The Varna system forms the basic structure of Hindu society. It also forms a part of a person’s identity, and has formed the basis for several caste and class conflicts. This paper traces the origin of such a system via the Western, Brahmanical and Marxist theories and provides a critical analysis of the same.
Varna is a fundamental concept underlying the Hindu society. It is not just about the way how society is structured but also it has become a part of a man’s identity. The modern day class and caste conflict in India traces its root to the Varna system. Thus, it becomes very important to understand its origin. Like any branch of knowledge, the essential requirement of History is the pursuit of truth.
This project will seek to trace the origin of the Varna system via three different theories namely the Western theory, the Brahmanical theory and the Marxist theory. The project will analyze these theories in detail and provide a critical review of them.
According to this theory, the varna originated with the arrival of Aryans in India around 1500 BC. According to this theory, the Aryan invasion led to clashes between them and the original inhabitants of the subcontinent who were called the Dashuds. When the Aryans conquered India, they suppressed and enslaved the dashuds who were dark in colour (varna meaning colour). The Dashuds may be considered as the ancestors of the Shudras who are the fourth caste in the varna system.
The Aryans organized among themselves into three groups, namely, Rajayana (later changed to Kshatriyas), Brahmins and the Vaishyas. Kshatriya was defined as kseeyate traayate iti ksatriya. These were the people who protected the society against external attacks and maintained internal order. Brahmin was defined as brahman niyati iti brahmin. People who preached spiritual teachings to the society and lived spiritual lives were called Brahmins. Vaishya was defined as visati iti vaisya. Businessman, traders and farmers came under this category. The basic idea was division of labor in the society. As the Aryans conquers expanded, they suppressed and enslaved the local people to serve the three classes and these local people came to be known as the helpers or the Shudras. The Shudras were dark skinned and the Aryans were fair skinned. In the caste hierarchy, the dark skinned were outcasts. The skin color was an important factor in the caste system as the word varna itself refers to color. According to this theory, Dravidians were the original inhabitants whom Aryans pushed into the Southern India.
This theory is opposed by some sections which believe it to be an attempt to divide Indians into sub groups namely that of Dravidians and Aryans and thus weaken our national integrity. Also, this theory is not backed up by scientific evidences. Recently, a path breaking study by Harvard and indigenous researchers on ancestral Indian population says there is a genetic relationship between all Indians and more importantly, the hitherto believed “fact” that Aryans and Dravidian signify the ancestry of north and south Indians might after all, be a myth. The other critiques of this theory say that as evident from the Vedas the active opposition between Aryans and Dashuds was not due to colour but due to the difference of cults. Also, the Hindu texts clearly show that all the members of the Shudra community cannot be traced back to a servile origin. The exclusion of the Shudras from the religious rites of the Aryans may have been due to an antipathy between the Aryans and the non-Aryans which was more social and political than racial.
The Brahminical theory gives divine sanction to the varna system. The reference to a division into four social classes appears in the late Rigvedic Purusha Sukta. Purusha Sukta is hymn 10.90 of the Rigveda, dedicated to the Purusha, the “Cosmic Being”. The purusha who is identified with the primeval giant or the ideal ‘Man’ or world spirit is said to have produced the brahmana from his mouth, the Kshatriya from his arms and vaishya from his thighs. The shudra is said to have sprung from his feet. The Varna hierarchy was hence, determined by the descending order of the different organs from which the Varnas were created. This theory was interpreted in lieu with the Manu and was given religious sanctions which infact was similar to legal sanction of those times.
According to the ancient text of Bhagavad Gita, the varna system was not considered to be hereditary and was assigned on the basis of karma. Krishna thus says in the Gita: “The four-fold order was created by me on the basis of quality (guna) and action (karma). However, this statement basically suggests that there is a functional differentiation based on quality and action. The philosophical justification of the Varna system is agreed upon in the Upanishads. According to the Chandogya Upanishad, a man’s Varna is part of a retributive justice of one’s sins’ in the previous life. The Shanti Parva of the Mahabharata also holds the view that an individual can attain a superior Varna by performing righteous acts, i.e., by adhering to the three ideals of Varna, Ashram and Moksh.
The critics of the Purusha theory repudiate the divine origin of the castes based on birth and deny most categorically the Brahman’s claim of inherent superiority. The fact that the four varnas were born from different parts of the same purusha indicates the interdependence of the varnas. The parts of the body of the Purusha from which vaishya and shudra were born, thigh and feet, bear the weight of the entire frame. In other words they stand for the support system of the entire body. The schematic arrangement of varnas is for the integration of the society and not for its division. Various scholars like Max Muller, consider this verse to be controversial and is believed to be a corruption and a medieval or modern era insertion into the text.
The Marxist theory was propounded by eminent scholars like RS Sharma. He proposed the mode of production involving the theory of surplus leading to class formation (varna system).
The early Rig Vedic society was tribal, pastoral, semi-nomadic and largely egalitarian and was free from the later institution of social classes called varna. The later Vedic people took to agriculture on a large scale and produced enough cereals to enable the princes to perform sacrifices and reward their priests. This system of sacrifices benefitted the priests and the warriors who raised themselves over the common people to create a social hierarchy. As the later Vedic phase was based on agriculture and the limited use of iron, it marked the transition of the tribal states into territorial states and the gradual disintegration of the society into class and occupational groupings. This system further disintegrated with the emergence of the use of iron plough and creation of surplus produce. This paved a way for the rise of a class-based and state-based society in which the religious and governing wings of the ruling class could collect taxes, tributes and tithes. The existing Brahminical ideology gave the necessary religious and legal sanction to the emerging caste based social system. The Brahmins and the Kshatriyas devised and developed a social mechanism through which the two classes could benefit from the economic expansion leading to the exclusion of the peasants, the artisans and the agricultural laborers. People, whose tribal trait of equality had not disappeared completely, had to be convinced that it was necessary to obey the raja, pay him taxes and offer gifts to the priests. The varna system was devised to serve this purpose. The system of this social control promoted the ideology of hierarchy, of inferiority and subordination, which characterize a class society. The producing classes were increasingly saddled with social disabilities and economic obligations that were enforced through the establishment of a professional army and an administrative apparatus. Thus, the Brahminical Varna ideology was a clever devise for the regulation of production, tax/gift collection and distribution. Those who owned the distribution of the social surplus were categorized among the higher Varnas while those who were engaged in the work of production were categorized as the lower Varnas.
This theory seems to be the most logical theory explaining the origin of varna system. However, this theory has no doctrinal proof to back it up in any form.
After analyzing all the theories, it can be seen that the Marxist theory is most rational. The present day caste-conflicts are largely because of the misunderstanding of the varna system. The divine sanction which is given to the Varna system is controversial and subject to interpretations. The hierarchies which have been created in society have been deeply embedded over a period of time so as to serve the interest of the ruling and powerful class. The western theory which provides for racial basis has no scientific evidence to back it up. In fact, we learn from the Vedas that active opposition between the Aryans and Dashuds was not due to the colour but due to the difference of cults. The Marxist theory seems to be the most probable theory of the origin of varna system. It could be rightly said that the upper echelon of the Indian Society promoted varna system which evolved into the caste system as a basis to command order and have a direct or indirect control over the society. However, all of these theories are subject to interpretations and the absolute truth regarding the origin of varna system will remain a secret box.
Edited by Neerja Gurnani