By: B Shantanu
Novermber 25, 2005
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I came across this piece in the International Herald Tribune (i)
mentioning that the United Nation Commission on Human Rights has recently
appointed two special rapporteurs to examine the caste system and to
specify a set of guidelines for policy and governance purposes.
article by respected columnist, Sunanda Datta-Ray made the same error that
Indian social commentators (particularly those writing in English)
commonly make i.e. a literal interpretation of the Sanskrit term “varna”
to mean “colour”. To quote, the UN will examine the “abominations of
what has been called the world’s oldest color bar – the Sanskrit word for
thought this was an excellent excuse to examine the whole issue (and
confusion) around caste, class, race, varna, jati and related terms.
What exactly do these terms
In the words of Andre
Beteille, “When one uses the term “caste” in English, one is actually
translating two distinct terms in the classical as well as the modern
languages of India. The first term is
varna and the second is jati.
Varna and jati have both been described as caste. They are not unrelated
to each other but they are not the same, and it is very important to
understand the distinction between the two in order to understand the
social logic of caste.(ii).
Rajiv Malhotra, “In
particular, today’s common views of varna and jati are very narrow, and do
not adequately describe Indian society. Jati is not caste, but became so
under colonial rule (Dirks did a lot of good research on this). But more
problematic is the distortion of Varna, which has become the basis for the
whole Dalit conflict. I read far too many works that seem to insist on
frozen jati-varna (wherein a whole jati has the same varna, and,
furthermore, this varna is said to be unchangeable). But this is an
inaccurate picture. I hope …students are given a more nuanced treatment
than most South Asianized desis that I have come across on these
Weber has written that, “The
colonial term 'caste' is muddling the two sociological categories meaning
completely different social states of affairs: 'jati' and 'varna'. Jati
means real working community of birth, marriages, of profession, culture
and religion (closer to the widely (mis)understood meaning of caste; varna,
however, means the social rank, status, order (closer to class). ”Varna”
does not mean the work-sharing assignment of the “jatis”. This has been
always an element of the “jatis” themselves. The socio-cultural evaluation
of the “jatis”, their ranking place (again, as in class), is expressed by
the hierarchical “varna”.(iv)
in mind that the origin of the word itself suggests the fundamental
misunderstanding around the concept of racial purity. The word derives
from the Portuguese word casta (also Spanish), feminine of casto which
means “pure” from the Latin “castus”.
it is worth mentioning that the word “varna”
does not directly mean colour. It is in fact derived from the root “vr”
which means screen, veil, covering, external appearance. One of its
indirect meaning is “appearance”. As appearance however, it does not refer
to the colour of the skin of the people, but to the qualities (“guna”) of
energies of human nature.
Ignoring the conceptual distinction between “jati” and “varna” (which is
sometimes deliberate and ideologically motivated) doesn’t help either a
deeper understanding of the origins of the system or serious efforts to
combat the distortions that have crept in.
excellent analysis of broad categorisation of theories that attempt to
explain the caste system, visit “The Origin of Caste” website at
http://www.islam4all.com/the_origin_of_caste.htm. It includes excerpts
and brief summary from the book “Caste, Class and Race – A Study in Social
Dynamics’ By Oliver Cromwell Cox, Ph.D. Professor of Sociology, Lincoln
following excerpt illustrates just how much misunderstanding and confusion
has been caused by the extremely narrow interpretation of the term “varna”.
“Probably the most common
explanation of the origin of caste is based upon beliefs that the word
“varna” means color; hence, caste must have originated in the Aryan’s
passion for protecting their light Asiatic color from intermixture with
the dark color of the Dravidians. However, as we shall attempt to
indicate below, the early literature of the Hindus does not show this to
be the case. “
of the confusion is simply due to ignorance or mis-understanding of
several Sanskrit terms (which sometimes have fairly broad interpretation).
In this context, it may be helpful to list a few key points:
- Varna has other meanings in Sanskrit, apart from colour
- The term “Sudra” is not synonymous with “Dravid”
- There is no historical data to suggest that “varna” really
symbolized racial antipathy between Aryans and Dravidians
- It is mistaken to assert that caste is invariant and immutable and
one is born into it
- There are clear references in the Bhagavad Gita to how “varna” was
determined by (“guna”) qualities and (“karma”) efforts. “In sloka
(IV.13) Lord Krishna says: "Chaturvarnyma mayaa sristam gunkarma
vibhagsah" i.e. four orders of society created by Me according to their
Guna (qualities/behaviour) and Karma (profession/work/efforts). Note
that there is no reference to “guna” and “karma” of previous life.
- In sloka (XVIII.41) Lord Krishna says "Brahmana Kshatriya visham
sudranam cha paramtapa, karmani pravibhaktani svabhavaprabhavaigunaih."
It means people have been grouped into four classes according to their
present life karma (profession/work) and svabhava (behaviour). `The
division of labour into four categories - Brahman, Ksatriya, Vaishya and
Sudra - is also based on the Gunas inherent in peoples’ nature`. Had
this division been based on birth, Lord Krishna would have naturally
used phrase 'Janmani pravibhaktani' in the very shloka (XVIII.41).
- It is not even clear which, if any, skin colour, was considered
superior or “preferred” amongst the early Aryo-Dravidians.
- Shri Krishna, for example, is often referred to as the
“dark-cloud-faced one” or the “dusky-one” or the “dark-blue-one,” and
Lord Rama, the divine hero, is often represented as dark or blue or
- The racial theory of caste is empirically inconsistent because
before the (caste) system became organized, the population had already
became inseparably mixed
- Note that this early amalgamation of population demonstrates that
the “varna” system was not rigid & inflexible. In the words of John C
Nesfield, “a Bengali Brahman looks like other Bengalis, a Hindustani
like other Hindustanis, a Mahratti like other Mahrattis, and so on,
which proves that the Brahmans of any given nationality are not of
different blood from the rest of their fellow-countrymen”. In reality,
Brahmins from different regions resemble the local communities far more
(in appearance) than some mythical Aryan “white” race
- The blurring of distinction between “varna” and “jati” may not be
entirely blamed on modern interpretation. Apparently even Manu used the
term “varna” synonymously with “jati” - which is better defined as the
form of existence determined by birth, position, rank or family descent;
kind or species
Finally, here are a couple of points to think about. Is it really possible
that a system as rigid as the caste order could be built upon skin colour
– not even colour as such but by the parentage of the colour groups?
if we were to assume for a moment that the caste system originated due to
the difference in skin-colour, how does one explain the apparent
assumption of “natural superiority” by the Aryans when at the time of the
“invasion”, the Dravidians evidently had a higher culture?
All this points to the need of
creating awareness about these terms and more research into the origins of
the caste system. Until that happens, social commentators, activists and
politicians will continue to abuse the terms for their narrow ends.
Send your views to author
International spotlight on the caste system”, Sunanda K Datta-Ray, 13th
[“Caste, Inequality and Affirmative Action”, André Béteille, International
Institute for Labour Studies, Geneva at
Hindutva the Indian Left’s ’Other’? Rajiv Malhotra in
Outlook India, 15 Jan ’04,
[“Ambedkar and the Hindu
Culture. Journal of Religious Culture No. 18b (1999)”, Dr.Edmund Weber, on
the web at
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