There had been confusion about the concept of Varna and it is identified with Jati although Varna is far from having the same meaning as the Jati. The Varna system was conceived not as caste but as a class organization.
Varna is from the root ‘vri’ which means choice according to inherent traits. Varna seems to have been the division of the society in the Rig Vedic times when there were four classes. These classes were Brahmin. Kshatriya, Vaishya and Sudra. It is found from the Vedic literature that Varna meant the color of the skin according to which society was divided into four classes. These classes were based on the distinction and differences between the white or the Aryans and the black or the Dravidians.
Another view point means to acceptor to profess. In this senses Varna represents the occupational groups into which Hindu society was divided. So we can have at least two interpretations of the concept of Varna: First Varna has been used as colour of the skin and it been means the classification of society on the racial differences: second, Varna means the division of society on the occupational differences. The functional of each Varna were specially laid down.
Varna in Classical Literature
There are passages in Vedic literature regarding the Varnas. There is a hymn in ‘Purusha Sukta’ of Rig Veda which says that the Brahaman Varna represents the mouth of the Purusha or the universal man, Kshatriya Varna forms his arms, the Vaishya forms his thighs and the Sudra, his feet. The division into four Varnas is related to the duties assigned to each Varna. Accordingly, each Varna had to pursue a particular vocation. It appears that the original part of the Vedas did not know about the caste system and the caste system came latter on. In Rig Vedic society there was no restriction on an individual regarding a particular occupation. Persons belonging to a particular Varna could accept and practise any profession they liked. A Brahmin could take the profession of a physician. Similarly, there was no restriction regarding food, drinking or diet among Varnas. Besides, there were no restrictions on inter-marriage between the different classes of the Aryan race. Hence, the Varnas w’ere “open classes”. The classes were not watertight compartments. These classes were based on individual traits and not on birth.
Views of Sociologists on Varna
View of J. H. Hutton
Hutton says that the concept of Varna is often confused with the concept of caste or Jati although caste and Varna have different meanings. The Varna seems to have been originally the four classes. In Vedic times, the line of demarcation between the various classes was not considered essential. A Kshatriya could become a Brahmana. At the time of Vedic invasion, the four Varnas represented a division of society into four classes, namely the Brahmanas who acted as priests, the Kshatriyas who were rulers, the Vaishyas who acted as priests, the Kshatriyas who were the servant class. Certain colours are associated with the four Varnas. The Brahmanas have white colour, the Kshatriyas red, the Vaishyas yellow and Sudras black.
View of G. S. Ghurye
Varna means distinction. In the beginning we find that there are two classes in Hindu society, the Aryas and the Dasas. Ghurye has written, “In the Rig Veda, the word Varna is never applied to any one of the classes (Brahmana, Kshatriya etc.). It is only the Arya Varna or the Aryan people that is contrasted with Dasa Varna. The Satapatha Brahmana, on the other hand, describes the four classes as four Varnas. Varna means colour and it is in this sense that the word seems to have been employed in contrasting the Arya and the Dasa, referring to their fair and dark colour respectively. He is of the opinion that the distinction between the Arya and Dasa was latter responsible for the distinction between Arya and Sudra.
In the Vedic age we find the division of society into three classes, namely Brahmana, Kshatriya and Vaishya. Only in the later Vedic period, a mention has been made about the fourth Varna of Sudras. In the Vidic age, there were only four Varnas and untouchables had no place in the Varna system.
The three classes of the early portion of the Rig Veda were latter solidified into four groups, more or less compact, with three or four other groups separately mentioned.
According to Ghurye, the term Varna has been used to denote the colour scheme of the different sections of the society. Since the Aryans came from outside India and conquered the indigenous population in India, they occupied a higher social status and the people who were defeated got the lowest position in the society. In this way, Ghurye has adopted the racial theory of the origin of the Varna system.
View of ML N. Srinivas
Prof. Srinivas is of the opinion that the caste system is a very complex organization and it should not be identified with the Varna system. There are only four Varnas but there are above three thousand castes. The distinction between the caste and Varna system is that the caste is a local group, whereas the Varna system has an all India basis. Similarly, there is no mobility in the caste system, whereas the Varna system is mobile. According to him, the Varna system conceals the diversity between the caste system of one region and that of an other.
Although the different Varnas were open classes and were based on the individual traits, there were distinctions between various Varnas on different grounds. The distinctions between the four Varnas can be shown on many grounds. The four Varnas were addressed in different ways and different degrees of politeness. For example, when»welcoming a person, different terms were used, namely. Agachehha, Adrava etc. Similarly, the Gayatri mantra was to be recited by the three Varnas in different ways. The Brahmin started the mantra with ‘Bhuh’, the Kshatriya with Bhubah and the Vaishya with Swah.
We also find distinction between Varnas on the basis of type of wood for sprinkling purposes as a sacrifice. The Kshatriya us Nyagrodha wood and the Vaishya uses Aswattha wood. In this manner, the distinction between the different Varnas in terms of different rites and privileges can be seen in the Rig Vedic literature to Brahminic literature, that is to say, transition of society from the Vedic age to the Samhitas, from the Brahminic to the Upanishadic age.
As far as the Sudras were concerned, they still held the position of the menial labour or slave because they were still non-Aryans. In the late period, the four Varnas have been mentioned. Although the Sudra was accepted as belonging to the fourth Varna, he was not quite free from disability because he could not perform a sacrifice which the higher Varnas did.
The Origin of the Varnas
There are different theories regarding the origin of Varna. We shall mention some of them.
- The Theory of Parasara
According to Parasara, the vVhole of mankind has emerged from the Brahmana. It is the law of nature that the children share the common nature of their parents and therefore all the men have been of the same Varna when they were created. The question arises as to why there is distinction between the various Varnas. Parasara replies. It is true that the offspring begotton by one is none else than the begetter himself, but if the soil and the seed are inferior, the offspring born of these will be inferior. Parasara says that mankind has originated from the great Brahmana himself but all sections of society did not emerge from the same parts of the body. The Brahmana have emerged from the mouth, the Kshatriya from arms, the Vaishya from thighs, and the Sudra from the feet. Originally, the four Varnas were created and the other classes were the result of inter – mixture. Parasara has given a list of fourteen subclasses.
- Theory of Mahabharata
In the Mahabharata, the origin of the Varna has been described from the various parts of the body of the creator. The Brahmana originated from the mouth of the Brahma or the creater, the Kshatriya from his arms, the Sudra-from his feeUhe Brahmana was created to preserve the Vedas, the Kshatriya to rule the world and to protect it, the Vaishyas to support the other two Varnas and himself by agriculture, and the Sudras to serve the other three Varnas.
- Theory of Manu
According to Manu Smiriti, the four Varnas have been created from the limbs of the creator. To protect the universe, different duties and occupations were assigned to the different Varnas. Brahmana Varna has been regarded as the supreme creation of God. Manu has asserted that the Brahmana, the Kshatriya, the Vaishya and the Sudra are the only Varnas in existence and there is no Pancham Varna.