Varna (Hinduism)

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Varṇa (Sanskrit: वर्ण, romanized: varṇa), a Sanskrit word with several meanings including type, order, colour, or class.


  • What is the difference between Caste and Varna as understood by the Mahatma? I find none. As defined by the Mahatma, Varna becomes merely a different name for Caste for the simple reason that it is the same in essence—namely pursuit of ancestral calling. Far from making progress the Mahatma has suffered retrogression. By putting this interpretation upon the Vedic conception of Varna he has really made ridiculous what was sublime. While I reject the Vedic Varnavyavastha for reasons given in the speech I must admit that the Vedic theory of Varna as interpreted by Swami Dayanand and some others is a sensible and an inoffensive thing. It did not admit birth as a determining factor in fixing the place of an individual in society. It only recognized worth. The Mahatma’s view of Varna not only makes nonsense of the Vedic Varna but it makes it an abominable thing. Varna and Caste are two very different concepts. Varna is based on the principle of each according to his worth-while Caste is based on the principle of each according to his birth. The two are as distinct as chalk is from cheese. In fact there is an antithesis between the two. If the Mahatma believes as he does in every one following his or her ancestral calling, then most certainly he is advocating the Caste System and that in calling it the Varna System he is not only guilty of terminologicale inexactitude, but he is causing confusion worse confounded. I am sure that all his confusion is due to the fact that the Mahatma has no definite and clear conception as to what is Varna and what is Caste and as to the necessity of either for the conservation of Hinduism.
  • It has, at any rate, been an extremely consequential mistake. That white Aryan invaders defeated black aboriginal resisters has been taken over by numerous authors, including many who had no ideological agenda but naïvely lapped it up. It underpinned a second and similar mistranslation, viz. that the Sanskrit term for “caste”, varṇa, means “colour” in the sense of “skin colour” In fact, varṇa means “one in a spectrum”: a colour in the visual spectrum, a class in the social spectrum, but also a letter in the sound spectrum (hence varṇamāla for “alphabet”). The whole edifice of the “racial Aryan”, notorious through its Nazi application but equally popular in British colonial discourse and among its Indian copycats, was based on nothing better than a simple mistranslation... Actually, jati has all the meanings which the word “race” had in the 18th-19th century: kinship group, nation, race, species. Thus, manava-jati means “the human race”, or more accurately, “the human species”. And varna, “colour”, has nothing to do with skin colour, but refers to symbolic colours allotted to the elements, the cardinal directions, and likewise also to the layers of society... Moreover, “Colour” might even not be the original, Vedic meaning of varNa. Reformist Hindus eager to disentangle the institution of varNa from any doctrines of genetic determinism, derive it from the root var-, “choose” (as in svayamvara, “[a girl’s] own choice [of a husband]”), with the implication that one’s varNa is not a matter of birth but of personal choice. This seems to tally with Stanley Insler’s rendering, in his classic translation of The Gathas of Zarathustra, of the corresponding Avestan term varanA as “preference” (which other translators sometimes stretch to mean “conviction”, “religious affiliation”). But we believe that the root meaning is even simpler.... In the Rg-Veda, the word varNa usually (17 out of 22 times) refers to the “lustre” (i.e. “one’s own typical light”, a meaning obviously related to “colour”) of specified gods: Usha, Agni, Soma, etc. As for the remaining cases, in 3:34:5 and 9:71:2 it indicates the lustrous colour of the sky at dawn. In 1:104:2 and 2:12:4, reference is only to quelling the varNa of the DAsas, - meaning “the Dasas’ luster” (in the first case, Ralph Griffith translates it as “the fury of the DAsa”). Finally, in the erotic Rg-Vedic hymn 4:179, verse 6, where Agastya, in doing the needful with his wife Lopamudra to obtain progeny, is said to satisfy “both varNas”, this is understood by some as referring quite plainly to the two families of husband and wife, who rejoice in the arrival of a grandchild. Since the hymn mentions the conflict between sexuality and asceticism, others interpret it as meaning “both paths (of worldliness and world-renunciation)”. At any rate, there is simply no question of reading a racist meaning into it.
    • Elst, Koenraad (1999). Update on the Aryan invasion debate New Delhi: Aditya Prakashan. (also Elst, K. The unique place of Shrikant Talageri’s contribution to the Indo-European Homeland debate. Foreword in : Talageri, S. G. (2019). Genetics and the Aryan debate)
  • In my opinion, the semantic development has passed through varna, "colour", in the sense of "one in a spectrum", with the spectrum of colours serving as a metaphor for other spectrums, e.g. varnamala, literally "garland of colours", meaning "garland of sounds", "sound spectrum", "alphabet". Society too is a spectrum, viz. a spectrum of functions or varnas.
    • Elst, K. (2010). The saffron swastika: The notion of "Hindu fascism". Chapter 3. I.262.
  • [Trautmann likewise points out that there is no contextual evidence supporting the nontraditional interpretation of varna, “colour, caste” as “skin colour”:] “On the evidence of use it appears that varna here simply means ‘category, social group’.”
    • Thomas Trautmann, quoted in Elst, Koenraad (2007). Asterisk in bharopiyasthan: Minor writings on the Aryan invasion debate. also Elst, K. (2010). The saffron swastika: The notion of "Hindu fascism". I.261
  • G.C. Pande, the noted Sanskrit scholar, says that only the Dharmashastra in the post-Vedic period started to pervert the original idea of varna by conflating it with jati. And this period is when the ritual superiority of the brahmins got converted into a more or less formal hereditary right of priesthood.
  • Discussing the early Vedic period, V.M. Apte says that the Rig Veda refers to the varnas in a way that cannot be considered discriminatory or hierarchical. He concludes that the Brahmins did not constitute an exclusive caste or race and the prerogative of composing hymns and officating at the services of the deities in the age of the Rig Veda was not entirely confined to men of priestly families. Even the other vocations such as being a poet or a physician were more flexible. Apte emphasizes that in the Rig Veda, there is not even a remote hint of prohibitions of inter-dining or intermarrying among the varnas; these are the prohibitions that have been considered the most serious forms of oppression in recent times.
  • The case for color as a dominant factor in the development of caste was not supported by the evidence of historical literature, and that it was foreign scholars who had made it so.
    • O.C.Cox, 1948, cited in Hannaford, Race, the History... p. 383, (1996), and in Elst, K. (2010). The saffron swastika: The notion of "Hindu fascism". p 608

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