Bhagavad Gita with Commentaries of Shankara | Discourse 18 verse 41-47

Duties of the four castes ordained according to nature.

41. Of Brāhmaas and Kshatriyas and Vaiyas, as also of Śudras, O Parantapa, the duties are divided according to the qualities born of nature.

Shankara's commentary:

Śudras are separated from others—who are all mentioned together in one compound word—because Śudras are of one birth and are debarred from the study of the Vedas.

Divided: the duties are allotted to each class, as distinguished from those pertaining to the other classes.

— By what standard?

—According to the qualities (guṇas) born of nature.

Nature (svabhāva) is the Īśvara’s Prakriti, the Māyā made up of the three guṇas. It is in accordance with the guṇas of the Prakriti that duties—such as serenity and the like—are assigned to the Brāhmaṇas, etc. respectively.

Or to explain in another way:

The source of the Brāhmaṇa’s nature (svabhāva) is the guṇa of Sattva; the source of the Kshatriya’s nature is Rajas and Sattva, the latter being subordinate to the former;

the source of the Vaiṣya’s nature is Rajas and Tamas, the latter being subordinate to the former; the source of the Śūdrā’s nature is Tamas and Rajas, the latter being subordinate to the former.

For, as we see, the characteristic features of their nature are serenity, lordliness, activity, and dullness respectively.

Or to interpret yet in another way:

—Nature (svabhāva) is the tendency (Saṁskāra, Vāsanā) in living beings acquired by them in the past births, and manifesting itself in the present birth by way of being ready to yield its effects:

and this nature is the source of the guṇas, it being impossible for the guṇas to manifest themselves without a cause.

The assertion that nature (Saṁskāra, Vāsanā) is the cause (of the guṇas) means that it is a kind of specific cause.

The duties, such as serenity, are assigned to the four classes in accordance with the guṇas of Sattva, Rajas and Tamas, which are brought into manifestation by their respective natural tendencies, and which lead to those duties as their natural effects.

(Objection):— The duties of Brāhmaṇas, etc., are enjoined by the śāstra and are assigned to them by the śāstra. How then can it be said that they are divided according to the Sattva and other guṇas?

(Answer):—There is no room here for any such objection.

By the śāstra, too, are the duties—such as serenity— assigned to the Brāhmaṇas, etc., only in accordance with their respective guṇas, such as Sattva, but not independently of them.

Therefore it is said that duties are assigned according to guṇas, though it has also been said that they are assigned by the śāstra.

What then are those duties?

—The answer follows:

42. Serenity, self-restraint, austerity, purity, forgiveness, and also uprightness, knowledge, wisdom, faith,—these are the duties of the Brāhmaṇas, born of nature.

Shankara's commentary:

‘Serenity’ and ‘self-restraint’ have already been explained (xvi. 1, 2). Austerity: physical austerity, and so on, mentioned above (xvii. 14, 15, 16).

Purity: already ex­plained. Faith: in the teaching of the scriptures. Born of nature: this means the same here as in the latter portion of xviii. 41.

43. Bravery, boldness, fortitude, promptness, not flying from battle, generosity and lordliness are the duties of the Kshatriyas, born of nature.

Shankara's commentary:

Fortitude: that by which upheld one is not subject to de­pression under any circumstances whatever.

Promptness: the performing, without confusion, of duties which present themselves quite unexpectedly and demand ready action. Not flying from battle: not turning away from the foes. Lordliness: exercise of ruling power over those who are to be ruled.

44. Ploughing, cattle-rearing, and trade are the duties of the Vaisyas, born of nature. And of the nature of service is the duty of the Śūdra, born of nature.

Shankara's commentary:

Devotion to one’s own duty leads to perfection.

These duties, respectively enjoined on the several castes, lead, when rightly performed, to Svarga as their natural result, as stated in the smṛiti, such as the following:

“Men of several castes and orders, each devoted to his respective duties, reap the fruits of their actions after death,

and then by the residual (karma) attain to births in superior countries, castes and families, possessed of comparatively superior dharma, span of life, learning, conduct, wealth, happiness and intelligence.”(Āpastamba-Dharmasūtra, 2-2-2, 3 ).

And in the Purāṇa also are specified the different results and worlds which the several castes and orders attain. But, from the operation of a new cause the following result accrues:

45. Devoted each to his own duty, man attains perfection; how one, devoted to one’s own duty, attains success, that do thou hear.

Shankara's commentary:

Each to his own duty: as ordained according to his nature. Man: he who is qualified (for Karma-Yoga).

Perfection (saṁsiddhi): which consists in the body and senses being qualified for the devotion of knowledge (jñāna-nishṭha) after all their impurities have been washed away by the per­formance of one’s own duty.

—Can this perfection be attain­ed directly by the mere performance of one’s own duty?

— No.

—How then?

—Learn how it can be attained:

46. Him from whom is the evolution of (all) beings, by whom all this is pervaded,—by worshipping Him with his proper duty, man attains perfection.

Shankara's commentary:

‘Pravritti’ (in the text) may mean either evolution or activity, and it proceeds from the Īśvara, the Antaryāmin, the Ruler within. Beings: living creatures.

His proper duty: each according to his caste, as described above. Worshipping the Lord by performing his duty, man attains perfection, in so far only as he becomes qualified for the devotion of knowledge (jñāna-niṣṭhā).

Such being the case, therefore,

47. Better is one’s own duty (though) destitute of merits, than the duty of another well performed. Doing the duty ordained according to nature, one incurs no sin.

Shankara's commentary:

Just as a poisonous substance does not injure the worm born in that substance, so, he who does the duty ordained according to his own nature incurs no sin.