There are a number of references to the four castes in the sacred books, but their exact idea has not been properly understood. We have their first mention in the Rig Veda, where they are said to have risen from the body of the Supreme Purusha himself. We are told that they divided Him into parts; and out of his mouth rose the Brahmana; from both his arms came the Rajanya; his thighs became the Vaisya; while the Sudra was created from his feet. These are the four "castes"; and of these the Brahmana is said to be the priest or the man of knowledge; the Rajanya or the Kshatriya is the warrior or king; the Vaisya is the producer of wealth; while the sudra is believed to be the servant of all the three.
If we examine the idea of the "castes" as emerging from the "body" of the Purusha, we shall find that they embrace all that is in him, from his head to his feet; and, as the word also signifies "a man", they may be said to include all that is in a man: and this should enable us to understand what they really mean.
But the Mimansa has explained that the Brahmana refers to the intellect, and the sudra to the objects of Nature; and that must put an entirely different construction on the whole idea. Indeed, if we follow this line of thought, we shall find that the two remaining "castes" also refer to the faculties of man, like the Brahmana himself.
The Bhagavad Gita tells us that the four castes have been created by God by means of the division of actions and Gunas or the attributes of Nature; that is to say, a person is a Brahmana, Kshatriya, or a Vaisya, according to his innate qualities and the actions he performs. We are accordingly told in the Mahabharata that a person conforms to all these "castes" at different times.
In order to understand this idea more clearly, it is necessary to understand the idea of Gunas or the attributes of Nature. They are said to be three in number, Sattva, Rajas, and Tamas and to embrace all forms of life, except the soul. They should accordingly refer to the four principal faculties of man, his intellect, ahankara or the I-as-an-actor, mind, and -the senses. But, as there are three Gunas and four faculties, we have to find out how they can be made to agree.
The Bhagavad Gita tells us that each object of life contains all the three Gunas, though some may have more of Sattva than Rajas and Tamas, while others more of Rajas than Sattva and Tamas, and yet others more of Tamas than Sattva and Rajas; and this would appear to correspond to the idea explained in the Mimansa that all the four faculties of man play their part in an action, though the principal role may belong to any one of them. This, as has already been explained, is the idea of the three "assistants" of each of the four principal Ritvij "priests".
The Bhagavad Gita tells us of the characteristics of these Gunas; Sattva is characterized by knowledge and joy; Rajas by desire and action; and Tamas by heedlessness and sleep. It is obvious from this that Sattva corresponds to Buddhi or intellect, which has knowledge for its attribute; while Rajas corresponds to ahankara and mind combined, for the attribute of the one is action and of the other passion or desire; while Tamas refers to the senses as well as their objects, which are devoid of consciousness by themselves.
Now, if we associate the four castes with the three Gunas, we shall find that the Brahmana, who signifies intellect, refers to Sattva; and the sudra, who signifies the objects of the senses, to Tamas. Between them are the Kshatriya and the Vaisya; and we can understand their relation to the Gunas when we know what they really mean.
The word used in the Rig Veda is Rajanya, and it is easy to see its connection with Rajas. We are further told that he arises from the two arms of the Supreme; and we can easily understand that an arm is an instrument of action. But the text refers to two arms; and so we have to understand that there is something more to complete the idea of action; and that can only be desire, without which no action can be performed. We may gather from this that the Rajanya refers to Rajas Guna, or the idea of action and desire, or ahankara and the mind combined.
And now only the Vaisya remains; and we may conclude that he would refer to the senses, for they alone have been left unaccounted for; and so would correspond to Tamas in terms of the Gunas.
Thus, we would say that the Brahmana refers to the intellect and Sattva; the Rajanya or the Kshatriya to ahankara and the mind as well as Rajas; and the Vaisya to the senses or Tamas; while the sudra signifies the objects of the senses, and can refer only to Tamas.
But we have been told that we can get the exact meaning of these "castes" from the words used in the text itself; and that is possible if we follow the method of interpretation explained in the Mimansa.
Now we are told that the Brahmana has risen from the "mouth" of the Supreme; and the word used in the text is Mukha, which means "head, chief, the best"; and this, as we can easily see, corresponds to his idea as intellect, which is obviously the best.
We have explained that the word Rajanya is associated with Rajas; and the two arms of the Supreme refer to the two parts of action, desire and action. Hence Rajanya or the warrior caste refers to the mind and ahankara as well as to Rajas. The idea of Kshatriya (Ksha, tri, ya) is the same, for the meaning of the word is "(ya) he who is (tri, three, which, as the Mimansa tells us, refers to the mind) mind, associated with (ksha, lightning or electric energy, a characteristic of the mind) the mind". The word Kshatriya gives us, therefore, the idea of the mind, conceived as pure mind, as characterized by desire and having in it the germ of action.
The word Vaisya is an elongated form of Visya (V, i, s, ya), which means "(ya) he who refers to (s) the senses of knowledge (i) associated with (v) Nature or Prakrti". As the senses of knowledge may include those of action too, and one of them, the Tongue, is both a sense of knowledge and action, the Vaisya would refer to the senses of knowledge and action; and the idea of the latter is also implied by the reference to Nature or Prakrti, which is characterized by action.
The Vaisya is said to arise from the "thighs" of the Supreme; and the word in the text is uru (u, r, u), meaning "(u) the senses of knowledge and (r) the senses of action (u) woven together". Thus we see clearly that the Vaisya refers to both the senses of knowledge and action.
The sudra, as the Mimansa has explained, refers to the objects of Nature; and the idea of Nature is contained in the word itself. He is said to arise from the "feet" of the Supreme, and the word used in the text is Pad (Pa, d) meaning "(d) giving (pa) the objects of the senses". Thus we see how the sudra refers to the objects of Nature.
The word sudra may be divided into s, u, udra, when the meaning would be "(i) abiding in (u) what is woven with (udra, "an aquatic animal" or "water", symbolic of Nature or its objects) objects of Nature".
It is in this manner that we can get the real idea of the Caste System, as originally conceived by the ancients. The Brahmana refers to the intellect and Sattva; the Kshatriya to ahankara and the mind, as well as Rajas; while the Vaisya refers to the senses of knowledge and action as well as Tamas. These refer to the four faculties of man, which take part in action and partake of its results. The sudra, on the other hand, refers to the objects of Nature which, being inanimate, cannot have knowledge or possessions; and, as they are meant to serve the purpose of the living, the sudra has been degraded into a "servant" whose only purpose in life is to serve the three higher "castes". It is not necessary to point out how far the original idea of the Caste System has been lost in later times, and with what tragic results.