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Degeneration of the Varna System

The Varna system was started as analogous to professional guilds, but as a result of exploitation by some priests, and socio-economic elements of society, this system became hereditary and degenerated over the centuries. The ancient culture of India was based upon a system of social diversification according to spiritual development.
Four orders of society were recognized based upon the four main goals of human beings and established society accordingly. These four groups were the Brahmins, the priests or spiritual class; the Kshatriya, the nobility or ruling class; the Vaishya, the merchants and farmers; and the Shudras or servants. These four orders of society were called "varna", which has two meanings; first it means "color" and second it means a "veil". As color it does not refer to the color of the skin of people, but to the qualities or energies of human nature. As a veil it shows the four different ways in which the Divine Self is hidden in human beings.

In ancient India, these divisions were not based on birth but based on qualifications. According to the Bhagavad Gita this Aryan family system broke down in India over three thousand years ago at the time of Krishna. Hence after three thousand years this system of determining natural aptitude has degenerated into the caste system which resembles it now only in form. 

As the Varna system became increasingly rigid and based on inheritance, it was enveloped by another system known as the caste system. Thus, this varna system determined the social structure of ancient Hindu society. The caste system could not have been part of Hindu religious philosophy, since it violates fundamental Hindu doctrine, according to which there is no absolute distinction between individuals, since the atman dwells in the hearts of all beings. There is no religious sanction whatsoever to the concept of the caste system in Hinduism.

Swami Sivananda (The Divine Life Society, Rishikesh), in his commentary on Gita,Ch.18, verses 41,and 45 says:

"Mankind is organized into the four castes and each man's life is divided into four stages, according to the nature of the Gunas (traits) and the degree of growth or evolution. This is the division of labor for which each caste is fitted according to its own nature. The duty prescribed is your sole support, each devoted to his own duty in accordance with his own nature or caste,  and the highest service you can render to the Supreme is to carry it out whole-heartedly, without expectation of fruits, with the attitude of dedication to the Lord. The caste system is, indeed, a splendid thing. It is quite flawless. But the defect came in from somewhere else. The classes gradually neglected their duties. The test of ability and character slowly vanished. Birth became the chief consideration in determining castes. All castes fell from their ideals and forgot all about their duties."

Varna - Not Racial Color

Varna was conferred on the basis of the intrinsic nature of an individual, which is a combination of the three gunas. The term, 'Varna', has nothing to do with racial color. It is related to the three 'gunas' or traits - white (sattva or sagacity), red (rajas or aggressiveness), and dark (tamas or ignorance) which all men and also all living beings possess, albeit in different proportions- varying from species to species, from man to man and even from sibling to sibling. 

(source: The Hindu Mind: Fundamentals of Hindu Religion and Philosophy for All Ages - By Bansi Pandit p 125-128).

Alain Danielou has said: "That abusive caste practices were introduced when the administrative power ceased to be in Hindu hands, thus making the repression of abuses legally impossible. Such abuses as there are have been greatly exaggerated in order to justify Western domination and are normally quite local. In most of India, the caste system functions today as it always has; as a harmonious whole in which each is satisfied with his social lot, in which the freedom of each tribe, and religious group to live according to its customs, traditions, and convictions is respected as it is in no other country and no other form of society. 

(source: Virtue, Success, Pleasure, & Liberation : The Four Aims of Life in the Tradition of Ancient India - Alain Danielou p. 45).

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Updated - October 28, 2008