Varna, Jathi and Kula
Let us now ponder over the meaning of three words, Varna, Jaathi and Kula.
For the word Varna, the famous Telugu Dictionary Sri Surya Raya Andhra Nighantuvu (Vol 7, January 1982, p. 79) gives many meanings, of which one goes like this: ‘castes like Brahmins etc.,’.
In the same Dictionary, the word ‘Jaathi’ is shown to have the meanings that include: 1. birth; 2. tribe, kula; 3. caste, varna, division.
Similarly for the word ‘kula’, the meanings are 1. tribe, ancestry; 2. a group of people or animals or birds that have the same traits; 3. house, home; 4. a village (Vol 2, p. 325).
Evidently, in the meanings given, there is no differentiation between the three words ‘jaathi’, ‘kula’ and ‘varna’ (Vol 3, p. 381). They mean the same.
Pujya Paramacharya Sri Jayendra Saraswathi, in his book ‘Introduction to Hindu Dharma’ (p. 35), refers ‘jaatis’ as ‘subdivisions of castes’.
It may be of interest to point out here that as per Hindu Jyothis Sasthra (Hindu Astrology), there is a ‘kula’ differentiation in the week days. Tuesday and Friday are called ‘kula vaaram’ (caste days), Sunday, Monday, Thursday and Saturday are called ‘akula vaaram’ (non-caste days or days without caste) and only Wednesday is left out as ‘kulakula vaaram’ (caste/non-caste day). (Ref: Sri Suryaraya Andhra Nighantuvu, Vol. 2, p. 326)
Similarly, there is sloka in the Jyothis Sastra, that mentions the ‘caste’ distinction among the planets. It reads thus:
‘Kroora bhanu thamaswani dhwajakujaa ssu kraarya soumyendava
ssoumhyasthe purushah kujaarkaguravo rahvindu sukraah sthrayah
thaccheshasthu napusankaa guru bhrugoo viprou kujarkou nrupaa
vaisyou chandr budhou thadavya kulajo mandasthu varneswarah’
that means - the planets Jupiter, Venus are planets that belong to Brahmin Varna; the Sun and the Mars are Kshatriya planets; the Moon and the ... (budha) are the Vaisya planets; and the Saturn is the Sudra planet. The same matter is also elaborately discussed in ‘Sarvartha Chinthamani’ and ‘Brihajjathakam’.
In the book ‘Guru Baala Prabhodika’ (p.185), it is said that
‘Vamsosvavaayassanthano varnaasyuh brahmanaadayah
Vipra kshathriya vitchoodrah chathurvarnya mithi smrutham’.
There is another notion that the word ‘kula’ is derived from the word that means ‘home’. It is already stated that the word ‘kula’ has many meanings, amongst which ‘home’ and ‘house’ are to be made a mention of.
The famous dictionary ‘Sabda Rathnakaram’ mentions that the word ‘jaathi’ is derived from the definition ‘jaayatha ithi jaathih’, which means that ‘what is born is jaathi’. Which again emphasizes that ‘jaathi comes by birth’.
Valmiki in one of his many famous slokas in his epic ‘Ramayana’ (Yuddha Kanda, Sarga 131), writes that
‘Brahmanaah kshathriya vaisya ssudrah lobhavivarjithah
Swakarmanupravarthathe thustahsvaireva karmabhih’
which means that all people belonging to four varnas namely, Brahmana, Kshathriya, Vaisya and Sudra are happy performing their bounden duties meticulously without any differences amongst themselves and without any indications of misery. This sloka subtly tells us that the four varnas are there in prevalence even during the Ramayana period. But Prof. Khanadavalli Lakshmiranjanam, in his book ‘History and Culture of Andhras’ (Andhrula Charithra - Samskrithi) (p. 92) opines that ‘there was no system of caste prior to the arrival of Aryans in Andhradesa. Only after their arrival, say from 4th or 5th Century AD, the caste system took roots in the Telugudesa’. But ironically Laljee Singh, the erstwhile Director of Centre for Cellular and Molecular Biology (CCMB) at Hyderabad and the present Vice Chancellor of Banares Hindu University, Varanasi, emphasizes in an interview published a Telugu Daily Newspaper (Eenadu, Hyderabad Edition, dated 16th February 2013) that ‘through our genetical studies, we have conclusively proved that Aryans have not come into India from outside. We have proved that the roots of certain tribes are there in us. We have proved that Aryans have come from the Andamans along with someother tribes’. His emphasis makes it clear for us that the caste system or the four castes have taken shape only in course of time, and not without any interference from the Aryans.
All the mention of above arguments helps us to come to a reasonably correct guess as to the origin or development of caste system in the South India.
Sankaracharya in his famous sloka, says
‘Janmanaa jaayathe sudraah samskaaraa ddwija ucchathe
Vedapaathee bhave dwipraah brahmagnaanetthu brahmanah’
which means that by birth everybody is a sudra, but by performing his duties properly does one become a Dwija, by studying Vedas one becomes Vipra and by attaining the knowledge of Vedas (Vedagnana) does one become Brahmana.
In the Salasutta Pada 12 of Sutta Nipata 1.7, translated by Priyadassi Thera, we see exactly the same opinion even in the Buddhism:
‘Not by birth is one an outcast, not by birth is one a brahmin. By deed one becomes a brahman’.
But, as Buddha has said that ‘chaturvarnyam siddham’, which means that emancipation is possible for all the four castes, it can be construed that the Buddhism accepted the fact of the existence of four varnas.
In the sloka of Sankaracharya, there is a mention of three different words that connote Brahmins - Dwijas, Vipras and Brahmins. Though we loosely use the three words to talk of a Brahmins, it is evident all the three words are different carrying three different meanings, connoting three different sets of Brahmins. By this sloka, it is certain that the present day Brahmins have to attain Brahmagnaanam to call themselves worthy of the term (‘true’) brahmins.
It is to be noted in this context that there are actually eight categories of Brahmins. The details are noted elsewhere in this book.
In the ‘Purusha Sooktha’ of Rigveda, there is one sloka that talks of the origin of four castes. The sloka reads thus:
Ooroo tha nya yadvaisyah
Padbhyaam soodro ajayathah’ (10.90. 12)
The sloka means that the Brahmins have originated from the face of the all pervading, all strong Super Being (Maha Purusha) who has 1000 faces, 1000 eyes and 1000 feet; from the arms the Kshathriyas; from the thighs the Vaisyas; and from the feet the suudras.
The same is also found in the Third Prasna of Thaitthareeyaranyaka (3rd question of Thaitthareeyaranyaka).
‘Damma Pada’ is the book that has 26 Vargas contains the teachings of Lord Buddha. The 26th Varga is called ‘Brahmana Varga’ and it elaborates on who in the society should be reffered to as Brahmnins. This chapter makes it clear about the existence of a caste called ‘Brahmins’ during the period of Lord Buddha.
‘The Jathaka Tales’, translated by Cowell, edited by Fosbowl and published in London sometime around 1895-1913, also gives us some information about the Caste system in India. The Jathaka Tales are the stories of the previous births of Lord Buddha (Bodhisattva), prior to his being born as Gauthama in the Sankya Dynasty to become Lord Buddha. In ‘Bheemasena Jathaka Katha’, one of those Jathaka Tales, we get a reference about the caste system in Andhradesa. As per that tale, in one of his previous births, Bodhisattva was born as a Brahmin. He completed his education in Takshasila (Taxila), and to gain further practical knowledge he came to Andhradesa. During that time he was cheated by a Vaisya. Let us ignore what happens next in that story and follow the two main inferences of the narration: They are -
1. As Bodhisattva came to Andhradesa for further studies and gaining practical knowledge, it is evident that there was ample Veda Vidya available to students from outside.
2. As Bodhisattva was stated to have been cheated by a Vaisya, it is evident that the caste system was pervalent at that time itself.
The writings of the next period in history also stress the above inferences.
Prof. B.S.L. Hanumantha Rao, in his book ‘Religion in Andhra’ (pub. 1957, p. 47) opines that the caste system was prevailing by the times of Apastamba, who gave the Hindus the principles of worships, called Suthras. His time period roughly corresponds to 5-3 Centuries BCE. Prof. B.S.L. also states that many of the methods of worship in other religions were observed and were amalgamated into the Hindu system of worship and were made part of Atharva Veda by Apasthamba, so that there may not be any influence of other religions on peolple weaning them from Hindu Religion. He also categorically states only during the times of Apasthamba itself, the writing of epics has started taking roots.
Whatever be the case, we can now easily deduce that even from the angle of the present day science of society, called ‘Sociology’ also, the caste system consisting of ‘Chaathurvarnyas’, that is four castes namely, Brahmin, Kshathriya, Vaisya and Sudra, found its way because of the socialogical necessity of those times. Similar four types of categorisation of people or something similar to the Indian Caste System was also found in the olden time Babylonia and China. But they were being referred to then as Priests, Rulers, Artisans and Slaves. Even in the medival Iran there were four categories in the people and this categorisation was called ‘pistries’. Researchers state these pistries were almost similar to our four categories of castes.
The famous traveller from Greece, Megasthenes, who visited India during the times of Maurya rule, compiled all his experiences and observations in a book named ‘Indica’. This book gives us much information about the then prevailing sociological conditions in the sub-continent India. As per his observation, there were seven categories in the then India. The seven groups were called philosophers, peasants, herdsmen, craftsmen and traders, soldiers, government officials and councillors. There was individual and intergroup marriages in these seven groups. Prof. A.L Basham, the famous Indologist comments in his book entitled ‘The Wonder that was India’ (p.147) that today, we may feel that this type of categorisation is not appropriate. But the fact that the caste system as prevailing today was not at all mentioned by Megasthanes, indicates to us the caste system as known us presently, was not prevelent then.
We may safely conclude that during the period when Aryans from the northern region were trying to settle down in the south of Vindhyas, there was a natural opposition from the then southerners, Anaryas (who are not Aryans) and the Aryans tried to protect themselves from them. The Aryans who came from the northern parts which is cold were basically a little fair compared to those settled in the south. The resultant difference in the shades of skin, led to the differentiation amongst the people. As colour is called ‘varna’ in Sanskrit, may be the varnya vyavastha or the caste system slowly developed in their attempts to shield their communities from others. As far as the Aryans were concerned, all the children, the widows, the sanyasi and sanyasins were grouped into one category of varna. It is amazing that children, widows, and the sanyasis were not part of the society of the Aryans.
‘Modern Europeans writers advanced the supposititon that the Aryan race entered India with a strong race and colour consciousness, that the Rigveda records struggle between the Aryans and the natives dasas who were snub-nosed and black-skinned and that the varna system arose out of this colour consciousness’ writes Govind Chandra Pande in his book ‘Foundations of Indian Culture, Vol. 2, p. 4, supporting this theory of varna arising out of colour consciousness. However, in another reference in the same book, he tells that ‘the fact is that in Rigveda-Samhitha, (the term) Arya is used in the sense of a pious house holder’ (p. 4).
There is another interpretation also to this ‘colour theory’. That revolves round the practice of wearing the sacred thread, called ‘yagnopaveetham’ or ‘janaoo’. At the time of initiation or Upanayanam, Brahmins wear a sacred thread made of cotton in white colour, the Kshathriyas wear a sacred thread of red colour and the Vaisyas a sacred thread made of linen with the colour yellow. Based on the colour of the sacred thread the caste of any person was easily identified by others. Some people are of the opinion that this separate identity slowly gave rise to the caste system.
Brahma Purana gives another reference to varna system in Chapter 1 (I.16, 18-24). It says that Mount Meru has four sides, each a distinct colour (varna) and each identified with one of the four castes (also varna). Mount Vipula in the west is black in colour, symbolising sudra varna, Mount Suparshra in the north with red colour, symbolising Kshatriya, Mount Mandara in the east with white, symbolising Brahmins and Mount Gandhamadana in the south with colour yellow, symbolising the Vaisyas. The varnas of Mount Meru are also given Linga Purana (1.48.8), Markandeya Purana (54. 16-17), Vayu Purana (1.34.16-19; 47-48) and also in Matsya Purana (113.45).
Rani Sivasankara Sarma defines the Telugu term ‘Kulam’ as the home. He states that when we talk of people belonging to one particular ‘kulam’ it means those people that come from that ‘home’. (The Last Brahmin, Telugu Book, p. 192)
Another fact is worth mentioning here. Depending on the professions, many ‘jaathis’ have come up in our society, which means that the varnas are different from ‘jaathis’. Whereas ‘varna’ refers to class, ‘jaathi’ refers to the present day ‘kulam’ (caste). It may be interest to note that whereas the number of ‘jaathis’ was changing, some new ‘jaathis’ coming up and some disappearing, the varnas remained four throughout the history. Sometime in the past, the number of jaathis crossed 3,000 also. The following passage from the website netplaces.com may be quoted here:
‘Before the caste system was solidified, there was evidence of social intercourse among classes. We now tend to associate the caste system in India with the four basic social groups - Brahmins, Kshatriyas, Vaishyas and Sudras. However, these groups were once divided into many, many, more. There were castes of metal workers, weavers, warriors and priests. Other castes developed along ethnic or religious lines; tribal communities, as well as Muslims, Christians and Jewswere incorporated into Hindu society as distinct caste groups. As a consequence, more than 3,000 castes emerged in Indian society’.
In 16th Century A.D., the Protuguese have arrived in India. They have observed the prevailing classes and the divisions in the society and they started calling them as ‘castes’. The word ‘castes’ is derived from the Portuguesian and also Spanish word ‘casta’, which means ‘tribe’. But, the famous Telugu Brown Dictionary traces etymology of the word ‘caste’ to a German word, which again means ‘tribe’ (Ed. 1987, p. 146). As per the Oxford English Dictionery, 1989, the spelling of the word ‘caste’ is first attested to in English in 1613 CE.
Though the caste system in India has consisted of many thousands (almost 3,000 and more) of endogamous groups called ‘jathis’, the British regime can be credited to clubbing of many of these jathis into various castes broadly falling under the four varna system, during the British Colonial Census of 1901.
Poojya Jagadguru Sri Kanchikoti Paramacharya Jayendra Saraswathi states in his book ‘Introduction to Hindu Dharma’(p. 18) that ‘Varna dharma (caste) is an “arrangement”governing all society. It is very much a target of attack today and is usually spoken of as the division of society into jatis (sub-divisions of the castes). But varna and jati are in fact different. here are only four varnas but the jatis are numerous.
‘Critics of varna dharma brand it as “a blot on our religion” and as “a vicious system which divides people into high and low”. But, if you look at it impartially, you will realize that it is a unique instrument to bring about orderly and harmonious social life.’
The famous Linguist Prof. H(endrik) Kern finds that in Zend-Avesta, the most Sacred Book of the Parsis, yasn xix, 46, four classes are mentioned, They are Aatharava, Rathaesthao, Vaastriya-fshuyant and Huiti, which corresponds to Acharya, Kshattriya, Kutumbin and Prakrithi Karman, that is religious teacher, the warrior Kshatriya, the house holder (or peasant) and workman. He further states, in his readings of the Dissertation at the Royal Academy of Sciences ay Amsterdam on 13th March, 1871... ‘consequently, a division of the nobility into Brahmins and Kshattriyas and the precedence of the former over all the classes, is not the work of the Indian Brahmins.’
Whatever be the case, and whoever may be the founder, the caste system looks to have fulfilled a sociological necessity and a communal responsibility. Nobody has any role so far as his birth is concerned and it just happens. In the older times, there were instances, as evident from many scriptures and books, wherein certain people could change their castes also, the well known examples being Sage Viswamithra converting from Kshathriya clan to that Brahmin; Sages Valmiki and Suka converting to another caste from the caste they were born into. But, nowadays, though an opportunity exists to one and all to convert into another religion of one’s choice, if one feels so, there is no such opportunity available to anybody in India to convert to another caste from that in which one is born into, however much one may ever desire to. Therefore, there is no point in feeling bad or sad for having born into a caste; nor there is any benefit in feeling so. And certainly, there is no point in treating other castes as lesser or higher. One should feel happy and proud that he is born in the caste he is born in; but never one should ever look down or speak ill of other castes.
The society decreed that Brahmins do good to the community at large; and has been addressing them as ‘Purohiths’, implying that they should aspire for the good of the society. History stands witness to the fact that the Brahmins have faithfully and to a very large extent fulfilled this great responsibility assigned them. But, in the process of numerous sociological developments that take place in a society over a period of timsocial ge, wherein the society slowly but sysyematically undergoes various changes, even the Brahmin caste has undergone many changes. They suitably adapted themselves to these forces of change. It remains an indisputable fact that niether they nor their caste as a whole, is responsible for this caste system; nor for the differences cropped up in the society due to caste factor. When a society is taking shape, it develops as per the needs of the day; and it creates various castes and tribes it needs from different professions, for the overall development of the community. The four castes, namely Brahmin, Kshathriya, Vaisya and Sudra may have formed in the same fashion only; and it may be possible that sometime in distant future, the society may form new castes, based on new professions, castes such as ‘Software Caste’, ‘Hardware Caste’, ‘Doctors Caste’, ‘Engineers Caste’, Clerks Caste’.. so on so forth.
In this context, we may recollect the comment made by the famous Historian A.L.Basham, in his book ‘The Wonder that was India’ (p.151), that ‘all the efforts made in the past in India to wipe out the caste system have failed miserably due to various reasons. The efforts made by Basaveswara, Kabir and Swamy Ramananda along with their innumerable followers have, strangely, led to the formation of new castes. Even in religions like Sikh, Islam, Syrian Christian, Roman Catholics, there are now many caste divisions and they are on the increase’.
The caste system prevalent in India is not confined to Hindu religion alone. It is prevalent in other religions also, though not exactly in the same fashion. Muslims in India are divided into Sayed, Sheik, Mughal, Pathan, Qureshi, apart from the major divisions such as Sunni and Shia. These castes are drawn from several sources - the Mughal and the Pathans are the ethnic groups while Qureshi name comes from the clan of Prophet Muhammed in Mecca. Roman Catholics in India also do have caste system depending on the original caste from which they have converted to Christianity. Thus we have Reddy Catholics, Naidu Catholics, Mala Christians, Madiga Christians (two of the major Scheduled Castes in Andhra Pradesh) and even Roman Catholic Brahmins. Going back further into history, we find even in Plato’s work ‘The Republic’, wherein he spoke of a sort of classification in society. Elaborating on his concept of ‘The Ideal State’ he described society as consisting of three classes- Gold, Silver and Copper. In this classification, he puts (as Gold) on top, philosopher-kings who rule, next (as Silver) the warriors; and finally (as Copper) the merchants and the workers. He puts merchants and workers as one single category. , almost a three-tiered varna system.
As if the numerous castes prevalent in the Indian society are insufficient, the Government have created a new social order, with its notifying certain Castes and Tribes in various schedules of the Indian Constitution for reservations in education and employment sectors. But, many people opine that this act and its repurcussions are responsible for the further divisions in the polity of the nation.
And in the natural progression of the society, there arose numerous divisions in the caste of Brahmins too. Many sakhas (branches) and upasakhas (sub branches) have sprouted in the Brahmin Community. Now we have an array of these sakhas and upasakhas, which we come across as Vaidikis, Niyogis, Dravidians and et cetera. We will discuss them in detail in the next pages.