Varna & Jati – An overview

It has been my firm understanding that Varna and Jati are quite different and one cannot be used in place of the other.

Also clear is that both Varna and Jati are extremely ancient concepts or forms of social organization that have seen many forms and shapes of themselves depending on the vicissitudes of time. They also seem to have survived well into our times.

At various points in our recent history, learned folk have attributed, shall we say, conspiracy theories to origins of Varna & Jati, depending on how depressed they have perceived their own Jatis to be at that time of speaking. Interestingly, such “tenures of depression”, rarely if at all, have stretched right to the point of origination. Almost every Varna & Jati has claimed to have prospered at one point or another; post the point of origination of Varnas and Jatis.

As a layman, how should I understand these two concepts? Who were or are the Shudras, Vyshyas, Kshatriyas and Brahmanas? What are these many Jatis that we see amidst us? What is my Jati and/or Varna? Do I relate to them or discard them? Can they be discarded at all? Or is that like asking – can I discard traditional life itself? How did these become traditions? On and on…we can go.

Some would have noted the order I placed the Varnas. It’s in the reverse. Or so I have assumed. Could an ancient people have thrived without agriculture? Could they have thrived without someone who could sell their produce? Hardly. They would have found some amongst themselves who would go forth, leaving his farming land behind, and sell (?) or exchange for other necessities. How would all these be protected? If not from foreign enemies then from homegrown bandits? Organized life creates leisure for a few. Some are not inclined to physically exert themselves but are happier exercising their minds. In an environment flush with nature’s bounties and a sparse population, it is almost impossible to imagine ancient Man would not get carried away in his thoughts and contemplate upon who or what might have been its cause? What is Man’s role in this wondrous scheme? How does Man relate to his fellow beings and creatures and natural surroundings? These later thoughts are not so meaningless or barren as some modern men-of-a-type seem to imagine but have a secure place in the development of civilized life.

Is it in times like these that the first Vedas were conceived? The insights that could have been provided to well nourished and healthy minds could have visualized the natural order of life in due course and merely gone forth and articulated existing reality. So, in short, there always were Shudras, Vyshyas, Kshatriyas and Brahmanas and the insights from leisurely reflection seems to have provided clarity about such natural order and thence words to articulate.

One should note that I have not made the Brahmanas great repositories of knowledge – although they could have been that given their active surroundings and keen observations of life as it were. They seem to have also aspired to a “higher” contemplation that the less leisurely could barely afford. The compositions. No, the Brahmanas were repositories of a certain kind of (philosophical?) knowledge but the other Varnas were not devoid of other and like knowledge per se. Depending on their scales of leisure, they seem to have first focused on the knowledge of their trade and then the rest or the fashion of those times. It is now easy enough to perceive the fluidity of such life.

The Brahmanas or those that composed and taught the Vedas and further, seem to have gone forth and spread themselves according to need and necessity not excluding their (called for(?)requirements in the lands where familiar or friendlier people lived. There does seem a geographical point of origination of the early Brahmanas from the areas where the Vedas were composed. This is not the same as a distinct race spreading over larger areas but similar to people who have acquired new knowledge at a certain point in space and time; taking it where they go. We also notice different journeys by these early Brahmanas, their peculiar contexts and circumstances that even drew them away from their original calling. These then took on the duties of the other Varnas; depending.

The Shudras, Vyshyas and Kshatriyas do not seem to have been so constrained by any such “points of origin”. They do not seem to have reflected upon and discovered peculiar truths that propitious confluences of circumstances seem to provoked in the leisurely folks who then adopted the Brahmana Varna (because they contemplated upon the Brahman(?). Their callings were much more mundane. To produce, to share and to protect. We do not notice the kind of migration of these Varnas that we keenly observe in the Brahmanas. The Brahmanas do seem to have noted the truths of social life wherever they went. Their teachings; these seem to have been accepted by many tribes without disturbing their local callings and professions. Those tribes that ignored such social order continued with their own lives. Undisturbed. And thrived right up to our current times without the fear of massacres and genocides.

The Brahmanas who taught in their post migratory locales taught the local populace too. That seems very probable. They intermingled with local tribes and the so inclined amongst them then, carried on the obligations of the Brahmana Varna. Important to note is that those of the Brahmana Varna who could not keep the tempo of their rigors; fell. They either fell or took on professions that suited their natural inclinations. They could have also been absorbed within local tribes. This is also quite probable.

By and large, the tribes seem to have maintained their own peculiar norms and mores. This, even though they might have been absorbed in the natural order of the Varnas. These then are our Jatis. If simple logic admits then I will maintain this much; where Jatis exist, there existed tribes who adopted the Varna order. Where tribes exist, there existed and still exist, people who rejected the Varna order and opted to live by themselves.

So how did tribes of the Brahmana Varna give birth to Jatis away from  their points of origin? This seems to have happened in two ways. One by merging themselves in local tribes and second, by disengaging themselves from their original Varna obligations and adopting professions more suited to localized needs. In both cases their knowledge seems to have been carried on either in substance or in labels only.

How do I view Jati & Varna in the modern scenario?

It is clear that the intellectual “sankara”  of Varna and Jati must be abandoned if we are to get a handle on reality and truth. Next, the joy that modern British spearheaded statistical play brought to our Samaja has been perverse. What it did was to freeze our social order in numbers and increased it in conceit or deceit value; depending on where you were placed economically.

Those Jatis that were depressed resorted to deceit (propaganda)to get their due or their backs at their perceived oppressors. Those that were better off, resorted to conceit in order to retain their place in the scheme of things.

The flexibility that afforded Jatis in terms of switching through marriage or adoption of different professions evaporated in the dark play of “verifiable strength” in numbers since such numbers as they were were seen to carry better “purchase value” wrt the new colonials. Added to this was the loss of a distinct and voluntary Varna Ordering that accorded a respectful place for all Jatis and their peculiar professions.

But was the British census responsible for all this? Most probably not.

Hindu Samaja had been under siege ever since it started losing ground to alien invaders who never appreciated our social order and religious life. It is not that our Samaja never faced alien invaders before. It did and it absorbed many such invasions along with their instigators. These former instigators retained their Gods and rituals or slowly adopted more native ones. They were also seen in light of a suitable Varna when fully absorbed. However, the later messianic and ideologically driven invaders had their firm Gods and Messengers that they would not contemplate exchanging with native Gods and getting absorbed in native orders. They might not have been superior military men but certainly more ruthless and relentless. To keep this narrative brief, the net effect that such strange invaders seem to have had over our Samaja was that of socially and psychologically clamping down and placing ourselves under cultural siege conditions for sheer survival. Evolution time seemed over.

How should we extricate ourselves from such mire?

Many a Hindu Brahmana (intellectual) has taken the route of cursing and defaming and blackening “caste” or Jati/Varna – making no particular distinctions amongst them. They have assumed that such an assault will shame Hindu Samaja into abandoning its age-old social mores and norms and adopting a more “cosmopolitan” manner of life. For philosophical support and to differentiate themselves from Godless atheists and anti-Hindus, they have aimed for a higher “Brahmanism” via Sanskritization or straightforward “Westernization” as goals for our Samaja. Anything less would be “savage” or “time-worn”.

However, this modernist project languishes not for reasons of intellectual lethargy; some of the best Hindu minds are at the wheels; but it languishes for reasons of native “haughtiness” that views these strange posers and postulations as they should be viewed – strangely. Our masses of Hindus have not bothered to honor these “reformers” with the honor they have obviously sought, for themselves and their ideas.

It is more than apparent that the self-appointed doctors and the diagnosed patient are not on talking terms. The patient, that the Samaja obviously is and will not refuse to acknowledge, asks for a doctor who knows and respects its organism.

Nay, demands such a doctor.

The question is if the great minds of the Hindu Samaja, the great modern Brahmanas, will act and adopt the techniques of the earlier ones, who adapted to the environment and life that existed where they went – and offered correctives rather than insult and ignorance driven injury?

– Namaste


6 Responses

  1. I think most of ur posts r confusing and beating around the bush. You havent explained critical parts.
    i.e. The difference between Jati and Varna.
    Varna is a spiritual guna concept.
    Jati is a economic-social concept.
    Brahmana varna=>born with (predominantly satvik) gunas
    Kshatriya varna=>born with (satvik+rajasik) gunas
    Vaishya varna=>born with(rajasik+tamasik) gunas
    Shudra varna=>born with predominantly tamasik guna

    rajasik guna is “penchant for activity”
    tamasik guna is “penchant for laziness”

    but when u combine rajasik+tamasik guna you
    get “evil” guna which is Vaishya or business-cut-throat mentality guna.

    Jati’s varna attribution is according to community karma..
    for example in Kerala when “Nair” & “Nadar” jati had weapons and Kalaripayat training they belong to Kshatrya varna.
    Since British disarmed both of these warrier tribes/jatis now both are Shudras..
    So you community karma determines your “caste” status in varna system.

  2. Kannan, I think you are mixing up (yogic?) concepts with Varna as found in our Samaja. For example the so called higher guna of Sattva is to be aspired to in some yogic practices as a process of inner cleansing. However, we note that there were of the Brahmana Varna who ate meat – a rajasic/tamasic diet.

    In my post, I have argued a different trajectory for the Brahmana Varna and its spread across Hindusthan. I have taken this Varna, as others as psycho/physical attributes if you please. Existing tribes that matched these psycho/physical standards were ushered into the corresponding Varna with their rituals and traditions largely intact.

    In your illustration of the case of Nair/Nadar, it is entirely possible that these former Kshatriyas took to Shudra Varna professions after being disarmed.

    Since they are a Jati, they would have moved as whole and not individually. I don’t see any inconsistency with your illustration and what I have observed in the post.

    However, it is now upto you to show me if Nair/Nadars became tamasik also, as a consequence.

  3. Eating meat in itself wont make one tamasik,esp those who r in advance stage of practising yoga(I am a vegan though). like Shankaracharya,Vivekandanda,Dalai Lama(who eventually became vegetarian).
    Those who have skipped to Sanyasa ashram hav transcended all caste boundaries and are bound to eat what ever offered by households on triple “bhikshan de hi” request.
    Brahmana varna is ordnaned on communities who follow strict satvic life style..and I hav found that in Kerala both Brahmanas&Kshatriyas were and still(of course most of them..not all) vegetarian.
    But, now caste barriers have broken up..and
    except Brahmanas..every other caste structure is fluid for all practical purposes..due to heavy urbanisation.

  4. What do you mean by Sattvik lifestyle?

  5. The core of your thesis is accepted. There were indeed always shudras, vaishyas, kshatriyas and brahmanas. The Rg Veda mentions of a three fold varna classification – Brahamana, Kshatriya and Vis (Vaishya.) Later texts attest to the existence of a four-fold varna classification. Jati is something that originated later.

    Your suggestion on origin of jati is also reflected in theories in the academic arena. According to one theory, for instance, jatis originated due to intermixing of the Vedic Aryans with the “indigenous” peoples (this theory presupposes an Aryan ‘invasion’ or ‘immigration.’)

    Your theory, though similar, is distinct of course. It charts a specific path by which jati may have originated and may conclusively explain the creation of some jatis.

    But I’m afraid, as with all other theories on origin of jati, no one theory can conclusively explain it. The consensus seems to be that no one process or event was responsible for the origin of jatis. Perhaps we are also mistaken in searching for the *origin* of jatis instead of tracing their complex *evolution* over the centuries, due to the interplay of an array of factors.

  6. Chaitanya, I have maintained Jatis were tribes that accepted the Varna order. Therefore Jatis must have originated prior to Varna, IMO and logically speaking.

    My theory charts a path for the spread of the Brahmana Varna that accepted or absorbed Jatis along the way, per their professions, in relevant Varnas.

    If we view Jatis as tribes-post-Varna, the reasons for the origins of Jatis as such become non-relevant. The only thing that remains is why some tribes remained so and did not become Jatis.

    My theory is that these tribes did not accept the Varna order and preferred to carry on with their traditional lives.

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