Since ancient times, the domination of a certain class of people was prominent. Leadership positions in the society were monopolized by a few dominant castes such as Brahmana and the Kshatriya. During the ancient period, the social stratification and division of labor of Hindus was known as Chaturvarna or Varna system. CHATURVARNA is Sanskrit word – Chatur means four and Varna means ‘Groups’, means four groups. In ancient period Hindu society was divided into four classes. These are Brahmin, Kshatriya, Vaishya and Shudra. These four classes are called four Varnas. The functions and social status of each Varna are fixed. The functions of Brahmin were learning, teaching and performing religious rites. The functions of Kshatriya were governance and protection of the society. The functions of Vaishya were agriculture, trade and pastoral. The function of Shudra was to do menial tasks and serve the other three Varna. This system was called Varna system. In this system the status of Brahmin was regarded as superior and the status of Sudras was regarded as inferior. The Varna of a person was determined by his qualities and deeds. But later it was determined by his birth. During the course of time the Varna system which was based on occupation soon converted into a caste system and added to the disadvantage of the lower castes. Social disabilities like Untouchability emerged in society.
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Origin & Development
There are several passages in the Vedic Literature dealing with the origin of the varnas. The oldest is the hymn in the Purusha-sukta of the Rig Veda which says.
Brahmano asya mukhaamasid bahu raajanyah krtah I
Urutadasya yad vaisyah padbhyam sudro ajayata II
The Brahman was his mouth, of both his arms was the Rājanya made. His thighs became the Vaiśya, from his feet the Śūdra was produced.
The Purusha-Sukta, an allegorical meaning is suggested by the whole Sukta with reference to the Purusha and the creation of varnas from his limbs.
Purussa Evedam Sarvam Yad-Bhuutam Yacca Bhavyam |
The Purusha is described as being himself “this whole universe, whatever has been and whatever shall be’’.
The whole social organization is here conceived symbolically as one human being- the “Body Social”, with its limbs representing the social classes based on the principle of Division of labor.
Thus, Brahmana was associated with mouth, the Kshatriya was associated with arms, the Vaisya was associated with thighs and the Sudra was associated with feet. The Brahmana was created to preserve the Vedas and the other scripture, the Kshatriya for ruling the earth, the Vaisya for supporting others and himself cultivation and trade and the Sudra to serve the other three as servants. The Sudra of the Rigvedic period seems to be no other than the non-Aryans, the Dasas who were different from the fair skinned Aryans. They had dark complexion, flat nose, unintelligibility of the speech, absence of sacrificing among them, absence of worship among them which were different from the Aryans. Thus, Aryans kept them as slaves.
Rig Veda Chapter 10, Hymn 60, 2 ; http://www.ancientvedas.com/chapter/10/book/60/
Rig Veda Chapter 10, Hymn 90, 23-24 ;http://www.ancientvedas.com/chapter/10/book/90/
Pandharinath Prabhu, Hindu Social Organisation, Popular Prakashan Bombay, Bombay, 1963, p- 283
Pic credits- Guruprasad.net
Kautiluya, in his work, Arthasastra has also mentioned about the classes of the society, where Brahmans were given utmost importance. They were the learned class and enjoyed respect from the society. The kshatriya ruler would also consult a Brahmana to perform dharma and sacrifices. The rulers were bound to rule their kingdom with justice while referring to Holy Scriptures. Various travelers like Megastheneses, who stayed in the court of Chandragupta Maurya as a Greek ambassador for several years and recorded his observations in his work titled the Indica. Hieun Tsang, who visited India during the reign of Harshavardhana, noticed that the caste system dominated the Hindu society and also described this domination.
Privileges & Disabilities
The gradual increase in the distinction between different varnas in terms of different rights and privileges is seen as time progressed. The four varnas came to be addressed in four different ways, differing in degrees of politeness as indicated by the terms ehi, agachchha, adrava and adhava respectively to be used for welcoming persons of four different varna.Also while reciting Gayatri Mantra, each varna was associated with different mantra, the Brahmana with Bhuh, the Kshatriya with Bhuva, the Vaisya with Svah. Further the Brahmana is asked to use Palasa wood for sacrifice, the Kshatriya to use Nyagrodha wood and the Vaisya to use Asvatta wood. Different sizes of funeral cakes (pinda) were prescribed for different varnas. The Sudras had no right to perform sacrifices like the three higher varnas.
The contrast between Aryan and sudra however came to be more and more accentuated during the later part of the Vedic period. It was claimed that sudras had no right to approach
Satapatha Brahmana V, 3,2,11 ; http://www.sacred-texts.com/hin/sbr/sbe41/sbe4114.htm
the sacred fire, i.e. perform sacrifices, or to read the sacred texts, although many passages in early texts clearly admit these rights. Thus, the Varna system gradually became rigid.
The rights and privileges of the Sudras were getting curbed and the higher varnas especially the Brahmanas were most privileged. In the later period, the distinction between varnas widened. The Varna system developed into Caste System. Upper castes especially Brahmana enjoyed certain rights and privileges, while civil and religious disabilities were imposed on the lower castes, Sudra.
The Brahmana, Kshatriya, Vaisya had liberty because they were believed to be born pure and superior. Brahmins never saluted but only blessed others. Learning and Chanting the Vedic mantras was a great privilege to them. While, a Sudra suffered from certain civil, religious disabilities. The caste system also imposed certain restrictions on social intercourse. To establish a close relationship with the lower caste was considered as inferior by the higher caste. The lower caste was required to stay far away to prevent them from polluting the upper caste. Even the shadow of a lower caste was considered as polluting. A Sudra was not allowed to draw water from the wells of the higher castes. Entrance to temples and other holy places were forbidden for them. If a Sudra touched a Brahmana, he would consider himself as contaminated and have bath. A Brahmana would prepare his food with Ghee while the Sudra would prepare his food using water. A Brahmana would only ‘Pakka’ food which is cooked in ghee from the lower varna and would not accept ‘Kaccha’ food which was prepared with the use of water. A Sudra would carry a spittoon around his neck as spitting on road would contaminate the road. A Sudra was supposed to tie a broom around his back in order to clean the path from which he walked. Restrictions were placed on the mode of construction of houses, type of dresses and pattern of ornamentation of Sudra. During the Peshwa period in Maharashtra, lower castes like Mahar and Mangs were not allowed within the gates of Pune before 9 am and after 3 pm. Lower castes in Malabar, Kerala state were not allowed to wear shoes and carry umbrellas. This discrimination led to social inequality in the society. Today, these disabilities on the lower castes have been removed.
Around the 6th century, many individuals of lower class began to feel dejected and turned to Buddhism. Buddhism was embraced by the people as a reaction against the brutality of the Hindu society.
The British respected the Indian caste system in the formulation of their policies, formation of their military and in their government policies regarding education and employment. They did not attempt to abolish the caste system as they saw in it a great opportunity to maintain their hold by keeping the society divided. The Christian missionaries found it a convenient means to convert people to Christianity and keep the Hindu society defensive. Educated Indian middle classes sensed the danger and felt a need to reform the caste system in the interests of Hindu society. Leaders like Babasaheb Ambedkar demanded equal status for the low castes, while Gandhi advocated complete abolition of untouchability and equal rights to all people.
 R.C. Mujumdar, Ancient India, Motilal Banarasidass Publishers Private Limited, Varanasi, 1952, p. 91
The leaders who fought for the freedom of India were to free the society from the foreign rule as well as free the society from the shackles of discrimination. The special civil and religious privileges enjoyed by the upper caste especially, Brahmins and social, religious, educational, economic and political disabilities faced by lower caste especially, Sudras have been removed by the constitutional provisions as well as social legislations. After independence, Indian constitution guaranteed equal status and fundamental rights to all classes of people Thus, while promoting equality to all citizens, the Constitution of India accepted the idea of protective discrimination in the favor of these groups. The constitution of India under Article 17 has abolished Untouchability and declares, ‘Untouchability is abolished and its practice in any form is forbidden’ under the ‘The Untouchability (Offences) Act 1955. Also, the constitution has incorporated many provisions for the upliftment of the lower castes in the society. Article 46 deals with the goal of advancing the position of the weaker sections by providing special benefits for those classes of citizens who are deemed to be socially and materially disadvantaged.
Ideal society in Plato’s Republic
There are many concepts across the world similar to the varna system. One such similarity is found in The Republic by Plato. Plato in his celebrated work The Republic has described his idea of an ideal society. Plato’s concept of an ideal society is called the Principle of Specialization. Plato in his book says that each person has a single interest or talent which becomes his unique way of contributing to society. Thus, each person should perform that particular interest or talent in the society and contribute to the development of the society. Plato argues that suppressing one’s talent leads to an uncooperative society. If each person suppresses his talent or interest and goes into another field which is of no interest to him then there is an uncooperative society. Plato argues that if a person doesn’t cooperate with others in the society then he needs to do more than one function to fulfil his desires, and thus becomes a divided person, and a divided person is always unhappy.
Plato in his work, the Republic recognizes three classes, Philosopher kings, Auxiliaries and workers. Philosopher kings as the head of the society, Auxiliaries as the heart and workers as the body and limbs. Brahmin and Kshatriya fall into the category of Philosopher kings, Vaisya falls in the category of Auxiliaries and Sudra falls in the category of Workers.
This concept is similar to Purusha Sukta, which describes the four varna from the body of the Purusha. However, there are many differences in both the systems but the base is common.
There are certain elements which are similar, for example Plato's instructions regarding the conduct of Philosopher Kings and Auxiliaries disapprove them from having possessions.
This is similar in case of the conduct of the Brahmanas. Also, Plato has mentioned that once the class of a person is determined there cannot be any movement between the classes. This is also similar to the varna system. Thus, Plato has clearly demarcated the code of conduct and limitations of his three classes, to ensure effective movement of the society.
- Prabhu Pandharinath, Hindu Social Organization, Popular Prakashan Bombay, Bombay, 1963.
- Mujumdar R.C., Ancient India, Motilal Banarasidass Publishers Private limited, Varanasi, 1952.
- Dutt Niperndra Kumar, Origin and growth of Caste in India, K.Paul, Trench, Trubner & company limited, 1931
- Rig Veda; www.ancientvedas.com.
- Satapatha Brahmana; www.sacred-texts.com