Varnas and the caste system are two different concepts that are haphazardly considered synonymous. Varna means “color’. The term “Varna” is derived from the word “Vri” meaning, the choice of one’s occupation. Therefore, Varna is considered with one color or combination. On the other hand, Caste or Jati is derived from the word “Jana” which means taking birth. Therefore, caste is concerned with birth. In this article, we are going to learn varnas and the caste system in detail.
What is Varna?
Varna, also referred to as caste in the modern era, is a renowned topic in Hinduism. During the Vedic period, when everyone was involved in their duties according to their nature, they were supervised by a system of four varnas (social classes) and four Ashrams (stages of life).
Varna is a Sanskrit word with several meanings. In Rigveda, the term Varna means ‘color’. In Mahabharata, Varna means “color, tint, dye, or pigment”. In some Vedic and medieval periods, varna means color, species, tribes, sort, nature, quality, characteristics, property of an object or people. In Manusmriti, varna refers to four social classes.
The Varna System
The varna system is divided into four groups namely the Brahmins, Kshatriyas, Vaishyas, and Shudras.
Brahmins: The Brahmins were known as the leading varnas and were given the highest status. Brahmins were expected to learn and educate the Vedas. They were expected to perform sacrifices and used to receive gifts for the sacrifices and rituals they perform.
Kshatriyas: The Kshatriya varna stood at the second position including warriors, kings, administrators. They were expected to fight battles and safeguard people. They were also expected to perform sacrifices.
Vaishyas: The vaishya varna stood at the third position including the farmers, herders, and traders. They were also expected to perform sacrifices.
Shudras: The shudra stood at the last position of this hierarchy including workers, laborers, artisans. They were expected to assist the other three varnas. Women were also often considered as Shudras. The Shudras were not permitted to perform sacrifices and even were not permitted to attend such ceremonies.
Communities that fall under one of the four varnas or classes are regarded as Savarna whereas the communities which do not belong to one of the four varnas are known as "avarna".
A person’s varna relies on his birth. It implies that the son of a Brahmin was always a Brahmin. Similarly, the Shudras son would always remain a shudra. A shudra was not permitted to do the work meant for other varnas. But some people did not agree with this system. Even some kings did not favor the caste system. For example; in the north-eastern part of India, the society was not as strictly divided. The priests did not enjoy much power in this part of the country.
What is a Caste System?
Caste systems are a form of social and economic administration that relies on principles and customary rules. It divided the people into social groups (castes) where rights and duties are fixed by birth, often includes an occupation, and are hereditary. In other words, caste is where society is divided up into several groups, with those who retain more power standing at the top and those who have less or no power standing at the bottom. Caste is inherited by the people on its own and it cannot be changed.
What are the Four Categories of Caste System?
Manusmriti, is widely regarded as the most significant and reliable book on Hindu law that was introduced at least 1,000 years before Christ was born, "addresses and justifies the caste system based on order and regularity of society". The Hindus in the caste system are divided into four different categories namely Brahmins, Kshatriyas, Vaishyas, and the Shudras. Many believe that these four groups originated from Brahmas, the Hindu God of Creation.
Brahman who stand at the top of the hierarchy were mainly a teacher and Brahmins are believed to come from Brahma’s head. Then comes Kshatriyas, also known as warriors and rulers, who are believed to come from Brahma's arms. Then Vaishyas or traders who stand at the third position, are believed to come from Brahma thighs. Shudras, who stand at the fourth position in the hierarchy, are believed to come from Brahma's feet and did all the routine work.
The main caste was further split into 3,000 castes and 25,000 subcastes. Each caste is differentiated based on its specific occupation. In India, the people who belong to the lowest caste are characterized as The Dalits or untouchables.
Evils of the Indian Caste System
The evils of the caste system have probed deep into the hearts of society all around the Indian subcontinent because of the old-fashioned misconception. First, there is discrimination against the Sudras which is characterized by the corrupting practice of untouchability. A lower caste person is not permitted to come near or touch a higher caste person for food or other items of consumption. They are not permitted to enter into the house of the higher one or such other places as sacred temples. The presence of such inter-caste marriages is strictly banned and is severely dealt with.
Thus, in this article we got a basic understanding of the Varna and caste system. Though these two terms are sometimes used interchangeably, one thing we need to understand is that there is a great difference between them. Where caste system is purely based on birth, Varna system was supposed to be based on action. The Varna system is not a rigid system but the caste system is. Where in the Caste system Brahamans will always be respected no matter whether they're educated or not but in the Varna system they were regarded because of their knowledge.