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What is a vaisya?

The vaisya varna or caste is the third of the four social strata of vedic society. Vaisyas are likened to the belly of society and farming, cow protection and business are the natural work or dharma for the vaisyas. The brahmanas or priests, the highest caste are likened to the head of society - they provide advice on spiritual matters and are engaged in worship and sacrifice. Next come the kshatriyas or warriors, who are likened to the arms of society and are responsible for the protection of society. For the sudras, who are likened to the legs of society, there is labor and service to others.

"Persons of all varnas are brahmanas, because they are all born from Lord Brahma. The brahmanas were born from the mouth of Brahma, the ksatriyas from his arms, the vaisyas were born from his navel, and the sudras were born from his legs. Do not consider the varnas in another way. One who is fixed in knowledge is a brahmana. Therefore, O king, this moksa-sastra was spoken for the benefit of those brahmanas and ksatriyas who have attained knowledge. This is the opinion of ancient scholars."
-- Mahabharata, Santi-parva, ch. 318

This varnasrama system is designed for the improvement of all members of society. A class system may seem inequitable in terms of the distribution of resources in the modern world but in vedic society all varnas are considered necessary for a healthy society and while the higher varnas may enjoy greater privileges, they also bear greater responsibilities, a feature that seems to be missing from contemporary society. One's role or identity is naturally important in human society and one's occupation is a large contibuting factor. While it is generally considered that there is not much mobility in the Indian 'caste system', this is not the case. There are plenty of verses from various sacred texts that attest to the fact that varna should be based on the qualities and activities of the individual and not their birth.

If one is factually situated in the occupation of a brahmana, he must be considered a brahmana, even if born of a ksatriya or vaisya family. "O Devi, if even a sudra is actually engaged in the occupation and pure behavior of a brahmana, he becomes a brahmana. Moreover, a vaisya can become a ksatriya. "Therefore, neither the source of one's birth, nor his reformation, nor his education is the criterion of a brahmana. The vrtta, or occupation, is the real standard by which one is known as a brahmana.
-- Mahabharata, Anusasana Parva, ch. 163

So, what place has varnasrama in the 21st century? After all, it has been said that everyone in Kaliyuga (the Iron or Winter Age of which approximately 5000 years have passed) is a sudra or lower. While, most of us, especiallly those of us in the Western world cannot possibly hope to follow every Vedic injunction, we can at least aspire to follow the principle of varnasrama and improve our lot materially and spiritually through the means of karma yoga and in the case of the vaisya practice ethical business and agriculture that is in harmony with the environment, protecting all inhabitants of the earth instead of exploiting them for some short term profit. The internet has become a democratising force giving the small business person an equal footing with the multi-national. Community is again becoming an important feature in the modern world, a reverse of the trend of the nuclear family. The Open Source and Linux community epitomise this trend and here again short term profit has been forgone for mutual benefit in an essentially gift economy.

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