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Varna and Dharma


Caste systems suck. I think most people who read this blog can agree on that one (unless I have secret admirers in the RSS).

The idea that you should be defined for life by your birth position is bad enough, but when you add to that the notion that some castes are superior to others – that brahmans arose from the mouth of a primal being named Purusha, kshatriyas from his hands, vaishyas from his thighs, shudras from his feet and dalits from the dust beneath his feet – it is clearly all elitist crap designed to entrench the privileges of certain sectors of society for generation after generation. It’s as bad as the inheritance of private property.

Don’t imagine you live in a society free of the caste system. None of us do.

The Hindi word for ‘caste’ is ‘varna’, literally ‘colour’.

If you are a coloured person living in a white society you already know what it means to be categorised from birth and how it feels to know that while your children and grandchildren may not face the same kind of discrimination you do they will face it nonetheless.

Even if you are white you will have noticed that people from certain family and cultural backgrounds find it far easier to find high status careers than others and many who do ‘rise above their station’ are never fully accepted into the ranks of the born-to-rule no matter their capabilities and achievements.

I’m not arguing that full class or caste mobility cannot exist, just that in the societies I know of it is far rarer and more difficult than popular propaganda would have you believe.

The worst thing about the caste system is that it often forces people to live outside their caste.

Huh? I’m spouting meaningless nonsense again, right?

Well, you see I do believe in caste. And I don’t believe it’s a bad thing. Quite the contrary actually.

It’s the caste system I’m opposed to.

You see I believe that everyone has a caste which, all things being equal, will probably be the same as that of the family and community they were raised in. Though not necessarily.

The problems arise when people start thinking certain castes are superior to others and that people must be restricted to their ‘birth caste’.

Being a teacher born into a caste of leather-workers must be every bit as frustrating as being a musician born into a caste of bookkeepers – unless you are permitted to find your own calling.

The important thing about discovering your caste and being able to live appropriately is that your caste can tell you something about your dharma. Likewise your dharma can tell you what caste you come from.

Dharma is one of those Sanskrit words that defies translation into English but many Westerners would be familiar with its meaning as “Truth” or “the teachings of the Buddha”. This is not the sense I am using it in here.

Rather I mean it in the way it is used in the Brihadaranyaka Upanishad and the Gita which is more akin to ‘Harmony’, ‘Duty’, ‘Path’ and ‘Fate’. By knowing your dharma you can find the values, ambitions and outlooks that best harmonise with your fundamental self and thereby avoid the crises of morality and meaning that so often afflict Westerners, especially in their middle age. By living your dharma you are brought into balance with yourself, your society, the universe and even the heavens.

To follow your dharma is to follow your path to liberation.

I think I have a pretty good idea as to what my caste is.

I’m a bit of an army brat. My family has war heroes on both sides – mostly on honour rolls after having fallen in battle. My brother and sister each pursued careers in the Australian Army. Both my Anglo-Australian and Aboriginal heritage emphasise the honour and self-sacrifice of the warrior.

You would never get me into the military (you would have a war on your hands if you tried) but nonetheless I am pretty sure I’m kshatriya – of the warrior caste.

Sure enough, throughout my life I have always gained my sense of self-worth in struggle and conflict – especially against overwhelming odds. My sense of honour means more to me than life itself – which perhaps explains why I have become so quickly suicidal when I felt I was living in breach of it. Though I am completely unimpressed by ‘Rambo’ style super-soldiers I have always been touched to the core by what I consider to be noble martial sacrifice.

Don’t get me wrong. I doubt I could pull the trigger on anyone except under the most extreme circumstances and even then it would probably fuck me up so much the next bullet would be for me. I may be a natural born warrior but I’m no killer.

To me the supreme virtue of the kshatriya is to sacrifice himself for his community and what he believes in, no matter how futile that sacrifice may be.

When Rajput warriors faced certain defeat they would put on their white robes of celebration and ride forth into the ranks of the enemy in one final, hopeless attack. They were kshatriyas.

In 1942 six hundred Italian cavalrymen charged a two thousand strong Soviet infantry unit, dug in with machine guns and light artillery. Although almost completely wiped out and against all odds they managed to put hundreds of Russians to the sword and scattered the rest.  They were kshatriyas.

Japanese warriors marched into battle against the numerically and technically overwhelming forces of Kublai Khan only to see them swept miraculously away by the Divine Wind (kamikaze). Twice. Bushido is kshatriya. Their dharma would lead them to victory over the navies of the Tsar, to Pearl Harbor and eventually, tragically, to Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

The path of the warrior is not an easy one.

Krishna told Arjuna he must fight even though the battle was sure to be a catastrophe and the enemy were his brothers. He also told him he had the right to struggle but not to the fruits of his struggle. Thus is kshatriya dharma.

You don’t fire until you see the eyes of the enemy – and your own reflection in them.

To turn tail in the face of defeat, to dehumanise your enemy, to do other than your utmost to cover your colleagues’ backs, to surrender yourself while there is still the slightest chance of striking back, to kill non-combatants, to fail to honour the fallen – both yours and theirs; these are fundamental breaches of the code of the warrior. No matter how the battle goes, the warrior who does these things has lost. He has lost his varna. He has lost himself.

Us kshatriyas are prone to cracking up.

If you are horrified by what I have just written, you are not a kshatriya. If you felt yourself welling up you probably are.

What do you suppose your caste is?

Do you find your worth in work, art or skillful craftsmanship?
Do you measure your value by providing material security to yourself and others?
Does your honour lie in leadership and sacrifice?
Do you grow through study and teaching?

Maybe if you can find your caste you can find a guide to what is most fulfilling to you. Perhaps you can use it to help build meaning into your life.

In the hands of oppressors caste is all too often used as manacles, fetters.

In your own hands it can be an anchor or a compass.

In Hindi, varna means colour. But really caste means ‘roots’.

From → unclassified

  1. Yes caste system sucks ! You have talked mostly about the Hindu casts but We have them too and I guess this system was made just to identify people in the form of groups but It has become more a status symbol now ! People don’t do marriages out of casts…. Even if someone don’t believe in this , He has to do many things according to some point in his life ! Let’s see where it takes us !


    • Probably the most explicitly casteist society I have seen is the one promoted by Sri Lankan Buddhists – and the Buddha was absolutely insistent that caste systems were no good.

      Bhikku Bodhi once told me of a conversation he had with a senior Sri Lankan Achaan that went something like this.

      BB: Why don’t you let low castes come and practice in your temple?

      Achaan: Why would we do that?

      BB: Perhaps some of them would become enlightened.

      Achaan: We cannot be allowing just anyone to gain enlightenment you know.


  2. I’d tend to go along with Sri Nisargadatta Maharaj in saying you are essentially timeless spaceless being. That “being” can’t be categorized in any caste.


    • I suspect that Nisargadatta Maharaj would still suggest that the path to realisation for us samsara-bound incarnates lies through our dharma. Is our dharma, I should say.

      In response to a question in ‘I am That’ he says that in athi yoga life itself is the guru and it teaches by bringing together dharma and karma.

      (Note that he wouldn’t have been using ‘karma’ in line with the usual western misinterpretation of the word – hence my poem ‘bad karma’ – but rather in its Sanskrit meaning of ‘action’. When acting in perfect accord with your dharma you are acting without volition.)

      Or as Ram Dass says a ‘disembodied friend’ told him (in reference to what Dass called his ‘phoney holy phase’):

      You’ve been born into this existence to learn. How about you take the course?


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