Traditional Indian society was based on the Varna-Ashram system. This was the way of Sanatan Dharma or Hinduism since time immemorial. These four varnas, also known as Catur-Varna were the Brahmins (teachers), Kshatriyas (warriors), Vaishyas (merchants/businessmen) and Shudras (service providers). There are a lot of misconceptions about the Varna system, and it is likened to Caste. Castes are referred to as Jatis, which are based on the birth of a person. Varnas, on the other hand, are based on the natural inclination of a person to the kind of work he/she wants to do. To use the word “Caste” interchangeably with Varna is contextually wrong.
The word “swa-dharma” reflects this concept precisely. It means the dharma of the individual person, his/her own propensity, inclination and ability to do a particular job. This may be completely different from that of his father or his ancestors. Also, no particular Varna was given a higher or lower status as they were considered part of the limbs of society with a specific and important role assigned to only them, which others could not do. Thus we have three ways to look at Varnas – based on Jati, Karma and Guna. Let us look at them.
- Classification based on Jatis – This is based on the birth of the person. A person born in the family of Kshatriyas would be called a Jati Kshatriya. This is the most basic way to look at Varnas.
- Classification based on Karma – This type of classification is based on the actual profession of the person. Irrespective of the family one is born in, if one is working as a guide and mentor in spiritual matters and scriptures, he would be called as a Karma Brahmin, even if he was a Jati Kshatriya (by birth).
- Classification based on Guna – This is based on one’s own nature and character. The innate proclivity and interest of a person, if it is towards, say being a businessman or a trader, he would be called a Guna Vaishya. This is based on the innate quality an individual possesses.
There are numerous examples of famous Rishis born in different Varnas but due to their Gunas (qualities), they became Brahmins. For example, Sage Vyas was born to a fisherman’s daughter.