Varna vyavastha (literally, the class system)
remains one of the most interesting and debatable topics in
the study of Vedic culture. Since the Vedas remain an
unraveled mystery even today due to the archaic Sanskrit in
which they were composed, much of the ancient social history
is derived from the extrapolation from the later history of
While most of the modern scholarship on this
issue applies Marxist and Weberian themes to interpret this,
I endeavor to take a fresh approach to demonstrate some of
the lesser-known aspects of this system.
The Original System
The varna system illustrates the spirit of
comprehensive synthesis, characteristic of the ancient
Indian mind with its faith in the collaboration of races and
the co-operation of cultures. Paradoxical as it may seem,
the system of varna was the outcome of tolerance and
Though it may now have degenerated into an instrument
of oppression and intolerance and tends to perpetuate
inequality and develop the spirit of exclusiveness, these
unfortunate effects were not the central motives of the
The system of varna insisted that
the law of social life should not be cold and cruel
competition, but harmony and co-operation. Society should
not be a field of rivalry among individuals. The varnas
were not allowed to compete with one another. Varna
divisions were based on individual temperament, and which
were not immutable. Originally varnas were assigned
to people based on their aptitude and qualities, but in
later periods they were assigned based on birth. However,
there are a number of exceptions in the entire period that
shows the flexibility of the system.
There were four varnas: brahmin, ksatriya, vaisya
The basic idea was division of labor in
the society. Brahmin was defined as brahman nayati
iti brahmin. People who preached spiritual teachings to
the society and lived spiritual lives were called
Ksatriya was defined as kseeyate
traayate iti ksatriya. These were the people who
protected the society against external attacks and
maintained internal order.
Vaisya was defined as
visati iti vaisya. Businessmen, traders and farmers came
under this category.
Sudras were the people engaged
in services. Carpenters, blacksmiths, goldsmiths, cobblers,
porters etc., fell under this category.
This system ensured
that the religious, political, financial and physical powers
were all separated into four different social classes. Due
to this fair separation of political and intellectual
powers, ancient Indian society could not turn itself into a
theocratic or autocratic society.
In the beginning, there was only one varna in the ancient
Indian society. “We were all brahmins or all
sudras,” says Brhadaranyaka Upanisad (1.4, 11-5,
1.31) and also Mahabharata (12.188).
text says that one is born a sudra, and through purification
he becomes a brahmin.
According to Bhagavada Gita,
varna is conferred on the basis of the intrinsic
nature of an individual, which is a combination of three
gunas (qualities): sattva, rajas, and tamas.
Mahabharata SantiParva, Yudhisthira defines a brahmin
as one who is truthful, forgiving, and kind. He clearly
points out that a brahmin is not a brahmin
just because he is born in a brahmin family, nor is a
sudra a sudra because his parents are sudras.
The same concept is mentioned in Manu Smrti. Another
scripture Apastamba Dharmasutra states that by birth
every human being is a sudra. It is by education and
upbringing that one becomes `twice born', that is, a
Manu sums up the relative status and functions of the
varnas in the following verse of Manu Smrti: “The
brahmin acquires his status by his knowledge, the
ksatriya by his martial vigor, the vaisya by
wealth; and the sudra by birth alone.”
Bhagavada Gita, 4.13, Krsna says: "The fourfold varna
has been created by Me according to the differentiation of
In Bhagavada Gita 18.41, Krsna states: "The
devotees of the Lord are not sudras; sudras are they
who have no faith in the Lord whichever be their varna.”
Mahabharata says that a wise man should not slight
even an outcaste if he is devoted to the Lord; he who looks
down on him will fall into hell.
also says that there is no superior varna. The
universe is the work of the Immense Being. The beings
created by him were only divided into varnas
according to their aptitude.
Bhagavada Gita also says, "Of brahmins,
ksatriyas and vaisyas, as also the sudras, O
Arjuna, and the duties are distributed according to the
qualities born of their own nature."
According to the
Hitopades, all mankind is one family.
(11.157) says, "Just as a wooden toy elephant cannot be a
real elephant, and a stuffed deer cannot be a real deer, so,
without studying scriptures and the Vedas and the
development of intellect, a brahmin by birth cannot
be considered a brahmin.”
In my opinion, all the above quotations and references
point out that the varnas were designated to a person
based on one's aptitude, quality, mental state and
characteristic. Although birth or parentage may have played
an important role in the later times, the original system
seems to be based on the quality of a person rather than on
birth alone. Even when the varna was ascribed based
on birth, there are a number of examples from the mythology
and history of ancient India to demonstrate the flexibility
and mobility among the varnas.
Vyäsa, a brahmin sage and the most revered author
of many Vedic scriptures including the Vedas,
Mahabharata, Bhagavada Gita and Bhagavata Purana,
was the son of Satyavati, a sudra woman.
profound knowledge of the Vedic wisdom established him as a
brahmin even though he was born of a sudra
mother. Vyäsa's father, Päräsara, was also a son of a
candala woman and yet was considered a brahmin based
on his Vedic wisdom.
Another popular Vedic sage, Välmiki was
initially a hunter. He came to be known as a brahmin
sage on the basis of his profound knowledge of the
scriptures and his authorship of the Rämäyana.
Rig Veda (IX.112.3), the poet refers to his diverse
parentage: “I am a reciter of hymns, my father is a
physician and my mother grinds corn with stones. We desire
to obtain wealth in various actions.”
Sage Aitareya, author
of Aitareya Upanisad, was born of a sudra
Vasishtha, son of a prostitute, was established as a
brahmin and Rig Veda book VII is attributed to
In Chandogya Upanisad, the honesty of Satyakäma
establishes his brahminhood, even though his ancestry
is unknown as he is the son of a maidservant.
born in a ksatriya family becomes a sage, and hence a
brahmin, based on his asceticism. Some Rig Veda
hymns are attributed to him.
The priest Vidathin Bhärdväja
became a ksatriya as soon as he was adopted by King
Bharata and his descendents were the well-known Bharata
Janaka, a ksatriya by birth, attained
the rank of a brahmin by virtue of his ripe wisdom
and saintly character and is considered a rajarishi
Vidura, a brahmin visionary, who gave
religious and moral instructions to King Dhrtarashtra, was
born to a woman servant of the palace. His varna as a
brahmin was determined on the basis of his wisdom and
knowledge of scriptures.
The Kauravas and Pandavas were the
descendants of Satyavati, a fisher-woman, and Vyäsa, a
brahmin. In spite of this mixed heredity, the Kauravas
and Pandavas were known as ksatriyas on the basis of
Ajamidha and Puramidha were admitted to
the status of the brahmin class, and even composed
Yaska, in his Nirukta, tells us that of two
brothers, Santanu and Devapi, one becomes a ksatriya
king and the other a brahmin priest. Kavasa, the son
of the slave girl Ilusa, becomes a brahmin priest.
The Bhagavata Purana tells of the elevation of the
ksatriya clan named Dhastru to brahminhood.
the later Vedic times, Chandragupta Maurya, originally from
the Muria tribe, goes on to become the famous Mauryan
emperor of Magadha. Similarly, his descendant, King Asoka,
was the son of a maidservant.
The Sanskrit poet and author, Kalidasa is also not known to be a brahmin by birth.
His works are considered among the most important Sanskrit
In the medieval period, saint Thiruvalluvar, author
of 'Thirukural' was a weaver. Other saints such as
Kabir, Sura Dasa, Ram Dasa and Tukaram came from the
sudra class also. Many of the great visionaries in
modern India were not brahmins by birth but can be
regarded as brahmins by their life-styles and
teachings: Mahätmä Gändhi, Swämi Vivekänada, Sri Aurobindo,
Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, Swämi Chinmayänanda etc.
Misconceptions about the Varna System
Heterodox ideologies such as Jainism and Buddhism have
criticized the notions of varna-based svadharma
(one's own duty), which inspired Arjuna to indulge in the
Mahabharata war. Since Arjuna was a ksatriya, he
was motivated to follow his duty of a warrior by Krsna.
Unfortunately, the original system is often either
overlooked or misinterpreted. Let us examine some of the
main concerns expressed about the varna system.
· Inequality: Does the varna system treat
human beings unequally, with the brahmins at the top
of the hierarchy and the sudras at the bottom? This
is a common observation about the system which is based on
the modern caste system rather than the ancient varna
system. It is rarely observed that the social hierarchy is
not just limited to Hinduism but it stays intact in any
Indian religious society; Buddhists, Jainas, Sikhs,
Christians and Muslims have their own caste hierarchies and
restrictions. Even western societies have their own classes
and groups. Thus, it is indeed a social phenomenon, which is
not just limited to Hinduism or India.
J. Muir has provided
numerous passages from ancient Indian texts to demonstrate
the equality of varnas.
- Rig Veda II. 33. 13 speaks of "our father Manu"
(pita nah). Note that all of mankind is described as
having a single ancestor.
- Taittareya Brahmana II.3.8.1. It describes the
process of creation of human beings by Prajapati as
follows: "... he reflected, after that he created men.
That constitutes the manhood of men. He, who knows the
manhood of men, becomes intelligent. Mind does not forsake
- Satapatha Brahmana VII.5.2.6. This passage
describes the process of creation of human beings by
Prajapati as follows: "He formed animals from his breath,
a man from his soul, a horse from his eye, a bull from his
breath, a sheep from his ear, a goat from his voice." It
is worth noting that here too the various objects of
creation are being correlated to various parts of the body
of Prajapati, as in the Purusa Sukta.
- Brhadaranyaka Upanisad I. 4. 11-15. These
passages describe the successive creation of the four
varnas, in contrast to their simultaneous creation in
the Purusa Sukta. Just as in the case of Manu where all of
humanity is traced to a single parent, here all of
humanity is traced to a single homogeneous class, to begin
- Visnu Purana VIII. 138-140. According to this
account when the Eden-like existence ceased: "At this
juncture the perfect mind-born sons of Brahma, of
different dispositions, who had formerly existed in the
Satya age, were reproduced in the Treta as
brahmins, ksatriyas, vaisyas, sudras, and destructive
men." This means that the varna system
characterises human life after the 'fall', as it were. It
is a post-Lapsarian phenomenon. The development of
'castes' here represents a falling away from an earlier
ideal condition, in which there were no varnas.
- In Bhagavada Gita, it is clearly mentioned that
sudra and women can achieve the liberation and it
is not just limited to any one high caste.
- Upanisads and other Vedic scriptures have
mentioned at many places that the same Brahman exists in
all the living beings and hence all are equal.
- Mahabharata (III.216.14-15) mentions that a
sudra can become brahmin by engaging in
self-control, truth and righteousness.
H. T. Colebrooke, one of the early Sanskrit scholars
wrote, “ Daily observation shows even the brahmin
exercising the menial profession of a sudra. It may
be received as a general maxim, that the occupation,
appointed for each tribe, is entitled merely to a
preference. Every profession, with few exceptions, is open
to every description of persons; and the discouragement,
arising from religious prejudices, is not greater than what
exists in Great Britain from the effects of Municipal and
· Svabhäva by birth: In the varna system,
one's svadharma is based on one's svabhäva.
But how can svabhäva be fixed by birth? Is it a
changeable substance? This debate is not fully resolved even
by today's geneologists. According to the recent research,
genes are much more responsible in fixing one's nature than
they are given credit for. As more researches unfold, this
mystery will unravel whether one's svabhäva is fixed
based on one's birth or it can be changed by one's training.
· Coercion: Did the varna system deny the
basic right to choose one's profession? Was one forced to
perform one's svadharma even against one's call of
conscience, e.g., Krsna motivates Arjuna to fight because he
was born as a ksatriya? In the same war, there were many
warriors who did not qualify fully as ksatriya by
birth and still were fighting, e.g., Drona, Krpa, Asvatthämä,
Karna, Bheeshma etc. Krsna did not ask Arjuna to fight just
because he was born as a ksatriya but convinced him
based on many other arguments. Whatever coercion may exist
in the society could be argued as a social discipline. In
the practical world, there would be complete chaos and
disaster if the individuals stopped performing their duties.
A well-balanced society definitely needs warriors,
merchants, teachers and laborers. Hence, instead of one's
unrestrained rights, one's duties are given more importance.
Varna system is one of the most debatable
phenomena of India and is tarred with many controversies.
However, on a deeper analysis one finds that the basic need
for this system was simply to ensure a healthy and flexible
society unlike the one which has been rigidified due to the
colonial misinterpretation and mistreatment of varnas,
resulting in the castes as we find them in the present day
India . The original varna system was quite flexible
in which one's varna could be changed based on one's
skill and was not fixed as is often understood. Indeed, it
was the colonization of India by the British in the 18th and
19th centuries that changed the varna system into the
present rigid system of castes.
1. Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan, The Hindu View of
2. Padmanabh S Jaini, “Values in comparative perspective:
Svadharma versus Ahimsä”, Collected Papers on Buddhist
Studies, (Motilal Banarasidas, 2001)
3. J Muir, Original Sanskrit Texts, (Delhi, Oriental
4. Steven Pinker, The Blank Slate: The Modern Denial of
Human Nature, (Viking, 2002)
5. Nicholas B Dirks, Castes of Mind: Colonialism and the
Making of Modern India, (Princeton University Press, 2001)
Arvind Sharma, Classical Hindu Thought, (Oxford University