“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal …” goes the US Declaration of Independence. But, I am sure even they in 1776 did not believe that “all men are equal in physical and mental abilities at the time of their birth.” We know all too well the role played by the genetic lottery that gives rise to differing abilities in different men.
To be sure, genetics is not all that goes into the determination of one’s abilities. The environment, too, plays a role, in shaping one. These days, people are becoming only too keenly aware of the role of environmental factors in turning genes on and off, which has given rise to the field of enquiry called epigenetics. Thus, it is clear that one’s abilities and characteristics are not fixed at birth. Hence, we cannot then claim that heredity is the only means of influence on one’s disposition and predispositions.
That being the case, one will be hard put to justify the prevalence of the caste system in India, one’s caste being hereditary. Caste, as Krishna rightly points out in Verse 13 of Chapter 4, is not based on birth: “The fourfold caste has been created by Me according to the differentiation of Guna and Karma…” Guna means one’s qualities and karma means the “kind” of work one does. And, it is clear from the discussion about epigenetics above that guna and karma are not fixed by birth. Hence, caste should not be assigned based on heredity.
Of course, if it comes to that one need not even go about bothering what someone else’s caste is. But, given that caste is an all-too-pervasive phenomenon even in today’s India, it becomes necessary to think through what one means by caste, especially as adumbrated in the Gita because it is considered one of the holy books in Hinduism, being part of the Prasthana Traya, the other two texts being Upanishads and Brahma Sutras.
If Krishna’s position on caste is thus clear, why then often controversy is raked up on Bhagavad Gita’s stance on caste, and why the hereditary caste system has proved to be so entrenched in our society?
The reasons for that are not hard to find. And, in my opinion, those reasons are a distorted interpretation of some of the other verses in Gita on caste. For example, Verse 32 in Chapter 9 says, “For, taking refuge in Me, they also, who, O Arjuna, may be of sinful birth—women, Vaisyas as well as Sudras—attain the Supreme Goal!” Looking at this verse, many are quick to point out that Krishna here is clearly implying that women, Vaisyas, and Sudras, are of sinful birth.
Such an interpretation comes about through a superficial reading of the verse. If you understand it aright, it could be taken to mean that since the hereditary caste system and looking down upon women as of sinful birth was already well-entrenched in society, one which the vast majority subscribed to, Krishna can be seen as saying that even those who “you consider” to be of ‘sinful birth” can attain the Supreme Goal. That, to me, seems like a liberal stance being taken by Krishna that all people are “equally capable” of attaining to the highest goal of human life. What can be more caste-levelling than that.
Another difficulty is posed in justifying this interpretation because in Chapter 18 (Verses 41 to 46) he is setting down the “duties” of each caste, and warning against assuming the duty of another caste. Verse 41 of that chapter says, “Of Brahmanas, Kshatriyas and Vaishyas, as also the Sudras, O Arjuna, the duties are distributed according to the qualities born of their own nature!”
However, we can rescue my interpretation by pointing out that, and correctly so, Krishna is not saying that the four castes are determined by birth. Hence, he says “the duties are distributed according to the qualities born of their own nature”, one’s own nature (that is, caste) being determined by guna and karma as he himself pointed out in the Verse 13 of Chapter 4 cited above, and not by birth.
So, although Krishna goes on to list the various occupations suitable for the different castes (in Verses 42-44 of Chapter 18), he is implying that given “one’s own nature” (not by birth) some occupations are more suited to one than others. Note that this does not guarantee that one will be very good at the occupations suited to one’s nature, only that one is better off doing them (this is the concepts of Svadharma and Paradharma mentioned in Verse 47 and 48 of Chapter 18).
There are two other verses in the Bhagavad Gita that need to be delved into to put to rest once for all the notion that somehow Gita promotes the hereditary caste system. Those verses are in Chapter 6 – “Having attained to the worlds of the righteous and, having dwelt there for everlasting years, he who fell from Yoga is reborn in the house of the pure and wealthy” (Verse 41) and “Or he is born in a family of even the wise Yogis; verily a birth like this is very difficult to obtain in this world” (Verse 42).
These verses seem to suggest that somehow one’s birth determines one’s lot in life. But, a more careful reading will show that “purity” and “wealth” are not merely functions of the genetic lottery. Hence, their distribution is not merely caste-wise among existing castes which at the time of Krishna’s sermon were largely hereditary.
Thus, we can see that Krishna is very much against the hereditary caste system, which is why he declares very prophetically in Verse 18 of Chapter 5 that “Sages look with an equal eye on a Brahmin endowed with learning and humility, on a cow, on an elephant, and even on a dog and an outcaste.”
(The author is a writer and poet; preview his poetry at https://a.co/fyEOQFa)