We now enter into another critical pronouncement in Bhagavadgita. Here again, Krishna assumes the same lofty pedestal as earlier (verse 4.7), and speaks on behalf of the Supreme Reality using the first person pronoun. An experience or statement becomes clear, conclusive and doubtless when it is claimed and expressed as “I am, I have seen or I have known”. Any other reference will only be secondary.
For the existence of the world, the first and last proof is that we cognize it. Equally so, for the existence of oneself, the full and final proof is that ‘I am, and therefore I exist’. This direct, subjective, personal note in presenting matters, thus, marks the distinction of spiritual and religious pronouncements. And in our spiritual arena, it has its greatest undeniable place and purpose:
तस्य कर्तारमपि मां विद्ध्यकर्तारमव्ययम् ।।
The arrangement called varnya, based upon the four categories in the society is instituted by Me; but know that I always remain a non-doer, though the Creator of such a four-fold categorization. As I am a non-doer, I am also the Imperishable.
It appears to be a very simple statement, but Krishna’s words contain and convey a world of meaning and relevance. One has to spend adequate time and attention to grasp what he means and explains in these words, more so to be able to explain the verse to others.
Thus, a great deal of controversy revolves around this verse. Even commentators like Sankaracharya are quoted and abused pitiably, relating the original message in a manner absolutely unrelated to its genesis or relevance. As is the misunderstanding in viewing and interpreting the famous Karma-yoga sutra in the second chapter (verse 47) so also is the failure on the part of the readers and students in relating the statements of this verse properly.
Varna literally means colour. Of the five senses we have for cognizing the objects of the world, the eyes are the most used and sensitive. The objects and the shapes are identified through their varnas, colours. Whether anything is there or not, then again whether the being is a bird, beast, reptile, worm, a cell or a human is first known only through the eye. Only the eye can recognize rupa, colour. In the plant kingdom, we have a number of trees, herbs and the like. Each is identified, and its properties are related, primarily by its looks, as determined by the eyes.
So, varna, the visible distinguishing feature, is important in perceiving existence and its functions. The categorization based upon this property is called varnya, that which is derived from varna (colour). Krishna now says there is something called catur-varnya in the matter of creation. The Creator has brought it into force at the time of creation itself.
It means a four-fold categorization. It is given the name vyavastha – arrangement or order. Like the divisions of beings into birds, animals, mammals, reptiles, humans and the like, this four-fold category is also there. It applies, in truth, to all sentient creation, not alone to human beings. But in human beings it is most pronounced, and we are primarily and ultimately concerned with it. The Gita-sastra also is a reference to human beings, their character, behaviour and interactions.
Krishna says that these four fold categories are on the basis of the guna, quality or character, and karma, actions or pursuits. Quality or guna is something that the human carries with him in his core, deep inside. It is a note or trait inextricably associated with his inner personality, which cannot be readily determined by eyes. That is why an exposition like this becomes necessary.
One has a body. This is a direct knowledge. But that one is not the body, though he has one, and that he is the Soul, which is quite unlike the body, is a truth that none can access through his senses. Hence sastras posit this point, explain and establish it in various ways. This is the basis of our sastras and it should not be forgotten or set aside.
In fact, such a division or categorization was already there as a vyavastha. It was a subject well understood far before Krishna’s birth as Devaki’s son. Krishna only restates what was already known and said.
The four-fold category is on the basis of inner qualities as well as the temptations and physical expressions they give rise to. It is well established that any physical or sensory action results from an inspiration, impetus or instigation arising from inside, from one’s mind and heart. The movements one makes with his limbs, the words he utters with his mouth, and also the thoughts and emotions that emerge from him, are all motivated by the qualities or forces he carries within himself. The inner part cannot be seen or judged by another. But certainly when the inner part comes to expression in the form of visible acts or behaviour, they can be clearly known.
Thus gunas, the qualities inside, and karmas, visible actions outside, both put together determine this categorization, says Krishna. Krishna does not say anything more at this stage here. Later, he has, while describing the qualities and actions of the categories (verse 18.41) said that each category is distinguished by a set of features, enlisted by him briefly. This is all that Bhagavadgita states. The rest is all interpretation and comment.
The gunas are three, as already stated in earlier chapters. Guna is a spiritual word, and naturally its meaning and import are also spiritual. Quality is just an English translation of the word. In fact, the guna means the property of a thing, be it a person or an object. Just like physical and chemical properties are there for substances, human beings have their spiritual characteristics. The Bhagavadgita lists them as sattva, rajas and tamas, about which we have mentioned in the earlier discussions.
The three gunas give rise to four combinations of tendencies, broadly, which express themselves in one’s life during his or her interactions with the world. The invisible gunas are not directly noticeable. They manifest through the activities and tendencies, which of course will be evident.
Krishna divides the characteristics into four groups. The first group, in which sattva guna is in the forefront, is the most spiritual. The predominant sattva guna will afford easy natural contemplation on the Supreme Truth or Brahman, together with the allied level of purity and goodness. Our sastras, even before Krishna was born, called it Brahmasvabhava. It means the proximate nature to Brahman, facilitating Braahmic contemplation as the most dominant aspect of life.
Arjuna, being a warrior, obviously cannot claim inclusion in this Brahma-svabhava. That is why Krishna straightaway refused Arjuna’s proposed impulsive attempt to get away from the battlefield and engage in exclusive spiritual contemplation.
Brahma svabhavins have thus a lifestyle and pursuit dominated by austerity, contemplation and the gaining of extreme level of purity. Their mainstay is knowledge, its pursuit and promotion. Sannyasins and such other people are to be included in this sattvika category.
The next group has rajo guna as the dominant quality. Rajas represents activity and the motivation, passion and prejudice for it. Rajasika people will revel in continuous activities. The taxing and seemingly cruel act of public administration, involving defence and law enforcing activities, comes under this category. Our rulers and armed forces would fall in this category. Kshatra svabhava is the name given to this. It calls for and implies the power of muscle and voice. To say what is to be done, even in emergent situations, and to see that what is so said is adhered to and implemented is the quality of rajas.
In case of insubordination or opposition, the man of rajo guna, kshatra svabhava, cannot and should not close his eyes, relent or retreat. He has to straightaway go into the matter, employing his wish, will and strength, sometimes even risking his own life. Muscle and mind both will have to be arrayed for the purpose, which is something the brahmasvabh¡vins cannot think of doing at all. By the very nature of it, rajo guna may lead to precipitous events and confrontations, as for instance the one facing Arjuna himself.
Arjuna was a kshatra svabh¡vin, and he expressed his nature consistently. He wanted to fight adharma, impropriety, and those who defended it. Thus Duryodhana and the rest were to be contended with. He was ready for the fight.
But when he came to Kurukshetra, he found his grandfather, who had literally brought him up on his lap, and his own venerable teacher, under whose care and guidance he grew to be what he had now become. They were defending Duryodhana. The wrong was to be dealt with. But the persons fighting for the wrong-side were adorable. Thus the conflict became extremely grave, and it unnerved him.
This is a typical instance in the life of the kshatriya. But rajo guna is noted to precipitate such grave crises and conflicts. The kshatriya has nevertheless to go forward. That is how Krishna instills Arjuna with the necessary insight and compulsiveness to assimilate the conflicting notes and yet fulfil the role of rajo guna. But the rajo guna of the kshatriya will have to be closely guarded and guided by sattva. Only then his violent, offensive and remedial moves will remain faultless and benevolent to ensure social and individual welfare. Herein lies the test and also redemption.
The third category of nature is the one that takes naturally to trade and agriculture, including animal husbandry. To trade means to protect the capital. In intriguing circumstances, which are not at all rare, the trader will have to blend good and bad, truth with half-truth, and only then his profession can be sustained. It is said that the trader’s success often consists in the quality of his words than of his goods. Our sastras thus describe vaisya dharma as a mixture of truth and untruth: satya-anrta. Nonetheless, there are many who have affinity for the vaisya dharma and are fit for this pursuit.
Now comes the fourth category, which encompasses always the largest percentage of human population anywhere in the world. Sudra svabhava is the name given to it. In it, the tamo guna is predominant, followed by rajas.
Those given to this combination will have their body and muscle as their wealth. They cannot take up any complex venture that needs subtle thinking and intelligent decisions. On the other hand, they can work hard under the guidance of others. All that they would expect is some reward in the form of remuneration or resources, which will enable them to live with their family.
Neither the austerity with contemplative pursuit of the Brahma-svabhavin, nor the zealous involvement in the challenges of ruling the society, nor again the cleverness and responsibility of the professions like trade and agriculture, can they take up. Theirs is the path of least resistance but comfortable involvement. “I shall not take any risk. Nor would I aspire for anything big or great. Employ me to the extent I can be employed, and I shall be content with what purpose it will serve you.”
These are the four categories which go to make humanity. The first group looks after the knowledge, research and their benefits for the welfare of mankind. The second holds the society in check and balance by placing their might and astuteness, including physical, for the cause of public administration. The third toils in the land and cultivates food materials and also engages in the production and distribution of commodities to meet the needs of the society. And the last is the broadest and largest ‘human resource’, which any other category needs and will employ.
These four together, says Krishna, constitute the complex, mutually fulfilling human society in the world. The creation of these mutually complementing four categories by different combinations of the three gunas, is the role of Nature.
In earlier chapters (verse 3.5), he has already said that all actions and their motivations are a handiwork of Prakrti, Nature, and none has anything to say or do in the matter. Nature has instituted this complex order (vyavastha) in the world. Like the birth of male and female in the society, like the preservation of the various species around, in this too, Nature’s hands alone work, and mankind has nothing to do or to interfere in the process, except to recognize the whole order and be enriched and guided by it.
These svabhavas or guna combinations are ever active and vibrant in humanity. In fact, these are the inner psychological and psychic traits. Similarly, physical and chemical substances too have their respective properties and nature. There is no being in existence, sentient or insentient, dissociated from its nature or svabhava (18.40).
Thus the four-fold combination is a well-knit arrangement one can think of. Does Nature have intelligence to conceive all this with sufficient forethought and caution? The answer is that – if the human, Nature’s best gift, has his level of intelligence and insight, what should be the magnitude and potential of Mother Nature, the very source from which the human intelligence has sprung!
Only because the super-intelligence of Grand Nature shines independently unblemished, the resultant satellites like man and the rest can have their dependent lustres. Have not the Upanishads sung this fact most melodiously?
Only when that independent primordial lustre shines there, the rest shine after it. Indeed by Its brilliance alone are all these empowered with their respective lustres.
None should therefore doubt or wonder whether the cause of all existences, namely Nature, has sufficient intelligence within it. Is it not its intelligence or sentience that becomes manifest in varying degrees in the whole spectrum of sentient beings? The small measure of sentience we possess and display should, in fact, lead our understanding to infer how magnificent the intelligence of the Supreme source of all should be! It is because of that Supreme Master Intelligence that all this well thought-out arrangements, sequences, orders and institutions come to reign around us, in the universe. How is this wonder accomplished? The seeker has to think deeply to fill the gaps in his understanding.
It is important to know that this four-fold category of humanity (catur-varna) is not something that prevails in India or Hindu society alone. It is applicable to the whole human population, wherever people are. In the most modern nations also, where science and technology have advanced to render living standards and amenities copious, one can still find this four-fold division.
Are not farmers and agriculturists in all countries producing food and other articles on the earth and making them available to the society? Equally so, are not the other counterpart too, the traders, taking up the task of distributing the farm-produce to the different users? What about the organized, disciplined police and defence personnel with their resolve and spirit to implement the dictates of law and order? There is also the research group, active with its pursuit of knowledge, constantly endeavouring to discover, invent and popularize various measures and expediencies the society looks for and will cherish from time to time. And, there is always a work-force which serves the society with its muscle-capacity.
Surely, all these together alone make any human society wholesome and fulfilling. This basic and ultimate structure of the complex society cannot be tampered with at any time.
In fact, only when the earth, air, water, sunlight and other elemental sources are already present, the humans and the rest of creatures will be evolved. Only when the laws and processes resulting in the emergence of the insentient world and planets remain ceaselessly active to preserve their respective properties and the mutually complementary forces, the question of human existence arises at all.
In humans too, it is but reasonable that the same orderliness, cycles and constitutional harmony manifest and govern. None can think of drawing a line to divide the sequence of creation or the order of complex Nature. What precedes humanity can alone prevail in humanity and whatever follows it too!
(From the Series Essential Concepts In Bhagavad Gita- Volume 2)