Varna is the Hindu conceptual framework that views society as the sum of four classes; priests (brahmanas), soldiers (ksatriyas), merchants (vaisyas), and the labourers (sudra). However, this is a very simple generalization of the four classes, as each has differing levels of complexity. For example, the brahmanas may be viewed as priests, or intellectuals that contributes to Hindu literature (Sharma 363-371). The origin of this division of the four classes of Hindu society was established in the Purusa Sukta hymn of the Rg Veda. This hymn tells of a giant cosmic being (purusa) who was sacrificed by the gods. Out of this sacrifice the four classes emerged from the cosmic being’s body. From the head and mouth the Brahmin (brahmanas) emerge, from the arms the ruling class emerges [referred to in some cases as rajanya, but commonly as ksatriya], from the thighs the merchants (vaisyas), and from the feet the workers (sudra). The hymn creates a religious sanction for a hierarchy among the four classes in Hindu society, as well as providing the distinctions between them. The use of the cosmic being’s body in the hymn is important, because it physically defines the distinctions by placing the priests at the top of the body and the laborers at the bottom of it. The stratification of Hindu society is one of its defining features, and while the four classes are the basic understanding of these divisions, it is complicated further by the jatis (Rodrigues 57).
The jatis are more specific distinctions, that create smaller sub groups, but that is not the focus here. Historically though, the Varna system developed in a specific way. The social divisions that became characteristic of the system may have existed among the Harappans, as well as the Iranian Aryans. It would be during the Vedic period that the priests (brahmanas) and the rulers (ksatriya) began to consolidate their power. Within the relatively small population the distinctions became clearer between the upper classes, and the two producer classes, the vaisyas and the sudra (Avari 74). Varna itself as a term, initially meant “color,” which has led many to believe that the class distinctions were based more around one’s skin color. Going back to the distinctions between the three classes though, the upper three classes of the brahmanas, ksatriya, and vaisya were identified as being twice-born (dvija). As a result of this the three of them receive benefits that the fourth does not. It has been argued by the skin-complexion theorists that the lighter skinned dvija classes came to the subcontinent and subordinated the darker skinned sudras as their servant class. This preference for skin color is echoed in other aspects of Hindu society. The Laws of Manu promotes marriage within one’s own class and it represents a desire to prevent mixing of skin colors. To this day, there is still a cultural preference among many Hindus for lighter skin over darker skin (Rodrigues 58).
The four Varnas were increasingly distinguished and codified over time, as various laws would outline their social duties. Key to this are the Laws of Manu which lays out detailed descriptions for the various stages of life for each class. The brahmins are placed at the uppermost position of social structure, and their duties are described in relation to the other classes. The laws also outline the notion that it is better for one to inadequately follow the rules of their own Varna than to thoroughly live by the rules of another. The brahmins specifically are placed at the top of society because they are charged with the protection of dharma and are in turn supported by it (Rodrigues, 2006: 58). However, in some cases it was possible for one to change their social class. It was only during a period of mobility that an individual of a higher class could potentially act in a way to join the lower standing if they wanted to. Conversely, someone of a lower class could also act in a way to raise their standing. However, this would occur fairly rarely, and most would not drop in social standing (Avari 167).
So what then are the specific roles and duties of the ksatriya class? The ksatriya can be simply defined as belonging either to the warrior or royalty groups, and it is seen as being the second highest class in Hindu society (Buswell and Lopez). In some cases, this class is seen as having the right to bear arms in situations where they are defending members of the brahmins class. To expand on this further, including offering protection, they would also give gifts to the brahmins, study the Veda, and to avoid attachments to sensual indulgences. The ksatriya then in a sense could be seen as a servant to the brahmin, or even a student. While they were both from the upper classes, the ksatriya provided service towards the brahmins, and the brahmins would teach them the scriptures. Compared to the other classes the ksatriya class was then positioned higher. The sudras specifically would act in a servant role for them, either as laborers or in producing handicrafts to be bought by the upper classes (Rodrigues 59).
What has been described so far, though, has been a very idealized form of the class hierarchy in Hindu society. Before continuing, it is important to note that this ideal form only existed at certain times, in certain communities, in certain regions, and on certain issues. Most regions only had few, if any, brahmins or ksatriyas. As a result, Hindu society does not always conform to the ideal version that is presented in the scriptures (Rodrigues 60). Another issue that arises in looking at the Vedic texts is that they were revised by the Brahmins, who were usually working closely with the ksatriya class. Thus, there is a risk apparent in this system as it could be a potential ideological construct made by the upper class members of Hindu society. An obvious reason for why this could have happened is the fact that, in securing one’s family within a social class, or their friends, they provide a certain sense of security and protection (Avari 74).
Going back to the relationships between the ksatriya class and the others, there have been some instances where the ksatriya class has challenged the position of the brahmins. In several circumstances the power of the brahmin class has been challenged. Some of these emerged from the critique that the brahmin class derived their position only due to their family lineage and nothing else. Some of the ksatriya kings felt that their power should not be kept in check by the brahmins. This tension is not exclusive to Hindu society, as the conflict between church and state has been echoed many times throughout history in other cultures (Rodrigues 60). In relation to authority, the Brahmins and the ksatriyas were allies typically, and while this alliance made the basis for authority in the kingdoms this did not hold well in the clan states. The powerful ksatriya families in some of these clan states did not earn the respect of the Brahmin priests. This has been given as a potential reason for the conflict between the two classes as already mentioned (Avari 89).
The hierarchy that existed in many Vedic texts, would also be presented as a way to establish an ideal city. A description offered by Kautilya’s Arthasastra, describes the Brahmin priests occupying the two middle blocks to the north of the king’s palace. And the ksatriya officers would be placed to the east of the palace (Avari 118). This geographical positioning goes back to the cosmic being hymn mentioned in the beginning. The brahmanas class is positioned at the most northern position, the top, and the ksatriya, are to the side, the position of the arms. To look at how the ksatriya was portrayed in other texts and hymns, it is clear that the hierarchy of Hindu society became increasingly based on the social climate in which they lived. For example, another hymn that has been told in the Mahabharata outlines the ksatriya in a different way. This story is an apocalyptic one, in which the social stratum is destroyed by the Brahmin priests and an alliance with other divine agencies. After this destruction has occurred the ksatriyas become a semi divine force to rule earth now. This story makes sense in the context that it was produced within, which was the beginning of the fourth century BCE, due to the social, cultural, and political events that were occurring in northern India (Mittal 57).
It is important to understand the specific duties of the ksatriya class through looking at how they are defined within the Laws of Manu. Their duties have been discussed already, but it is worth outlining them more comprehensively. It is said that the idea of the ksatriya is connected both to power and protection. Their subordination to the brahmins is made clearer within the text. For example, in regards to the hair clipping ceremony (Kesanta) the brahmins cut their hair when they reach the age of sixteen. Conversely the ksatriyas cut their hair at the age of twenty-two. The seniority within the ksatriya class is based around the notion of valour which is distinctive from the other classes (Bühler, Chapter 1). Again the idea of the ksatriya class being the warrior class is made quite clear here. The word itself implies the idea of power and protection, and the seniority is based around valor and bravery. The class is distinguished from the other ones, and each is specifically defined on their own contributions to society. The brahmin are valued for their spiritual intelligence, the vaiyas for their economic value, and the sudra for the labour they provide.
The designation of the ksatriya status was important for the kings. Outlined in the Laws of Manu it states that no one is to accept a gift from a king if they are not descended from the ksatriya race (Bühler, Chapter 4). One of the difficulties that is apparent when looking at the ksatriya class is that it is hard to discuss it without mention of the other four Varnas. Within this framework the importance of the hierarchy is solidified further and entrenched more in our understanding of the past. The ksatriya class is better understood then in regards to how it is higher in stature then the vaiyas and the sudra. And how in many texts it is always distinctly referred in conjuncture with the brahmin, but it is always made clear that the ksatriya are lower in society.
Another text that does greatly outline the specific duties of not only the ksatriya but the other Varnas comes from one of the Dharma Sastras, the Visnu Smrti. Specifically talking to the ksatriya class, its main duty being constant practice in arms, to protect the world, and in protecting the world receiving a reward. The reward in particular would take the form of specific tax exemptions. If a member from this class is insulted, the insulter must pay a fee for doing so. A large portion of the text is dedicated towards outlining land succession processes. Meaning how the land is to be divided up amongst the sons of a ksatriya, usually evenly when it is divided. This text too touches on the purification rituals, and usually the purification process is slightly more complicated then what the brahmin class had to do. The ksatriya class itself was only able to take three wives, as well the text also mentions that the seniority is founded upon valour (Jolly 27-150). Again much of the ideas held in this text echo what has already been outlined, but it helps to more specifically explain what the ksatriya class was.
As the arms of society, the ksatriya class sought to exercise their physical prowess and the force of their “arms” as a way to defend the people. Furthermore, they would defend the safety of the country from foreign threats and invasion. As a social class they were seen as second to the brahmin, but also grouped together with the vaisyas and the brahmins above the sudras. The twice born groups (dvija) were placed as the upper group of society (Holdrege 218). This is how the ksatriya class was seen in relation to the to the other Varnas. Commonly becoming the leaders, officials, and warrior class of Hindu society. The positioning of these classes would rarely exist in the perfect nature that the hymns and texts would depict them in. Instead the realities were more complex. However, the basic patterns of this relationship were clear to see historically in Hindu society.
REFERENCES AND FURTHER RECOMMENDED READING
Avari, Burjor (2007) India: The Ancient Past, A history of the Indian sub-continent from c.7000 BC to AD 1200. Abingdon: Routledge.
Bühler, George (2009) The Laws of Manu. Charleston: Bibliolife Publishing.
Buswell, Robert E. and Jr. Lopez, Donald S. (2013) The Princeton Dictionary of Buddhism. Princeton: Princeton University Press.
Holdrege, Barbara A. (2006) “Dharma.” In The Hindu World. edited by Raini Kothari and Rushikesh Maru. Abingdon: Routledge.
Jolly, Julius (1880) The Institutes of Vishnu. Oxford: Clarendon Press.
Keith, A. Berriedale (1914) “The Brahmanic and Kshatriya Tradition.” The Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society of Great Britain and Ireland, e Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society of Great Britain and Ireland (January): 118-126
Kothari, Rajni and Maru, Rushikesh (1965) “Caste and Secularism in India: Case Study of a Caste Federation.” Association for Asian Studies 25 #1 (November): 33-50
Mittal, Sushil and Thursby, Gene (2007) The Hindu World. Abingdon: Routledge.
Pocock, D.F. (1960) “Caste and ‘Varna’.” Royal Anthropological Institute of Great Britain and Ireland 60 (September): 140-141
Rodrigues, Hillary (2006) Introducing Hinduism. New York: Routledge.
Sharma, Arvind (2002) Modern Hindu Thought: The Essential Texts. New York: Oxford University Press.
Related Research Topics
The Caste system
Sisya and Guru relationship
Article written by: Derek De Coste (April 2016) who is solely responsible for its content.