Varna and the Caste System of India
The Varna system is the description of the hierarchical society with a Brahmanical ideology explained in Manusmriti. The division of classes in society in Hinduism was designed by this concept and it had four broad divisions. In this article, we will define all these divisions along with the people of occupation included in them during the Vedic period in contemporary India.
What is Varna?
The term ‘Varna’ means colour in Sanskrit. In Vedic literature, it is signified as a particular class in a contemporary society defined by the colour and occupation of people. The Varna meaning is defined and epitomized in Manusmriti and Vedic scriptures of Yajur Veda. The distinction was made based on skin colours, origin, and occupation across the society by the Aryans invading contemporary India.
Aryans had lighter skin tones whereas the indigenous people were dark-skinned. This difference in skin colours created a distinction between these alleged invaders and indigenous people. In order to add more supremacy, they decided to distinguish between people as per the factors mentioned above. One such factor is skin colour.
What is the Varna System?
As per the Vedic scriptures in Rig and Yajur Veda, the old society of India was divided into four different castes. A caste was defined by the skin colour and occupation of the people. The idea emerged from the invasion of Aryans, the comparatively fair-skinned invaders in India. They defined the caste system in order to segregate society into a hierarchical system.
The Varna system in India suggests the distinction of four different castes based on occupation and skin colour. These castes are:
The Brahmins held the highest position in society due to occupation and colour. They were destined to be respected by the rest of the castes and were the only ones to study. They also taught others from the same sect. It was them who can only practice Vedas and the rituals. Brahmins were entitled to do rituals, pujas, and execute sacrifices from the other castes. Hence, this caste was entitled to read, write, and study. They basically made all the rules and regulations of the society as they were well-versed in Vedas.
The second caste in the Varna caste system was the Kshatriyas. This is the warrior group in society. From the very beginning of their childhood, they were trained as soldiers and warriors to save the nation from invasions. It was their responsibility to protect all four castes from the hands of enemies by all means.
This Varna or caste falls third on the social ladder. The people in this caste were all traders, farmers, and other professionals who worked for a living. Only the Vaishyas and Kshatriyas were entitled to do rituals and make sacrifices under the guidance of the Brahmins.
This caste belongs to the lowest level in the social ladder of four Varnas. The Shudras were designated to serve the above three castes and were barred from performing any rituals, getting educated, or practising any other occupation. All they have to do is to serve the above three classes doing their household work, etc.
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Women in this Brahmanical society were not allowed to study or work outside. Like Shudras, they were entitled to work inside their homes and to serve their respective families. They were also not allowed to study Vedas or learn how to fight.
Explanation of the Varnas in Different Vedas
As per Rig Veda, there are four castes in the system. In Yajur Veda, the discrimination between the people was done by means of skin colour. Only two colours existed, white and black, at that time.
From the above discussion, we can easily understand what is Varna and how people were segregated based on their occupations and skin colour. All the three Varnas were considered to be born twice. The first birth is from the mother’s womb and the second is when they enter manhood. This second birth was conducted in a spiritual way called ‘Upanayana’. The Shudras were born once and were designated to serve the other three.
The three castes can practice Veda and study along with their primary occupations. If we look closely then Vaishyas were the common people, cultivators, potters, grazers, etc. The Brahmins and Kshatriyas were dominant and held the supreme authority to run a society. These two were the governing castes according to the Varna meaning.
The answer to what is Varna system tells us that India had a four-caste societal system with a proper definition of functions and responsibilities of all the castes. Women did not have much freedom to explore as men did. They remain enclosed serving their families inside their houses. Apart from these four classes, another class existed that was not included in the system.
This class comprised the untouchables. They were not within the system and lived away from the villages. They were mostly foresters and tribal. As they did not belong to any specified class, they were called ‘Avarna’. This caste system gave birth to the ‘Jaati’ practice we can still witness in India in a very formidable shape.