Varna/Caste System

Varna/Caste System

Every society distinguishes among occupations on the basis of power, wealth, education, or other factors. In India, Hinduism adopted the varna, or caste system. The system indicates the different roles and responsibilities of each group within society and the relationship of the groups within a harmonious whole. Varna literally means "color". It refers to the distinct qualities that the functional classes possess in their hearts and minds. Naturally, light skin came to imply high status due to the Aryans’ contemptuous attitude towards the dark-skinned, indigenous population.

Hindu thought has long recognized four major occupational groupings or classes. In the first group are priests, teachers, scholars, and others who represent knowledge and spirituality. People in this group are called brahmans. Those in the second group, called kshatriyas, are represented by kings, warriors, government bureaucrats, and others who represent power. Those in the third group, called vaishyas, are represented by farmers, traders, merchants, and other skilled workers. Those in the fourth group, called shudras, are represented by unskilled workers. A group known as the untouchables, now acknowledged as dalit, has at times constituted a subcategory within the shudra class, sometimes being referred to as the fifth group.

The people of ancient India did not belong to a specific class as individuals but as part of a larger group of association known as a jati, a system of extended families. Each jati was identified with a particular varna and each had its own separate economic function. There are thousands of horizontal divisions within the castes, segregated according to occupational, sectarian, regional and linguistic distinctions. Each has individual families and is governed by a council of elders. Membership in this governing committee was predominantly hereditary and based on social status and wealth.

The varna dharma system - despite its widespread discrimination and the...

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