Varna (Hinduism)

From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
Jump to: navigation, search

Varna is a Sanskrit word which means colour or class.[1][2] Ancient Hindu literature classified all humankind, and all created beings, in principle into four varnas:[3][4]

  • the Brahmins: priests, teachers and preachers.
  • the Kshatriyas: kings, governors, warriors and soldiers.
  • the Vaishyas: cattle herders, agriculturists, artisans[5] and merchants.[6]
  • the Shudras: labourers and service providers.

This quadruple division is an ancient stratification of society is not to be confused with the much more nuanced jati or "caste".[7]

The varna system is discussed in Hindu texts, and understood as idealised human callings.[8][9] The concept of Varna is generally traced to the Purusha Sukta verse of the Rig Veda, however modern scholarship believes that this verse was inserted at a later date, possibly to create a charter myth.[10]

The commentary on the Varna system in the Manusmriti is oft-cited.[11] Counter to these textual classifications, many Hindu texts and doctrines question and disagree with the Varna system of social classification.[12]

Etymology and origins[edit]

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.[13]

According to Indian sources the word Varna originates from the root word "vrinja" which means "choice".[14][unreliable source]

The Vedas[edit]

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:[15]

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)[citation needed]

This Purusha Sukta varna verse is now generally considered to have been inserted at a later date into the Vedic text, possibly as a charter myth.[16] Stephanie Jamison and Joel Brereton, a professor of Sanskrit and Religious studies, state, "there is no evidence in the Rigveda for an elaborate, much-subdivided and overarching caste system", and "the varna system seems to be embryonic in the Rigveda and, both then and later, a social ideal rather than a social reality".[17]

Ram Sharan 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."[18]

In the post-Vedic period, the varna division is described in the Dharmashastra literature, the Mahabharata and in the Puranas.[19]

The Dharmasastras[edit]

Varna system is extensively discussed in Dharma-sastras.[20] Varna system in Dharma-sastras divide the society into four varnas (Brahmins, Kshtriyas, Vaishya and Shudras), those who fall out of this system because of their grievous sins are ostracized as outcastes (untouchables) and considered outside the Varna system.[21][22] Barbarians and those who are unrighteous, unethical are also considered patita (outside the varna system, outcastes) in Dharma texts.[23]

Recent scholarship suggests that the discussion of varna, as well as untouchable outcastes (people outside the varna system), in these texts does not resemble the modern era caste system in India. Patrick Olivelle, a professor of Sanskrit and Indian Religions and credited with modern translations of Vedic literature, Dharma-sutras and Dharma-sastras, states that ancient and medieval Indian texts do not support the ritual pollution, purity-impurity as the basis for varna system.[24] According to Olivelle, purity-impurity is discussed in the Dharma-sastra texts, but only in the context of the individual's moral, ritual and biological pollution (eating certain kinds of food such as meat, going to bathroom).[25] In his review of Dharma-sastras, Olivelle writes, "we see no instance when a term of pure/impure is used with reference to a group of individuals or a varna or caste".[26] The only mention of impurity in the Shastra texts from the 1st millennium is about people who commit grievous sins and thereby fall out of their varna. These, writes Olivelle, are called "fallen people" and impure, declaring that they be ostracized.[27] Olivelle adds that the overwhelming focus in matters relating to purity/impurity in the Dharma-sastra texts concerns "individuals irrespective of their varna affiliation" and all four varnas could attain purity or impurity by the content of their character, ethical intent, actions, innocence or ignorance, stipulations, and ritualistic behaviors.[28]

Olivelle states, "Dumont is correct in his assessment that the ideology of varna is not based on purity. If it were we should expect to find at least some comment on the relative purity and impurity of the different vamas. What is even more important is that the ideology of purity and impurity that emerges from the Dharma literature is concerned with the individual and not with groups, with purification and not with purity, and lends little support to a theory which makes relative purity the foundation of social stratification".[29]

The first three[30] varnas are described in the Dharmasastras as "twice born" and they are allowed to study the Vedas. Such a restriction of who can study Vedas is not found in the Vedic era literature.

Manusmriti assigns cattle rearing as Vaishya occupation but historical evidence shows that Brahmins, Kshatriyas and Shudras also owned and reared cattle and that cattle-wealth was mainstay of their households. Ramnarayan Rawat, a professor of History and specializing in social exclusion in Indian subcontinent, states that the 19th century British records show Chamars listed as untouchables also owned land and cattle, were active agriculturalists.[31] The emperors of Kosala and the prince of Kasi are other examples.[6]

Tim Ingold, an anthropologist, writes the Manusmriti is a highly schematic commentary on the varna system, but it too provides "models rather than descriptions".[32] Susan Bayly states that Manusmriti and other scriptures helped elevate Brahmin in the social hierarchy and these were a factor in the making of the varna system, but the ancient texts did not in some way "create the phenomenon of caste" in India.[33]

The Epics[edit]

The Mahabharata, estimated to have been completed by about 4th century CE, discusses the Varna system in section 12.181.[34]

The Epic offers two models on Varna. The first model describes Varna as color-based system, through a character named Bhrigu, "Brahmins Varna was white, Kshtriyas was red, Vaishyas was yellow, and the Shudras' black".[35] This description is questioned by Bharadvaja who says that colors are seen among all the Varnas, that desire, anger, fear, greed, gried, anxiety, hunger and toil prevails over all human beings, that bile and blood flow from all human bodies, so what distinguishes the Varnas, he asks? The Mahabharata then declares, according to Alf Hiltebeitel, a professor of religion, "There is no distinction of Varnas. This whole universe is Brahman. It was created formerly by Brahma, came to be classified by acts."[36]

The Mahabharata thereafter recites a behavioral model for Varna, that those who were inclined to anger, pleasures and boldness attained the Kshtriya Varna; those who were inclined to cattle rearing and living off the plough attained the Vaishyas; those who were fond of violence, covetousness and impurity attained the Shudras. The Brahmin class is modeled in the epic, as the archetype default state of man dedicated to truth, austerity and pure conduct.[37] In the Mahabharata and pre-medieval era Hindu texts, according to Hiltebeitel, "it is important to recognize, in theory, Varna is nongenealogical. The four Varnas are not lineages, but categories."[38]

Varna in Buddhist texts[edit]

Ancient Buddhist texts mention Varna system in South Asia, but the details suggest that it was a non-rigid, flexible and with characteristics devoid of features of a social stratification system.[39] Maurice Walshe, a German scholar and translator of Digha Nikaya, provides a discussion between Gotama Buddha and a Hindu Brahmin named Sonadanda who was very learned in the Vedas.[40][41] Gotama Buddha asks in Digha Nikaya, according to the Theravada Pali text translation by Walshe, "By how many qualities do Brahmins recognize another Brahmin? How would one declare truthfully and without falling into falsehood, "I am a Brahmin?"[40][42] Sonadanda initially lists five qualities as, "he is of pure descent on both the mother's and the father's side, he is well versed in mantras, he is of fair color handsome and pleasing, he is virtuous learned and wise, and he is the first or second to hold the sacrificial ladle".[40][41] Buddha then asks the Brahmin, "If we omit one of these qualities you just listed, could not one be still a true Brahmin?" Sonadanda, one by one, eliminates fair color and looks, then eliminates Varna in which one was born, and then eliminates the ability to recite mantra and do sacrifices as a requirement of being a Brahmin.[40][41] Sonadanda asserts that just two qualities are necessary to truthfully and without falling into falsehoold identify a Brahmin; these two qualities are "being virtuous and being learned and wise".[40][41] Sonadanda adds, states Walshe, that it is impossible to reduce the requirement for being a Brahmin any further, because "for wisdom is purified by morality, and morality is purified by wisdom; where one is, the other is, the moral man has wisdom and the wise man has morality, and the combination of morality and wisdom is called the highest thing in the world".[40] Brian Black and Dean Patton state Sonadanda admits after this, "we [Brahmins] only know this much Gotama; it would be well if Reverend Gotama would explain meaning of the two [morality, wisdom]".[43]

Peter Masefield,[39] a Buddhism scholar and ancient Pali texts translator, states that during the Nikāya texts period of Buddhism (3rd century BC to 5th century AD), Varna as a class system is attested, but the described Varna was not a caste system. The Pali texts enumerate the four Varnas, writes Masefield, always in the following order: Khattiya (Kshatriya), Brahmin, Vessa (Vaishya) and Sudda (Shudra).[39] Masefield notes that people in any Varna could in principle perform any profession. The early Buddhist texts, for instance, identify some Brahmins to be farmers and in other professions. The text state that anyone, of any birth, could perform the priestly function,[39] and that the Brahmin took food from anyone, suggesting that strictures of commensality were as yet unknown. The Nikaya texts also imply that endogamy was not mandated in ancient India. Masefield concludes, "if any form of caste system was known during the Nikaya period - and it is doubtful that it was - this was in all probability restricted to certain non-Aryan groups".[39]

Varna in Jaina texts[edit]

Ādi purāṇa, an 8th century text of Jainism by Jinasena, is the earliest mention of Varna and Jati in Jainism literature.[44] Jinasena does not trace the origin of Varna system to Rigveda or to Purusha Sukta, instead traces varna to the Bharata legend. According to this legend, Bharata performed an "ahimsa-test" (test of non-violence), and those members of his community who refused to harm or hurt any living being were called as the priestly varna in ancient India, and Bharata called them dvija, twice born.[45] Jinasena states that those who are committed to ahimsa are deva-Brāhmaṇas, divine Brahmins.[46]

The text Adi purana also discusses the relationship between varna and jati. According to Padmanabh Jaini, a professor of Indic studies, Jainism and Buddhism, the Adi purana text states "there is only one jati called manusyajati or the human caste, but divisions arise account of their different professions".[47] The varna of Kshatriya arose when Rishabha procured weapons to serve the society and assumed the powers of a king, while Vaishya and Shudra varna arose from different means of livelihood they specialized in.[48]

Varna in Sikh texts[edit]

Sikhism is a 15th-century religion that originated in northwest South Asia during its Islamic rule period. Sikh text mention Varna as Varan, and Jati as Zat or Zat-biradari. Eleanor Nesbitt, a professor of Religion and specializing in Christian, Hindu and Sikh studies, states that the Varan is described as a class system in 18th- to 20th-century Sikh literature, while Zat developed into caste system particularly during the British colonial era.[49] In theory, Nesbitt quotes the Sikh dictum to be,

A Sikh should be a Brahmin in piety, a Kshatriya in defense of truth and the oppressed, a Vaishya in business acumen and hard work, and a Shudra in serving humanity. A Sikh should all castes in one person, who should be above caste.

– Owen Cole and Piara Sambhi[49]

Tantra[edit]

The Tantric movement that developed as a tradition distinct from orthodox Hinduism between the 8th and 11th centuries CE[50] also relaxed many societal strictures regarding class and community distinction. However it would be an over generalisation 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.[51]

Varna and jāti[edit]

Main article: Jāti

The terms varna (theoretical classification based on occupation) and jāti (caste) are two distinct concepts. Jāti (community) refers to the thousands of 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.[52]

See also[edit]

References[edit]

  1. ^ Doniger, Wendy (1999). Merriam-Webster's encyclopedia of world religions. Springfield, MA, USA: Merriam-Webster. p. 186. ISBN 978-0-87779-044-0. 
  2. ^ Stanton, Andrea (2012). An Encyclopedia of Cultural Sociology of the Middle East, Asia, and Africa. USA: SAGE Publications. pp. 12–13. ISBN 978-1-4129-8176-7. 
  3. ^ Doniger, Wendy (1999). Merriam-Webster's encyclopedia of world religions. Springfield, MA, USA: Merriam-Webster. p. 186. ISBN 978-0-87779-044-0. 
  4. ^ Ingold, Tim (1994). Companion encyclopedia of anthropology. London New York: Routledge. p. 1026. ISBN 978-0-415-28604-6. 
  5. ^ Hazen, Walter (2003). Inside Hinduism. Milliken Publishing. p. 4. 
  6. ^ a b Kumar, Arun (2002). Encyclopaedia of Teaching of Agriculture. Anmol Publications. p. 411. ISBN 978-81-261-1316-3. 
  7. ^ Juergensmeyer, Mark (2006). The Oxford Handbook of Global Religions. Oxford University Press, USA. p. 54. ISBN 978-0-19972-761-2. 
  8. ^ Bayly, Susan (2001), Caste, Society and Politics in India from the Eighteenth Century to the Modern Age, Cambridge University Press, p. 8, ISBN 978-0-521-26434-1 
  9. ^ Thapar, Romila (2004), Early India: From the Origins to AD 1300, University of California Press, p. 63, ISBN 978-0-52024-225-8 
  10. ^ Jamison, Stephanie et al. (2014). The Rigveda : the earliest religious poetry of India. Oxford University Press. pp. 57–58. ISBN 978-0-19-937018-4. 
  11. ^ David Lorenzen (2006). Who invented Hinduism : essays on religion in History. Yoda Press. pp. 147–149. ISBN 978-81-902272-6-1. 
  12. ^ Bayly, Susan (2001), Caste, Society and Politics in India from the Eighteenth Century to the Modern Age, Cambridge University Press, p. 9, ISBN 978-0-521-26434-1 
  13. ^ Monier-Williams, Monier (2005) [1899]. A Sanskrit-English Dictionary: Etymologically and Philologically Arranged with Special Reference to Cognate Indo-European Languages (Reprinted ed.). Motilal Banarsidass. p. 924. ISBN 978-8-12083-105-6. 
  14. ^ http://agniveer.com/manu-smriti-and-shudras
  15. ^ Basham, Arthur Llewellyn (1989). The Origin and Development of Classical Hinduism (Reprinted ed.). Oxford University Press. p. 25. ISBN 978-0-19507-349-2. 
  16. ^ Jamison, Stephanie et al. (2014). The Rigveda : the earliest religious poetry of India. Oxford University Press. pp. 57–58. ISBN 978-0-19-937018-4. 
  17. ^ Jamison, Stephanie et al. (2014). The Rigveda : the earliest religious poetry of India. Oxford University Press. pp. 57–58. ISBN 978-0-19-937018-4. 
  18. ^ Sharma, Ram Sharan (1990). Śūdras in Ancient India: A Social History of the Lower Order Down to Circa A.D. 600. Motilal Banarsidass Publishers. p. 10. 
  19. ^ Hiltebeitel, Alf (2011). Dharma : its early history in law, religion, and narrative. Oxford University Press. pp. 529–531. ISBN 978-0-19-539423-8. 
  20. ^ Olivelle, Patrick (1998). "Caste and Purity: A Study in the Language of the Dharma Literature". Contribution to Indian Sociology 32 (2): 189–216. 
  21. ^ Olivelle, Patrick (1998). "Caste and Purity: A Study in the Language of the Dharma Literature". Contribution to Indian Sociology 32 (2): 199–216. 
  22. ^ Bayly, Susan (2001), Caste, Society and Politics in India from the Eighteenth Century to the Modern Age, Cambridge University Press, pp. 9–11, ISBN 978-0-521-26434-1 
  23. ^ Olivelle, Patrick (1998). "Caste and Purity: A Study in the Language of the Dharma Literature". Contribution to Indian Sociology 32 (2): 199–203. 
  24. ^ Olivelle, Patrick (2008). Chapter 9. Caste and Purity in Collected essays. Firenze, Italy: Firenze University Press. pp. 240–241. ISBN 978-88-8453-729-4. 
  25. ^ Olivelle, Patrick (1998). "Caste and Purity: A Study in the Language of the Dharma Literature". Contribution to Indian Sociology 32 (2): 189–216. 
  26. ^ Olivelle, Patrick (2008). Chapter 9. Caste and Purity in Collected essays. Firenze, Italy: Firenze University Press. pp. 240–241. ISBN 978-88-8453-729-4. 
  27. ^ Olivelle, Patrick (2008). Chapter 9. Caste and Purity in Collected essays. Firenze, Italy: Firenze University Press. p. 240. ISBN 978-88-8453-729-4. 
  28. ^ Olivelle, Patrick (2008). Chapter 9. Caste and Purity in Collected essays. Firenze, Italy: Firenze University Press. pp. 240–245. ISBN 978-88-8453-729-4. 
  29. ^ Olivelle, Patrick (1998). "Caste and Purity: A Study in the Language of the Dharma Literature". Contribution to Indian Sociology 32 (2): 210. 
  30. ^ Juergensmeyer, Mark (2006). The Oxford Handbook of Global Religions. Oxford University Press, USA. p. 27. ISBN 978-0-19972-761-2. 
  31. ^ Rawat, Ramnarayan (2011). Reconsidering untouchability : Chamars and Dalit history in North India. Bloomington: Indiana University Press. pp. 53–63. ISBN 978-0-253-22262-6. 
  32. ^ Ingold, Tim (1994). Companion encyclopedia of anthropology. Routledge. p. 1026. ISBN 978-0-415-28604-6. 
  33. ^ Bayly, Susan (2001), Caste, Society and Politics in India from the Eighteenth Century to the Modern Age, Cambridge University Press, p. 29, ISBN 978-0-521-26434-1 
  34. ^ Hiltebeitel, Alf (2011). Dharma : its early history in law, religion, and narrative. Oxford University Press. pp. 529–531. ISBN 978-0-19-539423-8. 
  35. ^ Hiltebeitel, Alf (2011). Dharma : its early history in law, religion, and narrative. Oxford University Press. pp. 529–531. ISBN 978-0-19-539423-8. 
  36. ^ Hiltebeitel, Alf (2011). Dharma : its early history in law, religion, and narrative. Oxford University Press. pp. 529–531. ISBN 978-0-19-539423-8. 
  37. ^ Hiltebeitel, Alf (2011). Dharma : its early history in law, religion, and narrative. Oxford University Press. p. 532. ISBN 978-0-19-539423-8. 
  38. ^ Hiltebeitel, Alf (2011). Dharma : its early history in law, religion, and narrative. Oxford University Press. p. 594. ISBN 978-0-19-539423-8. 
  39. ^ a b c d e Masefield, Peter (2008). Divine revelation in Pali Buddhism. Routledge. p. 146-154. ISBN 978-041-5461-64-1. 
  40. ^ a b c d e f Walshe, Maurice (1995). The long discourses of the Buddha : a translation of the Dīgha Nikāya. Boston: Wisdom Publications. p. 129-131. ISBN 978-0-86171-103-1. 
  41. ^ a b c d T. W. Rhys Davids. DN4: To Sonadanda, Digha Nikaya Verses 13-21, Translated from the Pâli. Oxford University Press. 
  42. ^ Thomas, E. J. (2000). The life of Buddha as legend and history. Asian Educational Services. p. 257. ISBN 978-81-206-0979-2. 
  43. ^ Brian Black and Dean Laurie Patton (2015). Dialogue in early South Asian religions : Hindu, Buddhist, and Jain traditions. Burlington: Ashgate. pp. 245–246. ISBN 978-1-4094-4013-0. 
  44. ^ Jaini, Padmanabh (1998). The Jaina path of purification. Motilal Banarsidass. pp. 294, 285–295. ISBN 978-81-208-1578-0. 
  45. ^ Jaini, Padmanabh (1998). The Jaina path of purification. Motilal Banarsidass. p. 289. ISBN 978-81-208-1578-0. 
  46. ^ Jaini, Padmanabh (1998). The Jaina path of purification. Motilal Banarsidass. p. 290. ISBN 978-81-208-1578-0. 
  47. ^ Jaini, Padmanabh (2000). Collected papers on Jaina studies. Motilal Banarsidass Publishers. p. 340. ISBN 978-81-208-1691-6. 
  48. ^ Jaini, Padmanabh (2000). Collected papers on Jaina studies. Motilal Banarsidass Publishers. pp. 340–341. ISBN 978-81-208-1691-6. 
  49. ^ a b Nesbitt, Eleanor (2005). Sikhism a very short introduction. Oxford New York: Oxford University Press. pp. 116–120. ISBN 978-0-19-280601-7. 
  50. ^ Flood, Gavin (2005) [2003]. The Blackwell Companion to Hinduism. p. 208. 
  51. ^ Bhattacharyya, N. N. History of the Tantric Religion. pp. 44–45. 
  52. ^ Dumont, Louis (1980), Homo hierarchicus: the caste system and its implications, University of Chicago Press, pp. 66–67, ISBN 0-226-16963-4 

Further reading[edit]