Dharma precedes, succeeds and supersedes all there is.
This is not just another statement in passing but a reflection of the understanding that all that maintains the natural order of things in the Universe (Ṛta), socially and spiritually, is quintessentially Dharmic. This has been realised and highlighted in all major faiths and civilisations of the world, over millennia, albeit with different nomenclature and tags. In the Indic civilisations, society has been oriented keeping this fundamental idea in mind. One of the key concepts therein has been that of Varna. There are said to be four Varna: Brahmin, Kshatriya, Vaisya and Shudra, in society. Contemporary society regards this as follows: Brahmin as priests and scholars and teachers, Kshatriya as rulers and warriors and administrators, Vaishya as agriculturalists and merchants, and Shudra to be labourers and service providers. Basically, there is a convolution of the Vedic Varna with what can only be regarded as a birth- and occupation- based system, much like a jati-based caste system. I was always conflicted and curious about what Varna truly meant since I was a child, when I first came across the idea possibly in a philosophical discussion or text of theology and spirituality.
I am hardly an apologist for any strand of thought and so the manner in which some people would often regard Varna not in terms of birth or occupation but in terms of innate tendencies and capabilities primarily at a physical or mental level felt conveniently conjured-up and quite unsatisfying, with all due respect to them. It was in the early hours of 13 January 2020, just past midnight, that a spiritual insight presented itself to me after a session of meditation and reflection. I realised that Varna had absolutely nothing to do with birth or profession or tendencies or deeds or knowledge! But the final frontier in understanding that I personally crossed this day was that it does not even depend on the individual soul or spirit! It goes one step further. The seed to this flash of insight probably lay dormant for a long time and it just burst forth, and two things that lay front and center, when I looked at verifying or reflecting on the veracity of this insight, to support this were: the Purusha Sukta of the Rig Veda and the understanding of what Brahman-hood truly meant.
The Purusha Sukta
The Purusha Sukta is a hymn from the Rig Veda (10.90, to be precise), which is dedicated to the Cosmic Being – ‘Purusha’. The hymn goes something like this:
सहस्रशीर्षा पुरुषः सहस्राक्षः सहस्रपात |
सभूमिं विश्वतो वर्त्वात्यतिष्ठद दशाङगुलम ||
पुरुष एवेदं सर्वं यद भूतं यच्च भव्यम |
उताम्र्तत्वस्येशानो यदन्नेनातिरोहति ||
एतावानस्य महिमातो जयायांश्च पूरुषः |
पादो.अस्यविश्वा भूतानि तरिपादस्याम्र्तं दिवि ||
तरिपादूर्ध्व उदैत पुरुषः पादो.अस्येहाभवत पुनः |
ततो विष्वं वयक्रामत साशनानशने अभि ||
तस्माद विराळ अजायत विराजो अधि पूरुषः |
स जातोत्यरिच्यत पश्चाद भूमिमथो पुरः ||
यत पुरुषेण हविषा देवा यज्ञमतन्वत |
वसन्तोस्यासीदाज्यं गरीष्म इध्मः शरद धविः ||
तं यज्ञं बर्हिषि परौक्षन पुरुषं जातमग्रतः |
तेन देवा अयजन्त साध्या रषयश्च ये ||
तस्माद यज्ञात सर्वहुतः सम्भ्र्तं पर्षदाज्यम |
पशून्तांश्चक्रे वायव्यानारण्यान गराम्याश्च ये ||
तस्माद यज्ञात सर्वहुत रचः सामानि जज्ञिरे |
छन्दांसिजज्ञिरे तस्माद यजुस्तस्मादजायत ||
तस्मादश्वा अजायन्त ये के चोभयादतः |
गावो हजज्ञिरे तस्मात तस्माज्जाता अजावयः ||
यत पुरुषं वयदधुः कतिधा वयकल्पयन |
मुखं किमस्य कौ बाहू का ऊरू पादा उच्येते ||
बराह्मणो.अस्य मुखमासीद बाहू राजन्यः कर्तः |
ऊरूतदस्य यद वैश्यः पद्भ्यां शूद्रो अजायत ||
चन्द्रमा मनसो जातश्चक्षोः सूर्यो अजायत |
मुखादिन्द्रश्चाग्निश्च पराणाद वायुरजायत ||
नाभ्या आसीदन्तरिक्षं शीर्ष्णो दयौः समवर्तत |
पद्भ्यां भूमिर्दिशः शरोत्रात तथा लोकानकल्पयन ||
सप्तास्यासन परिधयस्त्रिः सप्त समिधः कर्ताः |
देवायद यज्ञं तन्वाना अबध्नन पुरुषं पशुम ||
यज्ञेन यज्ञमयजन्त देवास्तानि धर्माणि परथमान्यासन |
ते ह नाकं महिमानः सचन्त यत्र पूर्वे साध्याःसन्ति देवाः ||
which translates to
A thousand heads hath Purusa, a thousand eyes, a thousand feet. On every side pervading earth he fills a space ten fingers wide.
This Purusa is all that yet hath been and all that is to be; The Lord of Immortality which waxes greater still by food.
So mighty is his greatness; yea, greater than this is Purusa. All creatures are one-fourth of him, three-fourths eternal life in heaven.
With three-fourths Purusa went up: onefourth of him again was here. Thence he strode out to every side over what cats not and what cats.
From him Viraj was born; again Purusa from Viraj was born. As soon as he was born he spread eastward and westward o’er the earth.
When Gods prepared the sacrifice with Purusa as their offering, Its oil was spring, the holy gift was autumn; summer was the wood.
They balmed as victim on the grass Purusa born in earliest time. With him the Deities and all Sadhyas and Rsis sacrificed.
From that great general sacrifice the dripping fat was gathered up. He formed the creatures of-the air, and animals both wild and tame.
From that great general sacrifice Rcas and Sama-hymns were born: Therefrom were spells and charms produced; the Yajus had its birth from it.
From it were horses born, from it all cattle with two rows of teeth: From it were generated kine, from it the goats and sheep were born.
When they divided Purusa how many portions did they make? What do they call his mouth, his arms? What do they call his thighs and feet?
The Brahman was his mouth, of both his arms was the Rajanya made. His thighs became the Vaisya, from his feet the Sudra was produced.
The Moon was gendered from his mind, and from his eye the Sun had birth; Indra and Agni from his mouth were born, and Vayu from his breath.
Forth from his navel came mid-air the sky was fashioned from his head Earth from his feet, and from his car the regions. Thus they formed the worlds.
Seven fencing-sticks had he, thrice seven layers of fuel were prepared, When the Gods, offering sacrifice, bound, as their victim, Purusa.
Gods, sacrificing, sacrificed the victim these were the carliest holy ordinances. The Mighty Ones attained the height of heaven, there where the Sidhyas, Gods of old, are dwelling.
This somewhat-long but interesting hymn from the oldest of the Vedas is often taken to be the basis for defining the Varna, particularly the verse: ‘The Brahman was his mouth, of both his arms was the Rajanya made. His thighs became the Vaisya, from his feet the Sudra was produced’. This is where the interpretations go so horribly wrong due to just one single misunderstanding: the nature and relevance of this ‘Cosmic Being’ – Purusha. Firstly, even if we were to not go on my insight in this matter and were to look at it at a surface level, the idea that there is a natural hierarchy that emerges from this is not true since the idea put forth is one of functionality and how these disparate elements of society synergise to help themselves and others to progress and exist happily. A feet is functionally as important as the thighs or chest, in its own unique way. The stigma and status of the feet as ‘lowly parts’ of the body is a social construct, not a physiological one!
But more importantly, the entire association and simplistic reading is flawed, due to a very simple reason: since Purusha is a manifestation of the supreme consciousness in Dharmic thought, it cannot have a form. Purusha, by definition, is formless, and beyond material modes or characterisations, as beautifully portrayed in the Srimad Bhagavad Gita (Chapter 11, Verse 38)
त्वमादिदेवः पुरुषः पुराण
स्त्वमस्य विश्वस्य परं निधानम्।
वेत्तासि वेद्यं च परं च धाम
त्वया ततं विश्वमनन्तरूप।।
which translates to
You are the original Purusha, the Godhead. You are the only sanctuary of this manifested cosmic world. You know everything, and You are all that is knowable. You are above the material modes. O limitless form! This whole cosmic manifestation is pervaded by You!
Purusha is also, in fact, beyond cause and effect, space and time. In such a scenario, what does it even mean to associate physical parts of this Purusha to various strata of society? Ridiculous, isn’t it?
Yes and no!
I will be discussing the resolution of this paradox later in this essay.
Brahman-hood and Brahmins
In recent months and years, I have heard a lot of disparaging comments on what is regarded as the Brahminical and Brahmanical order, in the context of casteism and segregation in society. I would often argue that the former may be argued against since it makes one section of society (the Brahmin) primary while the latter aligns more with the idea of belief in Brahman, a formulation of the supreme Godhead. However, both are linked and neither should be subject to dismissal if the true meaning is understood.
So, the primary question is: who is a Brahmin?
A Brahmin is not born one, since great sages have been born in various castes, communities and from diverse origins. These include Vyasa from a fisherman’s daughter, Kaushika from Kusa grass, Valmiki from an anthill, Gautama from the hare’s posterior, Vasistha from a celestial nymph, Jambuka from a Jackal and Agastya from a mud-based vessel! A Brahmin is surely not one due to his/her body or knowledge either since the body of all is made of the same elements and people from various castes and communities have had the knowledge to be regarded as spiritually and intellectually advanced, over time. A Brahmin cannot also be purely one due to his/her karma and deeds since everyone has a burden of, and salvific efficacy in, past deeds, to some extent.
Most importantly, one can also not be a Brahmin due to just his/her jivatman since the individual soul in isolation shall remain a subject of changing bodies, if the reincarnation theory is to be taken, and shall have limited opportunities to change fundamentally to move between Varna. Also, relative development is not meaningful unless pegged to a standard. And that is where the idea of Brahman becomes fundamental. We may call the first of the Varnashrama Dharma Brahmins in contemporary times, but it comes from the root word Brā́hmaṇa. This, along with the word Brahman, comes from the Sanskrit root term bṛh– “to swell, grow, expand, enlarge” which is a neuter noun. Brā́hmaṇa, therefore, denotes a person associated with this idea of spiritual expansion and is therefore associated to Brahman itself.
The Rediscovery of Varna
Varna, literally meaning ‘colour’, comes from the root vṛ, meaning “to cover, to envelop, to classify, to count” and, according to my reading, is a spiritual identification and edification rather than social segregation. In this last section, I will come to the spirit and crux of this article; a point that is both my interpretation and reading of Varna as well an ancient understanding, as will be highlighted with sources from theological and scriptural sources. My definition of Varna is
Varna refers to the spectrum of spiritual attainments and the reality of a jivatman (individual soul), with respect to the Absolute Reality – Brahman and the Truth (Satya).
Let me unpack that for you: what is being referred to is the spiritual state and position of an individual, not in isolation, but in relation to Brahman. In this context, I would like to cite the following verses from the Mundaka Upanishad (Mundaka III Khanda 2 Verse 9):
स यो ह वै तत् परमं ब्रह्म वेद ब्रह्मैव भवति नास्याब्रह्मवित्कुले भवति।
तरति शोकं तरति पाप्मानं गुहाग्रन्थिभ्यो विमुक्तोऽमृतो भवति॥
which translates to
He who knows that highest Brahman becomes even Brahman; and in his line, none who knows not the Brahman will be born. He crosses grief and virtue and vice and being freed from the knot of the heart, becomes immortal.
This is a key Upanishadic support, besides the Vajrasuchi Upanishad, of the central tenet of my argument: that a Brahmin is one who is aware of, and placed in consciousness of and unity with, Brahman, the truest form of all things in the Universe. It is in relation to that that all the Varna are discussed, as also in Rig Veda Mandala 1 Hymn 113 Verses 5 and 6:
जिह्मश्ये चरितवे मघोन्याभोगय इष्टये राय उ तवम |
दभ्रं पश्यद्भ्य उर्विया विचक्ष उषा ||
कषत्राय तवं शरवसे तवं महीया इष्टये तवमर्थमिवत्वमित्यै |
विसद्र्शा जीविताभिप्रचक्ष उषा ||
which means to
Rich Dawn, she sets afoot the coiled-up sleeper, one for enjoyment, one for wealth or worship, Those who saw little for extended vision. All living creatures hath the Dawn awakened.
One to high sway, one to exalted glory, one to pursue his gain, and one his labour: All to regard their different vocations, all moving creatures hath the Dawn awakened.
This highlights how different beings are in this plane of existence for different pursuits and activities, relative to the Absolute Reality. The role of the Brahmin, as one who is a knower of the gods and the Vedas, is also discussed in Rig Veda Mandala 6 Hymn 75 Verse 10:
बराह्मणासः पितरः सोम्यासः शिवे नो दयावाप्र्थिवी अनेहसा |
पूषा नः पातु दुरिताद रताव्र्धो रक्षा माकिर्नो अघशंस ईशत ||
which translates to
The Brahmans, and the Fathers meet for Soma-draughts, and, graciously inclined, unequalled Heaven and Earth. Guard us trom evil, Pusan, guard us strengtheners of Law: let not the evil-wisher master us.
The next Varna is the Kshatriya Varna. The word Kshatriya comes from the root Sanskrit term kṣatra which means rule or authority. In the Purusha Sukta, the Kshatriya varna is born from the shoulders of Purusha. The divine duty of the Kshatriya is to destroy all evil, corruption and deviation from the path of attaining Brahman consciousness in society. Societally, individuals belonging to this profession are rulers, warriors, bureaucrats and administrators. Rig Veda Mandala 5 Hymn 69 Verse speaks of this
तरी रोचना वरुण तरींर उत दयून तरीणि मित्र धारयथो रजांसि |
वाव्र्धानाव अमतिं कषत्रियस्यानु वरतं रक्षमाणाव अजुर्यम ||
which translates to
Three spheres of light, O Varuna, three heavens, three firmaments ye comprehend, O Mitra: Waxed strong, ye keep the splendour of dominion, guarding the Ordinance that lasts for ever.
The ‘splendour of dominion’ is more at a spiritual realm since the verse goes on to speak of how the one who keeps dominion also guards the divine Ordinance or Truth that lasts forever. The main duty of the Kshatriya is to protect the people belonging to other three varna and ensure a corruption-free society. A point to note here is that this position, much like the other Varna, is not hereditary: if a king’s offspring is not virtuous or competent he is not entitled to keep his wealth and dominion. This is beautifully portrayed in Rig Veda Mandala 4 Hymn 19 Verse 9:
वम्रीभिः पुत्रम अग्रुवो अदानं निवेशनाद धरिव आ जभर्थ |
वय अन्धो अख्यद अहिम आददानो निर भूद उखछित सम अरन्त पर्व ||
which translates to
Just as rivers emerging from mountains acquire the lands of the plains, similarly the king should take away property rights of a son who does not believe in charity. In all situations, king should work for prosperity of the subject.
The third Varna is Vaishya, which is derived from the Sanskrit root viś “a man who settles on the soil”. This has been misconstrued to mean a peasant, or “working man” or a producer or even somebody from the mercantile community. It is and isn’t. In Dharmic traditions, there are four Purushartha or key elements of life: Artha (wealth and material resources), Kama (passion and desires), Dharma (righteousness and alignment with that which maintains the natural of society and nature) and Moksha (spiritual liberation). Vaishya actually means somebody who is settled on the first two elements, with a third element in a guided manner, and still some way off from the fourth. All in all, it refers to somebody who is still largely associated with the more grosser, and not subtler (spiritual), elements of nature.
The last Varna is Shudra and this word is probably the most misunderstood of all. The word “Shudra” etymologically means ‘one who grieves or sorrows’. In the context of the Vedic traditions, it means one who grieves due to non-attainment of the knowledge of Brahman. In the Chandogya Upanishad there is a story which beautifully illustrates how someone from an upper class or caste can also be regarded as Shudra. In the portion on Samvargavidya (fourth Prapāṭhaka or chapter), there is the story of King Janasruti, who is described as pious, charitable, and kind, but one who lacked the knowledge of Brahman-Atman. There is another character – Raikva, who is mentioned as “the man with the cart”, very poor and in miserable plight (with sores on his skin). However, Raikva has the Brahman consciousness and knowledge as enshrined in the understanding that “his self is identical with all beings”. In this Upanishad, the rich generous king is referred to as Ṡūdra, while the poor working man with the cart is called Brāhmaṇa!
Reintroducing the Key Ingredient: Spirituality
The problem that Varnashrama has faced is one of being assessed without the core ingredient in it: spirituality. Socially, it has been taken as the basis for casteism and social segregation when it can be anything but that. The truth of the matter is
Varnashrama refers to the four stages of spiritual development and state rather than any social or political hierarchy.
We can simplify this understanding by looking at four stages of spiritual development. After introspection, reflection and meditation, I feel the various stages can be defined as the ‘victim’, ‘actor’, ‘instrument/tool’ and ‘unity’ states. To help me illustrate this, I shall use the nomenclature defined by Michael Beckwith, author and founder of Agape International Spiritual Center: ‘to me’, ‘by me’, ‘through me’ and ‘as me’ consciousness. The first stage (the Shudra stage) is one where a person is a passive recipient of all that one lives through, without any association or alignment with Brahman. In this stage, the person is most concerned with what happens to him/her. When we go from being passive entities to more generative entities, we go into the third stage (the Vaishya stage). In this stage, one becomes a causative agent, a ‘producer’, so to say, and the individual crosses the state of victim-hood to take more ownership of one’s existence. In this stage, the person is most concerned with what happens by him/her.
When we cross over from focused efforts to a feeling that we are but instruments of a higher Truth, we feel a certain grace and flow that empowers us to do what we are doing. This is when we enter the third stage (the Kshatriya stage). In this stage, we go from a sense of personal significance grounded in our own materialism and attainments, to feeling a sense of humility about being part of something greater than ourselves, and thereafter safeguarding the interests of those who are co-travellers on that journey. In this stage, the person is most concerned with what happens through him/her. As we allow our individual expression to merge completely with the flow, the force and the energy we are experiencing or creating in the world, we realise we are actually not just an instrument but rather apart of the infinite creative force of the universe, which is expressing and experiencing itself in a manifested and individualised manner ‘as me’. This is the fourth and final stage (the Brahmin stage). This is what is beautiful expressed in the ancient Vedic maxim
ओम् तत् सत्
You are that (Absolute Reality – Brahman).
In this stage, the person is most concerned with what happens as him/her. This is the unity Brahman consciousness that is the final point of all Vedic strands of faith and philosophy – the Nirvikalpa Samadhi (unwavering oneness with the Absolute Reality – Brahman).
This essay is one that has come after quite some spiritual reflection and meditation, over some time, and yet as something I felt a real inner urge to write about. Not as an apologist or a reformer, but as a humble spokesperson for a paradigm that completely and inherently hits away at existing conventions and constructs, while being true to the spirit of Varnasrama. The system has fallen prey to corruption, misinterpretation and misprojection over the centuries, not any less by foreign civilisations, particularly in the colonial period of the British Raj, when jativad and casteism was addressed and highlighted as a problematic element associated with the Dharmic traditions.
It is time to now reclaim Varnasrama.
The true Varnasrama.
I hope this summarily removes the association of Varna with caste and Varnasrama with casteism since it cannot be further from the truth, and the ideas of pollution and impurity associated with any particular individual or community is not taken literally, in the sense of physical or social impurity, but rather a spiritual progression that remains and can be accomplished by each and every one. A king can be a Shudra and a pauper can be a Brahmin, in this paradigm, as attested to, by the Vedas, Upanishads, Brahmanas and Puranas.