Category Archives: The Four Classes (Varna) Of Hindu Society

The Marathas (and their social mobility)

Hinduism is composed of a caste, jati, system and class, varna, system (Rodrigues 132). According to Hindu myth, the four main varnas, compromising the brahmin or “priestly” class, the ksatriya or “warrior” class, the vaisya or “commoners” class, and the sudra or “servant” class (Rodrigues 146), originated from the body parts of a mythical deity, Purusa (Macdonell 240). The Brahmins were and continue to be regarded as the purest class in Hindu society, originating from the head of Purusa. The Ksatriya class is said to originate from the torso and arms of Purusa as they are expected to protect people and bear arms. Thirdly, members belonging to Vaisya originated from his legs and lower body. They are responsible for tending to land or cattle and trading goods or money. The Sudra class originated from Purusa’s feet as they were the most impure members of society. Jati means “birth group” and provided Hindus with a more explicit rank or status in society (Macdonell 238). One’s jati refers to their occupation and dictates their dietary habits, ritual allowances, and interactions with members of other castes (Macdonell 231). Members or groups within a caste claim varna status and these claims are dependent upon their states of ritual purity (Rodrigues 83).

Upward mobility and social reform was extremely rare in Hinduism. The caste and class system was very rigid, and ritual purity in pre-colonial India was held in the highest regards. However, one group that achieved upward mobility in the varna system was the people of the Maratha jati. Originally, members of the commoners or servant classes, they were eligible to achieve Ksatriya or warrior status through their military efforts against the Mughal Empire in the late 17th centuries under the rule of the rebellion Shivaji (Deshpande 6).

The Maratha jati was a military caste situated in southern India. The majority of the group was mainly derived from kunbis origin; atribe” or caste that was and continues to be generally associated with the Sudra varna as “peasant cultivators” of the Western region in Maharashtra (Russell 199). The two other “tribes” that constituted the Maratha caste included the dhangar or “shepard” and the coala or “cow-herder” (Russell 201) both of which also claimed Sudra status.  

It is also likely that the Maratha caste is derived from a military origin from various castes throughout Marathashtra. Many of the chief families claim to have rajput origin, a warrior caste located in Northern India. Their name is derived from the word rajaputra meaning “son of gods” (Russell 199). Shivaji, a noble ruler of the Maratha caste in, also claimed rajputs origin as he was the ideal Hindu ruler (Gordon 1). Born somewhere between the years of 1627-1630 C.E. (Abbott 159), Shivaji, has become a glorified icon in Hinduism. He was a Hindu king who instituted the Maratha kingdom and revived the Hindu religion in India (Laine 302).  Shivaji has become popular through the stories and myths about his ability to lead a Maratha uprising and establish a Maratha kingdom in the midst of the era of the Mughal Empire. Thus, the Marathas were agents of the Mughal Empire’s ultimate defeat towards the end of the century.

The military engagement between the Mughal and Maratha Kingdoms began with a feud between the Maratha warrior Shiavji and the Mughal emperor Aurangzeb and ended with the death of Aurangzeb in 1707 along with the fall of his empire (Pearson 221). Their feud was instigated long before the decline of the Mughal kingdom when Aurangzeb constantly invaded the northern Pune district in Marathashtra (Gordon 59). His father, Shahji, gave Shivaji his first position in his career as a jagirdar, owner or lord of a feudal land grant (Laine 302). Shahji was among the army at Bijapur, a region of Muslim power, and became a successful solider under the direction of many Muslim rulers, including Adil Shah (Laine 302). When Shahji died, he sent his son to Pune where he learned to become a central political and military figure, establishing control over much of Maharashtra (Laine 303).

The revival of Hinduism and the start of the social mobility for the Marathas began when Shivaji proclaimed himself as a member of the Ksatriya class. His Vedic coronation in 1674 (Laine 303) was protested by many Maharashtrian Brahmins as they questioned the legitimacy of his lineage in the Hindu culture (Deshpande 6). Despite his grandfather’s, father’s, and half-brother’s Muslim sponsorship, Shivaji became invested in identifying as a Hindu, and later became known for his role as a “defender of dharma” (Laine 306).

Once Shivaji grew older, he became the primary candidate for coordinating the Maratha-Mughal war. The Mughals had captured many of the Maratha forts during their crusade of Maharashtra and, after a period of peace, Shivaji launched several successful attacks in order to retrieve the lost forts (Gordon 79). The most renowned legend of the great Hindu ruler, however, was when he confronted Afzal Khan. Afzal Khan was a Bijapur general for the Muslims who was sent to defeat the Maratha uprising in which Shivaji was credited (Laine 306). They had negotiated a meeting but whilst on his journey to meet Shivaji, Afzal Khan harassed many communities along the way and destroyed idols and buildings, including the temple of the goddess Bhavani (Laine 306). Upon arrival, Afzal Khan attempted to murder Shivaji but was unsuccessful. Instead, Shivaji slew his opponent using a sword given to him by the allied goddess (Bendrey 1143). That sword, to this day, is in an unknown location. Other accounts of the story say that it was a prejudiced attack, stating that Shivaji had prepared for the murder of his opponent, arriving to their arranged meeting with weapons while Afzal Khan did not (Beveridge 184). In either case, it seems safe to say that neither challenger arrived without the idea of defeating the other.

Another great story of Shivaji is told through the Maratha defense against the Mughal invasion at the fort of Simhagad in 1670 (Laine 307). Here, the Marathas under Shivaji’s reign were able to gain control over the fort. In contrast with the Mughal captain Udebhan, who is often portrayed with demonic characteristics of cruelty and lust, Shivaji is portrayed as an “epic hero.” Some, even suggest he is an incarnation of Rama himself (Laine 307), though it does not seem to be widely accepted. He is more often equated with Arjuna or even Bhima (Laine 307), both characters in the Mahabharata epic.

Following Shivaji’s death in 1680 (Pearson 226), Sambhaji took over the Maratha’s military. During his reign, the Mughals were able to conquer the kingdom of Golconda in 1687, an overdue goal Aurangzeb had set for himself (Richards 241). A long battle ensued between the Mughal and Maratha empires at Hyderabad Karnatik, as the Marathas attacked the capital in Kancipuram (Richards 24). However, the Marathas were driven out of Karnatik two months later.  Up until 1690, both the Mughal and Maratha forces suffered military setbacks, and both were equally ineffective at striking against each other during this time. Shambhaji was captured and killed by the Mughals around 1689, leaving his brother, Rajaram, in control (Richards 244). However, the Mughal Empire regained full control over Hyderabad Karnatik, forcing the Marathas to rethink their strategy.

By 1692, Karnatik became the centre of military affairs between the two enemies (Richards 247). The siege of Jinji, a previously Maratha territory, took several years resulting in major losses for the Mughal army (Richards 2). During the intervals of Maratha raids, Aurangzeb’s generals collected whatever revenue they could find since the war was of his main concern (Richards 250). The Marathas, between the years of 1704 to 1707, were ruthless in their warfare against the Mughals as some of their greatest battles and victories occurred during this time (Richards 252). These crusades also concluded the twenty-one year struggle between the two empires. Aurangzeb, unable to defeat the Marathas armies with brawn instead resorted to bribery, paying his enemies in rupees and jagir (Richards 252-253), or land revenue (Pearson 221). The Mughal armies soon grew weak as the empire was unable to support their military due to loss of land and money. As a result of this financial deprivation, Mughal military performance continued to decline which lead to the fall of the Mughal empire and the rise of the Maratha kingdom in Maharashtra in 1707 (Pearson 221).

The Marathas caste, formerly situated under the Sudras varna, came to claim Ksatriya status due to a series of events encompassing Shivaji’s coronation and their military persistence against the Mughal Kingdom in the late 17th century. In present day, Maratha caste members live in deprivation, and some even in poverty, yet they continue to claim aristocratic status (Russell 205). Along with those who claim kunbis origin, the Marathas remain tied to the Ksatriya varna, (Deshpande 5), but they do not possess the resources or methods to conserve it easily. Some have trouble electing peace over warfare and instead produce a shallow and external façade of extravagance and glamour under their upper-class status (Russell 205-206). The Maratha caste prospered during their two to three centuries of constant warfare against Aurangzeb and the Mughal Empire (Russell 205-206). During this time they succeeded in becoming an extremely wealthy and powerful caste – a trademark of their name that Maratha members continue to identify with today.


References and Further Recommended Readings:

Abbott, Justin (1930) “The 300th Anniversary of the Birth of the Maratha King Shivaji.” Journal of the Oriental American Society, Vol. 50: 159-163.

Bendrey, V. S. (1938) “The Bhavani Sword of Shivaji the Great.” Journal of the Royal Society of Arts, Vol. 86, No. 4482: 1142-1144.

Beveridge, H. (1917) Review of Shivajī the Marātha; His Life and Times by H. J. Rawlinson. Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society of Great Britain and Ireland, 183–185.

Deshpande, Prachi (2003) Caste as Maratha: Social Categories, Colonial Policy and Identity in Early Twentieth Century Maharashtra. Colorado: Colorado State University.

Gatson, Anne-Marie (2003) “Dance and Hinduism: A personal exploration.” In Studying Hinduism in Practice. Hillary Rodrigues (ed.). New York: Routledge. pp. 75-86.

Gordon, Stewart (1993) The New Cambridge History of India: The Marathas 1600-1818. New York: Cambridge University Press.

Laine, James (1999) “The dharma of Islam and the din of Hinduism: Hindus and Muslims in the age of Sivaji.” International Journal of Hindu Studies, Vol. 3, No. 3: 299-318.

Macdonell, A.A. (1914) “The Early History of Caste.” The American Historical Review, Vol. 19, No. 2: 230-244.

Pearson, M. N. (1976) “Shivaji and the Decline of the Mughal Empire.” The Journal of Asian Studies, Vol. 35, No. 2: 221-235.

Richards, J. F. (1975) “The Hyderabad Karnatik, 1687-1707.” Modern Asian Studies, Vol. 9, No. 2: 241-260.

Rodrigues, Hillary P. (2003) “Divine times: Goddess worship in Banaras.” In Studying Hinduism in Practice. Hillary Rodrigues (ed.). New York: Routledge. pp. 131-145.

Russell, Robert Vane (1916) The Tribes and Castes of the Central Provinces in India. London: Macmillan and Co.

Sax, William (2003) “A Himalayan exorcism.” In Studying Hinduism in Practice. Hillary Rodrigues (ed.). New York: Routledge. pp. 146-157.


Related Websites:


Related Topics:

Class/Caste System in India

Maharashtra during the late 17th Century







Mughal Empire

Maratha Empire

Afzal Khan

Hyderabad Karnatik






Article written by: Lauryn Zerr (April 2016), who is solely responsible for its content.

Dalits and the Dalit Movement

Just as in any functioning society, Hindus in India are organized into groups, and the daily interactions that go on within the groups are facilitated by the social class to which one belongs. While outsiders studying the system may see it as extreme and difficult to understand, Hindu lives have functioned within the social system they know and participate in. The caste system in India dates back as far as around 1400 BC, when the Vedic Aryans migrated into Punjab, India and enslaved the groups already inhabiting the land, including the Dravidians. Before migrating to India, the Aryans already had a system of clan divisions, and when they conquered the people they met in India they segregated them from themselves by race, calling themselves the “Arya Varna” (meaning “master class”), and the slaves the “Dasa Varna” (meaning “slave cast”) (Raj 2-3). This simple distinction was the basis for the system that would grow and develop, eventually forming the modern caste system used by Hindus in India today. The social system, based on ethnic, economic, and religious segregation, divides the people into four main classes, or varna. In Sanskrit, varna means “colour”, and it was speculated that this emphasized the segregation of the coloured races, dating back to the Aryans and the conquered peoples. However, this has since been challenged, and it has been suggested that colour was simply used as a means to distinguish people, not relating to ethnicity at all, but more in the way that one could distinguish the color “pink” from “purple” or “white” from “black” (Varna 2016).

The class system is set up with a basis of four main classes (or varnas): the Brahmins, the Ksatriyas, the Vaisyas, and the Sudras. Each class functions according to the expectations they know to be true for their class; expectations which have both evolved and emerged as the history of Hinduism developed. The origins of the four specific varnas are unclear, and different myths and stories have arisen depicting their creation. In one hymn, the Purusasukta, the varnas are said to have developed from the parts and limbs of Purusa. In this depiction, the Brahmin are said to have come from the mouth, the Ksatriya from the arms, the Vaisya from the legs, and the Sudra from the feet (Davis 52). This imagery clearly demonstrates the places each class holds in society. The four classes are also mentioned in the Rg Veda (one of the most influential Hindu texts), but in the form of three classes called Brahma, Ksatra, and Visa (Ghurye 44). The Brahmin class is the uppermost class, consisting of the elite priests. The Brahmin are responsible for the upholding of dharma, as they themselves are held to a high standard of moral behavior. The Brahmins are distinguished from the Ksatriyas by their ritual knowledge. A Brahmin is able to perform rituals, and can offer up prayers for others, especially in the matter of protection of his king (Ghurye 47). The Ksatriyas form the militant class of India. They are able to carry weapons and it is expected that they would protect the rest of the people in this way. There are some stories of Ksatriyas acting as priests, and the tensions between the Brahmins and the Ksatriyas led to conflict every now and then as they each challenged the authority of the other class. Still, the two classes are known to work closely with each other in order to ensure the function and protection of daily society (Ghurye 50). The Vaisyas constitute the third class, known to be farmers and labourers. This class, best known as “the tenders of cattle”, are in a position of uncertainty. The two upper classes can easily be grouped together, as they both display their authority over Indian society, but the Vaisyas can be grouped either up or down, depending on the behaviour or the situation being analyzed (Ghurye 63). In some situations they are seen as an upper class, while in others they are grouped along with the lowest class, the servants. This makes the lines between the classes hard to distinguish at times, and certainly provides an insight into the complexity and difficulty that comes along with trying to understand the caste system. The fourth class is the Sudras, the lowest of the four. The Sudras are a class destined for tedious, unskilled labour, and service of the upper three classes (Davis 52). Participation and placement in the classes are determined by Jati, meaning one’s birth group, from the Sanskrit word “jata”, meaning “born” or “brought into existence” (Jati 2016). In this way, it is understood that birth determines one’s place in the caste system.

Not included in the four varnas are a fifth class, a class so low in the caste system that they are referred to as “Untouchables”, and therefore excluded from the four-varna system. This class, the Dalits, occupy the lowest of the low in Hindu Indian society, and are highly discriminated against in all aspects of life. They are segregated and given the label of poor status in the economy, politics, employment, and so much more (Kaminsky and Long 156-157). As an outsider analyzing the system, it is important to acknowledge the role that the Dalits play in the interactions among the groups, but from a Hindu point of view, the Dalits are totally unacknowledged (Sadangi 18). The people that occupy this class are viewed by the rest of the classes as polluting, and are therefore given the “polluting” tasks in daily life. Ritual purity is an extremely important concept in Hinduism, and tasks are typically assigned levels of purity or pollution. It is of utmost importance that the upper classes maintain their ritual purity, especially the Brahmins, as they need to be ritually pure in order to perform their rituals. The tasks that are too polluting for the four varnas to participate in are given to the Dalits, as they are already polluted in their fundamental status. Besides occupation, Dalits are excluded from all aspects of daily life of Hindus of the other classes, including social and sexual contact, and eating. Contact between the Dalits and the four varnas is controlled and regulated, and eating among the groups is completely and wholly separated (Shrawagi 2006).

While there are multiple terms used today to describe the “untouchables”, including Harijan, the term “Dalit” itself, although in existence for hundreds of years, was not always used to classify the excluded class, and was popularised fairly recently by Dr. B. R. Ambedkar (Mohanty and Malik 114). Ambedkar effectively attacked the Indian caste system in his adult life, basing his entire campaign on the sole foundation of social equality (Jagannathan 2015). Born a Dalit himself, Ambedkar has successfully created a new definition for the term “Dalits” as a group of people who are “economically abused, politically neglected, educationally backward, and oppressed in religious and cultural ground because of caste discrimination in society” (Mohanty and Malik 114). The Dalit movement in India really began when India gained independence, but the Dalits were still denied any independence or equality in the new society (Sutradhar 91). This desire for equality urged members to begin pushing back against the upper classes. The upper classes traditionally starved the Dalits in social interaction, education, and the economy, believing that if they could maintain their powerless position in society and prevent them from furthering their education of equality and human rights that they could prevent any notions of dissent against the system, and continue to render the Dalits defenseless against the discrimination imposed on them (Sutradhar 94). However, the Dalits, after enduring centuries of abuse and oppression, began to feel angry about their position in society. They were working the land and serving the upper classes with no enjoyment of the fruits of their own labour. Thus, the Dalit movement was born, and fostered in the minds of those fighting for equality among the classes.

Jyotiba Phule was the first to emphasize the importance of the education of Dalits when it came to the Dalit’s movement, recognizing that with education would come the ability to reason and develop rationale, as well as the ability to carve out a place for oneself in politics and the socio-economic world (Sutradhar 96). This sentiment was carried even further by Dr. Ambedkar, who (along with another great thinker, Gandhi) fought for Dalits’ equality. While Ambedkar deeply desired equality among the classes, he recognized the importance of the caste system in daily social structure, and acknowledged the fact that a whole organization of society cannot change overnight without total chaos and disarray ensuing soon after. In this way, he recognized the need for separate-caste marriages, and pushed for smaller movements toward equality. By doing so, he hoped that eventually the Hindu caste system could gradually transition from one embedded in inequality to one with equality at the forefront, redefining daily interactions and social structures.

The Dalit movement is one that has been going on for years, heightening especially in the 1970’s, but is largely ignored in the grand scheme of things (Sutradhar 97). The feelings of exclusion and oppression felt by the Dalits in India continue to motivate them to keep quiet. The feelings of embarrassment and dedication to the caste system that is so deeply entrenched in Hindu thought and beliefs, and the acceptance of the way things are prove to be huge obstacles in the continuation and growth of the movement, not only in India, but on the world stage. Still, thinkers such as Phule, Ambedkar, and Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan fed the fire that drives the movement. Radhakrishnan had spoken out against the caste system directly, attacking its values. He emphasized the need to abolish the system (and the idea of untouchability) in order to achieve a modern nation with democracy and human rights for all (Minor 386). Today, in a world so focused on human rights, equality, and liberty of all people, the Dalits movement begs for people all over the world to recognize the needs of their friends in India. In order to see change there must be pressure put on the Indian government both nationally and internationally, and Dalits must come together with non-Dalits in order to achieve a global movement to push for human rights in India to transcend the caste system (Bishwakarma 2015). Until then, over one-sixth of the population of India will continue to live in oppression under the caste system, born into the fate of a Dalit life (Overview of Dalit Human Rights Situation nd).



Bishwakarma, Dil (2015) “ICDR President’s Opening Statement from First Global Conference.” International Commission for Dalit Rights. Accessed February 6, 2016.

Davis, Marvin (1983) Rank and Rivalry: The Politics of Inequality in Rural West Bengal. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Ghurye, Govind S. (1969) Caste and Race in India. Mumbai: Popular Prakashan Pvt. Ltd.

Jagannathan, R. (2015) “Rescuing Ambedkar from Pure Dalitism: He Would’ve Been India’s Best Prime Minister.” Firstpost. Accessed February 28, 2016.

— “Jati.” Encyclopedia Britannica. Edited by Editors of Encyclopedia Britannica. Accessed February 28, 2016.

Kaminsky, Arnold P., and Roger D. Long (2011) India Today: An Encyclopedia of Life in the Republic. California: ABC-CLIO.

Minor, Robert N. (1997) “Radhakrishnan as Advocate of the Class/Caste System as a Universal Religio-Social System.” International Journal of Hindu Studies 1.2. Springer. 386-400.

Mohanty, Panchanan, and Ramesh C. Malik (2011) Ethnographic Discourse of the Other: Conceptual an Methodological Issues. Newcastle: Cambridge Scholars Publishing.

National Campaign on Dalit Human Rights. Accessed February 6, 2016.

 Raj, Ebenezer S (1985) “The Origins of the Caste System.” Transformation 2.2. London: Sage Publications Ltd. 10-14.

Sadangi, Himansu Charan (2008) Emancipation of Dalits and Freedom Struggle. Delhi: Gyan Publishing House.

Shrawagi, Rohit (2006) Purity vs. Pollution. Accessed February 28, 2016.

Sutradhar, Ruman (2014) “Dalit Movement in India: In the Light of Four Dalit Literatures.” IOSR Journal of Dental and Medical Sciences. 91-97.


Related Topics for Further Interest



Dharma Sastras



Havik Brahmins


Laws of Manu






Rg Veda



Websites Related to the Topic


Article written by: Jennie Elder (February 2016) who is solely responsible for its content.

The Ksatriya Varna

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.



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 Varna




The Caste system


Rg Veda

Purusa Sukta

Hindu Society

Social Hierarchies

Sisya and Guru relationship


Hindu Universe

Vedic Religion

Vedic Deities

Vedic Sacrifices

The Asvamedha




The “Untouchables”


Related Websites


Article written by: Derek De Coste (April 2016) who is solely responsible for its content.



The Hindu Varna System

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.

Related Readings

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.