The Gita refers to four varnas – divisions in human beings – in the fourth chapter (4.13) and also in the eighteenth chapter (18.41-18.44). In 4.13, Krishna says “chaatur varnyam mayaa srustam guna karma vibhagashah” – “the four divisions of people have been created by Me based on the character and profession”.
This is an often misquoted verse. To understand the true spirit of the verse, one has to see how the topic is developed in the previous verses. Here is an outline:
In these verses 4.6 to 4.13, Krishna speaks as God.
God is the material and sentient cause of this world. He is the substance out of which everything in the universe is made, like gold is the substance out of which various ornaments are made. However, unlike gold, He is the sentient cause also. So, it is He who appears as everything. The diversity that we see is only in name, form and function, just like the diversity in various ornaments made of gold. Thus God is in and through everything in the universe. There is no time or place or substance apart from Him.
All the laws of the universe are His manifestations only. He is not the maker of the laws. He is the laws. This includes the physical and moral orders. The moral order is the one which is commonly referred to as “As you sow, so shall you reap.” This is called the law of Karma. When people lose faith in the moral order, there is confusion and unrighteousness in the world. The law of Karma will anyway take effect in due course of time. But due to lack of faith, people would have done a lot of undesirable actions, for which they would have to pay very dearly later. So, out of compassion, God comes among the people and establishes the faith in the moral order.
Now, Krishna says in 4.9, one who knows Him thus – as the God, of whom the universe and its laws are manifestations, who, out of compassion, comes whenever needed to establish faith in the moral order – will attain Him.
Now two questions arise:
1. What is the relationship between knowing Him and attaining Him?
2. What about people who were born before His current incarnation as Krishna?
To these, He answers in 4.10,
1. One, who has truly understood the concept of God as mentioned, will naturally follow a moral and ethical life. Knowing that it is God who has become the universe, he will not get attached to the names and forms. He will see God in and through everything in the universe. He will do everything that he does as an offering to God. He will accept everything that comes as a gift from God. Thus he will be free from all psychological problems like anger, fear, anxiety, jealousy, arrogance, etc. With the mind thus purified, he will easily understand his own true nature and his relationship with God, and thus will attain God.
2. Many people in the past have attained to God like this, through the teachings of the various incarnations of God. There were infinite number of incarnations in the past. There will be infinite number of incarnations in the future also. Thus, this path is not specific to this incarnation as Krishna.
Now, the question arises, “Isn’t God being partial? Some people attain Him and some people do not.”
Krishna answers this question in 4.11. It is not that God wants to give the knowledge about Himself to some people and wants to withhold it from other people. To everyone in this universe, whatever be their pursuit, it is He alone who gives the fruits of their action. Most people seek pleasure, possessions and power. They get those. Some people seek God. They get Him. So, God cannot be said to be partial. He gives what each person seeks and works towards.
Now, the question arises, “Why is it that most people seek material gains and only some people seek God?”
Krishna answers this question in 4.12. The path to God and goodness is long, narrow and difficult. The results, though superior, come after long struggle. Whereas the path to the gains in the world like pleasure, possessions and power is short. The results, though inferior, come soon. So, most people, due to lack of faith, patience and perseverance, choose the shorter and quicker path.
Now, the question arises, “Then what is the way for the people who are short sighted? Will they never seek God and attain Him?”
Krishna answers this question in 4.13, in the verse on varna (divisions among people). In this very pregnant verse, Krishna says, “People are divided according to their near or far sightedness. They seek different things based on that. They take up different professions based on what they seek. Gradually, they develop maturity and develop more and more far sightedness, and thus are on their way to finally seek God.
“The most near sighted people seek only pleasure. They just want to eat well, sleep well and enjoy sense pleasures. They do not want to postpone their gratification even by a short time. They are shudraas. The best way for them to develop is to serve loyally under the guidance of others.
“Some people are slightly more far sighted. They have realized that by money they can get all the pleasures when and where they want. So, instead of pleasure, they seek wealth. They would be ready to forgo food and sleep to earn wealth. They are vaishyaas. They are best to lead agriculture, industry and trade. By pursuing and creating wealth, they will make the society wealthy and prosperous.
“Some people are still more far sighted. They have realized that by having money, what they have is all that they have. But, by building up a good name and trust among people, they can mobilize and control much more money than what they directly possess. They would be ready to forgo food, sleep and even wealth to gain and maintain their reputation. They are kshatriyaas. They are best to rule the country, be judges, make policies, etc. Their priorities in life will suit these functions in the society.
“Some people are still more far sighted. They have realized that knowledge is power. Having knowledge is much more worth than handling power directly. They value knowledge more than anything else. The knowledge makes them humble and always eager to gather more and more knowledge from every source possible. They are braahmanaas. They are best to be teachers. They would be the best to acquire, develop, preserve and disseminate all kinds of knowledge in the society.
“Further than this is the spiritual knowledge that it is God who appears as everyone and everything. There is no option except to interact with God every moment of life. There is absolutely no threat or insecurity in the world. There is absolutely no cause for regret about the past or anxiety about the future. Everything is God and each person is an integral part of God. Deep understanding of this knowledge is worth much more than any other knowledge. It is the role of the braahmanaas also to acquire, develop, preserve and disseminate this knowledge in the society.”
Thus, as part of the development of the topic, Krishna presents the four varnas as a natural gradual development of people, from being very narrow and short sighted up to being all expansive. In 18.45 to 18.48, Krishna says that the fastest maturity happens to a person who follows the profession that is best suited for his/her temperament as mentioned above.
The second half of of the sloka answers the question, “By creating all these elaborate schemes for people to develop, You are doing a lot of work. What is your motivation?” Krishna replies, “This is just the way Nature works. I do not do anything.”
(Sankara explains the four varnas based on the three Gunas – satva, rajas and tamas. That discussion can be found in the Gita lecture notes, chapter 4.)