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Varna (वर्ण) is a Sanskrit word which means type, order, color or class. The term refers to social classes in Brahminical books such as the Manusmriti. These and other Hindu literature classified the society in principle into four varnas:
- the Brahmins: priests, scholars and teachers.
- the Kshatriyas: rulers, warriors and administrators.
- the Vaishyas: cattle herders, agriculturists, artisans and merchants.
- the Shudras: laborers and service providers.
The varna system is discussed in Hindu texts, and understood as idealised human callings. The concept 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.
The commentary on the Varna system in the Manusmriti is oft-cited. Counter to these textual classifications, many Hindu texts and doctrines question and disagree with the Varna system of social classification.
Etymology and origins
The word appears in the Rigveda, where it means "colour, outward appearance, exterior, form, figure or shape". The word means "color, tint, dye or pigment" in the Mahabharata. Varna contextually means "colour, race, tribe, species, kind, sort, nature, character, quality, property" of an object or people in some Vedic and medieval texts. Varna refers to four social classes in the Manusmrti.
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 at the sacrifice of the primordial 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 Vaishya, from his feet the Shudra was produced.
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. 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".
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."
Varna system is extensively discussed in Dharma-sastras. 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. Barbarians and those who are unrighteous, unethical are also considered patita (outside the varna system, outcastes) in Dharma texts.
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. 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). 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". 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. 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.
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".
The first three 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. The emperors of Kosala and the prince of Kasi are other examples.
Tim Ingold, an anthropologist, writes the Manusmriti is a highly schematic commentary on the varna system, but it too provides "models rather than descriptions". 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.
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". 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."
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. 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."
Varna in Buddhist texts
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. 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. 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?" 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". 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. 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". 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". 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]".
Peter Masefield, 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). 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, 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".
Varna in Jaina texts
Ādi purāṇa, an 8th century text of Jainism by Jinasena, is the earliest mention of Varna and Jati in Jainism literature. 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. Jinasena states that those who are committed to ahimsa are deva-Brāhmaṇas, divine Brahmins.
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". 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.
Varna in Sikh texts
Sikhism is a 15th-century religion that originated in the Punjab region in the Medieval India. 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. 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 be all castes in one person, who should be above caste.
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 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.
Varna and 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 the same gotras. The classical authors scarcely speak of anything other than the varnas; even Indologists sometimes confuse the two.
- Forward Castes
- Backward Class
- Four occupations – fourfold Confucian division
- Hindu reform movements
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