The Caste System?

Caste Mark

The “four careers” are four social roles based on four personality types: (1) Rare people are philosophical and intellectual, and they function as the thinkers and guides of society – “brāhmaṇa.” (2) A few people are unusually powerful, they function as rulers, leaders and enforcers – “kṣatriya.” (3) Some people are very resourceful and entrepreneurial, they function in business to generate wealth and social resources – “vaiṣya.” (4) Most people are simply obsessed with making ends meet, yet don’t possess much personal talent. They function as employees – “śūdra.”

These terms may ring an unfriendly bell, sounding a lot like the deplorable, debilitating “caste system.”  The clear and all-important difference between the original system and its ruined pre-modern farce, however, is that one’s position in the original is based on practical qualifications (“guṇa-karma-vibhāgaśa”) while in the modern farce it is based solely on birth (“janma-vibhāgaśa”).

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Wisdom: The Key to Spiritual Work

We shouldn’t be distracted by the many different forms sacrifice can take. We should focus on the essence of all forms of sacrifice: wisdom.

“The most important part of sacrifice is the wisdom with which it is done, not its external form. The whole point of the external form of a sacrifice is to inspire wisdom.” [4.33]

Now Arjuna would ask, “What is the best way to acquire wisdom?”

So Krishna explains…

“Comprehend wisdom by respecting wise people who see the truth. They will impart wisdom to you when you attentively inquire from all angles.” [34]

Arjuna wants to know, “What will I see when I gain wisdom from those who see the truth?”

So Krishna explains…

“When you get that wisdom, you will never again fall into confusion. You will see all the countless living beings within yourself, and yourself within me.” [35]

All living things are equal, for they are all rays of the energy of Krishna. This true wisdom allows us to see that all living things are just as important as our own self; and that all of us are important and significant due to our relationship with Krishna.

Arjuna doubts, “But what if I am very wicked, having killed so many people – can even I attain such spiritual vision?”

So Krishna explains…

“This wisdom is like a boat that will carry even the heaviest of the heinously wicked across the ocean of misery. The fire of this wisdom burns all karma to ash, just as a raging fire consumes dry wood. There is certainly nothing in this world as purifying as wisdom! Follow the yoga of sacrifice to its final end and you will eventually enjoy this wisdom within your own soul.” [36-38]

Arjuna will ask, “Who is qualified to follow this yoga to its perfection?”

So Krishna explains…

“Those who put their hearts into it attain true wisdom. Making it more important than anything else, they curtail all other endeavors.  When they attain wisdom, they very quickly attain the supreme peace.” [39]

Arjuna will ask, “What would disqualify me from attaining it?”

So Krishna explains…

“Fools who have no conviction in the value of this wisdom are ruined by their own doubts. Such confused souls find no happiness here or hereafter. But a person who cuts through the bondage of doubts with knowledge can follow to perfection this yoga of renouncing selfish action. Karma cannot bind him, Arjuna, for he is situated in his soul.” [40-41]

Before Arjuna can say or express anything else, Krishna tries to give him a rousing order:

“Therefore grasp the weapon of wisdom in your soul’s hands and slice through the doubts born of ignorance that have crowded your heart! On the strength of this yoga, arise and stand firm, Arjuna!” [42]

This brings the Fourth Chapter of Bhagavad Gītā to a close.

Work is the Foundation of all Spiritual Activities

“Anyone whose mind operates on the level of clear knowledge will abandon selfish motives. She will then works only as a sacrifice. Thus all her karmas (actions and reactions) dissolve and she becomes enlightened.” [4.23]

“Sacrifice” means work done to benefit others, not oneself. In the highest sense, this means working to satisfy the divine. Thus the Sanskrit word for sacrifice (Yajña) is also a name for the Divine Godhead, Viṣṇu.

The person who initiates a deed is the primary party held responsible for it. The mastermind of a crime, for example, is the primary target of punishment, even if he or she did not personally carry out the deed. This is a mirror of the universe’s own system of justice – karma. When I work to fulfill my own selfish plans, I will enjoy or suffer the just rewards. But when I work as a sacrifice for the sake of others, I receive little or no material reward or punishment, and thus become liberated from the cycle of karma.

Thus “sacrificial work” is spiritual. But Arjuna doubts that it is possible for work (which appears to be worldly and material) to have spiritual rewards. So Krishna says:

“In a sacrifice, everything is spiritual: the implements are spiritual, the oil is spiritual, the fire is spiritual, the priest is spiritual, and the offerings are spiritual. So, one who is completely absorbed in spiritual activities certainly attains spiritual results.” [24]

This is the literal way to perform sacrifice. But now Krishna will explain that there are many ways to perform “sacrifice” besides the literal method:

“Some yogis perform sacrifice by carefully worshipping the gods. Others sacrifice sacrifice itself into the fire of spirit. [25]

“Some sacrifice sense perception into the fire of restrictions. Others sacrifice the sense objects into the fires of the senses. [26]

“Others sacrifice everything – the deeds of the senses and even the deeds of their breath – into the fire of self-control, illuminated by knowledge. [27]

“Some perform sacrifice with their wealth, others with their austerities, others by practice of aṣṭānga yoga, and still others by studying philosophy – all of them under strict vows. [28]

“Some resort to the sacrifice of breath-control, offering their exhalations into their inhalations and visa versa, thus arresting their breath.  Others stop eating and offer their exhalation into itself.” [29]

In this elaborate section, Krishna mainly makes the point that there are many ways to perform “sacrifice” – one need not always literally have an altar, a priest, etc.

He mentions the sacrifices of:

  1. worshipping gods
  2. giving up everything altogether
  3. limiting the senses
  4. employing the senses
  5. limiting the breath – even to the point of halting it.

He says that all sacrifices involve following vows. Some sacrifices (1 and 4, above) are done by giving up objects, others (3) by taking pains, others (5) by following regimens like aṣṭānga yoga, and others (2) by cultivating knowledge.

“All of them understand ‘sacrifice.’ So all of them are purified by sacrifice, enjoy the immortal nectar resulting from sacrifice, and attain the eternal spirit.  But, my friend, those who don’t understand sacrifice gain nothing in this world or the next.” [30-31]

“These many varieties of sacrifice come from the Vedas, which are like the ‘voice of spirit.’ If understand that all of them involve work, you will be emancipated.” [32]

The original point which inspired Krishna to speak this section of the Gītā was Arjuna’s doubt: “How can work, a material thing, have a positive spiritual effect?” Krishna elaborated on many different types of spiritual activities and made the point that all of them involve effort, work and all have a spiritual result.

What is Karma, and What Isn’t?

“’What is karma, and what isn’t?’ even the experts are confused about this. So, I will explain it to you in an understandable way, to help you get free from all misfortune.” [4.16]

“Karma is a deep, difficult subject. Know that it has three types: right action, wrong action, and inaction.” [17]

“Right action” means doing our duties and fulfilling our responsibilities. “Wrong action” means ignoring our duties and acting irresponsibly. These two are simple, but “inaction” is difficult to understand. Does it mean just sitting around doing nothing?

So Krishna explains…

“A wise person sees inaction in action; and action in inaction.  Such a person can achieve yoga in all their deeds.” [18]

Puzzled, Arjuna asks, “Action and inaction are opposites. How can one be seen within the other???”

So Krishna clarifies…

“When someone decides to give up selfish motivations in all deeds, her ‘actions’ are consumed by the fire of knowledge. The learned declare her to be enlightened.” [19]

Good action and bad action both have selfish motives. Good action means to pursue your selfish ambitions responsibly, and bad action means to do so irresponsibly. The third category of karma, “Inaction,” is quite different. It means not to pursue any selfish ambitions at all. This does not mean stopping all action, which is impossible anyway. The wisdom to give up selfish motivations is a fire that transforms action into inaction.

Thus, we can see “inaction in action” by observing the activities of an enlightened person – selflessness in motion. We can see “action in inaction” by seeing a person who retreats from the world for his own sake – selfishness disguised in the garb and symbols of selflessness.

To Arjuna’s likely question, “How can one give up selfish motivations?” Krishna replies…

“She can throw away selfish ambitions because she is independently satisfied within herself. So, even if she appears very busy in so many ways, she is never involved in worldly action.  Giving up on the attempt to acquire wealth, she regains possession of her own mind and it is only her body that engages in deeds. Thus she does not become implicated in worldly reactions.” [20-21]

Arjuna will wonder, “Anyone can announce, ‘I don’t desire anything, it is merely my body doing all these things.’ How do we know when this is sincere?”

So Krishna continues…

“If he is satisfied by whatever destiny provides, seeing success and failure as equal accomplishments, he is never implicated by the worldliness of deeds.” [22]

The karma-yogi works for the sake of duty, not for success of failure. She doesn’t strive for more material development than whatever comes as a natural byproduct of their duty.

“Someone without selfish attachments, whose mind that operates on the level of clear knowledge, is enlightened. They work only as a sacrifice, so all of their karma (actions and reactions) dissolve.” [23]

“Sacrifice” means that enlightened people work only to benefit others. In the highest sense this means working with a divine purpose, to satisfy the divine. Thus the Sanskrit word for sacrifice (Yajña) is also a name for the Divine Godhead, Viṣṇu.

All Paths Lead to Krishna?

Continuing in the 4th Chapter of Bhagavad Gita…

“If you really understand that my birth and my deeds are spiritual, you will come to me and not take another birth when you leave your body.  Many people did so in the past: With their hearts enrapt in knowing me, they could tolerate desire, fear, and anger; so they became liberated and attained me.” [9-10]

Arjuna will want to know, “What about someone who tries to tolerate selfish desires but without any specific interest in you personally?”

So Krishna says…

“Every human walks on my path, and I give each one the reward that they come to me for.” [11]

Arjuna will say, “But it doesn’t seem that way. Many people seem to walk a path that doesn’t include you at all.”

So Krishna says…

“People who desire material success make various sacrifices. Through the gods I quickly grant worldly success to their endeavors. From me spring the four occupations, distinguished from one another on the basis of practical qualifications. I myself work within this system, even though I am the transcendental non-doer.” [12-13]

Everyone walks Krishna’s path, and Krishna grants the rewards of everyone’s efforts. But he is not personally involved in every neighborhood through which the innumerable branches of that path meander. He can be found personally only at the very apex and cynosure of all sub-paths.

The neighborhoods through which the byways wander are maintained by Krishna’s agents, the many gods (devas). The people walking the streets here are interested in selfish objectives, and are therefore unfit to interact directly with Śrī Krishna, the entity of supra-concentrated selfless divine love. Instead they interact with his various powers with varying degrees of awareness of the divinity in them.

The people on these sidewalks are of four divisions: a few are philosophical and intellectual (brāhmaṇa), some are ambitious rulers and enforcers (kṣatriya), many others work for wealth and resources (vaiṣya), while the main bulk simply work with modest survival as their goal (śūdra).

These terms may ring an unfriendly bell, for this is indeed the seed of the deplorable, debilitating “caste system.”  The clear and all-important difference between the original system and its ruined pre-modern farce, however, is that the original is based on practical qualifications (Gītā 4.13 explicitly says: “guṇa-karma-vibhāgaśa”) while the farce is based solely on birth (“janma-vibhāgaśa”). The caste system is therefore the ball and chain of a hereditary oligarchy, while the original “Catur-varna” system is a practical and natural social blueprint.

At this point, Arjuna posed a new argument, “If the social principles of the four occupations are inferior byways on the road that leads to you, let me give them up! Let me give up my duties as a warrior and go straight to the apex of all paths by directly meditating on your transcendental nature!”

To this Krishna replied, “Not everyone on these sidewalks is materialistic! I already told you that great spiritualists also walk these paths, for the sake of inspiring others with an appropriate example.”

To add emphasis, he continued, “I myself walk the path of a warrior and a king – even though you know that I am transcendental and uninterested in material things!”

This brings the conversation back into the flow of the main topic of this section of Bhagavad Gītā; but he exciting new theme briefly introduced here – the personality of Krishna and the possibility of attaining him – will return and be fully explored in chapters Seven through Twelve.

The True Identity of Krishna

The theme of the Gītā so far is, “Put philosophy into practice,” and “Don’t give up your responsibilities, perform them with wisdom, for the sake of personal evolution.” The central ingredient in these formulae is philosophy and wisdom. So now Krishna will begin explaining how to gain knowledge and become wise.

Chapter 4 begins…

All-Attractive Krishna said: “I explained this eternal wisdom of yoga to the sun-god, who passed it on to the original human being, who passed it on to his son.  Passed on like that from one person to the next, it gradually became known to many philosopher-kings, but in the process it also became distorted, degraded and eventually forgotten.   Today I will once again explain that ancient science anew, to you.”

Arjuna would ask, “Why me?!”  So Krishna says…

“I have chosen you because I can trust you, and you trust me. You are devoted to me, and you are my friend – therefore you can certainly comprehend the ultimate secrets.” [1-3]

To deeply comprehend any topic, we must deeply open our hearts and minds to it.  This is not possible without faith and devotion.  Therefore, Krishna says that trust and dedication are the foundation of knowledge.

Arjuna asked: “You were born fairly recently.  The sun-god was born very long ago.  How am I to understand that you were his teacher?” [4]

This very practical and realistic question shows that the humble faith and devotion of a good disciple does not equate to being gullible or mindless.

All-Attractive Krishna said: “I have passed through many births, and so have you Arjuna.  I am aware of all of them, but you are not.” [5]

Arjuna would ask, “Why can you remember, while I forget?” Krishna answers…

“I only seem to have a body. The truth is that I am never ‘born’ and never ‘age.’ I am the proprietor and master of everything. My ‘body’ is my own manifestation of the power within my own self.” [6]

We forget things because our memories are accessed via electronic pathways that deteriorate, and are not really under our control or ownership, being only temporarily on loan to us from Mother Nature.  Krishna never forgets because he is not in a similar situation: His form is a manifestation of himself, by himself, in himself.  Quite unlike the rest of us, there is no difference between the divine energy within Krishna and the divine energy that manifests his specific forms.  There is no difference between his ‘body’ and ‘soul.’  This directly contradicts a prevalent Hindu misconception that the divine energy within Krishna is important and the specific form of “Krishna” is not.

Now Arjuna will wonder, “Why do you take the trouble of manifesting yourself within this forgetful world?” So Krishna says…

“I manifest myself whenever the paths of morality become overgrown by the flourishing weeds of immorality.  Time after time I manifest to repave the moral paths by protecting those who still walk upon them, and destroying those who do not.” [7-8]