Last updateFri, 23 Jun 2017 9am

Varna v/s Caste – The Hidden Truth

Varna vs Caste

“India was the motherland of our race and Sanskrit the mother of Europe’s languages. She was the mother of our philosophy, mother through the Arabs, much of our mathematics, mother through Buddha, of the ideals embodies in Christianity, mother through the village communities of self-government and democracy. Mother India is in many ways the mother of us all.”

– William James Durant (1885-1981), American writer, historian, and philosopher.

The debate about caste system in Hinduism has been raging for over a century now. Every layman who has even a little knowledge about Hinduism, talks about only two things-‘Caste system and the Aryan Theory’. The whole narrative about Hinduism today, even among Hindus, is only about these 2 things. ‘Manusmriti’ is quoted as proof of how the Brahmins had subjugated the lower castes through the millennia and kept them down at a level where they could never rise from. The Britishers thus portrayed themselves as the ‘New Aryans‘ who came to rescuethe ‘Dalits’ form the tyranny of the Brahmins and the upper classes. The ignorant, poverty stricken masses now had a scapegoat– the Brahmins and a stick– ‘the rigid, evil caste system  and the Aryan Theory‘ to beat them with. This was manna from the heavens for the radicalized muslims who were in full Jihad gear after the fall of the Caliphate in Turkey. They too latched on to the same agitprop to justify their brutal, genocidal invasions as just another crusade to civilize the local barbarians, like the Aryans did before them. The fact that, lack of any evidence, archaeological or historical made no difference. Propaganda became the new history of India and what was taught by the British was left untouched by the well-trained anglicized ‘British Sepoys’ even after Independence.

When the 1st Prime Minister of India Pt. Jawahar Lal Nehru made this remark ,

“You realize, Galbraith,” Nehru had once told him, “I am the last Englishman to rule in India”;

one realizes that, Macaulay’s victory  was complete.

[-Excerpt from John Kenneth Galbraith’s  book, ‘Name-Dropping‘. Galbraith, an Ontario-born Canadian, was America’s ambassador to India in the Kennedy years, 1961-63] 

What is most astonishing is the fact that these theories of Brahmanical atrocities, subjugation of the Dalits or the Aryan Theory hasno historical or archaeological evidence.But it is incumbent on the accused, theBrahmins, to prove their innocenceand not the ones who made the allegations. When the lack of evidence is mentioned, the present situation in India is cited as evidence along with other theories that were manufactured around this construct to add ballast.  It doesn’t matter that these theories themselves had no scientific, archaeological or historical basis behind them did not deter the accusers to brand the accused as the culprit. Some data from the scriptures like ‘Manusmriti‘ and Puranic legends became the bulwark for them to heap insults & accusations from. But when ahuge cache of contrary evidence is adduced from the same scriptures that disproved their theory, they are shouted down. The common man who  didn’t have much knowledge regarding these false theories & data was thus rendered speechless. And if some lone scholar mustered up enough courage to challenge them, he was branded a Hindu radicaland that was the end of that. So colonial propaganda, political rhetoric and half-baked Puranic stories became the real Indian History while the real truth was blatantly broomed away into the dust bins of time.

But then Time & History have their own way of retribution. No wonder then, that today in the Information Age, when knowledge is not just the prerogative of the intellectual elite or the historians, these very theories have fallen by the way side. The debunked Aryan Theory and The  Science of Racism are some of the examples as more & moregenetic & archaeological studies have demolished their relevance [- Genetics and the Aryan Debate; Scientific Verification of Vedic Knowledge: Archaeology Online]. 

Gould, Stephen Jay (1981), in his  ‘The Mismeasure of Man‘ [-New York, NY: W W Norton and Co. pp. 28–29.], had this to say about the Science of Racism,  

‘Few tragedies can be more extensive than the stunting of life, few injustices deeperthan the denial of an opportunity to strive or even to hope, by a limit imposed from without, but falsely identified as lying within.’

History also has come to the rescue. As more records of the now extinct British Empire are declassified and more facts are revealed, the iniquitous & sinister agenda of the colonial power to hang on to their most cherished prize come to the fore.Max Mueller’s Letters disclose to us, in his own words, how he deliberately misinterpreted the most sacred books of Hinduism and advocated the ‘Aryan Theory’to help his East India Masters and the evangelists of the day; [Read my article –The Deception of Max Mueller] and the fact that he later back-tracked and distanced & even denounced the Aryan Theory was lost on the present day historians.

Max Mueller wrote in Biographies of Words and the Home of the Aryas (1888) ‘Chapter VI The Home of the Aryas’, page 108:

“…When will people learn that blood has nothing to do with language, and that all we can do as philologists is to classify languages, taking it for granted that they were spoken by somebody, but leaving those somebodies to the tender mercies of the ethnologist?”

In the same chapter, page 120, he writes:

I have declared again and again that if I say Aryas, I mean neither blood nor bones, nor hair nor skull; I mean simply those who speak Aryan language.The same applies to Hindus, Greeks, Romans, Germans, Celts, and Slaves. When I speak of them, I commit to no anatomical characteristics. The blue-eyed and fair-haired Scandinavians may have been conquerors or conquered, they may have adopted the language of their darker lords or their subjects or vice versa. I assert nothing beyond their language when I call them Hindus, Greeks, Romans, Germans, Celts and Slaves; and in that sense, and in that sense only, do I say that even the blackest Hindus represent the earlier stage of Aryan speech and thought than the fairest Scandinavians. This may seem strong language, but in matters of such importance we cannot be too decided in our language. To me an ethnologist who speaks of Aryan race, Aryan blood, Aryan eyes and hair, is as great a sinner as a linguist who speaks of a dolichocephalic dictionary or a brachycephalic grammar. It is worse than a Babylonian confusion of tongues-it is downright theft.”

He continues (page 21)….”But where is an atom of evidence for saying that the nearer to Scandinavia, a people lived, the purer would be its Aryan race and speech, while in Greece and Armenia, Persia and India, we would find mixture and decay? Is not this not only different from the truth, but the very opposite of it?

The unholy & vicious role ofSir Risley & Macaulay(mentor of Max Mueller) in the build up of these false narrative was a successful enslaving of the Indian mind which is still visible to us today in the form of the ‘self-loathing Hindu‘. However, the statement of German Philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer that the ‘Sanskrit understanding of these Indologists was like that of young schoolboys‘, seals their fate.

Amidst the din of the political rhetoric, the barrage of facebook posts and the avalanche of tweets, the truth has almost been drowned out. But what exactly is the truth? Was it always like the way it is painted out to be? Is Hinduism a Brahmanical construct that was and is used to subjugate the masses?  What is the origin of Varnas or castes? Are they one and the same? Does the origin of caste occur in the Manusmriti ? Was Manusmriti, really the guiding force of all Hindus and is responsible for today’s rigid caste system?

The best thing about History is that the more you read it, the more it reveals. Truth, in any context, is always in the details. And the details unveil a truth that most anglicized, intellectual elites and power hungry, ignorant politicians will find extremely unappetizing. The real fact is that ‘Hinduism’ or ‘Sanatana Dharma’ or the ‘Vedic Sanskriti’  has been developed, formulated, enriched by a majority of luminaries, who, if they were alive today, would have been branded as ‘Dalits’.

Eminent Indologist David Frawley, in his article ‘Why Varna is not Caste writes‘, “The Four Varna system of ancient India was originally based upon the idea of an organic social order that remains relevant today. What is called caste today should not be confused with it..

….Out of this Vedic contemplation of nature, the Vedic idea of a social order arose as the Four Varna system. The term Varna refers to qualities and inclinations called gunas in later thought. The Four Varna system is first clearly explained in the famous Purusha Suktaof the Rigveda X.90.12, perhaps humanity’s oldest book. The hymn describes the entire universe in the form of a human being, a Cosmic Person called the “Purusha”. The human social order is based upon it.

  • Brahman or intellectual/spiritual class – deriving from the head of the Cosmic Purusha
  • Kshatriya or warrior/princely class – from his arms
  • Vaishya or merchant class – from his thighs
  • Shudras or service class – from his feet

These four Varnas represent the qualities of energy that all people naturally possess. They are not separate or conflicting occupations, but part of the same unitary social fabric.

There is in this original Vedic model no outcaste, Dalit or untouchable. Each Varna constitutes a necessary part of the whole and all are mutually interdependent. Each is a manifestation of the same Divine consciousness working in humanity.

…The Purusha is the entire universe, what has been and what will be.

पुरुष एवेदं सर्वं यद भूतं यच्च भव्यम | (Rigveda X.90.2.)

All beings constitute only one-quarter of the Purusha, with three-quarters remaining immortal in the realm of light beyond

एतावानस्य महिमातो जयायांश्च पूरुषः |
पादो.अस्यविश्वा भूतानि तरिपादस्याम्र्तं दिवि || (Rigveda X.90.3)

All human beings are manifestations of the same Cosmic Being, which is present in every person, regardless of status of birth. This is the Upanishadic recognition of the Universal Self, Atman or Purusha – the Pure Consciousness that both pervades the entire universe and dwells in the hearts of every creature.”

[-Excerpts from Why Varna is not a Caste]

The most sacred book of Sanatana Dharma is the Bhagavad Gita. And Sri Krishna  speaks to Arjuna as he explains the origin and purpose of the ‘Varna system’ (Bhagavad Gita, Chapter 4, Shloka 13).

चातुर्वर्ण्यं मया सृष्टं गुणकर्मविभागश: |
तस्य कर्तारमपि मां विद्ध्यकर्तारमव्ययम् || ४\-१३||

“The four–fold order was created by Me according to the divisions of Quality and Actions . Though I am its creator, know Me to be incapable of action or change.”

  1. Cāturvarṇyaṃ: This is the four-fold order. The four varnas, Brahmin, Kshatriya, Vaishya and Shudra constitute this  four-fold order. The three Gunas (attributes) – Sattva, Rajas and Tamas along with the ‘Law of Karma'(action); these four Elements were divided by Me to create the four Varnas.
  2. Sattva Guna is balance, harmony, goodness, purity, universalizing, holistic, constructive, creative, building, positive attitude, luminous, serenity, being-ness, peaceful, virtuous. Wherein the Sattva Guna predominates, they are assigned the tasks (Karma) of sham, dam, tapas (meditation) etc. and are called ‘Brahmins’.
  3. Rajas Guna is passion, activity, neither good nor bad and sometimes either, self-centeredness, egoistic, individualizing, driven, moving, dynamic. Wherein  the Rajas Guna predominates  and the Sattva Guna is secondary, their Karma is to be warriors and show bravery and Tejas and they’re called ‘Kshatriyas’.
  4. Tamas Guna is imbalance, disorder, chaos, anxiety, impure, destructive, delusion, negative, dull or inactive, apathy, inertia or lethargy, violent, vicious, ignorant. Wherein  the Rajas Guna predominates and  Tamas Guna is secondary, their Karma is to be farmers and traders and they’re called ‘Vaishyas’.

Wherein the Tamas Guna predominates and Rajas Guna is secondary. Their karma is to serve others and they're called the 'Shudras'.


The emphasis is on Guna (attribute) and Karma (Action) and not on ‘Jaati’ (birth). The Varna or the ‘order to which we belongs’, is independent of sex, birth or breeding. A Varna is thus, determined by temperament and vocation and not by birth or 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.

एकवर्णम इदम पूर्व विश्वम आसिद युधिश्ठिर |

कर्मक्रियाविशेसेन चतुर्वर्ण्यम प्रतिश्ठितम||

 Even the distinction between caste and outcaste is artificialand unspiritual.

अन्त्यजो विप्रजातिश च एक एव सहोदरः |

एकयोनिप्रसूतस्च एकसाखे नजायते||

In the Mahabharata, Yudhishthira says that  whether it’s the Brahmins or the Shudras, all of them are blood brothers and it is very difficult to determine the Varna of a person by birth on account of the mixture of the same as men beget offspring from all sorts of women. So conduct is the only determining feature of a Varna.

Another excerpt from Mahabharata, Shanti Parva, Section 188 [Kisari Mohan Ganguli, 33]:

“Bhrigu said, ‘There is really no distinction between the different orders. The whole world at first consisted of Brahmanas. Created (equal) by Brahman, men have, in consequence of their acts, become distributed into different orders.”

Maharishi Bhrigu continues on page 34:

He is called a Brahmana in whom are truth, gifts, abstention from injury to others, compassion, shame, benevolence, 1 and penance. He who is engaged in the profession of battle, who studies the Vedas, who makes gifts (to Brahmanas) and takes wealth (from those he protects) is called a Kshatriya. He who earns fame from keep of cattle, who is employed in agriculture and the means of acquiring wealth, who is pure in behaviour and attends to the study of the Vedas, is called a Vaisya. 2 He who takes pleasure in eating every kind of food, who is engaged in doing every kind of work, who is impure in behaviour, who does not study the Vedas, and whose conduct is unclean, is said to be a Sudra. If these characteristics be observable in a Sudra, and if they be not found in a Brahmana, then such a Sudra is no Sudra, and, such a Brahmana is no Brahmana.“

Now let us look at the examples in history and what they tell us. Most people will be surprised to know that the History of Sanatana Dharma, known as Hinduism to most, has been shaped by Rishis who were Shudras and rose to become Brahmanas and highly respected Rishis. As I mentioned above, I will let the facts speak for themselves , which I present below:

Shudras:  Scholars have tried to locate historical evidence for the existence and nature ofvarna and jati in documents and inscriptions of medieval India. Supporting evidence for the existence of Varna and Jati systems in medieval India has been elusive, and contradicting evidence has emerged. [-Talbot, Cynthia (2001), Precolonial India in practice society, region, and identity in medieval Andhra, Oxford University Press, pp. 50–51; ]                                                                                                                                                                                                                                        

The earliest accounts of Mauryan India is found in the book ‘Indika  by Megasthenes. The original book is now lost, but its fragments have survived in later Greek and Latin works. The earliest of these works are those by Diodorus Siculus, Strabo (Geographica), Pliny, and Arrian (Indica). Megasthenes stayed as Ambassador of Seleukos Nikator at Chandragupta Maurya’s court at Pataliputra for several years around 300 B.C. Of particular interest is Megasthenes’ detailed description of seven ‘divisions’ of the Indian society. As the exact meaning of genosand meros, terms used by Greek authors in this context, is unclear and since the number ‘seven’ does not fit the caste system, their usual translation as ‘caste’ is disputed. But apart from the uncertainness of their definition, they depict a fascinating and, in fact the earliest detailed description of the Indian society, as observed by a foreign visitor to India’s capital and its surroundings.                                                                                                                                                                                            

All the Indians are divided into generally seven classes. Oneconsists of the sophists; they are less numerous than the rest, but grandest in reputation and honour…  Secondto them come the farmers, who are the most numerous of Indians; they have no weapons and no concern in warfare, but they till the land and pay the taxes to the kings and the self-governing cities….The third class of Indians are the herdsmen, who pasture sheep and cattle, and do not dwell in cities or in villages: they are nomads and get their living on the hillsides. They too pay taxes from their animals, and they hunt birds and wild beasts in the country….The fourth class is of artisans and shopkeepers; they too perform public duties, and pay tax on the receipts from their work, except for those who make weapons of war and actually receive a wage from the community. In this class are the shipwrights and sailors, who ply on the rivers…..The fifth class of Indians consists of the soldiers, next to the farmers in number; they enjoy the greatest freedom and most agreeable life. They are devoted solely to military activities…..The sixth class of Indians are those called over-seers. They supervise everything that goes on in the country and cities, and report it to the king, where the Indians are governed by kings, or to the authorities, where they are self-governing. It is not lawful to make any false report to them; and no Indian was ever accused of such falsification…..The seventh class are those who deliberate about public affairs with the king, or in self-governing cities with the authorities. In number this class is small, but in wisdom and justice it is the most distinguished of all; it is from this class that they select their rulers, monarchs, hyparchs, treasurers, generals, admirals, comptrollers, and supervisors of agricultural works.[- P.A. Brunt, Arrian, with an English Translation, Vol. II, (Indica, 11,1-12,7), Cambridge, Mass. 1983, pp. 337-41]                                                                                                                                                                                                                

What instantly jumps out is the absolute absence of the word ‘Shudras’ or any caste or a class of people resembling them. There is absolutely no mention of any class being subjugated or the existence of any practice of untouchability or discrimination. Another fact is the mention of self-ruled states. So this is an important historic evidence of the presence of the Indian brand of Democracy –Sanghas, in ancient India along with the absence of the 4 varna system.According to Leslie Orr, ‘Chola period inscriptions provides evidence that challenges our ideas not only about the situation and activity of women but also about the structuring of society in general. In contrasts to what the Brahmanical legal texts may lead us to expect, we do not find that caste is the organizing principle of society or that boundaries between different social groups are sharply demarcated. In the inscriptions, it is extremely rare to find to find individuals who identify themselves or others with reference to caste affiliation.’                                                                                                                                                                                                           

She continues, ‘Social stratification and the bondage of people to the land or to the fixed service seem to have been on the increase, but even at the end of the period, systems of caste, slavery or serfdom do not appear to be widely or firmly entrenched features of society in Tamilnadu.‘ [-Orr, Leslie (2000). Donors, devotees, and daughters of God temple women in medieval Tamilnadu. Oxford University Press., pp. 30–31]Historical evidence left by Buddhist rulers in ancient and medieval India do not mention Shudra. For example, according to Johannes Bronkhorst,none of Ashoka’s inscriptions mention the terms Kshatriyas, Vaishyas or Shudras, and only mention Brahmins and Śramaṇas. [-Johannes Bronkhorst (2011). Buddhism in the Shadow of Brahmanism. BRILL Academic., pp. 32, 36]Varna is rarely mentioned in the extensive medieval era records of Andhra Pradesh, for example. This has led Cynthia Talbot, a professor of History and Asian Studies, to question whether varna was socially significant in the daily lives of this region. The mention of jati is even rarer, through the 13th century. Two rare temple donor records from warrior families of the 14th century claim to be Shudras. The pride in sudra origin is especially prominent in two records from the second half of the 14th century in which sudras are said to be the best of the four varnas as they’re the bravestor the purest.   [–Talbot 2001, pp. 50–51]Richard Eaton, a professor of History, writes, “anyone could become a warrior regardless of social origins, nor do the jati appear as features of people’s identity. Occupations were fluid.”Evidence shows, according to Eaton, that Shudras were part of the nobility, and many “father and sons had different professions, suggesting that social status was earned, not inherited” in the Hindu Kakatiya population in the Deccan region between the 11th and 14th centuries.’ [- Eaton, Richard (2008). A social history of the Deccan, 1300–1761. Cambridge University Press, pp. 15-16] 

Kayasthas: According to the historical chronicle known as the Rajatarangini (“River of Kings”), written by Kalhanain the 12th century AD [-Kalhana’s Rajatarangini: a chronicle of the kings of Kasmir, Volume 2, page 45.],                                                             

Kayasthasserved as Prime Ministers and treasury officials under several Kashmiri kings.                                                                                                                                      

According to in Ain-i-Akbari, written by Abu al-Fazl, Emperor Akbar’s Prime Minister, Kayasthas were rulers of the Pala Empire, one of the major early medieval Indian kingdoms that originated in Bengal.                                                                                                                                                      

This Mañjuśrī-mūla-kalpa often cited as the earliest example of an extant Indian Buddhist Tantra the Pala King Gopala I as ‘Shudra‘.Today Kayasthas are considered as ‘mixed castes‘ combining Brahman-Shudra (lower caste). If Manusmriti was referred rigidly, they should’ve been branded as a ‘Nishadas‘ who are lower than ‘Shudras‘ but, as is evident from above, this was not the case.

Ravana: It is well-known to all that Ravana, the King of Lanka was a Brahmana. If Brahmins had evil designs of subjugating other castes, why would they celebrate the burning of the effigy of a Brahmin Samrat Ravana every year since millenia? Even today Ravana is hated and his brother Vibhishana is not. ‘Sri Ram‘ (a Kshatriya) is worshiped and considered to be ‘Purushottam (Perfect among Men), even when the killing of a Brahmana (Brahmhatya) is considered to be the most heinous of crimes.                                                                                                                                       Similarly Hiranyakashyapu, a Daitya Brahmana King  (son of sage Kashyapa) is hated, but his son  Prahlad is loved & venerated, thus emphasizing the superiority of Karma.                                                                                                                                                                

Maharishi Valmiki: He was born in a low varna family, was a hunter, but rose to be a Brahmanaand one of the most respected of Maharishis. He is the author of the most celebrated epic ‘Ramayana‘.

Maharishi Ved Vyasa: This Brahmin Rishi is one of the most revered Maharishis who compiled the Vedas and wrote the epic ‘Mahabharata‘. He was the son of a one of the most celebrated Maharishis of Bharat, Sage Parashara & a fisher-woman Satyavati (Shudra), thus a ‘Shudra‘ (according to Manusmriti). Moreover, he was of dark-complexionand was thus called ‘Krishna Dwaipayan’ but this had no negative influence over his life, thus negating the present day allegations of racism of colour.According to Manusmriti (3.17.),  A Brahmana who takes a Sudra wife to his bed, will (after death) sink into hell; if he begets a child by her, he will lose the rank of a Brahmana.But Maharishi Parashara sired Ved Vyasa from Satyavati, a fisher-woman (Shudra) but he was considered as one of the pre-eminent of Brahmanas, the seer of verses 1.65-73 and part of  9.97.of the Rigveda and speaker of Vishnu Purana, Parashara Smṛti, Bṛhat Parāśara Horāśāstra (foundational text of astrology), Vṛkṣāyurvedameaning ‘the science of life of trees’ (earliest texts on Botany) andKrishi Parasaram (a book on agriculture & weeds).                                              And according to the same Manusmriti (10.8.),From a Brahmana a with the daughter of a Vaisya is born (a son) called an Ambashtha, with the daughter of a Sudra a Nishada, who is also called Parasava.And Ved Vyasa should then have been considered a Nishadaor a Parasava. But this was not the case. He was and still is considered a ‘Brahamana‘ and one of the most revered Maharishis of Bharat, again falsifying the rigidity of Varnas according to one’s birth.

Kauravas & Pandavas:  As Sage Ved Vyasa rose from being a Nishadato a Brahmanaand a Maharishi, his descendants, the Kauravas and Pandavas, should have either been considered Shudras or Brahmanas. But as everybody knows, they were considered Kshatriyas. So it is clearly evident, Karma was superior to Varna.

Rishi Vatsa: In Tandya Brahman (14.66) Rishi Vatsa has been called a sudra-putra. So even after being a shudra-putra, he became a Brahmana Maharishi who wrote verses in Rigveda, (VIII.6) (VIII.11), Samveda (8,20,137,143, etc) and Yaj (IV.16-36), (VII.40), (XXVI.15).

Brahmarishi Vishwamitra: Vishwamitra was born a Kshatriya and was a  Chandravanshi King of Kanyakubja. He was a valiant warrior and the great-grandson of a great king named Kusha. Being a Kshatriya he became a ‘Brahmana’ and one of the most venerated Rishis of Bharat. He is also credited as the author of most of ‘Mandala 3‘ of the Rigveda, including Gayatri Mantra. The Puranas mention that only 24 rishis since antiquity who understood the whole meaning of, and thus wielded the whole power of, Gayatri Mantra. Vishvamitra is supposed to be the first, and Yajnavalkya the last.In Mahabharata, Book 13: Anusasana Parva, Part I, Section IV, [Kisari Mohan Ganguli, tr. page 14], Bhishma says,“The highly devout Viswamitra, though a Kshatriya, attained to the state of a Brahmana and became the founder of a race of Brahmanas.“This excerpt from the Mahabharata, Book 13: Anusasana Parva, Part I, Section III, [Kisari Mohan Ganguli, tr. page 11], clearly illustrates that migration of Varnas happened both ways, even in one family  according to their individual Karma,”Harishchandra, having pleased the gods at a sacrifice, became a son of the wise Viswamitra. For not having honoured their eldest brother Devarat, whom Viswamitra got as a son from the gods, the other fifty brothers of his were cursed, and all of them became Chandalas. “There is no better example of how a KshatriyaKing Vishwamitrabecomes a Brahmana, and so does his adopted son ‘King Harishchandra but his other fifty sons become Chandalas due their Karma and demolishes the argument of anybody who speaks of Varnas as  ‘rigid castes’ existing in ancient Bharat.

Chandrgupta Maurya: Chandragupta was of humble origins(the famous sanskrit drama ‘Mudrarakshasa’ uses terms like kula-hina and Vrishalafor Chandragupta’s lineage) and his family was profession was ‘Peacock rearing’ (Jain text ‘Parisishtaparvan‘ talks of Chandragupta’s mother as a daughter of village chieftian who were rearers of royal peacocks), thus the surname ‘Maurya’ (peacock is ‘Mor’ in Sanskrit). The most celebrated and famous Brahmin teacher, philosopher, economist, jurist and royal advisor, Vishnugupt, also popularly known as Chanakyaor Kautilya, who wrote the ‘Arthashastra‘ considered as a masterpiece in political science, is credited to be responsible for finding Chandragupta and training and mentoring him to eventually overthrow the Emperor Nanda of the Nanda dynasty and establish of the ‘Mauryan Dynasty’. The very fact that A Brahmin sage chose a boy of humble birth & assisted him to become an Emperor establishes the fact that Varna was never considered to be of more importance than Guna and Karma.

Mahapadma Nanda: He was the first king and the founder of Nanda dynasty. He was the son of Mahanandin, king of the Shishunaga dynasty and a Shudra mother. Sons of Mahanandin from his other wives opposed the rise of Mahapadma Nanda, on which he eliminated all of them to claim the throne. Jain works like Parishishtaparvan and Avashyaka sutra represent him as the son of a courtesan by a barber. He is described in the Puranasas the ‘Destroyer of all Kshatriyas‘.  According to Curtius, a Roman historian,“his father was in fact a barber, scarcely staving off hunger by his daily earnings, but who, from his being not uncomely in person, had gained the affections of the queen, and was by her influence advanced to too near a place in the confidence of reigning monarch. Afterwards, however, he treacherously murdered his sovereign, and then, under the pretense of acting as guardian to the royal children, usurped the supreme authority, and having put the young princes to death begot the present king.“The fact that a Shudra could rise to immense power without the subjects and the army retaliating to his low varna status and accepting him as their ruler is another proof of the irrelevance of Varna.10. Saint Tukaram:Sant Tukaramji  was a 17th-century poet-saint of the Bhakti movement in Maharashtra. He is an extremely popular and revered saint and is known for his Abhanga devotional poetry and community-oriented worship with devotional songs known as kirtans.Sant Tukaramji was born in a family that belonged to the Kunbi (Shudra) varna. Despite being from a varna traditionally believed to be the labourers and tillers, Tukaram’s family owned a retailing and money-lending business as well as were engaged in agriculture and trade.     [-Mohan Lal (1993), Encyclopedia of Indian Literature: Sasay to Zorgot, Sahitya Akademi, South Asia Books, pages 4403-4404]The status of his family and the immense love and respect people have for him, clearly negates the rigidity of Varna as is propagated by some intellectuals with malafide motives.12. Swami Vivekananda: In modern India, there is no Rishi who is considered with more respect or held in higher esteem than  Swami Vivekananda. He too was of Kayasthasub-caste of Bengal and this made no difference in his life.

There are innumerable examples from ancient and modern history which elucidate the fact that the 4 Varnas according to Manusmriti were not in practice and no historical evidence has has been revealed that substantiates that Sudras were a subjugated class.  On the contrary, a multitude of historical & scriptural references point towards Sudras being an affluent class found holding the highest posts in the army or  even as kings and emperors.

Now, it is also an undisputed fact that the caste system exists in today’s India in its rigid, racist and extremely brutal form, especially in the rural areas. How did this come about? What were the reasons for this highly sophisticated varna system to degrade into this inhuman form? Again history comes to our rescue. And the culprits are none other than the ones who have rewritten our modern history-the colonial rulers of India, the British; who cunningly destroyed this highly evolved system and divided the society so that they could not just rule us but dominate our minds.

‘Sir Herbert Hope Risley‘,  was a British Ethnographer and colonial administrator, a member of the Indian Civil Service who conducted extensive studies on the tribes and Varnas (castes) of the Bengal Presidency and is responsible for establishing & imposing the caste system on India.

He is notable for the formal application and enforcement of the caste system to the entire Hindu population of British India in the 1901 census, of which he was in charge. As an exponent of Scientific Racism, he used the ratio of the width of a nose to its heightand skin colour to divide Indians into Aryan and Dravidian races, as well as seven castes which had nothing to do with the Varnas that existed in his time.  [-Trautmann, Thomas R. (1997), Aryans and British India , Vistaar; Walsh, Judith E. (2011), A Brief History of India, Facts On File]

Scientific Racism (sometimes race biology or racial biology or pseudoscientific racism) is the pseudoscientificstudy of techniques and hypotheses to support or justify the belief in racism, racial inferiority, or racial superiority; alternatively, it is the practice of classifying individuals of different phenotypes into discrete races. Historically it received credence in the scientific community, but is no longer considered scientific.  [-Weitz, Eric D. (2015-04-27). A Century of Genocide: Utopias of Race and Nation. Princeton University Press.; Gould, Stephen Jay (1981). The Mismeasure of Man. New York, NY: W W Norton and Co. pp. 28–29]

After the Indian Rebellion of 1857 , it was deemed necessary to obtain a better understanding of the colonial subjects, particularly those from the rural areas. So, in 1885, Risley was appointed to conduct a project titled the Ethnographic Survey of Bengal, which Augustus Rivers Thompson, the Lieutenant-Governor of the Presidency at the time, believed to be a sensible exercise.   [-Risley, Sir Herbert Hope (1915) [1908]. Crooke, William, ed.The People of India (Memorial edition). Calcutta: Thacker, Spink.]

He compiled various studies of Indian communities based on ideas that are now considered to constitute scientific racism. He emphasised the value of fieldwork and anthropometrical studies, in contrast to the reliance on old texts and folklore that had historically been the methodology of Indologists and which was still a significant approach in his lifetime.

The fair skinned, sharped nose ones were branded as Brahmins and the darker skin tones & flatter nose types were branded as lower castes respectively. Risley’s interpretation of the nasal index went beyond investigation of the two-race theory. He believed that the variations shown between the extremes of those races of India were indicative of various positions within the caste system, saying that generally “the social position of a caste varies inversely as its nasal index.” Trautmann explains that Risley “found a direct relation between the proportion of Aryan blood and the nasal index, along a gradient from the highest castes to the lowest. This assimilation of caste to race … proved very influential.” He also saw a linkage between the nasal index and the definition of a community as either a tribe or a Hindu caste and believed that the caste system had its basis in race rather than in occupation, saying “community of race, and not, as has frequently been argued, community of function, is the real determining principle, the true causa causans, of the caste system.”

He very smartly used the names of the Varna system to give it legitimacy and had in fact given himself the title of ‘The Lawgiver of India’. According to political scientist Lloyd Rudolph, Risley believed that varna, however ancient, could be applied to all the modern castes found in India, and “[he] meant to identify and place several hundred million Indians within it.     [-Rudolph, Lloyd I. (1984). The Modernity of Tradition: Political Development in India. Rudolph, Susanne Hoeber. University of Chicago Press. pp. 116–117]; Trautmann, Thomas R. (2006) [1997]. Aryans and British India (2nd Indian ed.). New Delhi: YODA Press. p. 203; Risley, Herbert Hope (1891). “The Study of Ethnology in India“. The Journal of the Anthropological Institute of Great Britain and Ireland. Royal Anthropological Institute of Great Britain and Ireland. 20: 260]

As time went on, the ethnographic studies and their resultant categorizations were embodied in numerous official publications and became an essential part of the British administrative mechanism; of those categorizations it was caste that was regarded to be, in Risley’s words,

“the cement that holds together the myriad units of Indian society”.

[-Metcalf, Thomas R. (1997). Ideologies of the Raj. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. p. 119.; Risley, Sir Herbert Hope (1915) [1908]. Crooke, William, ed. The People of India (Memorial edition). Calcutta: Thacker, Spink. p. 278.]

All loans, scholarships & grants were based on these systems, so Indians hadto agree to his branding to gain monetary benefits. He conducted the census every 10 years for 40 years and till then caste system had become entrenched in India destroying the earlier flexible & sophisticated Varna system. 

The census conducted on the basis of these recently imposed caste format resulted in people designated with a certain caste, changing it to suit the region or time they lived in, to make the most of it.

That assumptions such as immutability were inadequate was acknowledged, for example, by the 1911 Commissioner, E. A. Gait, who commented on the demonstrably obvious processes of fusion and fission in social groups that gave rise to new group identities. Similarly, Huttonnoted that

“a caste which had applied in one province to be called Brahman (priestly caste) asked in another to be called Rajput (warrior caste) and there are several instances at this [1931] census of castes claiming to be Brahman who claimed to be Rajputs ten years ago.”     [-Bhagat, Ram B. (2006), “Census and caste enumeration: British legacy and contemporary practice in India“, Genus, 62 (2): 119–134]

This not only resulted in sudden divisions for monetary benefits but also created dangerous fissures across religions, where none existed before.

Despite the general ruling that caste was restricted to Hindus, later modified to include Jains, there were over 300 recorded Christian castes and more than 500 that were Muslim.The definition of Hindu, Sikh and Jain religious beliefs was always blurred and even the Christian and Muslim believers could cause difficulties with classification, although they were usually more easily defined. Kolis in Bombay worshipped both Hindu idolsand the Christian Holy Trinity; Kunbis in Gujarat were known to follow both Hindu and Muslim rituals, causing the census to classify them as socially Hindus but Muslim by faith. The Raj had also introduced constitutional changes that gave certain groups political representation. This led to events such as that in the 1931 census when, according to Shirras:

Feeling ran so high over the return of religion in the Punjab that some exterior castes, asked by one party to register as Hindus, by others as Sikhs, and even as Moslems, declared themselves Ad Dharmi or “adherents of the original religion,” whatever that may be. 

[-Bhagat, Ram B. (2006), “Census and caste enumeration: British legacy and contemporary practice in India“, Genus, 62 (2): 119–134; Shirras, George Findlay (1935), “The Census of India, 1931“, Geographical Review, 25 (3): 434–448]

The desire for ethnographic studies was expressed by another Raj administrator, Denzil Ibbetson, in his 1883 report on the 1881 census of Punjab:

“Our ignorance of the customs and beliefs of the people among whom we dwell is surely in some respects a reproach to us; for not only does that ignorance deprive European science of material which it greatly needs, but it also involves a distinct loss of administrative power to ourselves.“

[-Ibbetson, Denzil Charles Jelf (1916). Panjab Castes. Lahore: Printed by the Superintendent, Government Printing, Punjab. p. v. of Original Preface.]

In 1891 Risley published a paper entitled The Study of Ethnology in India. It was a contribution to what Thomas Trautmann, a historian who has studied Indian society, describes as “the racial theory of Indian civilisation”. Trautmann considers Risley, along with the philologist Max Müller, to have been leading proponents of this idea which

“by century’s end had become a settled fact, that the constitutive event for Indian civilisation, the Big Bang through which it came into being, was the clash between invading, fair-skinned, civilized Sanskrit-speaking Aryans and dark-skinned, barbarous aborigines.” [-Trautmann, Thomas R. (2006) [1997]. Aryans and British India (2nd Indian ed.). New Delhi: YODA Press. p. 194]

Sir William Jones, a philologist, had first proposed a racial division of India as a consequence of an Aryan invasion but at that time, in the late 18th century, there was insufficient evidence to support it.  

[-Bates, Crispin (1995). “Race, Caste and Tribe in Central India: the early origins of Indian anthropometry“. In Robb, Peter. The Concept of Race in South Asia. Delhi: Oxford University Press. p. 231]

The methods of anthropometric data collection, much of which was done by Risley, have been questioned in more recent times. Bates has said:

The maximum sample size used in Risley’s enquiry was 100, and in many cases Risley’s conclusions about the racial origins of particular castes or tribal groups were based on the cranial measurements of as few as 30 individuals. Like Professor Topinard, Paul Broca, Le Bron and Morton before him, Risley had a clear notion of where his results would lead, and he had no difficulty in fitting the fewest observations into a complex typology of racial types.  [-Bates, Crispin (1995). “Race, Caste and Tribe in Central India: the early origins of Indian anthropometry“. In Robb, Peter. The Concept of Race in South Asia. Delhi: Oxford University Press. p. 238.]

Aside from being honouredby his country, including by the award of a knighthood, Risley also became President of the Royal Anthropological Institute.

The use of enumerative mechanisms such as the census, which were intended to bolster the colonial presence,indeed have sown the seeds that grew to be independent India, although not everybody accepts this. Peter Gottschalk has said of this cultural influence that:

… classifications of convenience for government officials transformed into contested identities for the Indian public as the census went from an enumerative exercise of the British government to an authoritative representation of the social body and a vital tool of indigenous interests.   [-Gottschalk, Peter (2012), Religion, Science, and Empire: Classifying Hinduism and Islam in British India, Oxford University Press]

In 1834, ThomasMacaulay,the British historian and statesman, arrived in Madras. He travelled north to Calcutta, then India’s capital, to assume the role of Law Member of the Governor-General’s Council. Macaulay had written to the Scottish philosopher James Mill the year before.

“We know that India cannot have a free Government,but she can have the next best thing: a firm and impartial despotism.”    

[-Report of a public meeting held at the Town Hall, Calcutta, on the 24th November, 1838, page:42]

A few months later, Macaulay wrote a minute on Indian education, which stated,

“It is impossible for us, with our limited means, to attempt to educate the body of the people. We must at present do our best to form a class who may beinterpreters between us and the millions whom we govern; a class of persons, Indian in blood and colour, but English in taste, in opinions, in morals, and in intellect.”

[-Minute on Education (1835) by Thomas Babington Macaulay, point 34]

The implication was obvious: Indians must learn the language of their occupiers.

Macaulay’s proposal was a success; and the following year Lord Bentinck expressed his full support for the minute, declaring that the funds

“administered on Public Instruction should be henceforth employed in imparting to the native population a knowledge of English literature and science through the medium of the English language”

According to Bailey, Macaulay’s thought that the Indian languages would be enriched by English, so that they could become vehicles for European scientific, historical and literary expression [-ibid, 140]. English gradually became the language of government, education, advancement, “a symbol of imperial rule and of self-improvement” [-McCrum et al. 1988: 325].

Macaulay justified the imposition of British power on the country by simply arguing that although this policy in India might seem controversial and strange sometimes, it can be so, for

the Empire is itself the strangest of all political anomalies…that we should govern a territory ten thousand miles from us, a territory larger and more populous than France, Spain, Italy and Germany put together…a territory inhabited by men differing from us in race, colour, language, manners, morals, religion; these are prodigies to which the world has seen nothing similar. Reason is confounded…General rules are useless where the whole is one vast exception. The Company is anomaly, but it is part of a system where everything is anomaly. It is strangest of all governments; but it is designed for the strangest of all Empires. [Bailey 1991: 137].

Hetukar Jha, in his ‘Decay of Village Community and the Decline of Vernacular Education in Bihar and Bengal in the Colonial Era‘ argues that Indigenous elementary schools were in a flourishing state in thousands of villages of Bihar and Bengal until the early decades of the nineteenth century. They were village institutions, maintained by village people, where their children(belonging to all caste clusters and communities) used to receive education and training relevant to the pursuit of their future occupations. Village community and identity quite effectively operated in many contexts of everyday life. However, the colonial policies in respect of education and land control adversely affected both the village structure and the village institutions of secular (elementary) education. The British legal system and the rise of caste consciousness since the second half of the nineteenth century added fuel to the fire. Gradually, village as the base of secular identity and solidarity became too weak to create and maintain its own institution by the end of the nineteenth century. Simultaneously, the British policy skewed in favour of the filtration theory of education since 1835, it seems, worked to block to a significant extent the entry into the middle classes from below.

On page 128-129, he further writes  aboutWilliam Adam’s survey of 1835–38which reveals the secular and non-discriminatory caste system of the populace:

‘Another important feature of this education was that among its consumers all kinds of castes and communities were represented.Children of Hindus and Muslims togetherattended school. The students belonging to upper, intermediate and lower caste clusters used to sit together for about seven or eight years to receive instruction from gurujee. Adam recorded the caste and religion of each and every teacher and student of the schools he surveyed. For example, in the district of south Bihar in Bihar, there were Muslim as well as Hindu teachers of Kayastha, Magadha, Gandhabanik, Teli, Koiri and Sonar castes. There were 2,918 Hindu students and 172 Muslim students. The
Hindu students were found to belong to forty-eight caste groups including Dosadh, Pasi, Musahar, Dhobi, Tanti, Kalawar, Beldar, Goala, Napit, Kahar, Koiri, Kurmi, Brahman and Kayastha. Similarly, in the district of Beerbhoom (in Bengal) Adam found Muslim, Hindu as well a Christian teachers. Hindu teachers were more than 400 in number belonging to about 24 castes including Chandal, Dhobi,  Tanti, Kaivarta and Goala. Among students, there were Muslims, Christians, Santhals, Dhangars, Doms, Chandals, Telis, Byadhas, Yugis, Tantis, Haris, Kurmis, Malis, Brahmanas, Kayasthas, etc.[See Basu, Reports on the State of Education in Bengal, pp. 227–46.]. 

Adam categorically reported in this context that

Parents of good caste do not hesitate to send their children to schools conducted by teachers of an inferior caste and even of different religion. For instance, the Musalman teacher … has Hindus of good caste among his scholars and this is equally true of the Chandal and other low caste teachers enumerated.’ [-See Basu, Reports on the State of Education in Bengal, p.XI.]

He further recorded the following in this connection: ‘the Musalman teachers have Hindu as well as Musalman scholars and the different castes of the former assemble in the same school-house, receive the same instructions from the same teacher, and join
in the same plays and pastimes’ (emphasis added). [-See Basu, Reports on the State of Education in Bengal, p. 251].

Considering all this, James Ray Hagen in his study of Patna district from 1811 to 1951 asserts that this indigenous elementary education was ‘most secularized’.

However, this system of education was virtually forced to gradually become almost extinct during the colonial regime. In 1835, William Bentinck decided the education policy of the East India Company government in favour of English education.

[-Hetukar Jha, “Decay of Village Community and the Decline of Vernacular Education in Bihar and Bengal in the Colonial Era,” Indian Historical Review, (June 2011), 38#1 pp 119-137]

This is what Mahatma Gandhi had to say about the role of British in India,

“…the British administrators, when they came to India, instead of taking hold of things as they were, began to root them out. They scratched the soil and began to look at the root, and left the root like that, and ‘the beautiful tree’ perished.

[-Excerpt from Mahatma Gandhi’s speech made at Chatham House, London, on 20 October, 1931; The Beautiful Tree by Dharampal]

The destruction of the Varna system and the effective imposition of the caste system by Sir Herbert Hope Risley had already divided the Hindoo (as the colonials called us)  The dismantling of the age old ‘Gurukul and paathhshala system’ and its replacement with the English language by Thomas Babington Macaulay& the misinterpretation of the religious books along with affirmation & propagation of the ‘Aryan Theory’ by his protege Max Mueller was the final searing and shredding of the secular and egalitarian fabric of the Indian psyche. Though the Empire crumbled, the divisions that started as cracks have only grown and its ill-effects can be seen today, all around us.

Author: Puneet Chandra

Published: Feb 09, 2017

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