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- the Brahmins: priests, teachers and preachers.
- the Kshatriyas: kings, governors, warriors and soldiers.
- the Vaishyas: cattle herders, agriculturists, businessmen, artisans and merchants.
- the Shudras: labourers and service providers.
This quadruple division is the ancient division of society into "principal castes"; it is not to be confused with the much finer caste system in India based on occupation as it emerged in the medieval period.
The varna division is alluded to in the late Rigvedic Purusha Sukta. It has been theorised to reflect a much more ancient tripartite society, ultimately cognate with the western "estates of the realm" (viz. division into a priestly class, a warrior class, and a class of commoners or free farmers, apart from a population of unfree serfs excluded from society proper).
The relationship between occupation, varna, and social ordering in the Rig Vedic period was complex. In the varna ordering of society, notions of purity and pollution were central. The phenomenon of the upper classes living on the labour of tribesmen was just emerging, and was not ritualized or ideologically ratified until the Purusha Sukta. R.S. Sharma states that "the Rig Vedic society was neither organized on the basis of social division of labour nor on that of differences in wealth... [it] was primarily organised on the basis of kin, tribe and lineage."
The varna system became rigid in the later Vedic period. It was detailed in post-Vedic Brahmanism (in the Manusmṛti, the oldest of the Dharmashastras, compiled during the time of the Kushan Empire).
Etymology and origins
Varna is a Sanskrit term varṇa (वर्ण). It is derived from the root vṛ, meaning "to cover, to envelop" (compare vṛtra). The meaning of the word as used in the Rigveda has the literal meaning "outward appearance, exterior, form, figure, shape, colour" besides the figurative "colour, race, kind, sort, character, quality, property". In the Rigveda, the term can mean "class of men, tribe, order, caste", especially expressing the contrast between the āryas and dāsas.
The earliest application to the formal division into four social classes (without using the term varna) appears in the late Rigvedic Purusha Sukta (RV 10.90.11–12), which has the Brahman, Rajanya (instead of Kshatriya), Vaishya and Shudra classes emerging from the mouth, arms, thighs and feet of the primordial giant, Purusha, respectively:
- 11. When they divided Purusa how many portions did they make?
- What do they call his mouth, his arms? What do they call his thighs and feet?
- 12. The Brahman was his mouth, of both his arms was the Rajanya made.
- His thighs became the Vaisya, from his feet the Sudra was produced. (trans. Ralph T.H. Griffith)
In the post-Vedic period, the division is described explicitly and in great detail in the Dharmashastra literature, later also in the Puranas and other texts. The Manusmriti is the oldest of the Dharmashastra texts, reflecting the laws and society of Gupta period India.
Rigvedic evidence of such a quadruple division of society has been compared to similar systems, especially with a view to reconstructing hypothetical Proto-Indo-European society. Such comparison is at the basis of the trifunctional hypothesis presented by Georges Dumézil. Dumézil postulates a basic division of society into a priesthood (Brahmins), warrior class or nobility (Kshatriyas) and commoners (Vaishyas), augmented by a class of unfree serfs (Shudras).
The varna idea evolved; since the Vedic corpus constitute the earliest literary source, it came to be seen as the origin of caste society. In this Brahmanical view of caste, the varnas were created on a particular occasion and have remained virtually unchanged. In the varna ordering of society notions of purity and pollution were central and activities were worked out in this context. Varna divides the society into four groups ordered in a hierarchy, the fifth being chandala (untouchable) and therefore beyond the pale.
The relationship between occupation, varna, and social ordering in the Rig Vedic period is complex. The phenomenon of the upper classes living on the labour of tribesmen was just emerging, and was not ritualized or ideologically ratified until the Purusha Sukta. R.S. Sharma states that "the Rig Vedic society was neither organized on the basis of social division of labour nor on that of differences in wealth... [it] was primarily organised on the basis of kin, tribe and lineage." The varna system became rigid in the later Vedic period.
Manusmriti assigns cattle rearing as Vaishya occupation, however there are sources in available literature that Kshatriyas also owned and reared the cattle and cattle-wealth was mainstay of their households. The emperors of Kosala and the prince of Kasi are some of many examples.
The Tantric movement that developed as a tradition distinct from orthodox Hinduism between the 8th and 11th centuries CE 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 because although many of our known Tantric teachers were non-Brāhmaṇas, rather belonging to the lower ranks of society, almost all of the known authors of the Tantric treatises were Brāhmaṇas."
Varna and jāti
The terms varna (theoretical classification based on occupation) and jāti (caste) are two distinct concepts: while varna is the idealised four-part division envisaged by the above described Twice-Borns, jāti (community) refers to the thousands of actual endogamous groups prevalent across the subcontinent. A jati may be divided into exogamous groups based on same gotras. The classical authors scarcely speak of anything other than the varnas; even Indologists sometimes confuse the two.
In India and Nepal the sub-communities within a varna are called "jaat" or "jati". Traditionally, individuals marry only within their jati. People are born into a jati and normally it cannot be changed.
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 outcaste 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 what they believed to be true Varnashrama dharma as described in the Vedas.
- Forward Castes
- Backward Class
- Four occupations – fourfold Confucian division
- Hindu reform movements
- Prabhat Rainjan Sarkar
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