Caste hierarchy and discrimination is not sanctioned by the Vedas. I mentioning an excerpt from an article by Swami Venkatraman:
First, caste refers to jati, not varna. Jatis are the thousands of
indigenous social- occupational groups, while varna refers to the four
individualized societal functions described in many texts.
Understanding this distinction is a necessary first step. The next is
exploring whether the Purusha Sukta really sanctions a hierarchical
and discriminatory caste system?
This is not mere academic curiosity. The solution to any problem
relies on a correct diagnosis and even as they acknowledge the social
history of caste-based discrimination in India, it is important for
Hindus, and non-Hindus, to understand the terminology and know whether
the Sukta really does sanction a birth-based hierarchy.
Below is a translation of the relevant verse from ‘Purusha Sukta’,
which is the 90th Sukta of the 10th mandala in the Rig Veda, and it
talks about the entire universe as the body of God (Purusha), and of
all creation as emerging from Him.
From his mouth came forth the Brahmins
And of his arms were Rajanya made
From his thighs came the Vaishyas
And his feet gave birth to Sudras.
At a literal reading, this indeed appears to define a hierarchical
system of classes with the Brahmins occupying the most prestigious
position and the Sudras being the most inferior as they emerge from
the feet. And this has pretty much become the dominant understanding
of the verse among academics.
The best way to demonstrate the silliness of this interpretation of
the 90th Sukta, is to actually assume it to be correct and then see
where that leads us in terms of understanding the rest of the hymn.
Thus, if the above verse indicates a hierarchical system, then
presumably the body parts of the God (Purusha) from which everything
in creation emerges, or the order in which the names are mentioned, or
both, ought to be indicative of its superiority or otherwise.
Let us test this understanding against translations of the next two
verses from the
90th ‘Purusha Sukta’:
Of his mind, the Moon is born
Of his eyes, the shining Sun
from his mouth, Indra and Agni,
And of his life-breath, Vayu
Space unfolds from his navel
The sky well formed from his head
From His feet, the earth and His ears the Quarters
Thus they thought up all the worlds.
If our assumption above were true, then the moon ought to be superior
to the sun because the mind is superior to the eyes, and also because
the moon is mentioned first. Moreover, based on where they emerge
from, Indra (the king of the Devas) ought to be inferior to both
Chandra (moon) and Surya (sun) and on par with Agni (fire), which also
A similarly absurd comparison of the space, sky, earth with the ‘four
directions’ will arise from the second verse. If the earth comes from
the God’s (Purusha) feet, is it then inferior to the moon which comes
from the mind?
There is clearly no hierarchy intended, but only symbolic meanings.
This can be driven home more clearly, if one considers what the
‘Purusha Sukta’ says in its entirety. It describes the God (Purusha),
as the perennial source of all creation, as having countless heads,
eyes and legs, manifested everywhere beyond comprehension. All
creation is but fourth a part of him and the rest is thus, ambiguous.
The Sukta describes a great Yajna, or a ritual sacrifice, called
`Sarvahut’, or the ‘offering of all’. It was God (Purusha) himself who
is worshipped in the Yajna, which is performed by Brahma, the creative
power of the Purusha. The Devas, who are the senses of the Purusha,
are the priests.
Thus, the beast of sacrifice, tied to the altar is the Purusha
himself; all of nature is the altar; the Purusha’s heart is the fire,
and the Purusha himself is sacrificed in the Yajna, which is the
process of creation itself. The ‘Purusha Sukta’ does not intend to
speak about human society and its organization.
The translation of one of the final verses states the essence of
I know That Purusha who is glorious
Bright as the sun, beyond all darkness.
He who knows him thus Conquers death in this birth.
I know of no other way than this.
Consider the following now:
In the entire Rig Veda, it is only in the ‘Purusha Sukta’ that the
four varnas are mentioned. However, the ‘Purusha Sukta’ itself does
not use the word ‘varna’ and wherever the word occurs elsewhere in the
Rig Veda, it is to be noted that it is not used to refer to the four
types of people in society.
Moreover, Hindu sacred texts clearly relate ‘varnas’ to the ‘guna’
i.e., behavior and character, rather than the birth. The idea that
different individuals of the same family can have different ‘varnas’
and those individuals had a choice of ‘varnas’ are present in the Rig
“I am a reciter of hymns, my father is a healer, my mother a grinder of corn. We desire to obtain wealth through various actions”-- Rig
“O Indra, fond of soma, would you make me the protector of people, or would you make me a ruler, or would you make me a sage who has
consumed soma, or would you bestow infinite wealth on me?” --- Rig
“The four varnas were created by me according to differences in guna and karma; although the creator of this, know me as the non-doer being
immutable.” -- Bhagavad Gita 4.13