The last name based caste system is a jati (community) system and is not Varna based system (Varnashram dharma) discussed in foundational Hindu scripture. There is no mention of caste in the Vedas. The Purusha Sukta of Rig Veda is talking about Varna and not Jati. The modern Jati or caste system is only a distorted and faulty interpretation of the Varna system of the Vedas.
If then with all the documents before us, we ask the question, does caste as we find it in Manu and at the present day, form part of the most ancient religious teaching of the Vedas? We can answer with a decided No.
Max Mueller in Chips from a German Work-shop
Gita also explains Varna. I am posting the relevant Gita verses on varna:
O great hero! The duties of Brahmanas, Ksatriyas, Vaisyas and also Sudras have been divided according to the quality born of their own nature.
Serenity, control of the sense, austerity, purity, straight-forwardness, knowledge, insight, and faith in the Supreme Being – these are a Brahman’s duties born of his own nature.
Prowess, splendor of personality, unfailing courage, resourcefulness, dauntless in battle, generosity, leadership – these are a Ksatriya’s duties born of his specific nature.
Agriculture, cattle-rearing and trade form the duty of the Vaisya springing from his own nature, while the natural duty of a Sudra consists in subordinate service under others.
By being devoted to one’s own natural duty, man attains to spiritual competency. Now hear how devotion to one’s own natural duty generates spiritual competency.
From whom all beings have emanated and by whom all this universe is pervaded – by worshiping Him through the dedicated performance of one’s duty, man attains to spiritual competency.
One’s own duty, even if without excellence (i.e. inferior in the scale of worldly values)is more meritorious spiritually than the apparently well-performed duty of another. For no sin is incurred by one doing works ordained according to one’s nature.
These verses do not support the last name based hereditary Hindu caste system which led to division in Hindu society. Gita clearly states that Varna is based on karma and guna. How would one determine the varna of a person? This is of course not easy. One should in today’s world do that work which best suits one’s aptitude. If that is not possible then one should do whatever one gets. We should today follow the advice of persons like the sage Bhrigu and Rishi Yajnavalkya quoted below. Itis a curious fact that the ancient Acharyas ignored ancient interpretations of varna given in the Mahabharata.
The sage Bhrigu said, ‘There is really no distinction between the different orders. The whole world at first consisted of Brahmanas. Created (equal) by Brahman, men have, in consequence of their acts, become distributed into different orders. They that became fond of indulging in desire and enjoying pleasures, possessed of the attributes of severity and wrath, endued with courage, and unmindful of the duties of piety and worship, – these Brahmanas possessing the attributes of passion, – became Kshatriyas. Those Brahmanas again who, without attending to the duties laid down for them, became possessed of both the attributes of Goodness and Passion, and took to the professions of cattle-rearing and agriculture, became Vaisyas. Those Brahmanas again that became fond of untruth and injuring other creatures, possessed of cupidity, – engaged in all kinds of acts for a living, and fallen away from the purity of behaviour, and thus wedded to the attributes of Darkness, became Sudras. Separated by these occupations, Brahmanas, falling away from their order, became members of the other three orders. All the four orders, therefore, have always the right to the performance of all pious duties and of sacrifices. Even thus were the four orders at first created equal by Brahman who ordained for all of them (the observances disclosed in) the words of Brahma (in the Vedas). Through cupidity alone, many fell away, and became possessed by ignorance. The Brahmanas are always devoted to the scripture on Brahma; and mindful of vows and restraints, are capable of grasping the conception of Brahma. Their penances therefore never go for nothing. They amongst them are not Brahmanas that are incapable of understanding that every created thing is Supreme Brahma.
(Mahabharata Santi Parva Section CLXXXVIII )
The sage Bhrigu said, ‘He is called a Brahmana in whom are truth, gifts, abstention from injury to others, compassion, shame, benevolence, and penance. He who is engaged in the profession of battle, who studies the Vedas, who makes gifts and takes wealth (from those he protects) is called a Kshatriya. He who earns fame from keep of cattle, who is employed in agriculture and the means of acquiring wealth, who is pure in behavior and attends to the study of Vedas, is called a Vaisya. He who takes pleasure in eating every kind of food, who is engaged in doing every kind of work, who is impure in behavior, who does not study the Vedas and whose conduct is unclean, is said to be a Sudra. If these characteristics be observable in a Sudra, and if they be not found in a Brahmana, then such a Sudra is no Sudra, and such a Brahmana is no Brahmana.’
Mahabharata, Santi Parva, Section CLXXXIX
The famous Rishi Yajnavalkya continued,’ ..All orders of men are Brahmanas. All are sprung from Brahma. All men utter Brahma. Aided by an understanding that is derived from and directed to Brahma. I inculcated this science teaching of Prakriti and Purusha. Indeed this whole universe is Brahma. From the mouth of Brahma sprung the Brahmanas; from his arms, sprung the Kshatriyas; from his navel, the Vaisysa; and from his feet, the Sudras. All the orders, (having sprung in this way) should not be regarded as pilfering from one another. Impelled by ignorance, all men meet with death and attain, O King, to birth that is the cause of acts. Divested of knowledge, all orders of men, dragged in terrible ignorance, fall into varied orders of being due to the principles that flow from Prakriti. For this reason, all should, by every means, seek to acquire knowledge. I have told thee that every person is entitled to strive for its acquisition. One that is possessed of knowledge is a Brahmana. Others, (viz., Kshatriyas, and Vaishyas and Sudras) are possessed of knowledge. Hence this science of emancipation is always open to them all.’
(Mahabharata Santi Parva Section CCCXIX)
The caste system (not the Varna system) is based on misunderstanding of the Hindu Varna system. The Hindu Varna system is very good in theory since it asks for every job in society to be filled by persons with the most appropriate mental capacity. How would you achieve this in practice? How would you know what is the Varna of a person? In order to make the Varna system practical they introduced about 2000 years ago the idea of choosing specific last names for every Varna (Manu Smriti 2.31-32.) The idea was that if you feel you are of a particular Varna then you have to choose from a range of names. Then it would be possible to know the Varna of a person from his name. They also had a safety valve. If any person was dissatisfied with his Varna then he could change it. It is not society that chooses the Varna of a person. The choice of Varna is left to an individual. At least that was the theory. What happened in practice? The answer is given in Hindu scripture itself.
Yudhisthira said, ” In human society, O mighty and highly intelligent serpent, it is difficult to ascertain one’s caste, because of promiscuous intercourse among the four orders. This is my opinion. Men belonging to all orders (promiscuously) begat offspring upon women of all the orders. And of men, speech, sexual intercourse, birth and death are common. And to this the Rishis have borne testimony by using as the beginning of a sacrifice such expressions as — of what caste server may be, we celebrate the sacrifice. Therefore, those that are wise have asserted that character is the chief essential requisite … whatsoever now conforms to the rules of pure and virtuous conduct, him have I, ere now, designated as a Brahmana.
Mahabharata Aranya Parva Section CLXXIX
At some point in time the last name and not conduct became the marker of Varna. This development came with some really bad misinterpretations.
You may have heard that Vedas should not be read by Shudras.
What is curious is that Vedas themselves deny such a thing!
I do hereby address this salutary speech for the benefit of humanity, for the Brahmanas, the Kshatriyas, the Sudras, the Vaishas, the kinfolk and the men of the lowest position in society.
Yajur Veda 26.2 translated by Devi Chand
Moreover Vedas talk about God’s love for all humanity.
O God grant love to our holy priests, set love in our ruling chiefs. Grant love to the Vaishyas and Shudras; give out of Thy unbounded store of love, love unto me!
Yajur Veda 18.48 translated by Devi Chand
Varna is a universal concept
The varna idea applies even to non-Hindus.
Some people accuse the Rig Veda of casteism because of its conception of different orders of humans as emerging from different parts of Brahman. A Mahabharata passage from Anusasana Parva Section CXLIII even rejects such an idea:
Maheshwara said, ‘..Neither birth, nor the purificatory rites, nor learning, nor offspring, can be regarded as grounds for conferring upon one the regenerate status.Verily, the conduct is the only ground. All Brahmanas in this world are Brahmanas in consequence of conduct. A Sudra, if he is established on good conduct, is regarded as possessed of the status of a Brahmana. The status of a Brahma, O auspicious lady [Uma], is equal wherever it exists. Even this is my opinion. He, indeed, is a Brahmana in which the status of Brahma exists – that condition which is bereft of attributes and which has no stain attached to it. of human beings in four orders dependent on birth is only for purposes of classification.The boon giving Brahma, when he created all creatures, himself said that the distribution of human beings in four orders dependent on birth is only for purposes of classification.’
Mahabharata Anusasana Parva Section CXLIII
Change of Varna
Narada said, ‘If in members born in a certain Varna the qualities pertaining to another Varna are seen, they (the former) are to be classified as belonging to the latter Varna.’
Srimad Bhagavata Purana VII.11.35
Sage Pulastya’s views on how to become a Brahmana
Sage Pulastya said,”..by vows, by investiture of the sacred, by fasts,
by rites, and by Mantras, one becometh a Brahmana.”
(Mahabharata, Aranya Parva LXXXIII)
I am supplementing my answer with actual examples of persons who have changed Varna.
Examples of Change of Varna in Hindu scripture
Bhagavan Rishabha, realising that the region of his advent was a place dominated by Vedic rituals, adopted the life of a religious student under a teacher with gifts, came back home with his blessings. He adopted the householder’s station of life in order to teach the world about the duties of that order, observed all the ceremonials and duties laid down in the scriptures, married a girl named Jayanti given to him by Indra, and begot by her a hundred sons equal to himself in all respects. Of all these sons, Bharata was the eldest and noblest. This Ajanabha Varsha came to be known after him as Bharatavarsha. Next to him, the eldest nine other sons ….. were elder to the remaining ninety. Among these ninety, another nine … became great devotees and teachers of the Bhakti cult. ….. The remaining eighty one of the brothers, who were humble in nature, learned in the Vedas, adepts in sacrificial rites, and extremely pure through their observances, became Brahmanas according to their father’s instruction.
Srimad Bhagavata Purana, V.4.8-13
At Kamyaka, Kusika’s son had quaffed the Soma juice with Indra. Then abandoning the Kshatriya order, he began to say,’‘I am a Brahmana’.
Mahabharata, Vana Parva, Section LXXXVII
Justification of human Inequality
There is no doubt that Hinduism does not accept the idea that all human beings are equal. The passage below shows how Hinduism justifies its position that humans are not all equal.
Bhishma said, “Verily Righteousness is fraught with victory. Its effulgence is so great that it illumines the three worlds. A man of wisdom cannot catch hold of a sinful person and forcibly cause him to become righteous. When seriously urged to act righteously, the sinful only act with hypocrisy, impelled by fear. They that are righteous among the Sudras never betake themselves to such hypocrisy under the plea that persons of Sudra order are not permitted to live according to any of the four prescribed modes. I shall tell thee particularly what the duties truly are of the four orders. So far as their bodies are concerned, the individuals belonging to all the four orders have the five primal elements for the constituent ingredients. Indeed, in this respect, they are all of the same substance. For all that, distinctions exist between them in respect of both practices relating to life or the world and the duties of righteousness. Notwithstanding these distinctions, sufficient liberty of action is left to them in consequence of which all individuals may attain to an equality of condition. ………All men are equal in respect of their physical organism. All of them, again, are possessed of souls that are equal in respect of their nature. When dissolution comes, all else dissolve away. What remains is the inceptive will to achieve Righteousness. That, indeed, reappears (in next life) of itself. When such is the result (that is, when the enjoyments and endurance of this life are due to acts of a past life), the inequality of a lot discernible among human beings can not be regarded in any way anomalous. “
Mahabharata, Anusasana Parva, Section CLXIV
Difference between Jati system and Varnashram dharma
There are thousands of Jatis but only 4 Varnas. One can not change one’s Jati while it is possible to change one’s Varna.
More posts by this author:
- Interesting shlokas from Mahabharata
- Moksha as viewed in Hindu scripture
- Gita’s interpretation of varnashramdharma according to Swami Vivekananda
- Vedas are open to all
- Women and Hindu scriptures
I did my school, college and parts of my University education in Kolkata. I got my M.Sc degree from Kolkata University. I went to USA in 1979 and got my M.S and Ph.D in Physics from University of Pittsburgh in 1984. I did my Post Doctorate in University of Southern California, Los Angeles and then worked as a Research Scientist in the Department of Physics, Astronomy and Space Sciences Center of University of Southern California. My scientific work includes heavy ion-atom scattering, multiphoton ionization and heliosphere data analysis of Pioneer 10/111 and Voyager 1/2 deep space spacecaft and analysis of solar extreme ultraviolet data obtained from SOHO spacecraft. I have been a National Aeronautics and Space Adminstration (NASA) Principal Investigator from 2002 – 2007. I have been a member of a NASA awards committee to decide allocation of money to different scientists. I have also refereed scientific articles submitted to Journal of Geophysical Research and Astrophysical Journal.