Brahman, Kshatriya, Vaishya, Shudra. These are the four different labels that unequalize equally born humans. This article answers why and how society engraves these marks upon our identity.
Bhardwaj, a prominent sage of the Mahabharat era asks another sage Bhrigu, "What is it that distinguishes the Varna?" Bhrigu opined, the Varna is a color-coded system. To this, Bhardwaj replied that, colors are seen among all Varnas; the sensation of desire, anger, fear, greed, grief, anxiety, hunger and toil prevails over all human beings; the flow of bile and blood happens in all human bodies, so how are they different? (Hiltebeitel Alf, Dharma: Its Early History In Law, Religion, And Narrative, 2011)
Varna is a Sanskrit word that literally translates into English as color or complexion. The Varna system is rooted in Hinduism but Dharmashastras and Upanishads are obscure about racial prejudice based on color. Different colors have been observed within the same Varna ruling out the possibility of distinction based on color. So, the same question arises time and again: ‘What actually distinguishes Varna?’
The idea of Varna system has a long history and tradition dating back to Vedic times. Manusmiriti is considered one of the prominent historical texts that talks about the Varna Byabastha (i.e., system of Varna) in the Vedic era. The law of Varna teaches each one of us to earn our own bread by following the ancestral calling. Our ancestors divided themselves into different social classes which are today popularly known as Varnas or put more regressively, the ‘re-constructed castes’. Back then it defined not our rights but our duties. With the introduction of the Varna system, society was segregated into four major divisions. People who were associated with scholarly works and religious works were classified as Brahman. People who were good at administration and warfare were given the title of Kshatriya. People who were good at trade and businesses were called Vaishya. The laborers and service providers were called Shudra.
Lord Krishna says in the twenty-seventh verse of the second chapter of the Bhagavad Gita that people of earth are classified into four Varnas on the basis of their 'Guna' i.e., quality. The one who is wise, moral, virtuous, and manifests principles of proper conduct is 'Sattoguni', thus called Brahman. Kshatriya is 'Rajoguni' characterized by higher energy, passion, desire, and pain tolerance. They have the qualities of an administrator. Vaishya has mixed quality of 'Rajoguni' and 'Tamoguni'. Shudra is 'Tamoguni', characterized by lethargy and ignorance.
It is perplexing to trace the origin of the Varna system. However, it is assumed that in the past, not everyone had the access to education and some privileged classes acquired knowledge and exerted power over the society. The four Varna system might be a new concept but the trend of class division is as old as humankind and has prevailed in almost every human civilization. In this regard, Winston Churchill correctly quotes that "History is written by the victors and powerful people". Long ago when the Varna system actually came into light, the then powerful people, the educated ones were involved in the paper and administrative works. By the virtue of the power they wielded, they classified people into four Varnas on the basis of the nature of their profession. Thus, the four Varnas; Brahman, Kshatriya, Vaishya, and Shudra, collectively known as Savarnas came into existence. There were other people called ‘Avarnas’ who were considered unworthy to fall under any of those four classes (Chandra et.al, India's Struggle For Independence 1857-1947 (1989). In the present day, some Dalits and other backward castes fall under the category of 'Avarnas'; deemed untouchables.
Some historians are convinced that the Varna system is solely formed on the basis of the nature of work, some claim it to be a color-coded system while others relate it to the Varnakram set by Dharmashatras. Although the historicity of Varna system is ambiguous, the exclusion of Avarnas is an evidence that the discrimination was practised even before the Varna system came into existence and somehow the discriminatory mindset of the privileged class was behind the introduction of this systematic oppression. This is supported by the fact that Vaishyas and Shudras were deprived of basic education and they had to indulge in the works requiring limited basic skills. It is an utmost truth that the Varna system was introduced by those who wielded the power at that time. The famous Irish Singer, Frank Harte was once quoted to have said, "Those in power write the history, while those who suffer write the songs." It is obvious that the rulers reconstructed the society in such a manner that the hierarchy set by them would always favor them and they could continue ruling over the lower class people. Put simply, the Varna system was not solely divided on the basis of the nature of work and activities. There is a popular saying that “Works are not to be considered big or small, every kind of work is equal” but at the same time, the reason behind different people being discriminated is the nature of their work. The entire process of assigning a hierarchical position to profession ranging from honor to humiliation is the dissatisfaction that we carry against the Varna system. We eat the crops they harvest in the utensils they make but we hesitate to dine with them. But, this is not completely our fault, we are only doing what we have been taught by our parents. This is the stance we use in our defence when we are confronted with our discriminatory behaviour.
In Nepal, it was King Jaysthiti Malla who systematized the caste system by introducing four Varnas and sixty-four Jaats. After the unification of Nepal, it was Prithvi Narayan Shah who modified the caste system into four Varnas and thirty-six Jaats. Whatever the intention may have been, it has always oppressed the so-called lower caste people systematically. In the present day Nepal, Dalits are routinely denied access to religious sites; they face resistance to inter-caste marriages; non-acceptance of water touched by Dalits and the list of discriminatory practices goes on. As stated earlier, this is the outcome of classifying and discriminating the work and profession itself. Among the four, Shudras are the critical sufferer of the Varna system because the nature of their work is considered derogatory in the books of our society. We have always turned away from the fact that the same work is feeding us and keeping us in a healthy environment. It is high time we understand that every work is meritorious and equal in status, as long as it is done with honesty, morality and lawfulness.
The Varna system is not something that we should pass on to the next generation as an ornamental ancestral relic. In the present, people from all Varnas are doing all kinds of work. The segregation of work no longer exists. People of Shudra community are involved in scholarly works, administrative works and trade activities because now they too have access to education. Brahmans can do business activities and are doing too. Some so-called higher caste people are working as laborer and service-provider abroad while acting as the sole child of God in our own land. This proves that the disrespect for a profession has disappeared from our conscience but the social acceptance of the fact is yet to come.
Let us take a moment and have a good look around us, we see our society is changing slowly and gradually. It is not as orthodoxical as it was in the past. There is healthy acculturation of the works that were previously understood hereditary privilege. The children of Brahmans are not necessarily involved in religious works; Kshatriyas are not necessarily involved in administrative works; Vaishyas are not obliged to carry on their parent’s business, and Shudras are not meant to serve all. The ancestral family profession has shifted from being a compulsion to optional. The choice of our profession is upon us and living in a democratic society, choice is what matters the most. No one holds the power to assign class, put a label or compel others to any profession. We lived in the past where the nature of our work determined our class and category but today our caste should not be the determining factor in our work.
Going back to history, it has always been hypocritical in matters of the Varna system. In the epic tale of Mahabharat, Bhisma forbade Karna from putting up a fight against Arjun because he belonged to a lower caste family and thus was supposed to work as a rider of a chariot as his father did. Considering Mahabharat not as mythology but as a history, it portrayed the then society where the rulers did not allow lower caste people to indulge in another profession. Society was run according to the will of people in power. Karna, being a Sut Putra (son of a chariot driver), was denied knowledge of armory by Dronacharya and was deprived of honor by Bhisma. But when King Shantanu, the father of Bhisma, fell in love with a fisherman’s daughter decades earlier, Bhisma was the one who lobbied for the marriage of a Kshatriya King and a fisherman’s daughter. Observing my society I understood that fishermen fall under the Vaishya's category and Bhisma accepting Vaishya stepmother contradicts his own bias against Karna that deprived him of the respect he deserved due to his caste. This story clearly depicts the hypocrisy of the lawmakers who made the Varna system to give a new structure to the society but ultimately set the hierarchy so as to continue their rule over people below them.
It is the ultimate truth of our society that casteism exists. The one who believes that there is no such thing as caste or Varna, is evidently living in denial. They are not ready to share their privileges with the so-called lower castes. To understand this thoroughly we need to visit the rural areas: My hometown is in the south-east of Jaleshwar Municipality in Mahottari District. People of different castes like Maithil Brahman, Bhumihar, Khatbe, Chamar, Kewat, etc. live there and all of them have their separate tole (colony). I was born and brought up there but it was only after my high-school, I realized my village has different colonies like Brahman Tole, Chamar Tole, Khatwe Tole, etc. A year ago when my grandfather passed away, according to the culture of tarai, we arranged feast for the villagers. When villagers arrived and the feast began, the people of all castes sat with their own caste only and avoided contact with the people of other castes. At first, it was surprising to me because I was living in ignorance as I believed that my villagers do not discriminate merely on the basis of caste but the ground reality was different and beyond my imagination.
This is an example but not the only example. Recalling the Rukum incident where Navaraj BK and his friends were killed, it is prima facie evident that he was beaten to death because he belonged to the Dalit community and dared to fall in love with a girl of so-called higher caste. Our society is still filled with people who label us with a particular Varna at the moment we are born. Navaraj BK was killed because loving a girl is a sin in the eyes of our society and it is a bigger sin when the label of lower caste is engraved in our identity. It is an ignominy that a man gets killed for falling in love because he was a Dalit in the 21st century. Had he belonged to the higher caste he might have been alive today. This fact will haunt us as long as we unequalize equally born humans labelling them as Brahmans, Kshatriyas, Vaishyas and Shudras.
In a democratic society, different people have different opinions and thus different ideologies become the factor for the evolution of different religions. I have a firm belief that religion is the product of ideology and faith. But, the Varna system or the caste system is nowhere the product of either ideology or faith even though the Varna system has its roots in the Sanatan (eternal) Hindu Dharma. The very first factor that played role in the division of Varna was the nature of work people practised and then gradually the discriminatory notions overtook the structure and it became a hereditary trait in due course of time.
Some people argue that discrimination is a very human thing, it has nothing to do with the Varna system but we cannot disagree with the fact that Varna system is the product of discrimination and vice-versa. In no way discrimination is a human thing, so let's try our best to erase the predetermined notions set by Varna system and teach ourselves and our future generations that the Varna system was a privilege given to the already privileged class and, therefore, a burden to the lower class. Some say, it was revolutionary to give the new structure to the society and some people are of the view that it was the systematization of the class division with the flavor of discrimination. While the motive behind bringing the Varna system into practice is ambiguous, the discrimination it brought with needs to stop. It should not be passed on to the next generation.
(The author is a law student currently pursuing BALLB from Nepal Law Campus, Kathmandu)