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Origin of the Varna system

Updated on June 26, 2015

Social stratification based on the birth is the fundamental element of the caste system. The various Indian and European scholars have attempted to find the origin of the caste system. What are their viewpoints?

  1. Invariably most of the scholars have wrongly confused Varna system with caste system.
  2. Birth-based caste system is thought to be an ancient fact of Hindu life.
  3. Some scholars believe that endogamous jati’s, not Varnas, are castes.
  4. Scholars like H. S. Risley thinks that the caste means endogamous groups resulted from interactions between the different races of past.
  5. Dr. B. R. Ambedkar has different view. According to him the castes in India before colonial rule were exogamous society because marriages within blood-relatives and class-relations were forbidden. He proposes that the castes should be defined as a social group that tries to impose endogamy in an exogamous population.
  6. The definition given by Amar Kosha is, “Catse is a synonym of class. The groups formed by the social common customs are called Castes.
  7. . According to Dr. Iravati Karve the castes main feature is they are endogamous. Spread of the caste is in the limited geographical area where a single common language is spoken. Every caste has one or two ancestral profession and its status in comparison with other castes can be either higher or lower. The families with which marital ties can be established such group of the families is the caste. Hence the caste is nothing but expanded group of relations. Dr. Karve further states that the caste and tribe has striking similarities, such as limited geographical spread and presence of the caste panchayat (Assembly), hence the castes are formed out of ancient tribes.
  8. The castes are enforced upon the aboriginals by the invading victorious Aryans is another school of thought that is still dominant in the Indian society.From above it will appear that what G. S. Ghurye wrote in 1932, “…despite much study by many people,... we do not possess a real general definition of caste. It appears to me that any attempt at definition is bound to fail because of the complexity of the phenomenon. On the other hand, much literature on the subject is marred by lack of precision about the use of the term.” is not exaggeration.

The above overview of the opinions of various scholars clearly shows that they are not unanimously clear about the origin of the castes. Some scholars have taken racial angles whereas some have taken tribal angle. However the fact remains that there are castes and every caste is concrete, independently functioning body set distinct and aloof from other castes, maintaining higher and lower status at the same time in the society.

Let us first discuss on the various opinions of the scholars of the past and try to find what could be the truth. We have seen in opening chapter that the scholars have mixed up Varna system with caste system and that is the reason most of their opinions have gone wrong and misleading.

Varna system is product of Vedic social system which has been evolved in later times. Not all the bulk of Rig Veda was composed in present India. In Puru sub-branch Bharata and in various tribes and under several patronages Rig Veda’s composition was continued for several centuries in Southern Afghanistan. The geography of early and middle Rig Veda is identified with the southern part of Helmand (Harahvati Skt.Sarasvati). From the battle of ten kings it appears that all other tribes, including Purus were non performers of Yadnya (Fire sacrifice) and carried different faiths. The victory in the battle of Sudasa, as appears from Rig Vedic account, could not enforce his religion on the subjugated tribes. What he got out of the battle is tributes.

This only does indicates that the rigid Varna system of Vedic people yet had not emerged at all! Otherwise entry of non-Vedic (to whom most of the people like to refer as non-Aryans) seers in compositions of Rig Veda would be impossible. Also it indicates that the people those followed the Rig Vedic faith were in the selective groups as is evidenced from Rig Veda itself.

What was Vedic social order? Except Purushasukta, which is interpolation of the later times, we do not find even the traces of the Varna system in Rig Veda! We find occasional mention of Brahmana, Kshatra and Vish…not as being Varna as defined by later Vedic scriptures. Shudra is nowhere to find except Purushsukta. There is no etymology of the term Shudra. It appears from nowhere only in Purushsukta, which indicates geography of the Rigveda was changed and they came across the new set of the people, i.e. Indians.

Brahma of Rig Veda means Chant. Kshatra means who protects and Vish means the group of small settlements….not people! There are references to few occupational works but not castes. The Vedic religion spread in North and South India by conversions over the period of several centuries. While spreading the religion they needed certain social order depending on the skills and professions of the new entrants. We are aware that the several schools were established to promote the Vedic religion. Agatsya became pioneer missionary in Southern India.

The early system of Vedic people was confined to three Varnas. There was no Aryan Invasion or migration to India but it was rather migration of Religion to present India via Gandhara. The Vedic religion was led to completion and systemization in India by the original some Non-Vedic people who were converted to Vedic faith for some reasons; one of it could be the political. From mythologies we get hints of the power struggle amongst various clans for supremacy. We will discuss on this later as this is not the main topic of the present discussion.

But when Rig Veda was almost complete, the previous forgotten parts gathered and put in new order classifying hymns and verses, not giving special attention to the chronology of compositions. Traditionally this task is ascribed to Veda Vyasa who is said to have collected the corpus of Veda’s and divided in four parts. Each part he handed over to his pupils to profess them. Let us not confuse this Vyasa with the writer of Mahabharata.

Dr. Ambedkar argues in his book “Who were the Shudras?” that the Brahmins, over the power feud declined to perform “Upanayanasanskara (Threading ceremony) of the Kshatriyas thus bringing down their social status to Shudra Varna. The counter argument would be whether Brahmins anytime were so powerful to decline religious rights of the Kshatriyas, a warrior class? And what would be the spread of Vedic religion when Brahmins would have issued such discriminatory religious order? Did Kshatriyas obey it without any protest? Was it possible anytime? I leave the answers to my readers.

Let us not forget here before Vedic religion was introduced to India by Afghanians there already was another established idolatrous religion, Shaivism, in India comprising of several cults. Naturally they too had their own social order along with priestly classes. From mythological and Rig Vedic accounts we can say that the Asura culture was prevalent in Indian sub-continent that constituted of numerous clans with different family symbols and deities finally unified or connected with Shiva and Shakti.

We do not find any name of the religion mentioned anywhere in any scriptures. May be it was not practice to name the religion. But from the faiths we can distinguish the religious practices established among the people of those times. Vedic religion worshiping abstract nature Gods and ancestors through oblations in sacred fire. The people those did not practice their religion used to be called dasa, dasyu, Asura etc. in the Rig Veda. Rig Veda doesn’t talk at all of forth Varna, when Vedic religion was settled in southern Afghanistan.

Vi. Ka. Rajwade states that the people initially victorious Aryans took into their personal service only were called as Shudras. Such Shudras didn’t have right to learn or recite Vedas. They didn’t have right to marry any girl or man of upper Varna but men of the upper Varnas could cohabit or even marry the Girl of Shudra, however the issues out of such issues wouldn’t have any social status.

This suggestion of Vi. Ka. Rajwade helps us to get slight indication to understand the origin of Shudra Varna. The Shudra Varna originally belonged to only those who were in service of the Vedic people in different capacities. As other Varnas were this too was not birth based. The persons who left the service of Vedic people lost their Varna to become part of their own society. Of course this would not apply to the slaves. Slavery, though not as inhuman as we find in other cultures, was part of Indian society as well. They lost all the rights as soon they were enslaved, either in the wars or purchase. The slavery was a common practice among Vedic as well Non-Vedic people for quite long time. Gradually Shudra word came in to the application for those all who were not adherents of the Vedic religion.

Let us understand this first. Vedic religion had always limited followers. They lavishly assigned Brahmin, Kshatriya and Vaishya Varna to those all who accepted Vedic doctrine and ritualistic practices, depending on their professions. Originally Vaishya Varna was reserved only for farmers but in later times we find it was transferred to the mercantile class. Previously in Vedic society mercantile class was nonexistent as they were originally shepherds. But as and when religion came to India where the society was more complex they had to readjust the Vedic doctrine to suit their purpose. The original Vedic Vaishyas, i.e. farmers were replaced by the merchant class. All these three Varnas were still not birth based and could take to any profession of their like. The Shudras, those were in their personal service were denied of any independent profession and even own any property or wealth. Shudra Varna thus was limited to the periphery of the Vedic religion and not at all applicable to the rest of the large society. The Non-Vedic society was independent of Vedic society adhering to their professions, and monarchies.

However it seems that from the Smriti period Varna system was redesigned to make it birth based. In Vedic system we certainly find that it was Vedic Shudra Varna that became birth based first! Shudras anyway were their servants doing menial work for them, hired from Non-Vedic societies or were just slaves.

But why other twice-born Varnas became birth-based?

Let us not forget here that the fire sacrifices being conducted by Vedic Brahmins for fees were not limited to Vedic kings alone! Rather we hardly find any Vedic dynasty in India ruling over the large areas. If we look at the list of the Indian dynasties, from mythological to historical, we do not find any Vedic dynasty! Rather we find anti-Vedic dynasties more than pro-Vedic dynasties. The known first king of Lunar dynasty, Pururavas, was destroyer of fire sacrifices and hence was killed by the Vedic seers in a forest called Naimisaranya. Later his son Ayu ruled from Pratishthan and other son Amavasu ruled from kanyakubja. Ayu married Asura girl Prabha. Ayu’s son is Nahusha, who too met with tragic end as he was cursed by the Vedic seers. His son Yayati too married with Asura princess Sharmistha and Asura Guru Shukracharya’s daughter Devyani. We get this information from various mythologies including Mahabharata. It only does suggest that the lunar dynasty in itself was non-Vedic in origin. The same applies to the solar dynasty.

While major dynasties of India were antagonists to Vedic religion, to acquire prominence Vedic people needed change in their social order. They needed a devoted fighting wing which otherwise was almost impossible for previous mobility within the religion. The tasks were divided and became birth based and hereditary. The age of scared thread ceremonies too were changed and Gurukul system was introduced. To provide sanctity to this Varna system Rig Veda was polluted by adding two verses in Purushasukta.

Let us not forget here that the followers of new religion are always zealots than the established societies. The kings and nobles taking interest in the newly introduced religion, marveled at the art of fire sacrifices and the mysteries associated with these rituals those earlier were alien to them was but natural. This is why we find in mythologies that though Asura kings destroyed fire sacrifices in vehemence still we find many Asura Kings as well those had fire sacrifices conducted for them.

The term Shudra, which earlier was reserved for certain class of the people engaged in their services, later came into use spitefully for all those who were outside of the Vedic fold nourishing enmity towards Vedic religion.

What we can conclude from the above is as following.

  1. Vedic (Aryan) people those invented, developed and codified Vedic fire sacrificial religion were not Indians. Their religion came to India through handful of the preachers.
  2. When new local people were converted to the Vedic religion, they required some classification and internal order. They developed Varna system. Shudra was never a class of their religion hence all Vedic rituals were restricted to the three Varna's. The Varna system was always limited to the people those adhered to Vedic religion.
  3. Shudra term originally was applied to the people those were outside of the periphery of the Vedic religion. There is no etymology of the term Shudra, on which we shall discuss in next installment.
  4. There was no caste system in Vedic society. As Dr. Iravati Karve states in her book “Kingship Organization in India”, Vedic (Aryan) people borrowed caste system (people known by their professions.) from Non-Vedic (Non-Aryans) people.
  5. Spread of Vedic religion in India was out of missionary work. There was no invasion to cause any kind of impact on Indian social order.
  6. Because of the peculiar nature of the Vedic religion and its complicated practices the Vedic population remained very limited in the country.

We will discuss on who were shudras and the social system of the non-Vedic society in next chapter.

(To be contd.)


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    • profile image

      suhaani 3 years ago

      "The world as we have created it is a process of our thinking. It cannot be changed without changing our thinking."

      Be a nice human being is important not to have a good or high religion and caste.We need to work towards uniting the nation instead of splitting it. Work towards a society in which there will be no lower castes and no upper castes. We need to respect the way people live instead of looking at where they were born.

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      suhaani 3 years ago

      Inter caste marriage should be encourage..bcoz if people take this step then castesim and religion based discrimination should be stop itself..we all are human being..God never created any caste and religion..even God dnt has any caste and religion…did you know that God belong to which caste and religion..then keep shut your mouth about this stupid varan system and caste system okh.. In ancient times, caste system had the seeds of liberalism. It provided the right and opportunity to get to the top from the humblest origin and earn the respect of the whole society. For example, Vashishtha, the principal of the conservative school of Brahmanism, was the son of Uravshi, a prostitute. Vishwamitra, the maker of the very Gayatri Mantra, the quintessence of the Vedic Brahmanism, was a Kshatriya. Aitreya, after whom the sacramental part of Rig-Veda is named as Aitreya Brahamana, was the son from a non-Aryan wife of a Brahman sage. Vyasa of Mahabharata fame was the son of a fish-woman and he was not ashamed of his origin. Balmiki, an untouchable according to present standards, the original author of Ramayana, is highly respected all over India..And only you can make it good or bad this inter caste marriage. Depends upon how much importance u give to these meaningless and stupid values. And how much importance u give to other people who value these meaningless things. U have to see how much u urself r attached to other people opinions. And since u r asking for opinion, it means u r attached to these meaningless things.

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      suhaani 3 years ago

      Whole world think that India has many castes which are main reason of discrimination of people but its very very big misconception of caste system spread around the world to defame culture of India because it was the biggest systematically designed system for people from thousands of years. Now let me tell you what is meaning of varna and caste system in India and how its was started. In Ancient India there were two great saints, one was saint Bhrigu and other was saint Bhardwaj. They met to discuss how to structure a stable society for human being to live proper life, First they recognized the four sources which are:

      1. Knowledge 2. Weapons 3. Wealth 4. Land

      They decided to make system where nobody has more than one of that. These should not be in one hand, not even two should be in one hand. So those who has knowledge will not have wealth, will not have weapons and will not have lands. Those who will have weapons will rule the country but they will not make policy. They need to go to people having knowledge to seek their permission and advice. Those who are having wealth, their social status will be decided by the how much philanthropy they do not by their wealth. Those who has lands have to produce for the society. In fact none of these four category or “varna” was based on by birth.

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      suhaani 3 years ago

      Why is that ? I know a lot of brahmins who perform rituals and do pujas who can not even utter a sanskrit word properly - they think that I don't understand sanskrit.

      I have corrected several Brahmins.

      and after a survey - i found out that these Brahmins are actually school/college dropouts

      who can not even pass 12th std. and they have very tiny knowledge about religion you can not even discuss a thing with them as they don't know anything .

      and I wonder * why Hindu gods need "ONLY Brahmin Preists"

    • profile image

      suhaani 3 years ago

      The Almighty Brahmin! by Khushwant Singh

      Whatever be the sphere of curiosity – literary, scientific, bureaucratic, or whatever, the Brahmin remains the top dog. Before I give details, we should bear in mind that Brahmins form no more than 3.5% of the population of our country. My statistics come from a pen friend, Brother Stanny, of St. Anne’s Church of Dhule in Maharashtra.They hold as much as 70% of government jobs. In the senior echelons of the civil service from the rank of deputy secretaries upward, out of 500 there are 310 Brahmins, i.e. 63%. Of the 26 state chief secretaries, 19 are Brahmins; of the 27 Governors and Lt. Governors 13 are Brahmins; of the 16 Supreme Court Judges, 9 are Brahmins; of the 330 judges of High Courts, 166 are Brahmins; of 140 ambassadors, 58 are Brahmins; of the total 3,300 IAS officers, 76 [per cent?] are Brahmins. Of the 508 Lok Sabha members, 190 were Brahmins; of 244 in the Rajya Sabha, 89 are Brahmins.This 3.5% of Brahmin community of India holds between 36% to 63% of all the plum jobs available in the country.

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      suhaani 3 years ago

      We always talk about religion and castesim but in reality there is no any caste and religion. We all are same our blood are same.then why we believe in discrimination. God never created any caste they made simple human being.. Mentally sick people take the path of fundamentalism and spread casteism and communism. They suffer from inferiority complex and divide the society into “we” and “they”. They (belonging either to higher or lower ranked caste) have a fear in their heart that if they do not get a higher place for themselves in society, “other” people are going to exploit them and going to put them down.They don’t have believe on themselves and their own work. They have doubt own their capability. People with negative mindset suffer from inferiority complex and divide society into compartments like higher castes or lower castes.and can’t tolerate “others” progress or well-being. They cannot work hard and cannot tolerate anybody else’s achievements. These are the people with negative mindset who believe in ranking some belonging to higher castes and/or some to lower castes. They are coward and they are unable to protect themselves…

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      suhaani 3 years ago

      Hindu (body) four community: brahmin (head) kshatriya (arm) vaishya (belly) shudra (feet) All these four community called as hindu. We all are parts of one body. Without each part our body is not complete. If we lost one part of our body then we become handicap. The human body is the entire structure of a human being. Human Body is considered so loving that God even wants to have it. Spiritual Yogis have found that after going through the 84 millions species this souls get the most dignified human body. So it is the last step to explore the God or to get the view of almighty father god. We know that the soul never dies it takes birth again and again just like as we take new clothes to wear the soul as it takes new body and it is an infinite process. But the body what we get in next birth depend on our karma that thas been cited in Gita by Lord Krishna to Arjuna. We all here to perform our duties. Our action makes our destiny and nothing else. The result is in the hand of supreme power. Karma is the seed of plant and if the seed is genuine it must be fruitful.

    • profile image

      suhaani 3 years ago

      Many a time, man has taken birth in high caste and low caste; but this does not make him great or low

      Having been born in high caste man thinks himself to be great and being born in low caste thinks himself to be low and pitiable; both of these states of mind are wrong because many times man has been born in high and low castes. Hence, one should not be proud of having been born in high caste and not feel low if born in low caste family.

      Greatness has nothing to do with high caste. Man becomes great because of his noble work, exemplary character and becomes loathsome because of his immorality and evil conduct. Thus, it is his conduct only that decides his greatness or lowliness. Who does not know that high family born Ravana, Kansa, Duryodhana and others are censurable; whereas Metarya muni, Harikeshi muni and others, though born in low family, are venerable.

      Then, what is the importance of high or low caste?

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      suhaani 3 years ago

      Who divided society in caste line……only stupid and mentally sick hindu..first change your thinking that all people as a human being so the system ll be change itself like sindhi religion, make one religion and killed the bloody varan system n caste system…you ll b more happiest person in this world if you all mad hindu change ur narrow minded thinking about these caste n class…Because “I believe in recognizing every human being as a human being–neither white, black, brown, or red; and when you are dealing with humanity as a family there’s no question of integration or intermarriage. It’s just one human being marrying another human being or one human being living around and with another human being.”

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      suhaani 3 years ago

      All Hindu communities in the country follow the varnashram system of Aryans and have divided the society in four castes – Kshatryas, Brahmins, Vaishyas and Shudras. Sindhis do not have such division in their society. They never followed a rigid caste system. That is why Sindhis are considered to be only businessmen. All members of the society inter-mingle with one another without any consideration of four castes of Aryans. There are no untouchables in Sindhis…..These religion and caste set up by mad and stupid people to control others not by god…who are still mentally sick they are following this castesim blindly..i must say be like all sindhi..leave these castesim and make only one hindu religion like sindhi religion dont create any caste,community and class…bcs its only give you tension and create problems for your own self..

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      suhaani 3 years ago

      The brahmin community has been one of the dirty communities which has planned strategically to fool people in the name of god by generating the highest donations in the temple, doing business to fool and loot money in the name of puja, death, marriage, new home… For any occasion, there’s one puja. They charge very high prices and take away all the items after the puja. They have created prostitution in the name of devadasis. They suppress jobs and employment and welfare and equality are destroyed. they have destroyed the Indian medical system. They have killed Indian medical science like siddha vaidhyam and created ayurveda and carnatic music by destroying dravidian music. Even today they have the temples under their control. They say they don’t like untouchables, but they have always been sexually harassing low caste women.

    • profile image

      suhaani 3 years ago

      All human-beings are equal in the eyes of God. The human-beings have only created the caste system. There are good and bad people in both high caste as well as low caste. Ultimately,what matters to God is, whether one is a good person or striving to become one, or not.

      One who thinks himself to be of a high caste is actually low. While one who thinks himself/herself to be of low caste is said to be high caste. As per the scriptures, people are known by their nature and the quality of work they perform.

      You cannot put people in high and low rank the basis of religious belief and caste. But those people do this who has a problem in their mind.

      God doesn't need Brahmin priest, god isn't so narrow minded. god accept everyone. actually Brahmin priest needs god to make money.

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      suhaani 3 years ago

      Here is only two caste in the world that is BOY & GIRL..

    • profile image

      Paula 3 years ago

      P, you're right. I rarely let anonye else touch my touring bicycle. But I have let others ride my bike in the past. It's usually just a judgement call. It has worked out thus far, but you are right. I think people need to be very careful when letting anonye else even near their bicycle. Protect that thing as best you can. I think the knife might be overdoing it in most cases, but I certainly would be careful with leaving your bike for extended periods of time or letting other people ride your bike, etc. Another time I let someone ride my bike.

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      Sanjay Sonawani 3 years ago from Pune, India.

      Thanks jainismus.

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      Mahaveer Sanglikar 3 years ago from Pune, India

      Well written hub. Thank you for sharing this information..