Bhagavad Gita: Chapter 18, Verse 41

ब्राह्मणक्षत्रियविशां शूद्राणां च परन्तप |
कर्माणि प्रविभक्तानि स्वभावप्रभवैर्गुणै: || 41||

brāhmaṇa-kṣhatriya-viśhāṁ śhūdrāṇāṁ cha parantapa
karmāṇi pravibhaktāni svabhāva-prabhavair guṇaiḥ

brāhmaṇaof the priestly class; kṣhatriyathe warrior and administrative class; viśhāmthe mercantile and farming class; śhūdrāṇāmof the worker class; chaand; parantapaArjun, subduer of the enemies; karmāṇiduties; pravibhaktānidistributed; svabhāva-prabhavaiḥ-guṇaiḥwork based on one’s nature and guṇas

Translation

BG 18.41: The duties of the Brahmins, Kshatriyas, Vaishyas, and Shudras—are distributed according to their qualities, in accordance with their guṇas (and not by birth).

Commentary

Someone said very appropriately that to find the perfect profession is like finding a perfect life-partner. But how do we discover the perfect profession for ourselves? Here, Shree Krishna explains that people have different natures, according to the guṇas that constitute their personality, and thus different professional duties are suitable for them. The system of varṇāśhram dharma was a scientific organization of society according to svabhāva-prabhavair guṇaiḥ (work based on one’s nature and guṇas). In this system of categorization, there were four āśhrams (stages in life) and four varṇas (occupational categories). The stages in life were: 1) Brahmacharya āśhram (student life), which lasted from birth till the age of 25. 2) Gṛihastha āśhram (household life), which was regular married life, from the age of 25 till 50. 3) Vānaprastha āśhram (semi-renounced life), which was from the age of 50 till 75. In this stage, one continued to live with the family but practiced renunciation. 4) Sanyās āśhram (renounced order), which was from the age of 75 onward, where one gave up all household duties and resided in a holy place, absorbing the mind in God.

The four varṇas (occupational categories) were Brahmin (priestly class), Kshatriya (warrior and administrative class), Vaishya (mercantile and farming class), and Shudra (worker class). The varṇas were not considered higher or lower amongst themselves. Since the center of society was God, everyone worked according to their intrinsic qualities to sustain themselves and society, and make their life a success by progressing toward God-realization. Thus, in the varṇāśhram system, there was unity in diversity. Diversity is inherent in nature and can never be removed. We have various limbs in our body, and they all perform different functions. Expecting all limbs to perform the same functions is futile. Seeing them all as different is not a sign of ignorance, but factual knowledge of their utilities. Similarly, the variety amidst human beings cannot be ignored. Even in communist countries where equality is the foremost principle, there are party leaders who formulate ideologies; there is the military that wields guns and protects the nation; there are farmers who cultivate the land; and there are industrial workers who do mechanical jobs. The four classes of occupations exist there as well, despite all attempts to equalize. The varṇāśhram system recognized the diversity in human natures and scientifically prescribed duties and occupations matching people’s natures.

However, with the passage of time the varṇāśhram system deteriorated, and the basis of the varṇas changed from one’s nature to one’s birth. The children of Brahmins started calling themselves as Brahmins, irrespective of whether they possessed the corresponding qualities or not. Also, the concept of upper and lower castes got propagated and the upper castes began looking down upon the lower castes. When the system grew rigid and birth-based, it became dysfunctional. This was a social defect that crept in with time, and was not the original intention of the Varṇāśhram system. In the next few verses, according to the original categorization of the system, Shree Krishna maps the guṇas of people with their natural qualities of work.