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As per what I have read and learnt, In the Purusha Suktam of the Yajur Veda the following lines appear:

brAhmano asya mukhamAseet | bAhoo rAjanya: krta: | ooru tadasya yad vaishya | padbhyAm shoodro ajAyata |

(asya) His (mukham) mouth (Aseet) became (brAhmaNa:)the Brahmin, (bAhoo) his arms (krta:) were made (rAjanya:) Kings. (yad) what were (asya ooru) his thighs, (tad) they weremade into (vaishya:) the merchants, (padbhyAm) and from his feet (shoodro) were the servants (ajAyata) born.

Can someone give me a better source for the reality of the caste system in India? Were the castes to be only associated with the professions of the individual or were they to be carried forth as a heritage with the lineage?

Edits to factor in my opinion on naming of the castes, which have off late taken up a myopic, perverse and prejudiced meaning:

Though I do not concur with the usage of the words "Brahmin", "Kings", "Merchants" and "Servants", I have pasted it as it was from my source. I prefer using the words "Margadarshi","Rakhshak","Sanchaalak" and "Paripaalak".

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    You may have a look at this: are Varna and caste same?. Also note that shudra doesn’t mean servant (as someone who pays and is like a domestic help). Servant must be understood as someone who serves i.e. gives services such as hair cutting, shoe making, pottery, etc. He must give these services or serve in the upper caste in this manner.
    – Adiyarkku
    Dec 11, 2020 at 18:44
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    Thanks for letting me know. I am aware of who are categorised are shudras. Just so you know, even film actors, singers, directors and artists who appeal to our creative sensibilities and entertain us, also belong to the varna of 'shudras'. This is only for those who read this page and are carried away by the notion of shudras being the serving men/women, paid poorly and living humbly-in reference to your "hair cutting, shoe making, pottery". It is perfectly right. Just that no reader must limit his/her ideas to just that.
    – Krishan
    Dec 16, 2020 at 8:22
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    This is only an attempt to go beyond our preconceived notions and break those flimsy barriers that have been erected in our minds by all the thrusting from our milieu and all that is carried forward by our genetic material.
    – Krishan
    Dec 16, 2020 at 8:24
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    Yes yes thank you I’m aware of dancers and entertainers being shudras too :). You mean going beyond the western mindset.
    – Adiyarkku
    Dec 16, 2020 at 9:47
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    And 'Are there any other kind', really?? All Europeans aren't white, neither are all Africans black.
    – Krishan
    Dec 18, 2020 at 11:16

5 Answers 5

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Meaning of Varna

Varna comes from Vrina dhatu which means "choice". The other words from this root are Varan or to choose; Swayamvar; Aavaran or to cover self; Varnan or to describe.

Varna signifies our choice to perform karma in quest to reach Brahma.

Varna's translation to Caste or Color is incorrect, likely used by European translators to cast racist connotations to this fundamental system.

Origin of Varna System

Varnas are inside us. Each of us has a Brahmin and Kshatriya (and other Varnas) inside us. We can't be clubbed into an exclusive "varna" group and say we'd only do Kshatriya karma or vaishya.

इ॒दं मे॒ ब्रह्म॑ च क्ष॒त्रं चो॒भे श्रिय॑मश्नुताम्।
मयि दे॒वा दधतु॒ ते॒ स्वाहा॑॥५५॥
यजु॰ ३२।१६
The Brahmin inside me and the Kshatriya inside me must synergise together to give me Shree (prosperity and empowerment) And I dedicate all I am gifted in the Yajna of welfare of all.
Reference

Karma defines our Varna, and nothing else. This karma is likely the majority kind of work we do, but it can change with time. Eg, Ram was a Kshatriya by diksha but he attained Kshatriya varna by doing primarily Kshatriya karma for whole life (not that he didn't do tap or yagya). Similarly, Vishwamitra was Kshatriya by his diksha and karma in his early part of life, but he became a brahmin by his karma in later part of life.

In beginning, everyone was Brahmin. No other Varna was present Those who got into aggression etc became Kshatriya Those who got into Gauseva farming etc became Vaishyas Those who didn't get in education etc became Shudra
(Mahabharat Shanti Parva 188.10-13)
Reference

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  • if profession defines our varna then why was intercaste marriages banned in Smritis??
    – user22253
    Jul 19, 2021 at 4:59
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    Thank you @Archit for the fix.
    – sbharti
    Jul 19, 2021 at 8:51
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    @mrgreen there are tons of intercaste marriage in our scriptures. In fact, there are marriages even between species : indra the god was married to shuchi daughter of daitya puloma. Ravan a Rakshash was married to Mandodari daughter of apsaras.
    – sbharti
    Jul 19, 2021 at 8:51
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    And for the upvote too :D. Haha just joking.
    – Adiyarkku
    Jul 19, 2021 at 10:06
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The following verse (Sanskrit: Sloka) from Srimad Bhagvad-Gita (Chapter 4 - Sloka 13) is most authentic and adequate reference to be quoted

Sanskrit Verse:

चातुर्वर्ण्यं मया सृष्टं गुणकर्मविभागशः । तस्य कर्तारमपि मां विद्ध्यकर्तारमव्ययम् ॥ ४-१३॥

English Transliteration of each syllable with meaning:

chātuḥ-varṇyam — the four categories of occupations; mayā—by me; sṛiṣhṭam—were created; guṇa—of quality; karma—and activities; vibhāgaśhaḥ—according to divisions; tasya—of that; kartāram—the creator; api—although; mām—me; viddhi—know; akartāram—non-doer; avyayam—unchangeable

Meaning In English:

The four categories of occupations were created by me according to people’s qualities and activities. Although I am the creator of this system, know me to be the non-doer and eternal.

After quoting above...let me summarize on both of these words (varna and jati)...and their correct interpretation.

Varna - indicative of set of personality traits, and skills and competencies - which also shapes - what would be the ideal role, responsibilities, and possible contribution(s) of an individual as the small unit in the society.

So there are 4 varnas:

  1. Brahmans - Learning, Teaching, propagation of knowledge (either directly acquired or received from earlier generations) in the society, application of intellectual and creative skills for good of individual, and society.

  2. Vaishya - member of business community. Anyone whose purpose of life is mostly focused on creating and acquiring the wealth.

  3. Kshatriya - member of society having great physical and mental capabilities, which are needed to protect the society (to ensure internal and external security of society / state). In English, nearest word to explain this role would be - a warrior or administrator. Therefore, in present context, the Kshtriyas are those who are either into public administration, or in security forces.

  4. Shudra - members of society having one or more technical, professional skills. These skills MUST enable the member to ensure that she / he earns her / his livelihood - by using these earned skil(s).

So what is Jati?

It's an indicative of "what skill set, an individual possess to earn their livelihood to sustain themselves and their family.

Please note that these varnas do NOT have any hierarchy - among themselves. Therefore, I try to company two different varnas - and try to proof or evaluate which is better than other - then basically what I am trying to do is - "to compare an apple with orange"! Which itself is illogical.

And since no varna is higher or lower than other varnas in principle. Last but not least - none of these varna are inferior with other varnas are inferior in ANY WAY.

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  • A very good answer, but can you explain a li'l bit more on 'Jati'. Like a big paragraph with examples from real life would do.
    – Krishan
    Dec 18, 2020 at 11:20
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Root of caste system is human nature and misconception. Rig Veda 9.63 says:

इन्द्रं वर्धन्तो अप्तुर: कृण्वन्तो विश्वमार्यम् । अपघ्नन्तो अराव्णः ॥

This is a prayer to make ALL HUMANS Aryas. Veda makes a distinction between Shudra & Arya meaning bad people and noble people. Of course, birth is as per karma but this is a very clear message from the Veda itself that Varna can be changed! Now if we see Upanishads or Brahmanas we almost always get the same picture. Look at Chandogya Upanishad talks about the initiation story of another Upanishad's author:

Gautama asked him, ‘O Somya, what is your lineage?’ Satyakāma said: ‘Sir, I do not know what my lineage is. When I asked my mother, she said to me: “I was very busy serving many people when I was young, and I had you. As this was the situation, I know nothing about your lineage. My name is Jabālā, and your name is Satyakāma.” So, sir, I am Satyakāma Jābāla’. Gautama said to him: ‘No non-brāhmin could speak like this.

So the son of a highly impure shudra woman and unknown man was declared Brahmin. Now look at the story of Vedic author Vatsa found in Tandya Brahmana 14.6.6, Jaiminiya Brahmana 3.234:

The two sons of Kanva, Medhatithi and Trioka, contended about the sacred lore (brahman). They said : ' Come, let us cross the flaming fire'. They crossed the flaming fire. Tris'oka crossed over it (unharmed), but of the other it scorched the eye-lashes. Ho (Trisoka) said to him (to Medhatithi) : ' I have vanquished thee '. ' No ', said he, 'thou art the son of an Asura-mother ; even the deities have not wished to touch thee'. Then, they (said): 'Come, let us cross the water'. They crossed the flowing Rathaspa. Tris'oka crossed over it (unharmed), but of the other the rims of his cart were moistened by the water of the Rathaspa (translation uncertain, text corrupted !). He (TriSoka) said to him (to Medhatithi): 'I have vanquished thee'.

let us walk according to the rite through fire (to decide) which of us two is the better brahmin

So there was clear misconception and human nature at work here. But Agni preferred Shudra's son. Shudra's son was a superior Brahmin compared to birth-Brahmin. Another example from the Brahmanas is in Kausitaki Brāhmana 12.3 and Aitareya Brāhmana 8.19

"You are the son of a female slave. We will not eat with you" (dāsya vai tvam putro si na vayam tvaya saha bhaksayisyama iti). Kavasa became angry and ran away. He recited a hymn of praise to Sarasvati, who then followed after him: sarasvatim etena suktena tustava tam heyam iyaya. Realizing what had happened, the surprised seers hurried to him to express their reverence: "0 seer, homage be to you. Do not harm us. You indeed are the best of us...

Again we find human nature and misconception in this story. But Saraswati considers a Shudra's son superior to all birth-Brahmins combined at being a Brahmin. The birth-Brahmins also later accept they are inferior to him. He authored a part of Rig Veda. There are 108 canonical Upanishads as per Muktika Upanishad. One of them is Vajrasuchika Upanishad which says

It is said that a Brahmana is so because of his caste. This is not acceptable because there are diverse communities in the world... ...Among these many have attained the highest rank, despite of their lower birth and given proof of their wisdom. Therefore a Brahmana is not so because of his community.

Self-explanatory but people still try to twist and discard Vedic scripture because of human nature or misconception from semi-sacred Smritis. People who consider smriti main scripture are called Smartas and they are biggest caste lover. But most Hindus and all other Hindu scripture does not accept this absolutist view.

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There is lot of confusion about caste. Hindu, birth in endogamous group, caste system is not the Varna system of Rig Veda and Gita. I give below an enlightened explanation of Varna by Swami Tapasyananda.

According to the aptitudes resulting from the dispositions of Nature (gunas) and works (karma), the social order of fourfold division has been created by Me. Though I am their originator, know me to be an agent but the spirit unchanging.

Gita 4.13

Caturvarnya or the social order of fourfold division is not the caste system, which is a system of social grouping solely based on birth. Brahmana, Ksatriyas, Vaisyas and Sudra, as conceived in the Vedas, is a division based on the natural constitution of man arising from the dominance of Sattva, Rajas, and Tamas, the constituents of nature (Gunas), as also on the duties they are fit to perform according to the aptitudes arising from their constitution. They are mere character types. …………………..

Commentary on Gita 4.13 by Swami Tapasyananda in his English translation of Srimad Bhagavad Gita

O great hero! The duties of Brahmanas, Ksatriyas, Vaisyas and also Sudras have been divided according to the quality born of their own nature.

[Gita 18.41]

Serenity, control of the sense, austerity, purity, straight-forwardness, knowledge, insight, and faith in the Supreme Being - these are a Brahman's duties born of his own nature.

[Gita 18.42]

Prowess, splendor of personality, unfailing courage, resourcefulness, dauntless in battle, generosity, leadership - these are a Ksatriya's duties born of his specific nature.

[Gita 18.43]

Agriculture, cattle-rearing and trade form the duty of the Vaisya springing from his own nature, while the natural duty of a Sudra consists in subordinate service under others.

[Gita 18.44]

A great doctrine of the social philosophy of ancient India, regarding the fourfold class system, is here propounded. There has been no doctrine so much misapplied, misunderstood and misrepresented as this doctrine. The four Varnas of Brahmana, Ksatriyas, Vaisyas and Sudras are today and for a long time past, understood as four hereditary castes. But the Varnas, as understood by the best Indian thinkers, are not castes based on birth in particular groups, but character types based on the domination of the Sattvika, Rajasika and Tamasika elements entering into the constitution of their body-mind, and this is determined by their evolution in their past lives. At least such is the Gita view. To have identified character types with endogamous castes is nothing but an aberration. …….

These four character types are universal all the world over and the prosperity of a society will depend on the man of the right nature and character being put to the right type of duty. For the individuals also doing the duty that is natural to his psycho-physical constitution, is the way of higher evolution.

Commentary on Gita 18.41 to 18.44 by Swami Tapasyananda in his English translation of Srimad Bagavad Gita

By being devoted to one's own natural duty, man attains to spiritual competency. Now hear how devotion to one's own natural duty generates spiritual competency.

[Gita 18.45]

From whom all beings have emanated and by whom all this universe is pervaded - by worshiping Him through the dedicated performance of one's duty, man attains to spiritual competency.

[Gita 18.46]

These two verses (18.45–46) of the Gita link man’s social duties with spiritual disciplines. By cultivating a special attitude towards work, work is turned into worship, and the distance between the shrine room and the work-spot disappears. This philosophy is based upon a fundamental faith that this world and the progress of life in it are all under the guidance of a Supreme Intelligence, who is the master of it all, and whose will is expressed in all its movements. If man has got this faith, man ceases to be self-centered. He comes to view himself as a worker of God, and all that he does comes to be done with a sense of dedication to Him. Such work accrues to one according to one’s nature and is done with a spirit of dedication, is called Svadharma, one’s natural duty. ………

A natural objection to this way of understanding Caturvarnyas is that all commentators understood the four Varnas as endogamous groups called castes and the ‘natural duty’ (Svadharma) of theirs as the profession that was traditionally and scripturally alloted to those groups under the four distinctive names. Such interpretations of the Gita were given at a time when these endogamous groups were a recognised feature of Indian society, and thinkers considered birth in a group as tantamount to character type. The mistake of such identification was obvious to many thinkers of the past. So many of them have made amends by admitting that if great disparity in quality is found in the actual quality of a Ksatriya with the traditionally ascribed qualities, he can become a Brahmana. But all rationality seems to have been neutralised by the very strong prejudice in favour of endogamy.

…………………………..

But what the Lord speaks of here as Caturvarnya should never be identified with castes, because the Varna is said to be solely dependent on character formed by the Gunas of Prakriti. It is only an ideal grouping based on psychological principle and not on rigid hereditary basis.

Besides the Gita is a universal Gospel addressed to all mankind, for all time, and not merely to the Indian society of a particular age. In no part of the world except in India, caste system strictly based on birth seems to have existed. Loose classes there have been, but no rigid castes with unchangeable duties and occupations ………. So the old commentators have done great injustice to Sri Krshna in watering down the significance of his message as relevant only to members of the rigid Indian social system.,,,,

Commentary on Gita 18.45–46 by Swami Tapasyananda in his English translation of Srimad Bhagavad Gita.

One's own duty, even if without excellence (i.e. inferior in the scale of worldly values)is more meritorious spiritually than the apparently well-performed duty of another. For no sin is incurred by one doing works ordained according to one's nature.

[Gita 18.47]

This verse was interpreted by old commentators as jobs ascribed to particular castes. This verse is interpreted differently by those who follow Vivekananda's psychological explanation of Varna.

These verses, which were easy for our ancients to understand, pose great difficulty for us today. So long as Varna was identified with the endogamous caste, and valid texts ascribed particular works to each caste it was easy to find out one's Svadharma, and if one had a will, to perform it too. That a priest's son should be a priest, a soldier's son a soldier, a merchant's son a merchant, an agriculturist's son an agriculturist, a serf's son a serf - is an arrangement that could be practised to some extent in the old feudal society when educational opportunities were restricted, when there was no choice in following professions, when social contacts were limited, and when the validity of the system was accepted by the people in general. But today such an idea of Svadharma hereditarily determined, is impossible of practice. Society and professions have become competitive. The imparting of education without any restriction imposed by caste, has helped the shuffling of professional abilities among all members of society, setting aside hereditary factors. So it has become honourable for any one to follow any profession, and the determination of Svadharma based on birth as in a caste based economy, has become impractical and impossible, and also undesirable. In a democratic society, the same kind of education is open to all, and every one is eligible, according to one's qualification and capacity, to positions of power, prestige and high income. In these days of national armies every able-bodied citizen has the eligibility to be recruited - he may even be conscripted - in the armed forces of the country. In such a milieu, if the Gita idea of Svadharma is accepted as caste based, as it was understood a few generations back, and as it used to be interpreted by old commentators, then it has become thoroughly outmoded and will be rejected by every section of society in India and outside.

But as already pointed out, the wording of the Gita about Caturvarnya, except as interpreted by old commentators, does not mean endogamous castes, but the four psychological types. If this is accepted, Svadharma would mean only work that springs out of one's own nature and therefore adapted to one's natural development. But how to recognise these types and how to provide them with work suited to their nature - is a problem that cannot be solved. We have to leave work based on psychological type as an ideal arrangement in a more rationally organised society of the future. There is no other way today but to understand Svadharma as the duty devolving on oneself in society, inclusive of the profession one follows. If that is done well with God in view, and not merely for remuneration or with a worldly master in view, then one may be said to follow Svadharma.

Commentary on Gita 18.47 by Swami Tapasyananda in his English translation of Srimad Bhagavad Gita.

If you have come thus far then my sincere congratulations! I have not yet answered another question.

Why did the Varna system morph to the birth in an endogamous group based caste system?

Please go to the top of this post and reread Gita 4.13. One's Varna depends on past karma and guna. This raises an immediate problem. How can one know about one's past karma and guna so that the Varna can be ascertained? The short and sweet answer is that one can't. So what did ancient Hindus do about this problem? The answer is given below.

मङ्गल्यं ब्राह्मणस्य स्यात् क्षत्रियस्य बलान्वितम् । वैश्यस्य धनसंयुक्तं शूद्रस्य तु जुगुप्सितम् ॥ ३१ ॥

maṅgalyaṃ brāhmaṇasya syāt kṣatriyasya balānvitam | vaiśyasya dhanasaṃyuktaṃ śūdrasya tu jugupsitam || 31 ||

The name of the Brāhmaṇa should be auspicious, that of the Kṣatriya connected with power, that of the Vaiśya associated with wealth; while that of the Śūdra contemptible.—(31)

Manu Smriti 2.31

The ancient Hindus solved the problem of impossibility of determining Varna by outsourcing the problem to the parents. It, however, did not solve the problem. How can parents know the varna of the baby? Is the past karma and guna of the baby available to the parents? It is not so. What happened is that the parents considered the babies to be of the same Varna as themselves. This is how Varna system morphed into the present caste system.

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Varna system is from the Vedas.

Taittriyia Samhita 6.3.10.5 says,

जायमानो वै ब्राह्मणस्त्रिभिर् ऋणवा जायते ब्रह्मचर्येण ऋषिभ्यो यज्ञेन देवभ्यः प्रजया पितृभ्य एष वा अनृणो यः पुत्री यज्वा ब्रह्मचारिवासी तत् अवदानैर् एव अवदयते तत् अवदानानाम् अवदानत्वं

"A BrAhmaNa on birth is born with a threefold debt, of knowledge or mantra (brahmacharya) to the RiShis, debit of sacrifice (yajna) to the Gods, of offspring to the PitRus. He is freed from his debt who lived as a pupil, who performs yajna (to the Gods) and has a son (putrI); this (debt) he returns (avadayate) by these givings, and that is why the givings (avadAna) have their name.

Now, it clearly says Brahmana is born with three debts. It doesn't say a person who wants to become a Brahmin is having three debts or a person who has the qualities of a Brahmin has three debts. Suddenly people from 18th century started saying caste is not based on birth because at that time only Brahmins become corrupt. How many Brahmins you see today are working to fulfill these three debts? No, they are running behind jobs and money. When Brahmins deviated from Vaidika life and started living mundane life, Anti Brahminism happened. This later became Anti caste and Anti Hinduism. That's why people started to say caste is not based on birth. Imagine every Brahmin you see today is living like a Brahmin as ordained in the scriptures. This means even in this 21st century caste system will continue to exist and nobody will be having problem with that.

Apart from Vedas, Tantras and Agamas don't have any caste or Varna restriction. However, if a Brahmin decided to follow Tantra, he should follow only those Tantra which doesn't contradict the Vedas.

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    But Brahmin is born in 2nd birth that's why he is called Dwija or twice-born. So this is reference to 2nd birth. Anyways this is Krishna/Black/Corrupted Yajurveda not original Yajurveda so it is mixed with Brahmana portion. Caste is denounced in several places in Vedas as I have mentioned.
    – R. Kaushik
    Oct 4, 2021 at 5:23
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    There are two kind of birth, birth from womb, birth through Vedas. Upper three Varnas are eligible for the second birth, last Varna has one birth only. you are saying the opposite today because, as I told by me in the answer, Brahmins become corrupt and no longer follow Vedas. So, I don't want to continue this discussion. @R.Kaushik Oct 4, 2021 at 5:26
  • Nowhere is that mentioned (except smritis). As per Vedas everyone should be made ARYA (from shudra) and people from all communities or mixed castes can become purest of pure Brahmins in this birth...... Smritis are totally against rest of Hinduism
    – R. Kaushik
    Oct 4, 2021 at 5:29
  • No Veda says everyone should be made Arya. If you are talking about Rig Veda 9.63.5, even it doesn't. The rig Veda 9.63.5 has अपघ्नन्तो अराव्णः which is repeated in multiple places throughout 9th mandala. If I looked at Arya Samaj interpretation, they have given different different meanings each time. So that is definitely bogus. Oct 4, 2021 at 5:32
  • lol it just means destroy evil forces and make whole (remaining) world ARYA.... Other places in Vedas also say non-Brahmins (as per smritis) can become purest of pure Brahmins.... is this a new propaganda account of same person who was recently supporting caste by saying Srimad Bhagavatam is a fake scripture
    – R. Kaushik
    Oct 4, 2021 at 5:39

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