What is the Varna System in Hinduism?

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The varna of classical Hinduism represents a multi-tiered hierarchical system into which Indian society was formed. Historian of religion Ninian Smart, in referring to classical Indian culture, explains its origin and function,

“[T]he caste system came to be the most striking and pervasive feature. Its skeletal structure was formed during the early days of the Indo-European invasion of India, around 1500 BCE. The invaders, like others of the Indo-European linguistic group, were divided into three classes: the priests (Brahmins), the warriors (Ksatriyas), and the artisans and others who served the top two classes (Vaisyas). As they conquered the indigenous peoples a fourth class of servants and underlings (Sudras) was added. Eventually, even further down, a fifth class of “untouchables” came to be recognized. Because Hindu ritual was much more concerned with purity, the four—or five— class system itself came to be reinforced by the practical application of the concepts of purity and impurity: the upper-class Indian could be contaminated by contact with those lower down, and especially by the untouchables. This last class came to include a whole variety of tribal peoples who were absorbed into the fabric of wider society. The first four classes are known as the varnas or (literally) “colors.” This name probably derives from racial distinctions, the Indo-European invaders being originally of light complexion. This varna system was later reinforced and rendered much more complicated by subgroups known as jatis (“births” or “lineages”)” (1).

The caste system is justified in the Rig Veda in which the universe is symbolized by the primeval being Purusha, from whose mouth, arms, thighs, and feet each caste is made. According to the Rig Veda, “The Brahmin was his mouth. Of both his arms was the (Kshatriya) made. His thighs became the Vaishya. From his feet the Sudhra was produced.” According to the Bhavishya Purana, the castes came with various responsibilities: “All living entities have different characteristics and duties that distinguish them from one another.” The Kshatriya were warriors whose duty it was to protect others and the Vaisyas to serve the top two classes. As priests and religious leaders, the Brahmins were, of course, stationed at the highest level of the caste system, which gave them a privileged role in religious life. They saw themselves as pure and animated by the power of the Supreme Reality or Absolute, Brahman, and enjoyed tremendous prestige as a result (2). They were the caste responsible for ritual sacrifices, which became a profession through which many of them made their living. Ritual sacrifice became increasingly complex and it was believed that one could bring a cow or other expensive items to offer and, in turn, receive prosperity and assurance of worldly success. This put the Brahmins in great demand from kings and wealthy citizens.

However, the caste system was controversial in the eyes Buddhists who did not recognize the system. Rather, when men and women entered into the sangha, or Buddhist community, they were to leave social distinctions behind. As it has been ascribed to the Buddha, “Not by birth is one an outcast; not by birth is one a Brahmin. By deed one becomes an outcast, by deed one becomes a Brahmin.” The caste system was one of various problems he had with traditional religion in India at the time, another of which included the privileged access that certain classes, such as the Brahmins, had to the sacred.

According to scholar Shulamit Ambalu et al., “the concept of varna may need redefining in order to be workable in 21st-century India where newly-defined roles and non-tuitional careers challenge existing hierarchies” (3)

References

1. Smart, Ninian. 1998. The World’s Religions. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. p. 50.

2. Smart, Ninian. 1998. Ibid. p. 48, 73

3. Ambalue, S. et al. 2013. The Religions Book. London: DK.

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