for its performance. One intent on it is likely to incur stain from negligence. [Thus we are reminded about what was mentioned in the third chapter - that Karma Yoga alone is greater.]

English Translation By By Dr. S. Sankaranarayan

18.47. Better is one's own prescribed duties, [born of one's nature, even though] it is devoid of ability, than another's duty well executed; the doer of duty, dependent on (or prescribed according to) one's own nature, does not incur sin.

English Translation by Shri Purohit Swami

18.47 It is better to do one's own duty, however defective it may be, than to follow the duty of another, however well one may perform it He who does his duty as his own nature reveals it, never sins.

You may get Hindi translation from the same url too.

CONCLUSION : None of the English/Hindi translation "from so many acharyas" of different panthas/different sects, yet none of them has mentioned "varna"/caste" in this shloka. All of them mention about "Swadharma"(own duties). Now a non-alert translator can see caste/varna/discrimination embedded in the verses, where there is not even an inkling of it.

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The Gita verse in question is given below.

One's own duty, even if without excellence, is more meritorious spiritually than the apparently well-performed duty of another. For, no sin is incurred by one doing works ordained according to one's nature.

Gita 18.47

This verse was interpreted by old commentators as jobs ascribed to particular castes. This verse is interpreted differently by those who follow Vivekananda's psychological explanation of Varna.

These verses, which were easy for our ancients to understand, pose great difficulty for us today. So long as Varna was identified with the endogamous caste, and valid texts ascribed particular works to each caste it was easy to find out one's Svadharma, and if one had a will, to perform it too. That a priest's son should be a priest, a soldier's son a soldier, a merchant's son a merchant, an agriculturist's son an agriculturist, a serf's son a serf - is an arrangement that could be practised to some extent in the old feudal society when educational opportunities were restricted, when there was no choice in following professions, when social contacts were limited, and when the validity of the system was accepted by the people in general. But today such an idea of Svadharma hereditarily determined, is impossible of practice. Society and professions have become competitive. The imparting of education without any restriction imposed by caste, has helped the shuffling of professional abilities among all members of society, setting aside hereditary factors. So it has become honourable for any one to follow any profession, and the determination of Svadharma based on birth as in a caste based economy, has become impractical and impossible, and also undesirable. In a democratic society, the same kind of education is open to all, and every one is eligible, according to one's qualification and capacity, to positions of power, prestige and high income. In these days of national armies every able-bodied citizen has the eligibility to be recruited - he may even be conscripted - in the armed forces of the country. In such a milieu, if the Gita idea of Svadharma is accepted as caste based, as it was understood a few generations back, and as it used to be interpreted by old commentators, then it has become thoroughly outmoded and will be rejected by every section of society in India and outside.

But as already pointed out, the wording of the Gita about Caturvarnya, except as interpreted by old commentators, does not mean endogamous castes, but the four psychological types. If this is accepted, Svadharma would mean only work that springs out of one's own nature and therefore adapted to one's natural development. But how to recognise these types and how to provide them with work suited to their nature - is a problem that cannot be solved. We have to leave work based on psychological type as an ideal arrangement in a more rationally organised society of the future. There is no other way today but to understand Svadharma as the duty devolving on oneself in society, inclusive of the profession one follows. If that is done well with God in view, and not merely for remuneration or with a worldly master in view, then one may be said to follow Svadharma.

Commentary on Gita 18.47 by Swami Tapasyananda in his English translation of Srimad Bhagavad Gita.

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  • 1
    So basically, verses like 18.47 have no use for and are actually cause for major confusion in the current times? – sv. Apr 6 '18 at 16:11
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    You can probably post the same answer here (How can one know their dharma?) – sv. Apr 6 '18 at 17:06
  • I have posted the same answer in 'How can one know their dharma?. – Pradip Gangopadhyay Apr 7 '18 at 12:54

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