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Brahmans Doing Prayer

Did the caste system originate from the Bhagavad Gita? How does Bhagavad Gita explain it?

Reading Time: 5 minutes

चातुर्वर्ण्यं मया सृष्टं गुणकर्मविभागश: |

तस्य कर्तारमपि मां विद्ध्यकर्तारमव्ययम् || 4.13||

Bhagvad Gita, Chapter 4 Verse 13

The world created by Me has four groups divided according to qualities and actions. Even though I am their creator, know Me to be the eternal non-doer.

Bhagvad Gita, Chapter 4 Verse 13 (English Translation)

There are several references in the Gita to the four social groups (varnas). Our modern perspective is that the caste system is a social evil. However, it started in ancient times as a natural social structure.

Shri Krishna created these four groups to categorize one’s qualities (Gunas): 

  • purity (Sattva),
  • passion (Rajas), 
  • and darkness (Tamas).

These three Gunas characterize the world around us, and each person has the three qualities above present in their mind at different levels. The predominance of one Guna over another determines the group to which they belong. Shri Krishna created four groups, not as lineages by birth (our modern conception) but as divisions according to one’s karmas performed. The four groups are listed below along with their qualities, listed from high to low:

  • Brahmana (Sattva, Rajas, Tamas)
  • Kshatriya (Rajas, Sattva, Tamas)
  • Vaishya (Rajas, Tamas, Sattva)
  • Shudra (Tamas, Rajas, Sattva)

Shri Krishna created these four groups according to the differences in their behaviors or inherent nature (Gunas). Therefore, Krishna’s social order was a natural social order or division. People who are similar and have a lot in common tend to congregate. 

Shri Krishna created the Guna-based caste system, and humans created the caste system that categorizes us at birth. Human beings manipulated these four divisions selfishly to benefit some and keep others down, resulting in social discrimination and injustice. The harmful nature of the caste system is not due to its origin but due to how it evolved. The caste system is a problem, but not because of religion. 

What Does It Mean to be a Non-Doer, Unaffected by Action?

न मां कर्माणि लिम्पन्ति न मे कर्मफले स्पृहा |

इति मां योऽभिजानाति कर्मभिर्न स बध्यते || 4.14||

Bhagvad Gita, Chapter 4 Verse 14

Actions do not affect Me nor do I have desire for their results. One who knows Me thus is not bound by actions.

Bhagvad Gita, Chapter 4 Verse 14 (English Translation)

Even though Krisha is the karta (agent) for creating the four groups, understand that he is not an agent. He is immutable, unengaged in action.

Indeed, Shri Krishna created the entire universe along with the four castes. Although he made these elements, he did not take action. He was not engaged in those actions in a fundamental way. The fundamental reality we call atma is pure consciousness, unborn, unchanging, and entirely unaffected by anything in the world. That is Shri Krishna’s true nature. Pure consciousness is not engaged in action. 

For example, a decision is a mental action. The question is, who made that decision? Did consciousness make the decision, or did it arise in your mind? Activities of your mind include cognitions, perceptions, and emotions, as with decision making. Decision-making is when you consider various options and choose one of those options and engage yourself in that activity. It’s not your true self that engages. It’s your mind. All actions are performed with the help of our bodies and minds. The actions we do in life, whether those are actions performed with our bodies, speech, or minds, are not done by consciousness or atma. Consciousness is the uninvolved, silent, and detached witness. 

One who understands that Shri Krishna is a non-doer is not bound by karma. Karma belongs to the agent of action. If atma is not an agent of action, then atma does not receive the results of actions we commit. We commit good and bad actions to accrue papa karma and punya karma, but these do not accrue to atma. The individual person (Jiva) performs those actions, and it is that person to which the karma belongs. But one who is enlightened is not bound by karma.

Can Our True Selves Accrue Karma?

एवं ज्ञात्वा कृतं कर्म पूर्वैरपि मुमुक्षुभि: |

कुरु कर्मैव तस्मात्त्वं पूर्वै: पूर्वतरं कृतम् || 4.15||

Bhagvad Gita, Chapter 4 Verse 15

Knowing this truth, even seekers of liberation in ancient times performed actions. Therefore, following the footsteps of those ancient sages, you too should perform your duty.

Bhagvad Gita, Chapter 4 Verse 15 (English Translation)

As mentioned above, atma is neither an agent of action nor subject to the results of action (karma). One who understands this is enlightened. In ancient times, the enlightened ones were engaged in karma. The difference was that they knew their true selves as pure consciousness, and their actions were done through the instrumentality of their bodies and minds. 

Shri Krishna advises Arjuna to engage in the act of fighting on the battlefield, but with that wisdom. The wisdom is that when you are on the battlefield, your body, mind, and sense will be engaged in action, but not your true self. 

Therefore, you should be engaged in action like the actions done by those ancient sages. Arjuna should go out on the battlefield to fight, knowing that his true self does not act. Since he does not act as atma in a fundamental sense, he believes he will accrue bad karma. If he acts with this enlightened understanding, karma will not affect him. It comes down to fulfilling our duties. When we fulfill our duties, we are not affected by karma.

किं कर्म किमकर्मेति कवयोऽप्यत्र मोहिता: |

तत्ते कर्म प्रवक्ष्यामि यज्ज्ञात्वा मोक्ष्यसेऽशुभात् || 4.16||

कर्मणो ह्यपि बोद्धव्यं बोद्धव्यं च विकर्मण: |

अकर्मणश्च बोद्धव्यं गहना कर्मणो गति: || 4.17||

Bhagvad Gita, Chapter 4 Verse 16 & 17

What is action and what is inaction? Even the wise are confused in determining this. Now I shall explain to you the secret of action, by knowing which, you may free yourself from material bondage.

You must understand the nature of all three—recommended action, wrong action, and inaction. The truth about these is profound and difficult to understand.

Bhagvad Gita, Chapter 4 Verse 16 & 17 (English Translation)

Shri Krishna recognizes Arjuna’s confusion. Atma is associated with the absence of action. Jiva is an agent of action, but atma is not an agent of action. Knowing this frees one from all that is inauspicious. One who understands atma not to be an agent of action, that person is enlightened. 

Shri Krishna summarizes what he is going to teach in the coming verses. By understanding karma, bad karma, and the absence of action, we are led to a life free of suffering.

What the Gita Teaches Us

The caste system originated to categorize social groups based on their behavior. While it started to establish eternal order, the system became corrupt and unjust. Our true selves and the world around us are atma, an unengaged agent incapable of accruing karma. Only our bodies and minds are engaged in action, and as a result, only these instruments can be affected by karma.