Within the Hindu tradition there are many explanations about origins of the class (or varna) system within Indian society. Some are mythic and others are socio-historical, and both play enormous roles in the Hindu culture. Although there are numerous myths to explain the creation of the varnas, the Purusa-Viraj (sometimes referred to as Purusa-Sukta, or the Hymn of Man) will be summarized and referenced. This particular story/hymn is found within the Rig Veda, a very significant text in Hinduism, which may have its origins between 1500 to 1200 BCE (Muller in Flood 37), although its precise date of origin is a matter of some debate. David Mandelbaum states that the varnas are the primordial makeup of society (Mandelbaum 22). And to this day, this system persists in much of India (Smith 19). The four social classes that have been set out within the Purusa-Viraj are the Brahmins, Ksatriyas, Vaisyas and Sudras.Each class has its own distinctive set of duties and functions to be performed and also carried out within society.Although this provides a view on what the class system of India is like, one needs to remember that this is an Orthodox view, and that not everyone in India promotes the Brahmins, the class system, or even the Vedas.There are also heterodox perspectives to consider.
This famous hymn describes how the world was created by dismembering the cosmic giant, Purusa, thus forming the four social varnas from certain body parts.Along with the creation of the human being, animals, seasons, verses, meters, and other such elements were formed (Doniger O’Flaherty 29-30).
11 …When they divided the Man, into how many parts did
they apportion him? What do they call his mouth, his
two arms and thighs and feet?
12 His mouth became the Brahmin; his arms were made into
the warrior [ksatriyas], his thighs the People [vaisyas], and from his feet the Servants were born [sudras]…[ Wendy Doniger O’Flaherty, The Rig Veda: An Anthology, (London: Penguin Books Ltd., 1981), p. 31. These are the only two paragraphs that have come from this translated book ]
This particular section of the hymn provides a basis for understanding the classical Orthodox Indian varna system. The varna system categorizes the four groups hierarchically with the Brahmins at the top. The hymn reinforces this hierarchy by placing one class above another anatomically; the Brahmins emerge from the mouth, and the Sudras emerge from the feet of Purusa.
Brahmins are characterized by being the closest to the deities and being the most familiar with the scripts and texts of Vedic Hinduism (Mandelbaum 223). Their work tends to involve less laborious work compared to that of the other varnas, for the Brahmins study the original works (usually memorizing them) and performing rituals (Mandelbaum 188). Before the texts were written down they were passed along orally and memorized. Brahmins were the only groups within the Aryan community to learn the Veda and carry out yajna (ritual sacrifice) (Smith 14).This is because the Veda was sacred and purported to be something to which only the Brahmin class could access. A result of the Brahmins’ close relationship to the gods, as well as constantly being under the public eye is that they have to be meticulous about their ritual purity.The Brahmins are therefore cautious about whom they are in contact with, what they eat, and other acts that cause ritual pollution (Mandelbaum 181).Brahmins, by virtue of their lifestyle and purity concerns, are subject to the least amount of pollution.Pollution increases as one moves down the hierarchy with the Sudra experiencing the most (Das 129).These duties and responsibilities explain why the Brahmins emerge from the mouth according to this Orthodox view.For the mouth is what speaks the Vedas and passes on the texts to fellow Hindus.Therefore a Brahmin stresses purity, piety, learning, and priesthood (Mandelbaum 451).
The second class is the Ksatriyas who are known as the warriors. They are said to emerge from the arms of Purusa in the Purusa-Sukta hymn. They are the protectors and enforcers of Indian society. Their duty is to see that the “relationships between the castes are maintained and that the hierarchy of society is preserved” (Mandelbaum 452). This provides a sense of security to others in the community because Ksatriyas are thought to be ready to use their force wisely and for the right reasons. When the Ksatriyas abuse their power they are seen to be going against their dharmic duty. Their role is to uphold their attributes of honour, virtue, force and masculinity (Mandelbaum 451). All of these attributes produce a class of great warrior who have pride in their status. The Hindu Epics, the Ramayana and the Mahabharta offer teachings on how a true Ksatriya is expected to act and fulfill his duties.
Vaisyas are the third varna, and members of this class are said to preside over the everyday domain, dealing with agriculture, produce and livestock (Smith 29). They are the ones who provide a market for the community, for they are skilled in trade and crafts (Mandelbaum 453). The Purusa-Sukta hymn states that this varna is produced from the thighs of Purusa.Their dedication to hard work in commerce and farming provides a rationale for why the largest body part is a representation of them.The Vaisyas are expected to take pride in their “steadiness, thrift, intelligence, purity, and piety” (Mandelbaum451).Members of classes lower than this one are considered to be far less highly regarded than those of classes above them.
The above three varnas (the Brahmins, Ksatriyas, and Vaisyas) constitute a group known as the “twice born” or dvija. This status of being “twice born” begins with the upanayanam rite, (the Sacred Thread Ceremony). In this ritual, a boy from one of these classes would traditionally and formally be separated from his mother and begin a period of formal religious study (Mandelbaum 448). After the sacred verse is taught by a spiritual mentor, he is given a sacred thread to be worn across the left shoulder (Mandelbaum 448). By this ritual, one notes how the “twice born” tangibily separate themselves from the Sudras. The “twice born” are expected to differ in such things as style of life and daily ritual (Mandelbaum 223).A major difference is that the lowly Sudra servants may not participate in Vedic sacrifice (Smith 29).
The fourth and final varna according to the Hindu Orthodox system are the Sudras.Their duty is to carry out unskilled tasks, and to serve the higher castes (Das 81).This particular class is not known for shifting in status and are often called the untouchables (Mandelbaum 461).Because their duty is to serve, one can conceptualize why they are produced from the feet of the cosmic giant Purusa.
Thus far the Orthodox view of the class system has been presented, but this is not to say it is the only view. The heterodox systems of Buddhism and Jainism provide a contrast. These two religions reject the Vedas as revealed truth and the orthodox teachings of Brahmans (Flood 82). It is worth noting that in the past the Brahmins were not the only group that wielded economic, political and intellectual power, and thus their articulation of the acceptable or orthodox way of life was not the only mood of religious practice among the vast majority of Indians (Rhys-Davids 69). Within the orthodox class system described above it is evident that there are certain obligations to be fulfilled in each class. However, heterodox religious-philosophies might “accept people from a wider social spectrum” (Flood 90). This openness, then, does not hold men and women to such strict class categories and dharmic duties, which allows a more encompassing practice of religion.
From the description of each of the varnas’ duties and responsibilities, one can begin to comprehend the rationale behind the Orthodox explanation of the origins of the caste system, as found in the Purusa-Sukta. It is but one myth that provides a religious justification for the Hindu varna system, and attempts to establish a hierarchy.
Das, Veena (1982) Structure and Cognition: Aspects of Hindu Caste and Ritual. 2nd ed. Delhi: Oxford University Press.
Doniger O’Flaherty, Wendy (1981) The Rig Veda: An Anthology. London: Penguin Books Ltd.
Flood, Gavin (1996) An Introduction to Hinduism. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Mandelbaum, David (1970) Society in India: Change and Continuity. 2 vols. Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press.
Rhys-Davids (1970) Buddhist India. Delhi: Hindustan Press.
Smith, Brian (1994) Classifying the Universe: The Ancient Indian Varna System and the Origins of Caste. New York: Oxford University Press.
HChuyen, GillesH (2004) Who is a Brahmin? : the politics of identity in India. New Delhi: Manohar.
Fuller, C.J. (1996) Caste today. Toronto: Oxford University Press.
Gould, Harold A (1987-1990) The Hindu caste system. Delhi: Chanakya Publications.
Topics for Further Investigation
– socio-historical origins
– twice born class or dvija
– upanayanam rite
Websites that Complement this Topic
Article written by Jodie Beddome (April 2006) who is solely responsible for its content.