The Cosmic Body and the System of Varnas
The Cosmic Body
There is a famous verse from the Rig Veda entitled
Purusha Sukta, which describes how this physical world
emanates from the cosmic body of God, or according
to another interpretation, how the physical world is the
body of God. This hymn describes, for example, how
the moon arises from the mind of God, how the sun becomes
the eye of God, how the mountains are His bones, and
the trees and grasses are His hair, and so on. It also
describes the human social body as an emanation from
this same cosmic body. According to this hymn human
society is divided into four social grouping called varnas.
The word “varna” literally
means “color” or “hue.” These four “colors” of
men, therefore, represent universal psychological types
of mankind. The divine head of this cosmic body becomes
the priestly (brahmana) class, the arms of this body
become the warrior (kshatriya) class, the stomach,
or sometimes the thighs, become the agricultural or
merchant (vaishya) segments of society, and finally,
the feet of this cosmic form become the worker (shudra)
segments of society. In this way, human society is
directly related to the cosmic body of the universe.
Maintaining the social order is maintaining the cosmic
order. This is an act of dharma.
In addition, to these four varnas, the
later Smriti Vedas add yet another layer to this
system, namely four stages of life called ashramas. As the varnas divide
the social body, the ashramas divide the life of an individual.
Assuming the life of a human being is 100 years,
each stage is afforded 25 years. The first quarter is called
the student phase (brahmacharya).
During this time of life the individual goes to the
home of the guru (guru-kula, the ancient Sanskrit word
for school) and lives a life of celibacy serving
the teacher and learning what needs to be learned for later
years. After graduation the student adopts the next
stage of life, the householder (grihastha) stage and takes
on worldly responsibilities, which include wife,
family and career. By age fifty it is recommended that the
householder turn his mind back to the ways of spiritual
life as in younger days and so moves into the retirement
(vanaprastha) stage of life. In this stage he passes
household responsibilities over to his children,
leaves home and enters the forest (vana) to be away from
the world. Husband and wife perhaps travel on pilgrimages.
The vanaprastha stage is the gradual winding down of
material affairs in preparation for the final stage, complete renunciation or sannyasa. In this final
stage of sannyasa a man will send his wife back to
his family, symbolically perform his own funeral
rites and spends his remaining days as a monk seeking final
release (moksha) from the world. This is the ideal.
Together these two systems of varnas and ashramas are
known as Varnashrama Dharma, the ancient social system
that was meant to assure spiritual and material prosperity
for both society and the individual. The Bhagavad Gita,
which is part of the later Smriti Veda, speaks of the
varnas as being created by God according to an individual’s
qualities and actions and not according to birth. There
are many verses that describe qualities and responsibility
of each varna. In other words, an individual’s
varna was to be determined by his psychological disposition
and his activities in life. For example, an individual
who was naturally peaceful, gentle, studious, clean
and non-violent had the potential to become a member
of the brahmana class. Someone with the
qualities of bravery, resourcefulness and leadership
had the potential to be a warrior or kshatriya. A person
with a natural inclination to do business would be
considered a member of the vaishya community, and finally
a person without qualities of these three “higher” varnas would
be placed as a member of the laboring class and could
work for the three higher varnas. In this way, the
system of varnas placed individuals in positions that
best suited their psychological makeup, and the system
of ashramas maintained the spiritual focus of society.
This at least was the theory. Reality, however, was quite different.
The Caste System
The traditional Hindu caste system,
although taking its inspiration from the system of
Varnashrama Dharma, is based solely on birth and not
qualities or action as mention in the Gita. The son
of a priest became a priest regardless of his qualities
or activities; the son of a warrior became a warrior
regardless of his bravery or leadership qualities.
The son of a merchant became a merchant regardless
of his business abilities. In fact, temple priests
of a certain sect formed their own subdivision within
this system; priests who did funerals formed another
subdivision. There were even brahmanas who were cooks
and caterers who formed their own subgroup. Similarly, kshatriyas of
different grades distinguished themselves from other
kshatriyas; within the business community gold merchants,
for example, distinguished themselves from grain sellers,
land owners distinguished themselves from other members
of the vaishya community, and in this way, the Hindu
caste system divided society into a complex array of
subgroups (samajas and jats) according to job divisions
and birth rights. This was analogous to guilds of ancient
It is beyond the scope of this primer
to examine the Hindu caste system in more detail other
than to ask: How is modern Hinduism in the West
related to this ancient system of castes or even varnas and ashramas.
The answer is simple: modern Hinduism is not dependent
on either of these ancient systems. There is no theological or philosophical imperative that demands that modern
hinduism conform to these ancient systems. In fact,
much of what naturally results from these hierarchical
systems would be illegal in a modern democracy. There
are special rights and privileges that are awarded
to the different varnas that
could not be permitted in a modern democracy. I do,
however, see how a general understanding of the system
of varnas and ashramas can
serve as a guide for child development and personal
spiritual growth. Understanding the psychology of a
child, for example, can help guide a child into an
occupation that suits his or her personal psychology.
In other words, the varna model
applied to child psychological development can be beneficial.
Forcing the son of a doctor to become a doctor when
the child may be better suited to perform another occupation,
just for the sake of money or family status, has been
a prescription for rebellion and unhappiness. We see
this often within our Hindu communities. Similarly,
applying aspects of the ashrama system with its emphasis
on spiritual growth can also have its beneficial results.
There are, however, some areas where the
ancient caste system still operates within modern Hinduism.
One is in the area of marriage, another is in the area
of work, and the other is in the area of temple priests.
Hindu parents who are traditionally brahmanas, for example,
prefer to see their children marry other brahamanas. There
are even brahamana social groups (samajas), that
is to say organization of traditional brahamanas in
the west that seek to promote and maintain brahamana values
and maintain data bases of prospective marriage partners.
In a similar manner, there are merchant groups amongst
vaishya families that seek to promote marriage and
business relations within the same traditional castes.
Particularly within the Indian business community,
they will also share business opportunities and employment
within their own group to the exclusion of outsiders,
including Hindus from other parts of India. And finally,
a Hindu temple will generally only hire a traditional
caste priest to serve as a temple priest. Hindu congregations
generally will only accept a traditional caste priest.
They will not accept even one of their own members,
who may be extremely devoted, to serve even as an assistant
on the altars if they are not from traditional caste