What’s your Varna (वर्ण)? (1)

All societies sort their members into different groups or classes using some logic. In some, the classes are by wealth and earning. The ancient Indian system created its classes by what people did. Logically, since one always had a choice of what work to do, and could develop skills in that area, one could choose one’s class – called वर्ण in Sanskrit. Gradually this occupation-based system lost its fluidity and choice, and became tied to birth.

Shukracharya, the counsel and Guru of the demons, possessed the skill that even the Gods did not: A technique called “Mrutasanjivani vidya”. Using this technique, Shukracharya could bring the dead back to life. Shukracharya was feared and respected by all, and it is surprising that in spite of being the “Guru of the DEMONS”, his policy guidelines are not demonic. In fact, far from it. Here is what he says about the Varna [Ancient system of social classification is also hierarchical in India. It puts Brahmins at the top, followed by the Kshatriyas, Vaishyas, Shudras and – there is one more, often mentioned classification mostly attached to people from other cultures – Mlechchhas.]

I am sharing here what I found in the book Shukra Nitisaara (शुक्रनीतिसार), the abridged version of policy guidelines given by Shukracharya, which originally had more than a hundred thousand shlokas.

ब्रह्मणस्तु समुत्पना: सर्वे ते किं नु ब्राह्मणा ।

न वर्णतो न जनकाद् ब्राह्मतेज: प्रपध्यते ॥ ३९ ॥

Argues Shukracharya: Since all of us are created by Lord Brahma, why are we all not Brahmins? (But we know we are not the same!) The brilliance of a Brahmin cannot be obtained by birth through one’s father.

न जात्या ब्राह्मणश्चात्र क्षत्रियो वैश्य एव न ।

न शुद्रो न च वै म्लेच्छो भेदिता गुणकर्मभि: ॥ ३८ ॥

 No one becomes a Brahmin, Kshatriya, Vaishya, Shudra or Mlechchha. These are differentiated by their actions and attributes – he further asserts and then proceeds to elaborate the actions and attributes of people in each class:

ज्ञानकर्मोपासनाभिर्देवताराधने रत: ।

शान्तो दान्तो दयालुश्च ब्राह्मणश्चगुणै: कृत: ॥ ४० ॥

Then there is the next:Brahmin is the one who is constantly engaged in seeking the higher purpose through developing knowledge and action. Brahmin is peaceful, exercises self-restraint and is merciful. These are the qualities that Brahmins develop. Did you notice, that despite being the Guru of the demons, he classifies the Brahmin as the people who are constantly seeking the divine (देवता)?? Intriguing!

लोकसंरक्षणे दक्ष: शूरो दान्त: पराक्रमी ।

दुष्टनिग्रहशीलो य: स वै क्षत्रिय उच्यते ॥ ४१ ॥

Kshatriya is the one who is highly skilled at preserving/protecting people. A Kshatriya is brave, controls all senses and loves adventure. A constant pursuit of a Kshatriya is to control the evil.

क्रयविक्रयकुशला: ये नित्यञ्च पण्यजीविन: ।

पशुरक्षाकृषिकरास्ते वैश्या: कीर्त्तिता भुवि ॥ ४२ ॥

These are the people who are adept at buying and selling. Vaishyas sustain themselves by trading. These also love and protect animals and grow plants and trees.

द्विजसेवार्चनरता: शूरा: शान्ता जितेन्द्रिया: ।

सीरकाष्ठतृणवहास्ते नीचा: शूद्र संज्ञका: ॥ ४३ ॥

Shudras serve others who are engaged in higher pursuits. They are brave, quiet and do not let their dislikes come in the way of their work. The Shudras also transport things like grass (and other low value objects).

Finally, the Mlechchhas:

त्यक्तस्वधर्माचरणा निर्घृणा: परपीडका: ।

चण्डाश्चहिंसका नित्यं म्लेच्छास्ते ह्यविवेकिन: ॥ ४४ ॥

Mlechchhas are the ones who do not engage in the duties they are meant to carry out. They have low empathy and often torment others. They are angry and aggressive, and they are not polite.

It seems clear that being a Mlechchha is not considered desirable. Also note that their description does not involve any occupation. Also notice that being peaceful, and controlling one’s senses are virtues not exclusive to a single Varna.

What’s your Varna?

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10 thoughts on “What’s your Varna (वर्ण)? (1)

    • BTW, if you have enjoyed reading this, you will almost certainly enjoy Basham’s book, “The wonder that was India.” – that is, if you have not read it already 🙂

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      • Subhash Yadav says:

        Yes M’am, the same Subhash Yadav, batch of 1997-’99. I have the Basham book, but need to revisit it once again. The only contention an Indian can have against the book is its title. It should have been : The wonder that IS India
        The India he talks about is not dead, It is still living, though neglected, wounded, torn and mutilated but it still is the only living civilisation on Earth.

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        • Yeah, sure – but to be truthful, we should also consider for a while, that between “WAS” and “IS”, there may lie our own defensiveness and refusal to accept that if the culture has a life cycle, we are past the prime. We may not be dead, but there is a serious need to reinvent ourselves and change the course of inevitable decline. I am sure you are reading the headlines about Ahmedabad these days, I hope Bharuch is doing well. Take care! BTW, it feels good to reconnect 🙂

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          • Subhash Yadav says:

            True, we need to be aware of these things as well while passing on judgements on the work of others. The Life cycle concept, very popular in marketing and management – can it be applied to everything around us, is again a question. Life (Soul) has no cycle, it just exists. Matter(Body) has a cycle – creation, destruction and recreation.
            I was planning to come to Ahmedabad, but given the situation will have to postpone. The students had a holiday at our College in Bharuch, otherwise things are normal.
            Yes, I am very happy to reconnect, especially with ‘Through the Sands of Life’ – have got lot of food for thought. Shall keep sending my comments.

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            • The joy is mutual, Subhash. I get something like 10-40 hots a day on this blog, but rarely do I have a conversation and mutual sharing. Thank you for bridging that gap. Your comment reminds me again of Veda where they have imagined the collectivity of universes as a pulsating being. Expansion means growth of life, and contraction means the end. So – what happens to life between expansion-contraction sequence? I don’t know.

              These days I am dry. No thoughts worth sharing. I wonder why professional work sometimes leads to such dry patches.
              Have a nice day, and stay safe!

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  1. Subhash Yadav says:

    Namaste M’am
    Just discovered your blog. I wanted to meet you for my PhD related work, and hence went to Google Devta for your contact details and have been reading your blog since last two days. Very interesting reflections on life around us. I must congratulate you for saving yourself and keeping yourself alive in the dry desert of academia and that too Management academia which owes its existence to business corporations (Our ancient Asuras reinvented !) and is more like a desert in the landscape of academic disciplines. (The word ‘Sand’ in you blog, at least to me, is very symbolic of the place of Management in academic disciplines.
    All your posts are very interesting and have a lot to comment on each of them. For this post, I am attaching a link to an article by Ananda Coomaraswamy, from his book, ” The Dance of Shiva”. It has many deep insights on the Varna system and its rationale for existence.

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    • Dear Subhash,

      Many years back we had a Subhash Yadav at our school, too and my first spark was to wonder if *that* Subhash reconnected here. After going through your slightly amusing and thought-provoking comment, I felt rewarded nevertheless. Thank you for your appreciation! I have found the Coomaraswamy writings to be rich, debatable and interesting. Thank you again for sharing the link – I will read it. I also look forward to hearing from you again – hoping that you will have questions and insights of your own to share, since you are familiar with this terrain and are sensitive to issues that touch our life and being. -m

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  2. urmi shah says:

    It is truetrue, margie. The actual base is your intro sic nature which determines your karma and so your varna. From this point of view there may be all var as in a single family and yet all have equal rights and duties. I would go to the extent of saying that one and the same person has this fluidity as he/she assumes different roles.what do you say

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    • I agree with you, Urmi ma’am! When we look at the society as a whole, I wouldn’t be surprised if we find that the so-called conventions and traditions actually mess up with the distribution of work according to one’s innate Varna disposition. For example, a woman may be a Brahmin or Kshatriya, but would have to accept the role of a shudra. Of course, all of us willingly and happily become shudra for our offspring that need so much of serving and enabling. So – you are right, we flow from one Varna into another by the moment!

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