Hindu Caste System & Hinduism:
Vedic vocations (Hindu castes) were
not related to heredity (birth)

(by Dr. Subhash C. Sharma ; Email: [email protected])


Rather coincidentally, at the dawn of civilization, as the people gathered and lived in clans or tribes (Visha), they collectively - irrespective of their undertakings within Visha (such as in agriculture, woodworking, trade and other vocations) - came to be known as the Vaishya (meaning - belonging to Visha).

To meet the liturgical needs of the society, the Vaishya - from among themselves - would select, on the basis of skills in elocution, the Brahmins (students or orators of the Vedas - compiled knowledge). Similarly, for administrative purposes, Vaishya with qualities of leadership would be selected as Kshatriya (sovereign, tribal chieftain, administrator of Kshatar - dominion or tribal area / town). Furthermore, a Visha (tribe) - in addition to having the Vaishyas (including Brahmins, Kshatriya, cowherders and woodworkers etc.) - also embodied people known as Shudra (meaning - not of tribe) representing all the newcomers (immigrants) to that particular tribe. They included persons from other tribes (such as the vanquished foes and the migrants) and the children born out of inter-tribal unions. Being somewhat new into that tribe and encountering unfamiliar rules, regulations and customs, a Shudra was limited in his vocational options and was generally relegated to providing service and assistance to members of the host tribe. But over time, like a modern day immigrant, he would surpass the tribal or social barriers so as to fully assimilate in that society and pursue other professions. Thus, all the responsibilities related to a Visha could be grouped into four sub-categories: Brahmin, Kshatriya, Vaishya and Shudra; the duties and skills involved with each of them are indicated in the following.

(Various Social and Cultural Issues)

The ancient society recognized the importance of all. Irrespective of one's skill or background, there was a place for him / her to participate actively and make useful contribution. The ceremonial rites, though conducted by the learned priest, were open to all. People used prayers for atonement and benediction for all. Everyone sent their "heroes" (sons) to the battles for Visha or to protect and assist the Sovereign. A number of important aspects of the ancient society can be further clarified by considering the following passages (with references to one God or Braham, and manifesting as Agni, Indra or Savitar) from Vedas (ancient Hindu texts).

From the RIGVEDA:

"What God shall we adore with our oblation?...He is the God of gods and none beside Him...O Father, thou Creator of Heaven and Earth, by eternal Law ruling - protect us...O Almighty, the Lord of beings, you alone pervade all the created beings...

"We all possess various thoughts and plans and diverse are the callings of men. The carpenter seeks out that which is cracked, the physician the ailing, the priest the worshipper.......

"I am a bard, my father is a physician, my mother's job is to grind the corn......

"The man who has awakened to the knowledge, becomes perfect. Let him speak for us to the gods...

"May they, our Fathers who in their skill belong to the lowest order, attain higher one, those of midmost may attain the highest. May they who have attained a life of spirit, the knower of sacrifice, the guileless, help us when called upon....

"Let gods lead us, let there be a stable union of the wife and husband... May authority be ever yours (i.e., wife's) in speech. Happy be you and prosper with your children, and be ever watchful to rule the household. Unite yourself with this man your husband. So authority will be yours in speech.. May the kinsman of the bride thrive well..

"May the gods grant riches to the men more liberal than the terrifying..."


"May gods anoint this man to be without rival, for mighty rule, for mighty dominion and for great splendour. This man, son of such a person, such a woman, of such a clan, is anointed king, O you subjects... He is your lord...He is also sovereign of our learned Brahmins...Let all men protect him.

"O Agni, may all mortals seek your friendship, the guide of all. May all solicit you for glory, riches and fame. May all of us prosper as you do.

"O Agni, grant glory to our Brahmins, set luster in our Kshatriyas, luster in our Vaishyas, luster in our Shudras..

"O god Savitar.. strengthen the life of subjects, strengthen the subjects...

"O Agni...each fault done in a village or in forest, in society or mind, each sinful act that we have committed to Shudra or Vaishya or by preventing a religious act, even of that sin, you are the expiation...

"He who knows well both knowledge and Nescience simultaneously, overcoming death by knowledge attains life immortal."

From the SAMVEDA:

"May our subjects be rich and strong with the favor of Indra. May we be wealthy in food, rejoice with them..."


As a part of God's creation (work), the four vocations are subgrouped according to people's guna (skills) and karma (assignments). Know that all work is for Him, even though He is beyond work, in Eternity. (Ch. 4 - verse 13)

Ignorant men, but not the wise, say that Sankhya (variously as: Jnana Yoga , Sanyasa or Surrender, Path of Vision or Wisdom) and Yoga (variously as: Karma Yoga, Tyaga or Renunciation, Path of Action, Bhakti or devotional service, Japaa or Silence, Dhayana or Contemplation / Meditation, Brahamcharya or Austerity, Vaanprastha or Hermitlike) are different paths; but he who gives his self (soul) to one reaches the end of two. (Ch. 5- verse 4)

Even if the greatest sinner worships God with all his soul, he must be considered righteous because of his righteous will. (Ch. 9 - verse 30)

And he shall soon become pure and reach everlasting peace. For this is His covenant that he who adores Him is not lost. (Ch. 9 - verse 31)

God is one in all, but it seems as if he were many; He (as Vishnu / preserver) supports all beings: from Him (as Rudra / destroyer) ensues end, and from Him (as Brahma / creator) ensues beginning. (Ch. 13 - verse 16)

The duties involving Brahmin, Kshatriya, Vaishya and Shudra are grouped according to people's abilities and skills. (Ch. 18 - verse 41)

The skills for a Brahmin involve serenity, self-harmony, austerity and purity, loving-forgiveness and righteousness; vision, wisdom and faith. (Ch. 18 - verse 42)

The qualities needed according to Kshatriya are: a heroic mind, splendor or inner fire, constancy, resourcefulness, courage in battle, generosity and noble leadership. (Ch. 18 - verse 43)

Trade, agriculture and rearing of cattle may be tackled by Vaishya; and the background (tenure) of a Shudra is also suited to providing support (Ch. 18 - verse 44)

People attain perfection when they find joy in their work. Hear how a person attains perfection and finds joy in his work. (Ch. 18 - verse 45)

A person achieves perfection when his work is - performed with pure feeling of - worship of God, from whom all things come and who is in all. (Ch. 18 - verse 46)

The words of vision and wisdom have been conveyed. Ponder them in the silence of your soul, and then in freedom do your will. (Ch. 18 - verse 63)

Women's Issues: It seems from the above that the ancient society was quite considerate and respectful to those (both men and women) engaged in various vocations, and people were free to make choices or changes in their careers or skills if the opportunity existed. Vedic prayers also indicate that the women had considerable say in selecting their marriage partners, and were espoused to live in monogamous relationships while enjoying same rights as their husbands. Furthermore, in the Vedas there is little evidence of child marriages, dowry system and the practice of suttee or sati (self-immolation of a woman upon her husband's death). Similarly, there is no indication of any stigma relating to widowhood or the remarriage of a widow. Note also that the well-educated, scholarly and charismatic women of yore, who also participated in many philosophical debates with men, included Gargi (the daughter of Vachaknu - from the Brihadaranyaka Upanishad) and Vidyottama (wife of the famed poet and writer, Kaalidasa, who started his life as a humble and menial worker in the woods). It is clear that the women or the lowly and humble in the society were neither ignored nor abandoned.

Listed below are a few examples of multi-vocational families and people changing their occupations and life styles.

(a) As indicated in the above, from the Rigveda, the mother of a bard (probably of the scriptures) was working in corn-grinding (an activity usually for a Shudra).

(b) Majority of the Rishis (sages) were both Brahmin and Kshatriya so as to manage their Aashramas (hermitages) effectively.

(c) In the Chandogya Upanishad, Satyakama (the illegitimate, varnasankra, son of a Shudra woman who did not even remember who her son's father was) went on to be accepted and educated for Brahmin work (the Gita: Ch. 18 - verse 42). This shows that the people (including the Shudra and of unknown lineage) had the choice of pursuing any occupation (even that of a Brahmin).

(d) Valmiki (given to chanda - meaning impetuosity - in his early days) started life as a robber. But later in life, after performing penance, he studied to become a Brahmin. He went on to become a great Rishi (sage) and wrote the Ramayana in Sanskrit. Thus, going from being a chandaal (meaning - cruel and brutal person) to a great soul not only demonstrates his personal endeavor, but also that the society was quite accepting of such a process and its outcome. In general, as indicated here and in the Vedic passages, the concept of untouchability (with respect to the Shudra or any one else as a dalit / untouchable) did not exist. Any shunning or condemnation of a person was due mainly to his / her engaging in an activity not useful or acceptable to the society. Above all, it is also clear that any type of socially stigmatic situation could be easily improved through penance and by changing one's behaviour. Incidentally, this type of humane rehabilitation of criminals and sinners is a sign of civilized people long ago; and this humane practice exists even today in various countries claiming to be modern and civilized.

(e) In one of the stories from the Ramayana, Rishi Viswamitra is said to have conducted Yajna (worship) at which the officiating priest was a once Kshatriya and the Yajamaan (worshipper) a Chandaal.

(f) In the Mahabharata, Satyavati (a Shudra-girl whose father was a fisherman), when presented with a marriage proposal from king Shantanu, married him only after he accepted her pre-nuptial agreement. Her own children, in stead of another older heir to the throne, went on to inherit the Kshatriya kingdom as was demanded in the pre-nuptial agreement. This indicates that the intercaste marriages and exchanges were quite prevalent; and that the women and Shudras could make free choices even when there was royalty involved.

(g) Matrimonial and Vocational Choices: The ancient society (generally modest and homogeneous economically) did not restrict the cross-caste matrimonial and occupational choices. In spite of the socially liberal conditions, though, the change in vocation did not always lead to significant economic gains. In addition, some vocations (e.g., Vaishya and Shudra) were inherently conducive for their young to quickly and easily engage in the family business / profession and settle down (socially and economically) early in life. Consequently, the children from these families found the other vocations (such as the Brahmins and, to some extent, the Kshatriya) to be less rewarding and not worth the preparatory effort, which included living and training (and paying the teacher through labor) for decades in hermitages in harsh and forest-like conditions where the knowledge exchange between the guru and the pupils was usually in the oral tradition since the written manuscripts (on papyrus etc.) were scarce. On the other hand, the children from the Brahmins and the Kshatriyas families were predisposed (through the natural and continuous exposure to the family business) and were readily inducted by their parents into their traditional professions. Over time, this type of selecting the professions inadvertently gave rise to the tradition of vocation based families all around even though the society had not sought such an outcome. Note that the society in this respect remained flexible and allowed people (including the Shudra, who also engaged in menial and ignoble pursuits) the freedom of choice in their undertakings (e.g., Satyakama in the above). In a similar and related context, it was deemed vocationally advantageous and convenient for a couple to marry if they both had the same background, because they would then be able to get involved in their family occupation quickly and easily without facing any uncertainty or requiring any additional apprenticeship. Moreover, the bride or the groom in this type of wedding arrangement would be less likely to encounter any unexpected, unfamiliar, inhospitable and unwanted post-marital social situations. Note also that, in addition to the weddings involving same type of families, the marriages among people from vastly different backgrounds also frequently took place (as in the case of Satyavati and Shantanu) and the society posed no restrictions. Thus it was basically an arbitrary social custom which arose over time as a matter of convenience whereby the people stuck to their family professions and also married within same type of families (vocations). Note, the lack of relevant information available in print etc. probably also led to the guru-pupil based disciplic tradition for knowledge/spirituality which would otherwise be not as crucial. In any case, people (of any caste) desiring to not follow these customs or to break away from them simply should go on their own - without any fear of repercussions from the state, society or religion - to learn and pursue new vocations; and in the process they would also be able to find compatible and willing marriage partners for themselves within the society at large. Moreover (as regards to the Gita: Ch. 5 - V. 18, Ch. 6 - V. 9, Ch. 9 - V. 32), the priests and temples that serve (cater to) and admit all (Brahmin, Kshatriya, Vaishya, Shudra including Dalit) should be accorded the greatest respect and support.

(h) Vedic/Hindu Tenets: The ancients were in favour of progressive ideas (e.g., about the environment, philosophy / religion and life style) and appear to have conducted their affairs reasonably and democratically. They either shunned or actively opposed the stagnant, blind and baseless practices (rituals) and the intolerant / autocratic persons and beliefs (faiths). The rituals for invocations of the physical, imagery (tales / myths) and the mundane were deemed less rewarding than the meditation of the spiritual, the source (truth / logic) and the divine; (meditation is explained in Ch. 6 of the Gita). Note that the reality expressed in terms of various physical (artistic) forms or through poetry can have different interpretations. For example, while considering chatur as four (along with bhuj as arm and mukh as face or mouth), chatur-bhuj and chatur-mukh may be perceived as four-armed and four-faced figures; whereas, for chatur meaning as the skilled one, chatur-bhuj and chatur-mukh represent a god (deva: friendly and blissful, superior being) in more logical human form (having two arms and one face) that is skilled-armed (or ambidextrous: probably in all the occupations) and a skilled-orator (a fine instructor). Similarly, in the Rigveda, the division of Purusha (Being or Spirit) is indicated to have taken place at the beginning; the implication of which really is the transcendence of the (chaotic) old into the (stable) new in terms of evolution of the society. There, the emergence of Brahmin, Kshatriya, Vaishya and Shudra from the body of Purusha symbolically corresponds, respectively, to their occupations giving the society its voice (arising from Purusha's mouth), order (through arms), form (on the thighs) and change (via feet). Furthermore, in the three original (basic to Hinduism) Vedas (Rig, Yajur and Sam) referred to above, little mention or support is shown for astrology; and sorcery, witchcraft, magic and worthless worships are condemned. Similarly, civic or religious (for god or faith) deception (corruption, cheating and wickedness) and exploitation (including coercion, bondage, aggression and plundering) are forbidden and not to be tolerated. Note, the Gita (Ch. 16) reiterates these precepts; and (Ch. 3 - V. 26) favors advancing of religion/spirituality peacefully and by example.

(i) Salvation, Karma, Reincarnation and Metamorphosis: It was realized long ago that, irrespective of one's background, attaining the immortality or overcoming the death (or the fear of it) is in understanding the self - the union between soul (spirit - real, sat or eternal) and body (matter - unreal, asat or transient) - as part of the Supreme (stated also in Ch. 2, 6, 7 & 9 of the Bhagvad Gita). Symbolically, therefore (as stated in Ch. 8 of the Gita), following the path (or going in the time) of clarity (as in the light of day or the sun) about the self is liberating (Ch. 6); whereas, following the path (or going in the time) of confusion (as in the darkness of night or the moon) about the self brings nothing but fear (morbidity). It is worth noting (the Gita: Ch. 6 - verse 45) that, whatever a person's social status or civic duty, the spiritual gains derived from all efforts for achieving the union of one with the One are imminent and cumulative.
In this context, the Karmic principle (i.e., a good or bad action leads to a good or bad outcome respectively) is assumed to influence the course of events taking place during this life and, supposedly, afterwards. Accordingly, each experience or action by a person affects him (in 'physical & subtle' body (Gita: C7-V4) and soul) in the next situation or future. Each experience itself is a life/Janma: its beginning and end symbolically being birth and death. Moreover, according to the Karmic principle, even when the body dies, the soul continues to live and may feel the residual effects of the preceding existence. The reincarnation therefore symbolically represents the extension of this principle during the hereafter. It is, in other words, a new opportunity or promise to accrue spiritual gains on the basis of actions during previous life. Note also that reincarnation merely presents to a person a new possibility (opportunity) arising out of countless influences and as such may or may not fully materialize depending upon the new surroundings (people, environment etc.) and the future actions by the individual himself (the Gita: Ch. 18 - verse 14). For example, as indicated above, even though Satyakama started as a Shudra (in a non-Brahmin vocation), he went on through his own initiative and effort, and with the help from his guru, to acquire new skills to become a Brahmin (the profession of choice for him). Thus, the reincarnation, relating very much to the spirit, appears quite flexible to worldly pursuits involving vocations (castes). Similarly, the salvation (Moksha) is spirit related, is open equally to all irrespective of their backgrounds, and can be attained by uniting (elevating) one's soul with God through deeds, penance etc. The Gita (Ch. 2), to this end, states (in response to a query in Ch. 1 about the rites etc. for spiritual peace to the ancestors) that God's grace and the deeds by a person during his own lifetime are important to salvation.
Note also that the supposed metamorphoses of God as Ram and Krishan etc., heroes of the early civilizations (in epics Ramayana and Mahabharata etc.), should be taken in spiritual/moralistic/philosophical context. The reverence (mainly ritualistic or for a reward) according to their physical eminence, skewed over time into myths/tales (Pauranic etc.), thus needs to reduce. (For example, according to Chs. 9 (V. 24), 10 & 4 of the Gita, God is deemed as worthy of all worships since all the eminence and creation, including gods/goddesses etc., arise ultimately due to Him - depending upon the place, time and situation.)


The vocational choice long ago was mainly need-based (personal and tribal) and circumstantial (in terms of the availability of labor at a place or time, natural disasters and battles among tribes). It inspired that the societal tasks and responsibilities be dispensed solely in terms of a person's nature or qualification (Guna) and his active undertaking or assignment (Karma). It was a great vision at work that is referred to also in the Bhagvad Gita (as in the original Sanskrit verse 13 of Ch. 4, where the reference is made only to Guna - nature / qualification, and it does not mean born nature). Incidentally, the original vocations seem to have been similar to the present jobs that also require compatibility between the worker's qualifications and the potential assignment.

Inherently, the above system satisfied one and the all. The Gita (Ch. 18 - verse 41) further elaborates that all occupations are important and correspond to various needs or segments of the society and are dispensed according to ability (svabhava) on the basis (prabhva) of qualification (guna; which does not mean born nature). The duties relating to each adopted vocation (as explained in the above Introduction: Brahmin, Kshatriya, Vaishya, Shudra) are also listed in the Gita (Ch. 18 - verses 42, 43 & 44). It is also indicated in the Gita (Ch. 5 - verse 4) that all spiritual paths are applicable and bring same results to people with different vocations. The Gita (Ch. 16 & 18) stresses that, while it is of utmost importance to recognize and adhere to one's own responsibility or the task at hand, there is no other special advantage or basis (in terms of ritualism or one's heredity) for pursuing a particular undertaking. A socially necessary and useful activity for the physical well-being of person is as important as any worship/puja for his/her salvation (The Gita: Ch. 3 - verse 8). The Gita (Ch. 3 - verse 35) further notes that taking care of one's own responsibility (purpose/dharma) merits higher than venturing needlessly elsewhere, since keeping one's own obligation (even in a miniscule way) leads to satisfaction that outweighs the trappings, uncertainty and formidableness associated with another's task. It is also stated in the Gita (Ch. 12, Ch. 18 - verses 45 & 46) that, no matter what a person's duty or task (whether shubh - appealing, or ashubh - unappealing), he attains perfection or heavenly bliss if he is fully dedicated to it and performs it with pleasure and interest as if it were a service to the Lord (Transcendent or the Manifest). Lord, God or Hari (Saviour) is expressed (Ch. 17) divinely (in tattva) as OM TAT SAT (Creator, Master and the Righteous). Note also that God is one, yet He can manifest in more ways than one (Ch. 4 & 9); and He dwells in the heart of all (Ch. 18). He is One in all (stated above; the Gita: Ch. 13 - verse 16). In addition, one need not be preoccupied about the hereafter (or the heaven and the hell) as long as he understands the good from the bad (Ch. 16 of the Gita) and the redemption (spiritual) through penance (monetarily free and as stated in the Gita: Ch. 9 - verses 30 & 31).

Thus, the Vedic religion (Hinduism) is universal and progressive: the Hindu way of life is open to all, and without any discrimination on the basis of gender, race, heredity, beliefs, occupation, social status or background, and the place of origin. It is very logical (promotes knowledge and science / vigyan - the Gita: Ch. 6 - verse 8), encourages reasoning (the Gita: Ch. 18 - verses 63, 71 & 72), and is quite easy to understand and practice (as indicated in Ch. 3, 9 & 16 of the Gita). It is based on the fundamental principle of 'one to One relationship' or unity between a person and the universal God. In other words (e.g. the Gita: Ch. 9 - v. 10 & 29), everyone abides identically to the supreme, is significant to the creation, and has the same right to seek and realize the divine. In conclusion and at the personal level, one easily attains perfection and heavenly bliss in any activity (duty) if he / she keeps anger, lust and greed in check (the Gita: Ch. 16); stays mindful of the Lord (the Gita: Ch. 8), such as in the sense of the mantra (sacred words) 'Hari OM TAT SAT' (the universal God is the means of salvation); and through that undertaking (activity) adores / serves Him and His creation (the Gita: Ch. 11 & 18).

Thus it is also clear from the above that one (of any caste or background) need not feel disadvantaged, discriminated, dispossessed or deprived of spirituality as a Hindu if he / she pursues God by own free will in a manner convenient or appropriate to him / her. Remember that everyone is entitled to the same inspiration (guidance) and bliss (love) from God, who (as the source of vision and benediction) is the ultimate (greatest) guru / prophet (the Gita: Ch. 11) and friend / benefactor (the Gita: Ch. 5).
Closing Comment:
It is okay for a person - having no one to extend to him objective or satisfactory help and guidance in the matters relating to spiritual fulfillment, prayer and the place to pray - to choose a mode of worship suited to his needs and resources. Incidentally, worthless worships, myths / tales, hate-mongering and evil/corrupt deeds are detrimental to spirituality / faith. It is also worth noting that all - men, women, believers, nonbelievers and others - have the same rights and freedoms and they all deserve equal protection and consideration under a law that is constantly evolving with time and according to the need of the society. Thus, a contemporary civil legal code - progressive and reflective of the peoples and times - seems preferable to a law that may be perceived as antiquated, dictatorial, discriminatory, cultist or religious. The notion that a group / nation run by decree will be foremost in freedoms and human rights is misguided. A diverse, pluralistic and progressive society subjected to an autocratic or religious law / rule can quickly drift into a puritanical, singular and regressive system as the dissenting people either run away from it or totally succumb to the ruling dogma to ensure their own safety. Thus, the sectarian territorialization or vision of the world must cease, and any regime adverse to progressiveness should be shunned. In addition, the practices of caste-ism, animal abuse, child labor, gender discrimination, dowry, veil etc. must stop. It is also in the interest of humanity to rise above various tenets and practices and, while not ignoring the local issues, tackle serious global problems: rapidly deteriorating environment, depleting natural resources, disappearing flora and fauna, and overpopulation - already exceeding the reasonable limit of about five billion people worldwide.


(Yr. 2001)