Varna System PDF

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Varna System

Varna System Notes PDF

Gandhi stated that ‘varna is the law of heredity. Varna is not a thing that is superimposed on Hindus, but men who were trustees for their welfare discovered the law for them.

It is not a human invention, but an immutable law of nature- the statement of a tendency that is ever present and at work like Newton’s law of gravitation.

Just as the law of gravitation existed even before it was discovered, so did the law of varna’ (M.K.Gandhi, Hindu Dharma, 1950, p.365).

Gandhi views the system based on Varna as a classification of different systems of self-culture and as the best possible adjustment of social stability and progress and not as an arrogant superiority.

He views the Varna dharma as an aspect that satisfies the religious, social and economic needs of a community and that which leads to the spiritual perfection.

He reiterates that ‘varna is no man-made institution but the law of life universally governing the human family.

Fulfillment of the law would make life livable, would spread peace and content, end all clashes and conflicts, put an end to starvation and pauperization, solve the problem of population, and even end disease and suffering’ (SWMG, vol.6, p.477).

The Varna system as we see it today is a distorted version, of high and low gradations and is vastly different from its original meaning and purpose.

Gandhi views Varnashrama dharma as a ceaseless search for truth that would lead to spiritual evolution.

Varna system preaches not the bifurcation of society but enables one to follow one’s designated role in society.

This Unit enables the learner to understand the origins of the concept of Varna, its significance in the Vedic and PostVedic period, and its nuances.

It also gives an account of Gandhi’s views on the subject.

Aims and Objectives

After studying this unit you should be able to understand l

Varnashram dharma prevelant in India l

 Gandhian view of Varnashrama dharma


This section intends to familiarise the learner with the origins of the concept of varna.

This will enable us to understand the background of the subject matter.

Brahmano’ sya mukham asid bahu rajanyah pritah! Uru tal asya yad vaisyah padbhyam sudro ajayata!! (Rigveda, X. 90.12) In the Rigveda, the earliest work in human history three classes of society are very frequently mentioned, and named Brahma, Kshatra, and Visha.

The first two represented broadly the two professions of the poet-priest and the warrior-chief.

The third division was apparently a group comprising all the common people.

It is only in one of the later hymns, the celebrated Purushasukta that a reference has been made to four orders of society as emanating from the sacrifice of the Primeval Being.

The names of those four orders are given there as Brahmana, Rajanya, Vaishya, and Shudra, who are said to have come respectively from the mouth, the arms, the thighs, and the feet of the Creator.

The particular limbs associated with these divisions and the order in which they are mentioned probably indicate their status in the society of the time, though no such interpretation is directly given in the hymn.

This origin of the four classes is repeated in most of the later works with slight variations and interpretative additions.

The Taittiriya Samhita, for example, ascribes the origins of those four classes to the four limbs of the Creator and adds an explanation.

The Brahmins are declared to be the chief because they were created from the mouth, punning on the word ‘mukha’ (‘mouth’ and ‘chief’).

The Brahmans’ only duties are to study and teach the Vedas, to offer sacrifices and to offer, and above all to receive, gifts. The Rajanyas are vigorous because they were created from vigour.

It is the duty of the Kshatriyas to give orders, to protect the people, to offer sacrifices through the medium of Brahmans and to study the Vedas.

The Vaishyas are meant to eat, referring to their liability to excessive taxation, because they were created from the stomach, the receptacle of food.

Therefore they must raise livestock, cultivate the soil, engage in trade, and give alms, not neglecting either the sacred rites or the study of the written word.

The Shudra, because he was created from the feet, is to be the transporter of others and to subsist by the feet.

They have only one essential task – to serve the higher castes. Outside this system there are only barbarous or despised peoples who have no access to the religious and social life of the Brahmanic world, that is to say, foreigners or Mlechchhas (Muir, John, 1976, p.16).

In this particular account of the creation not only is the origin of the classes interpreted theologically, but also a divine justification is sought to be given to their functions and status.

The creation theory is here further amplified to account for certain other features of these social classes.

God is said to have created certain deities simultaneously with these classes.

The Vaishya class, the commoners, must have been naturally very large, and this account explains that social fact by a reference to the simultaneous creation of Vishvedevas, all and sundry deities, whose number is considerable.

We are told that no deities were created along with the Shudra and hence he is disqualified for sacrifice.

Here again, the social regulation which forbade a Shudra to offer sacrifice is explained as an incidental consequence of the creation.

What all these myths had in common was the tendency to assert that the caste system was the creation of super-human agency with separate duties.

The fact that the four classes are described as of divine origin, although in a later hymn, must be taken as a sufficient indication that they were of long duration and very well defined, even though the exact demarcation of their functions, the regulations guiding their inter-relations, and the extent of their flexibility may not be referred to in the main body of the Rigvedic literature, which is avowedly of a liturgical nature.


The Brahmanic literature of the post-Vedic period, while reiterating that there are only four varnas, mentions certain mixed castes (sankara jati) and also a group of out-cast classes (antydvasayin).

The sacred laws of the Aryas are designed to expound ‘varna-dharma’ i.e., the duties ostensibly of the four orders.

The text-books of the different schools may broadly be analysed into four parts.

The first part, generally very short, deals with the ‘ashramas’ (four stages in individual life) and their duties; the second part, forming a large portion of the book, really deals with ‘varna-dharma’.

Much of the law is treated in this section under the heading, “duties of the Kshatriya”. The two other parts deal with expiatory acts and inheritance.

Though the main bulk of the law is treated under ‘varnadharma’, the ‘Shudra’ does not figure much in these texts.

The ‘varna-dharma’ of the ‘Shudra’ is such that it does not require elaborate regulation. It may justly be said that the ‘Shudra’ was left to himself as far as his internal affairs were concerned.

Their case is provided for by the general dictum, that the peculiar laws of countries, castes, and families may be followed in the absence of sacred rules (Vasishtha, 1882, p.4).

The other classes are considered derivative, and therefore so much beneath notice that only fourfold humanity is always alluded to and prevention of the confusion of these castes (varnasaiikara) is considered as an ideal necessity.

Mixtures of castes is regarded to be such a great evil that it must be combated even though the Brahmins and the Vaishyas have to resort to arms, a function which is normally sinful for them.

As the outcastes were deprived of the right to follow the lawful occupations of the twice-born men, and after death, of the rewards of meritorious deeds, it follows that the lawgivers had no concern for them.

They were enjoined to live together and fulfil their purposes, sacrificing for each other and confining other relations to themselves.

Among the four varnas, the old distinction of Arya and Shudra now appears predominantly as Dvija and Shudia, though the old distinction is occasionally mentioned.

The first three varnas are called Dvijas (twice-born) because they have to go through the initiation ceremony which is symbolic of rebirth.

This privilege is denied to the Shudra who is therefore called ‘ekajati’ (once-born). The word ‘jati’ which is here used for ‘varna’, henceforward is employed more often to mean the numerous sub-divisions of a ‘varna’.

It is also the vernacular term for a ‘caste’.

A rigorous demarcation of meaning between ‘varna’ and ‘jati’, the former denoting the four large classes and the latter only their subdivision cannot, however, be maintained.

The word is sometimes indiscriminately used for ‘varna’.

The pre-eminence of the Brahmin was so great that the Mahabharata declared that really speaking there was only one ‘varna’, viz., the Brahmin and the other varnas were merely its modifications (Mahabharata, Shanti Parva, 50, 90).

Though Gautama quotes the Vedic texts which declare that the Kshatriyas assisted by the Brahmins prosper, and that the union of the two alone upholds the moral order, yet he lays down that when a king and a Brahmin pass along the same road the road belongs to the Brahmin and not to the king.

Vasishtha declares that the Brahmin’s King is Soma.

The Mahabharata goes even further, and emphasises the subordinate position of the Kshatriya, whose only support is pronounced to be the Brahmin.

The Mahabharata says that the Shudra can have no absolute property, because his wealth can be appropriated by his master at will (ibid.)

If the master of a Shudra has fallen into distress, the latter shall be placed at the disposal of the poor master.

The king is enjoined to appoint only persons of the first three classes over villages and towns for their protection.

Language English
No. of Pages10
PDF Size0.3 MB

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