The Sanskrit texts refer to two words. One is Jaati, which defines your or your familial profession/ occupation, which could be an engineer, doctor, jeweler, businessman, soldier, etc., in the contemporary context. Varna, on the other hand, is something entirely different. It has nothing to do with the family you are born in or any other aspect of your physical identity but everything to do with your mental setup or Vrutti (वृत्ति). Vrutti can be loosely translated as your mentality that makes up your personality that forms your aptitude.
Vrutti is formed from your Sanskaar (संस्कार) and the karma (कर्म) you do, and this Sanskaar feedback to shapes your Vrutti, forming a continuous loop. Sanskaar itself is a loaded term; it is essentially everything that you take as input from the world and makes you who you are as a person, right from what your parents, family, and teachers taught you when you were little to what you are now consuming through social media, TV, friends, books, etc. – the good, bad and the ugly!
The scriptures say that what you do in this life (via thought, speech, and action) is your karma, which forms the basis of who you are in your next life. Add to this the trigunatmak (त्रिगुणात्मक) nature of this universe, which is made up of the three gunas (गुणाः) – loosely translatable as qualities – of Sattva (सत्त्व), Rajas (रजस्) and Tamas (तमस्). We can think of these as three broad categories of qualities: the best, the average, and the worst. According to the Bhagavad Geeta (भगवद् गीता), when one leads a life with good thoughts, kind speech, and deeds, then one’s nature or Vrutti becomes Saattvik (सात्त्विक). This Sattva guna divides itself into irregular parts to create the Brahmin (ब्राह्मण) and Kshatriya (क्षत्रिय) Varna. So, a person that has lived a Saattvik life (i.e., a life of selfless service to others and always has kindly thought in word and deed) is born in the Brahmin or Kshatriya Varna. A combination of the Sattva and Rajas creates the Vaishya (वैश्य) Varna, whereas a combination of the Rajas and Tamas creates the Shudra (शूद्र) Varna.
Therefore, a person belongs to Brahmin Varna because of the Saattvik qualities because of the actions (karma) inherited from past lives. One’s last name, the family they are born in, or religion has nothing to do with it! In other words, anyone who is Saatvik by nature – regardless of race, religion, nationality, etc. – is a Brahmin by Varna! The physical identity is irrelevant and immaterial.
Why and how we ended up using aspects of physical identity such as last names/surnames to decide “caste” is a topic in itself, and a great deal has been written on it, but the simple fact of the matter is that if name or family identity was the deciding factor, wouldn’t the Bhagavad Geeta and other scriptures list out the last names that correspond to either a Jaati or Varna? While people had titles in ancient times, and we see that even today, did they have surnames or last names? That needs to be researched.
Bharat has many thousands of Jaati, and, over the course of its long history, especially the past 1000 years when due to a continuous stream of invaders, the civilization underwent a lot of trauma, causing it to constrict and focus on survival. It is perhaps during this time that the terms Jaati and Varna got mixed up. The categorization of the Jaati that I use below is an attempt to disentangle this Jaati – Varna mixup. This is the author’s own interpretation and an attempt at understanding the mapping between the two, and the reader should take note of that. This may not align with what we currently know (and currently is the keyword here), but considering the massive loss of records and scriptures in the past 1000 years, the misunderstanding could have started with the terms Jaati – Varna being used interchangeably adding to all this confusion to which the British only happily added to, or perhaps they were the key creators, by forcing people to put down their “caste” in the British census forms.
Today we typically associate Jaati with a person’s surname/last name or family identity. So, in the case of certain last names that we associate with Brahmin Jaati, all we can say is that their ancestor’s Jaati was Brahmin. They were either teachers, educators, or purohits earning their living by those means as well as studying the Vedas and the scriptures and living a life of austerities, not amassing any wealth but having their needs provided by the state and the community. They taught students of all Jaati in their gurukuls and were highly valued for the guidance and direction they provided to society by educating the young. They were responsible for making sure the Dharma, i.e., the moral and ethical framework of civilized society, was upheld and hence also had the strictest of laws applied to them as compared to the other Jaatis and had to bear the strictest of punishments for breaking these well-defined codes of conduct. Similarly, the Kshatriya Jaati were the rulers or administrators, Vaishya were the farmers, traders, and businessmen, and Shudra were the service providers and artists that supported the other three Jaati to enable the smooth running of society.
This system is as applicable today as it was in times past. To illustrate, let me attempt to apply this to my own situation. Since I am not an educator or policy maker, can I consider myself a Brahmin by Jaati? Not really. Am I a soldier or in administration or politics? No. Therefore, I am not of the Kshatriya Jaati. Then, am I a farmer, or am I in the financial and economic field, running a business or dealing with finances? No. Therefore, I am not of the Vaishya Jaati. So what am I? Since I work in the service industry and offer my skills, for which I receive some compensation, I must consider myself to be of the Shudra Jaati.
Should I be offended? Absolutely not! The Shudra are the load-bearing pillar of society and represent the majority of the population! They are often maliciously portrayed as menial workers, such as toilet cleaners, but that is just a small part of the work they do. Shudra grouping also has skilled artisans, craftspeople, artists, sculptors, musicians, technicians, plumbers, electricians, and people working in the service sector – like me! They represent a hard-working, honest taxpaying group of people who are the core of a nation and society! Each of the four Jaati has its place and importance in society, and each is required for the society to be whole and functional! To compare one group against the other and to consider one group higher and another lower is to create a divide in society and to pit people against each other.
The concept of Jaati is essentially a way of classifying or grouping society’s human resources. Similarly, Varna is a classification by qualities. Jaati is a horizontal classification with all the Jaatis being on equal footing, whereas Varna is a vertical classification system where one can aspire to progress from the lowest to the highest in order to realize their true divine nature. What is important is that both these are classifications flexible and changeable – based entirely on the individual’s choice.
This thought is beautiful because it is inclusive and universal in nature. How so?
Inclusive, because it is recognized that if someone is of a Shudra Varna (not Jaati, mind you, but Varna, which applies to the qualities of an individual, in this case, someone having the worst of qualities – Tamoguni), when in the company of a Brahmin Varna (someone with the highest of qualities – Sattvaguni), then they will also improve and evolve because of the good company they are in. Thus, no one is ostracized from society even when they may not possess the highest of qualities. Everyone has a chance to evolve and become a better human being.
Universal because this definition of Jaati and Varna is applicable to any group of people across time and geography. It can be applied to anyone, anywhere, anytime, irrespective of race, religion, nationality, etc.
Does Varna help determine Jaati? Perhaps it does, sometimes. It is apparent that our Vritti shapes our aptitude, so if a person is Saattvik by nature, then they would be naturally inclined to study, teach, and practice austerities (Dhyana (ध्यान), Dharana (धारणा), etc.), leading a simple life with simple tastes in food and lifestyle – essentially choosing a profession and lifestyle that suit their Vritti. But it is important to decouple the two (Jaati and Varna) and recognize that one can belong to any Jaati but still be a Brahmin by Varna.
History gives ample proof of this! The saints of Bharat are a case in point, where you see saints coming from many different Jaati. For examples, Dnyaneshwar (ज्ञानेश्वर), Eknath (एकनाथ), Ramdas Swami (रामदास स्वामि), Tulsidas (तुलसीदास), Shankaracharya (शङ्कराचार्य) were of the Brahmin Jaati; Tukaram (तुकाराम), Namdeo (नामदेव) were of the Vaishya Jaati; Meerabai (मीराबाई), the Sikh (सीख) gurus came from the Kshatriya Jaati, and Kabir (कबीर), Chokhamela (चोखामेळा), Soyrabai (सोयराबाई), Janabai (जनाबाई) came from the Shudra Jaati. However, each and every one of them was Brahmin by Varna! They simply had evolved to a higher state, a state perhaps even beyond the Sattva Guna, to become Gunaateet (गुणातीत) and realize their true nature of Brahman, which is also what the Upanishads (उपनिषद्) and all scriptures teach us as the underlying truth of the entire universe.
Jaati were never inflexible, as the word “caste” seems to imply but were completely flexible where people had the freedom to change their professions – and, therefore, their Jaati – much like we can do today. Again, history provides ample examples of people having done so. The entire Maheswari (माहेश्वरी) community changed their Jaati from the rulers (Kshatriya) class to businessmen (Vaishyas). It was simply a change of profession and not viewed as anything else. The great Maratha (मराठा) king, Shivaji Maharaj (शिवाजी महाराज), had many soldiers who came from the Shudra Jaati but had chosen to fight for Swarajya (स्वराज्य) under the able guidance of Shivaji Maharaj. Thus, their Jaati was now Kshatriya. Mahakavi Valmiki (महाकवि वाल्मीकि) is an excellent example of someone having not only changed their Jaati but also evolved their Varna in one life. He gave up his life as a robber to become a Maharishi (महर्षि) and achieved enlightenment, thus moving from a Shudra to a Brahmin in Jaati, as well as Varna! Raavana (रावण), on the other hand, is an example of someone who degraded his Varna. He was the son of a rishi (ऋषि), so his father’s Jaati was that of a Brahmin, but he himself, being a ruler, had chosen the Kshatriya Jaati. He was a devotee of Lord Shiva (शिव) and had done many years of Tapa (तप), but his inability to control his Vritti of greed and lust degraded him to the Shudra Varna!
To portray this system of this flexible social structure as a hard-coded, inflexible, discriminatory “caste” system is, at best, ignorant and, at worst malicious. Caste must never be conflated with Jaati and Varna!
(A slightly different version of this article is available at https://ekamsatvipraahbahudavadanti.blogspot.com/2021/09/jaati-and-varna-caste.html)
Primary source and inspiration: Dnyaneshwari Aaddhyay – 18: Ovi – 828. 829 (ज्ञानेश्वरी आध्याय – 18: ओवी – 828, 829)