The Hindu Varna System

Brahmanas

Although Varna meant color, the social divisions of India have their origin in the duties or dharmas

by Jayaram V

Summary: This essay is about the concept of Varna and the history and development of Varna System in Hinduism from the early Vedic period.


Varna literally means color, hue or complexion. It has other meanings such as a class of men, tribe, race, species, a word or syllable, outward appearance, form, figure, a cloak or mantle and the arrangement of the subject in a song. In other words, varna primarily refers to the physical appearance of things or people and their categorization based upon the common characteristics they share. Varnakrama refers to the order of castes or the alphabetical arrangement of letters. Varna dharma refers to the duties of each Varna.

Varna in Vedic times

The Vedic society in the early days of its formation had four Varnas namely Brahmanas, Kshatriyas, Vaisyas and Shudras. They were not equal in status, although created by the same source, but part of a krama or order. Brahmanas occupied the highest position, as gods upon earth. Except in certain Vedic rituals, where they had to sit below the king, their position in society was unassailable. Kshatriyas were next. They had the right to claim the authority of God to rule upon earth as his representatives and enforce laws. Vaishyas came later, and Shudras were the last.

Just as there were three Vedas, it seems in the beginning there were only three Varnas. The fourth one was probably a latter addition, formed by dividing the Vaishyas into two groups, as agriculture and cattle rearing became an important part of the Vedic economy. The Varna system helped Vedic society to protect and preserve family occupations and job specific skills, and ensure the continuation of family lineages, while minimizing conflicts and competition between them.

Each Varna was entrusted with a set of specific duties (varna dharmas), which were collectively called the Dharma. Brahmanas worshipped fire (Agni) and engaged in priestly duties. Kshatriyas worshipped gods of royalty such as Brahma, Indra, Prajapati, Vayu, Soma, Mitra, Varuna, and engaged in the duties of warriors. Vaisyas worshipped Visva-devas, the gods of commonality, and engaged in trade and commerce. Finally, the Shudras worshipped Pusan, the god of the earth, and engaged in obedient service to the other three groups.

The historicity of varna system

Varnas are often equated with races, but this claim is not justified. since there is no evidence that India ever had pure races. It is also incorrect to say that the division of varnas or castes was invented by the British scholars and historians. The idea or the concept of Hindu Varnas has a long history and tradition, dating back to Vedic times or perhaps even earlier to the Indus times, since according to some the caste system originated outside the Vedic fold. The Varnas are clearly and categorically mentioned in the Vedas and other Hindu scriptures such as the Manusmriti and the Bhagavadgita. It is also possible that the attitude of higher castes towards the lower ones might have varied from region to region and place to place, depending upon the power wielded by them, which is the case even today.

The Creation Hymn in the Rigveda, which is at least 3000 years old, describes how the four varnas sprang from the different parts of Purusha or the Cosmic Being, who is a manifestation of Brahman. Some historians believe that the Vedic varnas were initially not that rigid but might have become stratified into rigid social divisions in the later period. However, there is no definitive proof to support these claims. There might have been exceptions to it, but it is difficult to believe that the varnas were voluntary association of people based upon their occupation, or people had the freedom and the privilege to choose their varnas according to their occupational preferences.

In Vedic times, Varnas carried a lot of importance, especially in case of people who practiced the Vedic Dharma and adhered to its established traditions and practices. Vedic society was characterized by the division of people according to the Varna system and the privileges, duties and responsibilities it imposed upon them. Going by its name, we have to assume that the idea of Varna came into existence in ancient India mainly due to the diversity of Indian society as people of different colors, complexions and backgrounds lived together. The system at least helped them organize themselves into specific groups and live together by doing different duties that were essential for the survival and continuation of all.

Status and privileges based upon the color of a person are anathema in today’s society, but it was the order of the day in the early Vedic world. It helped them preserve the purity and integrity of each group and helped them ensure the order and regularity of society. However, we are not sure whether there was racial prejudice based upon color, since the Upanishads contain a few verses which suggest how one may obtain children of difference colors.

Castes (kulas) became more popular later on when ancient India witnessed the development of a more complex social system comprising of multiple ethnicities, tribal and linguistic groups, races and cultures, partly due to foreign invasions and partly due to the integration of various geographical regions within the Indian subcontinent into large empires and monarchial kingdoms.

It is true that varna based discrimination existed in ancient India in different degrees in different parts of the country, especially in those communities which practiced Vedic Dharma in some form and accepted the priestly services of Brahmanas and the protection of the Kshatriya kings. However, we cannot say that it was true with regard to other communities, who practiced other faiths such as Jainism or Buddhism or Shaivism or adhered to different social customs and practices.

Varna in the Dharmashastras

As far as the Vedic society was concerned, the Dharma Shastras laid down specific guidelines for each of the four varnas, with regard to their moral and religious duties, punishments and atonements for various offences, marital relationships, inheritance, status of women, etc. The truth is that they were decidedly discriminatory in their approach and attitude towards the four Varnas, giving preferential treatment to the higher varnas (agra-varnas) and imposing many restrictions upon the lower ones. They did not give equal treatment to the four castes or to the women. They also suggested different punishments for people according to their caste. The status of children and their inheritance depended upon the varna-purity of their parents. The wellbeing of Shudras also depended upon how subservient and compliant they were to higher castes.

It is also pertinent to note that the Dharma Shastras had limited reach, since there was hardly any Hindu ruler in ancient India who had a complete sway over the entire Indian subcontinent. Even those who ruled large tracts of the country, had limited means to enforce laws in the outlying territories or where Buddhist and Jains were the dominant communities. Settlement of legal matters and criminal cases was left largely to local bodies and village headmen. We do not know how far they heeded to the advice of the local priests or followed the laws that were stipulated in the law books. Besides, the law books were many, and we do not know which of them were followed by whom.

Varnas and castes

Varnas have gone, just as the purity of the color of each Varna, but castes (kulas) are still there as the vestiges of the ancient Varna system. Varna is now used in the sense of caste only. In contemporary Hindu society, you do not hear much about varnas, but kulas (castes), which are numerous and which vary from region to region. Color is no more a criterion to distinguish the status of castes, since all castes now consist of people of both dark and fair complexion and cannot be distinguished based purely upon that one factor.

Although the Varna system is outdated and almost defunct in its original sense, it is still there in the background as the social standard, since most of the castes tend to identify themselves with one of the original four Varnas. For example, Iyers, Iyyengars, Sharmas, etc., identify themselves with Brahmanas. Land owning Feudal castes such as Kohlis, Khatris, Jats, Gurjars, Reddys, Kammas, Nairs, etc., whose origin may partly be traced to foreign invasions, identify themselves with Kshatriyas or a mixed Vaishya and Kshatriya varna. Mittals, Agarwals, Guptas, etc., consider themselves Vaishyas.

No one clearly knows how these many castes came into existence. Their affiliation to the original varnas is based upon tradition or the Gotras (the family lineages) of each group. It is possible that most of them descended from more than one Varna, and some might have used political turmoil and migration to new regions as an opportunity to upgrade themselves with the blessings of the local priestly communities.

Varna in contemporary Hindu society

The social order of varna or caste (varna krama) is still a very sensitive subject in Hinduism and Hindu community. Certain castes still enjoy better social and political privileges in practice, while in theory the constitution guarantees equal treatment. They play a very powerful role in present-day, Indian society. Their influence can be seen in every aspect of India’s social, political, economic and cultural milieu, from films to politics. The laws are clearly against discrimination of any kind, but they are not uniformly or consistently promulgated due to lack of oversight and the fact that the enforcers are often from higher castes.

One may rewrite the history of ancient India’s caste system and caste rules, glossing over facts and silencing the voices of dissent with political clout, just as some have been trying to do in recent times. However, one cannot hide from the glaring truth that the caste system is still a predominant source of discontent, dissonance and disunion in the present-day Hindu society. It had been so then, as it is now.

The idea of high (uccha) and low (nicha) births due to one’s karma or divine justice is an integral aspect of Hindu social system and religious beliefs. One can find references to it even in the Bhagavadgita. When scriptures themselves seem to justify a rather unjust system or practice, it is difficult for many to assimilate the incongruity and hold on to their faith, without suffering from skepticism or even indignation.

There must still be many places in India where low caste people are subject to discrimination and social injustice, as the continuation of the ancient Varna system despite the fact that it has outlived its purpose. From school and college campuses to legislative bodies and government institutions, caste consciousness dominates India’s collective psyche. Until it is swept away by the currents of modernity and the egalitarian values of equality and fraternity or universal brotherhood, Hinduism will remain vulnerable to the problem of conversions and desertions by the lower castes.

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