The real significance of the cāturvarṇya

The real significance of the cāturvarṇya

It is only by delving deeper into original texts of shruti and smṛti that one can arrive at a better and fuller understanding of Vedic truths. In this column I examine the source of cāturvarṇya, one of the most ancient and foundational idea of our Vedic civilization and attempt to discern fundamental natural principles which can form the basis of a new dharma-śāstra.

What is Dharma?

The word dharma is derived from root dhṛ (to bear, to maintain etc.) with suffix ‘man’ and the meaning is given as “dhriyate lokaḥ anena dharati lokaṃ vā” (that which bears the world/humanity or that by which world/humanity exists or is maintained). Therefore, dharma-śāstra may be understood as a discipline to understand natural principles (dharma) that bear or sustain human beings individually and as a society or rāṣṭra and to propose laws based on these principles with the aim of ensuring proper and just functioning of the natural functions of society. Justice here means ensuring that individuals as well as groups of people can freely function as per their svabhāva (innate nature), sāmarthya (ability).

The cāturvarṇya as a foundation of dharma-śāstra

The mantra (10.90.12) from the puruṣa-sūkta of the Ṛgveda provides the earliest enunciation of the cāturvarṇya which has been the foundation of dharma:

ब्रा॒ह्म॒णो॑ऽस्य मुख॑मासीद्बाहू रा॑ज॒न्य॑: कृ॒त: ।

ऊ॒रू तद॑स्य॒ यद्वैश्य॑: प॒द्भ्यां शू॒द्रो अ॑जायत ॥ १०.०९०.१२

In this mantra, human society, state or rāṣṭra is conceived as a living organism, the rāṣṭra-mānava. Thus, humanity is envisaged as composed of four distinct types of people who fulfill four distinct types of functions that constitute as well as uphold society. This four-fold classification of humans is the cāturvarṇya.

These four mutually supportive and mutually inseparable functions that arise from the very nature and form (svabhāva and svarūpa) of the jīva (life-existence) are – support (ādhāra), movement (gati), protection (rakṣaṇa) and direction (śāsana). These four functions represented in the mantra by the feet, thighs, hands and head respectively of the supreme-puruṣa constitute the rāṣṭra-mānava.

The dharma-śāstra based on the aforementioned principle of cāturvarṇya seeks to establish a synergical system that supports, mobilizes, protects and guides both individual endeavor (puruṣārtha or individual interest) and collective endeavor (rāṣṭrārtha or national interest). Such a synergical system is, or should be, the full meaning and definition of the word ‘civilization’.

Constituents of cāturvarṇya

Now let us consider the characteristics of each of the four varṇas in terms of the svabhāva (qualities) and abilities (sāmarthya) that can be deduced from the description of the rāṣṭra-mānava in the puruṣa sūkta. Based on these characteristics I will also list major modern functions or occupations that fall into the purview of each varṇa.


The puruṣa-sūkta describes śūdras as born the feet of the supreme puruṣa. Just as the feet support a human being, so do the śūdras support human society.

The smṛtis list the primary occupations of the śūdra-varṇa. For example, the Yājñavalkya smṛti mentions serving of the twice-born as its main function and says that whatever arts and crafts help the other three varṇas are in the scope of a śūdra’s occupation. Therefore these include not only menial or unskilled work like carrying loads, cleaning etc. but also all skills like carpentry, cloth-making, pottery and other such crafts as well as artistic skills like painting, singing, dancing, playing musical instruments etc. Besides these occupations, the same smṛti also provides that, if necessary, śūdras may also indulge in farming, trading and animal husbandry even though these are the main occupations of vaiśya-varṇa.

The occupations of a śūdra require a person to be one-track minded and focused exclusively on honing their skills and satisfying the needs of their customers. Human society cannot survive for more than few days without śūdras as they provide the basic goods and services needed for people of a civilized society. A basic literacy is sufficient for the performance of most of the occupations in this varṇa.

Modern occupations of śūdra

All labour designated as skilled or unskilled labour fall into this category. Examples of unskilled labour include cleaning, delivering goods, driving vehicles etc. and skilled labour includes electricians, plumbers, cooks, technicians, mechanics, nurses, singers, dancers, players of musical instruments, actors, sculptors, artists etc.

Many jobs in the modern economy that do not involve manual labour or artistic skills or craftsmanship also fall in the category of śūdra. These are jobs that involve repetitive tasks or jobs that do not demand in-depth knowledge of any field and requires only a basic education and training. Examples include all kinds of non-managerial administrative tasks like clerical work, back-office jobs like customer support etc., sales and customer support etc.


The puruṣa-sūkta quite aptly says that the thighs of puruṣa are the source of the vaiśya-varṇa. Just as thighs provide motive power to a individual human, so do the vaiśyas for the whole society.

The smṛtis list farming, animal husbandry, trading as the principal occupation of vaiśyas. These occupations involve the production and distribution of food as well as distribution of all goods in general. Thus, by providing sources of energy and helping the movement of goods necessary for human activities the vaiśyas keep the wheels of civilization in motion.

The occupation of a vaiśya demand knowledge of the world and nature, specifically, the knowledge of seasons and crops as well as knowledge of various goods and their values, of places and people and their customs and habits. A vaiśya must be a skilled negotiator as he has to deal with various authorities in the hierarchy of society. While a basic literacy is sufficient for farming and cattle-rearing, a high level of literacy is obviously important for those involved in doing business across the nation and beyond.

Modern occupations of vaiśyas

In addition to the traditional activities farming, cattle rearing and trading one can include the following occupations also in this category: shopkeepers, self-employed persons providing services like consultancies etc. that demand śāstra-knowledge, owners of large or small business in the manufacturing or service sectors. Also, the smṛtis provide that when necessary, members from vaiśya community may be considered for various high positions in government and judiciary.


The puruṣa-sūkta says that the hands of the puruṣa are the source of kṣhatriyas. Just as the hands are the primary means of defense for an individual, so are the kṣatriyas for the whole of society.

They physically establish law and order within the nation and also defend against external aggression. What sets the kṣatriyas apart from other occupation is the official sanction for violence give only to them and their readiness to sacrifice their life while performing their duties. Leadership, nobility, chivalry, skill and courage in warfare, intellect, strength, forbearance and large-heartedness are the characteristics of a kṣatriya.

Modern occupations of kṣatriyas

The modern kṣatriyas include members of military and para-military, police force as well as all personnel charged with the physical security of people and property.


The puruṣa-sūkta says that brāhmaṇas are born from the mouth (mukham) of puruṣa. The mouth stands for the brain as it is most equipped through speech to convey the output of the brain. Just as the brain directs and controls the body, so are brāhmaṇas the thinkers, planners and directors of society. They organize, plan and direct the life of a nation through the means of the other three varṇas. It is incumbent on brāhmaṇas to be fully acquainted with the knowledge of the physical world and human nature. All this is the domain of the sciences or śāstras. Without brāhmaṇas a nation cannot remain stable for any length of time or progress in any sphere. Hence a very high level of literacy and śāstraic education is an essential qualification for all occupations of a brāhmaṇa. The smṛtis demand from brāhmaṇas an unflinching fidelity to dharma, even at the cost of their own lives, in their personal and professional lives.

The smṛtis prescribe the study and teaching of Vedas and the conduct of yajñas are the main work of brāhmaṇas. The smṛtis accord the highest respect to a brāhmaṇa but also demand the highest morals, ethics and discipline. A majority of all the rules detailed in the smṛtis pertain to brāhmaṇa. This is entirely justified because the head is the most important organ of man. The fall of a brāhmaṇas from the high road of unimpeachable conduct has deleterious effect on entire society.

By virtue of their qualifications, the high moral and ethical standards demanded of them and the offices they hold, the brāhmaṇas are unquestionably the elites of society and shall be honored and respected by the people to the extent they follow the right conduct (ācāra) demanded of them.

Brāhmaṇas are the builders and teachers of knowledge systems or śāstras. A formal education with high qualifications, high retentive power, logical thinking, vision and foresight, unimpeachable character, self-control and a benevolent attitude are the qualities required of a brāhmaṇa.

Modern occupations of brāhmaṇa

These include the highest positions in governance other than the king, namely, advisers, ministers, judges, and administrators of various departments. Other occupations in this category include doctors, lawyers, architects, teaching, white collar jobs like accountants, managers and in general any position that demand śāstra knowledge or responsibility for designing and managing of complex systems. Classical-musicians, artists etc. who study and teach their art as a śāstra also belong in this varṇa.

The qualities of non-injury, truthfulness, non-theft, having clean mind and body, charity, self-control, mercy and tolerance are expected of people all varṇas.

What is my varṇa?

From the preceding discussion it is clear that each of the four varṇas do not refer to birth but to a set of qualities (guṇagrāma) and abilities (sāmarthya) that are pre-requisites to the right performance of a particular function. We know that both qualities and abilities are heritable but in vary wildly even within the same family. Therefore, ones varṇa should depend on individual nature and ability (svabhāva, sāmarthya). What about one’s free-will? To the extent that one can acknowledge such a thing as “free-will”, one is free to choose but one’s choice must be in harmony with nature and ability. This is what career-counselors do for a living – i.e., the determination of one’s true varṇa!

Historically, one’s birth-varṇa was a person’s default varṇa because that is what the people wanted. In the age of our smṛtis the knowledge and skills of various occupations were handed over from parent to children. One’s home was also the place of work. Therefore, one’s occupation and hence varṇa came to be associated with birth. This system ensured the livelihoods (job-guarantee/right-to-(real)work!) of people from one generation to the next and hence was accepted by people of their own will. The fact that even today, millions of families voluntarily continue the occupation of their historical varṇa is testimony to the power of the varṇa-system. On the other hand there is no doubt that a segment of population involved in the most menial and unloved tasks had no path for advancement out of a wretched existence.

The smṛtis stress the mukhya or primary occupations of each varṇa while allowing for deviations as per needs of families or individuals and also in response to major disruptions caused by man-made or natural disasters. The right of a person to support his family by taking up whatever work was an inalienable right and a duty. Only the priesthood was restricted to brāhmaṇas.

The modern economy has made it impossible for a person to adhere strictly to their historical varṇa. In fact, the reality is that other than the jobs of priests, the link between one’s birth-varṇa and occupation simply does not exist anymore. Therefore, it is time for the larger community of Vedic people to remove once and for all the one historical obstacle that has created a sense of otherness amongst the śūdras which persists to this day with well-known adverse consequences. It is time to remove the obstacle that prevents śūdras and women from having equality of opportunity with regards to formal access to Vedic knowledge. The exclusion of śūdra-varṇa (and women) from upanayana, which is the formal initiation into the study of Vedas, must be ended.

Let the yajñopavītam be the thread that binds all people of the Veda. Who are the people described by the Veda? The answer is actually all of humanity because the cāturvarṇya differentiates humans on the basis of cāturvarṇya as described above i.e., the four-fold functions needed for upholding society, and not race, ethnicity, religion or gender.

Time for a new dharma-śāstra

This age demands a new dharma-śāstra that offers guidance not only for “Hindus” but for all those who wish to shed the burden of narrow, intolerant, exclusivist and divisive sectarian ideologies and adopt the Vedic way of life. The Vedic concept of cāturvarṇya is a universal truth that provides a strong rational and moral foundation for a society to organize itself as a peaceful and productive entity based on the principle of voluntary cooperation.

What would be the form of a new dharma-śāstra? This is the work that needs the attention of those who wish to see an “Indic Renaissance” or “New India” or Bhāratam becoming “viśva-guru”.

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Dr. Shrikant Jamadagni

Dr. Shrikant Jamadagni has a PhD in Aurobindo studies and is a working towards restoring the Sanskrit language as lingua-Indica. He is deeply passionate about Indian Renaissance as expounded by Sri Aurobindo.