(Last Updated on : 10/09/2009)
'Varna' literally means group in Sanskrit. With the advent of the Aryans the ancient Indian society got divided into four sections-Brahmin, Kshatriya, Vaishya and Sudra. The reference to the Varna System can be traced back to the religious texts of the land. In Mahabharata (Anusasana Parva, Chapter 163) it is said: "O Devi, if even a sudra is actually engaged in the occupation and pure behavior of a brahmana, he becomes a brahmana. Moreover, a Vaishya can become a Kshatriya. Therefore, neither the source of one's birth, nor his reformation, nor his education is the criterion of a brahmana. The vritti, or occupation, is the real standard by which one is known as a brahmana." So it is not birth but one's karma that decided his class.
According to Rig Veda the creator of the 4 groups is Lord Brahma. Each Varna sprang from the different body parts of the Lord. Brahmins originate from His mouth and they looked after the spiritual needs of the society. They were, thus, learned men who could guide those who ruled the society. The Kshatriyas evolved from the arms and were the warrior class or the ruling class. The Vaishyas originated from the thighs and are comprised of the merchants, artisans and craftsmen. The Sudras developed from His feet and they formed the base of the ancient Indian society. Peasants, cobblers, servants and others came from this section of the community. In Hinduism the varna system was based on class, color, guna and yoga.
The varna system was, thus, merely based on occupations. The first 3 Varna is called twice born. It implies that they have come of age and are eligible to study Sanskrit and the Vedas and perform Vedic rituals. The thread ceremony marks the second birth among the Indian male. For girls it is during their marriage that a thread is tied round their hands to mark the second birth. Besides Hindus this custom is also prevalent with the Jains. The definition of the Varna System of the Later Vedic Period underwent a huge change with time. The class system gave way to caste system. The caste of an individual was decided by his birth. Hence, a rigid one replaced the flexible Varna system. The caste system in ancient India divided the masses and brought in inequality and suppression.
As a result of Casteism several new faiths and movements came into existence. Buddhism and Jainism were two most popular new religions that helped people escape the rigorous rituals and costly ceremonies. The Bhakti Movement was again a reaction to the rigid Indian caste system.
Classification of the Varna System in India
The Indian caste system was primarily divided into four main sections: -
: At the top of the social hierarchy were the Brahmins. The sages of Indian culture are all Brahmins. Besides they were wise men who imparted knowledge and wisdom to the society. They were highly respected in the ancient Indian society. They were the advisors in the royal courts. In the post Vedic Age they became oppressive and exploited and misguided the society.
: The warrior or the ruling class ranked second in the Varna System. They were the protectors of the society. The Kshatriyas were depicted as gallant, courageous and intelligent. They were the true patriots. With the evolution of the caste system their position in society more or less remained the same.
: This was the merchant class. The caste system had little effect on them. They were the moneyed class and contributed a great deal in the economic growth of the nation. The Vaishyas were also responsible for introducing Indian culture to the other nations. The Brahmins kept them in good humor as Vaishya community constructed temples and other buildings for social cause.
: The worst hit by the caste system in India were the Sudras. Though they were looked down as dasas and dashyus, yet they are not discriminated. In the post Vedic ages there evolved a new section of sudras known as the Untouchables. They were social outcasts because they could not belong to any caste and did menial jobs. They were denied entry into the mainstream.
Thus what was simply defined as a social stratification began to discriminate people on the basis of caste, creed and religion. It is true to some extent that the social classification was divinely ordained but there is no historical evidence for caste system that dominates India to this day.