Caste in Hinduism

Study time: 30-45 minutes

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

The Caste (varna) 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 Caste system. The misunderstanding applies to most Hindus as well as foreigners. In the below we will look at what caste (varna) is, its purpose, how it has come to be abused, and its relevance and practice in the modern context, etc.

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

NOTE: 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.


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. 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 Thiruppān Aḷvār appeared in a Dalit (Harijan, so-called untouchable/outcaste) family and is worshipped to this day in Hindu Temples in India:


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

Related image

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


Saint Kulaśekhara Alvār appeared in a Kshatriya family and is worshipped in temples:


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


The above are just a few examples, of many. Thus we see that Caste 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 Caste.

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, 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 Gunās 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 Varna (caste). 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 (Caste) 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) have Satva Guna in them. It’s just that typically, Satva is suppressed to varying degrees as a result of past Karma.

Created by God

This Varṇa (caste) system was put in place by the Lord Himself to aid the spiritual evolution of jivas. Per Githa verse 4.13:

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

‘The fourfold varṇa1 (class or caste) 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, from the (four-faced) Brahmā down to the blade of grass, is divided by Me into the four-fold classification, in conformity with the dispositions, or qualities, viz, satva2 etc., and in conformity with the occupations3 (or communal division of labour), suited to the qualities that the several classes possess; for example: the practice of the śama quality, (or restraint of the desires etc., by the brāhmaṇa). ‘Creation’ (sṛishti) implies the other conditions of the Universe, viz; that of sustentation (for a period) and disappearance, —all which, I do.

[Editor’s note: Since the commentator Sri Ramanujacharya mentions “Brahma down to the blade of grass” above, there have been recent attempts at misinterpreting this four-fold classification to mean Deva, Manushya, Tiryak and Sthavara (chatur-vidha srishti), against the fundamental understanding of Varna (Brahmana, Kshatriya, Vaisya, Sudra) as conveyed here, in the rest of the Githa, Vedas, Vedanta-sutras, Puranas and Itihasas and by all the Pūrvāchāryas (Gurus of yore). Sri Ramanujacharya mentions “Brahma down to the blade of grass” simply to denote that this four-fold classification exists in every sphere, including in Brahma loka based on the Gunas per Githa verse 18.40, wherein He repeats the same. For example, among Devas, Bruhaspati is a Brahmana, Indra is a Kshatriya, Marut are Vaisya, Ashvinee devas are Sudra.]

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 Castes 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].


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.


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.


Thus in defining the duties [for the four castes 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.

Secular Occupations Vs Religious Activities

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

Secular (Laukik/Mundane) Occupations

Secular duties as were historically practiced 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 (vaidik) duties and Devotional Activities.

Scriptural (Vaidik) Duties

As for Scriptural (vaidik) 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 (vaidik) Duties. 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 (vaidik) 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 (vaidik) 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. 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 caste surname.

Devotional Activities open to All

The Vedic way of life encourages Devotion (Bhakti, love) to God, which is open to all regardless of Caste (Varna). The Scriptural (vaidik) duties mentioned above for Brahmanas have nothing to do with the Devotion that is described in the Purānās (ancient histories), itihāsās (the epics Ramayana, Mahabharata), and Saints’ lives, that should be developed by all regardless of Caste. 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:

  • 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
  • Pilgrimages (Tīrtha-yatra)
  • Holy place living (Punya-kshetra-vāsa)
  • Holy bathings (Punya-nadi-snāna)
  • Hearing pastimes of the Lord from Itihāsās (Ramayana, Mahabharata) and Purāṇās.
  • Singing hymns to the Lord.
  • Chanting God’s holy names, etc.

An important aspect to note here is that while Brāhmanas, Kshatriyas and Vaisyas are burdened with so many Scriptural (Vaidik) duties to perform (Brahmanas more so than others), 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 (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 Caste.

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). Performance of prescribed duties (dharma) accumulates punya (good karma) and performance of proscribed activities (adharma) 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 and determined at birth

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.

Purpose of Varnasrama

Thus we see that the purpose of the Varṇa (Caste) 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.

Caste superiority (Casteism)?

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/caste is 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. Interfering with the duties/occupations of other beings is even more sinful. Unfortunately, in this degraded age of Kali yuga, both these ills are rampant 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, Caste-pride, etc., which will lead them to a downward spiral on the spiritual path.

Caste 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 Castes (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 castes, 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 castes and that his/her own past 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 caste, provides a great opportunity for getting out of samsāra by attaining Moksha (liberation) as mentioned in the beginning of this article. 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.

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 (or caste), 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 caste 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 caste, 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 caste 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.

Caste no-bar for Moksha (liberation)

Also, Lord Krishna promises moksha to all those that take refuge at His lotus feet, regardless of caste, 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 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) aren’t prescribed for Śudras. 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 and Purāṇās) all (regardless of caste, gender, etc.) can attain moksha. 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 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. 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.

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 caste, color, race, etc., to the refuge provided by Sri Ramanuja.

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 castes 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 caste bounds

All jivas, regardless of Caste, 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 varna (caste) 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 (Ramayana, Mahabharata) and Puranas, 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, 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) 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 Caste 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 caste itself must change, similar to how one degrading to Tamas in a Brahmana body, doesn’t call for redefining what the Brahmaṇa caste 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 Caste labels.

Caste 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. Lord Krishna also asserts birth to be a neccesary 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), if one doesn’t attain moksha (liberation) at the end of this birth itself. But, does birth alone determine one’s Varna/Caste?

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 (vaidik) 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 (vaidik) duties incumbent on a Brahmana. Same goes for Kshatriyas and Vaisyas.

The Veda statement “ashta varsham brahmanam upanayeeta” mentions that the Upanayana Sanskāra for 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 (vaidik) 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.

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.

Can one change caste?

We saw in the above sections, how spirit souls enter bodies in a specific Caste, based on their Guna-disposition at the time of leaving their previous bodies.

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

  1. One’s current caste 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. 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 Caste (which is at the body level), since by definition they operated on the spiritual platform and were ever intent on maintaining the Varna system which was put in place by Lord Krishna Himself per Sri Bhagavad Gita verse 4.13 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 that was taken during that lifetime, etc. Hypothetically, God leaving to mortals to make these judgements will cause the whole caste 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 caste 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 castes; and no caste-odium 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 (caste) 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).”

Didn’t Vishwamitra become a Brahma-rishi?

Sage Viswamitra, born as a Kshatriya, 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 happening from time to time because of special endeavors, boons/curses or for divine purposes.

Inter-caste Marriages?

It is for the reasons mentioned in the previous sections also that Śāstras (Vedic law books) prohibit intermixing of castes 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-caste marriage] is verily damnation to both the caste-demolishers and the caste 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! permanent residence in Naraka2 results. So do we hear [from Śāstra].

Lord Krishna Himself, explicitly prohibits inter-mixing of Castes 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.

Doesn’t Guru decide caste?

No. One’s Guru is supposed to accept the appearance of a Jiva in a specific Varna 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 Varna (caste) and Āśrama (station in life). Changing one’s caste 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 caste-demolishers. See the earlier section titled “Can one change caste?“.

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 castes to support Guna and Karma, which are NOT to be disturbed through inter-caste marriage per Sri Bhagavad Gita verses 1.39 to 1.44 and verse 3.24. As mentioned earlier, everyone is encouraged to rise upto Satva without leaving their current Varna.

Unfortunately, many Hindus, due to lack of proper understanding, have attempted to explain away Caste, based solely on the bodily platform, mentioning that Guna and Karma alone determine one’s caste, disregarding (or ignorant of) the transmigration of the soul that occurs across the birth/death cycles into bodies based on the Guna-disposition and totally disregarding (or ignorant of) Krishna’s unequivocal instructions against Varna-sankara (inter-caste marriage).

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 (vaidik) 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 Castes 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/vaidik) 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 Caste 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 caste as the employer or above their caste, 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 caste system already degraded?

Yes. It’s one of the features of this degraded age called Kali Yuga. 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 Brahmana and then additionally follow the duties(conduct)/occupation for a Brahmana (as detailed in the above sections) to continue to be a Brahmana. 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. This technically makes them Brahma-bandhus (blood relatives of Brahmanas), not full-fledged Brahmanas themselves.

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, 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 Castes 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.

Have Faith in Śastras at least

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)

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.

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.

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).

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, inspite 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 (loving surrender to the Lord), as the sure and quick means for moksha (liberation) 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?
  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) duties required of Brahmanas and thus have turned into Brahma-bandhus as explained earlier. Why try to get into what others are finding tough?
  3. The nectar of devotion to God is already available to all regardless of Caste. While Brāhmanas, Kshatriyas and Vaisyas are burdened with so many Scriptural (vaidik) 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 body?

Saranagati (Prapatti/Surrender)

Prapatti/Saranagati 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 caste, color, race, etc. This includes the so-called outcastes (Dalits, so-called untouchables), and those that don’t appear in one of the 4 castes described above, such as foreigners and some communities in India that aren’t clearly placed in one of the castes. We have many examples of the surrendered that didn’t appear in Brahmana families. Some examples were given at the beginning of the article. 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 caste, 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 Varna (caste), Āśrama (sacramental stage), and Ācāra (customs), but are all impressed (without caste 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 caste (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 caste 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 caste 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 caste in 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 caste, is liable to feel, in this degraded age of Kali yuga, self-conscious and super-eminent by reason of his caste and 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 caste, 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 castes. Real eminence, therefore, goes in the reverse order and rightly belongs to the devotees in the lower castes with humility ingrained in them, right from birth. 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 castes, 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 caste, 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 caste) 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 advantageous than Brahmana

Another important aspect to note is that while Brāhmanas, Kshatriyas and Vaisyas are burdened with so many Scriptural (vaidik) 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.

Thirukkulathar (people of the sacred lineage)

Almost a thousand years before Mahatma Gandhi called Dalits (so-called untouchables) 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 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 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 Caste?

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 allcastes; and no caste-odium 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 (caste) 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 (Scriptural/vaidik and Devotional) Activities. Let’s see what these are for Prapannas (Saranagathas/Surrendered).

Secular/mundane (laukik) Occupation

Historically, work occupations were divided amongst various castes 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 occupation/job they are interested in, regardless of caste. 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 Caste, 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/Vaidik and Devotional) Activities

Scriptural (Vaidik) Duties

Scriptural (Vaidik) 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 Caste in temples and other religious duties. Priesthood isn’t a secular/mundane occupation with a pay/salary. Rather it’s a Scriptural (Vaidik) 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 (Laukik) occupation/employment.

Devotional Activities

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

No inter-caste marriage

Even among Prapannas (i.e., Sri Vaishnavas), one must scrupulously conform to all Śāstra injunctions against inter-caste 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.

No Casteism

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 caste 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 caste. 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 caste 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 caste, 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 caste.

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 castes, 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 castes 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 caste, 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 Bhagavatha (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 Bhāgavathā 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 (Vaidik) duties and 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 Bhagavatha, being utterly humble, will ever demand that he/she be shown respect, recognition, etc. This will immediately and inherently make one a non-Bhagavatha (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 Bhagavathas for worship. So, the best course is to continue with the traditions as have been practiced for centuries.

No discrimination

Also, a Vaishnava must never discriminate, even in secular affairs, based on caste, 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 caste, 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 (Vaidik) duties are concerned is to be scrupulously followed and Varna-sankara (inter-caste 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 Varna/Caste.

Social Harmony/Integration vs Social Dissolution/Effacement

Varna (Caste) system, if practiced without discrimination in Secular occupations/work and Devotional affairs, but with the necessary differentiation as to the specific Scriptural (vaidik) duties pertaining to the different Varnas (Castes), and with the knowledge of us being spirit souls progressing spiritually through the Varna system 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 Caste system (make it Caste-less or efface Hindu society) based on bodily consciousness of life, will result in grievous injury to the Varna system, landing us in spiritual peril, since we would be conducting ourselves in opposition to our eternal Vedic 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 Varna (Caste) system is, it must be understood, practiced 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 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 (Casteism) 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 Bhāgavatha way of life anchoring 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 Varna system that degraded into Casteism, etc., 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 Caste system (Casteism) making it easy for them to portray the general Varna system and hence the whole Vedic way of life (sanātana dharma) in a negative/poor light. 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.


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

Varṇa = the four typical castes 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 caste in India, which the Christian will not understand. He said:— “The division into castes 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 castes. 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 castes 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 caste-system. Men were born into a particular caste by their Karma of a previous life. Men of lower castes could go up to the higher in another life [or attain liberation (Moksha) regardless of Caste] if they had made spiritual progress enough in this life . No mere intellectual qualifications or material conditions [nor devotion to God on which Caste has no bearing (a devotee by definition would never demand to change Caste in the current body, knowing the Will of God)] would raise a man to a higher caste. Each man was born into the caste for which he was destined by his own susceptibilities [accumulated in previous births]. There was room enough for [spiritual] advancement [and perfection] and usefulness [historically] within his own caste, [with devotion to God and spiritual perfection knowing no caste bounds]. But he was not to be permitted to spoil his own breed by marrying in a lower spiritual plane [or Caste as determined by Providence at birth based on previous Karma], or spoil the breed of a higher caste 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 castes 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 caste-institution of India.[6]

It must be reiterated that Caste 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 Varna/Caste must be left for Providence (God) to decide, at the end of this life.

Casteism is bad/wrong/sinful

So while the caste system, with due unselfish performance of Secular (laukik) occupation/work and Devotional Activities without discrimination of any kind along with the performance of respective Scriptural (vaidik) duties as differentiated by Varna (Caste), is a necessity for spiritual growth/evolution, Casteism (i.e., Caste-based-discrimination in Secular occupations and Devotional activities) is a social evil and must be shunned and social harmony must prevail based on a proper understanding of the Caste system as given in this article. So, Caste is good but Casteism is bad; one must not throw the baby out with the bath water, as they say.

NOTE: 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


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