Varnas are mentioned in Vedas.

There are four varnas. On the other hand, there are many castes and sub-castes.

Many posts on this forum use varna and caste as interchangeable word. Many resources on internet also do the same. But are they really interchangeable? Are they same?

I found some contradicting explanation here:

Caste system is recently introduced by human society. Earlier there was Varna system.There are 4 Varnas(Brahmins, Kshatriya, Vaishya,Shudra). Since different offspring of 1 person may belong to different varnas(although that was not very common in ancient times); it is possible that these different people of different varna , over a time got scattered and now began to be identified by different castes. i.e say some descendants of Atri sage became Brahmins, other kshatriyas and so on over a period of time. But now we started mis-classifying these Varna systems as caste system and as it appears now that these people now belong to different castes but have same gotra.

So, what is the correct understanding? Is there any proof mentioned in any scripts?

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    No. they are not the same. There is nothing called as caste in scripture. There is jaati, but again jaati in scriptures is a lot different than what is meant by jaati today. Commented Apr 1, 2020 at 14:27
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    'caste' is an early translation by Europeans of 'varna' from the early 19th century if my memory serves me right. It has different connotations in English than the true meaning of varna but many writers when translating use them interchangeably. Commented Apr 2, 2020 at 7:30
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    Related: Difference/Relation between Varna and Jati
    – Pandya
    Commented May 17, 2020 at 8:17

2 Answers 2


I presume you are asking the difference between Varna (वर्ण)system and Jaati (जाति). The concept known as a caste system is an anglicised explanation of the Indian concepts of Varna (वर्ण) and Jaati (जाति).

About Varna:

In ancient India there was a concept of Varnashrama (वर्णाश्रम) wherein, besides 4 Ashramas, there were 4 Varnas or a primary broad classification based on occupations and attributes and each Varna had the duty of serving all the Varnas above it.

Lord Krishna says in the Srimad Bhagavadgita:

चातुर्वर्ण्यं मया सृष्टं गुणकर्मविभागशः। (first half of verse 4.13)

The four varnas have been created by me, being divided based on attributes (guna) and occupation (karma)

The four varnas and their duties can be described as follows:-

  1. Brahmins: the priests who studied and preached the Vedas and helped others attain spiritual objectives.

Peacefulness, self-control, austerity, purity, tolerance, honesty, knowledge, wisdom and religiousness – these are the natural qualities by which the brāhmaṇas work. BG 18.42

That Brahmin who always perform his ablutions, who always wears his sacred thread, who always studies of the Vedas, who donates food to the lowly, who tells the truth and serves his guru, never falls off from Brahmaloka. Mbh Udyoga Parva 40.25

  1. Kshatriyas: the ruling, martial people who took up arms for protecting the upper varna i.e. the Brahmins and ultimately the Vedas.

Heroism, power, determination, resourcefulness, courage in battle, generosity and leadership are the natural qualities of work for the kṣatriyas. BG 18.43

Having studied the Vedas, performed sacrifices, and protected subjects, a Kshatriya who dies in battle protecting cattle and Brahmins attains heaven, being purified by his weapons. Mbh Udyoga Parva 40.26

  1. Vaishyas: indulged in commerce and agriculture, to serve the upper two varnas with his wealth i.e. provide finance for upholding the Vedas.

Farming, cow protection and business are the natural work for the vaiśyas. BG 18.44

Having studied the Vedas, distributing timely, his wealth among Brahmins, Kshatriyas, and dependents, and inhaled the sanctified smoke of the three kinds of fires, the Vaisya enjoys heavenly bliss after death.Mbh Udyoga Parva 40.27

  1. Shudras: engaged in various vocational activities, such as barbers, weavers, etc. which result in service to upper three varnas.

and for the śūdras there is service to others. BG 18.44

Having properly served and gratified Brahmins, Kshatriyas, and Vaisayas in due orde, and having burnt his sins, and then peacefully casting off his body, the Sudra enjoysbthe bliss of heaven. Mbh Udyoga Parva 40.28

(Ref.: Chapter 40 of the Udyōga Parva of the Mahabharata and Chapter 18 of Srimad Bhagavadgita)

As per Yaska’s Nirukta 2.1.4 - the meaning of Varna is given as:

वर्णो वृणोतेः। Varna is that which is chosen.

The basic meaning of the word Varna stems from the Sanskrit root “वृ” which means ‘to choose’ and the word ‘Varna’ means that which is chosen. Thus that which was chosen (based on a person’s attributes/karma) was called Varna. A person could therefore be the son of a Brahmin but choose his Varna as a Vaishya, engaged in commerce, depending on his attributes. As the Manusmriti 10.65 states:

The Śūdra attains the position of the Brāhmaṇa and the Brāhmaṇa sinks to the position of the Śūdra; the same should be understood to be the case with the offspring of the Kṣatriya or of the vaiśya.

It is pertinent to note as marriage within the same Varna was advised as per dharmashastras, the children born of wedlock had the same guna/ karma as per their parents and would therefore belong to the same Varna as their parents (birth based). We have Brahmins being children of Brahmins only generally. So though primarily north based, yet as per the above there was flexibility and no hard and fast rule. If by chance, someone showed different guna/ karma than his birth Varna there were scriptural prescriptions as above for Varna migration or choosing a new Varna.

Refer: Any references where varna/caste is determined independent of birth/parentage? The concept of Jaati.

Jaati is linked to birth. It stems from the Sanskrit route जन् that is ‘to be born’. The word was used initially in the sense of a race or creatures (not only humans) having similar characteristics and genetic makeup i.e. belonging to the Yoni. Hence you have - Manushya-Jaati (मनुष्यजाति) or the human race, Vaanara-Jaati (वानरजाति) or the monkey race, Asura-Jaati (असुरजाति) or the demon race, etc. By this logic, initially all humans thus belonged to the same Jaati i.e. they were born in the same Yoni (मनुष्ययोनि) and hence were the Manushya-Jaati. Also a family lineage could be considered as Jaati.

With time, Varna became based on Jaati, i.e. birth based. Though even earlier and later (after the concept changed) children displayed the same Guna karma as their parents, the flexibility to change based on Guna karma was done away with.

A - a Vaishya

B (son of A) - his birth or Jaati is Vaishya birth or Vaishya Jaati. Since he is born of a Vaishya his occupation also becomes that of a Vaishya as per the distorted concept. He has to “choose” (वरणम्) the occupation his father “chose”. Thus jaati and Varna began to be used synonymously.

Since the English applied the word caste to the Hindu system and distorted the original concept, the three words began to be used interchangeably. Though it would be more appropriate to associate caste with Jaati (the new concept of professional birth and not the old concept of merely a family lineage or same yoni).

(A better understanding of the distortion mechanism can be obtained here)

  • The explanation is really great and explanation is in details. But, can you please add some references from authentic scripts to support these?
    – Aastik
    Commented Apr 2, 2020 at 17:38
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    @Aastik - you cannot just choose your varna. that means a janitor can 'choose' to be a ceo - of course, they can try, but they will be doing a disservice both to society and themselves because they will most likely fail.
    – ram
    Commented Nov 5, 2020 at 17:15
  • @ram which means Varna is decided by choices+uncontrollable life circumstances, not birth. Commented Dec 20, 2020 at 1:21
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    @ramseysdream111 - it means Varna is decided by YOUR choices in a previous birth, which led to your current birth.
    – ram
    Commented Dec 20, 2020 at 20:14
  • @ram Varna =\= lineage based. Commented Dec 21, 2020 at 22:54

varNa is the philosophical category according to the mode of operation (karma). A detailed analysis of the concept of varNa in Veda & Upanishad is discussed here:


These categories exist all over the world. Until the advent of the industrial age and modernization of western countries, these occupational categories were propagated through hereditary succession. This is evidenced by the vast majority of surnames in the west, e.g., Miller, Wright, Smith, Carter, Baker, Butcher, Farmer, etc.

These family "clans" were called "kula-s" or "jAti-s" in India. The kula or jAti is an endogamous hereditary clan that could belong to any one of the four varnas.

The Portuguese word "casta" is just the interpretation of a combination of varNa and kula/jAti. Hence there are many hundreds of castes because there are many hundreds of kula-s/jAti-s.

  • Welcome to Hinduism SE! While you're exploring this site. You may also want to join Hinduism chatroom for general discussion on Vedas and Dharma. :-)
    – TheLittleNaruto
    Commented Jun 18, 2020 at 7:00
  • @TheLittleNaruto thank you!
    – RamAbloh
    Commented Jun 18, 2020 at 18:25

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