Recently, I was having a discussion on what Varnas, Karna and Satyavati should belong to.

We all know Karna was born from Kunti and Surya but was adopted by Adhiratha Nandana. Therefore, he was born as a Kshatriya but was adopted by Suta (product of Brahmin mother and Kshatriya father) parents. Of course, his identity was not known to people.

Satyavati and his twin brother Matsya, on the other hand, was born as the product of King Uparichara Vasu and Adrika, an Apsara cursed by a Brahmana to turn into a fish. She was found by a fisherman (who are generally considered Shudras) who was a subject of Uparichara Vasu incidentally. The fisherman approached the King and narrated the tale of their miraculous birth. In the end, Uparichara Vasu took Matsya while Satyavati was adopted by the fisherman. I'm guessing Uparichara Vasu was aware that Matsya and Satyavati were his biological son and daughter.

However, Karna and Satyavati are not the subject of my question but rather how adoption generally affects one's Varna. If a boy of certain Varna is adopted by a couple of a different Varna, would he be considered a member of his biological Varna or the Varna of his foster parents? Would the knowledge of his birth i.e. if the identity of his biological parents and their Varnas were known, have any affect on determining his Varna? Do scriptures have anything to say regarding this? Perhaps, Nandapandita's Dattakamimamsa (a treatise on adoption written in the sixteenth century) has the definite answer to this question?


1) Did Satyavati and Shantanu belong to same caste?

2) What is Karna's caste (varna)?

  • 2
    Excellent Question. It depends upon Samskaras given to that child by adapted parents as well as his own willingness to learn as well as to himself follow and carry forward those samskaras. Perhaps the varna will change after certain generations but not immediately. May 9, 2020 at 6:18

1 Answer 1


If go with majority opinion of dharma śāstra commentators on Manu 9.168, intercaste adoptions were illegal, so, the premise of your question appears wrong.

Section XXIII - The Twelve Kinds of Sons defined

mātā pitā vā dadyātāṃ yamadbhiḥ putramāpadi |
sadṛśaṃ prītisaṃyuktaṃ sa jñeyo dattrimaḥ sutaḥ || 9.168 ||

When in times of distress, the mother or the father affectionately gives away, with water-libations, a worthy son,—that son is called ‘given’ (adopted).—(9.168)

Medhātithi’s commentary (manubhāṣya):

‘Worthy’;—this refers, not to caste, but to the presence of qualifications in conformity with the family concerned. Thus, it is that the Brāhmaṇa can adopt sons of the Kṣatriya and other castes also.

Explanatory notes by Ganganath Jha:

‘Sadṛśam’.—‘Equal by virtue, not by caste’ (Medhātithi);—‘Equal by caste’ (Kullūka, Nārāyaṇa, Rāghavānanda and Nandana).

According to P. V. Kane, in pre Indian Independence days, the British courts went with the opinion of Kullūka and others (e.g., see Calcutta High Court's ruling on Raj Nandini Purkayastha v. Aswini Kumar Chaudhuri where an adoption was challenged), so adoptions were restricted to same castes:

The person to be adopted must be of the same caste as the adopting father (Yājñavalkya-smṛti II.133), providing that the twelve kinds of sons that offer the piṇḍa and take the wealth one after another in order, applies only to sons of the same caste. Śaunaka also requires sameness of caste. Manu IX 168 employs the word 'sadṛśaṃ' which was interpreted by Medhātithi as meaning 'similar to the adopter in qualities and not in caste'. Medhātithi expressly states that a brāhmaṇa may adopt a kṣatriya boy. But Kullūka and the other commentators of Manu, the Vyavahāra Mayūkha and other works hold that the boy must be of the same caste. The Saṃskāra-kaustubha of Anantadeva (p. 150) and Dharmasindhu go a step further by saying that even a brāhmaṇa should adopt another of the same country. The Vāyu Purāṇa narrates that Bharata, son of Duṣyanta, adopted Bharadvāja, son of Bṛhaspati and a brāhmaṇa, who then became a kṣatriya. The courts accept the view of Kullūka and the rest. It is likely that courts may allow a boy from a subcaste of each of the four principal varṇas to be adopted by a man belonging to another subcaste of the same varṇa. Śaunaka and Vṛddha-Yājñavalkya quoted by Dattaka-candrikā provide that the dattaka may be of a different caste, but that such a son will not take the wealth.

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