Caste, Varna and Jatis: The need for clarity in intellectual debate
Recently, 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.
The 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 worlds oldest color bar the Sanskrit word for caste being varna, or color (sic)
I 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 mean?
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).
To quote Rajiv Malhotra, In particular, todays 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 matters.(iii)
Dr.Edmund 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)
Bear 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.
Also 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) doesnt help either a deeper understanding of the origins of the system or serious efforts to combat the distortions that have crept in.
For an 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 University]
The 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 Aryans 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.
Part 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 green.
- 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?
Even 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.
(i) [An International spotlight on the caste system, Sunanda K Datta-Ray, 13th May 05]
(ii) [Caste, Inequality and Affirmative Action, André Béteille, International Institute for Labour Studies, Geneva at http://www.ilo.org/public/english/bureau/inst/download/andre.pdf ]
(iv) [Ambedkar and the Hindu Culture. Journal of Religious Culture No. 18b (1999), Dr.Edmund Weber, on the web at http://web.uni-frankfurt.de/irenik/relkultur18b.html ]
This article was originally published on iVarta: http://www.ivarta.com/columns/OL_051125.htm