The Varṇāśrama Skill Ladder

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Different Skills of Four Classes

The Varṇāśrama system of the division of society into four classes is based on a skill ladder. It progresses in skill from the understanding of inanimate objects (sudra), to the understanding of non-human living entities like trees, plants, crops, and domestic animals (vaisya), to the understanding of humans in order to create society, economy, and govern them using a system of administration in villages, towns, and cities (kshatriya), and finally to the understanding of the nature of the superhuman (brahmana) to uplift the society.

Philosophy appears in the fourth stage of Brahmanas when we are trying to understand the superhuman. Modern society, however, reduces humans, plants, animals to inanimate things and rejects the existence of the superhuman. This is because brahmana, kshatriya, and vaisya have been replaced by sudra. This article explores the skills of the four classes and the successive forms of societal degradation when the top three classes disappear.

The Varṇāśrama Skill Ladder

People in tamas are low-skilled, lazy, entitled, cynical, and arrogant. Due to low ability, they need to make a lot more effort because when a person has a low ability, it has to be compensated by longer hours, harder work. However, the person in tamas is also lazy. So, instead of compensating the low-ability by the higher endeavor, the person says: If something is not easy for me, then it is someone else’s fault.

The Varṇāśrama system, therefore, engaged those people predominantly in tamas into manual labor. They are called sudra. By hard work, they (a) constantly develop new skills, (b) lose their entitlement because nothing is handed out for free, (c) lose their arrogance because they can see that highly skilled people are not laboring hard, (d) get over their laziness because hard work is required for survival, and (e) give up their cynical attitudes because they can see that they are progressing in their skills and there are other high-ability people.

People at present think that this is the mistreatment of some people. They don’t understand that if the person in tamas is not engaged in manual labor, then he or she will become (a) entitled, (b) arrogant, (c) cynical, (d) lazy, and (e) not develop new skills, and (f) will gradually lose hope and positivity, leading to further decline. The general prescription of the Vedic system is that the sudra works with inanimate things—cloth, metals, wood, medicines, cooking, construction, etc. Their low skillset is suited only for working upon inanimate things.

The next skill-set is about how to work with non-human animate things, such as trees, plants, crops, and domestic animals like cows, ox, goats, etc. Such people are called vaisya and they are given the charge of running a farm, raising animals, cultivating crops, or trading in crops and animals. Then, the next skill-set is about managing, organizing, and administering humans in a village, town, or city. These are called kshatriya. Finally, the highest-level skill is to study the nature of the superhuman truth, right, and good, teach that truth, right, and good to others, and thereby, guide other people through their lives, and help them with their personal problems. These are called brahmana.

The Necessity of the Skill Ladder

The Varṇāśrama system presents a skill ladder in which you first develop skills to work with inanimate things (cotton to weave cloth, wood to produce furniture, metals to produce jewelry, utensils, and weapons, grains to cook food, bricks, and lime to do construction). Then you develop skills to work with non-human animate entities (trees, plants, crops, and animals). Then you develop skills for managing humans in villages, towns, and cities. Finally, you develop skills to guide those managing people based on the understanding of the superhuman.

This is a skill-ladder because if a person who only knows how to work with inanimate things was given the charge of managing trees, plants, crops, and animals, then he or she would treat them like inanimate things! That would mean cruelty to trees, plants, crops, and animals. Likewise, if a person skilled only in handling non-human living entities (trees, plants, crops, and animals) were given the charge of handing humans, then he or she will treat the humans like trees, plants, crops, or animals. Finally, if the person handling humans was given the charge of understanding the superhuman demigods, different forms of God, etc. then he will try to understand them just like humans.

Consequences of Breaking the Ladder

The sudra is defined by expertise in handling inanimate things. He can work with hammers and tongs, weaving machines, pots and ladles, saws and screwdrivers, etc. When this sudra is elevated to the post of an intellectual, he thinks: Everything is inanimate; it is moving by push and pull and it is like a machine. This is because his skills are limited to thinking of inanimate things. If a sudra becomes a vaisya, then he treats forests, trees, plants, crops, and animals like inanimate things. He cannot see that animals are not inanimate things. He is only skilled in inanimate thinking so as the saying goes: If all you have is a hammer, then everything looks like a nail. This is sudra thinking.

Then, if the sudra becomes a manager, administrator, leader, politician, etc., he treats humans like animals, trees, or even worse. For example, in most corporations, people are called “resources”, quite like tables, chairs, computers, and keyboards. Project planning is defined as “assigning resources to tasks”, quite like you might use a hammer for one task and a screwdriver for another task. The corporation believes that the people have to be controlled by carrots and sticks—just like animals. Even politicians treat humans like animals, show them a carrot and keep moving it forward to keep moving the people. As the animal will chase a moving carrot, similarly, humans will chase promises.

Finally, if the sudra ascends to the position of an intellectual in society, he says: The world is just inanimate things. By the combination of these inanimate things, some living entities are produced. By their combination, some society is produced. But underlying all these layers of complexity are just simple particles, forces, and mathematical laws. There is no higher power, life outside this planet, and nobody is in control of nature. It just appeared out of nothing and works automatically. Since people have been dehumanized—e.g., as inanimate resources or, at best, as animals—there is no need to talk about transcendence. Just reduce everything to inanimate particles, pushes, and pulls.

The sudra only have skills for understanding inanimate things, and they convert animals into inanimate things, humans into animals (at best), and denounce the existence of the superhuman. That denunciation seems a stark distinction with religion because people have gradually accepted that animals are inanimate, and humans are animals. For example, in evolutionary theory, humans evolved from monkeys, who then evolved from lower beings, all the way to a chemical soup, which is inanimate. Hence, life is also based on the inanimate.

Falling Below Varṇāśrama

The Vedic system did not consider every society to be on par with the society divided into the above four classes. Many societies called Mleccha, Yavana, Kirāta, Hun, Khasa, etc. were considered lower. That means they fall below the societies that were divided into four classes.

The basic principle of the lowering of societal standards is that when the upper classes disappear, then the sudra become entitled, lazy, arrogant, cynical, and do not advance in their skill-set—i.e., progressing from inanimate things to non-human living entities to the humans to the superhuman. As the upper classes disappear, the sudra becomes the dominant and arrogant class: He thinks that he is at the top of the social ladder. Thereby, even if he models animals, plants, humans, society, and the goal of life as inanimate things, there is nobody to question him. Slowly, the sudra start ascending to the positions of vaisya, kshatriya, and brahmana because there is no alternative.

The society in which the sudra has replaced the vaisya is lower than a society of just sudra. Such vaisya engage their employees into killing animals, experimenting on animals, polluting food with chemicals, destroying biodiversity, burning down forests, and poisoning the air, water, and land. Then, the society in which the sudra has replaced the kshatriya is lower than the previous society as it starts treating humans as animals, which means using humans to toil like animals, in return for survival. Since humans often make greater demands, the leaders of society engage in false promises, false propaganda about progress, and a false sense of prestige such as nationalism and racism. Finally, the society in which the sudra has replaced the brahmana is even lower than the previous type of society because it rationalizes misdeeds by saying that nature is inanimate, it works according to mathematical laws, and there is no soul, superior authority in control, or God.

Continuously Degrading Society

If everyone was a sudra, then things would not be as bad. Such people would make a few inanimate things like utensils, houses, bows, arrows, and spears. They would eat roots, shoots, and fruits growing in a forest. They would trade with each other to lead a low-quality life. They would not destroy nature at a mass scale. They would not produce a political system of exploitation of human effort. And they would not indulge in false promises, false propaganda, and false prestige. They would accept that we are just a backward society leading a low-quality life. Nature would be preserved, other living entities would not be tortured, humans would not be exploited, and they could believe in the soul and God. The greatest degradation comes when the sudra ascend to the position of brahmana and they intellectually rationalize the mistreatment of nature, trees, plants, animals, and humans, and claim that all this immorality is justified because there is no soul,.

Therefore, if we reject the Varṇāśrama system, and want to create a classless society, then we don’t know how society constantly degrades when the top three sections are removed because then the lowest class takes on the higher-level roles and that makes things worse. Yes, we might not like a system of classes, and in some sense, a classful society is not ideal. But given that people have different qualities, some people have higher qualities than others, and higher-quality people are necessary to run society, a classful system is essential.

The Four Classes and Three Modes

The four classes of Varṇāśrama overlap with the three modes of nature. The below figure illustrates this overlap. This overlapping means that the brahmana is completely in sattva, and the sudra is completely in tamas. The kshatriya is dominantly in rajas and partly in sattva, while the vaisya is dominantly in rajas and partly in tamas. The kshatriya and vaisya are therefore mixed-mode classes in society.


Owing to this mixed-mode nature, the kshatriya also acquired philosophical knowledge, and it was not rare to find philosopher-kings. The brahmana however would never take the position of kings or rulers. Thus, kings could be philosophers, but philosophers would not become kings. Likewise, due to the mixed-mode nature, the vaisya could also labor like sudra, and it was not rare to find vaisya who would process their produce into higher-value products. For example, a farmer could grow cotton like a vaisya and then weave cloth like a sudra and then sell cloth in far-off lands like a vaisya. Or, a farmer could maintain forests and produce furniture rather than sell wood.

These overlaps should not detract us from the primary skills of the four classes. For instance, even though kshatriya might study philosophy, they would not try to advance knowledge. We can say that they know philosophy and can apply it. They can also protect knowledge by protecting knowledgeable people. However, they never control the understanding or interpretation of Vedic scriptures.

Likewise, even as a vaisya can work like a sudra, the sudra would not take the role of a vaisya. This is because the person who knows how to treat lower living entities can also work with inanimate things. However, the person who only knows how to work with inanimate things doesn’t know how to work with lower living entities. Such a person will always depersonalize lower living entities and harm them.

Fluidity Between Classes

The system of overlap also permits some fluidity between classes. For example, even if a person is dominantly in tamas, they could take on some types of vaisya jobs, under the guidance of a true vaisya. Even as they act like vaisya they are not independent. Likewise, the person dominantly in rajas could take on a kshatriya role even if they don’t know philosophy provided they accept the guidance of a brahmana.

The point is always that if you don’t have a certain type of skill, then you can be guided by the skill and knowledge of a person who possesses those higher qualities. By that guidance, a person can be called an apprentice or a disciple. The apprentice is not independent and the disciple is always disciplined. If those conditions are accepted, then there can be much greater fluidity. This principle, however, breaks down when the apprentice or disciple wants to act independently, concocts his own ideas and theories, and disobeys the guidance.

For example, if a sudra became a manager or leader then he will treat people like inanimate things. He will engage people in work like they were tools and have no compassion, feeling, or understanding of their mental and emotional states. Every problem concerning people will be treated as a problem in a tool. People have thoughts, feelings, aspirations, and values. A tool has no such things. So, if a sudra becomes a manager, then he ignores the thoughts, feelings, aspirations, and values of people, and the result of dehumanization is a catastrophe.

Qualifications for Varṇāśrama

Although the principle of an apprentice is good, in practice it often becomes impractical, because the sudra lacks the perception of deeper realities such as thoughts, emotions, aspirations, and values. Animals have feelings too, although their thoughts, aspirations, and values are underdeveloped. Humans have all of these in a far more developed state. And the superhuman has all these in far advanced states.

To even be an apprentice, a person must have some qualifications. In fact, we can restate the Varṇāśrama skill ladder in terms of the understanding of the deeper levels of reality. The inanimate objects are the five gross elements called Earth, Water, Fire, Air, and Ether. This is the domain of the sudra. The vaisya can work with plants and animals only because they can additionally perceive the presence of senses even in plants and animals. If that perception is missing, then the vaisya cannot see what is painful and difficult for other species. The kshatriya can work with humans because they can perceive thoughts, feelings, aspirations, and values in others. And a brahmana can advise everyone because they can see the soul. The advice of a brahmana is meant for spiritual upliftment, without discounting their current mental, emotional, sensual, and bodily conditions. Progress from class to class thus involves advancement in a person’s perceptual capacity.

Even if a sudra becomes the apprentice of a vaisya, but doesn’t have the vision to see that animals, plants, birds, and insects feel pain and pleasure and that different things are painful and pleasurable for them, he would not be able to work like a vaisya. Every vaisya apprentice of a kshatriya will not be able to work like a kshatriya unless he can perceive thoughts, feelings, aspirations, and values in others.

Progress in the Varṇāśrama levels, therefore, is not based on a rigid caste system. There is immense fluidity, provided the person has developed some perceptual capacities, which can be further honed by accepting the guidance or apprenticeship of the higher class. The problem today is that (a) there are no higher classes, (b) there is no advancement of perception, (c) there is no understanding of perfect truth, right, and good, and (d) there is so much arrogance that nobody wants to accept the guidance of a superior person.

In that degraded situation, we equate the perfect Varṇāśrama system to a caste system, but they are not the same.

Cite this article as:

Ashish Dalela, "The Varṇāśrama Skill Ladder," in Shabda Journal, December 26, 2021,