9

Does the Bhagavad Gita declare that caste is based on birth?

If so, which verses from the Gita declare that caste is based on birth?

What do ancient, Vedantic commentators say?

12
  • 2
    No, it says caste-system is based on guna
    – Lakhi
    Sep 20, 2019 at 16:22
  • 4
    @Lakhi Yes, based on the gunas of the body, which are genetically passed down from the parents after millennia of same-caste breeding.
    – Ikshvaku
    Sep 20, 2019 at 16:46
  • 3
    @Lakhi The shastras say that they did tapas to supernaturally modify the genetic code to create different species through siddhis. Kashyapa, etc are progenitors (prajapatis), they aren't even human, they just have a humanoid form.
    – Ikshvaku
    Sep 20, 2019 at 16:57
  • 3
    Also, Ṛṣabhadeva and Jayantī had 100 sons, 19 became Kashtriyas and 81 Brahmanas. If it is birth based, then how??
    – Lakhi
    Sep 20, 2019 at 16:58
  • 3
    @Lakhi Verses like that, where it's said "they become like Brahmanas", are intended to shower praise and assert that they are to be respected like Brahmanas. There are opposite verses that say "He should be treated like a Shudra", for the dvijas who don't follow their dharma. But the caste doesn't actually change since caste is based on body composition. This was explained by Vedanta Desikan. The reason for this interpretation is because if it meant caste actually changes, then it would conflict with other verses.
    – Ikshvaku
    Sep 20, 2019 at 17:17

3 Answers 3

4

It is Arjuna who worries about varna shankara. Krishna ignores Arjuna's remark. Instead he talks of Varna being based on karma and guna.

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 not to be an agent but the spirit unchanging.

Gita 4.13

The question is whether Gita 4.13 can be interpreted as birth-based caste. The answer is that the karma and Guna of one's previous life certainly influences one's varna in this life. One cannot, however, identify a person's varna simply from the jati or community he is born in. This has been pointed out by Yudhisthira in Mahabharata.

Yudhisthira said, " In human society, O mighty and highly intelligent serpent, it is difficult to ascertain one's caste, because of promiscuous intercourse among the four orders. This is my opinion. Men belonging to all orders (promiscuously) begat offspring upon women of all the orders. And of men, speech, sexual intercourse, birth and death are common. And to this the Rishis have borne testimony by using as the beginning of a sacrifice such expressions as -- of what caste server may be, we celebrate the sacrifice. Therefore, those that are wise have asserted that Character is the chief essential requisite. ...Whatsoever now conforms to the rules of pure and virtuous conduct, him have I, ere now, designated as a Brahmana."

Mahabharata Aranya Parva CLXXIX

People who don't agree with the above sentiment usually object to it by claiming that rituals like upanayana will lose their validity if hereditary varna is given up. Upanyana like rituals should be opened up to all people who learn the Vedas and not be restricted to members of certain endogamous groups.

6
  • 5
    above opinion, (that vedas should be open to all) is a non-mainstream view held by arya-samaj / reformists, and does not have scriptural basis.
    – mar
    Sep 20, 2021 at 4:19
  • 3
    Assume you open Vedas to all, how do you decide when Shudras get Upanayanam? Because the age for Brahmins is 8 years, Kshatriyas is 11 and Vaishyas is 12? Besides, Vedic knowledge is open for all. Please note Shudras can Perform Pakayajnas and even Shraaddha karma with mantras. Srauta Yajnas are not advised. You understand some Soma yajnas are even barred for Vaishyas to perform? Even Ashwamedha and Vajapeya cannot be performed by Brahmins (they only chant). If you open Ashwamedha You’ll have Vaishyas and Brahmins of every colony sending horses to conquer their neighbours house?
    – Adiyarkku
    Sep 20, 2021 at 6:07
  • 4
    Try seeing the caste system as that which doesn’t oppress. If you see it as something that oppresses people, you’re bound to remove inner meanings and interpolations. The caste system did not oppress anyone. Historical records show Shudras owing property and wealth. Yet they stuck to their professions:- carpenter, potter, barber, tailor - “SERVICE OF THE DVIJAS”. If they were oppressed prior to “modern education” corrupting everyone’s minds they would’ve moved out..
    – Adiyarkku
    Sep 20, 2021 at 6:13
  • 3
    Chandalas used to get gold and silver for disposing of the dead. They continued to be chandalas. Now no one gives so they want to change. Who’s fault is it? The earlier caste system where they were given gold/ silver or modern people who consider them oppressed and lowly? Pakayajnas come in the Grihya sutras. Why are Shudra allowed to perform them? Apparently they’re still performing Vaidik Karma. If you speak of Srauta then besides Brahmins which Kshatriyas and Vaishyas do Agnihotra etc? Situation is very different from what you think. @Mar is right Please have a re-look at the caste system.
    – Adiyarkku
    Sep 20, 2021 at 6:14
  • 3
    Those born in the immediate pre-colonial era, colonial era (Vivekananda, Gandhi, Dayanand Saraswati) and modern people have been taught and ingrained in their heads that the caste system is oppressive. Some people during that colonial day and age have seen some oppression happening. That’s what is fit in everyone’s mind. Do an independent analysis the truth will reveal itself.
    – Adiyarkku
    Sep 20, 2021 at 6:22
2

Does the Bhagavad Gita declare that caste is based on birth?

Yes it does, according to all ancient and orthodox Vedic commentators.

First, from chapter 1:

1.41 - When unrighteousness prevails, O Krishna the women of the clan become corrupt; when women become corrupt, there arises intermixture of castes.

adharmābhi-bhavāt kṛṣṇa praduṣyanti kula-striyaḥ | strīṣu duṣṭāsu vārṣṇeya jāyate varṇa-saṅkaraḥ || 41 ||

...

1.43 - By the crimes of the clan-destroyers who bring about intermingling of castes, the ancient traditions of the clan and caste are destroyed.

doṣair etaiḥ kula-ghnānāṁ varṇa-saṅkara-kārakaiḥ | utsādyante jāti-dharmāḥ kula-dharmāśca śāśvatāḥ || 43 ||

These verses are saying that when society stops following Dharma, women become corrupt, and when women become corrupt, they will approach any and many men, and their children will be mixed caste or of unknown caste or even without caste like a Mleccha.

The same concept is found in the Vedas and there is even a sutra for it in Jaimini's Purva Mimamsa Sutras, which are commented upon by Shabaracharya:

Adhyaya 1, Pada 2, Sutra 13:

On account of the failings of women, (there can be no certainty regarding one's caste); specially as the son belongs to the progenitor.

Shabara's commentary on that sutra:

Another example of a Vedic text stating what is contrary to direct facts, cited by the Opponent is - "We do not know if we are Brahmanas or non-Brahmanas" (Maitrayaniya Samhita 1.4.11 of the Krishna Yajur Veda). This is auxiliary to the injunction "When the pravaras [ancestral lineages] are being recounted, one should say the deities are our fathers" (Ibid.), which stands in need of justification; and the meaning of the eulogistic passage is that "Even a non-Brahamana would become a Brahmana by the recounting of pravaras [and hence it is necessary for the Brahmana also to recount his pravaras, as one can never be sure of one's brahmanahood (due to possible caste intermixing)"]. It is difficult to know if one is really a Brahmana; - and this is what is figuratively spoken of as "we do not know", and the difficulty in knowing it for certain is due to "the failings of women", and also to the fact that "the son belongs to the progenitor"; this is also indicated by the advice "May you guard this dynastic line with great care." - Apastamba Dharma Sutra 2.6.13.6

The Vedic verse is basically saying, "We don't know if we are Brahmanas or non-Brahmanas, therefore, one should say that their ancestral lineage is the Devas", which admits that caste is based on birth and ancestry.

The Mahabharata says the same thing,

... by uniting themselves with women of other castes, led not by considerations of righteousness but by uncontrolled lust, cause numerous mixed castes to come into existence whose occupations and abodes depend on the circumstances connected with the irregular unions to which they owe their origin.

So all these verses show that the Vedas, Mahabharata, and Bhagavad Gita all unanimously declare that caste is based on birth.

What about Gita verses like 4.13 and 18.41 that are cited by Hindu reformists to try to show that the Gita supports a behavior based caste system?

4.13 - The social system of four castes was generated by Me according to division of Gunas and Karma. Though I am the generator, know Me as a non-agent and immutable.

18.41 - The duties of the Brāhmaṇas, Kṣatriyas; Vaishyas and the Śūdras O Arjuna, are distinctly divided according to their inherent dispositions

brāhmaṇa kṣatriya viśāṃ śūdrāṇāṃ ca paraṅtapa | karmāṇi pravibhaktāni svabhāva prabhavair guṇaiḥ || 41 ||

The word guna in these verses is actually referring to bodily gunas, and not mental gunas. The bodies of the people of the different castes have different gunas, which determines their inherent, genetic predispositions by nature, as this answer shows.

The medieval Vedantic scholar Vedanta Desikan has said,

Owing to the preponderance of such qualities as sattvam, in the body, a man is entitled to be called a Brahmin, a kshatriya, and the like. But this is different from the praise of being a Brahmin that is often given in certain passages, owing to the quality of sattvam and the like in the mind.

Here is Ramanujacharya's commentary for Gita verse 18.41:

Svabhava = nature = own or inherent nature, of Brahmanas, etc. This nature means the past karma that has been the cause of determining the serveral births as Brahmana, etc. The gunas like sattvam, etc are born of this.

...

Duties, varying according to the qualities born of the natures of Brahmanas, etc., are assigned by the Shastras; i.e., the Shastras ddefine that such are the qualities possessed by Brahmanas, etc., such the duties proper to their station, and such their occupations, etc.

So in conclusion, the Bhagavad Gita declares that caste is based on birth.

11
  • 8
    Don't see the logic in your argument. If A, then D? where is the logic? Bhagavad Gita does not say caste based on birth. Sep 20, 2019 at 9:45
  • 3
    @SwamiVishwananda It is saying that mixed castes arise from intercaste marriages.
    – Ikshvaku
    Sep 20, 2019 at 10:31
  • 3
    As per orthodox, the one who crosses ocean becomes outcast or if he was born there then Malechchhaa. As you live in US, you are either outcast or Malechchaa now. So, do you have right to post such answers (this and many more on caste-system)?
    – Lakhi
    Sep 20, 2019 at 17:07
  • 4
    then what's the points of birth-based caste-system? why u r wasting so much energy in it? that also means all castes are equally qualified as no caste is qualified.
    – Lakhi
    Sep 20, 2019 at 17:18
  • 3
    @Lakhi According to Sri Vaishnavism, following your varnasharama dharma is the main way to do service to Bhagavan. The scriptures also said that one who doesn't follow his dharma goes to hell, as punishment inflicted by Bhagavan. It is true that most Brahmins today are mortal sinners, but many do follow their caste dharma.
    – Ikshvaku
    Sep 20, 2019 at 17:22
1

It says that all four classes of men--brāhmaṇas, kṣatriyas, vaiśyas and śūdras--are distinguished by their quality of work. This is oopposite to the artificial caste system where people are judged by their birth.

brāhmaṇa-kṣatriya-viśāṁ
śūdrāṇāṁ ca parantapa
karmāṇi pravibhaktāni
svabhāva-prabhavair guṇaiḥ

TRANSLATION

Brāhmaṇas, kṣatriyas, vaiśyas and śūdras are distinguished by their qualities of work, O chastiser of the enemy, in accordance with the modes of nature.

-- Bhagavad-gītā 18.41

In next verses are described the qualifications for each classes of men:

"Peacefulness, self-control, austerity, purity, tolerance, honesty, wisdom, knowledge, and religiousness—these are the qualities by which the brāhmaṇas work."

"Heroism, power, determination, resourcefulness, courage in battle, generosity, and leadership are the qualities of work for the kṣatriyas."

"Farming, cattle raising and business are the qualities of work for the vaiśyas, and for the śūdras there is labor and service to others."

-- Bhagavad-gītā 18.42-45

So now it is clear that four classes of men are judged by their distinguished qualities. Birth alone is not enough to become a brāhmaṇa; one must train himself to develop all qualites of a brāhmaṇa.

Swami Prabhupāda explained the social institution of varṇāśrama-dharma which divides society according to their qualifications.

"The social institution known as varṇāśrama-dharma – the institution dividing society into four divisions of social life and four occupational divisions or castes – is not meant to divide human society according to birth. Such divisions are in terms of educational qualifications. They are to keep the society in a state of peace and prosperity. The qualities mentioned herein are explained as transcendental qualities meant for making a person progress in spiritual understanding so that he can get liberated from the material world." -- Bhagavad-gītā 16.1-3, Purport

The varṇāśrama-dharma:

Śrīmad-Bhāgavatam 1.2.13

ataḥ pumbhir dvija-śreṣṭhā
varṇāśrama-vibhāgaśaḥ
svanuṣṭhitasya dharmasya
saṁsiddhir hari-toṣaṇam

Translation

O best among the twice-born, it is therefore concluded that the highest perfection one can achieve by discharging the duties prescribed for one’s own occupation according to caste divisions and orders of life is to please the Personality of Godhead.

Human society all over the world is divided into four castes and four orders of life. The four castes are the intelligent caste, the martial caste, the productive caste and the laborer caste. These castes are classified in terms of one’s work and qualification and not by birth. Then again there are four orders of life, namely the student life, the householder’s life, the retired and the devotional life. In the best interest of human society there must be such divisions of life, otherwise no social institution can grow in a healthy state. And in each and every one of the above-mentioned divisions of life, the aim must be to please the supreme authority of the Personality of Godhead. This institutional function of human society is known as the system of varṇāśrama-dharma, which is quite natural for the civilized life. The varṇāśrama institution is constructed to enable one to realize the Absolute Truth. It is not for artificial domination of one division over another. When the aim of life, i.e., realization of the Absolute Truth, is missed by too much attachment for indriya-prīti, or sense gratification, as already discussed hereinbefore, the institution of the varṇāśrama is utilized by selfish men to pose an artificial predominance over the weaker section. In the Kali-yuga, or in the age of quarrel, this artificial predominance is already current, but the saner section of the people know it well that the divisions of castes and orders of life are meant for smooth social intercourse and high-thinking self-realization and not for any other purpose.

Herein the statement of Bhāgavatam is that the highest aim of life or the highest perfection of the institution of the varṇāśrama-dharma is to cooperate jointly for the satisfaction of the Supreme Lord. This is also confirmed in the Bhagavad-gītā (4.13).

7
  • 1
    What do you do when people have a mixture of all four castes, like most people do?
    – Ikshvaku
    Sep 20, 2019 at 16:00
  • That kind of people are not qualified for any caste. Most likely, they are the outcastes. Most people today are sudras. In any case, the best is to become educated.
    – user17738
    Sep 20, 2019 at 16:22
  • 1
    But what if a person's qualities change over time? Like some people can train to acquire those qualities. Also, what about people who are brave and spiritual? Many hindu kings in the scriptures were brave and spiritual. Drona who was a Brahmin was also brave and fought in the Mahabharata war. Are all these people mixed caste?
    – Ikshvaku
    Sep 20, 2019 at 16:41
  • 1
    But those kings also had qualities like "Peacefulness, self-control, austerity, purity, tolerance, honesty, wisdom, knowledge, and religiousness—these are the qualities by which the brāhmaṇas work", but they also had Kshatriya qualities like bravery. So how do we determine their caste? According to your interpretation they are mixed caste. In fact the kings also served their people, they served their citizens, devas, rishis, and God himself, does this mean they are also shudras?
    – Ikshvaku
    Sep 20, 2019 at 17:05
  • Of course not. Vedic kings were actually qualified to be kṣatriyas. Nothing is stopping you to become qualified in any of four divisions of men. However, brāhmaṇas (intellectuals), kṣatriyas (leaders, CEOs), vaiśyas (businessmen) and śūdras are today all fallen; they are not working to please the Supreme Personality of Godhead. Even socalled Vedic societies are mostly corrupt because of their involvment in materialistic society. Societies today don't recognize an authentic brahmana or ksatriya. Neither would any authentic brahmana or ksatriya participate in materislistic societies.
    – user17738
    Sep 20, 2019 at 17:10

You must log in to answer this question.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged .