Caste? or Varna(-Free) in Hinduism

Study time: 30-45 minutes; Updated: January 26, 2022

PURPOSE: The express purpose of this article is to get rid of Casteism and the social evil of untouchability from society, while putting Varṇa in proper perspective.

The Varṇa system (characterized by the British as the Caste system) in Hinduism is a much misunderstood and abused system. It is commonly misunderstood as simply communal division of work as Brāhmaṇa (priest), Kshatriya (king/ruler/military), Vaiśya (business) and Śūdra (service) with some people such as Dalits (Harijans, so-called outcastes/untouchables) even falling outside of the Varṇa system. The misunderstanding applies to most Hindus as well as foreigners. In the below we will look at what Varṇa is (relatively comprehensively, with authentic references), its purpose, how it has come to be abused, and its relevance and practice in the modern context, etc.

We will also consider the name “Caste” that the British introduced during the British rule of India and whether the name fits, especially in terms of hierarchy, heredity, etc. We will also consider the relevance/applicability of Varṇa for new converts to (or new adoptees of) Hinduism. We will recount Swami Vivekananda’s comments.

In order to understand the Varṇa system, we need to first understand a couple of concepts.


  1. The below sections are designed to be studied completely and strictly in the order given, as the material in one section depends on a proper understanding of the material in the previous sections, and thus impossible to understand properly out of context.
  2. There’s a Takeaway section at the end that aims to solidify what has been learnt, but cannot and doesn’t do justice in offering a good understanding of Varṇa, by itself.
  3. Certain Sanskrit words such as Karma have different meanings based on context. Specific meanings are supplied in parentheses.
  4. We will also look at whether Varṇa is hereditary, and if marriages are endogamous relative to Varṇa.
  5. There’s also a CHEAT SHEET at the end for general distribution on college campuses and such.


Vedic wisdom (the eternal knowledge that is the preeminent foundation for Hinduism) teaches us that we are NOT these physical bodies, but rather spirit souls (ātmas, specifically Jīvātmas or Jīvas for short) that reside in physical bodies made of matter (material nature), and that we, the spirit souls, transmigrate from one body to the next (in plant, animal, human, and super-human species, etc.) in a birth/death cycle, called samsāra, until we are liberated from this cycle (i.e., attain moksha/mukti) to the spiritual universe called Vaikuntha (The Perfect, The Land of unhampered Freedom and Joy). There’s no beginning to this cycle; it is anādi (beginning-less). One most important point to note here is that regardless of the specific body a soul is in, it has the potential to attain moksha (liberation) at the end of this birth itself. It might surprise many foreigners, and in fact many uninformed Indians, that we have many instances of souls that appeared in non-Brāhmaṇa (non-priestly) bodies that rose up to saint-hood what to speak of mere moksha (liberation).

Saint Munivāhana Yogi (Thiruppān Aḷvār) appeared in a Dalit (Harijan, so-called untouchable/outcaste/varna-free/caste-free) family and is worshipped to this day in Hindu Temples in India:


Saint Parakāla (Thirumangai Aḷvār) appeared in a Śudra family and is similarly worshipped in Temples in India:

Related image

Saint Parānkuśa (Nammāḷvār) who is considered a most pre-eminent Saint to ever appear, also appeared in a Śūdra family and has been worshipped in India for almost 5000 years:

Saint Parānkuśa (Nammāḷvār)‘s dear disciple Saint Madhurakavi Alvār, who knew no other God than  Saint Nammāḷvār appeared in a Brāhmaṇa family:


Saint Kulaśekhara (Kulaśekhara Aḷvār) appeared in a Kshatriya family and is worshipped in temples:


Sri Kānchi Pūrṇa (Tirukkachchi Nambigal) (who was a preceptor/Guru for Sri Ramanuja, World Savior) appeared in a Vaiśya family, and is worshipped in temples:


The above are just a few examples, of many. Thus we see that Varṇa or body is not a bar/obstacle for Sainthood itself, what to speak of moksha (liberation) from samsāra (the birth/death cycle), which also, we will see in the below, has no bearing on Varṇa.

But for those of us that remain in the birth/death cycle (samsāra), how are the bodies determined while we are in samsāra? This is where Guṇas come into play.


Guṇas are qualities/modes of matter which our bodies are made of. There are 3 Guṇas: Sattva (mode of goodness), Rajas (mode of passion) and Tamas (mode of darkness/ignorance). While every ātma (spirit soul) is pure by nature, it happens to act under the influence of the Guṇās inherent in matter while it is in conjunction with matter/body in samsāra (birth/death cycle). Specifically, it’s under the influence of a mixture of these Gunas and acts according to whichever Guna is in the ascendancy at any given point in time. Let’s look at what these Guṇas entail and how it’s determined which Guna gains ascendency at any given point in time.


Lord Kṛṣṇa (God-incarnate that appeared over 5000 years ago) describes the Satva Guṇa in Sri Bhagavad Gita verse 14.6:

tatra sattvaṁ nirmalatvāt
prakāśakam anāmayam
sukha-saṅgena badhnāti
jñāna-saṅgena cānagha

‘Of them, O Sinless! Satvam, luminous and painless from (its) purity, links (souls) to blessedness and wisdom.’

The characteristic nature of Satvam, amid the three qualities of Satvam, Rajas and Tamas is thus:

Being pure or lucid, it is bright. Purity or clearness is that which is the negation of obscuration; or brightness and happiness. As only brightness and gladness result from Satvam, it is said to be their cause.

Prakāśa=luminosity, means true enlightenment, or exact knowledge of things accruing.

Anāmayam=That in which inhere not causes for producing pain (sickness) etc., and therefore Satvam is the cause of health.

This Satva-quality produces in the embodied creature a predisposition for happiness and knowledge. And when such leanings for happiness and knowledge arise, then one embarks on such worldly and spiritual pursuits as conform with his leanings. Thence he is propelled to be born in such wombs, i.e., made to be born in such bodies as are favourably fitted for the enjoyment of the fruits of his (sātvik-)labours. So born, his inclinations fostered by satva again tend towards happiness and knowledge. Happiness and knowledge do thus result, which in turn produce a desire for more of them.


In the next verse (Sri Bhagavad Gita verse 14.7) is described Rajas:

rajo rāgātmakaṁ viddhi
tan nibadhnāti kaunteya
karma-saṅgena dehinam

‘Rajas, know, Kaunteya! is lustful; it engenders desire and attachment; it ties the embodied to work,’

Rajas is lustful or the cause of lust. Rāga = Lust, concupiscence or carnal desire between males and females.

Rajas is the birth-place of tṛishnā and saṇga.

Tṛishṇa is desire or thirst for all sensual enjoyments, such as sound (=music) etc.

Saṇga is attachment or desire to be united to, or to be in the company of, sons, friends etc.

Thus Rajas, by engendering desires, ties one (or prompts one) to activity or active works. A pruriency for active engagements or undertakings; then performance of works of the kinds of merits and demerits —thus does Rajas become the reason for one being born in such places and such bodies as are peculiarly suited to enjoy the fruits of such (Rājasa-) labours.

Hence by provoking an itching for works, Rajas confines a man. Hence Rajas is said to be the cause of lust, sensual desires and attachment.


And in the next verse (Sri Bhagavad Gita verse 14.8), Tamas:

tamas tv ajñāna-jaṁ viddhi
mohanaṁ sarva-dehinām
tan nibadhnāti bhārata

‘As for Tamas, Bhārata! it begets ignorance, fascinating all embodied (beings): by listlessness does it bind (one) to sloth and sleep.’

Ajñāna=ignorance is that which is the reverse of knowledge or wisdom. Jñāna or wisdom is the accurate or right perception of things, and ignorance is perverted or wrong perception. And Tamas (literally: darkness) is the diametrically opposed or completely reversed perception of what a thing actually is.

Mohanam=that which deludes men into obtuse knowledge = Tamas.

This Tamas, being thus the root of pramāda, ālasya, and nidrā, binds (one) fast, through these.

Pramāda=listlessness=the attention being diverted from a work on hand to some other.

Ālasya=sloth = inability to engage in any occupation.

Nidrā=sleep. Owing to a disinclination on the part of the senses to function, sublation of all such activities ensue. Sublation of the external senses constitutes dream, but when the mind also sublates, it becomes sleep.

Mixture of Gunās

Continuing to Sri Bhagavad Gita verse 14.9 and Sri Bhagavad Gita verse 14.10:

sattvaṁ sukhe sañjayati
rajaḥ karmaṇi bhārata
jñānam āvṛtya tu tamaḥ
pramāde sañjayaty uta

‘Satvam, Bhārata! unites (one) to blessedness, Rajas to activity, and Tamas, forsooth! beclouds intelligence, and unites (one) to inattention.’

Satvam is chief in creating a rest for blessedness; Rajas is chief for impelling one to work; and Tamas is chief in obscuring intelligence, and producing a perversity of the understanding, and thus create tendencies for unnatural work.

If Satvam and other qualities are the natural qualities of matter which organizes into forms known as bodies, —then it is evident that they all dwell together in matter. How then do they each give birth to consequences so very conflicting with each other? Reply:

Which Guna in ascendancy?

rajas tamaś cābhibhūya
sattvaṁ bhavati bhārata
rajaḥ sattvaṁ tamaś caiva
tamaḥ sattvaṁ rajas tathā

‘Overpowering Rajas and Tamas, Bharata! Satvam prevails; Rajas, similarly, over Satvam and Tamas; and Tamas, over Satvam and Rajas.’

It is admitted that all the three, Satvam etc., are qualities attaching to matter-bound Souls. But owing to conditions imposed by past karma [i.e., works/actions in previous lives], and determined further by the varieties of food eaten for supporting the body, Satvam and other qualities so exist as one to predominate over the other, or working at cross purposes to each other; sometimes Satvam subordinating Rajas and Tamas, sometimes Rajas, and at other times Tamas.

Further, Sri Bhagavad Gita verses 14.11 through 14.13 describe the visible effects produced by these 3 Gunas respectively.

Which body next?

From Sri Bhagavad Gita verses 14.14, 14.15 and 14.18:

yadā sattve pravṛddhe tu
pralayaṁ yāti deha-bhṛt
tadottama-vidāṁ lokān
amalān pratipadyate

‘If the embodied passes into death, when Satvam is regnant, then doth he attain to the spotless abodes of the blest.’

If the ego [i.e., soul] meets death when satvam holds sway, then he attains to the numerous blessed regions of those men who are knowers of the good=knowers of the good truth viz: the truth of ātma.1

Amalān=Spotless or exempt from blemish, meaning devoid of ignorance.

The purport is that the fate of the person who dies under the influence of Satvam would be such as to determine his future incarnations to take place in the environments of such holy people as are ātma-enlightened, and having been so born, would be impulsed to persist in the path of doing meritorious works, enabling him to further improve his ātma-knowledge thereby.

rajasi pralayaṁ gatvā
karma-saṅgiṣu jāyate
tathā pralīnas tamasi
mūḍha-yoniṣu jāyate

‘Dying when Rajas is regnant, one is born among those who are attached to works. Likewise, dying when Tamas is regnant, one is born in the wombs of the witless.’

If one breathes his last when Rajas holds sway, he comes to be born among those who perform works for the sake of reward. And having been so born, he will prevail on himself to launch on such works as would procure for him Svarga [material heaven] and similar material fruit/enjoyments.

Similarly, if one departs when under the influence of Tamas, he comes to be born in such wombs as those of dogs, swine etc., where he would be utterly incapacitated for the performance of such works as would lead to the acquisition of any of the usual ambitions of men (riches, etc.).

ūrdhvaṁ gacchanti sattva-sthā
madhye tiṣṭhanti rājasāḥ
adho gacchanti tāmasāḥ

‘Upward rise those fixed in Satva; in the middle stay those of Rajas; downward go those fixed in the low impulses of Tamas-quality.’

Thus in the manner explained, those who are established in Satva rise upward, i.e., gradually accomplish liberation from samsāra-bondage.

Staying in the middle are those who from a greed for Svarga [material heaven] and such like [material] fruits/enjoyments are of Rajas-disposition, who therefore engage in such activities as would fetch them reward; and then getting it and enjoying it, they are born again, and again engage in similar works. Hence, inasmuch as this quality is attended with recurrence of (material) births, it is full of misery.

Those of Tamas are engaged in low occupations, and descend more and more into doing meaner acts. These go downward, i.e., retrograde into the lowest types of humanity, then further down into animals, then worms, insects etc, then into plants, going even there into the condition of creepers and thickets; thence still more further down into the condition of grass (the lowest type of plants), sticks, clod, stones etc.

One’s current Guna and Karma (Punya/good or Pāpa/bad Karma) disposition determining the next birth is also mentioned by Lord Krishna in Githa verse 13.21, verse 16.19 and verse 16.20.

How to rise upward?

From the remainder of the above Githa verse 14.18 and the beginning of Githa verse 14.19:

by adopting a strict course of food1[of Satvic nature], and by the disinterested2[i.e., without selfish interest] performance of meritorious works [Karma], gradually become more and more Satva-natured, and transcend the (combination of the) qualities [Gunas].


Thus by eating food of Satva-description, and performing works [i.e., Karma] without regard to fruit but solely intended as worship to the Blessed Lord, the Rajas and Tamas qualities must be completely suppressed; and one should become thoroughly established in the pure Satva-quality.

NOTE: Verses following the above verse, i.e., from Bhagavad Gita verse 14.19 onwards have information on how one can transcend the Gunas, and the signs/conduct by which it can be seen that one has transcended the Gunas. There is also more information on the kinds of Knowledge, Actor, Reason, Purpose and Happiness, classified according to Guṇās in Sri Bhagavad Gita Chapter 18.

So far, we have learned that the current body operates under the predominant influence of a particular Guna at any given point in time, but that one can progress upward by strict course of food1 and unselfish performance of meritorious works (Karma).

What are meritorious works (Karma)?

Karma (Meritorious Works)

Now we are in a position to understand Varṇa. There are 4 Varnas (Brāhmaṇa, Kshatriya, Vaiśya and Śudra) defined based on the predominant Guna and the prescribed Karma (works/occupation) appropriate for that Guna that when performed in an unselfish way, will lead one toward Satva and eventually to liberation (moksha).

Varna is not the only way

Before we delve into Varna, it’s important to mention that spiritual progress through the Varna system is slow and tedious like in a bullock-cart and involves gradual spiritual evolution through a multitude of births cycling inside and outside of the Varna system culminating in difficult to perform Yogic processes called Upāsana. As will be explained later, the other path is  Bhakti (Devotion to God) culminating in Śaraṇāgati (free surrender to God in love) that is available to all, including those that are born outside of the Varna system or new converts or adoptees of Sanatana Dharma, i.e., the Varna-free, and is fast like a Jet-plane and meets with success (i.e., leads to liberation) at the end of the current life itself.

Varna pertains to body, NOT to the self (ātma)

Sri Bhagavada Gita verse 18.41:

śūdrāṇāṁ ca paran-tapa
karmāṇi pravibhaktāni
svabhāva-prabhavair guṇaiḥ

‘The duties, O Foe-harasser! of Brāhmaṇas, Kshatriyas, Vaiśyas and Śudras, are assigned according to the qualities born of (their) nature.’

Svabhāva = nature = own or inherent nature, of Brāhmaṇas, etc. This nature means the past Karma [effect of actions from previous lives] that has been the cause of determining the several births as Brāhmaṇa etc. The Guṇas, viz: Satvam etc., are born of this.

Of the Brāhmaṇa, the quality dominating is Satvam which suppresses the qualities of Rajas and Tamas.

Of the Kshatriya, the quality dominating is Rajas, by suppressing the qualities of Satvam and Tamas.

Of the Vaiśya, the quality slightly dominating is Tamas, by overpowering the qualities of Satvam and Rajas.

But of the Śūdra, the quality strongly regnant is Tamas, by eclipsing the qualities of Satvam and Rajas.

Duties [i.e., expectations], varying according to the qualities born of the natures of Brāhmaṇas etc., are assigned by the Śāstras [Vedic scripture]; i.e., the Śāstras define that such are the qualities [i.e., Guna] possessed by the Brāhmaṇas etc., such the duties proper to their station, and such their occupations etc.

Editor’s Note: It’s important to note here that all Varnas (Brahmana, Kshatriya, Vaisya and Sudra) and the Varna-free have Satva Guna in them, but to varying degrees, and could be encouraged to become predominant.

Created by God

This Varṇa system was put in place by the Lord Himself to aid the spiritual evolution of jivas (souls) via a system of gradation of Yogic practices, the highest of which is Upāsana. Per Githa verse 4.13:

cātur-varṇyaṁ mayā sṛṣṭaṁ
tasya kartāram api māṁ
viddhy akartāram avyayam

‘The fourfold varṇa1 (category) was created by Me according to dispositions (guṇa), and occupations (karma). Though I am its Creator, know Me to be the Imperishable Non-creator.’

The whole universe, beginning with Brahmā (the four-faced demigod in charge of specific/particular creation following generic/primordial creation by God) and ending with a clump of grass, with the system of four Varṇās as a principal feature, was created by Me, divided according to the division of sattva and other Guṇas and according to activities like self-control in accordance therewith. The mention of ‘creation’ is for purposes of illustration. (It is intended also to indicate that the universe) is protected [i.e., sustained] by Me alone and is destroyed [i.e., absorbed back into Myself] by Me alone.

What about those outside of Varna (Varna-free)?

The Material Universe consists of an infinite number of World Systems (Brahmāṇdas) emanated by God in generic/primordial creation. Each World System (Brahmāṇda) is managed by a Brahma, the deva (demigod) in charge of specific/particular creation of bodies for living entities within that Brahmānda, in a four-fold classification of entities (called Chatur-vidha srishti), as Deva (Celestial), Manushya (Mankind), Tiryak (Animal/Insect, etc.) and Sthāvara (Stationary/Plant/Tree, etc.). The above verse appears in the context in Sri Bhagavad Gita where Sri Krishna is driving home the point that there are differences/divisions/inequalities/varieties in the entire creation, of which the Chatur-Varna (Four-Varna) system is an example as well as its principal feature.

There’s influence of the Guṇas throughout this Material Universe/creation per Githa verse 18.40 as well. The Chatur-Varna (Brahmana, Kshatriya, Vaisya, Sudra) system exists within each of the classes of entities Deva (Celestial), Manushya (Mankind), Tiryak (Animal/Insect, etc.) and Sthāvara (Stationary/Plant/Tree, etc.) constituting chatur-vidha srishti (four-fold creation). An example of Varna among Devas is, Bruhaspati is a Brahmana, Indra is a Kshatriya, Marut are Vaisya, Ashvinee devas are Sudra.

But it doesn’t mean everything is placed in the Varna system, which is just an example (as well as a ‘Principal Feature’ of Creation), representative of differences/divisions/inequalities/varieties in creation in the context in which the above verse appears in Sri Bhagavad Gita, as the commentator Sri Ramanuja points out here. The above verse drives home the point that even the divisions within the Varna system aren’t arbitrary, but are based on Guna/Karma, so it’s rather a characterizing verse for the Varna-system; the Varna-system actually defined together with the other verses from Gita mentioned in this article, none of which say nor imply that the entire mankind is divided into the four Varnas. There are entities that exist outside the Varna-system as well that are also under the influence of the Gunas driving their own Karma and are created (emanated), sustained and absorbed back just like those inside the Varna system and these former are the Varṇa-free. For example, the Panchamas (Varna-free) existed as part of the Hindu fold forever, without being bound by the Varna rules of do’s and don’ts with regard to diet, works, etc. Then there are the foreigners to Sanatana Dharma (Hinduism) that are outside of the Varna-system in this world. Also, it’s not like souls that are within the Varna-system in the current birth will continue to stay in the Varna system in successive births. There is full scope for souls to cycle into and out of the Varna-system according to their Guna disposition and Karma (Merit/Demerit), as they transmigrate. As would be seen later, the Varna system is NOT the only way for spiritual advancement, with the Varna-free actually having it easier.

[continued from above verse]

Though I am the Author of these several acts, creation etc., know Me yet to be No-author.

How (Author and yet No-author)? It is explained:—

God is Impartial (Not Cruel)

And per the next verse 4.13.5, He is not responsible for specific atmas (souls) appearing in the specific Varṇas they do appear in:

na māṁ karmāṇi limpanti
na me karma-phale spṛhā

‘Works soil Me not. No interest have I in works’ fruit.’

Because, the wonderful works of creation etc., do not soil Me, i.e., do not bind Me. The wonderful variety, such as deva, man etc., are beings created by their own deeds of merit and demerit. Hence, inasmuch as one’s own deed, or no-deed results in his becoming conditioned or not conditioned in material existence (prāptāprāpta-viveka), the man himself is his author; and I, am free, i.e., I am No-author (in the sense that I am not answerable for the conditions which creatures bring upon themselves by their own deeds or works).

I am No-author, again, for another reason: that the born (or created in the world) embodied souls (kshetrajñas), —who by the conditions of creation, get endowed with limbs and bodies— take to enjoying the things of the world, as a consequence of their (selfish) attachment to fruit1. Hence it is these that have interest in the fruits of kosmic creations, not that I have any interest.

The Sūtra-kāra (or Vyāsa, the framer of what are known as Brahma-sūtras, Vedānta-sūtras or Vyāsa-sūtras, or aphorisms exegetic of the Upanishads), says :—

‘(The Lord) cannot be reproached with ‘inequality and cruelty’, for (karma=merit and demerit) are regarded (by Him)’2

Bhagavān Parāśara as well, declares:—

‘In the act constituting the creation of beings, (He the Lord) is but the directing (or instrumental) Cause, because the creating forces verily have their roots in nature (pradhāna)’3.

‘Save that ideal (or instrumental) Cause, no other is desired, and, O chief of ascetics!, the beings (deva) etc., come into their (conditioned) existences in accordance with (their) own (karma)-potencies.’4

I, Paramount Spirit (Paramapurusha), indeed, am the fashioning ideal Cause of the created beings, the devas and such like; but the chief factors determining the diversities of the kosmos, such as the devas, man etc., are the antecedent karma-potencies.

Save the instrumentality (or ideality), save the schematic power vested in Me, the Supreme Spirit, no other is needed to fashion out the marvellous representation of creatures, as devas etc., in their embodied condition, except the inherent primal karma-potencies, by which creatures become enfigured [i.e., get embodied in one body or the other].

Operated via Birth/Rebirth Cycle

This transmigration of souls through various species (Deva/Celestial-beings, Manushya/Mankind, Tiryak/Animals, Sthāvara/plants) and within them the four Varnas as well as the Varna-free operates via the birth/rebirth cycle, per Githa verse 13.21:

kāraṇaṁ guṇa-saṅgo ’sya


‘Attachment to qualities (gunas) is the cause of births in good and evil wombs.’

This soul, born in a series of retrospective births among devas [celestial beings], man etc., —all variations of matter-forms,— delights in (or evinces attachment for) guṇa-sated pleasures etc., varying in their sātvika and other characteristics according to the incidents of such births; and in so doing launches into activities, good or evil, in order to procure for itself such pleasures. In order then to reap the fruits of such good or evil acts, it is inevitably born again in good or evil wombs (respectively). Born, he acts again; acting, he is born again. This circumvolution never stops till he will take to the culture of the virtues: ‘Reverence etc.,’ (vide, Gi: XIII-7 to 11) leading to soul-acquisition.

Hence, it is declared:

‘Attachment to guṇas is the cause of births in good and evil wombs.’1

Birth being a necessary factor in determining Varna is explicitly mentioned in Githa verse 9.32 and verse 9.33 as well.

So, in summary, the cycle operates as below:

Guna disposition resulting from food (varying in Gunas) eaten and Karma (work) including Meritorious work pertaining to the current Varna (if applicable) performed or not performed


Karma(Punya/Merit and Pāpa/Demerit) from previous lives


(leads one onto) the next species and Varna or Varna-free as appropriate, actualized by (i.e., known by) the next birth occurring in a specific Varna/no-Varna.

Is Varna hereditary then?

No, not hereditary, per se. As explained in the previous section, one’s Varna (or non-Varna) for the next birth comes from the Guna disposition resulting from food (varying in Gunas) eaten and Karma (work) including Meritorious work pertaining to the current Varna performed or not performed and Karma(Punya/Merit and Papa/Demerit) from previous lives. Not from the next birth itself, per se. So, birth in a particular species or human/Varna is the effect, not the cause. Hence Varna (or non-Varna) is NOT inherited from parents in a given birth, rather birth in a specific Varna only makes known the Varna (or non-Varna) decided from an ātma‘s Guna/Karma disposition at the end of the previous birth, that’s all. So,

Guna/Karma (previous life) -> Varṇa/no-Varna -> Birth in Varṇa/no-Varna -> Karma (Meritorious works assigned to the Varṇa or Varna-free) and Guna-improvement

Now let’s look at the Karma (Meritorious works) assigned to various Varnas (Brāhmaṇa, Kshatriya, Vysya, and Śūdra) according to their Guna dispositions, resulting in births in those Varnas, as mentioned above.


Githa Verse 18.42:

śamo damas tapaḥ śaucaṁ
kṣāntir ārjavam eva ca
jñānaṁ vijñānam āstikyaṁ
brahma-karma svabhāva-jam

‘Restraint, governance, austerity, purity, forgiveness, and uprightness; knowledge, wisdom, faith; —these are duties native to Brāhmaṇas.’

Śama = Restraint = The Discipline of the outer senses.

Dama = Governance = The Discipline of the inner sense (=antaḥ-karaṇa=mind).

Tapas = Austerity = The denial or forbearing to indulge one’s own appetites, and imposing on self, bodily restrictions dictated by Śāstras.

Śaucham = Purity = The preparatory holiness required for discharging a Śāstra-ordained duty.

Kshānti = Forgiveness = The preserving the composure of the mind against provocation offered by other parties.

Ārjavam = Uprightness = The correct outward expression to others of what is thought of in the mind.

Jñānam1 = Knowledge of the higher and lower Truths or Verities of the Kosmos.

Vijñānam2 = Wisdom, or knowledge relating to the characteristics or attributes of these Verities.

Āstikyam = Faith = Implicit belief and trust in all the averments of the Vedas; —such that it remains impregnable against any attempt to shake it. This firm conviction consists (in the main) in the belief that:

  1. Vāsudeva is Bhagavān, the Purushottama, and Para-brahma.
  2. He is Beyond all evil.
  3. He is possessed of the countless Illustrious Attributes, such as Omniscience, Omnipotence etc, which are innate and transcendent.
  4. He is the Object of knowledge to be known by all the Vedāntas3.
  5. He is the Sole Cause of the infinite Kosmos.
  6. He is the Sole Prop of the infinite Kosmos.
  7. He is the Sole Director of all Kosmic operations.
  8. All Veda-enjoined duties are but various Modes of His worship.
  9. And so worshipped, He confers on men, each according to the terms of his petition, their several wants such as Dharma, Artha, Kāma and Moksha4.

That Such is the sense has already been evidenced by such Texts as:

‘By all the Vedas, I am the Sole Object to be known’: (Githa: XV-15);

‘I am the Origin of all, from Me all moves (Githa: X-8);

‘In Me is all this woven’(Githa: VII-7);

‘I am the Enjoyer of all Yajña and Tapas…….., knowing Me, Peace is attained’ (Githa: V-29);

‘There is nothing exists higher than Me, Dhanañjaya!’: (Githa: VII-6-5);

‘Whoso knows Me, the Birthless, the Beginningless, and the great Lord of the Kosmos’: (Githa: X-3); and further illustrated in such Texts as:

Whence impulses of all beings are derived, by Whom all this is permeated, Him does man, worshipping by his acts, gain.’ (Githa: XVIII-46).

Such are the duties (i.e., characteristics) proper to a Brāhmaṇa.

Because of the above emphasis on the spiritual, the Brahmaṇās, even while physically powerless and purposely materially poor, living a life of austerity, served as the spiritual ideal, treasured, preserved and protected by the other Varṇās.


Githa Verse 18.43:

śauryaṁ tejo dhṛtir dākṣyaṁ
yuddhe cāpy apalāyanam
dānam īśvara-bhāvaś ca
kṣātraṁ karma svabhāva-jam

‘Bravery, fire, constancy, adroitness, and not retreating in battle, benevolence, and the nature to rule; —these are duties native to the Kshatriya.’

Śauryam = Bravery = The intrepid plunging into conflict.

Tejas = fire = The invincibility or irresistible front presented to others.

Dhṛitiḥ = Constancy = The perseverent carrying through any enterprize despite difficulties or hindrances.

Dākshyam = Adroitness = The ability in execution of all work.

Apalāyanam = Not running away from battle, albeit one is convinced of his death.

Dānam = Benevolence = The parting with one’s own property for the benefit of others.

Īśvarabhāva = Nature or capacity to govern others.

All these are duties (i.e., characteristics) proper to a Kshatriya.

Vaiśya and Śūdra

Githa Verse 18.44

vaiśya-karma svabhāva-jam
paricaryātmakaṁ karma
śūdrasyāpi svabhāva-jam

‘Agriculture, cow-protection, and commerce are duties native to a Vaiśya. And service constitutes the duty native to a Śūdra.’

Kṛishi = Culture intended to produce crop.

Go-raksha = The protection of cattle.

Vaṇijyam = All those trading concerns consisting of buying and selling which bring in money.

These are duties (i.e., characteristics) proper to a Vaiśya.

And acts of service to all these three classes constitute the duty (i.e., characteristics) proper to a Śūdra.


[continued from above verse]

Thus in defining the duties [for the four Varṇas above], the necessary performance of Śāstra-enjoined acts such as Yajña etc., and the occupations of the Four Varnas, have all been implied.

Yajñas etc., are certainly common to the Three Varṇas (Brāhmaṇa, Kshatriya and Vaiśya). Śama, Dama etc., are also common to all the Three Varṇas, but being natural to and easily attained by, the Brāhmaṇa, by reason of Satvam being regnant in him, they were allotted to him as his characteristics proper; and not allotted to the Kshatriya and the Vaiśya inasmuch as by reason of Rajas and Tamas being uppermost in them, they (Śama) etc., are not easily attained by them.

As for the occupation of the Brāhmaṇa, it is to teach others to conduct Yajñas [as well as conduct Yajñas themselves for others’ benefit], to teach others Vedas, and receive gifts; the occupation of the Kshatriya is to rule the country; of the Vaiśya, cultivation of land etc., as aforesaid; and of the Śūdra, to do all [supporting] services necessary for the due discharge of duties apportioned to the three (above-stated) classes.


As mentioned earlier, not everyone takes birth inside one of the 4 Varnas. In fact many more humans are born outside of the 4 Varnas, anywhere in the world, than inside and they are the Varna-free. Varna-free includes the Panchamas (Dalits/Harijans for whom the Varna rules and restrictions regarding diet and works have not applied) and those that are foreign to Sanatana Dharma and have converted to or adopted Sanātana Dharma.

But taking birth outside of a Varna is no bar to practicing the highest principles of Sanatana Dharma and in fact advantageous in that they are not burdened by the lower principles that constitute the four-fold Varna system, as would be clear in the following sections.

The Varna-free are also under the influence of the Gunas and would engage in whatever works/occupation their Guna dispostion would drive them towards.

Secular Occupations Vs Religious Activities

It’s important to differentiate here between Secular (laukika) Occupations/Work and Religious Activities (Scriptural/vaidika/vaidhika ritualistic rites and Devotional activities). Secular (laukika) Occupations/works enable one to earn/receive money/wealth so one can then use that wealth in the conduct of Religious Activities (Scriptural/vaidika/vaidhika/ritualistic rites and Devotional Activities).

Secular (Laukika/Mundane) Occupations

Secular duties as were historically practiced in certain standardized occupations in a simplistic agrarian/village economy of yore have already been described in the previous sections. But we find that this is no longer how things can happen currently in the modern economy. The applicability and practice of these in the modern context will be dealt with later under the section titled “Modern Context”.

Religious Activities

Religious activities are again subdivided into Scriptural (vaidika/vaidhika/ritual) rites/duties and Devotional Activities.

Scriptural (Vaidika/Vaidhika ritual) Rites/Duties

As for Scriptural (vaidika/vaidhika ritual) rites/duties, a sample list of these (Karmas) is mentioned on the below chart taken from Sri Bhagavad Githa (1898) also available on the web at

Chart of various Karmas and Upāyās (Means of salvation) with brief explanations

There are specific activities within these Scriptural (vaidika/vaidhika ritual) rites/duties for Brāhmaṇās, Kshatriyas and Vaiśyas. For example, the Pancha Mahā Yajñās mentioned on the above chart:

The five Great Sacraments or Acts of Divine Worship ordained for every holy man are:- 1. Adhyāpana = The learning and recitation (by Brāhmaṇas, Kshatriyas and Vaiśyas) and additionally teaching (by Brāhmaṇās) of the Sacred Scriptures, etc., called Brahma-yajña. 2. Tarpaṇa = The oblation of water, food, etc., called Pitṛi-yajña. 3. Homa = The offering of clarified butter, etc., into fire, called Deva-yajña. 4. Bali = The distribution of food to creatures in general, called Bhūta-yajña. 5. Athiti-pūjana = entertainment of holy guests, called Nṛi-yajña. Vide Manu, III 69 to 73.

Per Githa verse 17.23, God created these Scriptural (vaidika/vaidhika ritual) rites/duties along with Brahmanas to perform them:

oṁ tat sad iti nirdeśo
brahmaṇas tri-vidhaḥ smṛtaḥ
brāhmaṇās tena vedāś ca
yajñāś ca vihitāḥ purā

‘Brahm’s denomination is declared as triple: ‘OM, TAT (and) SAT.’ Conjoined with it were, of old, Brāhmaṇas, Vedas and Yajñas created.’

Scriptural (vaidika/vaidhika ritual) rites/duties are also classified as Nitya (Daily) and Naimittika (Occasional):

The daily duties (nitya) are Snāna, Sandhyā, Vaiśvadeva-brahma-yajña, Deva-ṛshi-pitṛi-tarpaṇa, and Aupāsana. The occasioned (naimittika) are the Śrāddhās, Tarpaṇas, etc., performed on the Eclipse-day, Saṇkranti, Mahālaya, etc., Pūrva-Mīmāmsa says: ‘nitya naimittika karmācharaṇe phalam nāsti; akaraṇe pratyavāyaḥ’.

Brahmana isn’t simply about wearing the sacred thread

The requisite Daily (Nitya) and Occasional (Naimittika) duties MUST be performed by Brahmanas, Kshatriyas and Vaiśyas, for no intermediate punya (Good karma/merit). Non-performance of these duties accrues Pāpa (Bad Karma/sin). So, Brahmana, Kshatriya and Vaisya isn’t simply about wearing the sacred thread and having the Varṇa surname.

Brahmanās also have a religious duty to safeguard and teach the appropriate spiritual science/culture to all others interested whether with a Varna or no Varna (Varna-free).

Swami Vivekanada mentioned

It is the duty of the Brahmin, therefore, to work for the salvation of the rest of mankind in India. If he does that, and so long as he does that, he is a Brahmin, but he is no Brahmin when he goes about making money. … Secular employment is not for the Brahmin but for the other castes.[8]

Devotional Activities for All

The Vedic way of life encourages Devotion (Bhakti, love) to God, which is for all regardless of Varṇa or no-Varna (Varna-free). The Scriptural (vaidika/vaidhika ritual) rites/duties mentioned above for Brahmanas have nothing to do with the Devotion that is described in the Purānās (narratives of aeonic cosmic and geological events), Itihāsās (particular events/Avatārās narrated in greater detail; the epics Ramayana, Mahabharata), and Saints’ lives, that should be developed by all regardless of Varṇa/Varna-free. Sri Parasara Bhattar (the great Acharya of the 11th century) also emphasizes the same in his commentary on Sri Vishnu Sahasranama. The same was reiterated by Sri Annamacharya of the 15th century. A few of the many Saints that didn’t appear in Brahmana families were already mentioned at the beginning of this article to drive home this most important aspect of the Vedic way of life. A sample list of Devotional Activities includes:

  • Chanting God’s holy names (Nāma-sankīrtana, the Kali Yuga dharma)
  • Singing hymns to the Lord
  • Worship of the Lord at home
  • Offering of food cooked to God before eating the remnants (Prasāda); see Githa verses 9.26 and 9.27
  • Having darshan of Lord in Temples
  • Participating in Temple festivals
  • Serving in Temples
  • Pilgrimages (Tīrtha-yatra)
  • Holy place living (Punya-kshetra-vāsa)
  • Holy bathings (Punya-nadi-snāna)
  • Hearing pastimes of the Lord from Itihāsās (particular events/Avatārās narrated in greater detail; the epics Ramayana, Mahabharata) and Purāṇās (narratives of aeonic cosmic and geological events).
  • Serving other devotees

No burden for Varna-free

An important aspect to note here is that while Brāhmanas, Kshatriyas and Vaisyas are burdened with so many Scriptural (Vaidika/Vaidhika ritual) rites/duties to perform (Brahmanas more so than others), others, including the Varna-free, are able to spend all of their time in enjoying God, the ultimate nectar. Dravida Veda also points out Devotion as higher than Scriptural duties for those Varnas burdened with those duties. The same is conveyed by the great Acharya of the 15th century Sri Annamacharya as well. Even Acharyas (Gurus) feel inferior to others in this regard as related in Ramanuja’s Ten Words.

The Githa verse 9.29 is a central principle applicable to everyone, regardless of Varṇa or no Varna (Varna-free).

Prescribed (Dharma) Vs Proscribed (Adharma)

Aside from the prescribed (dharma) duties mentioned in the above sections, Śāstras also proscribe/prohibit certain activities deemed as immoral (Adharma). While performance of prescribed duties (dharma) doesn’t accumulate any intermediate punya (good karma), performance of proscribed activities (adharma) or non-performance of prescribed duties (dharma) would result in pāpa (bad karma).

Dignity of Labor/Work

An important principle here is that regardless of whichever occupation/work one might be in, one must perform it as a matter of duty to be performed (i.e., without selfish interest in fruit), solely as worship of God (i.e., “Work as Worship“), and without looking down upon others’ work as low, etc., in order for one to progress on the spiritual path in Satva. In other words, any work, regardless of others looking at it as high or low, becomes great and enables one to progress on the spiritual path when it’s performed unselfishly as worship of God. Dignity of Labor is thus integral to the Vedic way of performing work.

All occupations are Divine

Purusha Sukta (a part of Rig Veda, Yajur Veda and also Atharva Veda) verse 13 emphasizes that the various functions that together form a functioning society are all of divine origin (equally important and indispensable).

BrAhmaNOsya mukhamAsIt bAhU rAjanya: kRta:|
UrU tadasya yadvaiSya: padbhyAm SUdrO ajAyata|

The Brahmana varna engaged in learning and propagating Knowledge represents His face. The Kshatriya varna which is engaged in protection represents His arms. Vaisya varna engaged in providing resources to the society represents His thighs. Śudra varna that supports all other activities represent His feet. And these Varnas are all established by birth.

As mentioned earlier, Varna isn’t tied to the self (atma) but pertains to a body in one particular birth a Jiva (atma) takes and generally changes from birth to birth. So, one could be in a Śudra varna in one birth and be in the Brahmana varna in the very next birth or vice versa according to one’s Guna-disposition. So, one must not understand the above verse to mean one (a particular Jiva-atma) perpetually comes from His feet or thighs, etc.

Also, the above verse must not be understood to be showing one Varna as unimportant relative to others. For example, all of us bow to His feet, which are mentioned as representing Śudra varna.

Does this suggest a Hierarchy?

Nope. Quite the opposite. Lest one should try to see a hierarchy here, this verse seeks to make it clear that the organization of a society into the 4 basic classes of  occupations functioning as a harmonious whole, is Divine, and that all are indispensable and equal parts of a whole and that no sense of hierarchy or importance can be entertained in the least bit. A fun fact is that the Lord appears lying on His back in many Temples (such as Srirangam) and one can here clearly see the Lord’s feet at the same level as His face, etc., signalling equality of all. Also, when having Darshan (viewing the Deity/Lord), devotees always start with the feet (where they make all the offerings) and view the face last.

Any references to high and low in particular contexts refer to the spiritual progress typically found in the different Varṇās and doesn’t relate to ātmās or the Varṇās per se, which are but indispensable portions of a Divine whole and thus are equal. The Brāhmaṇa serves as the spiritual ideal in terms of living a life of renunciation in poverty, and physically powerless (both attributes running counter to any charges of a material hierarchy), having pure Satva Guṇa and Devotion to God that everyone could look up to and is encouraged to rise up in, regardless of the Varṇa one happens to be in. So, it falls to the other Varṇās to preserve and protect that pure Brāhmaṇa ideal.

Varṇa is synonymous with Variety [10].

What about the Varna-free?

The four-fold Varna system is just one aspect of the Divine to aid in gradual spiritual evolution of spirit souls thru conduct of Yajñās (Vedic sacrificial rites) supported by certain standardized occupations in a simplistic agrarian/village economy of yore. But Vedic wisdom also teaches that all atmās constitute attributes of the Divine regardless of whether they take birth inside or outside of the Varna system. Varna-free simply means that they aren’t burdened with Yajñās (Vedic sacrificial rites) and can progress spiritually with the Devotional Activities mentioned earlier.

Purpose of Varnasrama

Thus we see that the purpose of the Varṇa system is to enable ātmās (spirit souls) to advance on the spiritual path, beginning with unselfish performance of works that are easy of performance for the different Guṇa-dispositions/tendencies. In doing so, the different varnas together simultaneously/coincidentally contribute different services to Society, complementing one another, so that Society as a whole functions smoothly as well. Performed unselfishly, no work is small and all work is great. While Sanatana Dharma is anchored by the Varna system, it includes the Varna-free as well.

Infinite opportunities

Thus, unlike other faiths (such as Abrahamic) where only the current birth is the one and only birth/opportunity for do or die spiritually, Hinduism explains infinite opportunities for spiritual growth ending in liberation (moksha) either in this very birth or in a future birth. Hinduism doesn’t condemn atheists, or those that are believers but have interests in matter (Prakriti), to eternal damnation.


Varṇa by birth alone?

As explained earlier, the Guna disposition and Karma (Punya/good or Pāpa/bad Karma) from the previous life/lives determines the current body/Varna as mentioned in Gita verse 13.21. Lord Krishna also asserts birth to be a necessary factor in establishing one’s Varna, in Githa verses 9.32 and 9.33. One might be born in the Śudra Varna in the current birth, but by rising up towards Satva guna, one would be born in the Brahmana varna in the very next or a future birth (per Githa verse 9.33 and Mahabharata Anushasana Parva 143.46), if one doesn’t attain moksha (liberation) at the end of this birth itself. But, does birth alone determine one’s Varṇa?

Dvija (twice-born)

No, merely being born in a Brahmana family doesn’t make one a Brahmana. After taking physical birth in a Brahmana family, one must undergo the requisite sanskāras (purificatory/investiture ceremonies) to become qualified (considered a rebirth, hence the term Dvija, twice-born-Brahmana) to perform the Scriptural (vaidika/vaidhika ritual) rites/duties incumbent on a Brahmana. Otherwise, one would remain simply a Brahma-bandhu (blood-relative of Brahmanas) and is considered Śūdra-by-karma, since one isn’t qualified to perform the Scriptural (vaidika/vaidhika ritual) rites/duties incumbent on a Brahmana. Same goes for Kshatriyas and Vaisyas.

The Veda statement “ashta varsham brahmanam upanayeeta” mentions that the Upanayana Sanskāra for the son of a Brahmana must happen in the 7th year after birth (womb period is considered 1st year, for a total of 8 years).

Guna and Karma are a must

In addition to the sanskārās mentioned, per Githa verse 4.13, Guna and Karma must also be followed. So, after taking birth in a Brahmana family, and after undergoing the requisite sanskāras (purificatory/investiture ceremonies) to become a Brahmana, one must additionally operate with Satva Guna and follow the duties (conduct)/occupation for a Brahmana, including the Daily (Nitya) and Occasional (Naimittika) Scriptural (vaidika/vaidhika ritual) rites/duties detailed in the above sections, to continue to be a Brahmana in good standing. Same goes for Kshatriyas and Vaisyas who are also required to perform Vedic-rites such as the Yajña like the Brahmanas. So, birth, while a prerequisite, is not sufficient.

Born non-Brahmana but operating in Satva?

This (operating in Satva) is the goal for everyone, regardless of Varṇa, as explained earlier. Even the Brahmanas are to strive for Pure Satva (i.e., Satva unmixed with Rajas and Tamas). The predominant Gunas ascribed to different Varṇas are only the tendencies those bodies were historically subject to based on one’s past karma. There is Satva influence in those bodies also, but was generally/historically somewhat suppressed.

Devotion (Bhakti) knows no Varṇa bounds

And Reverence for Satva/Bhakti knows no Varna bounds either

All jivas, regardless of Varṇa (or no-Varna, i.e., the Varna-free), should try to develop Satva by Sath sangha (good association which includes worshipful service of God and the Godly and taking pure/sanctified food), while still performing works appropriate for their Varṇa (if applicable) unselfishly (i.e., without eye on the reward). And thus try to rise up on the spiritual path by also developing devotion (Bhakti) as mentioned in the Itihāsās (particular events/Avatārās narrated in greater detail; the epics Ramayana, Mahabharata) and Puranas (narratives of aeonic cosmic and geological events), as mentioned earlier. We have examples of Śabari, Janaka, Vidura and others, who were not Brahmanas and yet reached perfection and attained moksha. Dharma Vyadha was born in a Śudra family, but by perfect execution of his Varna dharma (occupation) attained such a grand state of spiritual enlightenment that Rishis (sages) would queue up at his door and wait for their turn to clear their doubts on Śāstra (scripture). History is replete with many other instances of great Bhaktas of the Lord appearing in non-Brahmana families, all of whom are greatly revered and some of whom are worshipped in Temples as mentioned in the beginning of this article. Devotion (Bhakti) to God that comes from the heart is what’s most important to the Lord than how it is expressed or what the content of that expression is.

This means that, one in a Kshatriya, Vaisya, Śudra or Dalit (Harijan, so-called outcaste) or Varna-free body might have advanced toward Satva (in fact we find many Sudra lineages operating on Satva/Devotional platform). If this is the case with you, you should be grateful to have had a birth in such a Satvic/Devotional family regardless of the specific Varṇa (or no-Varna, i.e., Varna-free) label. Conversely, as we see these days, it’s also possible one in a Brahmana body to have degraded (overcoming the predominant Satva) and operating under Rajasa/Tamasa mode. Just because one has advanced to the pure Satva platform in a Śudra body, doesn’t mean the definition of the Śudra Varṇa itself must change, similar to how one degrading to Tamas in a Brahmana body, doesn’t call for redefining what the Brahmaṇa Varṇa is supposed to be. It just means that one has advanced upward on the spiritual path and the other has regressed downward on the spiritual path regardless of the Varṇa labels.

Varṇa superiority?

Vedic texts teach that we are all spirit souls and the very beginning stage of spiritual progress requires sarvatra-sama-darśana (‘Equal-seeing everywhere’) per Githa verse 6.29. The same is most vividly taught in Githa verse 5.18:

brāhmaṇe gavi hastini
śuni caiva śva-pāke ca
paṇḍitāḥ sama-darśinaḥ

‘The wise equally regard the brāhmaṇa, or one of culture and conduct, or the cow, or the elephant, or even the dog or even the abject outcaste1.’

Brāhmāṇa (by mere birth) or brāhmaṇa (the spiritual class in India; any spiritual men generally) possessed of learning and conduct. Cow, elephant, dog, an abject outcaste [he who cooks a dog and eats] and so on, are examples by which to illustrate the great differences between one another, in which (embodied) ātmas seemingly so appear.

The equal-seeing (or regarding), for the knowers of ātma-nature, consists in the regarding of all ātmas (residing in those bodies) as equal, by reason of their essential characteristic, viz., intelligence (jñāna) being a common property. The varied appearances are due to (prakṛiti) matter; not to (ātma) spirit.

The wise see that all ātmas (in whatever bodies they may chance to dwell) are equal, viewed by the standard of the attribute of intelligence being shared by them all in common.

Also, being currently in Samsāra (birth/death cycle), even as a Brahmana, is an accursed condition and nothing to be proud about. Lord Krishna Himself mentions that this material world is duḥkhālayam aśāśvatam (impermanent, any joys are temporary/material, entails re-birth, the home of suffering), and anityam asukhaṁ lokam (transient, joyless world), as compared to Vaikuntha (the spiritual realm), the place of eternal and infinite bliss.

Looking down on any living being (what to speak of a human) based on the body/Varṇa would be unbecoming of a Brahmana (who is supposed to be under Satva Guna), besides being sinful and adding to the bad karma of one that engages in it. If anyone engages in this, which would be due to Ahankāra (Ego of I-ness, i.e., mistaking the body for the soul) and Mamakāra (Ego of my-ness; thinking all these are mine) manifesting as self-pride, Varṇa-pride, etc., which are common in this degraded age of Kali yuga, it will lead them to a downward spiral on the spiritual path.

Varṇa inferiority?

Much of what has been mentioned in the previous section applies here as well. Specifically, it must be realized that, for people of all Varṇas (including Brahmanas), being currently in Samsāra (birth/death cycle) is itself an accursed condition. Lord Krishna Himself mentions that this material world is duḥkhālayam aśāśvatam (impermanent, any joys are temporary/material, entails re-birth, the home of suffering) in Githa verse 8.15, and anityam asukhaṁ lokam (transient, joyless world) in Githa verse 9.33 as compared to Vaikuntha (the spiritual realm), the place of eternal and infinite bliss.

So, no honest person (i.e., one who is aware of the soul-body distinction)  will begrudge the relative differences in Varṇas, knowing that his/her nature as a soul is the same (i.e., equal) as the other souls residing in bodies pertaining to the other Varṇas and that his/her own past Guṇa disposition/deeds resulted in the current body (in fact, this acknowledgement is a must for one to begin to progress on the spiritual path), and what really needs to be resented is one’s own propensity to continue to stay in samsāra (birth/death cycle) itself. A human body, regardless of Varṇa or no-Varna (i.e., Varna-free), provides a great opportunity for getting out of samsāra by attaining Moksha (liberation) as mentioned in the beginning of this article. So, one should feel blessed to have had a human birth. Performed unselfishly, no work is small and all work is great, since all such work enables one to progress on the spiritual path.

Even in this material world, we see organizations with a President/CEO, Executive Managers, Mid-level Managers, and workers on the shop floor. All functions are critical to the organization and so, a Manager isn’t supposed to look down upon workers on the floor and a worker wouldn’t feel inferior and begrudge the President/CEO or managers. No doubt typically the shop floor is a hard environment to work in. But he understands that each is in their role because of their education/training (i.e., past karma). See Dignity of Labor in the previous sections.

Sudra is advantageous

Per Vishnu Purāṇa, in this degraded age of Kali Yuga, those in Śūdra bodies can easily be successful spiritually, while other Varṇās struggle in their spiritual endeavours. So, a Śūdrā body is in fact superior in this most important area and this thought/realization ought to negate any feeling of inferiority at a minimum. The same applies to the Varna-free.

God is equal to All

Most importantly, God’s grace (kripa) for living entities is non-discriminatory. Lord Kṛishṇa (God-incarnate that appeared on this earth about 5000 years ago) says in Śrī Bhagavad Gīta (Song of God) Githa 9.29:

samo ’haṁ sarva-bhūteṣu
na me dveṣyo ’sti na priyaḥ
ye bhajanti tu māṁ bhaktyā
mayi te teṣu cāpy aham

‘To all beings I am the same; to Me is there neither foe nor friend. But whoso worship Me in love, they are indeed in Me, and I also (am) in them.’

Be it the divine, the human, the animal, or the stationary, kingdoms; be they high or low, in point of kind (Varṇa or no-Varna), in point of look, (color etc.,) in point of nature (character etc.,) or in point of enlightenment, as Refuge to all, independent of such distinctions, I am equal. Inferiority as regards kind, look, nature, or understanding in any person does not, because of it, warrant that he is hateful to me or fit to be rejected as unworthy to come to Me as his Refuge. No one on the other hand claiming superiority of Varna etc., is, because of it, specially entitled to claim Me as his Refuge, or has warrant to be particularly dear to Me. Save the ground that he elects Me as his Refuge, not any qualification (as Varna, color etc.,) will constitute a claim for My acceptance of Him.

But whoso, of whichever description he be, worship Me as the Object of the most endearing love, worship Me with a fervour as that, without it, their very being would be imperilled, worship Me as that worship alone were their sole end and aim, they,—without regard to their superiority or inferiority as regards Varṇa etc.—would dwell in Me in such a state of blessedness, as compare only with the blessedness of Myself.

I also dwell in them. i.e., dwell in them as if they were My betters1 [i.e., superiors].

The meaning is that love would be reciprocative, and sentiments of love —unmixed with fear or differences as between a master and a servant— would be such as subsist between parents and children.

Varṇa no-bar for Moksha (liberation)

Also, Lord Krishna promises moksha to all those that take refuge at His lotus feet, regardless of Varṇa, in Githa verse 9.32:

māṁ hi pārtha vyapāśritya
ye ’pi syuḥ pāpa-yonayaḥ
striyo vaiśyās tathā śūdrās
te ’pi yānti parāṁ gatim

‘Be they the sin-born, women, vaiśyas or śūdras, yet by trusting Me, even they shall go to the superior state.’

[Editor’s Notes:

1. “sin-born” is not an absolute term and is relative to context and needs to be understood on multiple levels. At a very general/basic level every living being in this material world is sin-born since there’s much suffering in this world. At a higher level, in the context at hand, “sin-born” because of past Karma (pāpa/bad) resulting in births with certain limitations in terms of formal/ready opportunities for spiritual advancement in the environments one is born into. For example, Upāsana (formal  means for moksha that are difficult to perform) aren’t prescribed for Śudras and the Varna-free. While Upāsana are available for Vaisyas, Satra yāga isn’t available. But Lord Krishna is saying here that, these limitations are of no consequence in that, by taking refuge in Him, by becoming His devotees (as detailed in the Itihāsās, Rāmāyaṇa and Mahābharata, and Purāṇās) all (regardless of Varṇa, gender, etc.) can attain moksha/liberation. Dravida Veda also points out Devotion as higher than Scriptural duties for those Varnas/genders burdened with those duties. The same is conveyed by the great Acharya of the 15th century Sri Annamacharya as well. Here’s a case of the tables turned whereby the so-called “virtue-born” (such as Brahmanas) tend to slog along so many formal/difficult paths for Moksha (Upāsanā), while the same Moksha is easily and readily obtained by the so-called “sin-born” by simply taking refuge in the Lord and becoming His devotees. Indeed Brahmanas that have realized this feel inferior to others in this regard as related in Ramanuja’s Ten Words. Also, per Vishnu Purāṇa, in this degraded age of Kali also, Women and Śūdras can easily be successful spiritually, while others struggle in their spiritual endeavours. Hence, “sin-born” is NOT an absolute term, rather a relative term in the context of lack of difficult Upāsanā paths for Moksha. But it turns out that in the context of Śaraṇāgati, Śūdrās, the Varna-free, etc., are to be considered “virtue-born”. So is the reason why Vedas aren’t taught to Śūdrās and the Varna-free directly to protect Śūdrās and the Varna-free from the difficult Upāsana means to Moksha. The essence of the same Veda is taught to all without Varṇa-distinctions in the form of Rāmāyaṇa (which teaches Śaraṇāgati) and Mahābhārata (which is the Panchama Veda, i.e., essence of the Veda). In the grand scheme of things, both pāpa (bad karma) and punya (good karma) are fetters (impediments) to Moksha. One is an iron fetter and the other a gold fetter but it doesn’t matter, just like how it doesn’t matter whether the prison walls are made of gold or iron. What’s important to realize is that God/Moksha is accessible to all.

2. Women are mentioned here for a couple of reasons. One is that there is suffering/pain involved with female bodies with the monthly cycles and tremendous pain giving birth (often in the old days to 10+ children), etc. Secondly along the same lines as mentioned in the above note 1, Śāstras don’t prescribe Śāstrōkta upāya anuṣṭhāna (Upāsana, practice of formal means for Moksha) for women. Nevertheless, women (as better-halves) automatically achieve liberation along with their husbands by dint of their husbands’ spiritual progress alone, or by themselves taking refuge in the Lord and becoming His devotees as mentioned in this verse. It is also worth mentioning here that in Hinduism, women are held in the highest regard. Taittirīya Upanishad teaches “matrudevo bhava, pitrudevo bhava, acharyadevo bhava, atithidevo bhava”, which literally means “be one for whom the Mother is God (God’s representative to be precise), be one for whom the Father is God, be one for whom the Teacher is God, be one for whom the guest is God.”, because every being receives nourishing/nurturing/love from one’s mother primarily, while receiving protection and support from one’s father primarily, etc.]

A must-study here is the article on Equality on this site. And the very purpose of this site is to invite all humans regardless of Varṇa, color, race, etc., to the refuge provided by Sri Ramanuja.

Can one change Varṇa?

We saw in the above sections, how spirit souls might enter bodies in a specific Varṇa, based on their Guna-disposition at the time of leaving their previous bodies (per Gita verse 13.21, verse 9.32 and verse 9.33).

But, can one change Varṇa in the current body itself? No, not in the current body, because:

  1. One’s current Varṇa is NOT AT ALL an obstacle nor a bar to achieve the highest goal, viz., moksha (liberation from the birth/death cycle) at the end of this current body itself as seen above with Gita verse 9.32. Please see the article on Equality on this site; this is a must-study. None of the saints mentioned at the beginning of this article ever worried about or attempted to change their Varṇa (which is at the body level), since by definition they operated on the spiritual platform and were ever intent on maintaining the Varṇa system which was put in place by Lord Krishna Himself per Sri Bhagavad Gita verse 4.13 and Gita verse 13.21 (and alluded to in verse 9.32 and verse 9.33) mentioned earlier.
  2. Only Providence (God) can accurately judge, at the end of the current body, the unselfish nature of one’s karma (actions) in the current body as also the new Guna-disposition that one may have developed as a result of those actions in conjunction with the course of food (varying in Gunas) that was taken during that lifetime, etc., resulting in a new body in a particular species and Varṇa (or no-Varna, i.e., Varna-free), per Gita verse 13.21 (and alluded to in verse 9.32 and verse 9.33). Hypothetically, God leaving to mortals to make these judgements will cause the whole Varṇa system to collapse, with pretty much everyone claiming to have become pseudo-Brahmanas, in the extreme case, and thus leaving their rightful occupations, to their own spiritual detriment, and also to the detriment of society.

It is for these reasons that Śāstras (Vedic law books) prohibit changing one’s Varṇa with the current body, as evidenced by Gita verses 1.39 thru 1.44 and verse 3.24 mentioned in the next section.

An interesting account from Jagadacharya Sri Ramanuja’s life is instructive in this regard:

Ramanuja again employed himself as before in the Tiru-manjana service to Lord Varada, and as friendship and respect for Kanchipūrna deepened, he found much spiritual worth in this Staunch devotee of Lord Varada. One day, Ramanuja earnestly begged of him to become the sponsor for his soul, i.e., his formal Acharya (Guru). “Come, Holy Ramanuja!” said Kanchipūrna, “You desire this of me, because you think I am worthy of such position, but know that I am an unworthy non-entity, whom Lord Varada has perhaps chosen to think of as somebody. And you are evidently intent on acting on the principle:—

‘Yogis (or spiritual men) are born among all Varṇas [and non-Varnas]; and no Varṇa-consideration shall hold in their cases, for they have seen their souls’ Lord.’ (Bharadvāja-Samhitā, I-44).

This dictum holds good as regards our soul-relation, but it cannot be applied as regards our external conditions of birth and social polity as ordained by the Scriptures (Vedas). You shall not therefore externally profess to me bonds which militate against the typical social system of  Varna and Asrama (stage in life). Yours is Brāhmaṇa-body and mine a Vaisya-body, and as long as these last, we must respect temporary distinctions for the sake of the safety of our social fabric, which we cannot violate without injury (to the general progression of men on the spiritual path via the Varna system).”

What about New Converts and Adoptees of Sanatana Dharma?

Converts to (and adoptees of) Sanatana Dharma would be Varna-free and thus aren’t burdened by the rituals and other duties pertaining to the different Varnas. Swami Vivekananda also was NOT for converts to Sanatana Dharma being assigned to one of the four Varnas.[9]

Didn’t Vishwamitra become a Brahma-rishi?

Sage Viswamitra, born as a Kshatriya from Brahmana-energy, got himself elevated to the stature of a Brahma Rishi, through severe penance and austerity for thousands of years, and acknowledged, as such, by no less than Sage Vasishta and Lord Brahma (the divinity in charge of creation). Vishwamitra wasn’t after just a change of Varna, but rather the spiritual enlightenment that is at the same level as Sage Vasishta. But this still remains one of the rarest of rare exceptions to the rule whereby Providence (God) will decide Varṇa at the end of the current body, for the next body. In this degraded age of Kali yuga with limited life expectancy, no one can even think about replicating the severe penance and austerity that Vishwamitra underwent for thousands of years. Also, there’s no one of the stature of Sage Vasishta (or Lord Brahma that we are able to see) to recognize and acknowledge and let us know of the change in Varna. Just because Draupadi had 5 husbands (a rarest of a rare exception) doesn’t mean it becomes a rule. Nor does Devayani marrying King Yayati because of a curse by Kacha, make it a rule. Rules must be followed with the rarest of the rare exceptions (as have been mentioned in Sri Vishnu Purana, etc.) happening from time to time because of special endeavors, boons/curses or for divine purposes.

There are also some misunderstandings being propagated about the origin of Vedavyasa and Valmiki. Vedavyāsa was born of a Brāhmaṇā father (Sage Parāśara) and a Kshatriya mother (Satyavati, originally born to King Uparichara vasu) that was an adopted daughter of a fisherman. In ancient times, Sages (Brahmana) would marry daughters of saintly Kings (Kshatriyas) expending portions of results of their severe penance in the process, even while both Brahmanas and Saintly Kshatriyas are classed together in Gita 9.33. Valmiki was also born of Brāhmaṇa parents and subsequently reformed by sages from a momentary degraded stage, according to various legends.

Inter-Varṇa Marriages?

It is for the reasons mentioned in the previous sections also that Śāstras (Vedic law books) prohibit intermixing of Varṇas via marriage as mentioned in Sri Bhagavad Gita verses 1.39 thru 1.44.

Githa Verse 1.42:

saṅkaro narakāyaiva
kula-ghnānāṁ kulasya ca
patanti pitaro hy eṣāṁ

The intermingling [inter-Varṇa marriage] is verily damnation to both the Varṇa-demolishers and the Varṇa itself. For, deprived of the offerings of food, water, and rites, the manes (pitaraḥ1) of these (men) do indeed fall.

And Githa verse 1.44:

manuṣyāṇāṁ janārdana
narake niyataṁ vāso
bhavatīty anuśuśruma

For those, from whom their clan-laws have departed, O Janārdana1! definite residence in Naraka2 results. So do we hear [from Śāstra].

Lord Krishna Himself, explicitly prohibits inter-mixing of Varṇas by blood (i.e., marriage) in Bhagavad Gita verse 3.24, while also emphasizing that Karma (work) pertaining to one’s Varṇa must not be given up, as demonstrated by Himself, when He appeared 5000 years ago and also in previous incarnations as Sri Rama, etc.:

utsīdeyur ime lokā
na kuryāṁ karma ced aham
saṅkarasya ca kartā syām
upahanyām imāḥ prajāḥ

‘Did I not Myself perform work, all these worlds1 would go to ruin. I would be creating disorder (saṇkara) and working the downfall of all those creatures.’

If I, the Lord of all, of Will Infallible, and in Whose command lies the phenomenal display of the kosmos in its several scenes of emanation, continuance and immanation; if I, taking births —seemingly as if it were a common event like the births of other (karma-bound) creatures2,— for the purpose of benefitting the world,— did not at any time, out of indifference (say), not act; if I, having been born in the pedigree of the famous man-chief Vasudeva3 (My father), did not conduct Myself in all seriousness, in the ways and manners adapted to his race (etc.,), why, all mankind would begin to act likewise, carried away with the notion that My ways are the ways of virtue, the worthy ways of the worthy son of the worthy Vasudeva4!. They would thus be put on the way to Infernum by the mere omission on My part to do a duty, which amounts to the commission of the gravest wrong. Mankind would be put out of the way of realizing ātmā.

If I did not Myself observe the customs of the country, mankind would take that as the final verdict as to what is right. They would desist from all (right) effort, and be lost.

If, again, I failed to respect the behests of Śāstra, by practising them Myself I would be the author of causing a mixture or turbidity in the races of pure and holy people5. I would thus be the cause of such men’s ruination.

Swami Vivekananda was also for one marrying within one’s own Varna.[9]

Doesn’t Guru decide Varṇa?

No. One’s Guru is supposed to accept the appearance of a Jiva in a specific Varna according to Gita verse 13.21 (and verse 9.32 and verse 9.33) and initiate the Jiva in that Varna by performing Sanskārās (purificatory rituals) and further educate and guide one on the spiritual path, including encouraging one to engage in the dharma (duties) consistent with their Varṇa and Āśrama (station in life). Changing one’s Varṇa is condemned in Sri Bhagavad Gita verses 1.39 to 1.44 and directly by Lord Krishna Himself in 3.24, as quoted in the previous sections. Per 1.44, Śāstra promises Naraka (infernum) for Varṇa-demolishers. See the earlier section titled “Can one change Varṇa?“.

In fact, Brahma-sutra (Vedanta-sutra) 1.3.37 “Tadabhāvanirdhāraṇe cha pravṛitteḥ” mentions that Sage Gautama ascertained that the pupil Jābāla was a Brahmana by inquiring about his birth lineage before initiating the young boy and teaching him the Vedas.

Doesn’t Krishna say Varna is by Guna and Karma?

Yes (in Githa verse 4.13) and He established lineages for the four Varṇas to support Guna and Karma, which are NOT to be disturbed through inter-Varṇa marriage per Sri Bhagavad Gita verses 1.39 to 1.44 and verse 3.24. Lord Krishna explicitly mentions in Gita verse 13.21 (and verse 9.32 and verse 9.33) that this system is operated via the birth/rebirth cycle. As mentioned earlier, everyone is encouraged to rise up in Satva without leaving their current birth Varna (or non-Varna, i.e., Varna-free). As mentioend earlier, the way the cycle works is:

Guna/Karma (previous life) -> Varṇa/no-Varna -> Birth (Varṇa/no-Varna actualization) -> Karma (Meritorious works assigned to the Varṇa or Varna-free) and Guna-improvement

The reverse isn’t true.

i.e., Varna doesn’t come from current Karma

The cart must not be placed in front of the horse. Karma is the posterior effect, not the anterior cause, which is what Varna is.

But what about current Guna/Characteristics/Conduct not matching Birth Varna?

They should be regarded (i.e., respected/honored) to be qualitatively on the same level as one belonging to the Varna that matches the Guna/Conduct, even while quantitatively remaining in their Birth Varna. For example, if one born a Sudra qualitatively manifests or rises in Satva, Bhakti (devotion to God), pious deeds and conduct to the same level as those that are seen in the Brahmana Varna, he should be  respected/honored at the same level of high esteem that a true Brāhmana would be. This is what’s being conveyed by Srimad Bhagavatam 7.11.35:

If what has been declared to be a characteristic of the grade [Varna] in society of a (particular) man is perceived even in another (a man belonging to a different class [Varna]), the latter should be distinctively called [i.e., honored] by that very denomination.

An important principle in accepting and understanding a text is that, in the order of Śruti/Prasthānatrayī, Itihāsās and Purāṇās, later texts are less authoritative. For example, only those portions of a Purāṇā are to be accepted that don’t conflict with Śruti/Prasthānatrayī and Itihāsās and those accepted must be understood in the light of the earlier texts.

The Gita Press edition of Bhāgavata Purāṇa (which the above translation is based on) also explains this verse 7.11.35 properly according to the above mentioned principle:

What is sought to be conveyed by this assertion is evidently this that if a man belonging to a lower grade in society evinces the characteristics of a higher grade [in terms of Satva/Bhakti/Conduct], he should be accorded the same honour as is due to the members of that higher grade. But this should in no case be taken to mean he should adopt the vocation of a higher grade, as such deviation will create confusion [i.e., Varna-sankara].

NOTE: Content in [] added for clarification.

Whereas ISKCON has interpreted this verse to mean “accepted” to belong to the different Varna as in change in Varna, which is in direct conflict with verse 7.11.13 in the same chapter which emphasizes birth, sanskārās, approval by Lord Brahma, etc., and also in conflict with the Gita verse 13.21 (and 9.32 and 9.33) explained earlier that explain Varna-actualization/manifestation at birth in the birth/rebirth cycle.

It’s all about Satva Guna and Devotion

So, the real purport of this verse is that real eminence is based on Satva Guna and Bhakti (Devotion), not on birth, Varna label, etc. So, instead of trying to categorize people by Varna based on their current Karma (secular occupation) and Guna, one should look for Satva Guna, Bhakti (Devotion to God) in others without regard to their particular Varna or no Varna (Varna-free) and respect them (i.e., hold them in high esteem) and associate with them (i.e., Sathsanga) to improve one’s own Satva Guna and Bhakti (Devotion to God).

Unfortunately, many Hindus (including many Hindu organizations such as ISKCON), due to lack of proper understanding or under pressure from Abrahamic faiths that take a single life/shot view to spirituality, have attempted to explain away Varṇa, based solely on the bodily platform, propagating that Guna and Karma in the current birth alone determine one’s Varṇa, disregarding (or ignorant of) the operation of this via the birth/rebirth cycle as mentioned in verse 13.21 (and in verse 9.32 and verse 9.33) and totally disregarding (or ignorant of) Krishna’s unequivocal instructions against Varna-sankara (inter-Varṇa marriage). Hinduism takes a cross-janma (across rebirths) view to gradual spiritual evolution of spirit souls as opposed to the binary 0 or 1 approach taken by Abrahamic faiths.

One’s Varna matters to selves only with regard to following their individual duties at a personal level according to their Varṇa as best as possible in addition to Devotional activities that apply to all regardless of Varṇa, no-Varna (i.e., Varna-free) for one’s individual spiritual advancement, with the Brahmaṇās additionally having the public Scriptural duties/responsibility of performing rites/sacrifices/formal-worship inside and outside Temples for others’ material/spiritual benefit.

Why Brahmanas at forefront in Temple?

Temple worship is constituted of yāgās (Great religious sacrificial rites) performed for the good/welfare of everyone in the Society/world.

Per Githa verse 17.23, God created these Scriptural (vaidika/vaidhika ritual) rites/duties along with Brahmanas to perform them:

oṁ tat sad iti nirdeśo
brahmaṇas tri-vidhaḥ smṛtaḥ
brāhmaṇās tena vedāś ca
yajñāś ca vihitāḥ purā

‘Brahm’s denomination is declared as triple: ‘OM, TAT (and) SAT.’ Conjoined with it were, of old, Brāhmaṇas, Vedas and Yajñas created.’

According to Āgama and other Śāstras (scriptures), only Brāhmaṇās (who come in such lineages of Rishis such as Bhāradvaja, Kasyapa, etc.) can perform yāgās in temples for others’ benefit/welfare. So is the reason that they are in the forefront and are honored with tīrtha and prasada and other temple honors first (which is a part of the yāgā itself), before tīrtha and prasada are granted to other devotees. [2]

One important principle to understand here is that everything that happens in a temple is kainkarya (loving service) to the Lord resident there. While Brāhmaṇās perform the worship services (yāgās), there are lots of other services (kainkaryas) performed by those of other Varṇas in the temple. [2]

As Brahmanas are the ones who are assigned that particular yāgā kainkaryam, they need to be in the front. But in many temples, Saththadha Srivaishnavas (non-brahmana Srivaishnavas) have some kainkaryam like sandalwood paste preparation, thippandham (fire torch), managing the screen etc – they too stand on the high platform near the Deity. The principle which we need to understand is – whether one is on the higher platform or lower platform (physically), kainkarya (service) is more important. For example, a person playing nathaswaram at the entrance is as important as the person doing archana (worship/yāgā) to The Lord, standing on the platform. And the person who does the cleanup after the event is complete, is also equally important. Once that principle is understood, everyone will be treated with respect, irrespective of where they are and what they do. [2]

Brahmana is an untouchable?

No, not really. No one should expect to NOT be touched by others while in public, although everyone has a right to their personal space which varies dynamically based on the situation. But preparations for conduct of religious (Scriptural/vaidika/vaidhika ritual) rites/duties (such as yāga) require temporary ritual purity that should last until the conclusion of the religious event. In an earlier cited Githa Verse 18.42 Lord Krishna mentions the below as one of the characteristics to be adhered to by a Brāhmaṇa:

Śaucham = Purity = The preparatory holiness required for discharging a Śāstra-ordained duty.

Consequent on the need to maintain Satva Guna and the ritual purity (both bodily and mental) needed to perform Yajñās (spiritual duties incumbent on a Brahmana), those that are in Satva Guna are to take all precautions to avoid the influence of Rajas and Tamas, which means they aren’t supposed to eat food cooked by someone on the Rajas and Tamas platform, since food is affected in subtle ways that have to do with spiritual magnetism, by the mental makeup (i.e., Gunas, ritual purity, devotion to the Lord, etc.) of the cook. Same goes for physical contact. To the uninformed (i.e., who has not become familiar with the contents of this article thusfar) this would appear to be Varṇa discrimination/superiority, but not so to the informed.

For these reasons, Brahmanas wouldn’t take food prepared even by other Brahmanas unless they are sure of their ritual purity and mental makeup (i.e., devotion to God or holiness). The following note by Sri Alkondavilli Govindacharya (on PDF page 34) is pertinent:

In Hindu households in India, the cooks must be of the same Varṇa as the employer or above their Varṇa [in terms of Satva], and they must be holy people, holier than the rest of the house-hold.

Ritual purity (know as madi in Tamizh/Telugu and Śuchitva/zucitva in Sanskrit) requires that those Brahmanas in madi cannot be touched even by other Brahmanas that are NOT in madi at that time.

Even in the mundane world, we have so many maxims/proverbs on the influence of the company that we keep, on us, such as:

  • “A man is known by the company he keeps”
  • “You are known by the company you keep”
  • “You are only as good as the company you keep”
  • “Bad company corrupts good character”
  • “You cannot change the people around you, but you can change the people you choose to be around”.

They all derive from the subtle principles mentioned earlier in this section.

The concept of personal space is also related. We can choose to not be purposefully touched by others we deem might pollute us physically (think about germs/viruses/diseases) or mentally/spiritually.

The opposite of Śoucham (Purity) is Aśoucham (impurity). Anyone that hasn’t taken a bath, or has a bodily discharge (such as during monthly cycles for women), anyone that has come into contact with a dead body, etc., are considered temporarily impure for the purpose of entering temples, per Śāstra (scripture).

Modern Context

Isn’t the Varṇa system already degraded?

Yes. It’s one of the features of this degraded age called Kali Yuga; the Brahmaṇa for the Kali Yuga is not expected to be at the same highest standard of a Brāhmaṇa from Krita Yuga, according to the Dharma Śāstras (law books). As mentioned earlier, merely being born into a Brahmana family doesn’t automatically make one a Brahmana. One must undergo the requisite sanskaras (purificatory/investiture ceremonies) to become a full-fledged Brahmana; not undergoing these makes them Brahma-bandhus (blood relatives of Brahmanas), not full-fledged Brahmanas themselves. They should also acquire spiritual knowledge and conduct which would make them Vipra/Pandita; Lord Krishna makes a distinction between a mere Brāhmaṇa and a Vipra/Pandita in verse 5.18. They should then additionally follow the duties(conduct)/occupation for a Brahmana (as detailed in the above sections) to continue to be a Brahmana in the best standing. Most people that are born into Brahmana families these days are not following their Varna dharma (duties and occupations) as described for various reasons. Many are even found to be operating predominantly under the influence of Rajas and Tamas.

The same degradations can be noted in the case of Kshātra-bandhus (blood relatives of Kshatriyas), Vaisya-bandhus (blood relatives of Vaisyas), etc.

Give up Varna dharma?

So, should one totally give up on Varna dharma because they are not following it fully and/or perfectly?

Prescribed Vs Proscribed Activities

No, not per Sri Krishna’s instructions in Sri Bhagavad Gita and Sri Vishnu Purāṇa below, according to which one should still follow whatever prescribed activities they are able to follow under the degraded circumstances (as Brahma-bandhus, etc.), while absolutely not engaging in proscribed activities (adharma). Resorting to Varna-sankara (mixing of the Varṇas by marriage) which is explicitly proscribed/prohibited by Lord Krishna, as mentioned above, is one thing to absolutely avoid. It is one thing to not be doing what’s prescribed, but doing what is proscribed is a much bigger offence that will lead to Naraka (the infernum/hell). One should try to do what’s prescribed and totally avoid what is strictly proscribed.

Follow to the extent possible

Sri Bhagavad Gita verse 2.40 is pertinent here:

nehābhikrama-nāśo ’sti
pratyavāyo na vidyate
sv-alpam apy asya dharmasya
trāyate mahato bhayāt

‘In this1 there is no loss of effort, nor can any harm accrue. Even an iota of this Dharma2 saves from great fear.’

Any little effort that may have been made in this3, viz, karma-yoga, is not in vain. Abhikrama means ārambha=beginning (i.e., effort). Nāśa=destruction, i.e., the destruction or loss, that the effort is means to a certain fruit.

No failure of fruit attends even when a duty begun is not completed on account of interruptions intervening. And no harm whatever will accrue if it be interrupted at the commencement itself.

Even an iota of this dharma saves from great fear’: viz., the fear of samsāra (mundane career).

This same truth is further elaborated in verse:

‘Neither here, nor hereafter, is there loss to him, Pārtha!’ (Bh: GI: VI-40)

A little goes a long way

Also, per Vishnu Purāṇa, in this degraded age of Kali Yuga, following even a little Dharma has manifold effect .

Also, Sri Bhagavad Gita verse 3.31:

ye me matam idaṁ nityam
anutiṣṭhanti mānavāḥ
śraddhāvanto ’nasūyanto
mucyante te ’pi karmabhiḥ

‘Whoso, men, will follow this eternal behest of Mine, filled with faith or (at least) void of ill-will, shall be released from all deeds.’

Mānavas=men, the descendants of Manu1, and therefore the followers of Śāstras. They determine to themselves what the main import of the Śāstras is, which(Śāstras) are no other than My Will formulated and conduct themselves in accordance therewith.

Have Faith in Śastras at least

There are those, who, if they cannot bring the Śāstra-canons into practice personally, may yet be faithful believers in the tenets inculcated therein.

Or do not blaspheme at the very least!

There may again be those, who though not earnest and believing, may not yet range themselves with blasphemers, and doubt the truthfulness, authority (and so on) of the Śāstra-injunctions ; in other words, who will not try to detect errors in Śāstras, laying claim, as they may, to perfection.

All these three classes of men shall be delivered from the effects of their vast accumulation of past fructescent deeds, causing their bondage [gradually].

Te ‘pi= they also, or at least they: referring to the unvilifying class, is to impressively show that even if they be not men of earnestness, but if only they keep a passive attitude, they are entitled to salvation (gradually).

This verse thus declares that even those who are unable to exemplify the Śāstra-teaching by actual conduct, but if they are earnest in believing its precepts; and that even those who may not be earnest, but if they at least do not blaspheme, are entitled to absolution from past deeds, the cause of bondage. The (positive) attitude of faith or at least the (negative) attitude of absence of ill-will gradually leads them on to actual conduct as enjoined by Śāstra, and then on to liberation (moksha) finally.

Must NOT be forsaken though faulty

Also, Sri Bhagavad Gita verse 18.48:

saha-jaṁ karma kaunteya
sa-doṣam api na tyajet
sarvārambhā hi doṣeṇa
dhūmenāgnir ivāvṛtāḥ

‘Let natural duty, Kaunteya!, though faulty, be not forsaken. Verily all endeavours are in faults swathed, like fire in smoke.’

Hence as act comes natural, easy of execution, and is beset with no dangers, let it be done though it be faulty and painful. The import is: ‘Let even he who is competent for Jñāna-Yoga, follow the Path of Karma-Yoga. Endeavours, be they of Karma-Yoga or of Jñāna-Yoga, are all indeed surrounded with faults and pain. The difference however consists in that Karma-Yoga is easy and not beset with dangers, and Jñāna-Yoga is the reverse (in these respects).

So, Society must be constructive!

Per Sri Krishna’s instructions above, Society must be constructive and encourage following of Varna dharma, among Brahmanās especially since they ought to provide the ideal that everyone else is expected to lookup and try to rise upto, as much as is possible (along with encouraging Satva and Devotion amongst all including the Varna-free) rather than trying to destroy the Varna system because it’s not functioning optimally.

Varna system is tedious and slow like bullock-cart

All this still means that progress on the path of Karma Yoga is probably going to take many lifetimes, and optionally many more lifetimes after that in Jñāna Yoga possibly and yet possibly many more lifetimes in Bhakti Yoga before one attains moksha (liberation). Anyone is going to be surely disappointed at themselves and demoralized with this state of affairs, in spite of Lord’s exhortations in the above.

So, is there an alternative under the circumstances?

Yes. Jagadacharya Sri Ramānuja Āchārya who was God’s will-sent commissioner that appeared in the year 1017, pointed out and propagated on a mass scale, Prapatti/Saranagati (free surrender to the Lord in Love), as the sure and quick means for moksha (liberation) for all in this degraded age called Kali Yuga.

Wait, should I still desire Brahmana birth?

One is free to desire whatever they want, but it still begs the question if its a wise thing to desire for, for the below reasons:

  1. Saranāgati provides a sure and quick means to transcend samsāra (birth-death cycle) itself by attaining Moksha. Why desire for something material such as a Brahmana body, which is essentially a different cell in the same jail (material world)?
  2. As it is, in this degraded age, those that have taken birth in Brahmana bodies are having a tough time following so many Scriptural (Vaidika/Vaidhika ritual) rites/duties required of Brahmanas and thus have turned into Brahma-bandhus accumulating so much pāpa (demerit) as explained earlier. Why try to get into what others are finding tough/impossible to maintain?
  3. The nectar of devotion to God is already available to all regardless of Varṇa. While Brāhmanas, Kshatriyas and Vaisyas are burdened with so many Scriptural (vaidika/vaidhika ritual) rites/duties to perform, others are able to spend all of their time in enjoying God, the ultimate nectar. Dravida Veda also points out Devotion as higher than Scriptural duties for those Varnas burdened with those duties. The same is conveyed by the great Acharya of the 15th century Sri Annamacharya as well. Even Acharyas feel inferior to others in this regard as related in Ramanuja’s Ten Words. So, why desire a burden-some Brāhmaṇa body?
  4. Desire for a Brāhmaṇa body will never arise in practice. One that rises in Satva would NOT desire something material such as a Brahmana body, they would be desirous of moksha (liberation) instead, although failing to achieve Moksha in this birth would automatically (without asking/desiring) lead to a  Brahmana body in the next birth. Per Gita verse 6.41.

Saranagati (Prapatti/Surrender)

Prapatti/Śaraṇāgati is, in brief, taking refuge at the Lord’s lotus feet in utter helplessness/waylessness (akinchanyatva) and with no other Savior in mind (ananya-gatitva) which are explained in The Prapanna-Paritrana OR The Refuge of the Refugee, of Sri Pillai Lokacharya. This is also called Nyāsa Vidya, one of the 32 Upanishad Vidyās enjoined in the Upanishads (Vedānta) for attaining to Moksha, so this is an eternally available Vidya (Means), not a new invention.

Lord Rama who appeared in Treta Yuga (before 864,000 years ago in this Chatur-yuga and by some other accounts, approximately 13 million years ago in an earlier Treta Yuga than in the current Chatur-yuga) accepted Prapatti/Saranagati/Surrender from Vibhishana and others. Rāmāyaṇa is thus known as Śaranāgathi Śāstra. Lord Krishna who appeared about 5000 years ago, again showed the path of surrender, with Himself being the Saviour for the ones that surrender, in His final instruction to Arjuna in Sri Bhagavad Gītha verse 18.66:

‘Renouncing all Dharmas [i.e., self-driven efforts to reach Me], hold Me as your Sole Refuge. I will deliver you from all sins [to My presence in the spiritual universe]. Grieve not.’1

Further, about 1000 years back, Jagadacharya Sri Ramanuja Acharya descended from Sri Vaikuntha (spiritual universe) by the will of God, to propagate on a mass scale, Śaranagati/Prapatti as the easiest and guaranteed means for Moksha and further became a Savior (by God’s will) for those that would take refuge at Sri Ramanuja Acharya’s lotus feet.

Open to all

Prapatti/Saranagathi is available to all regardless of Varṇa (or no-Varna, i.e., Varna-free), color, race, etc. This includes the so-called outcastes (Dalits, so-called untouchables), and those that don’t appear in one of the 4 Varṇas described above, such as converts from other faiths (or new adoptees of Sanatana Dharma) and some communities in India that aren’t clearly placed in one of the Varṇas. We have many examples of the surrendered that didn’t appear in Brahmana families. Some examples were given at the beginning of the article, such as that of Saint Thiruppān Aḷvār  who appeared in a Dalit/Varna-free family and Saint Nampāduvān (aka Māladāsari) who appeared in a Chandala/Varna-free family. A few more in the below:

Prapanna jana Kutasthar (Leader/spiritual-progenitor of the Surrendered) Sri Nammāḷvār (whose appearance was foretold in Sri Bhagavata Purana 11.5.38-40) Himself appeared in a Śudra family, to drive home the point that Prapatti/Saranagati is open to all.

Sri Maraneri Nambi, who appeared in a Śudra family, was a great sishya of Sri Yamunacharya (the Acharya of Sri Ramanujacharya). There’s a very beautiful episode related on this page about how he served His Acharya.

Sri Dhanurdasa (also known as Pillai Urangavilli Dasar) who appeared in a Śudra family was a pure devotee of Jagadguru Sri Ramanujacharya. Sri Ramanujacharya held him in such a high regard that He would lean on Sri Dhanurdasa while returning from the bath in Kaveri river, even while he would lean on Sri Dasarathi (His Brahmana disciple) while going to the river for the bath. This is significant because, a Brahmana (which Sri Ramanujacharya is) is considered impure before the bath and pure after the bath, showing that purity of devotion ultimately counts more than the so-called purity of high birth.

The above are just a few examples of countless instances. These are not deviations from Śāstra, rather very much enunciated in ancient Śāstras. From The Pancharatras or Bhagavat-Śāstra:

A man may belong to any Varṇa, and still be eligible for becoming a Vaisnava mason (or freemason). Īśvara Samhitā, viii, 179, says:

Sva-sva-varṇāśram-ācāra- sadṛśakṛti-ceśtitān
Lāñchitān Cakra-śankhābhyām bhujayor dakśināditaḥ

i.e. ” They remain severally in their own Varṇa, Āśrama (sacramental stage), and Ācāra (customs), but are all impressed (without Varṇa distinction) with the Cakra (discus) and Śankha (conch), (which are sacraments of Vaishnava initiation)”.

Also Pādma-tantra, iv, 23, 113 ff, may (inter alia) be read. That all are eligible for this Dīkshā without distinction, says further, Īśvara-Samhitā, xxi, 40, 41:

Sarve samānās catvāro gotra-pravara-varjitāḥ
Utkarsho n-āpakarshaś ca jātitas teshu sammataḥ
Phaleshu niḥ-spṛhās sarve dvādaśākshara-cintakāḥ
Moksh-aika-nishcayāś śāva-sūtak-āśauca-varjitāḥ

i.e. “There is no distinction of Gotra or Pravara (i.e. racial, clannish, and such other guild-denominations); all the Four (i.e. Brāhmana, Ksatriya, Vaisya, and Śūdra) are equal. There is no high and low (distinctions) of Varṇa (jāti). They are (all) meditators of the (Holy) Dvādaśa-ākshari (or the twelve-syllabled Bhagavad -Vāsudeva formula), unconcerned in other fruits than that of sure Moksa; and to them no (sacramental) impurities consequent on births and deaths (of kin) attach”.

Also read Bhāradvāja-Samhitā, i, 14-16; Sudarśanopanishat and Mahā-Sudararśan-opanishat. Vishnu-Tilaka, iv, 189-90, gives the verse:

Tāpah pundras tathā nāma mantro yāgaś ca pañcamaḥ
Pañca-saṃskāra-dīksh-aisha Deva-deva-priyāvahā
Pañca-samskāra-dīkshāvān mahā-bhāgavatas smṛtah

i.e. ” Tāpa, etc., are the Five Samskāras or Initiations (diksha) dear to the God of Gods. He who receives these is called the great Bhāgavata “.

For elaborate treatment read Bhāradvāja-Samhitā Pariśishta, ch. ii.

Service attitude needed

Sri Vaishnavam is about Bhagavad and Bhāgavata-seshatvam (i.e., service to God and the Godly) as explained in the article Equality in Srivaishnavam. The contents of this article are presumed to have been included here in this article by reference.

Unable to see Pain/Suffering

A Vaishnava is unable to see the pain or suffering of other living entities, even while knowing that such pain/suffering is a result of one’s own past (prārabdha) karma.

On another day, Ramanuja had gone out on a visit to Purna’s Holy Garden; while he was returning, on the way he observed Govinda put his fingers into the fangs of a snake and withdrawing them go to bathe, and proceed to Purna’s house to perform the usual services. Feeling curious at this unusual act of Govinda’s, he questioned him. He explained that he saw the snake open its mouth as he approached and he found, on examination, that it had a thorn on its tongue. He extracted the same from it to relieve the suffering creature, and then went about his business. “What a tender heart possessest thou, Govinda! ” said Ramanuja to him.


A vaishnava is ever willing to help others in need. From The Divine Wisdom of the Dravida Saints (1902) (Topic 71):

Another story of the Queen of Mercy holding supreme sway in the heart of Kuresa (the prime scholar-disciple of Sri Ramanuja) is also related. On the river-side of Kaveri (Srirangam) a woman had filled her pots with water, but there was no one near to help them to her head. Kuresa noticing it at once helped her (without Varṇa considerations and the nature of help needed).

Humility and Forbearance

A Prapanna (i.e., a surrendered soul) is by definition most humble and tolerant and always looking to serve God and the Godly (regardless of their Varna) while also helping all other living beings as service to God. This automatically means, one doesn’t expect any special treatment/privileges because they are Prapannas. To feel equal to other Prapannas is itself offensive to one’s Svarūpa (constitutional identity) as a Prapanna, what to speak of feeling superior or conceited. See the article on Equality.

High birth could be a bane

Prapannas of the Brahmana Varṇa actually feel their so-called high-birth and learning usually only breed pride in this degraded age of Kali Yuga and as such are obstacles in resorting to Śaranagati and in achieving Bhāgavata-seshatva, the paramopeya (highest goal).

Sri Pillai Lokacharya, the great Srivaishnava Acharya of the 13th century, says:

The eminence or greatness of one’s birth is not to be guaged from the Varṇain which one was born but from the extent to which it helps adherence to the essential nature of ‘Seshatva’ (servanthood) to God and the Godly. Actually, a devotee, born in a high Varṇa, is liable to feel, in this degraded age of Kali yuga, self-conscious and super-eminent by reason of his Varṇaand environment and be led astray into the domain of ‘Upayantara’ (i.e., pursuing means other than Prapatti/Saranagati). Chances are that humility, which alone is the hallmark of excellence, is not ingrained in him, in this degraded age of Kali Yuga. Situated as he is, and, if at all, it has to be studiously cultivated as a special virtue, as distinguished from an inborn, natural trait. On the other hand, the devotee, born in the lower Varṇa, stands a very good chance of being humble, right from birth, not being exposed to any of the aforesaid dangers which beset the devotees, born in the higher Varṇas. Real eminence, therefore, goes in the reverse order and rightly belongs to the devotees in the lower Varṇas with humility ingrained in them, right from birth.

Devotee (Bhāgavata) higher than Brāhmaṇa

It is said that, however low be his parentage, the devotee is superior to the Brahmin, nay, even a Sanyasi, if the latter is devoid of love to God. Infact, he, who is devoid of love to God, is even worse than a ‘Swapachah’, the Chandala, who eats the putrid flesh of a dog ‘Swapachopi maheepala Vishnu bhaktho dwijathikah Vishnu bhakti heenastu yadhischa swapachatamah.’

Thus far, it was elucidated how one’s birth is to be adjudged high or low, [based on the barometer of humility as opposed to mere birth]. Contact with enlightened Sri Vaishnavas, free from conceit of any kind and steeped in God-love, can, however, help to wipe off any drawbacks of low birth. A precondition for the establishment of such a contact is a spirit of ‘Give and take’, and the total elimination of conceit due to one’s exalted birth, etc. See also stanza 42 of Thondaradippodi Alvar’s Thirumaalai, which reads as:-

My Lord in the walled city of Arangam [Sri Rangam]! You have, it seems Ordained the brahmins, well-versed in Vedas, in their flawless Line of descent, to revere on a par with You, Your devotees Born in low Varṇas, and with them mix in a spirit of ‘give and take’.

Association with the soft and saintly Sri Vaishnavas transforms into their own virtue, those coming in contact with them, the latter’s draw-backs of low birth etc., vanishing automatically.

A couple of interesting episodes will serve to illustrate this point.

Sri Ramanuja was one day observed leading a poor dumb man with him and shutting himself up with him in the monastery in a private chamber. Kūreśa was watching this unusual conduct on the part of the high pontiff; and looking through a chink in the closed door, observed Ramanuja showing the dumb man by means of signs, his own holy feet, and making him understand thereby that their contemplation would be the sole means of his salvation. Kūreśa, on seeing this supreme act of grace, soliloquized to himself thus: “Alas that I have been born Kuresa, a man of learning and wisdom; I had fain been born dumb and boorish to have deserved such precious free grace as this man!”. It is said, that Kūreśa swooned away under the weight of this reflection.


Dhanurdasa had so far been metamorphosed, that he became the greatest favourite of Ramanuja; so rare too was his piety, that though he belonged to a lower Varṇa, he had privileges conferred upon him. For often, Ramanuja was found returning from his river-bath leaning on the shoulders of Dhanurdasa; though when he went to the bath he would lean on Dasarathi, a Brahmana. A Brahmana is unclean before bath, and clean after it; and thus Dhanurdasa as a Sudra, and Dasarathi as a Brahmana must have changed places. But Ramanuja had it the other way, as told above, which much exercised the minds of his Brahmana disciples. They once made bold to ask him for an explanation, which he condescended to tender thus:— “O Vaishnavas, have ye not heard that learning, riches and high-birth swell a fool with pride, but adorn a wiseman? This Dhanurdāsa (who appeared in a Śūdra Varṇa) is utterly destitute of this three fold vice, but ye are not. Hence he is fit enough to be touched by me and to prop on”. On hearing this, the disciples bent their heads in shame.


It is recorded that Dhanurdasa’s regenerate life was full of such incidents. One such interesting event is recounted by Periya-v-acchanpillai in his commentary on St.Nammazhvar’s Tiruviruttam, v:99: “Īnacchol”. Kuresa read Tiruvaymozhi, and Dhanurdasa, who heard it, melted into tears. Observing this passionate ebullition of feeling, Kuresa exclaimed: “Fie on us, beloved Dhanurdasa! We are known to fame as very clever dialectic gymnasts over knotty questions of philosophy and all that sort; but none of us can claim the privilege of thy (your) birth which brings to thee (you) a love-lorn heart, which we so hard struggle to possess.” It is related again in the 36,000 commentary on Tiruvaymozhi(VII-4-1 “Azhi”) that Dhanurdasa was called ”Mahamati” by the worthies of Srirangam, inasmuchas his love for Ranganatha was so intense that whenever the Lord was taken in processions in the streets, ‘Mahamati’ walked in front with his sword drawn, so that he may cut any who dared to do any act, in the least offensive to the Deity. Vidura of the Maha-bharata fame was called Mahamati, inasmuchas his love for Krishna made him to examine the seat, which he had himself prepared for Him in his own house, lest he might have unwittingly allowed any danger to lurk in there. Mahamati literally means wiser than wisdom, this expression having the force of wisdom blinded by love for God. Dhanurdasa also was thus so wise, i.e., so love-blind as to fear danger for one (God), who is above all dangers.

Sudra and Varna-free advantageous than Brahmana

Another important aspect to note is that while Brāhmanas, Kshatriyas and Vaisyas are burdened with so many Scriptural (vaidika/vaidhika ritual) rites/duties to perform, others are able to spend all of their time in enjoying God, the ultimate nectar. Dravida Veda also points out Devotion as higher than Scriptural duties for those Varnas burdened with those duties. The same is conveyed by the great Acharya of the 15th century Sri Annamacharya as well. Even Acharyas feel inferior to others in this regard as related in Ramanuja’s Ten Words.

Categorization of Bhāgavatas by Varṇa

Unfortunately, some Hindu organizations such as ISKCON, due to ignorance of the principles mentioned above have felt the need to categorize Bhāgavatās as belonging to one of the four Varṇās based on their own estimation of the Guṇās, etc. This is actually Bhāgavata apachāra (offence against Bhāgavata), a grave offense. Why?

Because Varna pertains to the body and is just a vehicle to engender devotion to God, whereas devotion to God pertains to the ātma (soul) itself and does get engendered even outside of the Varna system and thus is a spiritual principle transcending Varna (a material principle); one must NOT try to categorize Bhāgavatās using a material principle such as Varṇa.

As explained earlier in the article, Gita verse 4.13 doesn’t mandate Varṇa categorization in societies where one doesn’t already exist. Similar to how one cannot question why Rama/Krishna avatārās happened in the area called Bhārath (of which India is a part), one cannot question why the Varṇa institute appeared and/or in existence there only. None of the Bhāgavatās such as Saint Munivāhana Yogi (Thiruppān Aḷvār) who appeared in a Dalit/Varna-free family and Saint Nampāduvān (aka Māladāsari) who appeared in a Chandala/Varna-free family, were subsequently categorized by Varṇa. Bhāgavata Dharma demands that one be Varna-blind in devotional affairs, so one must NOT look at Bhāgavatās based on the Varna they might have appeared in or try to ascribe a new Varṇa to them.

The word Brāhmaṇa has also been used in scripture to mean “those who desire moksha”, etc., in a non-Varna way, for example in Gita verse 2.46, but these usages do NOT warrant or sanction ascribing the Brāhmaṇa Varṇa to them.

Thirukkulathar (people of the sacred lineage)

Almost a thousand years before Mahatma Gandhi called Dalits (so-called untouchables, the Varna-free) as Harijans, Jagadacharya Sri Ramanuja Acharya called them Thirukkulathar (people of the sacred lineage) and granted them entry into temples 1000 years ago, a revolutionary moment unimaginable in those days. From The Life of Sri Ramanujacharya (published in 1906):

THE PANCAMAS. [In the stupendous work involved in the institution of this Holy Shrine (in Melukote, India), and the, in those days, hard journeys to distant countries which had consequently to be undertaken, the Panchamas or the Pariahs or those low-caste Hindus who are relegated to a place in the Hindu Society beyond the pale of the law-sanctioned Chātur-varṇya (i.e., the four constituted members of the Hindu polity, the Brahmana, Kshatriya, Vaisya and Sudra), were, so says our tradition, of great help to Sri Ramanuja. He gave them the title of “Tirukkulattar” or the “Blessed Descendants,” and further allowed them the privilege of entering into the Holy Temples. Ramanuja opened the doors of religious instructions for these classes, as well as certain modes of ritual and other privileges peculiar to Sri-Vaishnavas, such as the Pancha-Samskara or the Five Holy Vaishnava Sacraments. It is thus evident how seriously had Ramanuja bethought of elevating the low-classes as regards their eligibility for salvation [liberation/moksha]. Ramanuja had already confirmed too in his own days, what his predecessors had ordained, viz.,the enshrinement of saints in the Temples, to whatever Varna/caste they may belong to.]

Recently a Pandal was erected in Bangalore bearing the inscription: “Tirukkulattar,” to greet Their Royal Highness (5th February 1906), and the following remarks were recorded by The Hindu of this date(5th February 1906) :—

” * * * nothing is of greater historical interest than the word Tirukkulattār. * *When Sri Ramanujacharya, the immortal founder of the Vaishnava sect, went to Melkote in the Mysore Province, the Pariahs made themselves so useful to that sage that he felt for their hard lot. To elevate them socially he gave them the name of Tirukkulattar, which means people of high or noble descent. His great aim was to abolish the word Pariah [i.e., Dalit] and thus to put a stop to the degradation of a section of the people of this country. He also awarded to them the rare and valued privilege of visiting the temple at Melkote. Thus the emancipation of the Pariah commenced long ago, and if it has not been yet [as of 1906] accomplished, the cause is not solely the absence of consideration for the class on the part of some of the most illustrious founders of religious sects in India. Though at the present day the followers of Sri Ramanujachariar form probably the most exclusive among the Brahman community, still the fact remains that the founders of the sect laboured for the elevation of the depressed and despised castes* * * the hallowed name of Tirukkulattār carries us back to those good old days when the practice and the preaching of religion meant really the elevation of men, and the greatest of saints considered it a part of their duty to minister to the religious cravings of the lowest classes of people.”

In these days we have the spectacle of a Mīrādās a Mahomedan, who has embraced Vaishnavism, and is performing Harikathas all over the country and of a Chenchu-das, (a Tirukkulattār), at Kolar (Mysore State), who is working for the religious elevation of his class, by establishing temples, Muths and Bhajana-kūtas, and to whom his spiritual guru, of Tirukkovalur, has delegated the privilege to administer himself, to his men, the Pancha-samskara sacraments and receive dues called the Pancha-kāṇikās.

Also, the below incident shows that birth is no bar for spiritual wisdom and that spiritual wisdom must be treasured regardless of the birth of the person having it. From The Life of Sri Ramanujacharya (published in 1906):

Here an interesting incident happened. Ramanuja was devoutly making his round of several holy shrines encompassing the Central Shrine Tirunagari, when he met a Chandala woman approaching. Ramanuja, in order to avoid pollution by her proximity, (in line with the customs of that time; see the section on untouchability earlier in this article) asked her to hold off, so that he might pass on. But she, without moving away, addressed Ramanuja and said :— “Sire, which side shall I move? Here before me stands thy (your) holy self, a Brahmin whom I cannot approach lest I pollute thee (you) by my nearness. Behind me is the Holy Shrine Nīl-nilāmuttam( = Tiruk-kanna-puram); to my right are the Tirumanan-kollai (where Saint Parakāla (Tirumangai) waylaid the Lord) and Tiruv-arasu (the Pipal tree used by the Saint as his watch tower); and to my left is Lord Tiruvāli-Manavāḷan. There is thus purity all about me here, which side then can my impurity turn?” Ramanuja was struck dumb at this unexpected answer from an unexpected quarter. “Forgive me, madam,” he said, “nor did I divine such spirituality in you”. So saying, he administered to her the holy Vaishnava sacraments [Pancha-samskāra]; and allotted her a place in the Shrine, -where her image is to this day seen and reverenced by all the visitors.

Dr. B.R.Ambedkar is said to have mentioned about these social reforms by Sri Ramanujacharya in an editorial written on 3 June 1927 according to this speech by Prime Minister Modi of India on the occasion of the release of a postal stamp to commemorate the 1000th appearance (birth) day of Jagadacharya Sri Ramanuja Acharya.

Do the Surrendered give up Varṇa?

No, they are to continue to follow their Varna dharma as best as they can, but solely as service to God (i.e., no longer as a means to Moksha), with renewed vigour and enthusiasm considering it’s now service to the Lord as opposed to something done for their own spiritual advancement.

An interesting account from Sri Ramanuja’s life mentioned earlier in this article is worth recounting in this regard:

Ramanuja again employed himself as before in the Tiru-manjana service to Lord Varada, and as friendship and respect for Kanchipūrna deepened, he found much spiritual worth in this Staunch devotee of Lord Varada. One day, Ramanuja earnestly begged of him to become the sponsor for his soul, i.e., his formal Acharya (Guru). “Come, Holy Ramanuja!” said Kanchipūrna, “You desire this of me, because you think I am worthy of such position, but know that I am an unworthy non-entity, whom Lord Varada has perhaps chosen to think of as somebody. And you are evidently intent on acting on the principle:—

‘Yogis (or spiritual men) are born among all Varṇas [and non-Varnas]; and no Varṇa-consideration shall hold in their cases, for they have seen their souls’ Lord.’ (Bharadvāja-Samhitā, I-44).

This dictum holds good as regards our soul-relation, but it cannot be applied as regards our external conditions of birth and social polity as ordained by the Scriptures (Vedas). You shall not therefore externally profess to me bonds which militate against the typical social system of Varṇa and Asrama (stage in life). Yours is Brāhmaṇa-body and mine a Vaisya-body, and as long as these last, we must respect temporary distinctions for the sake of the safety of our social fabric, which we cannot violate without injury (to the general progression of men on the spiritual path via the Varna system).”

As explained earlier in this article, Varna dharma (duties pertaining to a Varna) entails Secular/mundane work (i.e., job/occupation) to earn/receive money/wealth to perform Religious activities (Scriptural/vaidika/vaidhika ritual rites and Devotional activities). Let’s see what these are for Prapannas (Saranagathas/Surrendered).

Secular/mundane (laukika) Occupation

Historically, work occupations were divided amongst various Varṇas in the simplistic agrarian economy in villages and sons usually picked up the needed skills from their fathers and continued in the same lines of work as their fathers; same with daughters and their mothers. But in the complex modern economy primarily based in cities and towns, and with the availability of an education system to support such a complex economy involving a combination of varied skill sets, one can study and be employed in whatever secular occupation/job they are interested in, regardless of Varṇa (or non-Varna, i.e., the Varna-free). For example, I could be a teacher in a school/college/university even though my ancestors were potters or barbers, or cattle herders for example. This is fine for Prapannas (the Surrendered), as long as one is not engaged in an occupation that militates against what it means to be a Prapanna. One must never discriminate based on Varṇa, Religion, etc.

Dignity of Labor

An important principle here is that regardless of whichever secular occupation one might be in, one must perform it as a matter of duty to be performed (i.e., without selfish interest in fruit), solely as service to God, and without looking down upon others’ work as low, etc. In other words, any work, regardless of others looking at it as high or low, becomes great when it’s performed as service to God.

Religious (Scriptural/Vaidika/Vaidhika and Devotional) Activities

Scriptural (Vaidika/Vaidhika RITUAL) rites/Duties

Scriptural (Vaidika/Vaidhika ritual) rites/duties consist of Nitya (daily) and Naimittika (occasional) duties that Brahmanas, Kshatriyas and Vaisyas should perform, but no longer as means to Moksha but as service to the Lord. Only Brahmanas are to conduct priestly duties in Temples, since as mentioned earlier in the section titled “Why Brahmanas at forefront in Temple?”, Temple worship is a yāga performed for the welfare of everyone in Society and only Brāhmanās can perform Yāgās for others’ welfare according to Śāstra (scripture). Non-brahmanas are to engage themselves in so many other services (decorations, arrangements, cleaning, etc.) in Temples as needed by the Brāhmaṇa priests. So the services to be performed are distinguished/differentiated based on Varṇa in temples and other religious duties. Priesthood isn’t a secular/mundane occupation with a pay/salary. Rather it’s a Scriptural (Vaidika/Vaidhika) rite/duty to be performed specifically by Brāhmaṇās. Sāstrās forbid salaries to be paid to priests. Rather priests are only supposed to subsist by accepting gifts from others. Regrettably these days, Priests are being “paid” a salary by Government-managed temples, but Priests must nevertheless accept the so-called salary only as a gift and NOT look at Priesthood as a secular/mundane (Laukika) occupation/employment.

Swami Vivekananda said “Secular employment is not for the Brahmin but for the other castes.”[8]

Devotional Activities

As mentioned earlier in the article, Varṇa is not at all an impediment to Devotion to God and the Godly. And every Prapanna (Surrendered) regardless of body-Varṇa must engage in Devotional activities.

No inter-Varṇa marriage

Even among Prapannas (i.e., Sri Vaishnavas), one must scrupulously conform to all Śāstra injunctions against inter-Varṇa marriage between varnās as mentioned earlier per Sri Bhagavad Gita verses 1.39 thru 1.44 and 3.24. As a most important principle of conduct, Prapannas (the Surrendered) must NOT engage in adharma (i.e., conduct explicitly proscribed/prohibited by Śastras, i.e., scriptures, which are described by Lord Krishna in Sri Bhagavad Githa as His will personified). It is one thing to not be doing what’s prescribed, but doing what is proscribed is a much bigger offence that will lead to Naraka (the infernum/hell). So, one should try to do what’s prescribed and totally avoid what is strictly proscribed.

Swami Vivekananda was also for one marrying within one’s own Varna.[9]

No Varṇa Consciousness

Sri Pillai Lokacharya, the great Sri Vaishnava Acharya of the 13th century, taught that a Sri Vaishnava must never think about another Sri Vaishnava’s Varṇa (or non-Varna, i.e., the Varna-free) as a barometer of devotion.

Offence is being thrown at the Godly (Bhagavatas) in ever so many ways. One of these is to cry them down by reason of their having been born in a low Varṇa. To think of these great souls, elevated unto God, in terms of their birth and parentage, is even more atrocious than thinking of the ‘Archa’ or God’s iconic manifestation in terms of the composition of the Idol. Scanning an Idol as to whether it is made of stone, wood, copper, iron, silver or gold would mean the very negation of the principle, of the Lord’s gracious manifestation in any image (asritadhravya), erected by the votaries, out of love and reverence.

[Editor’s Note: See the article Idolatry or Deity? on this website for more on the topic of Image/Deity worship in Hinduism.]

Well, it is even as cruel as the scrutiny of the reproductive organ of one’s own mother. Such an offence receives instantaneous punishment by turning, there and then, into a Karma Chandala, (as distinguished from a Chandala by birth), as in the case of Trisanku, king of the Ikshvaku dynasty…. See also the Sloka of Brahmanda Purana, ‘anacharan dhurachatan, gnattoon, Heenajanmanah matbhaktan srotriyo nindhan sadhyah chandalatam vrajet’. Unlike the Chandala by birth, who has hopes of salvation either in the same span of life or a few spans after, there is no hope of redemption for the Karma Chandala, because he got himself hurled down from his erstwhile position of eminence to the bottommost depths of depravity (arooda pathitha). No one is excluded or exempted, as being above punishment for such an offence; Whosoever gives affront to the devotees (Bhagavatas), be he of the highest Varṇa or the lowest, intellectually advanced or deficient, meets with the punishment, as above. Stanza 43 of Thondaradippodi Alvar’s Thirumaalai reads as follows:

Oh Lord at Arangam! even brahmins in the top Varṇa, Learned in all the four Vedas and their six adjuncts, will, it seems become, in a trice, outcastes, should they decry Your devotees in the low Varṇa.

Contact with the Godly is enough to lead one to salvation, despite the deficiency or even total absence of spiritual learning and religious observances. Conversely, offence given to the devotees is enough to throw one into perdition, his vast erudition and meticulous religious observances notwithstanding. In the former case, it is not as if the contact in question has to be only with devotees, born in the higher Varṇas, having to their credit meticulous religious observances, while contact with devotees of lower descent will be of no avail. Again, it is not as if offence thrown at the devotees belonging to the higher Varṇas will alone prove ruinous while there is no harm in offending devotees of lower descent. Well, so far as the ‘Man of God’ is concerned, there is absolutely no distinction of high and low, by reason of descent, learning and conduct. Contact with such a one, irrespective of his Varṇa, attainments etc, will elevate us while the wrong done to him will completely ruin us.

At the receiving end?

This also means that if a Bhāgavata (Devotee/Prapanna/Surrendered) happens to be on the receiving end of any offences, the offences must be ignored and forgiven without a word or creating a quarrel, etc., being that a fundamental attribute of a Bhāgavatā is humility. Instead pity should be shown toward the offender, as God (the Omniscient) is sure to punish the offender for the offenses.

Brahmanas at the forefront in Temple worship shouldn’t be mistaken as an offence, since they are simply performing their Scriptural (Vaidika/Vaidhika ritual) rites/duties (Varṇa Dharma) and thus they are not at the forefront because of their Devotion being necessarily superior to that of other devotees.

No desire for recognition

One must also not demand that one be recognized on the level of Sri Nammalvār, Sri Tiruppān-Alvār and other great Bhagavatas, for a couple of reasons. Firstly, no true Bhāgavata, being utterly humble, will ever demand that he/she be shown respect, recognition, etc. This will immediately and inherently make one a non-Bhāgavata (i.e., disqualify one as a Prapanna/Surrendered soul). Secondly, there’s no one of the stature of Pūrvāchāryas (Acharyas/Gurus of yore) such as Jagadacharya Sri Ramanuja around who are capable of recognizing great Bhāgavatas for worship. So, the best course is to continue with the traditions as have been practiced for centuries.

No discrimination

Also, a Bhāgavata must never discriminate, even in secular affairs, based on Varṇa, religion, etc., knowing that all living entities are equal as spirit souls (sarvatra-sama-darśana) and belong to God and thus constitute one world/universal family in accordance with the Vedic maxim Vasudhaiva Kutumbakam.

Prapanna Kula (Thondar Kulam)

As explained by Sri Velukkudi Krishnan Swamin in his discourse on the Basics of a Srivaishnava, while at the Varna level, one might have a surname of Śarma (Brahmana), Verma (Kshatriya), Gupta (Vaiśya) or Dāsa (Śūdra), once one becomes a Prapanna, they all get a spiritual surname “Dāsa“, for example, “Rāmānuja Dāsa” for Srivaishnavas to signify that all are servants of Bhagavān (God) and Āchārya (Rāmānuja).

All the Prapannas (the Surrendered), regardless of Varṇa (or non-Varna, i.e., Varna-free), are to be considered to be part of one spiritual group of Bhagavad-bandhus (God brothers and sisters), also known as Prapanna Kulam (or Thondarkulam), even while at the body level, one’s Varna dharma as far as religious/Scriptural (Vaidika/Vaidhika ritual) duties are concerned is to be scrupulously followed and Varna-sankara (inter-Varṇa marriage) must not be engaged in.

While the words jāti, varna and kula are sometimes interchangeably used to describe Varna, the meaning varies based on context, like in the case of many other Sanskrit words. Kula here simply means “group”, not a Varṇa.

Saint Parānkuśa (Nammāḷvār) whose appearance was foretold in Sri Bhagavata Purana 11.5.38-40 and who Himself appeared in a Śudra family about 5000 years ago, is Prapanna jana Kutasthar (Leader/spiritual-progenitor of the Surrendered).

Swami Vivekananda

Swami Vivekananda was a Hindu monk (that was born in a non-Brahmana family) that became world-famous when he presented Vedic wisdom to the west at the Parliament of the World’s Religions in Chicago in 1893. Followers of Sri Ramanuja (for whom this site is dedicated) who were originally invited for the conference but wouldn’t cross the seas for reasons of orthodoxy, were instrumental in Swami Vivekananda being sent as a representative of Hinduism, including supporting him with expenses and such. Swami Vivekananda‘s exhortations for the Hindu society in regard to the Varna system are worth recounting:

The solution of the caste problem in India, therefore, assumes this form, not to degrade the higher castes, not to crush out the Brahmin. … The solution is not by bringing down the higher, but by raising the lower up to the level of the higher. And that is the line of work that is found in all our books. (Madras)[8]

It is the duty of the Brahmin, therefore, to work for the salvation of the rest of mankind in India. If he does that, and so long as he does that, he is a Brahmin, but he is no Brahmin when he goes about making money. … Secular employment is not for the Brahmin but for the other castes. To the Brahmins I appeal, that they must work hard to raise the Indian people by teaching them what they know, by giving out the culture that they have accumulated for centuries. It is clearly the duty of the Brahmins of India to remember what real Brahminhood is. As Manu says, all these privileges and honours are given to the Brahmin, because “with him is the treasury of virtue”. He must open that treasury and distribute its valuables to the world. (Madras)[8]

To the non-Brahmin castes I say, wait, be not in a hurry. Do not seize every opportunity of fighting the Brahmin, because, as I have shown, you are suffering from your own fault. Who told you to neglect spirituality and Sanskrit learning? What have you been doing all this time? Why have you been indifferent? Why do you now fret and fume because somebody else had more brains, more energy, more pluck and go, than you? Instead of wasting your energies in vain discussions and quarrels in the newspapers, instead of fighting and quarrelling in your own homes — which is sinful — use all your energies in acquiring the culture which the Brahmin has, and the thing is done. Why do you not become Sanskrit scholars? Why do you not spend millions to bring Sanskrit education to all the castes of India? That is the question. The moment you do these things, you are equal to the Brahmin. That is the secret of power in India. Sanskrit and prestige go together in India. As soon as you have that, none dares say anything against you. That is the one secret; take that up. (Madras)[8]

Being of one mind is the secret of society. And the more you go on fighting and quarrelling about all trivialities such as “Dravidian” and “Aryan”, and the question of Brahmins and non-Brahmins and all that, the further you are off from that accumulation of energy and power which is going to make the future India. For mark you, the future India depends entirely upon that. That is the secret — accumulation of will-power, co-ordination, bringing them all, as it here, into one focus. (Madras)[8]

The Bhāgavata (devotional/surrendered) way of life enunciated in the earlier sections not only meets these but in fact goes beyond these.

On Converts/Adoptees and Marriage

Swami Vivekananda was NOT for converts to (and new adoptees of) Sanatana Dharma being assigned to one of the four Varnas[9] and was also for one marrying within one’s own Varna in line with Scripture.[9]

Social Harmony/Integration vs Social Dissolution/Effacement

The Varṇa system, if practiced without discrimination in Secular occupations/work and Devotional affairs, but with the necessary differentiation as to the specific Scriptural (vaidika/vaidhika ritual) duties pertaining to the different Varṇas, and with the knowledge of us being spirit souls progressing spiritually through the Varna system (and outside) in a birth/death cycle, is naturally socially harmonious and conflict-free.

But to look at this human life as just the one and only one instance available, like the Abrahamic faiths do, and then try to redefine the Varṇa system, or make it Varṇa-less based on bodily consciousness of life, will result in grievous injury to Vedic way of life, landing us in spiritual peril, since we would be conducting ourselves in opposition to our eternal Vedic principles/scripture which Śāstra, Lord Krishna says is His will personified. Social Harmony/Integration, which is what’s needed, isn’t the same as Social Dissolution/Effacement, which is against Śāstra, spiritually suicidal and so must be avoided.

Lord Krishna says in Githa verse 16.23:

yaḥ śāstra-vidhim utsṛjya
vartate kāma-kārataḥ
na sa siddhim avāpnoti
na sukhaṁ na parāṁ gatim

‘Whoso discarding Śāstra’s rubric, freely roams at will, he attains not to perfection, nor happiness nor Highest Goal.’

Śāstra = Vedas (= the Inspired knowledge of Revealed Religion)

Vidhi =Rubric= a Scriptural injunction.

Vedas are My Mandates. Whoso abandons them and drifts in the way his unlicensed will may lead, he will not attain to (1) siddhi = perfection = transmundane perfections; nor to (2) sukham = happiness of any kind (sublunary); never therefore to (3) Supreme Goal (the Acme of spiritual beatitude, joining God).

and in Githa verse 16.24:

tasmāc chāstraṁ pramāṇaṁ te
jñātvā śāstra-vidhānoktaṁ
karma kartum ihārhasi

‘Hence thy [your] Authority is Śāstra, to judge what is duty and not. Knowing what Śāstra’s canons teach and do enjoin, it is now for thee [you] to act.’

Śāstra alone is thy [your] Supreme Authority deciding for thee [you] what is worthy for thee [you] to adopt and what is worthy to reject.

What Śāstra-canons teach and enjoin are what the Vedas and their exegetic Codes, viz., Dharma-Śāstra (= Moral social Institutes), Itihāsas and Purāṇas (=legendary lore of men and Gods) etc, teach as regards (1) the Highest Truth of Purushottama, and enjoin (2) works or services which are pleasing to Him, and constituting Means to reaching Him. Knowing both these, (1) Truth and (2) Works, —neither more nor less,— it is meet for thee [you] now to act in accordance therewith.

So, the divine arrangement that the Varṇa system is, it must be understood, practiced (by those in the Varna system) and defended as laid out in this article.

How come all this isn’t common knowledge?

As can be seen, the above compilation is totally from ancient authentic sources. Then the question naturally arises, why isn’t all this common knowledge already among the masses?

  1. Before the degradation of the Varna system into a system of discrimination  in this degraded age of Kali Yuga, it worked as laid out in the first part of this article. People primarily based in Villages derived their knowledge and entertainment from Temple events, Hari katha performances, etc., and progressed spiritually.
  2. In Hinduism, spiritual knowledge has traditionally been imparted using a seeker-driven approach. This meant one would have to approach a Bhāgavata (devotee) or Guru and respectfully inquire. See Lord Krishna’s instruction in Githa verse 4.34.
  3. Even so, Acharyas such as Jagadguru Sri Ramanuja Acharya strived to distribute spiritual knowledge freely to all those that were interested. In fact, the first 2 of the six final instructions from Sri Ramanuja Acharya were about Propagation.
  4. Due to the efforts of these Acharyas, there were many times in the past when there was active Propagation and a resurgence of the Bhāgavata (devotional/surrendered) way of life anchoring/bolstering the proper functioning of the Varna system in villages.
  5. But once the Acharyas would leave the planet, things would revert back to a passive seeker-driven approach and a degraded state of affairs in terms of a degraded Varna system, due to the influence of Kali Yuga.
  6. Mass migration of people from an agrarian economy centered around temples in villages to cities where the sole focus became materialistic advancement to the total exclusion of spiritual advancement (specifically in terms of spiritual knowledge), leading to Casteism and the current sorry state of affairs, with Casteism in fact becoming a tool for material advancement.
  7. Many non-Vedic religions took advantage of the degraded state of affairs and made inroads by aggressive and in-the-face propagation of their faiths, with the degraded Varṇa system making it easy for them to portray the general Varṇa system and hence the whole Vedic way of life (sanātana dharma) in a negative/poor light. NOTE: Another aspect of Sanatana Dharma that is misunderstood and misrepresented is Image/Deity Worship. The article Idolatry or Deity clears those misconceptions.
  8. Hence the urgent need of the hour is to aggressively resort to preaching true Varnāsrama dharma to all Hindus, as laid out in this article, along with the truth about Deity Worship in temples as laid out in the article Idolatry or Deity.

Can I modify this article and redistribute?

Surely. It’s very well recognized that there are other traditions within Hinduism that follow Saivam, etc. Lord Krishna says in Githa verse 7.21:

yo yo yāṁ yāṁ tanuṁ bhaktaḥ
śraddhayārcitum icchati
tasya tasyācalāṁ śraddhāṁ
tām eva vidadhāmy aham

‘Whatsoever body (form) a devotee wisheth, in faith, to worship, that very faith in him do I render firm.’

So, please feel free to adapt this article to suit your tradition and redistribute, since all share the same Varna system. The only condition is that the line “Adapted from” be added to your article.

You might also be interested in distributing the article Idolatry or Deity since it deals with another misunderstood aspect of Sanatana Dharma.

A Rational View/Summary

The following note (on PDF page 72) by Sri Alkondavilli Govindacharya on the Varṇa and Āśrama (stage in life) system of Hindus in India would serve as a nice summary, in terms of a rational explanation of the Varṇa system from a historical perspective.

Varṇa = the four typical Varṇas of Brāhmaṇa, Kshatriya, Vaiśya and Śūdra.

Āśrama = the four typical orders of life, viz., Brahmacharya (Student), Grihastha (householder), Vānaprastha (anchorite), and Sannyāsa (monastic).

A recent speech by Mr. N. N. Ghose at the Hare Anniversary Meeting (1904) is important as bearing on the vexed question of Varṇa in India, which the Christian will not understand. He said:— “The division into Varṇas cannot be understood by any one who does not realise that all Hindu institutions were inspired by one principle. It was not political expediency, not social convenience, not the happiness of the greatest number, not the development of fighting capacity. Material good was a subordinate end. The ruling principle was the spiritual evolution of man, the perfection of character, realisation of the self [and God]. For the purposes of spiritual evolution, a separation of classes and occupations was considered necessary [i.e., came into being by the Will of God]. The Brahmans, for instance, were to be devoted to religious work and meditation and the function of teaching, and so on with other Varṇas. It was no mere division of labour that was thus accomplished [by the institution instituted by God Himself]. It was an institution meant to prevent the spiritual degradation of men by the mixing up of finer and courser spiritual natures. The four leading Varṇas were marked off from each other by characteristics that could not be mistaken. All experience shows that men are not equally endowed on the spiritual side. Then it has to be remembered that the law of Karma was one of the root conceptions of the Varṇa-system. Men were born into a particular Varṇa by their Karma, [and final Guṇa-disposition] of a previous life. Men of lower Varṇas could go up to the higher in another life [or attain liberation (Moksha) regardless of Varṇa] if they had made spiritual progress enough in this life. No mere intellectual qualifications or material conditions [nor devotion to God on which Varṇa has no bearing (a devotee by definition would never demand to change Varṇa in the current body, knowing the Will of God)] would raise a man to a higher Varṇa. Each man was born into the Varṇa for which he was destined by his own susceptibilities [Guṇa-disposition accumulated in previous births]. There was room enough for [spiritual] advancement [and perfection] and usefulness [historically] within his own Varṇa, [with devotion to God and spiritual perfection knowing no Varṇa bounds]. But he was not to be permitted to spoil his own breed by marrying in a lower spiritual plane [or Varṇa as determined by Providence at birth based on previous Karma], or spoil the breed of a higher Varṇa by marrying on a higher plane. … Not muscles and intellect, not happiness, not political ascendancy, but spiritual perfection and purity were the only end.” The warning voice against promiscuous intercourse and admixture of Varṇas is found in the Bhagavad-Gita, verse I.40 to I.44 [further emphasized by Lord Krishna in Bhagavad Gita verse 3.24]; which may be read by all the devotees of this Holy Bible, and laid to heart before venturing to anathematize the Varṇa-institution of India.[6]

It must be reiterated that Varṇa (or no-Varna, i.e., Varna-free) is no bar for spiritual upliftment resulting in Moksha/Mukti (liberation from the birth/death cycle into the Spiritual Universe) at the end of this same birth, or even Sainthood as was seen earlier in the article. Even while one might spiritually become purer in this life, one’s new body in a species/Varṇa/no-Varna must be left for Providence (God) to decide, at the end of this life.


The Varna system, as an integral component of the Vedic system, is designed to aid the spiritual evolution of living entities as they transmigrate through various species and Varṇas (or no Varna, i.e., Varna-free), culminating in Moksha (liberation to the Spiritual Universe). It does this by apportioning secular occupations (which were few in the simplistic agrarian village-based economies of yore) and scriptural duties (rituals that aid in the spiritual growth) along with Devotional activities (common to all including Varna-free) to the four different Varṇas defined according to the predominant Guṇa (qualities Satva/Goodness, Rajas/Passion and Tamas/Ignorance) and driven by the birth/rebirth cycle. One’s Guṇa (quality of matter) disposition based on Karma (merit and demerit from past lives) and types of food (varying in their Guṇa qualities) eaten decide the next Varṇa. Hence birth in a Varṇa is but an indication of the Varṇa decided at the end of the previous birth and hence isn’t inherited from parents in the new birth. Thus it’s not hereditary.

While the Varna system is a slow system like a Bullock-cart for spiritual advancement via practice of various Yogas across a multitude of lifetimes, the larger/encompassing Vedic system simultaneously encourages people in all Varnas and non-Varna (i.e., the Varna-free) to rise up in Goodness (Satva) and develop Devotion to God, culminating in free surrender to God in love (Śaraṇāgati, God the ultimate Means to reaching Him/salvation shown in Bhagavad Gita and the Itihāsās, Rāmāyaṇa and Mahābhārata, and the Purānās), which is a Jet-plane available to all, regardless of Varṇa, no-Varna (Varna-free), Color/Race, etc., to fly them to Moksha (liberation to the Spiritual Universe Vaikuntha, The Perfect, The land of permanent and unhampered freedom and joy).

Thus, Hinduism takes a cross-janma (across rebirths) as well as an in-janma (in this birth) view to gradual spiritual evolution of spirit souls as opposed to the binary 0 or 1 approach taken by Abrahamic faiths that take a single life/shot view to spirituality. While there’s Varna-fluidity (i.e., changes in Varna/no-Varna) across janmas (at birth/rebirth time), there’s Guṇa/Devotional/Spiritual-fluidity within a janma (this birth itself) that everyone can rise up in, regardless of Varna, no-Varna (i.e., Varna-free) etc. So, a cross-janma (birth/rebirth) view is necessary to understand the Varṇa system. One would not barge into a plane and ask for the passengers and pilots to switch places. So it is the same with the Varna system. Both the pilots and those that hop onto the plane as passengers, reach the destination, which is what’s important.

Also, the Varna system is anti-hierarchical, recognizing all Varnas (and Varna-free) as of Divine origin and thus equal and indispensable parts of a harmonious Divine whole.

In the Modern economy, everyone is free to do whatever material/secular occupation/job they are interested in doing, while following their individual Scriptural/ritual/religious duties at a personal level according to their Varṇa as best as possible in addition to Devotional activities that apply to all regardless of Varṇa, no-Varna (i.e., Varna-free) for one’s individual spiritual advancement, with the Brahmaṇās additionally having the Scriptural duties/responsibility of performing yāga (sacrifices/formal-worship) inside and outside Temples for others’ material/spiritual benefit.

Caste vs Varna

NOTE: Some of the information in this section is based on Caste, Conversion A Colonial Conspiracy: What Every Hindu and Christian must know about Caste by Pt. Satish K. Sharma, reference [10] in the References section, available in Bharat (India) for a fraction of the cost at This book is a must-read to understand the topic of Caste, Casteism and its origins.

The word Caste is a name given by the British during their rule of India, to describe the Varṇa system native to Hinduism (properly ‘Sanātana Dharma’, The Eternal Path/Way) and hundreds of communities within/outside these Varṇas. But Caste suggests a system that is based on heredity, hierarchy and discrimination, not inherent in the Varṇa system itself as should be evident from this article. The British sowed further divisions along Caste lines and aided/encouraged Casteism (Caste-based discrimination) as part of a policy of Divide and Rule. This Casteism having solidified under the British rule of India, still has currency in many places, especially in the political sphere of India. Hence the name Caste has stuck and is in wide use.

State of Casteism today

As mentioned earlier, the name Caste (and thus Casteism) doesn’t just follow the 4 Varnas, but extends to all the hundreds of unique communities within/outisde these Varnas. So, there are literally hundreds of Castes with strong Casteism ruling in many belonging to some of these ‘Castes‘ that are materially rich or politically powerful or otherwise big in numbers or are simply Caste-conscious in protecting and promoting their own while discriminating against others in secular affairs. This Casteism springs from their own caste-pride, caste-promoting discriminatory nature (similar to Racism, Classism, etc.) and has nothing to do with the Varna system as has been shown in this article.

There are also occasional reports in the media of Harijans (so-called Dalits) not being allowed to enter Temples in India, in spite of a decades-old law outlawing such restrictions that flowed from misplaced notions of piety/purity.

Brāhmaṇas having historically been physically powerless and largely materially poor living a life of austerity, miniscule in number and dependent on support from other Varnās, never figured in the Caste calculations of Indian politics/economy in the last 70 years since Independence from Britain (into a democratic republic), but have nevertheless been the favorite whipping boy for all Caste discrimination indulged in by other Castes as well. With the loss of support in villages, and lured by lucrative opportunities in the modern economy in the Cities, Brāhmaṇās have largely moved into cities over the last 100+ years or so into diverse secular occupations in the modern economy including positions in government (before the advent of affirmative action quotas for socially backward classes reduced their numbers) accumulating material wealth (and giving up many Brahminical scriptural duties), but overall the community (largely degraded into Brahma-bandhus) remains politically irrelevant, and economically weak  and is recognized as such by Government programs for economically weaker sections of society.

ATTEMPts to destroy Varna system

There are currently attempts in some states in India to replace Brāhmaṇa priests in temples with those from other Varṇās in the name of equality (at the bodily level) in opposition to Śāstra (scripture) that promotes equality at the soul-level with the duties/obligation to perform perform yāga for societal benefit (which is what Temple worship is) incumbent on and thus reserved for Brāhmaṇās as mentioned earlier in this article; priesthood is NOT a job and is NOT a secular occupation, in fact Brāhmaṇās aren’t supposed to receive a salary but subsist on gifts. There are also calls, especially in the political circles of India, to eradicate Casteism by eradicating Caste and destroying Varṇa itself, by encouraging inter-Caste marriages (including inter-Varṇa marriages which are again in direct opposition to Śāstra, as mentioned earlier in this article). While good-intentioned, these attempts at reformation run counter to scripture because they are attempts based on bodily-conception of life. Whereas the need of the hour is reform based on soul-conception of life laid down by Scripture and promoted and propagated by Achāryas (Gurus) such as Sri Ramanujacharya as laid out in this article. And such a scripture-based reform (as laid down in this article) will only be effective when it reaches all, especially the masses. So, please distribute this article widely.

Casteism is bad/wrong/sinful

To wrap up: while the Varṇa system, with due unselfish performance of Secular (laukika) occupation/work and Devotional Activities without discrimination of any kind along with the performance of respective Scriptural (vaidika/vaidhika ritual) duties as differentiated by Varna (Caste), is a necessity for spiritual growth/evolution, Casteism is a social evil and must be shunned and social harmony must prevail based on a proper understanding of the Varṇa system as given in this article.

Casteism is a social evil that must be annihilated by propagating knowledge of the fundamental equality of all living beings as spirit souls (jīvātmas) and Varṇa (defining certain scriptural duties) as pertaining to the temporary material body and NOT to the soul (ātma). Similar to how Sexism isn’t annihilated by annihilating gender/sex, and Racism isn’t annihilated by annihilating Race, annihilating Casteism doesn’t mean annihilating Varṇa. One must not make the mistake of throwing the baby out with the bath water.

So, how should I answer for Caste in short?


  1. Sanātana Dharma (aka Hinduism) teaches that we are all spirit souls and that all living beings (inhabitants of this earth) constitute one family (Vasudhaiva Kutumbakam) and that we must see all as equal as ātmās (spirit souls) (sarvatra-sama-darśana). Sanātana Dharma is non-sectarian and Universal in precept and practice, recognizing that one can relate to God anywhere in the world in the best non-exclusive way known to them, be it Animism, Paganism, or those provided in Sanatana Dharma.
  2. Our bodies change from birth to birth based on our Karma (good/bad) from previous lives and the Guna (Goodness, Passion, Ignorance/Darkness) disposition we develop by the end of our previous birth, deciding the new birth to occur in one of the species, including as a human and further into a specific Varṇa or no Varna (Varna-free). Hence, Varṇa (or no Varna, i.e., Varna-free) isn’t inherited from parents, rather it’s an effect from our own past, not the cause.
  3. Hinduism takes a cross-janma (across rebirths) as well as an in-janma (in this birth) view to gradual spiritual advancement of spirit souls as opposed to the binary 0 or 1 approach taken by Abrahamic faiths that take a single life/shot view to spirituality.
  4. The Varṇa system is but one way for gradual spiritual progress across a multitude of lifetimes, slow (like a bullock-cart) and tough to practice (the other way that is sure and quick like a Jet plane is Devotion/Śaraṇāgati described later). There are four Varṇās (Brāhmaṇa, Kshatriya, Vysya and Śūdra) classified based on the Guna disposition with appropriate scriptural/ritual duties (and secular occupations) assigned to that Varṇa to aid in spiritual development/advancement via the performance ultimately of difficult Yogas called Upāsanās.
  5. Secular occupations suited to a simplistic agrarian village economy of yore were also apportioned to different Varṇās (Administration/military for Kshatriya, Business for Vysya, Support services for Śudra) but they are no longer applicable in the modern industrial/technological world/economy. One can engage in whatever secular occupation interests them.
  6. The Varṇās constitute various portions of an aspect of the Divine and are hence Equal, with Brāhmaṇās materially powerless, living a life of austerity and poverty, forming a spiritual ideal treasured, preserved and protected by the other Varṇās and the Varna-free. The Varṇa system operates via the birth/rebirth cycle into the four Varṇās and hence can’t be replicated nor reproduced elsewhere. So, if you aren’t born in one of the four Varṇās, the Varṇa system doesn’t apply to you, so you would be VARNA-FREE, if you convert to (or adopt) Sanātana Dharma!!!
  7. Devotion to God and Śaraṇāgati (free surrender to God in love as shown in the scriptures such as Upanishads [Nyāsa Vidya], Rāmāyaṇa, Mahābhārata, Bhagavad Gīta, and the Purāṇās as the quickest and surest means to liberation to the spiritual Universe [Moksha/Mukti] bypassing various difficult ways/Upāsanās) are available to all regardless of Varṇa, no-Varṇa (i.e., Varna-free), Color/Race, etc. Śūdra, Dalit and other non-Varṇa (Varna-free) bodies are advantageous since they are NOT burdened with the many scriptural/ritual rites/duties incumbent on other Varṇās and can develop devotion and easily/freely surrender to God in love without the least trace of any false ego of the so-called “high” Varṇa that other Varṇās might be tempted to possess in this degraded age of Kali Yuga. A Bhāgavata (great devotee of God) transcends Varna/Varna-free, while still respecting any Varna-obligations if applicable, and is held in higher regard than even the priestly Brāhmaṇās. So, there’s Devotional fluidity within the same birth while there’s Varna-fluidity across births actualized (i.e., known) at rebirth times.
  8. In the Modern economy, everyone is free to do whatever material/secular occupation/job they are interested in doing, while following their individual Scriptural/ritual rites/duties at a personal level according to their Varṇa as best as possible in addition to Devotional activities that apply to all regardless of Varṇa, no-Varna (i.e., Varna-free) for one’s individual spiritual advancement, with the Brahmaṇās additionally having the public Scriptural duties/responsibility of performing yāga (sacrifices/formal-worship/priestly-duties/rites) inside and outside Temples for others’ material/spiritual benefit. The latter is the only point where Varṇa has a public application in today’s world.
  9. Instead of trying to categorize the self and others based on Varna (or no Varna), everyone is encouraged to look for Satva Guna (Goodness), Devotion (Bhakti) in others and improve the self in Satva Guna by sustaining the body with Satvic food and by unselfish performance of works and in Devotion by association with other Devotees.
  10. Caste is a characterization (with connotations of heredity, hierarchy and discrimination not inherent in the Varṇa system) given by the British (during their rule of India) to the four Varṇas and the hundreds of unique communities and subcommunities within them as well as outside, such as the Dalits. So, there are literally hundreds of Castes and sub-castes. Caste identities solidified under the British rule of India.
  11. Casteism (Caste-based discrimination) does exist in some places in India, especially in the political sphere, but it’s NOT sanctioned in Hindu scriptures, springs from Caste-pride, encouraged by the British under a policy of Divide and Rule (of India), that has no direct relation to Varnas per se and exists either because of the ignorance of the aforementioned high principles or due to the innate nature being discriminatory. Please help eliminate Casteism, anti-Varna-prejudice and anti-Hindu-prejudice by spreading knowledge of the Varna system as described in the article at: WorldSavior.Org/caste

NOTE: A PDF version of the above CHEATSHEET can be downloaded from this Google document for general distribution everywhere including college campuses and such.

Other articles of interest

Of particular interest to the readers of this article might be these other articles on this site:


  1. Sri Bhagavad-gītā (1898) (available in web-format at by Sri Alkondavilli Govindacharya
  2. Info and text on temple service and on Upāsana from Śrī  Komāndūr Iḷayavilli Sārathy Thōthāthri Swāmi of Koyil.Org.
  3. Sri Parasara Bhattar’s commentary on Sri Vishnusahasranāma (Bhagavad Guna Darpana), Purusha Suktam, Dravida Veda (Mudhal Thiruvandhadhi verse 33) and Sri Annamacharya references from Śrī Vishṇu Vinjamūri Swāmi.
  4. Vedic vidwans (scholars) in Thirunarayanapuram (Melukote), Hyderabad, Chennai, Sriperumbudur and Srirangam for info and clarifications on critical aspects of this article.
  5. Intense review, feedback and suggestions from Śrī Mādhava Rāmānuja Dāsan Swāmi of
  6. Edited for context and language.
  7. Speech by Prime Minister Modi of India on the occasion of the release of a postal stamp to commemorate the 1000th appearance (birth) day of Sri Ramanuja Acharya
  8. Swami Vivekananda on Unity of Castes
  9. Swami Vivekananda on Caste/marriage for new converts to Sanatana Dharma
  10. Caste, Conversion A Colonial Conspiracy: What Every Hindu and Christian must know about Caste by Pt. Satish K. Sharma available in Bharat (India) for a fraction of the cost at


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