What is a caste? What is a Varna? (Post No.3156)


Written by London swaminathan

Date: 15 September 2016

Time uploaded in London: 21-21

Post No.3156

Pictures are taken from various sources; thanks.

During Vedic days the Hindu society was divided into four Varnas: Brahmana- priestly caste; Kshatria- the ruling caste; Vaisya-the business community and the Sudra- manual labourers. This is very different from the castes of today. We have thousands of castes today. They are based on birth. But in Vedic days the varna was based on vocation one chose. The word varna is derived from the root “VRU” meaning “to choose”, what is chosen is Varna. It meant the profession you chose. Though it was based on vocation in the beginning, later it became a birth right. We see such things even today. A politician’s son becomes a big leader to succeed his father or mother superseding lot of seniors in the party. We see it in the film industry. An actor’s son or daughter is promoted as a prominent actor beating many seniors in the field. We see such trends in all parts of the world.


But in India the four varnas gave birth to thousands of castes which is unknown in any other part of the world. Even the Tamil literature talk about different castes in different regions. Varna is a misleading word. Foreigners deliberately left it without giving the Sanskrit root. People were allowed to believe varna means skin colour. The varna means colour as well. But in Vedic time there were not four coloured people. It meant only chosen profession. We have lot of quotations from various scriptures to justify this meaning.


Manu smriti, the first full-fledged Law book in the world, says,

Janmanaa jaayate Suudrah, karmanaa dwija Uchyate.

All are born as sudras; only the work decides whether he is a dwija  ( the word applied to first three castes.)


Krishna also says in Bhagavad Gita

Caaturvarnayam mayaa srstam

Gunakarma vibhaagasah

Tasya kartaaram api maam

Viddhy akartaaram avyayam (4-13)

The four-fold order was created by Me according to the divisions of quality and work. Though I am its creator, know Me to be incapable of action or change.


Dr S Radhakrishnan says in his Gita commentary: –

“The emphasis is on guna (aptitude) and karma (function) and not Jaati (birth). The varna or order to which we belong is independent of sex or breeding. A class determined by temperament and vocation is not a caste determined by birth and heredity.


“According to the Mahabharata, the whole world was originally of one class but later it became divided into four divisions on account of the specific duties.

Ekavarnam idam puurvam visvam aasid Yudhisthira

Karmakriyaavisesena caaturvarnyam pratishthitam


“Even the distinction between caste and out caste is artificial and unspiritual. An ancient verse points out that the Brahmin and the out caste are blood brothers.


Antyajo viprajaatis ca eka  eva sahodarah

Eka yoni prasuutas ca ekasaakhena jaayate


In the Mahabharata Yudhisthira says that it is difficult to find out the caste of persons on account of the mixture of castes. Men beget offspring in all sorts of women. So conduct is the only determining feature of caste according to sages.



“The fourfold order is designed for human evolution there is nothing absolute about the caste system which has changed its character in the process of history. Today it cannot be regarded as anything more than an insistence on a variety of ways in which the social purpose can be carried out.


Dr S N Sharma says

“He is thus a citizen of the world, the son of the earth”

Maataa Bhuumi: putroham prthivyaah

–Atharva Veda 12-1-42


Accordingly, birth is just incidental. It is only training and environment that give him specific direction to the development of certain qualities, determining thereby his social category.


According to Mahabharata, by birth all children can either be regarded Brahmins or Sudraas.

Yadi te vrutto raajan braahmanah prasamiikshitah

Vyarthaa jaatistadaayushman krtiyaarvanna drsyate

–Aranyaka parvan 177-25


Further the Mahabharata says that the Brahmana is one who practises truth, charity, forgiveness, compassion, restraint and goodwill.

Satyam daanam kshamaa seelamaanrusamsyam damoghrunaa

Drsyante yatra naagendra sa braahmana iti smrtah

If these qualities are found even in a so called Suudra, he must be ranked as a braahmana and, conversely, one bereft of these qualities, even though popularly known as a braahmana, is veritably a sudrah.


Suudre ca etat bhavet lakshyam dwije tat ca na vidyate

Navai suudro  bhavet suudro  braahmano na ca braahmanah

Aaranya parvan 177-17-21


Vedic Hymn

We come across the fourfold order for the first time in the Rig Veda in the Purusasuuktam hymn: –

Braahmnosya mukhamaasid baahuraajanya krtah

Uuru tadasya yath vaisyah padbhyaahum suudro ajaayata

Rig Veda 10-90-12


Brahmins came from the mouth (seat of speech)

Ruling class came from the arms (strength to protect)

Vaisyas came out of the thighs (food producer, importers)

Suudra came from the foot of God (Viraat purusa)


All the four communities came from the Viraat Purusa(God); this shows all are children of God. Moreover we need these four groups to make the society better. Even if one body part is missing he is called  disabled. In the same way Hindu society is complete only when all the four division of workers function.


Today there are thousands of castes. It is a world wonder. How come the four varnas gave birth to innumerable castes. Thurston and others were able to list them in several voloumes. But no one was able to tell us what caused so many castes. It remains a mystery!




Leave a comment


  1. Several spelling mistakes – eg root and division.

    Sent from my iPhone


  2. It would seem that most of the castes (trades) have evolved from the fourth varNa. I do not think that there are any castes in BrAhmaNa varNa. Only regional/linguistic divisions exist. Are there any caste divisions among kshathriyAs and vysyAs.
    I feel that oly people of fourth varNa produce all goods and provide all services. People of other three varNas are parasites depending on these. However these are also taking up the trades of sudhras, and intermarriage among castes is on the increase.

  3. Thanks. I have corrected them.

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