Hindu texts and ideas about human psychology largely influenced Swiss physician, Dr. Carl Jung and his understanding of personalities and pathways to knowledge and how this leads to an evolved society where all have designated expertise.

From the book, Jung and Eastern Thought, this is explained further:

In India since ancient times they have the custom that practically everybody of a certain education, at least, has a guru, a spiritual leader who teaches you and you alone what you ought to know. Not everybody needs to know the same thing and this kind of knowledge can never be taught in the same way. (pg. 47)

Jung further researched the roles between the gurus and yogis and the four types of students – four personality types or varna. Religious scholar Huston Smith noted that the work Jung was conducting on typology was based on this Hindu model while altering certain aspects.

This connection between Hindu philosophy, psychological strengths, and knowledge aptitude was further evolved in the work of Katherine Cook Briggs and her daughter Isabel Briggs Myers through their assessment, the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI). For this test, the two women developed aptitude feedback, which highlighted strengths without placing one personality type over the other.

Today, the MBTI is frequently used in human resources, management training, education, counseling among other professional and personal development exercises. As referenced in Psychology Today, the MBTI is largely immersed in Hindu philosophy, with which key concepts originated.

Varna: Hindu Personality Types

The Rg Veda makes reference to four varna believed to be found in all societies. Various Hindu texts have come to use the term as well. Varna has a variety of meanings (including form, figure, character, and hue) to describe a way of understanding human diversity, personality/psychological types and purpose.

In most societies, this typology contends, there are individuals who are driven to pursue knowledge to grow spiritually and impart knowledge and wisdom to society (brahmana/brahmin); those who exercise power to govern and protect society (kshatriya); those who seek wealth creation to support society (vaishya); and those  who grow, make, or labor to nourish society (shudra). At the same time, personality or temperament and skills may change over time and the social functions one takes up are not mutually exclusive to any one individual or group.

Varna and their corresponding karma

Brāhmana (Brāhmin is also often spelled BrāhmanaPursues knowledge to grow spiritually and impart knowledge and wisdom to society

Kshatriya — Exercises power to govern and protect society

Vaishya — Seeks wealth creation to support society

Shudra — Grows, makes, or labors to nourish society 

According to sacred texts, such as the Vedas and the Bhagavad Gita, and various stories, devotional poetry, and the interpretations of widely respected Hindu spiritual teachers both past and present, varna is based on one’s character and ability to contribute to the well-being of others.

Personality type is a driving factor of one’s character or the quality of one’s thoughts, words, and actions. Character, in turn, influences one’s abilities or the combination and level of skills and the efforts one makes to learn, practice, and refine such skills. One’s fit for the most appropriate and effective spiritual path (yoga) — be it a path of predominantly knowledge, meditation, service, or devotion — is also informed by one’s character.

Hindu sources of sacred wisdom very clearly point out that one’s varna is not based on familial birth, nor is any particular personality type better than others in as far as they are acting selflessly, minimizing harm, upholding truth, and contributing to the wellness of their immediate and broader surroundings.

Guna Influences and Characteristics

According to Hindu philosophy, everything in existence consists of three inherent qualities and one’s varna or personality type is determined by varying combinations of three gunasattva (harmony); rajas (activity); and tamas (passivity or rest). The three guna manifest at varying levels and under varying circumstances. They are understood to influence the individual at three levels of worldly existence — physical, psychological, and spiritual. Guna influences both non-sentient and sentient life forms. In human birth, varying combinations of the three guna present as characteristics or qualities which, in turn, are the basis of different personality types. The characteristics associated with each guna are as follows:

  • Sattvic (state of sattva): good and intelligent energy which brings about balance, harmony, compassion, and selflessness
  • Rājasic (state of rajas): dynamic and active energy which brings about restlessness, change, passion, and self-centeredness
  • Tamasic (state of tamas): cyclical and fixed energy which brings about rest, heaviness, apathy, and self-centeredness

Rajas and tamas have both positive and negative aspects. Some schools interpret rajas as the opposite of tamas, while others hold sattva and tamas to be opposites. Regardless, the goal of religious and spiritual discipline and practice is to intentionally expand sattva. And because guna manifest in the form of desires, likes and dislikes, the ultimate goal is to transcend all three guna.

An individual’s current guna composition is shaped by past and present karma or thoughts, words, and actions (this is why some Hindus may insist that varna is birth-based, which should not be confused with familial birth). Every human also has the unique ability to change their guna through their present and future karma, ie. by changing how they interact with and react to the external world.

The predominance of a particular guna shapes an individual’s overall personality type, disposition, or temperament. But the dominating guna may also be different from thought to thought and action to action. Guna can be redirected or changed with every thought and action through knowledge, awareness, intention, and effort. One’s overarching guna can also change or be changed over time. This is key to the Hindu understanding that every individual has the capacity to grow and evolve spiritually.

Guna are integral to the understanding of varna. The varying levels of the three guna are seen as indicators of varna or the best way in which an individual can serve society based on their temperament and innate tendencies, ie. personality type. In other words, different personality types are necessary to ensure a society, which can live comfortably, cooperatively, and in harmony.

Those associated with each varna were expected to contribute to the betterment of society in their own ways; and spiritual rewards were said to come to those who best fulfilled their own obligations as required by their varna.

Varna and their corresponding guna

Brāhmana — Predominant sattva guna, some rajas, and least of tamas

Kshatriya — Predominant raja guna, some sattva, and least of tamas

Vaishya — Predominant raja guna, some tamas, and least of sattva

Shudra — Predominant tamas, some rajas, and least of sattva

References and Further Reading

Coward, H. G. (1985). Jung and Eastern Thought. Albany, NY: State Univ. of New York Press.

Mayer, J. (2009, March 2). Hindu Personality Types Travel West. Retrieved November 3, 2015, from: https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/the-personality-analyst/200903/hindu-personality-types-travel-west

Smith, H. (1991). The world’s religions: Our great wisdom traditions. New York, NY: Harper San Francisco.