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What does the Bhagavad Gita mean when it says caste is based on Gunas? Does it mean trained, external behavior, or genetic predisposition?

For reference, this verse says,

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.

What does the word guna mean in this verse? Does guna mean external, trained behavior that people see, or does it mean genetic, inherent, natural predisposition? It is well known that different people have different natures. Does guna here mean nature or nurture (trained, controlled behavior)?

Also, what does the word karma mean in that verse? Does it mean a particular job (karma) the person happens to be doing? If so, does this mean that if I change jobs, my caste changes? But what if my displayed behavior doesn't match my job, which takes precedence, guna or karma to determine my caste? Or does it mean the law of karma?

What do ancient Vedic commentators say?

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What does the Bhagavad Gita mean when it says caste is based on Gunas? Does it mean trained, external behavior, or genetic predisposition?

According to the various Smritis, Vedas, and ancient Vedic scholars and commentators, the word Guna in the Gita verse means genetic predisposition.

For reference, Gita verse 18.41 says:

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

The medieval Sri Vaishnava Vedic scholar, Ramanujacharya, has commented on that verse as follows:

The character of Brāhmaṇas, Kṣatriyas, Vaishyas, and Śūdras arise from their various inherent dispositions. In other words their past Karma is the cause of their being born in a specific caste. The dominant Guna is the result of such Karma.

The Sattva-guna becomes dominant in the character of the Brāhmaṇa through the suppression of the qualities of Rajas and Tamas.

In the Kṣatriya the dominant quality is Rajas through the suppression of Sattva and Tamas.

The Tamo-guna becomes the inherent nature of the Vaishya, becoming slightly dominant by suppressing Sattva and Rajas.

While in the Śūdra the Tamo Guna is much more dominant.

Obligations and duties are assigned to them by the Scriptures according to their inherent dispositions. For the Shastras assume that the Brāhmaṇas and the others

Next the question is, what does it mean by "inherent disposition"? Does this mean genetic predisposition or trained behavior?

According to the medieval Sri Vaishnava Vedic scholar, Vedanta Desikan, it means genetic predisposition acquired at birth:

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. The qualities of caste pertaining to the body which are due to the special qualities of the body arise even at the time of birth and remain until death. The Brahmin-like qualities which arise out of the preponderance of sattvam in the mind may be present in all castes. In Prahlada [an Asura], they are present even at the time of birth. In others, owing to such specific causes as contact with acharyas, these mental qualities are acquired later.

If in a Brahmin are found such features as are incongruous with his caste, it will meet with censure that, born in a caste which is declared by the shastras as being capable of such virtues as self restraint and mental serenity, he lapsed from the condition suitable to him. - page 306, Rahasya Traya Sara

As for the next question:

What does the word karma mean in that verse?

The word "karma" in verse 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.

means work (karma) that the shastras prescribe to people of different castes based on their guna:

The whole universe from Brahma down to a clump of grass, together with the system of four social divisions divided according to the Gunas and by actions [karma] like self-control in accordance with the Gunas, was projected into being by Krishna. - Ramanujacharya's Gita Bhashya

However, in verse 18.41, karma means something else. It means actions done in previous lives that cause you to be born in a particular caste:

The character of Brāhmaṇas, Kṣatriyas, Vaishyas, and Śūdras arise from their various inherent dispositions. In other words their past Karma is the cause of their being born in a specific caste. The dominant Guna is the result of such Karma. - Ramanujacharya's Gita Bhashya

This is in accordance with what the Smritis say. According to the Manusmriti, your future birth in a particular caste or species will be determined by the kind of mental guna you have cultivated and expressed in your life.

Manu 12.40 - Those partaking of ‘Sattva’ reach the state of the gods, those endowed with ‘Rajas,’ the state of men, and those characterised by ‘Tamas,’ the state of beasts; such is the threefold migratory state.

Inanimate beings, worms, insects, fishes, snakes, tortoise, cattle and wild animals,—represent the lowest state due to the quality of ‘Tamas.’—(42)

Elephants, horses, despised Śūdras, Mlecchas, lions, tigers and boars—represent the middling state due to the quality of ‘Tamas.’—(43)

Cāraṇas, Suparṇas, hypocritical men, Rākṣasas, and Piśācas—represent the highest state among those partaking of the quality of ‘Tamas.’—(44)

So if your consciousness is like that of an animal, very tamasic, you will be born as an animal. Whereas, on the other hand, a Shudra who is naturally tamasic by genetic predisposition, serves Brahmanas and cultivates a sattvic consciousness, will be reborn as a Brahmana or Deva:

Manu 12.48 - Ascetics and hermits, Brāhmaṇas, celestial beings, lunar asterisms, and Daityas represent the first state partaking of ‘Sattva.’

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    How come person asking question is same as the one answering it? – Carmen sandiego Oct 20 at 23:30
  • Guna is based on the seed, i.e. genetics or whatever prakruthi that soul is default encompassed in.. one person may be born of high caste but he wouldnt believe or trust any of the rituals he is following.. than his guna is tamasic.. even tough he sports externally as well versed high priest.. same case for Kanakadasa even tough he is sudra his guna is satvic... because he theistic and followed vaisnavite tradition caste is for social precedence it doesnt say anything internal.. but this internal stavic person wont purposfully marry a brahmin lady. – Prasanna R Oct 21 at 11:24
  • that person who transgress the caste with bad intention should be condenmed .. – Prasanna R Oct 21 at 11:25
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    @Carmensandiego Same user can post question and answer on this site. – Ikshvaku Oct 21 at 14:50
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The question is

What does the word guna mean in this verse? Does guna mean external, trained behavior that people see, or does it mean genetic, inherent, natural predisposition? It is well known that different people have different natures. Does guna here mean nature or nurture (trained, controlled behavior)?


In my opinion, Guna indicates only inherent qualities of a human being.

Guna may not indicate external, trained behavior that people see or genetic predisposition.

Vyadha and Kausika story tells that whatever may be one's birth and whatever may be one's profession, one can still attain heights of SPIRITUALITY.

That way why Sri Krishna used the word Varna, which is based on inherent qualities and one's action. There is no equivalent word for Varna in English, due to which they called it caste.

चातुर्वर्ण्यं मया सृष्टं गुणकर्मविभागशः।

तस्य कर्तारमपि मां विद्ध्यकर्तारमव्ययम्।।4.13।।

The four varnas have been created by Me through a classification of the gunas and duties. Even though I am the agent of that (act of classification), still know Me to be a non-agent and changeless.


However, it does not mean to say a person born with certain qualities will remain for the rest of the life with the same qualities. A person can change, provided an inclination to change oneself is strong enough.

Sri Krishna says

असंशयं महाबाहो मनो दुर्निग्रहं चलं।

अभ्यासेन तु कौन्तेय वैराग्येण च गृह्यते।।6.35।।

O mighty-armed one, undoubtedly the mind is untractable and restless. But, O son of Kunti, it is brought under control through practice and detachment.

Viswamitra, the son of Gadhi was a kshatriya, born in warrior class. However, due to sudden turn of events, he practised asceticism, slowly overcome his inborn qualities and finally became brahmarshi.

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It does not mean trained external behavior or genetic predisposition. We can rule out genetic predisposition because genes are western medical entities and I doubt if one can equate genes with Gunas. Gunas are specialised entities introduced by Sankhya Darsana. Presence of specific gunas leads to predisposition.

What exactly is meant by Gunas.

Sattva, Rajas and Tamas, the three constituents or Gunas of Prakrti, are clearly enumerated here for the first time, although reference to them is made earlier collectively in 2.45, 3.5 and 3.27. The whole world of multiplicity is evolved by the permutation and combination of three Gunas or constituents of Prakrti, the material Nature and their evolutes. .. In the Samkhya system Prakrti with its constituents is an independent existence, moved by its own inherent dynamism for the fulfilment of the purpose of the Purusas or centres of consciousness, with which it is associated.

Commentary on Gita by Swami Tapasyananda in his English translation of Srimad Bagavad Gita

What exactly is meant by Karma in Gita 4.13?

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 by Swami Tapasyananda in his English translation of Srimad Bagavad Gita

Karma is work done in previous lives which influence the combination of Gunas and which lead to specific character types.

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