varna
   Varna (color) is the Vedic word for social class, in the class scheme found in Rig Veda X. 90. There the divine being is said to have offered himself in sacrifice to create reality. It is said that his mouth became the BRAHMIN, or priestly class; his arms became the Rajanya (KSHATRIYA), or warrior class; his thighs became the Vish (VAISHYA), or mer-chants, farmers; and his feet became the SHUDRAS, or the servant class.
   The “mouth” of society is symbolically impor-tant in India because of the power of divine speech through the SANSKRIT language. The arms are obviously symbolic of the strong arms of the warrior. The thighs symbolize the ability to pro-create and create prosperity for society. Feet have long been associated with impurity in Indian tradition, but it is a fact that no body can move without its feet.
   There has been some debate about whether the use of the word color to denote class reflects an ancient racist system. At the present day Brahmins in any part of India tend to have slightly lighter skin than other classes, while the poorest elements of society often have much darker skin. When colors are traditionally assigned to the classes, white is for the Brahmin, red for the warrior, yellow for the mer-chants and farmers, and black for the servants.
   This verse of the Vedas, which may in fact have been simply an ideal scheme for an integrated society, which could not function without any of its constituents, became the religious justi-fication for the later concept of caste. Caste itself is a Portuguese word adopted into English; the more proper word for this type of social class is jati, or “birth.” Nothing in this Vedic verse implies that varna is fixed at birth or that people can never alter their varna. It is well known, for instance, that the RISHI (seer) Vishvamitra, though born a warrior, became a Brahmin.
   Further reading: Bharat Jhunjhunwala, Varna Vyavastha: Governance through Caste System (Jaipur: Rawat, 1999); Laurie L. Patton, ed., Authority, Anxiety and Canon: Essays in Vedic Interpretation (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1994); Brian K. Smith, The Ancient Indian Varna System and the Origins of Caste (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1994).

Encyclopedia of Hinduism. . 2007.

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