From here, is this Mahābhārata śloka and its translation really talking about (physical) complexion of people belonging to the four varṇas or just their outward behavior? If it's the latter, what does 'red' or 'yellow' mean?

12,181.005a    brāhmaṇānāṃ sito varṇaḥ kṣatriyāṇāṃ tu lohitaḥ
12,181.005c    vaiśyānāṃ pītako varṇaḥ śūdrāṇām asitas tathā

The complexion the Brahmanas obtained was white; that which the Kshatriyas obtained was red; that which the Vaisyas got was yellow; and that which was given to the Sudras was black.'

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    White represents Satva, Red represents Rajas and Black represents Tamas. See this answer. This further proves Guna based Varnasrama Dharma.
    – The Destroyer
    Jan 7, 2017 at 8:10

1 Answer 1


These "colors" are to be understood metaphorically or allegorically as Gunas (qualities). As mentioned in this answer, white represents Satva, Red represents Rajas and Black represents Tamas.

Furthermore, Bibek Debroy who translated the BORI critical edition of Mahabharata says the same in his translation.

ब्राह्मणानां सितो वर्णः क्षत्रियाणां तु लोहितः |
वैश्यानां पीतको वर्णः शूद्राणा मसितस्तथा ||५||

The complexion of brahmanas was white, while that of kshatriyas was red. The complexion of vaishyas was yellow, while that of shudras was black.

In Footnotes, he says

It is possible that this is meant to be taken figuratively and not literally. Brahmanas possessed the sattva quality, kshatriyas possessed the rajas quality, vaishyas possessed a combination of sattva and rajas and shudras possessed the tamas quality.

In succeding lines Bharadvaja Muni asks, how Varna (complexion) alone decides distinction?

भरद्वाज उवाच||

चातुर्वर्ण्यस्य वर्णेन यदि वर्णो विभज्यते | सर्वेषां खलु वर्णानां दृश्यते वर्णसङ्करः ||६||

“Bharadvaja said, ‘If the distinction between the four varnas is only on the basis of complexion and that is how the varnas are to be differentiated, then it is evident and can be seen that among the varnas, there has been a mixture of varnas.

कामः क्रोधो भयं लोभः शोकश्चिन्ता क्षुधा श्रमः | सर्वेषां नः प्रभवति कस्माद्वर्णो विभज्यते ||७||

Desire, anger, fear, avarice, sorrow, anxiety, hunger and exhaustion influence everyone. How can varnas be differentiated on the basis of this?

To this, Brigu Muni explains how Dvaijas (Dvi = two ; Ja = related to birth : Twice born, translated as Brahmanas) changed their Varnas by changing their Gunas (turned to other Varnas by their Karma).


न विशेषोऽस्ति वर्णानां सर्वं ब्राह्ममिदं जगत् |
ब्रह्मणा पूर्वसृष्टं हि कर्मभिर्वर्णतां गतम् ||१०||

Bhrigu replied, ‘There is no special difference between the varnas. Everything in this universe first consisted of brahmanas. Brahma created all of them earlier and they attained varnas because of their deeds.

कामभोगप्रियास्तीक्ष्णाः क्रोधनाः प्रियसाहसाः |
त्यक्तस्वधर्मा रक्ताङ्गास्ते द्विजाः क्षत्रतां गताः ||११||

There were Dvijas (brahmanas) who loved desire and objects of pleasure. They were fierce and angry and loved courage. They abandoned their own dharma and having turned red in their limbs, became kshatriyas.

गोषु वृत्तिं समाधाय पीताः कृष्युपजीविनः |
स्वधर्मं नानुतिष्ठन्ति ते द्विजा वैश्यतां गताः ||१२||

There were Dvijas (brahmanas) who earned a living from animal husbandry and subsisted on agriculture. They did not follow their own dharma, turned yellow and became vaishyas.

हिंसानृतप्रिया लुब्धाः सर्वकर्मोपजीविनः |
कृष्णाः शौचपरिभ्रष्टास्ते द्विजाः शूद्रतां गताः ||१३||

There were Dvijas (brahmanas) who loved violence and falsehood. They were avaricious and turned to all kinds of deeds to earn a living. They were dislodged from purity, turned black and became shudras.

In this way, depending on their deeds, brahmanas became other varnas.

More importantly, Shvetashvatara Upanishad of Krishna Yajurveda defines Prakriti as Red-white-Black which are interpreted as Rajas-Satva-Tamas.

अजामेकां लोहितशुक्लकृष्णां बह्वीः प्रजाः सृजमानां सरूपाः
। अजो ह्येको जुषमाणोऽनुशेते जहात्येनां भुक्तभोगामजोऽन्यः ॥ ५॥

There is one unborn prakriti−red, white and black−which gives birth to many creatures like itself. An unborn individual soul becomes attached to it and enjoys it, while another unborn individual soul leaves it after his enjoyment is completed.

Adishankara says

Prakriti (nature) creates many creatures like itself which are governed by three Gunas - sattva, rajas and tamas - called red, white and black in this Mantra.

Furthermore while explaining Brahmasutras, Adi Shankara says,

For, he says, we have the following mantra (Sve. Up. IV, 5), 'There is one agâ 1, red, white, and black, producing manifold offspring of the same nature. There is one agâ who loves her and lies by her; there is another who leaves her after having enjoyed her.'--In this mantra the words 'red,' 'white,' and 'black' denote the three constituent elements of the pradhâna. Passion is called red on account of its colouring, i.e. influencing property; Goodness is called white, because it is of the nature of Light; Darkness is called black on account of its covering and obscuring property. The state of equipoise of the three constituent elements, i.e. the pradhâna, is denoted by the attributes of its parts, and is therefore called red-white-black.

Vajrasuchika Upanishad of Sama Veda says Brahmana is the one who has attained self realization and it also says Varna doesn't depend on color, birth or body.

tarhi deho brāhmaṇa iti cet tan na | ācaṇḍālādi padantānām manuṣyāṇām pañcabhautikatvena dehasaikarūpatvāt | jarā-maraṇa-dharmādharmādi-samya darśanāt |brāhmaṇas śveta-varṇaḥ | kṣatriyo rakta-varṇaḥ | vaiśya pīta-varṇaḥ | śūdraḥ kṛṣṇa varṇa iti niyamābhāvāt | pitrādi dahane putrādīnām brahma hatyādi doṣasambhavācca | tasmān na deho brāhmaṇa iti || 5 ||

Then is the body the Brahmin? No, it is not so, because the body which is composed of the five elements, is the same in all classes of human beings down to the chandalas (outcastes), etc. And it is also observed that old age and death, virtue [dharma] and vice [adharma] are found to be common to all human beings. There is also no absolute distinction (in the complexion of the four classes) that the Brahmin is of the white complexion, that the Kshatriya is of the red complexion, that the Vaishya is of the tawny complexion, that the Sudra is of the dark complexion. [If the body is the brahmin] the sons and other kinsmen would becoming guilty of the murder of a Brahmin and other (sins) on cremating the bodies of their fathers and other kinsmen. Therefore the body is not the Brahmin.

So, these colors represent Gunas.

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    and furthermore these verses can't be taken literally.. if we talk in literal way then Krishna, Vedavyasa, Yadavas were all black.. so it certainly represents Gunas... Furthermore it is confirmed in Shrutis also.. like The Svetasvatara Upanishad 4.5 state " There is one unborn prakriti− red, white and black −which gives birth to many creatures like itself." Thus these colours represents Gunas of Prakirti ie. Satva, Rajas and Tamas.
    – Tezz
    Jan 7, 2017 at 9:13
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    So 'yellow' & 'red' are actual colors? Complexion usually means "the natural color, texture, and appearance of a person's skin, especially of the face." I don't see any yellow people anywhere ;) Jan 7, 2017 at 9:15
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    @TheDestroyer Yes, but that's the secondary meaning. Jan 7, 2017 at 9:18
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    Yes the Upanishads also associate Agni-apas-Prithvi with Red-white -black colors..They represent the 3 gunas
    – Rickross
    Jan 7, 2017 at 9:49
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    "turned black and became shudras", "turned red in their limbs, became kshatriyas" --- I think it means both color and guna, not guna alone. Jan 7, 2017 at 18:22

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