Hinduism/Day 19: The Varnas (caste system)

The varnas, otherwise known in the West as the “caste” system, is probably the most controversial and villainized aspect in all of Indian culture and Hindu theology. Because Hinduism (Sanatana Dharma) is such an ancient and integrated faith and way of life, one must be willing to peel back thousands of years of History, tradition, culture, and perspectives in order to glean the foundation of this social system that has come to be so reviled that its very usage is now illegal in modern India. I will briefly explore the varnas here, as well as deliver an introduction to their relevance from a scriptural basis and how the caste concept has evolved over the centuries.

Varnas or, “colors”, are designations to one’s social position based on a mixture of the three gunas, or physical/mental/emotional dispositions within them. These gunas are sattva (creative, inspiring, mentally quiet), rajas (restless, dynamic, fierce), and tamas (lazy, negligent, dull).

The Brahmanas are the intellectual and spiritual class, designated with the color white. Members of this group are more sattvik centered with a rajasik base and are charged with the spiritual and intellectual well-being of society.

Of course as Mankind often does, the original intent of a harmonious society became tainted by the ambitions and reinterpretations men placed on the meaning of the classes. The caste system as we’ve known it in recent history evolved into a rigid system of ascription in which that was virtually no hope of movement. One’s occupation and lifestyle was now a part of their genetics. Corrupt holy men rationalized this with twisted versions of karma and dharma. This new philosophy, designed to protect the lineage of the few and privileged, contradicts the scriptures in which Lord Krishna himself had been born a simple cowherd and other notable rishis (holy men) as well as avatars of Vishnu had traversed the classes based on effort and developed aptitude toward other occupations.

It would be unfair to point a finger at the Indian subcontinent for such abuses based on a warped view of scripture. Indeed, few religious or philosophical traditions are clean of the stain of atrocities justified by interpretation of holy writ. Our duty then is to dig into the muck and bring to light the true meaning behind these words within the context of their times of mention. Only with these insights, brought about by deep self-examination, will we be able to wash ourselves of the grim of prejudice based upon misguided and antiquated pretences. This is work left to only a few at present who have the courage to get their hands dirty. It seems then, that we would all do well to be an unclean ”Untouchable” from time to time after all.

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  • Omarazam

    HI Andrew, Very well-written, pithy, and intriguing look into an oft-vilified aspect of Hindusim. It’s no coincidence how the elite can transmogrify a divine inkling into an abused practice.

    • Anonymous

      Indeed it is. Ego, it seems, will twist any combination of words–divinely inspired or otherwise–to serve its own ends. I have hope, however, that we as a people will overcome this.

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  • Prabhat Chauhan

    Andrew: – You certainly NOt got the meaning of Varnas ..Varnas are basically deeds based ..However Caste system which is birth based was never a part of Hinduism…
    it become birth based during colonial rule in India…
    Below is the description of Varnas(They basically deeds based)

    The actual word used for Brahmin, Kshatriya, Vaishya and Shudra is ‘Varna’ and not Jaati.The word ‘Varna’ is used not only for these four, but also for Dasyu and Arya.‘Varna’ means one that is adopted by choice. ‘Varna’ is our own choice.Those who choose to be Arya are called ‘Arya Varna’. Those who choose to be Dasyu become ‘Dasyu Varna’. Same for Brahmin, Kshatriya, Vaishya and Shudra.That is why Vedic Dharma is called ‘Varnashram Dharma’. The word Varna itself implies that this is based on complete freedom of choice and meritocracy.3.Those involved in intellectual activities have chosen ‘Brahmin Varna’. Those into defense and warfare are ‘Kshatriya Varna’. Those in economics and animal rearing are ‘Vaishya Varna’ and those involved in other support functions are “Shudra Varna”. They refer merely to various choices of professions and have nothing to do with any Jaati or birth.4.Often mantras of Purush Sukta are cited to prove that Brahmins originated from Mouth, Kshatriya from hands, Vaishya from thighs and Shudras from legs of God. Thus these varnas are birth-based. However nothing could be more deceptive. Let us see why:a. Vedas describe God to be shapeless and unchangeable. How can such a God take shape of a gigantic person if He is shapeless. Refer Yajurved 40.8.b. If indeed this were true, this would defy the theory of Karma of Vedas. Because as per Theory of Karma, one’s family of birth can change as per his or her deeds. So one born in Shudra family can take birth as king’s son in next birth. But if Shudras are born from feet of God, how can same Shudra again take birth from hands of God?c. Soul is timeless and never born. So soul can have no Varna. It is only when it takes birth as human that it has a chance to opt a Varna. Then what is meant by a Varna coming from one part of God’s body? If Soul did not take birth from God’s body, then does it mean body of soul is prepared from God’s body parts? But as per Vedas, even nature is eternal. And same atoms recycle among various humans. So it is technically impossible for any one taking birth from God’s body, even if we assume God to be having a body.

    • andrewbowen

      Prabhat,

      Although I appreciate your adding to the information presented in this post, you preclude this addendum as if what I offered was incorrect. I’m always happy to correct the information I present when required, however I’m not exactly sure where our information diverges from one another. Are you sure you aren’t confusing my post with that of another?

      • Prabhat Chauhan

        Andrew I appreciate your write up but for few things I feel that article is not up to the point like you write

        There is another caste called the dalit or, “Untouchables.” This class was made infamous by such caste opponents as Mahatma Gandhi, who called for equality among the castes.”

        Here this article is about Varnas but there is NO Varna called as Dalit or Untouchable..This whole Untouchable thing arise in India after muslim Invaders invaded India…when they Win a war they used to give two option to the members of the Most soldier army persons either to Convert to Islam or to Pay Jazia and do the scavenging work..The so called Dalits are those people who choose NOT to convert to Islam..and accepted Scavenging work and payed Jazia tax…however .You will be surprised to see the so called Dalits have Gotras(Lineage ) of Kshatriya’s ..

        However Apart from this I also find the description of Shudra Varna is also not complete so I have Commented about that separately….

  • Prabhat Chauhan

    The details of Purusha Sukta in vedas…which was being wrongly translated by Max Muller in English Translation ..

    The said Purush Sukta is in 31st Chapter of Yajurved, apart from Rigved and Atharvaved with some variations. In Yajurved it is 31.11. To see what it actually means, let us look at the previous mantra 31.10.
    It asks a question – Who is mouth? Who is hand? Who is thigh and who is leg?The next mantra gives the answer – Brahmin is mouth. Kshatriya is hand. Vaishya is thigh and Shudra becomes the legs.Note that the mantra does not say that Brahmin “takes birth” from mouth…It says Brahmin “is” mouth. Because if the mantra would mean “takes birth” it would not answer the question in previous mantra “Who is mouth?”For example, if I ask “Who is Dashrath?”, an answer like “Rama is born from Dashrath” would be meaningless!The actual meaning is:
    In society, Brahmins or intellectuals form the brain or head or mouth that think and speak. Kshatriya or defense personnel form the hands that protect. Vaishya or producers and businessmen form the thigh that support and nurture (note that thigh bone or femur produces blood and is strongest bone). In Atharvaveda, instead of Uru or Thigh, the word “Madhya” is used meaning that it denotes also the stomach and central part of body.Shudra or Labor force form the legs that lay the foundation and make the body run.The next mantras talk of other parts of this body like mind, eyes etc. The Purush Sukta describes the origin and continuation of creation including human society and states ingredients of a meaningful society.Thus, its a pity that such a beautiful allegorical description of society and creation is distorted to mean something that is completely contrary to Vedic ethos.Even the Brahman texts, Manusmriti, Mahabharat, Ramayan and Bhagvat do not state anything even close to crazy hypothesis of God creating Brahmins by tearing of flesh from his mouth, Kshatriya from flesh of hands and so on.

  • Prabhat Chauhan

    In Vedic culture, everyone is considered to be born as Shudra. Then based on his or her education, one becomes a Brahmin, Kshatriya or Vaishya. This completion of education is considered to be a second birth. Hence these three Varnas are called “Dwija” or twice-born. But those who remain uneducated for whatever reasons are not discarded from society. They continue as Shudra and perform support-activities for the society.
    1.
    A son of Brahmin, if he fails to complete his education, becomes a Shudra. Similarly, son of a Shudra or even a Dasyu, if he completes his education can become a Brahmin, Kshatriya or Vaishya. This is pure meritocracy. The way degrees are accorded today, Yajnopaveet was provided in Vedic system. Further, non-compliance with the code of conduct for each Varna could result in taking away of the Yajnopaveet.
    2.
    Many examples exist of change of Varnas in Vedic history.
    a. Aitareya Rishi was son of a Daasa or criminal but became a Brahmin of highest order and wrote Aitareya Brahman and Aitareyopanishad. Aitareya Brahman is considered critical to understand Rigveda.
    b. Ailush Rishi was son of a Daasi, gambler and of low character. However he researched on Rigveda and made several discoveries. Not only was he invited by Rishis but also made an Acharya. (Aitareya Brahman 2.19)
    c. Satyakaam Jaabaal was son of a prostitute but became a Brahmin.
    d. Prishadh was son of King Daksha but became a Shudra. Further he did Tapasya to achieve salvation after repenting.
    (Vishnu Puran 4.1.14)
    Had Tapasya been banned for Shudra as per the fake story from Uttar Ramayan, how could Prishadh do so?
    e. Nabhag, soon of King Nedishtha became Vaishya. Many of his sons again became Kshatriya. (Vishnu Puran 4.1.13)
    f. Dhrist was son of Nabhag (Vaishya) but became Brahmin and his son became Kshatriya (VP 4.2.2)
    g. Further in his generation, some became Brahmin again (VP 9.2.23)
    h. As per Bhagvat, Agniveshya became Brahmin though born to a king.
    i. Rathotar born in Kshatriya family became a Brahmin as per Vishnu Puran and Bhagvat.
    j. Haarit became Brahmin though born to Kshatriya (VP 4.3.5)
    k. Shaunak became Brahmin though born in Kshatriya family. (VP 4.8.1). In fact, as per Vayu Puran, Vishnu Puran and Harivansh Puran, sons of Shaunak Rishi belonged to all four Varnas.
    Similar examples exist of Gritsamad, Veethavya and Vritsamati.
    l. Matanga was son of Chandal but became a Brahmin.
    m. Raavan was born from Pulatsya Rishi but became a Rakshas.
    n. Pravriddha was son of Raghu King but became a Rakshas.
    o. Trishanku was a king but became a Chandal
    p. Sons of Vishwamitra became Shudra. Vishwamitra himself was a Kshatriya who later became a Brahmin.
    q. Vidur was son of a servant but became a Brahmin and minister of Hastinapur empire.
    9.
    The word “Shudra” has come in Vedas around 20 times. Nowhere has it been used in a derogatory manner. Nowhere it mentions that Shudras are untouchable, birth-based, disallowed from study of Vedas, lesser in status than other Varnas, disallowed in Yajnas.
    10.
    In Vedas, Shudra means a hard-working person. (Tapase Shudram – Yajurved 30.5). And that is why Purush Sukta calls them as foundation of entire human society.
    11.
    Since the four Varnas refer to 4 kinds of activities by choice, as per Vedas, the same person exhibits characteristics of the 4 varnas in different situations. Thus everyone belongs to all the 4 varnas. However, for simplicity sake, we refer to the predominant profession to be the representative Varna.
    And hence, all humans should strive to be all the 4 Varnas to best of their capabilities, as per Vedic wisdom. This is the essence of Purush Sukta.
    The Rishis like Vasisth, Vishwamitra, Angira, Gautam, Vaamdeva and Kanva exhibited traits of all the four Varnas. They discovered meanings of Vedic mantras, destroyed Dasyus, did manual labor and indulged in wealth management for social welfare.
    We should also emulate the same.
    In summary, we see that the Vedic society considers all humans to be one single Jaati or race, upholds the dignity of labor and provides equal opportunity for all humans to adopt the Varna of their choice.
    There is no element of birth-based discrimination of any manner in the Vedas.
    May we all unite together as one integrated family, reject the last element of birth-based discrimination of any manner and embrace each other as brothers and sisters.
    May we also thwart the designs of those who want to mislead us by making baseless claims of casteism in Vedas and destroy the criminals aka Dasyu/Daas/Rakshas.
    May we all come under the shelter of Vedas and work together to strengthen the humanity as one single family.