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Varnas: The Four Pillars of Dharma

Article of the Month - May 2012

This article by Nitin Kumar

All of man’s activity is directed towards attaining that what is pleasant to him and preventing that which makes him suffer. Pleasure and pain vary from person to person and time to time. No one can say for sure who receives these when from someone; because, this cannot be decided by our limited human faculties. Not even the most intelligent person can, based on an individual circumstance, give an exact sequence for attainment of pleasure or prevention of suffering, nor can he or she predict when exactly any effort towards these ends will bear fruit. This is because the cause is not merely the present effort directed towards these ends, but also our Karma from previous births and fate. Hence, their exact cause cannot be determined by any direct means of perception. In fact, an individual does not even have the capacity to know what is best for him. Therefore, the path to both material and spiritual progress is to be known only through the eternal Vedas. It is only the Vedas which give us clear do’s and don’ts leading to positive and negative fruits in the future.

There are two parts of the Vedas. The first, dealing with the nature of the soul (Atman), does so using both experience and logic, because in the end, the Atman is but to be experienced only. Surprisingly however, this is not so in the Karma-Kanda part of the Vedas, dealing with the above do’s and don’ts. Here logic does not come into play at all, and an action becomes doable only because it is said so in the Vedas.

Karma in the Vedas is delineated according to one’s Varna. Hence, first the four Varnas (Brahmins, Kshatriyas, Vaishyas and Shudras) are described.

The Creation of the Varnas

1). In the beginning of creation, there was only the Brahmin Varna in the form of Agni (fire). However, being alone, he was incapable of performing any Vedic Karma, because there was no one to protect him. Therefore the Kshatriyas, or warrior class, was created. (Brhadaranyaka Upanishad 1.4.11).

Even then the Vedic Karma could not be performed because there was none to generate the required wealth for it. To fill this gap, the Vaishyas, or business community, came into being. Even then the Vedic Karma could not be performed. Why? Because there was none to sustain and nourish it. Thus was created the Shudra. (Brhadaranyaka Upanishad 1.4.13).

However, even the creation of the four well-thought out Varnas did not lead to the successful performance of Vedic Karma. This was because the Kshatriyas, the warrior class, were of an aggressive nature. Therefore, to regulate the Varnas, God created Dharma. This was to ensure that none of the four Varnas transgressed their permissible limits, due to their inherent faults (like a Vaishya may become uncharitable etc). This was the reason for the creation of Dharma. ((Brhadaranyaka Upanishad 1.4.14).


Foundations of DharmaThis is also the reason why there is nothing greater than Dharma. Everybody remains under its regulation. In all times, in all places, even the weakest of persons believes himself capable of winning over the fiercest opponent through the power of Dharma, even though his opponent may be the king himself. Dharma is defined in the scriptures as that which is true (Satya); and vice versa - Satya is Dharma. What this suggests is that the meaning found in the scriptures is the truth, Dharma is merely carrying it out. Therefore, this acting according to knowledge is what keeps everyone together. This is how and why Dharma was created, the four Varnas being in a sense its four pillars.




Bhagavad Gita Bhasya of Sri Sankaracarya (Shankaracharya): With Text and English TranslationThe All-Knowing God resides in everybody’s heart. It is He who gives us birth according to our previous Samskaras in one of the four Varnas. The structure of the society stands on this system of Varnas. It is instructive to note here that the Sanskrit word for society is Samaj, which is made up of ‘sam’ meaning same, and ‘aj’ meaning God. Therefore, the Vedic ideal of society is nothing but an expression of God in equal measure. Hence, no Varna is higher or lower. All are brothers only. According to the Rig Veda: ‘No one is higher, no one smaller, all are but brothers only’ (5.60.5). As per our qualities according to birth, God explains Dharma to us through the Vedas. As long as one lives according to it, Dharma continues to protect us. However, when due to greed etc we fall from Dharma, then there is turmoil in the world. (Shri Shankaracharya’s Commentary on the Bhagavad Gita 3.35)


A Brahmin’s Dharma:

According to Shri Shankaracharya (Gita 18.42), a man is born as a Brahmin to inculcate the following qualities:

1). Control of the Mind (Shama)

2). Subjugation of the Senses (Dama)

3). Practicing Austerities (Tapas)

4). Inner and Outer Purity (Shaucha)

5). Forgiveness (Kshama)

6). Straightforwardness (Saralta)

7). Faith in the Scriptures (Shastra Shraddha)

8). Knowledge of the Scriptures (Shastra Jnana), and finally

9). Realization of the Soul (Atman-Anubhava).

One who does not inculcate these virtues is at best termed as a mere ‘relative of the Brahmins’ (Brahma-bandhu), and not a Brahmin. Mind it, this is a derogatory form of reference. (Chandogya Upanishad 6.1.1)

The duties of a Brahmin include chanting the Vedas, teaching the Vedas, right to perform Yajnas for one’s own self, performing Yajna on behalf of others, plus he also has the right to both accept and give charity. The Kshatriyas and Vaishyas too have a duty to daily chant and memorize the Vedas, perform Yajnas, and give charity. However, and this is most important, Kshatriyas and Vaishyas do not have a right to teach the Vedas, nor can they perform a Yajna on behalf of somebody else, and also they cannot take charity.

Here it must be understood that the chanting of the Vedas is a not a mere right of the three Varnas. Instead, it is their sacred duty to do so everyday, it forming an integral part of their Nitya Karma (deeds to be performed daily), missing which is said to be an error requiring Prayashchitta. This is why women traditionally do not chant the Vedas, since they would inevitably have to give it a miss during the monthly cycle.

The scriptures actually are too strict on the Brahmins. Consider the amount of virtues expected of a Brahmin performing sacrifices for others, such a person, known as a Purohit, is supposed to possess the following qualities: He must speak sweetly, have affection for all, have equanimity, should be away from self-praise, always speak the truth, live simply, should not lend money on interest, be tolerant and non-aggressive etc. However, such a Purohit is lauded in lavish terms in the Vedas (Krishna Yajurveda, Taittriya Samhita, 1.4.10), where it is said that they would, while remaining immersed in their own Vedic Dharma, be always vigilant in inspiring others to remain steadfast towards their own.

The Kshatriya’s Dharma:

For one born in a family of Kshatriyas, the following qualities have been decreed:

1). Valor (Shaurya)

2). Perseverance (Dridata)

3). Maintaining Mental Poise in Difficult Situations (Dhairya)

4). Fulfilling any responsibility which comes upon suddenly without attachment (Nirmoha)

5). Never Running away from the Battleground

6). Giving Charity

7). Keeping Dominance over the Public

8). Displaying Power and Prosperity to the Public

The king, who, even though he takes taxes from his people, remains oblivious to their protection, is considered a great sinner. The king has a heavy duty because he is the protector of the Varna-Ashrama Dharma which is the structure on which entire Vedic belief system stands. The most special trait of the king is to give preference to the protection of his people, more than he gives to his own family.

The Vaishya’s Dharma:

A Vaishya does agriculture, protects the cows, and engages in commerce. We have to remember here that Lord Krishna, in his role as the lover and protector of cows, lived in Vrindavana as a Vaishya (Srimad Bhagavatam 10.24.21). The Vaishya’s duty towards Vedic Karma has already been delineated above.

The Shudra’s Dharma:

The Shudra is born to sustain and nourish the society. His occupation is to create objects necessary for the society and himself. According to the scriptures commenting on the duties of a king, it is necessary for a king to have at least three or four Shudras in his council. A mention must here be made of Vidura, one of the most venerated personalities in both the Mahabharata and the Bhagavatam.


Life History of The AlwarsThe Shudra has not been asked to chant the Vedas. This is not at all a hindrance in his spiritual progress. The result of chanting the Vedas is only that it purifies the mind (chitta-shuddhi), making it a fit vessel for receiving the Ultimate Truth (Brahma-Jnana). However, the same chitta-shuddhi that the other three Varnas receive through the chanting of the Vedas, the same result is gained by the Shudra just by following his Dharma. In fact it is much easier for him. The three Varnas have to first put on the sacred thread in an elaborate ceremony, and then get up every morning before dawn to learn to recite the Vedas through a lengthy and continuous process. And what is the result they get? Purification of the mind. This is easily gained by the fourth Varna by merely following his Dharma as laid down in the Shastras. He is fully entitled to the knowledge of Vedanta. In the final analysis, the Ultimate Truth, which we have to understand through Vedanta, admits of no Varna. Therefore, the scriptures are full of examples of the fourth Varna who have been Brahma-Jnanis (e.g. Dharma-Vyadha in the Mahabharata, the Alwars, Nayanars, etc.)

Doubt: If what you say is true, i.e. in the state of Ultimate Truth, which is the eventual goal of all Vedic activity (Dharma), there is no distinction of Varna and birth, then, what motivation is there for us to follow the system of Varnas?

Reply: The answer to this query lies in the following verse of the Gita:

‘One cannot reach the state beyond Karma, without first performing Karma.’ (Bhagavad Gita 3.4)

This is because Karmas like Vedic sacrifices etc. destroy the negative residue of sins accumulated by us over our many births, consequently leading to a purification of the mind (chitta-shuddhi). It is only after our sins have been destroyed that True Knowledge (Jnana) reveals itself to us.

However, regarding the actual experience of the Ultimate Truth the Karmas have no direct role. But they do have an inevitable role in granting us the necessary eligibility for receiving this Truth.

Conclusion: There is no Nishkama Karma higher than working according to the Varna given to us by God, which is one way of always living under His patronage. It is what Shankaracharya Ji calls working like a servant under God. (Commentary on Bhagavad Gita 3.30)


This article is based almost entirely on the teachings of Param Pujya Swami Paramanand Bharati Ji. However, any errors are entirely the author's own.


References & Further Reading:

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