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The Varna System

Varna is a Sanskrit word which means type, order, colour or class. The term refers to social classes in Dharma shastras. These and other Hindu literature classified the society in principle into four varnas:

  1. Brahmins
  2. Kshatriyas
  3. Vaishyas
  4. Shudras

Those who fall in this system are called Savarna. Those who fall out of this system because of their grievous sins are ostracised as outcastes (untouchables) and considered outside the varna system. Barbarians and those who are unrighteous or unethical are also considered outcastes are called Avarna.

This classification of the society into four major groups correspond with the personality types defined by psychologist Carl Jung.  These are Feelers, Intuitors, Thinkers and Sensors.  These can accordingly correspond to Feelers as Shudras, Intuitors as Vaishyas, Thinkers as Brahmins and Sensors as Kshatriyas.

Varna is not by birth and is by the nature of the individual.  As per Vedas, No Varna is greater or lesser than the other.  This fact is borne out by the story of Satya Kama Jabali in Chandogya Upanishad:

Story of Satyakama Jabala

Satyakama Jabala is a boy, and later a Vedic sage, who first appears in Chapter IV of the ancient Hindu text, the Chandogya Upanishad. As a boy, he enquires about his father from his mother. His mother Jabala, tells him that she went about many places in her youth, and did not know who his father was.

As a boy, eager for knowledge, Satyakama goes to the sage Haridrumata Gautama, requesting the sage’s permission to live in his school for Brahmacharya. The teacher asks, “my dear child, what family do you come from?” Satyakama replies that he is of uncertain parentage because his mother does not know who the father is. The sage declares that the boy’s honesty is the mark of a “Brāhmaṇa, true seeker of the knowledge of the Brahman”.

The sage sends Satyakama to tend four hundred cows, and come back when they multiply into a thousand. The symbolic legend then presents conversation of Satyakama with a bull, a fire, a swan (Hamsa) and a diver bird (Madgu), which respectively are symbolism for Vayu, Agni, Āditya and Prāṇa. Satyakama then learns from these creatures that forms of Brahman is in all cardinal directions (north, south, east, west), world-bodies (earth, atmosphere, sky and ocean), sources of light (fire, sun, moon, lightning), and in man (breath, eye, ear and mind). Satyakama returns to his teacher with a thousand cows, and humbly learns the rest, the nature of Brahman (metaphysical, ultimate reality).

Satyakama graduates and becomes a celebrated sage, according to the Hindu tradition, and a Vedic school is named after him, as is the influential ancient text Jabala Upanishad – a treatise on Sannyasa (Hindu monk, monastic life). Upakosala Kamalayana was a student of Satyakama Jabala, whose story is also presented in the Chandogya Upanishad.

Story of Veda Vyasa

Once upon a time, there was a sage called Maharishi Parashara. He was the author of the first ever Puran- The Vishnu Puran. Once he was travelling near the river Yamuna, he saw a young lady who was from the family of fisherman and helped the travelers to cross the river in her wooden boat.

The sage got attracted to the girl. He went towards the girl and asked her to take him across the river, she paddled on. In the mid of the river, Parashara grabed her hand and told her about his feeling and asked her to make love.

Her name was Satyawati also known as Matsyagandha due the fishy smell that came out of her body. Satyawati hesitated but after his repeated request she agreed for the same. However, she had some conditions for the sage.

  • The first condition – Satyawati said that when the approach the bank and get involed, no one shall see them. Parashara agreed and spoke some Mantra and soon an island appeared and the surrounding became foggy around them.
  • The second condition – Satyawati asked that the fishy smell from her body should turn into fragrance and her virginity shall be maintained even after this togetherness. The sage agreed and pronounced the mantras to turn the fishy smell to a beautiful fragrance and gave the boon that her virginity shall be maintained even after their relationship.
  • Then she asked him to give her a boon that her child shall be knowledgeable and learned and a big sage himself not a fisherman instead. The sage welcomed this condition too and said TATHASTU.

The two then went on to make love on the foggy island. The sage then left the island. On the same day Devi Satyavati gave birth to a boy who was later known as Veda Vyasa. He was dark so he got his name Krishna and since he was born on an island (dwip), he was named Dvaipayana.

Well, the boy was Vyasa, full name being Krishna Dvaipayana Veda Vyasa. He went for penance in search of the purpose of his life on one condition that whenever his mother would remember him and call him, he shall report.

Rama and Krishna two of the most beloved deities of Hindus were Kshatriyas.

It is clear that the Varna system was more based on qualities than by birth, this is further explained in Verse 5 of Vajra Suchika Upanishad.

Further this is stated in Mahabharata III.312.106

“Listen about caste, Yaksa dear, not study, not learning is the cause of the twice-born status. Conduct is the basis, there is no doubt about it.” 

Duties of the Four Varnas

According to Vishnu Puran, the following are the duties of each of the Varnas:

A Brahmin should carry out Yagyas, study scriptures and should not ever try to hurt anybody.

A Kshatriya must organise Yagyas and study scriptures. He should also make donations to Brahmins and take weapons in order to protect the earth.

A Vaishya must earn his livelihood through cattle rearing, commerce and agriculture. Besides he should also organise Yagyas make donations and study scriptures.

A Shudra is expected to earn his livelihood through art and handicrafts. Saluting learned people is equal to organising Yagya for a Shudra. A Shudra may also make donations and oblations to appease his dead ancestors.

In the time of emergency, a Brahmin may shift to the occupations meant for Kshatriya and Vaishya. A Kshatriya may take the occupation of a Vaishya during emergency but none of them should ever take to the occupation of Shudra.

Meaning of the word Sudra

SUDRA in Sanskrit is derived from — śocāt drāvayati iti śūdra — which means “the Sudra is one who melts with compassion upon seeing the suffering of others.” All the work of the original sudras was alleviating the suffering of others through shoe-making, weaving, constructing houses and shelters, farming and producing food, cleaning, cooking, labouring etc.

Thus it is clear that Varna was based on qualities and duties were assigned based on the qualities.

Now how do we decide which school of Hindu philosophy should one study? In the olden days, during the Guru-Shishya tradition, the Guru based on the temperament of the Shishya (Disciple) suggested the most appropriate school of Hindu philosophy.

However, nowadays with the Guru-Shishya tradition being extinct, it is up to the interest of the student to figure out the most appropriate school of Hindu Philosophy to follow?

Given below are my thoughts on the best school of Hindu Philosophy:

  1. To be able to decide if you accept the authority of the Vedas, you need to be familiar with the philosophical tenets expounded in the Vedas.  To study the Vedas effectively – Vedangas have to be mastered.
  2. Once the Sruti’s are mastered, the next question to be answered is if you accept or reject the authority of the Vedas.
  3. If you reject the authority of the Vedas:
    1. If you decide that the truth is not knowable, follow Ajnana school
    2. If you decide that everything is pre-determined, follow Ajivaka school
    3. If you decide that there is no greater pleasure than what can be offered by the senses, follow the Charvaka school
    4. If you decide that any attempt to explain the truth is only partial and only the experience of truth will settle the question, follow the Arhata or Jaina school
    5. If you decide that you are interested in finding an end to your suffering, then follow the boutha school
  4. If you accept the authority of the Vedas:
    1. If you are a sensor who is focused on action, choose the Yoga school
    2. If you are an Intuitor who is focused on Ideas, choose the Sanhkya or the Vedanta school
    3. If you are a Thinker who is focused on process, choose the Purva Mimamsa or Karma Mimasa
    4. If you are a Feeler who is focused on people and interactions, choose the Nyaya or Vaisheshika school
  5. Once the Sruti’s are mastered, if you are sensor – a person who is action oriented – if you are of Shudra varna – master Stapatyaveda; if you are of Kshatriya varna– master Dhanurveda; if you are of Brahmana varna– Ayurveda and if you are of Vaishya varna– Gandharva veda.