Varna (Hinduism)

Varna (Hinduism)

Varna ( _sa. वर्ण "IAST|varṇa") is a Sanskrit term derived from the root IAST2|"vṛ" meaning "to enclose". [ M. Mayrhofer, Etymological Dictionary II 518] In historical Indic traditions the varna and caste systems are not the same system, although they are related. [Mark Juergensmeyer, (2006) The Oxford Handbook of Global Religions (Oxford Handbooks in Religion and Theology), p. 54] Brahminic Hinduism categorizes the people into four "Varnas" according to the body part of the divinity Purusha from which each group was created (Rigveda 10.90) and these categories define the group's social standing. Originally this division was based on the social class and not always on birth. For example, according to Hindu tradition, Valmiki, the composer of the Ramayana was a hunter by profession and Veda Vyasa, the composer of the Mahabharata and the compiler of the Vedas, was born into a fisherman family. Yet on account of their intellectual and spiritual prowess, they achieved the highest position in social hierarchy and are regarded as Maharishis.


Vedic tribal societies and kingdoms were built on hierarchies and various roles and responsibilities were assigned to various groups of people in the society. These roles and responsibilities were (mostly) hereditary.

In this scheme, it was mostly Brahmins (brāhmaṇa) who possessed religious and ritual superiority. The varna of a newborn child was determined by that of his father just as caste is. The boys of the Brahmin, Kshatriya and Vaisyha varnas undergo an initiation ceremony, Upanayana, which confirms their varna status.

Varna is functional hierarchy system proposed by the post-Rigvedic Yajurveda and Brahmana texts to organize society. Later on, Indian society was organized, in addition, according to Jatis. The oldest mention of the varna system is in the Purusha sukta of Rigveda 10.90.12 which states: "The Brahmana was the mouth of the purusha, his two arms were made into the Rajanya, his two thighs were the Vaishya, and from his two feet the Shudra was born".

The later Hindu concept of Varnashrama dharma (IAST:IAST|Varṇāśrama dharma, Devanagari: वर्णाश्रम धर्म) refers to the system of classes of social life and stages of individual life in Hinduism. The classes of society are as follows [ [ "Varnaashrama System" from Hindupedia, the Hindu Encyclopedia"] ] :
* Brahmin - "scholarly community," includes the priests, scholars, law specialists, ministers, and diplomats.
* Kshatriya - "high and lower nobility" includes kings, noblemen, soldiers, and administrators.
* Vaishya - "mercantile and artisan community" includes merchants, shopkeepers, businessmen and farm owners.
* Shudra - "service-providing community" includes mostly manual and farm labourers.

The post-Vedic "Asrama" refers to the four stages of individual life of the Hindus. The ideal lifespan of a hundred years was divided into four stages. Brahmacharya ("student life") for 25 years, Grihastha ("householder life") after marriage for another 25 years, Vanaprastha or age of retirement for another 25 years ("anchorite life") and if after that somebody lives, Sannyasa ("renunciate life") or permanent seclusion from social activities for the rest of life. Hindu tradition holds this system as a dharma ("sacred law") sanctioned by the scriptures.


Varna is a Sanskrit term (वर्ण "IAST|varṇa" means "color". However, it has come to be associated with the qualities and devisions of Brāhmaṇa, Kṣatriya, Vaiśya and Śudra. The concept of varṇa is first articulated in the Ṛgveda (10.90) and is taken up again by many contributors to the Dharmaśāstra tradition, including Manu, the putative author of the Mānavadharmaśāstra. As an organisational category, varṇa is a large 'command-level' division, and should be understood in contrast to "jāti" (compare entry), a subdivisional category of kin groups.

*In the Zoroastrian Avesta and the Gathas, the word Varana or Varena (from the root Var ("put faith in, to believe in") is used in the sense of preference [Stanley Isler as by Elst 1999; Ambedkar 1946, Who were the Shudras] (or religious affiliation, conviction, faith, religious doctrine, choice of creed or belief). The language of the Gathas (the oldest part of the Avesta) is very similar to the language of the Rig Veda.
*It may also come from the root Var- "choose", as in "svayamvara", “ [a girl’s] own choice [of a husband] ” [e.g. see Elst 1999] , or from the root vri (which means "one's occupation").
*In the Rig Veda, the word varNa occurs 22 times and means "lustre". In 17 out of 22 times it refers to the "lustre" (i.e. "one's own typical light") of gods like Soma, Agni or Ushas. [Ambedkar, Writings and Speeches, vol 7, Who were the Shudras, 1946; see Elst 1999] In RV 3.34.5 and RV 9.71.2 it refers to the lustrous colour of the sky at dawn. [see Elst 1999]
*According to Hindu tradition, Varna refers to sounds of speech or language. Western Indologists have wrongly interpreted varna as "a letter of the alphabet". According to Welzer (1994 (229-230)), Varna can be grammatically derived from the term "class" (vide Panini), but it has acquired the incorrect meaning of "colour".

ocial development

Varna (class) and the jati (caste) system is used by Hindus, particularly in India, Bali and Nepal for reasons of determining lineage and is passed down through patrilineal descent. It is based on the older four-varna system which later became attached to the members' families. Sometimes mlechha (people excluded from caste) are referred to as fifth varna.


The terms Varna (general classification based on occupation) and Jati (caste) are two distinct concepts. Varna (from Sanskrit, literally "arrangement") is a supposed unification of all the Hindu castes or jatis into either four groups: Brahmin, Kshatriya, Vaishya, Shudra, or into one of several varna-sankaras वर्ण संकर. Jati (community) is an endogamous group. Generally a sub-community is divided into exogamus groups based on same gotras गोत्र. The classical authors scarcely speak of anything other than the varnas. Indologists sometimes confuse the two.citation |author=Dumont, Louis |title=Homo hierarchicus: the caste system and its implications |publisher=University of Chicago Press |location=Chicago |year=1980 |pages=66-67 |isbn=0-226-16963-4]

Many of the Hindus could be classified into a specific varna. But not all. During the British rule, several cases went to court to settle the "varna" of a sub-communityFact|date=January 2007. For example, the farmers are sometimes given Kshatriya status because many ruling Chieftains may have risen from them. On the other hand some classified them as Vaisya, based on an older occupation of artisans. Orthodox Brahmins may classify them as Shudras, because they do not have a tradition of undergoing through the thread ceremony, that would make them dvija द्विज .

They were mainly preserved by the brahmins. The kings also accepted this method creating innequality among people.

The twice born

The first three varnas are seen as 'twice born'. They are allowed to study the Vedas. In India and Nepal the sub-communities within a Varna are called Jat or Jati (The varna is also used instead of Jat). Traditionally, each Jati members are allowed to marry only with their Jati members. People are born into their Jati and normally it cannot be changed, though there were some exceptions in Hindu Scriptures. For example, sage Vishwamitra was born as a Kshatriya (ruling class) and by deep meditation (tapas) became a venerable Brahmin rishi (saint). Once someone is born to certain sub-community or Jati he or she cannot normally change their Jati, although some groups throughout history have risen or fallen according to their deeds. Community is a permanent attribute in Indian societies.

The occupations of the Vaishya are those connected with trade, the cultivation of the land and the breeding of cattle; while those of a Kshatriya consist in ruling and defending the people, administering justice, and the duties, of the military profession generally and ruling and expounding all Dharma. Both share with the Brahmin the privilege of reading the Vedas. To the Brahmin belongs the right of teaching and expounding the sacred texts. Shudras were the serfs, and performed agricultural labour. Muluki Ain has incorporated the entire ethnic group of Nepal into the social hierarchy.Fact|date=January 2007 They were mainly preserved by the Brahmins, but the kings also accepted this method. This created innequality among the people.

Cyclical theory of history

The Varnas have also given birth to a theory of historical development. P.R. Sarkar propounded his Social Cycle Theory on the basis of a quadri-divisional social order rooted in the core of human psychological motivity. Nascent such ideas emerged in the works of Sri Aurobindo.

Instances in Hindu texts and tradition

The Rig-Veda refers in the Purusha Sukta to the four principal varnas described in Manu's code, viz. Brahmins, Kshatriyas, Vaishyas, and Shudras. The term Varna is not associated with Brahmins or Kshatriyas in the Rig Veda, and the term Varna does not occur in the Purusha Sukta.

The "Purusha Sukta' hymn (Rig Veda 10:90) mentions the names of the four varnas and compares them to the body of the "primordial man": "The Brâhmana was his mouth, of both his arms was the Râjanya made. His thighs became the Vaishya, from his feet the Sûdra was produced." (RV 10:90:12) In the Purusha Sukta hymn the word Varna is not used, and it is the only hymn of the Rig Veda where the words Vaishya and Shudra are used. The Purusha Sukta hymn is considered to be one of the youngest parts of the Rig Veda.

There is an Upanishadic story of a boy who went to a guru to study the various holy Hindu scriptures. His guru asked him what his varna was. Consulting his mother, who was actually a prostitute who didn't really know what her varna was, the boy returned to the guru and told him that he was all the varnas. He worshipped the Gods, thus fulfilling the duties that are ordinarily a Brahmin's, he earned his keep like a Vaishya, took care of cleaning the house, like a Shudra, and protected his family's interest like a Kshatriya. The guru was pleased and told the boy he was fit to be taught and initiated into the Brahmin's life. Fact|date=September 2008

The Dharmashastras (a collection of collections of Hindu codes and laws) say that varna is not just determined by birth, but by action in life accordance to the dharma of varna-ashram as well. But the contemporary Indian society seems to follow the notion that Varna comes from birth.

The Brahmins (priests), The Kshatriyas (warriors, nobility), the Vaishyas (the craftsmen and men of commerce), and the Shudras (agriculture workers; menial workers) were the four varnas. A person of each varna was said to possess certain set of characteristics: the Shudras, they believed, were of the "tamasic" nature; the Vaishyas were either "tamasic" or "rajasic"; the Kshatriyas were believed to be noble, learned and selfless, his or her duty being the administration of the people and fighting of battles against intruders, often very spiritually inclined; and that the Brahmins were religious, pure, Society's bank of knowledge and wisdom for their memory of holy scriptures, the performers of rituals. However, there is a dispute as to which varna holds the greatest spiritual purity. Brahmins are associated with the evil Daksha, an arrogant Brahmin that received the head of a goat, and according to scriptures caused all Brahmins to be cursed by Nandi to never attain the greatest spiritual heights in Hinduism as Daksha insulted Shiva.

Hindu tantrics are a part of Hinduism whose scriptural texts, the Agamic texts known collectively as the Tantras, assert their descent from the Vedas, especially the Atharva-Veda. Claiming that the Vedic rituals no longer necessary in Kali Yuga, that the fourth and final epoch of humanity in Hinduism shall see morality ebb to complete dissolution until the end of the earth, the Tantrics see themselves as natural continuations of the Vedas through Hindu yogic practices--and not of any particular caste, yet "not" Untouchables.

Many Hindu yogis and sages have, over the centuries, constantly commented about inheriting social status. Shri Chaitanya Mahaprabhu (15th century), the powerful bhakti of Krishna also denounced inheriting social status. He famously distributed the Hare Krishna mantra to non-brahmins all around India, claiming this was the True path to moksha.

Kanakadasa of the 15th century also denounced inherited social status. He believed that Life in every human being is Divine, and that only the ignorant wrought injustice against their own brethren by this practice. Basavanna of the 12th century is said to have denounced inherited social status and tried to unify all communities under the Linga (form of Shiva).

Rigveda and Manu Smriti

In Sanskrit, Varna means color, as in quality (just as the term "Saguna Brahman.") One of the hymns of the Rig Veda, one of the holiest Hindu scriptures, gives the following enumeration in the famous Purusha Sukta (RV 10.90):

:मुखं किमस्य कौ बाहू का ऊरू पादा उच्येते ॥:ब्राह्मणो अस्य मुखमासीद बाहू राजन्यः कर्तः ।:ऊरूतदस्य यद वैश्यः पद्भ्यां शूद्रो अजायत ॥Its rough translation is : "What became of his (the Cosmic Spirit's) face or mouth? What became of his two arms? What became of His two thighs? What were (the products of) the two feet called? From His face (or the mouth) came the brahmanas. From His two arms came the rajanya (the kshatriyas). From His two thighs came the vaishyas. From His two feet came the shudras."

In the Purusha Sukta hymn the word Varna is not used, and it is the only hymn of the Rig Veda where the words Vaishya and Shudra are used. The Purusha Sukta hymn is considered to be one of the youngest parts of the Rig Veda.

Manu Smriti is often quoted in reference to the Varna system as an inherited social class system. The Manu Smriti is a later work that does not form a part of Hindu Scriptures, so it is of questionable relevance. Use of the Manu Smriti by the British colonialists has been used by politicians and sociologists to denigrate those of the Hindu faith. [ ] .

The Manu Smriti claims that by the time it was written, Hindu society included another class (untouchables) of people without a position in any of the four Varnas and therefore associated with the lowest of the jobs. The upper classes, who were supposed to maintain ritual and corporal purity, came to regard them as untouchables. The people of this "fifth varna" are now called Dalits ("the oppressed") or Harijans; they were formerly known as "untouchables" or "pariahs". However, this last addition social strata is not a part of the religion of Hinduism. Hinduism only categorizes occupations in to four categories.

It is very clear that in the early Vedic times, the Varna system (if at all it existed) meant classes with free mobility of jobs and intermarriage. One hymn of the Rig Veda states:

:कारुरहं ततो भिषगुपलप्रक्षिणी नना । (RV 9.112.3)

:"I am a bard, my father is a physician, my mother's job is to grind the corn......"

While intermarriage between Brahmana bridegrooms and Kshatriya princesses was extremely common (even sanctioned by the later Manu Smriti), in many instances, marriages between Kshatriya princes and Brahmana brides was also observed (severely condemned by Manu Smriti). One of such instances is marriage of Yayati, a Kshatriya King, with Devayani, a daughter of the sage Shukracharya.

In later times, with the elaboration of ritualism, class status became hereditary (the historians disagree as to when) and the Shudras were not even allowed to hear the sacred word of the Vedas.

Opposition within Hinduism

Critics point that the effect of communities (jatis) inheriting varna was to bind certain communities to sources of influence, power and economy while locking out others and thus create more affluence for jatis in higher classes and severe poverty for jatis in lower classes and the outcast Dalit. In the last 150 years Indian movements arose to throw off the economic and political yoke of an inherited class system that emerged over time, and replace it with true Varnashrama dharma, described in the Vedas.

In the religious scripture Mahabharata, Yudhisthira, is questioned by Yama in the form of a Yaksha, about what makes one a Brahmin. Yudhisthira, without hesitation, said that it is conduct alone that makes one a Brahmin.

Ramananda, an ascetic of the Sri Ramanuja's Sri Vaishnava sampradaya, accepted all varna as his disciples. Mirabai, the 15th century mystical poet and Queen of Chittor is known to have ignored varna distinctions and elected the cobbler, Sant Rohidas, as her guru. Annamacharya, a 15th-century telugu poet's famous "Bramhamokkada" song, preaches equality of all in the eyes of God and condemns inheriting social status as un-Vedic. And proposed a return to traditional varnashrama dharma. Which promoted equality and stressed the importance of all varnas. Ramakrishna Paramahamsa, the 19th century Hindu religious leader, also did not recognise varna distinctions and took his first alms as a twice-born Brahmin from a Shudra woman.

The late Swami Krishnananda, a foremost disciple of Swami Sivananda and former General Secretary of Divine Life Society, noted the following about inherited social status in his autobiography:

:"While the [varna] system was originally evolved for the necessary classification of human duty in order to preserve the organic stability of society, its original meaning and its philosophical foundation was forgotten through the passage of time, and bigotry and fanaticism took its place through the preponderance of egoism, greed and hatred, contrary to the practice of true religion as a social expression of inner spiritual aspiration for a gradual ascent, by stages, to God Almighty. Vidura, famous in the Mahabharata, was born of a Shudra woman. But he had the power to summon the son of Brahma, from Brahmaloka, by mere thought. Which orthodox Brahmin can achieve this astounding feat? It is, therefore, necessary for everyone to have consideration for the facts of world-unity and goodwill, Sarvabhuta-hita, as the great Lord mentions in the Bhagavad Gita. Justice is more than law. No one's body is by itself a Brahmin, because it is constituted of the five gross elements,- earth, water, fire, air and ether. Else, it would be a sin on the part of a son to consign to flames the lifeless body of a Brahmin father. It is, therefore, not proper to victimise a colleague by an action plan of any religious community wedded to fundamentalist doctrines." []

Paramahansa Yogananda also opposed what he called to the un-Vedic inherited social status as we know it today. He taught that varna originated in a higher age, but became degraded through ignorance and self-interest. Yogananda said::"These were (originally) symbolic designations of the stages of spiritual refinement. They were not intended as social categories. And they were not intended to be hereditary. Things changed as the yugas [cycles of time] descended toward mental darkness. People in the higher [classes] wanted to make sure their children were accepted as members of their own [class] . Thus, ego-identification caused them to freeze the ancient classifications into what is called the ‘caste system.’ Such was not the original intention. In obvious fact, however, the offspring of a brahmin may be a shudra by nature. And a peasant, sometimes, is a real saint.”" :—from Conversations with Yogananda, Crystal Clarity Publishers, 2003.

Tantric view

The Tantric movement that developed as a tradition distinct from orthodox Hinduism between the 8th and 11th centuries CE [Flood, Gavin, "The Śaiva Traditions" in: Flood (2005; paperback edition of Flood 2003) p.208] also relaxed many societal strictures regarding class and community distinction. However it would be an over generalization to say that the Tantrics did away with all social restrictions, as N. N. Bhattacharyya explains:

"For example, Tantra according to its very nature has nothing to do with the [class] system but in the later Tantras [class] elements are pronounced. This is due to the fact that although many of our known Tantric teachers were IAST|non-Brāhmaṇas, rather belonging to the lower ranks of society, almost all of the known authors of the Tantric treatises were IAST|Brāhmaṇas who could not give up their [class/community] prejudices notwithstanding their conversion to Tantrism." [N. N. Bhattacharyya. "History of the Tantric Religion", p. 44-5.]


Varna System from Bhagwat Gita

"'Sri Krishna in Bhagwat Gita says 'CHATUR VARNA MAYA SRISTIM GUNA KARMA VIBHAG SHAH' He says that on the inquiry of self realization, people undergo different step by step stages of awareness, and with it comes purity in their character. There are four steps or divisions of 'varna' according to ones' state of identifying with the self.

SHUDRA are those identifying themselves with the body and possessions of objects of sensory/ ego satisfaction. They are afraid of losing it and thus are bound by it. This sense of attachment to object or ego (ahankar) makes them fearful, greedy, workaholic and account for everything. They cannot leave their proprietorship and thus, are a slave of (KAM) their own desires. 'Slave' (dasa) is a not a kind man who is provider of service by free will but instead, attached to materials prosperity and desires; and cannot escape from his/her own prison. VAISYA are those whose mind is engaged by the VISHAYA. VISHAYA means, subject or specializations. A specialist is certainly above the Shudra because he/she can produce objects from subjects, and he/she need not remain attached to any one object or relationship. He/she knows the ARTH or meaning or knowledge behind every object or position of power. Vishaya is also called poison because mind under influence of a subjects get anxiety, and insatiable demand of changes and controls. It is therefore VISHAYA is intoxicating, and specialists try always to wield more power and control in their hand. He/she is unfaithful because subjects/specialization give a power to experiment with new objects and changes in relationship. In India, Vaisya is a term used also for prostitute. This is reason why specialists or experts or judges or any paid authority are given no right to a relationship and are contained in veil of their own Vishaya. Business (Vyavsaya) is act of subjects (Vishaya) and is carried out by specialists who become prisoners of a narrow and microscopic area of their understanding. This (Vyavsaya) cannot produce transformation in character (swabhav), and helpful for livilhood and security of senses and ego status of mind.

CHHATRIA are those who began trying to understand their own character (DHARMA) or nature. They cut off all activities or professions that does not fit into their character. Conduct and character both are brought in consonance. In this way, a specialists becomes a generalist and he is unbound by his/her old professional restriction or biases. Specialists are microscopic but a generalist is telescopic. A generalist has a vision and so are a Chhatria becomes 'abstract' thinker, and constantly transforms him/her character, rather than trying to control others. This war or self discovery onto him/herself to get rid of errors in knowledge by losing ego and beginning to transform his/her own attitude and behaviors, and precisely understanding own character is called CHHATRIA. A CHHATRIA is certainly not those who wage a war for land or for women or material pursuits.

Business (Vyavsya) is for specialists (of microscopic view) acting within their narrow area of awareness, but without even realizing a need to change their own character (swabhav). Vaisya has a curse to work always under a state of compromise by ignoring inner demand of their character (swabhav) for sake of superficial material and ego. After realizing the defect in life that held them back in Business (Vyavsaya), mind of a 'vaisya' develops into 'chhatria'. This is a conversion of varna from vaisya to chhatria by new awareness that turns from their compulsive, incomplete, micrscopic (specialists) view of Vaisya to an abstract, complete, telescopic, a more general and detached view of Chhatria. As 'chhatria', this constancy in 'transformation in character' is now called 'karma'. This is the difference between Business (vyavsaya) and Work (karma). BRAHMAN is upon enlightenment or MOKSHA. This is state of mind where character of a person is dissolved, and he/she becomes fully aware, and is in state of renunciation. He/she is not in conflicts with any one. He/she is neither a proprietor (Shudra) nor an authority (Vaisya) nor a self discoverer (Chhatria) and is kind, full of love, and without anxiety and engaged in action of non reaction.


Further reading

*Ambedkar, B.R. (1946) Who were the Shudras?
*Alain Danielou (1976). "Les Quatre Sens de la Vie", Paris
*Sri Aurobindo (1970), The Human Cycle, The Ideal of Human Unity, War and Self-Determination, (Sri Aurobindo Ashram Trust), ISBN 81-7058-281-4 (hardcover), ISBN 81-7058-014-5 (paperback)
*Ravi Batra, "The Downfall of Communism and Communism: a New Study of History", Macmillan, New York, NY, USA, 1978
*Sohail Inayatullah, Understanding P. R. Sarkar: The Indian Episteme, Macrohistory and Transformative Knowledge, Brill Academic Publishers, 2002, ISBN 9004128425.
* Elst, Koenraad Update on the Aryan Invasion Debate. 1999. ISBN 81-86471-77-4 []
*Kane, Pandurang Vaman: "History of Dharmasastra: (ancient and mediaeval, religious and civil law)" -- Poona : Bhandarkar Oriental Research Institute, 1962-1975
* "Brahmanotpatti-martanda" Harikrishna Shastri, (Sanskrit), 1871
* Jati Bhaskar", Jwalaprasd Mishra, (Hindi), published by Khemaraj Shrikrishnadas,1914.
*G.S. Ghurye (1961). "Caste, Class and Occupation". Popular Book Depot, Bombay.
*G.S. Ghurye (1969). Caste and Race in India, Popular Prakashan, Mumbai 1969 (1932)
*Prabhat Rainjan Sarkar (1967) Human Society-2, Ananda Marga Publications, Anandanagar, P.O.Baglata,Dist. Purulia, West Bengal, India.
* Ghanshyam Shah, Caste and Democratic Politics in India, 2004
*Welzer, Albrecht. 1994. Credo, Quia Occidentale: A Note on Sanskrit varna and its Misinterpretation in Literature on Mamamsa and Vyakarana. In: Studies in Mamamsa: Dr Mandan Mishra Felicitation Volume edited by R.C. Dwivedi. Delhi: Motilal Banarasidass.

External links

* [ Maanoj Rakhit on the Varna system]
* [ Jati system in India]
* [ India Together on Caste]
* [ Murni's in Bali: Names, Titles and Castes]
*"Annihilation of Caste with a Reply to Mahatma Gandhi" [ Part I] & [ Part II] by "Dr.B.R.Ambedkar"
* [ Writings by Dr Ambedkar about Caste] Online texts
* [ Varna Ashram and Hindu Scriptures (pdf)]
*"Articles on Caste by Koenraad Elst:" [ Caste in India] , [ Buddhism and Caste] , [ Indian tribals and Caste] , [ Physical anthropology and Caste] , [ Etymology of Varna]
* [ Is Caste System Intrinsic to Hinduism?]
* [ Authentic Caste System by Monk of The Century:Shankaracharya Shri Chandrasekharendra Saraswati Maharaj]
* [ Association of Devotees]

ee also

*Prabhat Rainjan Sarkar
*Hindu reform movements
*Forward Castes

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