Thursday, February 08, 2007

The Gita and Varna-sankara (From RISA)

Steve Rosen asked the following question on the RISA (Religions in South Asia, part of AAR) discussion group:

It is clear from the Bhagavad-gita (4.13) and from Hindu texts more generally that, in the varnasrama system, "quality and work" are given pride of place above birth status. However, this is not always the case, and in Hindu society today we see that the family into which one is born plays a crucial role in terms of caste (jati). I am particularly interested in how this plays out in sruti and smrti texts.

To begin with a famous Mahabharata story: the young warrior Ekalavya is a sudra, and yet he wants to train as a ksatriya under Drona. Though the young warrior is clearly qualified, Drona rejects him because of his birth status and, more, cuts off his thumb so that he cannot pursue his dream. Here we have an emphasis on birth in relation to varnasrama.

This is contrasted in the Chandogya Upanisad (and elsewhere as well) with the story of Satyakama Jabala, where, to make a long story short, Satyakama learns from his guru, Haridrumata Gautama, that he is in fact a Brahmin, even though he was born to a low-caste mother -- this because of his truthfulness and his brahminical qualification. How is one to reconcile these two stories, if, indeed, they are at all reconcilable?

2. My other question concern grandsire Bhisma and his death scene as depicted in both the Bhagavata Purana and the Mahabharata: As he lay dying for 58 days he waxes philosophical for the duration of his life. And yet the war lasts only 18 days. My question is this: Who is listening to his talk after the battle is over? Did he speak only for the first few days or, as the texts seem to indicate, for the entire remaining period?

Any help with these two questions would be most appreciated. All the best. --Steve

Three people responded: (1) Konrad Elst wrote :

It is clear from the Bhagavad-gita (4.13) and from Hindu texts more generally that, in the varnasrama system, "quality and work" are given pride of place above birth status.

That's what most Hindu reformists say. While in sympathy with the reformist agenda, I am skeptical here for its sounds like a typical exercise in contrived exegesis in the service of an (admittedly laudable) agenda. The Gita does not say: "not birth but work/karma and quality/guna", because one's work and quality could in their turn be determined by birth. Indeed, they are: qualities are to some statistically noticeable extent inborn, and a profession was traditionally taught in the home setting from father to son. So, nature and nurture conspired to make a succession from father to son in your work/karma the general rule, hence profession determined "by birth", i.e. by the family that both generates and raises you.


While this quote fails to disprove that caste by birth was the norm, other lines in the Gita positively confirm it. When Arjuna and Krishna argue opposite viewpoints, viz. against and for the start of a fratricidal war, *both* conclude their argumentation with the warning that the opposite view will result in "varna-sankara", "mixing of castes". If opposing viewpoints are justified with reference to the same value, viz. non-mixing of castes, this value must be a cornerstone of that society.

Again, apologists will explain this away by saying that varna-sankara could also mean "mixing of functions", e.g. a politician who ventures into religion or vice-versa would be a case of Brahman-Kshatriya-sankara. But that is too contrived and is refuted by the text's linking varna-sankara to "immorality of women", i.e. a sexual mixing of castes.

It is possible that in the earlier Vedic age, caste was a more relaxed affair, like the West's class society, not equal but not boxed up in strictly separate castes either. The much-quoted Purusha-Sukta only says that the four functions spring from the different parts of the Cosmic Man, and says nothing about how their personnel is recruited. Be that as it may, by the time of the editing of the Gita, strict caste separatism was rock-solid. In fact, the Gita is stricter on this than the much-maligned Manu-Smrti, which does acknowledge, though without enthusiasm, the option of intermarriages within decent Arya society.

To begin with a famous Mahabharata story: the young warrior Ekalavya is a sudra, and yet he wants to train as a ksatriya under Drona. Though the young warrior is clearly qualified, Drona rejects him because of his birth status and, more, cuts off his thumb so that he cannot pursue his dream.

I doubt this all-too-common rendering of the Ekalavya episode. Though very handy for modern political use, it is just not in tune with the logic of the story. Drona's task is to make the Bharata princes invincible, and this implies withholding his teachings from all other candidates, non-Bharata Kshatriyas included. Ekalavya was not kept out because of his caste but because he was not of the family that Drona was paid to train. To be sure, the Mahabharata was edited over a long period, and may have been twisted in the final round to suit the emerging casteist ideology which finds full expression in one of the younger parts, the Gita.

Here we have an emphasis on birth in relation to varnasrama. This is contrasted in the Chandogya Upanisad (and elsewhere as well) with the story of Satyakama Jabala, where, to make a long story short, Satyakama learns from his guru, Haridrumata Gautama, that he is in fact a Brahmin, even though he was born to a low-caste mother -- this because of his truthfulness and his brahminical qualification.

This is a story from the Vedic age, when varnas were defined only patrilineally. Of course a proud king was not stopped by some scriptural rule against inter-caste marriage if he fancied a particular non-Kshatriya woman. Instead he would take her into his harem and their children would be princes, Kshatriyas, as much as those born from Kshatriya women. And he himself was not going to lose his caste for this inter-caste dallying. Likewise, the son of a Brahmin would be a Brahmin, regardless of the mother's caste. In a primitive understanding of genetics, qualities were apparently deemed to be imparted more by the father than by the mother (just as the progeny of a horse stallion and a donkey mare whinnies, horse-like, while that of a horse mare and a donkey stallion brays, donkey-like), so if Jabala the prostitute's son showed the qualities of a Brahmin, he was taken to be the son of a Brahmin father. This example proves that quality/guna was deemed to be hereditary, and therefore, the Gita's basing caste on guna/quality is not in conflict with caste being hereditary. Pace the reformists, the Gita is very much the cornerstone of the Hindu religion and social order of the last two millennia, caste separateness included.

It may be tempting for moderns to interpret its central notion of Swadharma, "one's very own duty", in an individualistic sense à la Nietzsche's dictum: "There is only one way in the world that no one can go except you. Don't ask where it leads, walk it!" This could make sense in a reincarnationist karma doctrine, where brothers belonging to the same caste and family nonetheless each bring from their unique reincarnation itineraries a different karmic load to enjoy or pay off, hence a unique fated path in this life. However, the Gita context shows that Arjuna's swadharma is not an individualistic affair, but merely his Kshatriya dharma, i.c. to participate in the battle. Krishna even drives the point home to the (for us) absurd length of affirming that it is better to do your own duty poorly than another's well. Which implies that a warrior's son with a gift for the arts should nonetheless stay in the warrior's profession and leave the arts to artists' sons. There may well be non-casteist books in the Hindu canon, but the Gita is not one of them. Dr. Koenraad Elst, non-affiliated scholar.


(2) Edwin Bryant wrote:

1. "It is clear from the Bhagavad-gita (4.13) and from Hindu texts more generally that, in the varnasrama system, "quality and work" are given pride of place above birth status."

Perhaps, but not necessarily. After all, this is an ex silentio argument. Granted Krishna does not say guna karma *janma* vibhagasah, but, rightly or wrongly, it is an inference to assume that his only mentioning guna and karma means he rejects janma as irrelevant. This is not explicit. And BG I.40-44 seems to suggest caste by birth status was the norm for a peaceful society in Arjuna's mind (although this reading is also implied).

Again, [the story of Satyakama] can be read in two ways: either that brahmanism is by birthright, and, since Satyakama was honest, his father *must have been* a brahmana, or, that it didn't matter what his father was in Haridrumata's mind, since Satyakama himself had the gunas of a brahmana. However, since Haridrumata asked him his gotra (and Satyakama knew he would, hence he approached his mother about it in the first place), the expectation is that the teachings were to be imparted to a birth brahmana. Whether Haridrumata was prepared to make an exception based on Satyakama's evident gunas, or whether he made an inference about Satyakama's father, depends on your reading.

In any event, in answer to your question, I remember reading in the writings of one of the nationalist figures a compilation of quotes from sruti and smriti supporting the view that varna was not determined by janma in the early period. But I forget who it was and mention this in case someone else on the list is aware of who it was (Ambedkar?). If someone on RISA can point you to that, you will have all or a number of the relevant quotes at your finger tips. You know, I would think, of the *explicit* ref in the Bhagavata that caste is not determined by birth, but by guna karma -- VII.2.31 & 35.


(3) Finally, Arvind Sharma:

Steve, please forgive the immodesty involved, but the discussion of this issue in my Classical Hindu Thought (OUP, 2000) on pp.161-169 might be relevant. One issue is also covered in the MLBD Newsletter, April 2002, p.9: "The Story of Ekalavya."

Two points are also worth noting on their own:

(1) Although Arjuna takes Varna-sankara in the sense of miscegenation (1.40-42), Krishna seems to take it only in the sense of abandonment of duty (3.24): why? (For its three possible meanings see Manu 10.24);

(2) Ekalavya’a case, as already suggested, may have more to do with family politics than caste politics.

7 comments:

shiva said...

The meaning of varna sankara in the first chapter of the Gita is being used in such a way as to give the idea that the children of loose women will be "varna sankara". Therefore it is not the idea of caste mixing which is being talked about, it is the idea of children being born outside of wedlock which causes the breakdown of the traditional vedic family tradition e.g. single women with kids are not seen as potential wives, or if they are married off the children born during the marriage could become favored and the child born out of wedlock mistreated. All of this can lead to chaos and the disintegration of the social interaction of the community. An example dealing with the concept of varna would be that the child born out of wedlock may have the natural propensity of his stepfather but due to dislike of the child the father neglects to teach him or even forces the child into doing the wrong type of work e.g the stepfather is a brahmana, the boy is a natural brahmana, but the stepfather forces the child to work as a sudra, or the boy may be a natural ksatriya and is forced to be a sudra.

This is clearly the overall message of that part of the gita. It has nothing to do with maintaining caste or against the idea of caste mixing, it's about loose women and their children and the potential chaos that can be caused to an ordered traditional vedic community.

Jagat said...

I agree with you. The real reason I posted this material was because I found Konrad Elst's refutation of the modernist interpretation of dharma to be both correct and unsatisfying. In my humble opinion, the Gita presents both the social argument of dharmic responsability and that of individual freedom. The Gita's adaptability to modern circumstances comes precisely of the fact that you can interpret dharma in an individualistic fashion, and not as a generic category that everyone was supposed to adhere to.

As to the "sva-dharme nidhanaM zreyaH" verse, I think that ahistorical interpretations where "sva-dharma" is truly one's own calling, can be found in potential if not in fact.

I personally do not believe that the Gita could ever have attained popularity if it did not have the individualistic flavor. After all, it is the "sarva-dharmAn parityajya" verse that is most repeated and most strongly held to, not only in our tradition, but in most Hindu traditions.

Appeals to social stability (like the varna-sankara fear) are always secondary. The individual feels a vested interest in society only so long as his personal development (material or spiritual) is benefited thereby.

Anonymous said...

nice post. you may want to read what saints like gandhi have said about the gita http://www.gitananda.org/about-gita/index.php

Sri said...

Varna sankara means mixing varnas. Varna means loosely caste in one sense and "color" in another.

Basically it means "mixed marriage", inter-caste marriage or inter-racial marriage, as politically incorrect that may seem to us today.

Remember this was in a culture where widow remarriage was deemed practically forbidden and such attitudes are still present in the same region in 2007.

Suresh Nambiar said...

Was Krishna hinting about example of Kunti and Karna or was Arjuna referring to it when Varna-Sankara is discussed?

Padmanabhan said...

The statement was of Arjuna and not Krishna. Originally it appears varnas were decided on the basis of qulity and career. Thereafter perhaps Brahmins and Kshatriyas took it for granted that a Brahmin's son was Brahmin and a Kshatriya's son was Kshatriya. Of course, there were terms like Brahmabandhu and Kshatrabandhu which meant born in Brahmin family or Kshatriya family but possess not the qualities.
However by the time of Krishna/Arjuna the system had deteriorated. To the question raised by Arjuna in the first chapter of the Geeta, Krishna answers in ch.4,verse.13 that the varna classification made by Krishna was strictly on the basis of quality and career.
In the last chapter again, i.e. in ch.18, verse.42 it is clearly mentioned what the qualities are which make a Brahmin, vs.43 that of Kshatriya and vs.44 that of Vaisya and Sudra.
These facts are very clearly presented in a recently published book, viz., "An Easy Guide to the Bhagawad Geeta or Formulae for Happiness", published by Kurushetra publications, Kaloor, Kochin, Kerala.

Anonymous said...

Arjuna enquires;

"How, O Mādhava, can we be happy by killing our own kinsmen. Even if these, with judgements perverted by avarice, do not see the evil that ariseth from the extermination of a race, and the sin of internecine quarrels, why should not we, O Janārddana, who see the evils of the extermination of a race, learn to abstain from that sin. A race being destroyed, the eternal customs of that race are lost; and upon those customs being lost, sin overpowers the whole race. From the predominance of sin, O Krishna, the women of that race, become corrupt. And the women becoming corrupt, an intermingling of castes happeneth, O descendant of Vrishni. This intermingling of castes leadeth to hell both the destroyer of the race and the race itself."

Mahābhārata. Book VI ‘Bhishma Parva,’ Section 25

See:

http://www.sacred-texts.com/hin/m06/m06025.htm