Gita verses 4.13 and 18.41-47 have been traditionally interpreted in terms of birth into endogamous groups called castes. Swami Vivekananda has provided us with an alternative interpretation many decades ago. However, most Hindus still follow the old caste based interpretation.
Swami Vivekananda has interpreted the Varna of Gita as psychological types more than 100 years ago. However, this view of Varna is not well known among Hindus. I give below Gita’s Varna interpreted according to Swami Vivekananda’s psychological theory of Varna as explained by Swami Tapasyananda.
According to the aptitudes resulting from the dispositions of Nature (gunas) and works (karma), the social order of fourfold division has been created by Me. Though I am their originator, know me to be an agent but the spirit unchanging.
Caturvarnya or the social order of fourfold division is not the caste system, which is a system of social grouping solely based on birth. Brahmana, Ksatriyas, Vaisyas and Sudra, as conceived in the Vedas, is a division based on the natural constitution of man arising from the dominance of Sattva, Rajas, and Tamas, the constituents of nature (Gunas), as also on the duties they are fit to perform according to the aptitudes arising from their constitution. They are mere character types. …………………..
Commentary on Gita 4.13 by Swami Tapasyananda in his English translation of Srimad Bhagavad Gita
O great hero! The duties of Brahmanas, Ksatriyas, Vaisyas and also Sudras have been divided according to the quality born of their own nature.
Serenity, control of the sense, austerity, purity, straight-forwardness, knowledge, insight, and faith in the Supreme Being - these are a Brahman's duties born of his own nature.
Prowess, splendor of personality, unfailing courage, resourcefulness, dauntless in battle, generosity, leadership - these are a Ksatriya's duties born of his specific nature.
Agriculture, cattle-rearing and trade form the duty of the Vaisya springing from his own nature, while the natural duty of a Sudra consists in subordinate service under others.
A great doctrine of the social philosophy of ancient India, regarding the fourfold class system, is here propounded. There has been no doctrine so much misapplied, misunderstood and misrepresented as this doctrine. The four Varnas of Brahmana, Ksatriyas, Vaisyas and Sudras are today and for a long time past, understood as four hereditary castes. But the Varnas, as understood by the best Indian thinkers, are not castes based on birth in particular groups, but character types based on the domination of the Sattvika, Rajasika and Tamasika elements entering into the constitution of their body-mind, and this is determined by their evolution in their past lives. At least such is the Gita view. To have identified character types with endogamous castes is nothing but an aberration. …….
These four character types are universal all the world over and the prosperity of a society will depend on the man of the right nature and character being put to the right type of duty. For the individuals also doing the duty that is natural to his psycho-physical constitution, is the way of higher evolution.
Commentary on Gita 18.41 to 18.44 by Swami Tapasyananda in his English translation of Srimad Bagavad Gita
By being devoted to one's own natural duty, man attains to spiritual competency. Now hear how devotion to one's own natural duty generates spiritual competency.
From whom all beings have emanated and by whom all this universe is pervaded - by worshiping Him through the dedicated performance of one's duty, man attains to spiritual competency.
These two verses (18.45–46) of the Gita link man’s social duties with spiritual disciplines. By cultivating a special attitude towards work, work is turned into worship, and the distance between the shrine room and the work-spot disappears. This philosophy is based upon a fundamental faith that this world and the progress of life in it are all under the guidance of a Supreme Intelligence, who is the master of it all, and whose will is expressed in all its movements. If man has got this faith, man ceases to be self-centered. He comes to view himself as a worker of God, and all that he does comes to be done with a sense of dedication to Him. Such work accrues to one according to one’s nature and is done with a spirit of dedication, is called Svadharma, one’s natural duty. ………
A natural objection to this way of understanding Caturvarnyas is that all commentators understood the four Varnas as endogamous groups called castes and the ‘natural duty’ (Svadharma) of theirs as the profession that was traditionally and scripturally alloted to those groups under the four distinctive names. Such interpretations of the Gita were given at a time when these endogamous groups were a recognised feature of Indian society, and thinkers considered birth in a group as tantamount to character type. The mistake of such identification was obvious to many thinkers of the past. So many of them have made amends by admitting that if great disparity in quality is found in the actual quality of a Ksatriya with the traditionally ascribed qualities, he can become a Brahmana. But all rationality seems to have been neutralised by the very strong prejudice in favour of endogamy.
But what the Lord speaks of here as Caturvarnya should never be identified with castes, because the Varna is said to be solely dependent on character formed by the Gunas of Prakriti. It is only an ideal grouping based on psycological principle and not on rigid hereditary basis.
Besides the Gita is a universal Gospel addressed to all mankind, for all time, and not merely to the Indian society of a particular age. In no part of the world except in India, caste system strictly based on birth seems to have existed. Loose classes there have been, but no rigid castes with unchangeable duties and occupations ………. So the old commentators have done great injustice to Sri Krshna in watering down the significance of his message as relevant only to members of the rigid Indian social system.,,,,
Commentary on Gita 18.45–46 by Swami Tapasyananda in his English translation of Srimad Bhagavad Gita.
One's own duty, even if without excellence (i.e. inferior in the scale of worldly values)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.
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.