Source: Encyclopedia of Religion. Ed. Lindsay Jones. Vol. 14. 2nd ed. Detroit: Macmillan Reference USA, 2005.
VARṆA AND JĀTI
VARṆA AND JĀTI. The two separable but intertwined concepts of varṇa and jāti may be regarded as different levels of analysis of the Indian system of social structure called caste. While some scholars regard varṇa and jāti as reflecting quite separate dimensions of Indian social and religious thought, others insist, following the native traditions of Hinduism, that the two are inextricably linked. In any event, whereas the term caste is sometimes applied to social formations in places other than India, the terms varṇa and jāti are invariably applied exclusively to the Indian social (and religious) contexts.
The caste system has occasionally been regarded as so intrinsic, so enduring, and so distinctive to India and its long history that it is thought to be both the kernel of Indian culture and virtually identical to the definitional essence of Hinduism. While there are many different beliefs and practices associated with the Hindu religion, and while sectarian, regional, linguistic, and other variables make it difficult indeed to see any unifying features in that religion, it has been argued that the caste system and its attribution of hierarchical superiority to the brahman caste is one (and perhaps the only one) feature all (or at least the vast preponderance) Hindu traditions share. Although there are many problems in defining Hinduism as "the religion of caste" (not the least of which being that in India caste cuts across religious boundaries; there are Muslim, Sikh, Parsi, and Christian—as well as Hindu—castes), the fact that the two are sometimes equated indicates the importance, ubiquity, and deep roots of caste in Indian society and history.
The word varṇa means "color"—not, as was previously thought, to refer to "race" but rather in the sense of "characteristic" or "attribute." The best translation is probably "class." As applied to the realm of society, it refers to four social classes that epitomized Vedic (and Aryan) India: the brahmans or priests, the kṣatriyas (warriors and rulers), the vaiśyas (commoners; merchants and agriculturalists), and the śūdras (servants). These four classes, while separate in terms of function and given hierarchically different values, are also quite obviously interdependent. Taken together, they constitute a complete and well-ordered society according to a religiously and ideologically imbued indigenous social vision.
Evidence of such a division of society into four classes (ideologically, at least, if not in actuality) first appears in a cosmogonic hymn found in the earliest text of Indian history, the Ṛgveda. In that hymn, the entire universe is produced from the primordial sacrifice and dismemberment of a Cosmic Man, including the four classes of the social order: "When they divided the Cosmic Man, into how many parts did they apportion him? What do they call his mouth, his two arms, his thighs and feet? His mouth became the brahman; his arms were made into the kṣatriya; his thighs the vaiśya; and from his feet the śūdras were born" (Ṛgveda 10.90.11–12).
Here, then, is the much repeated and cited charter myth of an ideal Indian society. Each class is produced from the body part of the Cosmic Man that most resembles the supposed traits and assigned function of that class. From the mouth comes the brahman class, the priests charged with ritual functions and the oral preservation of sacred texts. From the arms, the source of physical strength and power, derive the kṣatriya warriors and rulers, and from the "thighs" (perhaps a euphemism for the genitals) arise the vaiśya commoners, who are charged with material wealth and fecundity. And from the feet, the lowest and most impure of the body parts but also the foundation upon which everything rests, come the śūdras, or servants.
In this system (as it was represented in the religious texts composed and preserved by the brahmans), the brahmans are invariably portrayed as hierarchically superior. They are created prior to others and therefore take precedence over others; they are created from the uppermost portion of the creator god and therefore are at the top of the social order; they are charged with (and indeed have a monopoly on) religious functions and are therefore the most pure, the most sacred, of the four classes. The brahmans, it is said, are also the most "complete," or the perfected instance of the human being. Indeed, some texts go much further and claim that members of this class are "human gods" (manushya devas): "There are two kinds of gods, for the gods are gods, and those brahmans who have studied and teach the Veda are human gods.…With oblations into the fire one pleases the gods, and with sacrificial fees one please the human gods" (Śatapatha Brāhmaṇa 18.104.22.168).
As such, the brahmans are sometimes said to represent the principle of "purity" in Indian social thinking. The supposed inherent characteristics and distinctive activities (the sacerdotal duties, but also practices such as nonviolence and vegetarianism) are thought to be the standard against which others are gauged. The other classes (and castes) are thus ranked into a hierarchical order of relative purity—to the extent they resemble the brahman, their status increases, while to the degree that they diverge from the brahman and the principle of purity their place in the system is diminished.
This elegant and orderly vision is complicated and compromised, however, by the high place of the second of the four varṇas, the kṣatriyas. Even in the religious texts, they are ranked only below the brahman priests, and it is possible, if not likely, that in actuality throughout Indian history (at least up until the time of the British Raj, when traditional political power was dispossessed) they took the highest places in the social order. The characteristics and duties of the kṣatriyas, however, are quite different from those of the brahmans (and the "purity" they supposedly embody). They control the worlds of politics and power, coercion and physicality. The functions of both rulership and the military are, ideally, monopolized by the class most suited to them, the kṣatriyas.
The high place of the kṣatriya in a hierarchy supposedly governed by relative resemblance to the brahman has sometimes been explained as the pragmatic insertion of a secular principle of "power" into a system otherwise organized according to religious "purity." Be that as it may, together, the two highest varṇas clearly constitute the "ruling classes" of the caste system. In the religious texts, the cooperation of the two is constantly emphasized for the proper ordering and operation of society (and, indeed, the cosmos as a whole). And in practical ways, bonds between the two highest varṇas are both symbolized and actualized in the important traditional (and symbiotic) relationship between the king and his court priest (the purohita).
The vaiśya class comprises all those engaged in the many professions other than, on the one hand, those of the priests and rulers and, on the other, those of the lowly servants. Farmers, traders, proprietors, bankers, herders—all these, and others involved in professions entailing wealth, increase, and productivity of all kinds, were classified as vaiśyas. Finally, at the base are the śūdras who, it is said, have but one duty to perform: to serve the others. While the brahman, kṣatriya, and vaiśya varṇas are designated the "twice-born" classes (because of the ritual "second birth" that boys from these classes undergo, which makes them eligible to study the sacred Veda), the śūdras are labeled "once-born" and are prohibited from studying (or even hearing) the Veda and from other religious prerogatives.
The relationship between the "classes" or varṇas and the "castes" or jātis (the latter term is related to the word for "birth," indicating that one is "born into" his or her caste) is a subject of scholarly debate among anthropologists and Indologists. For some, the terms are virtually interchangeable, and indeed the texts of the indigenous tradition often use the terms synonymously. Other scholars, also following the native traditions, see the jātis as historically deriving from intermixtures between members of an original four classes. Still others see the two as fundamentally different but nevertheless intellectually related, noting that the varṇa system forms the superstructure for the more complex system of jātis. The varṇas, under this conceptualization, are the "base categories" of social analysis, which can then generate any number of new, ranked social groupings, which may be termed jātis. Many anthropologists observe that while there are but four varṇas there are thousands of discrete jātis found "on the ground" in Indian society. For some of these observers, the varṇas are at best "theoretical," while it is the jātis that form the real social units of actual Indian society.
For many in Indian society, however, the jāti to which they belong is conceived of in terms of one or another of the classical varṇas. All brahmans, regardless of their identification as members of a wide variety of locally various, distinct, and endogamous jātis, claim membership in a pan-Indian and ancient varṇa, and the same is true with members of various jātis identifying themselves as kṣatriyas, vaiśyas, and śūdras. There are also large numbers of people assigned to jātis regarded by those of higher rank to be outside of or below the varṇa system altogether. These are what were once termed untouchables or, to use the preferred term of self-identification, the dalit castes.
In anthropological discourse, it is usually the jātis that are the referent of the term caste. Each jāti typically preserves a mythical account of its origins and a distinctive set of life-cycle rites observed by its members. Each is overseen by a local council that oversees and enforces a set of rules governing, among other things, acceptable occupation. It is, indeed, occupation that usually lends its name to the jāti (e.g., Barber, Potter, Leatherworker), although, especially outside the traditional rural areas, these caste labels no longer necessarily apply to the actual economic pursuits of individuals. While the indigenous tradition insists on ancient roots for these occupational assignments, some modern scholars have suggested that the castes of present-day India need not ever have been derived from ancient occupational associations that over time became hereditary and endogamous marriage groups.
Another definitive characteristic of the jātis is the set of rules governing marriage. A member of a particular caste is not to marry outside of that caste, and to disobey the rules of endogamy usually results in expulsion from the group. Those who are so punished become, literally, "outcastes." This practice reinforces the widely held belief that the multitude of jātis came into existence from the four original varṇas through an intricate series of mixed unions and subsequent expulsions.
Commensality, food exchange, and other transactions between castes are also highly regulated. Acceptance or non-acceptance of food (cooked in different ways or uncooked), grain, water, and leftovers play a large role in the relative placement of castes at the local level.
The jātis, like the varṇas, are organized hierarchically, although with many local variations. Often enough, these hierarchical placements are disputed and subject to constant renegotiation and jockeying for position. Research on the caste system has focused on the following areas: criteria for ranking, regional differences in ranking, ranking and social distance, local conflicts over rank order, strategies and circumstances of change in rank order, and the significance of hierarchy in Indian thought and society.
Essential to the traditional underpinnings of both the varṇas and the jātis is the belief in karma and rebirth. Birth into a particular class or caste was traditionally understood to be the result of karma created in the past, and thus any attempt or even inclination toward changing one's social situation in this life was severely discouraged. Caste was religiously ordained and legitimated in the concept of one's "own duty" or svadharma. And, as it is put in one of the sacred texts of the Hindu tradition, the Bhagavadgītā, "it is better to do one's own duty poorly than to do another person's duty well." If one performs his inborn caste duty well in this life, the promise is of a higher birth in the future.
The religious basis of the caste system is perhaps the principal reason for its endurance and pervasiveness in Indian history and society. The caste system can provide a modicum of stability, especially in times of political chaos or change. In the past there have, however, also been religious movements that have challenged, but never successfully undermined, the caste system. These include some of the cults within Hinduism itself, as well as certain elements within Buddhism, Sikhism, and some of the groups associated with the Neo-Hindu movement of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. And while the caste system endures in modern India, many forces are challenging its traditional pillars and especially the abuses that often have accompanied the system. The political rise of the dalits, the breakdown of traditional caste boundaries due to urbanization and modernization, reformational movements, and the general influx of democratic, secular and, to some extent, Western values into contemporary India have shaken, but not destroyed, this millennia-old institution.
For a comprehensive overview of the varṇas in ancient Indian texts, consult Brian K. Smith, Classifying the Universe: The Ancient Indian Varna System and the Origins of Caste (New York, 1994). For important and influential works on the caste system and its theoretical underpinnings, see A. M. Hocart, Caste: A Comparative Study (London, 1950); J. H. Hutton, Caste in India (London, 1963); Louis Dumont, Homo Hierarchicus: An Essay on the Caste System, translated by Mark Sainsbury (Chicago, 1970); Celestin Bougle, Essays on the Caste System, translated by David Pocock (Cambridge, UK, 1971); McKim Marriot, "Hindu Transactions: Diversity without Dualism," in Transaction and Meaning: Directions in the Anthropology of Exchange and Symbolic Behavior, edited by B. Kapferer, pp. 109–142 (Philadelphia, 1976); Gloria Raheja, The Poison in the Gift: Ritual, Prestation, and the Dominant Caste in a North Indian Village (Chicago, 1988); and Steven Parish, Hierarchy and Its Discontents: Culture and the Politics of Consciousness in Caste Society (Philadelphia, 1996).
BRIAN K. SMITH (2005)