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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. – Carmen sandiego Apr 1 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. – Swami Vishwananda Apr 2 at 7:30
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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 there were 4 Varnas or a primary broad classification of various occupations (Sorry for elaborating):-

  1. Brahmins- those who practised Dharma and help others attain their Spiritual objectives.

  2. Kshatriyas- those who undertook the practice of warfare and protection of the nation

  3. Vaishyas- indulged in commerce and Finance

  4. Shudras- indulged in various vocational activities

The basic meaning of the word Varna stems from the Sanskrit root which वृ which means ‘to choose’ and the word Varna means that which is chosen. Thus an occupation that was chosen was called Varna.

A person could therefore be the son of a Brahmin but choose his Varna as an accountant. The gotra would be the same but his Father’s Varna would be a Brahmin, but his Varna would be a Vaishya.

This was the ancient prescription of our scriptures.

Let’s look at 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.

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.

With the efflux of time, gradually this word Jaati came to be used in the sense of determining a person’s birth. If you are born of a Brahmin, you are of Brahmin birth and hence Brahmin Jaati. This is clearly in contravention of the earlier concept of Jaati that was prevalent that considered beings of a Yoni as of a single birth or Jaati. This change came about with foreign influence in India.

With the advent of the English in India, they sought to destroy our age old systems and these concepts were beyond their understanding. It was a practice in the West to ridicule people of “low birth” for eg. Butchers boy, etc. It was known as caste, which was probably determined by birth. They destroyed the remnants of the Gurukula and Varna system.

Your Varna (the profession you chose) was no longer your choice. It was based on birth or Janma (Jaati- the newer concept of Jaati not the Manushyayoni concept). Automatically a persons Varna was the same as his parents because it was determined by birth. eg.

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”

C (son of B) same thing the profession he had to compulsorarily choose (Varna) would be as per his birth (Jaati). These words thus could be used interchangeably.

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 same Yoni same Jaati).

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  • The explanation is really great and explanation is in details. But, can you please add some references from authentic scripts to support these? – Aastik Apr 2 at 17:38
  • The concept of Jaati I don’t think has any scriptural references. As far as I know, the Puranas which predict the attributes of the Kaliyuga just mention that the Varna system will be destroyed, only to be reinstated by Lord Kalki at the end of the Kaliyuga – Archit Apr 2 at 18:30

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