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”).

2:4, The Responsibilities of a Warrior

Duty is All-Important

Krishna switches gears from the previous metaphysical section about the indestructability of life-force, to a new section about practical moral principles.

“So now think about your personal responsibilities, which one should never hesitate to fulfill. You are a warrior. Is there any greater responsibility for you than to fight for a good cause? [31] Warriors who fight for such causes, without selfish motive, find the gates of paradise open wide to bless them. [32] So if you don’t take up your role in this fight, you will be neglecting your responsibilities and will thus lose your glory and gain the stain of guilt. [33]

Arjuna is about to protest that he doesn’t mind becoming infamous. So Krishna says…

“I know that you are a moral person. For a person like you dishonor is worse than death. People will talk about your dishonor forever! [34]”

Arjuna is about to protest: “Maybe they will think I am a good man who renounced the world for the sake of non-violence.” So Krishna says…

“The great warriors who hold you in the highest esteem will be let down by you, thinking that you fled the battle out of cowardice! [35] Your enemies will condemn you with terrible slanders. What could be more painful than this? [36]”

Arjuna’s reason for not wanting to fight was that it would cause him misery. Krishna already expressed that this is a selfish, and therefore immoral, attitude; but now he will take the conversation down to the level of Arjuna’s argument:

“If you are killed you will enter the gates of paradise. If you are victorious you will enjoy a great kingdom. So stand up, Arjuna! Fight without doubts! [37]”

Having said that, Krishna immediately returns to the higher principle: that we must stick to our responsibilities regardless of whether they bring success or failure, pleasure or displeasure:

“Pleasure & displeasure, loss & gain, victory & defeat… treat them all the same and fight merely because it is your duty to fight. Doing so, you will not incur bad karma. [38]”

Why the Gita is not a Terrorist Manual

Bhagavad-Gītā is India’s favorite scripture. Or, at least, it is the most popular and widely read in and out of the country’s borders. The book has no real plot per se, because it is actually an excerpt of 18 chapters from India’s epic poem, Mahābhārata. All the plot is in the Mahābhārata, the Gītā is straight dialogue between Krishna and Arjuna at the crescendo of Mahābhārata’s storyline of warriors and kings.

So, the first chapter or so is really a transition from the high-action plot line of Mahābhārata into the deep, Upaniṣad like guru-disciple dialogue of the Gītā. Because it links the pure philosophy of Gītā with the war-poised storyline of Mahābhārata, a few sticky topics pop up in this first section.

The most jarring of these has got to be the fact that Arjuna wants to avoid war, but Krishna wants him to fight. This really seems pretty backwards. Isn’t humanity supposed to be violent, and divinity supposed to inspire us to peace?

But Arjuna is not really a proponent of peace. He is a warrior through and through. That is his occupation, his career, his life. The reason he says, “I shall not fight!” is not that he wants to put flowers in every soldier’s gun or something like that. Arjuna, and he admits this himself in plain language, doesn’t want to fight because he doesn’t want to suffer the misery that is sure to result to him personally if he does fight.

A very fundamental and central philosophical point of the Gītā is that morality means doing what you are responsible for, regardless of if you like it or not. Irrespective of pleasure or displeasure, we are supposed to do what we are supposed to do. We are to carry out our responsibilities, regardless of if they make us smile or frown, relaxed or stressed. That is what purifies a human being from selfishness and makes him or her eligible for liberation and divine love.

The Gītā starts out with Arjuna displaying an example of behavior completely contradictory to this principle. He is a warrior. It is his duty to fight against what is unjust and wrong. That is his responsibility. His responsibility is to wield weapons, not to pick flowers. He wants to give up his responsibilities, not because he suddenly realizes that peace is some glorious ideal and he shouldn’t have been a warrior in the first place. No, he wants to give up fighting because it is going to bring him stress and distress in a huge way.

Krishna is telling Arjuna to fight, because his message is to never abandon our duties based on personal pleasure or displeasure.

But, what if I decide that my duty is to kill a thousand people in a train, movie theatre, or skyscraper? Would Krishna’s encourage me to do my duty?

What a ridiculous idea! You cannot choose your duty. Duty is not chosen, it is given. Otherwise it is not duty, it’s recreation.

OK, then what if some guru figure tells me it’s my duty to kill thousands of people. Would the Gītā support this?

“Gurus” also have no right to independently choose anyone’s duty. Who has the right? “Śāstra” does. Śāstra literally means “authority” and practically means the laws and morality of the human culture, typically codified in law books and scriptures.

So, if I am lawfully a warrior, and my country deems that it is my duty to fight, and I follow that duty, does the Gītā support it?

Yes, basically. In my opinion the Gītā says that you are acting in a moral manner by doing your duty. If it is an unrighteous war, then the people who sent you to fight will suffer horrible karma for it, but not much of that guilt will fall on you. You are following your duty.

So who decides the laws and morality of human culture?

That’s the real question!

In India the most of the laws and morality were decided by very enlightened persons. Therefore in history we never find India a violent country. Indian morality and law is far from perfect, especially in recent centuries, but still, her very non-violent history really serves to illustrate an undeniable point that the morality of Gītā, taken in natural context,  doesn’t cause terrorists and holy wars – as some people rather ridiculously try to claim, probably as a result of some preconceived bias against India and her culture.