Arjuna in Bhagavad-gītā thought varṇasaṃkara would wreak havoc on the society:

  1. adharmābhibhavāt kṛṣṇa praduṣyanti kulastriyaḥ
    strīṣu duṣṭāsu vārṣṇeya jāyate varṇasaṃkaraḥ

  2. saṃkaro narakāyaiva kulaghnānāṃ kulasya ca
    patanti pitaro hy eṣāṃ luptapiṇḍodakakriyāḥ

  3. doṣair etaiḥ kulaghnānāṃ varṇasaṃkarakārakaiḥ
    utsādyante jātidharmāḥ kuladharmāś ca śāśvatāḥ

From the predominance of sin, O Krishna, the women of that race become corrupt. And the women becoming corrupt, an intermingling of castes happeneth, O descendant of Vrishni. This intermingling of castes leadeth to hell both the destroyer of the race and the race itself. The ancestors of those fall (from heaven), their rites of pinda and water ceasing. By these sins of destroyers of races, causing intermixture of castes, the rules of caste and the eternal rites of families become extinct.

But how did Swami Vivekananda interpret these verses? Did he disagree with Arjuna and the Gītā because he thought these verses were written at a time the birth-based caste-system was the norm?

Assuming he was opposed to birth-based caste-system and still supported these Gītā verses, what does varṇasaṃkara even mean in the context of a non-birth-based caste-system?


2 Answers 2


The term Varnasankara is only valid in the context of a birth based caste system. It does not have any meaning in a Guna based caste system. In various scriptures the concept of Varnsankara or Antyaja is found and everywhere it is used in the context of birth only.

8.172. By taking his due, by preventing the confusion of the castes (varna), and by protecting the weak, the power of the king grows, and he prospers in this (world) and after death

9.67. That chief of royal sages who formerly possessed the whole world, caused a confusion of the castes (varna), his intellect being destroyed by lust.

10.12. From a Sudra are born an Ayogava, a Kshattri, and a Kandala, the lowest of men, by Vaisya, Kshatriya, and Brahmana) females, (sons who owe their origin to) a confusion of the castes.

These verses from Manu Smriti have the word Varnasankara and obviously they are relevant in a birth based caste system.

If we consider a Guna based caste system, the word does not have any meaning, because we can't ascertain the Gunas of the parents by any means and hence the status of the Varnasankara (the progeny) can not be verified by any means either. But, in case of a birth based caste system, it has a definite meaning and the status about whether someone is Varnasankara or not can be verified.

So, for someone, who believes in Guna based caste system, it is impossible to comment anything about Varnasankara. He will probably avoid commenting anything on it.

And, as shown here, in Swami Vivekananda's opinion, the caste system, that the scriptures propound, is Guna based, so he could not have said anything about it.


Vivekananda thinks of caste as variation in our mind-body complex.

Now, take the case of caste — in Sanskrit, Jâti, i.e. species. Now, this is the first idea of creation. Variation (Vichitratâ), that is to say Jati, means creation. "I am One, I become many" (various Vedas). Unity is before creation, diversity is creation. Now if this diversity stops, creation will be destroyed. So long as any species is vigorous and active, it must throw out varieties. When it ceases or is stopped from breeding varieties, it dies. Now the original idea of Jati [i.e. Varna] was this freedom of the individual to express his nature, his Prakriti, his Jati, his caste; and so it remained for thousands of years. Not even in the latest books is inter-dining prohibited; nor in any of the older books is inter-marriage forbidden. Then what was the cause of India's downfall? — the giving up of this idea of caste. As Gitâ says, with the extinction of caste the world will be destroyed. Now does it seem true that with the stoppage of these variations the world will be destroyed? The present caste is not the real Jati, but a hindrance to its progress. It really has prevented the free action of Jati, i.e. caste or variation. Any crystallized custom or privilege or hereditary class in any shape really prevents caste from having its full sway; and whenever any nation ceases to produce this immense variety, it must die. Therefore what I have to tell you, my countrymen, is this, that India fell because you prevented and abolished caste [Varna]. Every frozen aristocracy or privileged class is a blow to caste and is not-caste. Let Jati have its sway; break down every barrier in the way of caste, and we shall rise. Now look at Europe. When it succeeded in giving free scope to caste and took away most of the barriers that stood in the way of individuals, each developing his caste — Europe rose. In America, there is the best scope for caste to develop, and so the people are great. Every Hindu knows that astrologers try to fix the caste of every boy or girl as soon as he or she is born. That is the real caste — the individuality, and Jyotisha (astrology) recognises that. And we can only rise by giving it full sway again. This variety does not mean inequality, nor any special privilege.

The Complete Works of Swami Vivekananda, Volume 4, Writings Prose, A Plan of Work for India

Caste as interpreted in the Gita is considered as meritocracy by Vivekananda as is clear from the quote given above and his examples of Europe and America where there is certainly no caste system as practiced in India. So what can Varnasankara mean? It cannot mean what Arjuna thinks of it. So Varnasankara must mean (if you do want to interpret it since no one cares what Arjuna is saying in the Gita) something like mental compatibility. Marriage between 2 persons will fail or succeed depending on whether they are not or are mentally compatible.

What Arjuna is saying about the consequences of a war will be considered as war crimes today. Soviet troops at the end of the Second World war raped 2 million German women and so corrupted them in Arjuna's words. Tens of thousands of Bengali Hindu women were raped and dragged away to East Pakistan in the 1947-48 period. What strikes a modern reader of Arjuna's argument is how impervious he is to the pain and suffering of these women victims. Instead he is worried about varnasamkara, violation of the rules of caste and hell! How low can one get? It is no wonder that Lord Krishna avoids commenting on Arjuna's words. There is absolutely nothing good that one can say about Arjuna's attitude.

This lack of empathy is of course not unique to Arjuna. One notices this among many followers of certain interpretations of religion who privilege a particular interpretation above human suffering. This is what is criticized by the Physics Nobel laureate Steven Weinberg: “Religion is an insult to human dignity. Without it you would have good people doing good things and evil people doing evil things. But for good people to do evil things, that takes religion.”

  • 1
    @sv, of course caste/varna/jati (they're all pedantic differences) is meritocracy. But your statement that varna is based on guna alone and not birth, is anti-meritocractic. Because you are not taking the merit of birth into account at all. If a person has a long history of doing X and a recent history of doing Y, you seem to think that only Y matters and that X does not matter. That is partiality, bias, age-ism. Your stance is based on the supposed Western notion that birth is a clean slate, that all men are born equal. It is against law of karma, hence against scriptures.
    – ram
    Aug 8, 2020 at 6:50
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    @sv, immediately a follow up question will come - if varna system is unbiased, why is a brahmin punished for drinking liquor ? He has a long history of doing X, but only a recent history of doing Y, so why only focus on Y and not X ? Well, varna system is not complete meritocracy, but one-sided. If you want to climb the ladder, you need both history and present. If you want to fall down the ladder however, present is enough e.g. it is easy to fall from brahmin to shudra, but not easy to climb from shudra to brahmin.
    – ram
    Aug 8, 2020 at 7:01
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    @sv, immediately another follow up question will come - is that not unfair to those who are higher up in the ladder ? If I spent 20 years getting a PhD, but do a silly mistake in addition, why should I be punished so drastically ? No, it's not unfair, because the higher you are, the more your responsibilities, and more careful you should be.
    – ram
    Aug 8, 2020 at 7:05
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    'What Arjuna is saying about the consequences of a war will be considered as war crimes today...Soviet troops at the end of the Second World war raped 2 million German women and so corrupted them in Arjuna's words.....' - this commentary in your answer maybe unnecessary, also, not asked for in the question. And I don't think Arjuna is referring to mass rape after a war. He maybe referring to widowed women who now have no option but to marry men/strangers from the conquering side, same caste or different, breaking all rules of the established caste-system. Aug 9, 2020 at 14:39
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    "But for good people to do evil things, that takes religion" - this is unnecessary commentary of your own opinion. "Without it you would have good people doing good things and evil people doing evil things" - what is the proof that that 'innately' good people exist without religion ? Unless you do a controlled experiment where none of the 'good' people have been exposed to any type of moral teaching, then it's a nonsensical claim.
    – ram
    Aug 9, 2020 at 19:13

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