Caste system and its accompanying discrimination and occasional violence have been the bane of Indian society. Even today, incidences of discrimination and violence have been reported from time to time, despite such discriminations and violence being prohibited by law.
Though caste discrimination could be observed even among the Indian Christian and Muslim populations, the origins of the caste system are often attributed to Hindu religion and philosophy. The concept of ‘caste’ and ‘caste System’ is often equated to the Hindu scriptural concept of ‘varna’, and it is alleged that the latter provides a religious basis and a justification for the former. Thus, ‘caste system’ as a rigid hierarchical social institution with an embedded element of discrimination is often considered as a hallmark of Hinduism.
The present article examines whether there is any correlation between varna and caste and whether varna provides a religious basis for the present caste system and discrimination.
‘Varna’ as it appears in Hindu scriptures
The term ‘varna’ is derived from the verbal root word ‘vr’ and has a wide range of meanings, including to choose, to cover, and color. Among all the various meanings that the term varna takes, the most relevant meaning for our purpose is: to choose. varna, thus, refers to the svadharma (personal duty/purpose of life) chosen by each individual in his/her life according to his/her inherent nature (svabhava, guna) or more properly it refers to the svabhava itself that drives him/her to spontaneously choose particular actions as his/her svadharma.
Rigveda (Purushasukta verse 12) speaks about how different varnas are nothing but designations for different Svabhavas of people by symbolically describing different varnas as emerging from different limbs of Purusha (Brahman). Manu Smriti (1.87) describes about how Brahman allotted different svadharmas (personal duties) to people born with different svabhavas (inherent nature) for the sake of protecting and sustaining the Universe.
Similarly, Bhagavad Gita also speaks about creation of four varnas based on guna (natural qualities and tendencies) and karma (personal duties) (4.13) and that the duties have been allotted based on the gunas that arise from svabhava (18.41). Bhagavata Purana (11.17.13) further stresses that the four Varna’s that originated from the Supreme Purusha are to be recognized/designated by their atma-achara (natural activities or personal duties according to inherent nature i.e. svadharma).
Mahabharata (12.188), on the other hand, takes the meaning of ‘varna’ as ‘color’ and assigns each of the four varna a color (White for Brahmana, Red for Kshatriya, Yellow for Vaishya, and Black for Shudra) that symbolically represents the attributes/Svabhava designated by that varna, which in turn reflect the three qualities of the nature (Prakriti): sattva, rajas, and tamas. Some scholars have tried to interpret ‘color’ to mean color of the skin, but such an interpretation has no basis in any of the scriptures. Instead, the said chapter in Mahabharata itself gives the context as being a reference to internal attributes of the people.
From above, it follows that varna is a ‘term of designation’ that refers to the svabhava of an individual and the purpose of this designation is to allocate proper svadharmas (based on their svabhavas) to each individual so that each individual can attain material and spiritual welfare by practicing their personal duties and the society as a whole can function effectively and harmoniously.
It is important to note that the Svabhava of an individual is determined by two components: the Svabhavas (Guna/Varna- natural tendencies) of the parents that one inherits, and the Samskaras (mental impressions) that one inherits from past lives and both components are again determined by Prarabdha Karmas- the allotted fruits of previously committed actions that determines where one takes birth, what Svabhava one exhibits, etc. It is for this reason, ‘Birth’ or ‘Janma’ was used as an identifying factor for determining Varna. But, here the reference of ‘Janma’ is to the ‘Prarabdha Karma’ and the Svabhava one inherits due to Prarabda and not a reference to being born in a tribe, caste, class, or family as such. Varna, thus refers to the Jivatma (the individual soul) and not simply to the body, family, or social responsibility.
Origins of present ‘Caste System’ in India
Numerous studies of the British archives in recent decades have revealed that much of our present understanding of caste and caste system can be traced back to Colonial times.
The term Caste itself is derived from Spanish word ‘casta’ that means breed or race. Sahana Singh in her recent article writes: “Interestingly, the English word ‘caste’ is derived from the Portugese ‘casta’. It was used by the Spanish elites who ruled over conquered territories. The terms sistema de castas or the sociedad de castas were used in the 17th and 18th centuries to describe the mixed-race people in Spanish-controlled America and Philippines. The castas system classified people on the basis of birth, colour and race. The more white a person, the higher were the privileges and lesser the tax burden. The casta was an extension of the idea of purity of blood developed in Christian Spain to denote those without the “taint” of Jewish or Muslim heritage. That concept had already been institutionalised during the Spanish Inquisition, when thousands of converted Jews and Muslims (European lower-castes) were killed on the suspicion that they had reverted to their previous religions.”
She further elaborates about how until 20th century, the European society witnessed caste system and discrimination, wherein executioners, skinners, grave-diggers, shepherds, barber-surgeons, millers, linen-weavers, sow-gelders, actors, latrine cleaners, night-watchmen, bailiffs, etc. were considered as dishonorable castes. When Europeans came to India, they carried this notion of ‘Caste’ with them into India and used it to colonize Indian society.
Writing about the Colonial origins of present Indian caste system, Nicholas Dirks in his ‘Castes of Mind’ argues: “But colonialism was predicated on more than simple economic exploitation…… It is increasingly clear that colonialism in India produced new forms of society that have been taken to be traditional, and that caste itself as we now know, it is not a residual survival of ancient India but a specifically colonial form of civil society. As such, it both justifies and maintains the colonial of an India where religion transcends politics, society resists change, and the state awaits its virgin birth in the postcolonial era. (1)”
He further writes: “Under colonial rule, caste- now disembodied from its former political contexts- lived on. In this disassociated form it was appropriated, and reconstructed by the British. What orientalism did most successfully in the Indian context was to assert the pre-colonial authority of a specifically colonial form of power and representation, thereby playing a critical role in disguising the politics of caste. (2)”
Dirks (3) further explains how precolonial Indian society had a very complex social set up with various social identities and categories like temple communities, territorial groups, lineage segments, family units, royal retinues, warrior subcastes, occupational reference groups, priestly cabals, etc., but the British chose to use “transregional an metahistorical mode of understanding Indian society” (i.e. varna), because it served their own colonial interest.
Therefore, the British not only ignored and dismantled the indigenous jati-kula systems, they misused the scriptural varna system, to arrive at a new colonial caste-system that was rigid and hierarchical in nature and was used to exploit and dominate India. The British accomplished this by conducting various census across India on ethnographic lines. According to Dirks, the censuses were used to create a categorization of caste that had previously not existed and it forced people for the first time to think in terms of caste identity and caste characteristics, thus creating a new caste system based on ethnic identifications.
Rajiv Malhotra, in his book Breaking India, further points out how H H Risley, who was the census commissioner for the 1901 census, morphed jati-varna system into a race system.
Malhotra writes: “Prior to colonialism, the jati-varna system in India had little, if anything, to do with race, ethnicity, or genetics. It was better understood as a set of distinctions based on traditional or inherited social status derived from work roles. Jati is a highly localized and intricately organized social structure. One of the important aspects of jati, which was conspicuously overlooked by western Indologists, is its dynamic nature – allowing social mobility as well as occupational diversification. These rural social structures were more horizontally organized than vertically stratified……………… Nevertheless, the colonial imposition of the hierarchical view, coupled with distortions of jati in order to fit it into a racial framework, grossly distorted the characteristics of jati and greatly amplified its negative features.(4)”
Malhotra (5) further argues that it was Max Muller, who provided the racial framework for studying jati and this was then used by Risley to construct ‘caste system’ along racial lines and freeze those caste identities.
Maria Brun, in her critique of Dirk’s book, argues that the present caste system is not only an outcome of post 1850 caste censuses, but it goes further back to the British practice of caste criminality i.e. declaring an entire community as a criminal caste dating back to 1790. She writes: “By examining early encounters with female infanticide as a case study, this paper has revealed that the ethnicization of caste and the assignment of caste-based characteristics began with the identification of the criminal behavior and the creation of policies and legislation that targeted criminality via caste.(6)”
But, this is not to suggest that there was no incidence of discrimination or any rigidity in the pre-colonial society. Instead, what the studies reveal is that the ‘caste-system’ as understand today with all its social and political ramifications in the present society has its roots in Colonial narrative.
As previously quoted from Dirks, pre-colonial Indian society had a complex social set up with multiple identities. This complexity owed to the fact that India had always a highly decentralized society, wherein multiple social and political realities were given space to flourish and influence each other. People had ethno-cultural jati groupings, clan and skill related Kula-groupings, and various highly localized community identities. The rise or fall in the social status of these groupings was also localized depended upon a large number of factors including the political and financial self-sufficiency that they managed to attain.
A point that needs to be highlighted here is that the usage of the term ‘jati’ originally did not mean a reference to ethno-cultural group. In his working paper ‘Traditional Taxonomy of Varna–Jati and Kula’, Dr. B V Venkatakrishna Sastry (7) describes varna as “Unique descriptor tags, unique features which can be used for identification of individual entity for a specific identity,” and writes that jati refers to “This ‘commonality which includes an integration of unique descriptors /tags’ – which permeates a group of similar items, which is transmitted as a genus from one to another.” In other words, he defines varna as a descriptor tags and jati as a genus consisting people exhibiting those particular attributes of a varna.
Moreover, in scriptures like Manu Smriti itself, the term jati has been clearly used at many places as a synonym for varna. More specifically, jati has been used as a reference to people who had a mixed svabhava i.e. svabhavas which exhibited qualities of different varnas and hence could not be designated under any of the four varna categories. It was only at a much later date, probably during the last 1000-1500 years or so that the jati grouping appears to have attained an ethno-cultural, endogamous characteristics, which often overlapped with occupational identities.
Therefore, it is very clear that the origins of the present caste system lie in the British colonial rule. They trivialized the indigenous jati-kula identities, distorted the scriptural varna conception, and created a hierarchical and racial ‘caste system’ to further their colonization of India.
No Correlation between Varna and Caste
From the above it is quite clear that there is no correlation between varna and caste. Varna is a conceptual classification of the innate nature (svabhava) of the individuals, so that they can wisely choose actions and duties that are most natural and spontaneous to them. Any social model that recognizes the presence of different temperaments among people and facilitates people to live and work spontaneously according to their inner calling, thus establishing a harmonious society can be considered as a ‘varna vyavasta’ (varna system).
Speaking about this ideal varna vyavasta, David Frawley (8) writes in his book ‘Universal Hinduism’: “The Vedic concept of ‘varna-dharma’—reflects an organic and ecological model of society that is universal and quite appropriate for the dawning planetary age.”
He continues: “In this Vedic idea, human society follows the same organic order as the human body, which mirrors the order of the entire universe. Like the human body, human society should be one in nature, but differentiated according to functions. Just as the human body is one organism that has different limbs and organs with specialized activities necessary for the health and survival of the whole, so too, human society should have a similar organic differentiation, with different professions working together for the good of all.”
Contrasting this Vedic ideal with the current caste system, Frawley writes: “This organic concept of the social order is hardly one of caste superiority or caste oppression, but reflects a deep understanding of the natural order, which is one of independence and mutual interaction…..We should not look at India’s current caste model as representing the four varna system or its problems as being caused by the ancient order.”
Similarly, M N Srinivas in his book ‘Caste in Modern India’ writes: “The varna-model has produced a wrong and distorted image of caste. It is necessary for the sociologist to free himself from the hold of the varna-model if he wishes to understand the caste system. It is hardly necessary to add that it is more difficult for Indian sociologist than it is for non-Indian.”
Therefore, it can be easily concluded that the present system of caste, with its rigidity and discrimination have no religious basis in the Hindu conception of varna. Instead, we can trace their roots to the British Colonialism, which distorted, amalgamated, and appropriated the scriptural varna conception and the indigenous social identities of jati-kula, and reformulated a new racial, hierarchical caste system that froze the caste identities of the people and became a permanent fault-line within the society.
- Nicholas B. Dirks, Castes of Mind, Representations, No. 37, Special Issue: Imperial Fantasies and Postcolonial Histories (Winter, 1992); Page 59
- Ibid. Page 61
- Ibid. Page 59-60
- Rajiv Malhotra, Breaking India: Western Interventions in Dravidian and Dalit Faultlines, Page 52
- Ibid. Page 52-60
- Maria Brun, Institutions Collide: A Study of “Caste-Based” Collective Criminality and Female Infanticide in India, 1789-1871. Vol. 10, Issue 104, LSE International Development Working Papers; Page 24
- Dr. B V Venkatakrishna Sastry, Traditional Taxonomy of Varna–Jati and Kula, Submitted for WAVES ‐2011
- David Frawley, The Hindu Varna System: An Ecological and Dharmic Model of Society, in Universal Hinduism, Voice of India, 2010
- M N Srinivas, Caste in Modern India, Page 66
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With a degree in civil engineering, and having worked in construction field, Nithin Sridhar passionately writes about various issues from development, politics, and social issues, to religion, spirituality and ecology. He is based in Mysore, India. His first book “Musings On Hinduism” provided an overview of various aspects of Hindu philosophy and society. His latest book “Menstruation Across Cultures: A Historical Perspective” examines menstruation notions and practices prevalent in different cultures & religions from across the world. Tweets at @nkgrock