Varna System – The Four Social Classes in Hinduism

Varna System

Varna, (also referred to as “Caste” in the modern era) is a controversial and famous topic in Hinduism. During the Vedic period when every individual had their duties according to their own nature, they were regulated by the system of four Varnas (social classes) and four Ashrams (stages of life).

Varna is a pure Sanskrit word with various meanings. In the Rigveda (one of the four Vedas), the word Varna means “color, outward appearance, exterior, form, figure or shape”. While in Mahabharata, Varna is referred to as “color, tint, dye or pigment” which is one of the two major Sanskrit Scriptures.  In some ancient and medieval texts, Varna means “color, race, tribe, species, kind, sort, nature, character, quality, property” of an object or people whereas in Manusmriti, Varna refers to the four social classes.

Varna in Vedic Period

Varna System
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The Vedic period was around the time of 1500-1000 BCE when people were not classified according to their economic standard but as per their Varnas. According to Hindu scripts, society was classified into 4 majors Varnas:

  • Brahmins (The Superior One, Priests, Teachers, and Intellectuals)
  • Kshatriyas or Rajanyas (Warriors, Police, and Administrators)
  • Vaishyas also called Vysyas (Agriculturalists, Merchants or Traders)
  • Shudras (Artisans and Workers)

Each Varna was bounded by specific life principles, and their newborns were expected to follow the set of rules, regulations, and beliefs fundamentals to their respective Varna.

Varna in Bhagavad Gita

According to Bhagavad-gita 18.41, “Brahmanas, Kshatriyas, Vaishyas, and Shudras are distinguished by the qualities born of their own nature in accordance with the three material qualities.”

It is believed that all humans by birth were Shudras. At different stages of life when people complete their basic education, they are said to have their basic traits identified and when they take on some profession, they are said to have taken a re-birth. This is the reason Brahmins, Kshatriyas, and Vysyas are called DWIJ (twice-born).

Varna in Purusha Suktam

Varna was first mentioned in Purusha Sukta of Rig Veda.

In the Rigveda, Purusha Suktam verse (RV 10.90.11-12), Brahmins, Kshatriyas, Vaishyas, Shudras are said to be the constitute of the primordial Purusha. The Brahman formed his mouth, both his arms made of the Rajanya or Kshatriyas. His thighs of the Vaishya, and his feet the Shudra.

Varna in the Dharma Shastras

It is believed that people who commit grievous sins, who are unrighteous or unethical are considered outside the Varna system.

The Dharma Shastras had specific guidelines for each of the four varnas, with regard to their moral and religious duties, punishments, and atonements. With respect to their approach and attitude towards the four Varnas, they were decidedly discriminatory.

According to their caste, they also had different punishments for people while the status of children and their inheritance depended upon the varna-purity of their parents.

However, it in no sense resembles the modern era caste system that is being practiced now. As mentioned in ancient text purity-impurity cannot be determined on the basis of the Varna system but only in the context of an individual’s moral duties and rituals. The only mention of impurity in the Shastras found is about ‘fallen people’ who commit grievous sin and thereby fall out of their Varna and they could be anyone irrespective of their varna as all four varnas could attain sin by their ethical intent or actions.

Manusmriti text shows Vaishyas as cattle rearing occupation whereas historical evidence also shows that even Brahmins, Kshatriyas, and Shudras also owned and reared cattle. In ancient times cattle-wealth was the main component of each household.

Varna in Mahabharata

Bhagavad Gita describes that people are children of Brahma so the four Varnas are not hereditary but categories. Four Varnas are just the distribution of duties according to the gunas born of the Prakriti (own nature).

Duties of each Varnas

Brahmins: The Brahmin class was the superior class and said to be the state of a man dedicated to truth and pure conduct. Priests, gurus, rishis, teachers, and scholars combinedly form a Brahmin community. Also, Brahmanas occupied the highest position, as gods upon earth. Except in certain Vedic, where they had to sit below the king, because of which their position in society was unbeatable.

Brahmins vowed to remain Brahmacharya (celibacy), got married just for reproducing. The Brahmans provide education and spiritual leadership and therefore were the first choice as tutors for the newborn specially Kshatriyas.

Brahmins developed all ideal qualities, especially honesty, integrity, cleanliness, purity, austerity, knowledge, and wisdom leading all seekers to supreme knowledge. The control of mind and the senses, knowledge of Vedas was essential from Brahman. However, attaining the knowledge and cultivation of one’s intellect could lead anyone from other Varnas to be a Brahman.

Kshatriyas: After the Brahmans, there were Kshatriyas. They were the most powerful ones as the warrior clan, the kings, rulers, and administrators constitute Kshatriyas. They had the right to claim the authority of God to rule upon the earth as his representatives and enforce laws.

Kshatriyas were sent to Brahman’s ashram from a very early age to gain requisite knowledge.

Prowess, boldness, fortitude, dexterity, generosity, and sovereignty are the duties of the Kshatriyas. It was their fundamental duty to protect the kingdom, citizens, and territory, fight against attacks, provide justice to extend peace and happiness in the society.

They were supposed to conquer their own minds and senses and enjoy only according to scriptural injunction. Contrary to popular belief, Kshatriya women were equally capable as Kshatriya men and would take responsibility for shortcomings in their kingdom and defend the kingdom in times of distress.

Vaishyas: After Kshatriyas, there were Vaishyas. They are the most productive class. Agriculturalists, traders, farmers, merchants, and business people comprised the Vaishyas. They were supposed to give taxes to the Kshatriyas (ruling class).

Cattle rearing is one of the most esteemed occupations of the Vaishyas, it was their duty to protect animals and the land. They generated wealth and prosperity to maintain workers with a sufficient amount of food, clothes.

As the quality of the kingdom’s animals (cows, elephants, horses) affected the associated prosperity of citizens, Vaishyas would contribute to the constant up-gradation of the living standard by providing profit and economic prospects.

Shudras: The last Varna after Vaishyas was Shudras. While other varnas are occupationally and financially self-sufficient, they were the only ones allowed to accept another’s employment.

Artisans and workers comprised Shudras. Shudras would serve the Brahmins in their ashrams, Kshatriyas in their palaces and princely camps, and Vaishyas in their commercial activities. Their duty was to render services which led to them being the backbone of a prosperous economy. Each Shudras have their own sets of conduct towards their life duties. They were loyal and their selflessness makes them worthy of regard and respect.

Purpose of the Varna System

The stratification of people based on their Varna was to hold the responsibilities of one’s life and society. It was believed that performing and being dedicated to each other’s respective duties would lead to established society and avoid all forms of disputes.

In this system, specific tasks are designated to each Varna citizen. Each Varnas had their set of rules and regulations which were confined to their life duties to form a strong support system of the kingdom and lead to the prosperity of people.

Varnas in Buddhist, Jaina, Sikh

Varna system is mentioned in Ancient Buddhist texts as a flexible and non-rigid social stratification system.

In Jainism literature, Varna is not subjected to Purusha instead it traces the Bharata scripts. It is believed that those who refused to hurt any living being were called the priests, Brahmans. It also states that those who are committed to ahimsa (non-violence) are divine Brahmins.

The Adi Purana states “there is only one jati called Manusyajati or the human caste, but divisions arise account of their different professions”. Kshatriyas were formed when they started producing weapons to serve the society while Vaishya and Shudra arose according to the professions and habits, they were specialized in.

Sikhism is a late 15th-century religion that originated in the Punjab region of India which mentions Varna as Varan. The Varna system is described as a class system in Sikh literature.