Understanding the Caste System of India

“It is better to serve than to be served.”

Adi Guru Shankara

When we think of India, many people question the fairness of the so-called caste system, which, on the face of it, appears to divide the population into different classes, based on the family one is born into. 

This perception appears to limit the opportunities people have in their lifetime, and some even think that being born into a “lower” caste can be a result of so-called “bad karma.”

In this episode, Thom sets the record straight, describing the actual structure and function of the caste system, and how it came to be distorted to the point that it effectively became a class system. 

He includes a beautiful example from the Tradition of Masters that have been the custodians of Vedic Meditation over the centuries, of one particular Master who flexed his caste to be even more fully of service than he already was.

Subscribe to Vedic Worldview

Apple Podcast logo
Stitcher Podcast logo
Spotify Podcast logo
Google Podcast logo


Aboriginal rock art

DECEMBER 25, 2022

Vedic And Australian Aboriginal Connections. Evolution And Devolution


DECEMBER 25, 2022

Vedic And Australian Aboriginal Connections. Evolution And Devolution

Australia beach

DECEMBER 25, 2022

Vedic And Australian Aboriginal Connections. Evolution And Devolution

Episode Highlights


The Four Castes or Varnas



The Caste System: A British Creation



Four within Four



Adi Shankara: The Brahmin Who Considered Himself a Shudra



Gandhi’s Legacy in Abolishing the Caste System



The True Vedic Civilization


Jai Guru Deva


Thank you for listening to my podcast. I’m Thom Knoles. This is The Vedic Worldview.

I’ve often been asked, if India is a child of the Vedic civilization that was extant thousands of years ago, why do they have such a horrendously archaic and restrictive system known as the caste system, which states that if you are born to a particular family who are expected to be scholars, then it’s expected of you that you become a scholar.

If you’re born in a family that represented military or government, you need to get into the military or government.

If you’re born to a family that was involved in business, merchants and the provision of goods and services to people for a business purpose, capitalism, then you’re expected to become a capitalist.

If you’re born to a family that simply serves, then you’re expected to continue the tradition of simply serving everybody else.

And this is the concept, as it has become, of the caste system. These are referred to in India as varnas, V-A-R-N-A. A varna is a caste, and the castes all have names.

[02:14] The Four Castes or Varnas

The scholars and clerics are referred to as Brahmins. Not to be confused with the word Brahman. Brahman, B-R-A-H-M-A-N, Brahman is a completely different word, and it means Totality Consciousness. B-R-A-H-M-I-N is the name of a caste of scholars and clerics.

The next caste to consider is Kshatriya, Kshatriya is spelled K-S-H-A, ksha, triya, T-R-I-Y-A, all one-word Kshatriya.

The next caste is Vaishya, V-A-I-S-H-Y-A, Vaishya. Vaishya are the capitalists, the merchants, the people involved in commercial enterprise, the merchant caste.

And then Shudra, Shudra, S-H-U-D-R-A, Shudra. Shudras are considered to be the servants.

And ostensibly, that means supposedly, everyone in India knows what caste they’re in, and their lives are dictated by this. There is a certain extent to which this may be true, but it certainly is not as restrictive as Westerners see it to be. And this is largely because Indians, by and large, are aware of the truth about the caste system. And I’m now going to tell you what the truth is.

The caste system, as we see it today, where there are four castes, and you’re a member of one of those by birth. And that dictates the circumference or the circle of possibilities of what you can attain to in your life.

It was not created by anything Vedic, though it’s mentioned in the Vedas in ways that you’ll see in a moment. It was created by the British. The British began their hegemony of India in the same year, ironically, that the United States founding fathers signed the Declaration of Independence from England.

[04:40] The Caste System: A British Creation

1776 was the year that most of the Rajas or Kings of India signed their allegiance to the British crown. So in the same year, King George received signatures of allegiance from the vast majority of Kings of India. There were many Kings in different kingdoms in India.

At the same time, received from the founding fathers in the colonies known as America, the American colonies, a Declaration of Independence from England. So, “What would you like first, Sire, your Majesty, the good news or the bad news?” Same year, 1776.

The British, in that 240-plus years ago in India, began a process for which they were famous and about which they boasted as part of their colonization techniques and strategies. And that all comes under the heading of “divide and rule.”

If you can divide people amongst themselves, then you have a better shot at ruling them all. Because if you can get them all fighting with each other, then you become the ruling force that provides them with protection from each other.

So you have to kind of cause conflagrations and cause dissent and cause suspicions and cause people to have machinations of power. And then once you get some good divisions going, then you bring in your uniting force, which is, generally speaking, military, and you unite the people by virtue of there being one police force throughout the entire country.

This was the original plan of the British when managing India, and it took about a hundred years for them to become completely ensconced in and controlling the entire country.

[06:47] Four within Four

And one of the methods of controlling it was to take something that they had seen and fracture it, and that is the varna system.

Properly speaking, in India, the varna or caste system goes like this. The Brahmins, the clerics and scholars, the people who study the highest levels of knowledge, and who also write and maintain, and keep moving forward, the memory of the ancient Vedic knowledge…

The Brahmins have four castes inside the Brahmins themselves. One might find oneself to be, after having been born in a Brahmin family, you might find yourself to be a Brahmin amongst Brahmins. That means you’re a real Brahmin’s Brahmin.

You’re fascinated by scriptures. You’re fascinated by scholarly pursuits. You’re fascinated by the study of Sanskrit, for example. You’re a Brahmin’s Brahmin, and you’ll receive great encouragement.

Or you might be someone who is a ruler amongst Brahmins or a marshal type, marshal meaning military, amongst Brahmins. So you’re born a Brahmin, but you find yourself behaving more like a Kshatriya. Kshatriya means someone who is in military sciences or in government, and so a Kshatriya-Brahmin, someone who is a Kshatriya amongst Brahmins.

Or you might be born into a Brahmin family and find yourself to be a Vaishya, commercially oriented business-like Brahmin. And, by the way, I know many, many of those. And having spent all those years and decades in India.

A commercial or business-like Brahmin, and so you are Vaishya. That’s what the business-type people are referred to as amongst Brahmins.

[09:02] Adi Shankara: The Brahmin Who Considered Himself a Shudra

Or you are a Shudra amongst Brahmins. That means you’ve discovered what one of the great Brahmins of the past, a great saint, a Master of our Tradition, in fact, his name was given to the entire Tradition.

Adi Shankara, Adi Guru Shankara. Shankara is the name of one of the pivotal giant bright stars of a galaxy of teachers who brought Vedic Meditation to the West. He lived about 2,550 years ago.

Shankara, he was a Brahmin who considered himself to be a Shudra. What does that mean? He had a beautiful pronouncement. “It is better to serve than to be served.

He considered himself to be a servant of Ccosmic Iintelligence, and a servant of his human fellows.

Anyone who had need, he was there to serve them. And he shocked people in his day by approaching people who looked as though they were working very hard, and he, a Brahmin, which is supposed to be the highest caste of the four, would offer to wash their feet. Clean their feet and massage their feet before they went on with their work. And this was very attention-getting in his time.

And so the Shudra amongst Brahmins, Shankara, one of the greatest Masters of the entire Indian tradition.

Then you had the Kshatriya caste. Someone might be a Brahmin amongst Kshatriyas, or a real Kshatriya’s Kshatriya, or a Vaishya amongst Kshatriyas, or a Shudra, a servant amongst the warrior caste, warrior and government caste.

[11:04] Gandhi’s Legacy in Abolishing the Caste System

Vaishya caste, you might be a Brahmin amongst Vaishyas, or a Kshatriya amongst Vaishyas, or a real Vaishya’s Vaishya, meaning a preeminent business person who is respected by all the business people in the Vaishya community, or a Shudra amongst Vaishyas, someone who has learned, like Shankara, that it’s better to serve than to be served.

And then amongst the Shudras, a Brahmin amongst Shudras, a Kshatriya amongst Shudras, a Vaishya amongst Shudras, or a real Shudra’s Shudra. Like that, each of the four varnas is contained in each of the four varnas.

And so then the idea that somehow you were restricted to just one of these great varnas is a nonsense idea, but it was that nonsense idea that was pounced upon by the British 240-plus years ago and enforced by them.

And so the rulers of India, not Indians, foreigners, began to enforce the concept of the caste system because it suited them very well to create disunity amongst the Indians, and then to be the police force that stopped everybody from fighting everyone else.

And it was by that method that they continued ruling until the time of Mahatma Gandhi who abolished the British caste system.

It’s not the Indian caste system. It’s not Indian. It’s not Vedic. It’s British. He abolished the caste system and made it illegal for it to be, and encouraged the legislators to make it illegal. Gandhi himself never held office, but he was a great inspirer of the legal system there, he himself being a barrister, a court lawyer.

[13:15] The True Vedic Civilization

He inspired the legislators to make the caste system illegal in India, which it still is today, to carry out any kind of government activity in a way that is regarding of castes, is an illegal act in India.

And so when we hear about this caste system, and we hear it being discredited and people rolling their eyes and saying, “What a terrible thing,” it is a product of colonialism. It’s not a product of the Vedic civilization of India.

And the true product of the Vedic civilization of India is that it’s recognized that there are about 16 ways in which people might find a graceful way of describing what it is they find themselves attracted to, in terms of activity.

Sixteen ways, four within four. And you might find yourself living one of those ways, irrespective of the fact of your parentage. This is a very good thing to contemplate.

Jai Guru Deva.

Read more