Human beings are ruled by three Gunas (powers of nature) 1:
1.    Sattva – calmness, the light and harmony of pure intelligence and goodness that lead to happiness and harmony.  
2.    Rajas – the fire and desire of mental energy and restless passion that lead to action and greed.
3.    Tamas – the darkness of dullness and inertia that lead to ignorance, negligence and delusion.

The gunas combine in different ways in each individual human being and keep her/him earth bound. In the Bhagavad Gita, Lord Krishna says: “There is nothing on earth or in heaven which is free from these three powers of Nature (gunas). An individual who reaches a state in which s/he is detached from gunas, attains moksha (liberation from earthly bonds) and becomes one with Brahman.

The way in which gunas intertwine in each individual, gives rise to different personality types:
1.    a brahmin type – ruled by sattva
2.    a kshatriya type– ruled by rajas
3.    a vaisya type  – ruled by rajas
4.    a sudra type – ruled by tamas

These personality types are related to human traits not social classes and refer to the predominant tendency of each human being.  We are all part-brahmin, part-kshatriya, part-vaisya, part-sudra, that is, we are all, in different degrees, seekers of knowledge, seekers of power, passionate, active, greedy and lazy. The extent to which we are ruled by one of the gunas, determines whether we are mainly brahmin, kshatriya, vaisya or sudra in character not occupation.

Unfortunately, the association of gunas with Brahmin, Kshatriya, Vaisya and Sudra led to these being interpreted as occupations and to the development of social classes based on work.  Religious leaders (Brahmins), political leaders (Kshatriyas), traders and craftsmen (Vaisyas) and workers (Sudras) became designated castes and each caste was associated with one particular guna. Sattva was associated with Brahmins (Priests) who were set up as the highest caste, Rajas with Kshatriyas (Rulers), the next in rank, followed by the Vaisyas (Merchants and Traders).  Tamas was associated with Sudras (workers) who were regarded as low caste. These four castes were further divided along clan and occupational lines and social interaction between castes was eschewed.  The system gave rise to a fifth caste, the Untouchables, people who removed sewage and waste. The caste system, which accords people value in terms of their occupation, is rigid and inhumane and those who are regarded as valueless are subject to cruel and barbarous treatment.  

In modern South Africa, it is no longer possible to accept such a system as the caste system as it is based on prejudice and discriminates against human beings and dehumanises them. Such attitudes and behaviours have been outlawed in our country.

1 Adapted from: KRISHNA’S DIALOGUE ON THE SOUL, translated from the Sanskrit with an introduction by Juan Mascaro, London: Penguin Books, 1962