Refuting the racial (color) theory of caste: the color and caste of people are not due to Samkhya three modes of nature

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Refuting the racial (color) theory of caste: the color and caste of people are not due to Samkhya three modes of nature

Post by Seva Lamberdar on Thu Dec 19, 2013 9:27 am

In a recent submission on the Internet (1), the poster cited the following (the italicized statement) from an article about the racial (color) origins of caste,

But doesnt varna mean skin color? The effective meaning of varna is splendor, color, and hencedistinctive quality or one segment in a spectrum. The four functional classes constitute the colors in the spectrum of society. Symbolic colors are allotted to the varna on the basis of the cosmological scheme of three qualities (triguna): white is sattva (truthful), the quality typifying the brahmin; red is rajas (energetic), for the kshatriya; black is tamas (inert, solid), for the shudra; yellow is allotted to the vaishya, who is defined by a mixture of qualities.


The above statement has no basis according to the Samkhya philosophy (Ref. 2). Specifically, there is no relation between the three gunas, modes or qualities of nature (sattva, rajas and tamas) and the caste, varna (originally meaning classification, and not color) and the skin color.

The Reality, comprising the three co-eternals: nature (or prakriti), soul (or purusa) and God (or Brahman), is enumerated in the field of experience in the conscious body using twenty-six (26) tattvas or principles according to the Samkhya. 

The first twenty-four (24) tattvas are associated with prakriti and they include, (1) mahat (primitive matter), (2) buddhi (intellect), (3) ahamkara (ego or self-sense), (4 -8)five tanmatras (essences involving the five sense organs), (9) manas (mind), (10 -14) five senses (hearing, touch, sight, taste and smell), (15 -19) five organs of action (involving the functions of tongue, hands and feet and as related to evacuation and reproduction), and (20 - 24) five gross elements (ether, air, light / fire, water and earth). 

The twenty-fifth (25th) tattva in the Samkhya relates to purusa (soul) and the twenty-sixth (26th) to Brahman (God), the latter (God) incidentally is also the ultimate cause (Ref. 3, and the Bhagavad Gita: Ch. 7 - V. 6).

As indicated earlier, the twenty-four tattvas of dynamic prakriti do not include anything related to the skin color. Moreover, the overall effect, quality or guna of prakriti manifests only in three distinct modes (sattva, rajas and tamas). The Bhagavad Gita (in Chs. 14, 17 and 18) further looks at this in detail, in terms of different activities in the field of experience according to three modes of nature (sattva, rajas and tamas) which co-exist in all living entities (jeeva) at all times.

The Samkhya (Ref. 2) assumes the prakriti as an immense complexity of elements which is ever-changing. The hierarchy of physical matter, which is itself a product of sub-material primary elements (earth, water, air, fire and ether), is represented as unfolding of the resources of nature through additional derived constituents (e.g. intellect, ego and mind). The Samkhya assumes the continuity of the world from the lowest to the highest and dissolution of products in a definite order. The world is said to be the ‘parinama’ or transformation of prakriti, which is its cause. The products  or things in the world are caused, while the  prakriti is uncaused. The products are dependent; while the prakriti is independent. The products are many in number, limited in space and time, while the prakriti, is one, all-pervading and eternal.

Thus, nothing that exists can be destroyed, and the products exist in prakriti, though in an unmanifested state. In it all the determinate existence is implicit. The different gunas do not annul themselves, but are in a state of equipoise, which is not inactivity but a kind of tension. Prakriti, not so much being as the force but as the equilibrium of three gunas, is the ground of all modifications, physical and psychical. The prakriti of Samkhya is not a regular material substance, nor is it a conscious entity, since purusa (element of consciousness in the ‘jeeva’) is carefully distinguished from it. Prakriti gives rise not only to the five elements of the material universe, but also to the psychical. It is the basis of all objective existence. 

The development of prakriti is possible by means of its three constituent powers, or gunas, which are postulated in view of the character of the effects of prakriti. Prakriti is a string of three strands. Buddhi (intellect), which is an effect (as derived), has the properties of pleasure, pain and bewilderment, and so its cause prakriti must have the corresponding properties leading to buddhi. The gunas are thus not perceived or assumed, but inferred from their effects.

The first of the three gunas is called sattva. It is potential consciousness, and therefore tends to conscious manifestation and causes pleasure to the individual. Etymologically, the word sattva is derived from the word "sat," or that which is real and existent. Since consciousness (‘chaitanya’) is generally granted such existence, sattva is said to be potential consciousness. In a secondary sense, "sat" also means perfection, so the sattva element is what produces goodness and happiness.

The second, rajas, is the source of all activity and produces pain. Rajas leads to a life of feverish activity and restless effort.

The third is tamas, that which resists activity and produces the state of apathy or indifference. It leads to ignorance and sloth.

The respective functions of sattva, rajas and tamas are manifestation (‘prakasa’), activity (‘pravriti’) and restraint (‘niyamana’), producing pleasure, pain and sloth.

The three gunas are never separate. They support one another and intermingle with one another. They are closely related as the flame, the oil and the wick of the lamp. They constitute the very substance of prakriti. All things are composed of the three gunas, and the differences of the world are traced to the predominance of the different gunas.

Prakriti alone is substantive, and the gunas (or qualities) are merely the elements in it. Gunas may be regarded as representing the different stages  of the evolution of any particular product. The sattva signifies the essence or the form which is to be realised, the tamas the obstacles to its realisation, and the rajas represents the force by which the obstacles are overcome and the essential form is manifested.

Since prakriti is eternal according to the Samkhya, a thing in nature (prakriti) is always produced, never created.  Production thus corresponds to manifestation and the destruction to non-manifestation. These two thus depend on the absence and presence of counteracting forces. A thing is manifested when the obstacles are removed. It is sattva or the form of a thing that is manifested; it is rajas that brings about the manifestation; and tamas is the resistance to be overcome, the obstacle to the manifestation of sattva. While the sattva and tamas answer to the affirmative being and negative non-being, the rajas refers to the struggle between the two.

The varied interaction of gunas accounts for the variety of the world. Whichever guna is preponderant in any phenomenon, it becomes manifest in it, though the others are not absent. Even though the gunas work together for the production of the world of effects, still they never coalesce. They are modified by mutual influence on one another or by their proximity.   They evolve, join and separate. Prakriti and its products possess the gunas and so are unconscious. They are devoid of the power of discriminating between themselves and purusa.

In conclusion, there is no support from the Samkhya (including the three modes of nature: sattva, rajas and tamas) for the race or color based theory of caste, considering especially that everyone, irrespective of caste (whether brahmin, kshatriya, vaishya or sudra) and skin color (white, brown, black or yellow), possesses the qualities of sattva, rajas and tamas together, usually in varying degrees.  


(1)  Rishi, “Racial Theory of Caste,Dec 11, 2013,

(2) S. Radhakrishnan, Indian Philosophy (Vol. 2), Oxford University Press, 1999, ISBN 019563820-4, pp. 248-335 (’The Samkhya System‘)

(3)  Subhash C. Sharma, “Theistic and non-theistic Hindu philosophies,”  Aug. 3, 2007,

by:   Dr. Subhash C. Sharma
(Dec. 18, 2013)


Seva Lamberdar

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