Varna and Caste: An Analysis-II

The present day rigid caste system was irrelevant in ancient India and instead the society was founded upon the notion of Varna.

In the previous article, I have shown the difference between the lenient Varna system and the rigid caste system. So, it is sensible to argue that caste is a later construct and a social setback. To make this point clearer, I will show specific examples where the prevailing ideas of a caste-ridden Hindu society will be questioned. As I have said in the previous writing, it is necessary to compare the ancient society with our modern one and find out the basic differences. We can also try and trace the caste system, but we do not have any ready-made answers for sure. I will also state some prevalent wrong notions about the Varna system at the end and show their irrelevance.

So, let us now take specific examples from our ancient society and see how the present day rigid caste system was irrelevant in those days and instead the society was founded upon the notion of Varna.

The case of Vyasa

If there is one indisputable towering figure for every Hindu, it is undeniably Maharshi Vyasa. His works still resonate in every Hindu household in one form or the other. He is the author of much of what we know about our civilization today. He is the author of Mahabharata (biggest literary work in the world), the 18 Puranas (of which Bhagavatam is important), and the Brahma Sutras (which are 564 formulas and gives the complete picture of Vedic theology) and of course he has classified the Vedas into 4 divisions: Rig, Yajur, Sama, Atharva as we know them today. It is also said that he has written a law book known as Vyasa Smriti. Hindu tradition considers him as an incarnation of Lord Vishnu.

Whenever we talk of Vyasa or look at his paintings, he appears to be a Brahmana (Which is correct under Varna system but not under the caste system). But, who is he actually? Vyasa was born from a fisherwoman by the name Satyavati. So by birth, he is not a Brahmana, but how did he become what he is now known as nevertheless? Well, those who declare that the Hindu society was filled with Brahmanas suppressing lower classes, do not have an answer. We find no such testimonies that the then Brahmana class tried to suppress Vyasa or kept him out of education or anything like that. He was a seeker of knowledge and hence was considered as a Brahmana.

The case of Vishwamitra

Vishwamitra literally means friend of the world. He is the Mantra Drashtara of the much celebrated Gayatri Mantra, which many Hindus recite everyday even today. He is also one of the teachers of Lord Rama. Even, he was not born from Brahmana parents. He was a king, i.e. a Kshatriya before he renounced the world and sought knowledge and became a Brahmana (in fact a Brahmarishi).

The case of Valmiki

Valmiki was the sage who wrote the epic Ramayana and who was the teacher of Rama’s sons. He was a poet par excellence and a great Rishi. But, before he became a Rishi, he was a thief/ highway robber and a hunter. It is said that the great Rishi Narada and the creator Brahma inspired him to compose Ramayana. But, why didn’t Brahmanas suppress a thief who was getting educated, conducting penance and growing to become a thinker and a philosopher? It is because, the social system was based on Varna and not caste.

The case of Parashu Rama

Parashu Rama, it is said conquered all the unjust rulers in the world during his time and established a Dharmic rule everywhere, which is actually the duty of a Kshatriya. But Parashu Rama was born to Brahmana parents. But still he is revered and worshipped even today, not as a Brahmana, but as a fearless warrior. He is also considered an incarnation of lord Vishnu.

The case of Ravana

Ravana was born in a Brahmana family. It is said that he could recite all the Vedas out of his memory and was very well educated in all the Shastras. He was a staunch tapasvi and performed intense meditation, but then his actions and intentions made him an Adharmic person. Despite his birth into a Brahmana family, he was punished by Lord Rama for his Adharmic deeds. This clearly shows that every individual was judged not by his birth, but by his character and actions. Again the reason is that the ancient society was guided by Varna and not caste.


If ancient India was governed by the caste system the way it exists today, then why did the ancient society accept these stalwarts, recognized their contributions, and gave them their due place? This shows that the ancient society was guided by Varna system, with Varnas being horizontal and not vertical like today’s caste system. Ancient India has a society wherein each individual could follow his talents and interests and succeed, no matter who his parents were.

So, if in ancient India, no caste system was present, then when and how did the present caste system creep into Indian society? Well, this has no clear-cut answers, but some pointers could definitely be given:

1. In his book Hindu Sanghatan, Swami Shraddananda depicts the situation in India just before the first Muslim invasion. He observes that the condition of the society then was much better than what it was during his times (in early 20th century). He points out that during emperor Harsha’s time, i.e. 7th century, there were many divisions within Varnas, but not hundreds of divisions of each Varna as we see them today.

This was particularly true at least for the first three Varna. According to the Swami, this was certainly better than the modern times, but he accepts that it was still a degeneration/deviation from the ideal. He also observes that many other social evils like child marriage and seclusion of women were also post-invasion developments. But that is outside our scope for now. Shraddananda appeals people to return back to the Vedic age from this downward trajectory. (Koenraad Elst, Decolonising the Hindu Mind, 376-377)

2. K S Lal in his Growth of Scheduled Tribes gives some important observations of historical occurrence. His evidence shows that much of the disunity between different communities was inflicted/imposed and was not native to our society. He quotes an inscription from 1345 CE by the Reddy dynasty of Andhra Pradesh, which describes how after the elimination of the Kshatriyas, it was now the duty of the Shudras to defend cows and Brahmanas from the invaders.

It is observed that the first independent Reddy king Vema, restored agraharas of Brahmanas, which were destroyed by the invaders (page 402-403). Another inscription for the same dynasty proudly proclaims Vema’s birth from the victorious fourth Varna, which sprang from the feet of Lord “Vishnu” and how it (=Shudras) now “ruled” the “territory once ruled” by Kshatriyas. It also describes how Vema’s “first son Anna Vota gave agraharas to Brahmanas.”(page 403)

3. “Vema’s second son Anna Vema freed the region from the enemy crowd and also sponsored the men of learning as quoted by E Hultzsch in Vanapalli plates of Anna Vema.”(ibid, 403)

4. K Rama Shastry in his Akkalapundi grant of Singaya Nayaka: Saka Samvat 1290 quotes from an inscription of Singaya Nayaka (1368 CE), another Shudra dynasty. Contrary to the prevailing view, it proclaims, how Shudras were proud of their Varna that they were born from the feet of the lord, for the support of the first three Varnas. It also takes pride in being purer than the first three as Shudras were born alongside mother Ganga. He also quotes another inscription, which describes how Singaya Nayaka’s cousin Kapaya Nayaka rescued the Andhra region from the Invading Muslim forces. (ibid, 403)

5. K S Lal observes again that: “If it were true that the backward classes were so terribly oppressed by the Brahmanas, we would expect them to take some kind of revenge by making common cause with the Muslim persecutors of Brahmanas. But exactly the opposite is the case. Jats and Meds helped the Brahmana and Kshatriya rulers of Sindh against Arab invaders. Jats and Khokhars joined the Hindu Sahiya Rajas of Punjab against Mahmud of Ghazni. Throughout the medieval period, the lower castes fought shoulder to shoulder with the upper castes and against the foreign invaders and tyrannical rulers.”(ibid, 403-404)

6. It is widely accepted among intellectuals that an egalitarian Islam entered India and gained converts because of its appeal to the people of lower castes, but on the contrary, none of the Medieval Islamic Historians like Alberuni, Abul Fazl, etc. mentions the tyranny of the caste discrimination as a cause of conversions. (K S Lal: Indian Muslims, p. 96 given in ibid, 396)

7.It is also a matter of fact that in many places of India, it was the upper castes, who readily converted while the lower castes resisted and stayed back in their traditions.

So, it is clear that the evils of the caste system, especially the discrimination is an outcome of the degeneration of society, perhaps due to social factors and is of very recent origin. More importantly, it is not an ideal society envisaged by our ancestors.

Some prevalent myths that have to be addressed at this point are:

  1. There is a fifth Varna called Panchamas

This is a basic misconception. Krishna himself speaks about only four Varnas and hence any further classifications are man-made only. This is further reinforced by the fact that Manu Smriti explicitly mentions that only four Varna exists and there is no fifth Varna.

  1. Brahmanas are priests and Shudras are untouchables

This is a wrong notion because Brahmanas are not only priests but are also teachers, philosophers, thinkers and advisers. Shudras per say were not untouchables. The example of Vyasa, Vidura, Guha, Shabari, etc. makes it very clear. Instead, Shudras referred to those working in the service sector.

  1. Shudras = Human Scavengers

Not all Shudras were Human scavengers. Disposal of human waste was indeed an important issue throughout history. This was a problem across the world, until modern sewage systems came into existence. But, at the same time we notice that in ancient times (like in the Indus valley civilization), most houses had flush toilets which were well connected to an underground drainage system. This must have been the case even at the time of Chanakya.

Since, in his magnum opus Arthashastra, never once does he talk about the rules, duties and punishments for a scavenging community. It is very hard to believe that the otherwise detailed and precise auhor can exclude such an important occupation entirely from his work. It is remarkable that he does prohibit and makes it a punishable offence to urinate and defecate in public unless the offender is sick or fear-struck. (From 2.36.26-33, L. N Rangarajan, Kautilya: The Arthashastra, 1992, Penguin Books)

As time passed, there appears to be a shift from intricate drainage systems to open defecation, which again gave no room to human scavenging. Thus, it is reasonable to say that the human scavenging is only of recent origin (medieval and post-medieval) at least in India and has no religious sanction. Similar practices prevailed in London (and the rest of the Europe) until the late 19th century. (For a detailed description about discriminatory caste practices in the other parts of the world see a very well written piece ‘Why is the world so obsessed with India’s caste system?’).

Craig Taylor investigates the situation in ancient Rome and medieval London in “The Disposal of Human Waste: A comparison between Ancient Rome and Medieval London”. I will now quote some relevant parts from the above work.

In Rome:

“At its height the city of Rome had a population nearing one million and its citizens would have required the use of adequate toilet facilities. As it is estimated that the average person generates 50 grams of solid waste per day, the city therefore produced approximately 50,000 kilograms a day.”[A. Scobie: Slums, Sanitation and Mortality (1986), quoted in P. 3]

“By the 4th century AD there were approximately 144 public latrines in Rome but very few public latrines were connected to the main sewer.”(Breviarium.6.10 cited by Robinson, 120; Scobie 413 & Dodge 19, quoted in P. 3)

“Who was responsible for the cleaning and maintenance of these facilities? Ancient sources state that Rome’s aediles (supervisors of public works) were responsible for the upkeep of the city, which presumably included keeping the streets clean. This continued until the beginning of the 2nd century AD when Trajan gave control of the sewers to a board of commissioners. Cleaning the sewers did not necessarily include the removal of human waste from the public latrines, behind bushes, in alleys and from the gutters. Perhaps these duties fell upon the stercorarii as they passed through the city collecting human waste in their wagons. Rubbish thrown or dropped onto the Streets may have been the responsibility of building owners if it was in front of their property. Animals, insects and birds would doubtless have removed some of this rubbish and human waste as well. The stercorarii could have also been employed for cleaning private facilities.”(Cicero, A Book about ConStitutions.3.3.6-9 and Varro.Ling.5.14.81, Tacitus,Ann1.76 and Dio.57.14.7-8 cited by Robinson, 118, Scobie. 414, all quoted in P. 8)

“Regarding the cleaning of sewers below the surface, the earliest source mentioning this is Pliny the Younger. He describes how convicts were forced to clean the sewers (Pliny.Ep.X.32.2; P. 8). Sewers would need to be regularly maintained as the build-up of rubbish and human waste would eventually clog the drains and create a fetid atmosphere. Floods caused by storms could also scour the sides of the drain creating the danger of collapse, both of the sewer walls and the buildings above.” (S.P. Scott. The Civil Law. Ulpian.Digest.43.23.1-2; P. 8-9)

In London;

“In large cities like London there was a need for sewage facilities that could service the entire population of approximately 100,000. The citizens of London produced around 5,000 kilograms of human waste a day. This was considerably less than Rome, but unfortunately London still smelled horrible, not because its people were insensitive, but because they could not solve the problems of drainage, human waste disposal and the accommodation of so many humans and animals.”(T. Baker, Medieval London (London: Cassell, 1970) 42. P.12)

“Having mentioned the facilities available to the citizens of Medieval London, the question of who cleaned up human waste still remains. The waste and rubbish thrown or left on the streets needed to be picked up in order to maintain a clean environment. Public latrines also needed to be cleaned, particularly if they were not situated over a waterway. For this each London ward had its officially- employed “rayker”…” (Harrison, 35. See also Amulree, 252, P. 17-18)

“At what time of the day the duty of cleaning public latrines took place is unclear, but it probably occurred at night (Sabine, ‘Latrines and Cesspools of Mediaeval London,” 316, P. 18). Nightfall was a more opportune time to carry out this task as the number of persons using the latrines during the evening was substantially less than during the day. Also, the smell of human waste being carried through the streets would have been too obnoxious for the people during the day, and so it was considered best to do it while most people slept.”(P. 18)

“Londoners only had a few latrines available for use and so they had to construct private cesspools that were infrequently emptied by the city’s raykers. City cleaning could not accommodate the number of people, and so many cesspits overflowed creating an unpleasant sight and an obnoxious odour. Therefore, people were forced to come up with ingenious ideas, such as attaching drains to pipes, so rainwater could flush away their waste. Other solutions were to dump waste into ditches, gutters, streets, streams and the Thames so that it would be taken away. Although the streams and the Thames did remove human waste immediately, these waterways continually became clogged and then subsequently stank.”(P. 19)

The Gong Farmers in Europe had to collect the faeces under the privy of every house, carry it to a dump yard outside the city until as late as 20th century. They were only allowed to work at night and were expected to live far away in separate colonies. The Mudlarks of 18th and 19th century, scoured the muddy shores of the river Thames (which was then filled with dumped faeces) to find anything of any value to make a living. They often used to make their way through dead carcasses (even of humans), garbage and sewage.

But, today’s shining streets and buildings of London and Europe does not encourage anyone to look deeply into the lives of these people, their dignity, and rights. It is not seen as a result of a particular religion too. But, in India, every social issue is blamed on the so called cruelty of Hinduism.

  1. Manu Smriti is a universal law book

Often, I hear people quote (often wrongly) from Manu Smriti to show how cruel Hinduism is to certain sections of society. They take it for granted in believing that Manu Smriti is a universal, eternal law book. If that was really the case, then hundreds of Smritis would not have been written at different times. Here are some facts about Manu Smriti:

  • Manu Smriti is not the word of God, hence, can be amended and that is why we have 100’s of other smritis, which were written in subsequent periods.
  • It was composed in Satya Yuga and hence was mainly applicable to Satya Yuga. It may not always hold true for Kali Yuga. (This is what Hindu tradition believes)
  • Its teachings can be and should be contextualized to present circumstances and tenets that are outdated or no longer applicable could be discarded.
  • It has a vast stream of knowledge on many social, political and Dharmic aspects, which must be promoted.
  • It would be grossly incorrect to compare Manu Smriti (which, according to Indologists was written in some 2nd or 3rd CE. Still, almost 2000 years ago) to today’s ideas of equality and democracy. To be objective, it should be compared with other prevailing world views of that time period.

Let me conclude with a small account narrated in a lecture on 29th September 2014 (which I saw on YouTube) by Prof S N Balagangadhara of Ghent University, Belgium. In the lecture, he said that he got a document, brought to him by one of his students, which was written by a French political thinker of the late 17th early 18th century, who had described the then social conditions prevailing in France. Prof Balagangadhara, after reading it, decided to pass the document onto some of his Indologist colleagues, but after making some changes to the document. He replaced a few words like ‘priests’ with ‘Brahmanas’, peasants with ‘Shudras’, merchants with ‘Vaishyas’, etc. and shared it with his colleagues and told them that he has found this document pertaining to India’s caste system.

His colleagues were stunned to see this document and proclaimed that it provides clinching evidence to corroborate everything that they had been saying for decades about the caste system in India. They were overwhelmed with this possession and were very curious to know about the source of this; only until Prof Balagangadharan revealed the truth of the document and how it was not describing the situation in India, but in the west! We, as a nation, should make the objective search for our own history, whatever and however it is, rather than accepting everything outsiders have to say about us in the name of Indology.

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Philosopher and Economist, writing on Philosophy, History and current affairs.