Theory of Varna

From Hindupedia, the Hindu Encyclopedia

By Krishna Maheshwari

Division of Labor

The proper functioning of society is dependent on number of factors. Meeting the needs of man entails many types of physical as well as intellectual work. If looked at from this perspective, "no type of work is either inferior or superior when compared to other types of work - they are all necessary."

From a material perspective, people need food, salt, clothing, books, etc. It is not practical for everyone to grow their own rice or wheat, find their own salt, produce their own clothing, and create their own books. The tiller grows crops not only for himself but for the sustenance of the entire community. The weaver weaves for all. Some carry on trade for the sake of the entire society. And some wage war on behalf of all to defend the country.

Some people are charged with the Atmic well-being of society: they practice meditation, perform puja, conduct sacrifices and carry out the ordinances of saśtra that are meant for the betterment of all mankind. The dharma-saśtra has cut out an ideal path of happiness for us by creating a system which is for the advantage of all and in which different sections of people are allotted different occupations.

Basis for the Division of Labor

In Varna Dharma, all the vocations are hereditarily determined to ensure a stable and peaceful society.

Today, the division of labor is determined on the basis of capacities of the earth and each individual. As a result, there are people who feel that they have abilities exceeding their actual capabilities. People vie for jobs that are considered "prestigious" or pay the most. In the end, there are some jobs that the poor or the uneducated take up that are considered unwanted, and which can make them feel unhappy. The result can be that everyone competes with everyone else for all kinds of jobs and no one is left content or happy. Today, the tendency is that people solely choose their occupation by their likes and dislikes. This means that they are never able to be content since they are always striving for something greater, something better. As a result, the society suffers due to the cost of turnover and this condition results into societal unrest.

Varna Dharma is a system in which people fill vocations in a manner which is aimed to ensure the smooth functioning of the entire society. This works in both the short-term and the long-term smooth working of society. This is evidenced by the fact that it flourished for thousands of years in India. The principle behind Varna Dharma is that a man should do the work handed down to him from his forefathers - whatever be such work - with the conviction that it has been ordained by Iśvara and that it is for the good of the world. The work he does in this spirit itself becomes a means of his inward advancement and satisfaction.

The religious observances meant to free people from worldly existence vary according to their callings. Men who do hard physical work are not expected to observe fasts. Those who do intellectual work do not need much bodily nourishment. They are enjoined to perform many rites and to observe a number of fasts so that they will learn not to take pride in their body. There should be no room for disputes and misunderstandings among the various sections of people, if they realized that the differences in the observance of religious practices are in keeping with the different vocations.

In Varna Dharma, there is no gradation among people doing various kinds of work. The man who does a particular type of job is neither inferior nor superior to the man doing another kind of job. The work itself is required to ensure that society functions properly.

If everyone does his own work and performs the rites that his forefathers performed, there should be no cause for feelings of rivalry or jealousy. There is the further advantage that life in the community can go on smoothly without any hindrance to the common work and, at the same time, each individual will feel pure inwardly.

The government in such a society has the obligation to provide food, clothing and housing to all. Jealousies and rivalries will develop if people hunger for things beyond these essentials. With maturity of outlook, a man may realize that the fulfillment obtained from doing the work allotted to him properly is in itself equal to achieving God realization.

Types of Duty as pertained to in the Varna System

There are two types of Dharma (Duty) prescribed in the Vedas

Sāmānya Dharma 
Dharma that is common to all irrespective of Varna. This includes a universal code of conduct, non-violence, truthfulness, cleanliness, control of the senses, non-acquisitiveness (one must not possess material goods in excess of what is needed for one's bare requirements), devotion to Iśvara, trust in one's parents, love for all creatures, etc.
Viśeṣa Dharma 
Or a Dharma or code of conduct specific to each Varna.

If the special duties, viśeṣa dharma, of the various varnas were made common to all (that is, made part of the sāmānya dharma) a situation would arise in which no one would observe any dharma. For example, abstaining from meat was laid down as a common dharma in Buddhism. However, the reality is that in countries where that religion has a wide following, almost all Buddhists eat meat. The seers had a profound understanding of human nature. They made abstention from meat applicable to a limited number of people. But others followed the example of these few in eating meat like on days of fasting, on special occasions like the death anniversaries of their parents, on days sacred to the gods etc.

Strengths of Varna in the face of invasions

When a religion divides its followers in many ways, it seems almost inevitable that there will be no unity or integrity among them. It also seems likely that such a religion will fall apart as a result of internal squabbles. Since the time of Alexander, India has been invaded by wave after wave of foreigners belonging to other faiths. Sanātana Dharma has been preserved in face of hundreds of years of invasions due to the inherent strengths of Varna.

Hindus have practiced varnashrama dharma for millennia and it has continued to be a living force. What is its secret? While it is considered to be the special duty of Brahmins to preserve the mantras, they have never been in a majority. They have never enjoyed the power of arms and they have had the least monetary power as a group. (Brahmins acquiring the habit of accumulating money is a recent phenomenon and is considered undesirable). How or why did other castes accept the divisions laid down in the sāśtras created by the Brahmins who did not have the strength derived either from money or from numbers?

If some faiths in India itself and outside have declined, and if the Hindu religion alone has survived for ten thousand years, is it due to something that which is lacking in others? This something is the varna system. Though many present-day reformers argue that the varna division is responsible for the disintegration of Hindu society, it is precisely this division, varna dharma, that has sustained it and kept it intact. It follows that this dharma has features that are superior in character to concepts like equality, features that are vital to the very well-being of people. Hindu society is divided on the basis of it, but it must be noted that this division has helped the Hindu religion to preserve itself successfully against all onslaughts.

Unity in Diversity

In the early days of aviation, the air ship (dirigible balloon) was filled with a single gas bag. It was then discovered that the vessel would collapse if it sprang just one leak. So it was fitted with a number of smaller gas bags and kept afloat without much danger of its crashing. The principle of different duties and vocations for different sections of society is similar to what kept the old type of airship from collapsing. The varna system provides an example of unity in diversity.

Likewise, fastening together a large number of individual fire sticks is not easy: the bundle is loosened quickly and the sticks will give way. The removal of even one stick could make the bundle loose and, with each stick giving way, you will be left with separate sticks. Try to tie together a handful of sticks at a time instead of all the sticks together. A number of such small sheaves may be easily fastened together into a strong and secure larger bundle. Even if it becomes loose, none of the smaller bundles will come away. This is not the case with the large bundle bound up of individual sticks. A bundle made up of a number of smaller sets will remain well secured.


To keep a vast community bound together in a single uniform structure is an impossible task. Because of its unmanageable size it cannot be easily sustained in a disciplined manner. This is the reason why (revert to the example of the fuel sticks) the community was divided into jātis [similar to the smaller bundles in the analogy of the fire sticks] and each jāti was assigned a particular vocation. Each varna is divided into a number of jātis [smaller bundles], with each jāti having a headman with the authority to punish offenders. Today criminals are sentenced to prison or punished in other ways. But the incidences of crime are on a rise since the types of punishment today (ranging from fines to prison, to the death penalty) are insufficient forms of deterrent. In the jāti system, the guilty took the punishment to heart and due to that until the turn of the century, people lived more or less honorably and there were less incidences of crime. The police and the magistrates did not have much work to do.

What was such punishment meted out to offenders by the village or jāti headman that people feared doing crime ? Excommunication. Whether it was a cobbler or a barber - anyone belonging to any one of the jātis now included among the backward or depressed classes - would feel deeply stung if he were thrown out of his jāti: no punishment was harsher or more humiliating than excommunication.

No jāti thought poorly of itself or of another jāti. Members of each jāti considered themselves the supreme authority in managing their affairs. This naturally gave them the sense of contentment and satisfaction. What would have happened if some jātis were regarded as "low" and some others as "high"? Feelings of inferiority would have arisen among some sections of the community and perhaps, apart from Brahmins and Kshatriyas, no jāti would have had any sense of pride in itself. If each jāti had no respect for itself no one would have taken excommunication to heart. When the entire society was divided into small groups called jātis, not only did one jāti have affection for another, each also trusted the other. There was indeed a feeling of kinship among all members of the community. This was the reason why the threat of excommunication was dreaded.

Now some sections of the community remain attached to their jātis for the only reason that they enjoy certain privileges as members belonging to the backward classes. But they take no true pride in belonging to their respective jātis. In the old days these sections "enjoyed" no special privileges. In fact, until three or four generations ago, people were proud to belong to their respective jātis. There were no quarrels,rivalries or jealousies among the various groups based on differences of jāti. Apart from pride, there was a sense of fulfillment among members of each jāti in pursuing the vocation inherited from their forefathers and in observing the rites proper to it.

Nowadays trouble-makers defy even the police. But in the past, in the system of jātis, there was no opposition to the decisions of the headman. The police are, after all, a part of an outward system of discipline and law enforcement. But in jāti rule the discipline was internal since there was a sense of kinship among the members of each jāti. So in the jāti set-up crime was controlled more effectively than in today's system of restoring to weapons or the constabulary. Though divided according to jātis and the occupations and customs pertaining to each of them, society remained united. It was a system that ensured harmony.

Divided by Work but still of One Heart

Jātis are not self-existing nor are they created by any authority, but akin to functional groups that grow from, as the civilization evolves. They envelop a certain vocation along with the rituals and customs of that vocation. Jāti is not a way of dividing society but of identifying societal divisions along functional lines--thus the concept of jāti is not unique among civilizations: e.g. the medieval European guilds. However, what is unique is that Sanātana Dharma preserves these boundaries while other civilizations have abandoned these boundaries and separate identities. Modern economics also discusses the division of labor and specialization in order to further economic growth. However, these ideas are not fully implementable due to the constant competition between people, states, and countries along with subsidies required in order to subdue some of the tensions arising from competition between these entities.

While modern economics supposes that competition drives excellence, in varna dharma, competition is minimized thereby making work an offering to the Supreme which in turn drives excellence. This results in people being happy, peaceful, and contented in life.

Greed and covetousness were unknown during the centuries when varna dharma flourished. People were bound together in small well-knit groups and they discovered that there was happiness in their being together. Besides, they had faith in religion, a general feeling of devotion, and a feeling of pride in their own family deities and in the modes of worshiping them. In this way they found fulfillment in their lives without any need to suffer the hunger and disquiet of seeking external objects. Cumulatively, the entire society experienced a sense of well-being.

Though divided into a number of groups, people were all one in their devotion to the Lord; and though they had their own separate family deities, they were brought together in the big temple that was for the entire village or town. This temple and its festivals had a central place in their life and they remained united as the children of the deity enshrined in that temple. Whenever there was a car festival (rathotsava) the Brahmins and the people living on the outskirts of the village (the so-called backward classes, as they are defined today) stood shoulder to shoulder and pulled the chariot together. Neither jealousy nor bitterness was known then and people did not trade charges against one another. Everyone did his job, carried out his duties, in a spirit of humility and with a sense of contentment.

Sanātana Dharma has not survived all of its challenges despite these divisions--rather, it has survived as a living force for ages because of these very divisions. Like a number of small bundles of sticks bound together strong and secure--instead of all the individual sticks being fastened together--Hindu society is a well-knit union of a number of small groups which are themselves bound up separately as jātis, the cementing factor being devotion to the Lord.

Response to external religions

Religions that have a common code of duties and conduct may not withstand attacks from within and outside. In India there were many sets of religious beliefs that were contained in, or integrated together with a common larger system. If new systems of beliefs or dharmas arose from within or if there were inroads by external religious systems, a process of rejection and assimilation took place: what was not wanted was rejected and what was fit to be accepted was absorbed. Buddhism and Jainism sprang from different aspects of the Vedic religion, so Hinduism was able to digest them and was able to accommodate many other sets of beliefs or to make them its own. There was no need for it to treat other systems as adversaries or to carry on a struggle against them.

Islamic invaders invaded India and Islamic kings and emperors ruled Northern India for several hundred years. In spite of their attempts to impose Islam on the people, Islamic religion/philosophy did not impact Hinduism in any significant way. Only some of the Islamic customs were adopted. The Moghul influence was felt to some extent in apparels, music, architecture and painting. Even such impressions of the Muslim impact did not survive for long as independent factors, but were dissolved in the flow of the Vedic culture. Southern India was not largely impacted by Islam and continued along with its traditional way.

Why the Varna/Jati System / Caste System is considered bad

The Europeans labeled the Varna and Jati system as the Caste System and over a period of time made it something to be thought of as unjust and evil. As a result, many people think of the caste system as an iniquitous system in which some jatis occupy a higher status while some others are pushed down to lower depths whereas they want all people to be raised to the same uniform high level.

Comparison with countries with a Class System

While all countries have some sort of divisions between people, in India, it is labeled as Caste while in other countries, it is labeled as Class.

If there were no distinction between the high and low as it is claimed, there should have been no class conflict as well ! However in reality, people around the world are divided into "advantaged and disadvantaged" classes who are constantly fighting between themselves for that piece of economic pie. Sanātana Dharma propounds that there are no differences in status based on Jāti or Varna. If there are, it becomes the duty of every Hindu to work towards removing those feelings of superiority or inferiority--not get rid of Varna Dharma itself.

Today, all over the world, social divisions have caused bitterness among the different sections, both in India between jātis as well as in the rest of the world between the different classes and/or races. Outside India, the differences are based on wealth and status and cause bitterness and resentment among the underprivileged and poorer classes.

No work is superior, every work is equal

The different types of work are meant for the betterment of society at large. In the varna system, it is wrong to believe that one job belongs to an "inferior" category and another to a "superior type". There is no more efficacious medicine for inner purity than doing one's own work, whatever it be, without any desire for reward and doing it to perfection. This message is echoed in the Bhagawad Gita.[1]

Divided, Hindus remain united

Divided, Hindus have always remained united, and nurtured their civilization. Other civilizations have not survived because their people, though seemingly united, were in fact divided. In the Hindu case, though there were differences in the matter of work, there was unity of hearts and that is how the culture and civilization flourished.

It is neither practical to make all people one, nor can everyone occupy the same high position. At the same time it is also unwise to keep people divided into classes that are like water-tight compartments. The shastras follow a middle path that avoids the pitfalls of the two extremes. Undoubtedly, there must be distinctions among various sections of people in the performance of rites, there must be unity of hearts. There should be no confusion between the two.

If every member of the society does his duty and his work unselfishly and with a conviction that he is doing so for the good of all, considerations of high or low should not enter the mind. If people carry out duties common to them, however adverse the circumstances be, and if every individual performs the duties that are special to him, no one should have cause for suffering at any time.

Varna Dharma's role in the survival of Sanātana Dharma over the Millennia

Countries other than India have produced wise men such as statesmen, administrators, agriculturists, traders and laborers who have contributed much to the growth of knowledge; however, no other country has had a civilization as continuous or as hoary as that of India's. Though great civilizations have flourished in other lands, but they all have come and gone within a relatively shorter span of time--the longest of them surviving merely several hundred years.

Other countries have given birth to great men, to men of God, to philanthropists, to men of sacrifice. But no other nation has given birth, generation after generation for thousands of years in an uninterrupted manner, to such a large number of great men, saintly men, wise men, philosophers, devotees and philanthropists, to outnumber all such men produced in other countries put together. Foreigners refer to India as the "land of saints", as the "land of sages" and have expressed their profound admiration for Vedanta, Hindu metaphysics, and all other ancient works.

India has made unparalleled contributions to arts, sculpture, music, poetry, astronomy, medicine and many other fields. The world is awed by its great works of philosophy and literature like the Upanishads, the Bhagavad-Gita, the Ramayana, the Śakuntalam, and many other literatures. Foreigners have come to India, to study its spellbinding gopurams, sculptures, and the dances of Bharatanātyam. America was discovered when the Europeans were trying to find a shorter route to India. But then Europeans enslaved India, ascribed all kinds of faults to her and held her in contempt and bondage with their policy of divide and rule. Yet steadily, more and more invaders sought out the shāstras, ancient texts, conducted research into them and translated them into their own languages.

What makes Sanātana Dharma unique in its ability to achieve such lasting greatness, is may be due to varna dharma. By eliminating outward competition and focusing on inward excellence, a society was developed which was truly at peace with itself and thus able to find the time to develop unparalleled metaphysics, arts, social values and wisdom. Stability in society and peace went hand in hand. Without them, without an atmosphere conducive to creative work, no arts, no philosophy, no culture could have flourished generation after generation. Philosophers and sages and geniuses in the field of arts would not have otherwise been thrown up in such amazingly large numbers.

The religions that governed life in other countries failed to evolve a social structure capable of creating this kind of stability. In some sense they were focused on rule, to the extent, that the American constitution had to separate church and state but did not focus on the structure of society. It can be said that the question of creating a sociological foundation was overlooked by them. They did not lay down rules for orderly social life and had only general interdictions and injunctions like "Do not steal"; "Do not tell lies"; "Do not commit adultery"; "Live a life of sacrifice". In Buddhism and Christianity the institutionalized system remained only for monks. Sanātana Dharma is unique in that attention, it is directed towards weaving together an entire society into a fabric in which one member forms a support to another. A supplementary-complementary concept.

Other nations have achieved significant scientific advancement, developed systems of defense and carried on trade and commerce. But the spirit of rivalry vitiates in all the walks of life. No community has an occupation entirely to itself. Everyone may compete with everyone else for every kind of job. In the varna system, people had their own hereditary calling and they were assured of their livelihood. This meant peace and stability in society. Because people were bound together in their unique varna system, they excelled in culture and character; not to mention the fact that the stability afforded by the system facilitates the birth of countless numbers of individuals who exemplify all that is noble in mankind. In contrast, in the absence of a similar institution, jealousy and rivalry have become disturbing factors in the life of other countries.

Today, it is often said by social reformers and foreigners alike that the varna and jāti system suppresses people and prevent them from having a better life. If this had been historically true, India would have witnessed many revolutions. However, the term "social revolution" was introduced to India only after learning about these from around the world -- the French Revolution, the American Revolution and the Soviet Revolution. These revolutions showed that compulsions arise for great masses of people to be plunged into unrest. The common people in other countries were again and again involved willy-nilly in revolutionary movements. It is important to note that no revolution has achieved anything of permanent value. If there is an upsurge today there is another a hundred or two hundred years later. These types of uprisings are uniquely absent in the Indian history. It might be concluded from this that people abroad have remained discontented to a degree through most of their history.

Today's situation is all too obvious to be stated. The whole world is in a turmoil. Indiscipline, strikes, social upsets and savage orgies of violence have become the order of the day. It is only in a country like China where there is a dictatorship that comes down heavily on those who voice any opposition to it that there is as yet little unrest. However, it is said that the volcano of unrest might erupt any time there. Now and then an intellectual or writer escapes from that land to describe the tyranny from which people suffer there. Obviously in China, people are not all happy and contented.

India has seldom had an autocracy or dictatorship of this type. It would not have taken the strides it did in the sciences and arts had it been a slave country or a country ruled by despots. People in India have never lamented before others that they were kept suppressed. All Hindu works of knowledge and wisdom, all the arts and all the temples would not have been possible if the mind was not enabled to unfold itself in an atmosphere of freedom. It would also be preposterous to suggest that a majority of the common people were victims of superstition and delusion and lived in fear of witchcraft which was true for the tribes living in the forests of Africa or South America. In these places the priest(shaman) was like a king. He would be fearsome even to look at and he was able to impress his tribesmen that he could do anything with his utterances. He had also the power to punish people. Fear held his people obedient and in subjugation which was not the case in India. People here were fairly knowledgeable irrespective of the jātis to which they belonged and they were devoted and advanced in matters pertaining to the Self.

The Puranas tell stories of great men from many different jātis. Imperial rulers like Chandragupta and ministers like Sekkizhar were Shudras. Brahmins had no authority to punish anyone: according to the canonical texts, the brahmin must be a man of spotless character and if he commits a wrong, he must punish himself to a degree more than what was prescribed for others since he was supposed to be learned and one who was to set examples to others to follow. Until recently in America, if a white man happened to come into physical contact with a black man, the latter was taken to task. But if a brahmin in India comes contact with a shudra, it is the brahmin who is enjoined to have a bath. The point to note is that it was not by inspiring fear, by the threat of punishment or by suppression, that such customs were practiced. Such a civilization glorified all over the world could not have flourished if some sections of the people were suppressed or were victims of deception. It is only when the sāstras are advantageous to all that there can be no cause for any section of the people to revolt.

When the ancient varna system was in force, Hindu civilization grew steadily without giving any cause for revolt or discontent among the people. But when India broke with the old system of division of labor and took to the new path adopted by other countries on the pretext of progress and equality, it gave rise to immorality, dishonesty, corruption and prostitution. Agitations, strikes, demonstrations, hartals, curfew, etc, have become the order of the day. The time is past when everyone had nothing but praise for India.

If there is no varna dharma, it means at once that there would be growth of social disharmony, the rise of jealousies and discontent among the people. Men will compete with one another for the jobs they like or which are convenient to them. There will be competition for education on the same lines. Since all will not succeed in their efforts, or in their desire or ambition having been satisfied, the result will be hatred and resentment everywhere.

Now in India, the software services industry hires thousands of young engineers and puts them through a several months of long training. These engineers are the modern-day equivalent of construction workers and brick-layers. They expect to rise up in the social hierarchy and the best among them are often promoted to managers. Many of them are said to be terrible managers, despite the fact that they were great engineers! In some sense, they are the modern day shudras. In the old days a man's work, whatever it be, became second nature to him and he had a sense of pride in it as an "asset"; a legacy that had come down to him from his forefathers, indeed a prized family "possession". He also did his job efficiently and sincerely. Money was on a secondary consideration. Since everything was done on the basis of trust and with a high degree of personal involvement, the worker was always conscious that he was doing his work -- there were no problems. The whole society prospered.

No civilization can flourish and flourish continuously in the absence of a system that brings fulfillment to all. Varna dharma brought this fulfillment and satisfaction to all.

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  1. Bhagawad Gita, Chapter 18 Verse 47

Other Notable References

  1. Bhagavad Gita, Chapter 3 Verse 35
  2. Large parts of this article are taken from "Hindu Dharma" which is an English translation of speeches by Sri Sri Sri Chandrasekharendra Saraswathi MahaSwami of Shri Kanchi Kamakoti Peetham