The varnas, otherwise known in the West as the “caste” system, is probably the most controversial and villainized aspect in all of Indian culture and Hindu theology. Because Hinduism (Sanatana Dharma) is such an ancient and integrated faith and way of life, one must be willing to peel back thousands of years of History, tradition, culture, and perspectives in order to glean the foundation of this social system that has come to be so reviled that its very usage is now illegal in modern India. I will briefly explore the varnas here, as well as deliver an introduction to their relevance from a scriptural basis and how the caste concept has evolved over the centuries.
Varnas or, “colors”, are designations to one’s social position based on a mixture of the three gunas, or physical/mental/emotional dispositions within them. These gunas are sattva (creative, inspiring, mentally quiet), rajas (restless, dynamic, fierce), and tamas (lazy, negligent, dull).
The Brahmanas are the intellectual and spiritual class, designated with the color white. Members of this group are more sattvik centered with a rajasik base and are charged with the spiritual and intellectual well-being of society.
The Kshatriyas are the warrior, leader, and administrative class with a color designation of red. This class exhibits rajasik qualities with a sattvik base. Their duty is to protect and nurture society. The hero Arjuna of the Bhagavad Gita was a Kshatriya.
The Vaisya are the tradesmen and business class of society, designated with the color brown. Members of this class possess rajasik qualities with a tamasik base. They are responsible for running society’s economic interests.
The Shudras are the laborers, designated black, and are charged with providing labor for society’s progress and well-being. They display tamasik qualities with a rajasik base.
There is another caste called the dalit or, “Untouchables.” This class was made infamous by such caste opponents as Mahatma Gandhi, who called for equality among the castes.
The Varnas in theology:
The earliest concept of a class-based society rose within the oral tradition of the Rig Veda, the oldest holy text within the Hindu tradition. Within, we receive an illustration of how these groups of men came to be:
The Brâhmana was his mouth, of both his arms was the Râjanya made. His thighs became the Vaishya, his feet became the Sûdra.
The “his” refers to Purusha or, the primordial man–cosmic soul. Others have interpreted this story to reflect Mankind as rising from the various parts of Brahma himself. Indeed, opponents of the caste system’s evolution into a rigid and limiting institution point out that if the classes in fact derived from Brahma himself, then all parts are equal and holy.
Interestingly enough, Lord Krishna tells Arjuna in the Bhagavad Gita (“Song of the Lord”)…
Those desiring success in their actions worship the gods; through action in the world of mortals, their desires are quickly fulfilled. The distinctions of caste, guna, and karma have come from me. I am their cause, but I myself am changeless and beyond all action.
Because the Bhagavad Gita is a lesson in becoming one with the divine Self (in this case, Lord Krishna), Krishna is telling Arjuna that the eternal Self–the cosmic Cause that makes up our souls–is incorruptible and therefore transcends the varnas. Even the Brahmanas must climb to reach moksha–liberation, and therefore we are all equal.
From a social perspective, the varnas were classifications based on personal dispositions that, as a whole, created a balanced society in which everyone played a productive role.
Of course as Mankind often does, the original intent of a harmonious society became tainted by the ambitions and reinterpretations men placed on the meaning of the classes. The caste system as we’ve known it in recent history evolved into a rigid system of ascription in which that was virtually no hope of movement. One’s occupation and lifestyle was now a part of their genetics. Corrupt holy men rationalized this with twisted versions of karma and dharma. This new philosophy, designed to protect the lineage of the few and privileged, contradicts the scriptures in which Lord Krishna himself had been born a simple cowherd and other notable rishis (holy men) as well as avatars of Vishnu had traversed the classes based on effort and developed aptitude toward other occupations.
It would be unfair to point a finger at the Indian subcontinent for such abuses based on a warped view of scripture. Indeed, few religious or philosophical traditions are clean of the stain of atrocities justified by interpretation of holy writ. Our duty then is to dig into the muck and bring to light the true meaning behind these words within the context of their times of mention. Only with these insights, brought about by deep self-examination, will we be able to wash ourselves of the grim of prejudice based upon misguided and antiquated pretences. This is work left to only a few at present who have the courage to get their hands dirty. It seems then, that we would all do well to be an unclean “Untouchable” from time to time after all.