You are on page 1of 13

Citation: This may be cited as: Priyadarshi, p.

, “Caste has nothing to do

with Varna”, in The Origin of the Caste System (Unpublished).

Caste has Nothing to with Varna:

Recent views support that Caste

System did not originate From Vedic

By P. Priyadarshi

Earlier authors like A. L. Basham and M. N. Srinivas had

indicated that caste is something entirely unrelated with Vedic
Varna (vide supra). Later this view became more widely
acceptable and even Romila Thapar subscribed to this view in
her latest book (Thapar, 2002, vide infra).

DNA studies too largely supported that the all the Indian castes
share same DNAs and their DNAs vary more because of
geographical distance rather than because of caste levels.

In fact Basham had noted that the current castes are no more
than one thousand years old, and have nothing to do with varna
(vide infra). However, some campaign to spread falsehood about
Hinduism is never restful.

Thus recently one article (Chaubey et al 2007) made a false

comment about Hindu Varna System, that it subscribes to the
highly divisive and stratified caste system. However, reasoned
authorities have made it clear that caste has nothing to with
Varna. It is desirable that wrong notions about Hindu varna
system is should be contracted. Hence to expose the truth, are
quoted below three authorities of the subject (viz. Prof. A. L.
Basham, 1967; Prof. M. N. Srinivas, 1962; and Prof. Romila
Thapar, 2002) and the recent wrong allegation about origin of
caste from varna by an European scientist.
The quote below is the one from Peopling of South Asia:
investigating the caste–tribe continuum in India, authored by
Gyaneshwer Chaubey et al, a scientist in the Department of
Evolutionary Biology, Tartu University, Estonia, Published in an
international journal of biological science, Bioessay [BioEssays
29:91–100, 2006 Wiley Periodicals, Inc.
link: ]

“Scheduled castes and scheduled tribes. Scheduled Castes and

Scheduled Tribes are communities in India that are given a special
status by the Constitution of India. Scheduled castes were
considered as „Sudra‟ in the classical „Chaturvarna‟ caste system
while Scheduled tribes were considered „outcastes‟ and were not a
part of the Indian caste system. „Chaturvarna‟ is a division of
castes into four categories: Brahmin, Kshtriya, Vaishya and Sudra,
which represent the social structuring of Hindu caste system
society, which is highly stratified even further within each of these
basic categories. Amongst the Sudra, the tribal population
represents the most disadvantaged (often officially termed as
„„backward‟‟) group in the highly ripped Indian society. The caste
and tribal people of the lowest hierarchical status have during the
last century been enlisted by Indian Government and given a legal
classification as „„Scheduled‟‟ castes and tribes. Several specific
provisions have been made in the Indian constitution for raising
the socio-economical status of these „„Scheduled‟‟ groups.” Box 2,
page 98.

Contrary to lay beliefs and beliefs of most of the historians of older

generation, the caste and Hindu Varna system have no relationship.

Prof A. L. Basham (he was an Australian, who spent his life

researching Indian history; none of his sentences have been
contradicted so far by any historian). The following quotes are
from his book The Wonder That Was India, Part I, (a survey of
history and culture of Indian subcontinent before coming of the
Muslims); Third Revised Edition, 1967, Thirty Fifth Impression,
1999, Bombay. (All emphasis added).
“The term varna does not mean „caste‟ and has never
meant „caste‟ by which term it is often loosely translated”.
(p. 35).

“It was only in late medieval times that it was finally

recognized that exogamy and sharing meals with
members of other classes were quite impossible for
respectable people. These customs and many others
such as widow-remarriage, were classed as
kalivarjya—customs once permissible, but to be
avoided in this dark Kali age, when men are no
longer naturally righteous.” (p. 148, top para, last

“In the whole of this chapter we have hardly used the

word which in most minds is most strongly
connected with the Hindu social order…In attempting
to account for the remarkable proliferation of castes
in 18th- and 19th- century India, authorities credulously
accepted the traditional view that by a process of
inter marriage and subdivision the 3000 or more
castes of modern India had evolved from the four
primitive classes, and the term „caste‟ was applied
indiscriminately to both varna or class and jati or
caste proper. This is a false terminology; castes rise
and fall in social scale, and old castes die out and
new ones are formed, but the four great classes are
stable. They are never more or less than four, and for
over 2,000 years their order of precedence as not
altered. All ancient Indian sources make a sharp
distinction between the two terms ;varna is much
referred to but jati very little, and when it does appear
in the literature it does not always imply the
comparatively rigid and exclusive social groups of
later times. If caste is defined as a system of groups
within the class, which are normally endogamous,
commensal and caste exclusive, we have no real
evidence of its existence until comparatively late times.”
(p. 148, para 2).
“…It is impossible to show its origin conclusively,
and we can do little more than faintly trace its
development, since early literature paid scanty
attention to it; but it is practically certain that the
caste did not originate from the four classes.
Admittedly it developed later than they, but this
proves nothing. There were subdivisions in the four
classes at a very early date, but the Brahman gotras,
which go back to Vedic times, are not castes, since
the gotras are exogamous, and members of the same
gotras are to be found in many castes.” (p. 148, lasl
para 3rd line onwards).

“…Many trades were organized in guilds, in which

some authorities have seen the origin of the trade
castes; but these trade groups cannot be counted as
fully developed castes. A 5th century inscription from
Mandsore shows us a guild of silk-weavers
emigrating in a body from Lata (the region of the
lower Narmada) to Mandsor, and taking up many
other crafts and professions, from soldiering to
astrology, but still maintaining its guild
consciousness. We have no evidence that this group
was endogamous or commensal, and it was certainly
not craft-exclusive, but its strong corporate sense is
that of a caste in the making. [ It is likely that many of
today‟s Indian castes are products of traders guilds,
which were very powerful in India before Muslim
occupation of the country. The trading and artisan
castes probably originated from guilds.--Priyadarshi]
Huen Tsang in the 7th century was well aware of the
four classes, and also mentioned many mixed
classes, no doubt accepting the orthodox view of the
time that these sprang from intermarriage of the four,
but he shows no clear knowledge of existence of caste in
its modern form.” (p. 149, para 2, 7th line onwards)

“…Indian society developed a very complex social

structure, arising partly from tribal affiliations and
partly from professional associations, which was
continuously being elaborated by the introduction of
new racial groups into the community, and by the
development of new crafts. In the Middle Ages the
system became more or less rigid, and the social
group was now a caste in the modern sense. Prof J.J.
Hutton has interpreted the caste system as an
adaptation of one of the most primitive of the social
relationships, whereby a small clan, living in a
comparatively isolated village, would hold itself aloof
from its neighbors by a complex system of taboos,
and he has found embryonic caste features in the
social structure of some of the wild tribes of present-
day India. The caste system may well be the natural
response of the many small and primitive peoples
who were forced to come to terms with a more
complex economic and social system. It did not
develop out of the four Aryan varnas, and the two
systems have never been thoroughly harmonized” (p.

Another important author was M. N. Srinivas, the father of Indian

social anthropology and sociology. Some quotes from his book
Srinivas, M. N., Caste in Modern India, M. N. Srinivas, Media
Promoters and Publishers PVT. LTD., Bombay. 1989, (first
published 1962): (all emphasis added):

“The varna-model has produced a wrong and distorted

image of caste. It is necessary for the sociologist to free
himself from the hold of the varna-model if he wishes to
understand the caste system. It is hardly necessary to
add that it is more difficult for Indian sociologist than it is
for non-Indian.” (p. 66).

“The category of Shudra subsumes, in fact, the vast

majority of non-Brahminical castes which have little in
common. It may at one end include a rich, powerful and
highly Sanskritized group while at the other end may be
tribes whose assimilation to Hindu fold is only marginal.
The Shudra-category spans such a wide structural
and cultural gulf that its sociological utility is very

“It is well known that occasionally a Shudra caste has,

after the acquisition of economic and political power,
Sanskritized its customs and ways, and has succeeded in
laying claim to be Kshatriyas. The classic example of the
Raj Gonds, originally a tribe, but who successfully
claimed to be kshatriyas after becoming rulers of a tract in
Central India (now Madhya Pradesh), shows up the
deficiency of the varna-classification. The term Kshatriya,
for instance, does not refer to a closed ruling group which
has always been there since the time of the Vedas. More
often it refers to the position attained or claimed by a local
group whose traditions and luck enabled it to seize
politico-economic power.” (pp. 65-66).

“But in Southern India the Lingayats1 claim equality with, if

not superiority to the Brahmin, and orthodox Lingayats do
not eat food cooked or handled by the Brahmin. The
Lingayats have priests of their own caste who also
minister to several other non-Brahmin castes. Such a
challenge to the ritual superiority of the Brahmin is not
unknown though not frequent. The claim of a particular
caste to be Brahmin is, however, more often challenged.
Food cooked or handled by Marka Brahmins of Mysore,
for instance, is not eaten by most Hindus, not excluding
Harijans.” (Ibid. p. 66)

“It is necessary to stress here that innumerable small

castes in a region do not occupy clear and permanent
positions in the system. Nebulousness as to position is of
the essence of the system in operation as distinct from
the system in conception. The varna-model has been
Lingayata was a religion started by Basava in the South India during Medieval Period. Soon it took
shape of a caste. It is a powerful case in Karnataka state of South India. Basham wrote about this
phenomenon in the following words: “Equalitarian religious reformers of the middle ages such as
Basava, Ramanand, and Kabir tried to abolish caste among their followers; but their sects soon took
characteristics of new castes.” P. 151, second para, 8 th line onwards. These religions were heterodox,
i.e. they did not subscribe to the authorities of Vedas, nor did they accept Brahmanical way of life.
the cause of misinterpretation of the realities of the
caste system. A point that has emerged from recent
field-research is that the position of a caste in the
hierarchy may vary from village to village. It is not only
that the hierarchy is nebulous here and there, and the
castes are mobile over a period of time, but the hierarchy
is also to some extent local. The varna-scheme offers a
perfect contrast to this picture.” (Ibid, p. 67).

About mobility (movement) of a caste from one level of

hierarchy to other, Srinivas writes, “It is interesting to note
that the mobility of a caste is frequently stated in verna
terms rather than in terms of local caste situation. This is
partly because each caste has a name and a body of
customs and traditions which are peculiar to itself in any
local area., and no other caste would be able to take up
its name. A few individuals or families may claim to
belong to a locally higher caste, but not a whole caste.
Even the former event would be difficult as the
connections of these individuals or families would be
known to all in that area. On the other hand, a local caste
would not find it difficult to call itself Brahmin, Kshatriya or
Vaishya by suitable prefixes. Thus the Bedas of Mysore
would find it difficult to call themselves Okkalingas
(Peasants) or Kurubas (Shepherds), but would not have
difficulty in calling themselves Valmiki Brahmins. The
Smiths of South India long ago, in pre-British times,
changed their names to Vishvakarma Brahmins. In British
India this tendency received special encouragement
during the periodical census enumerations when the low
castes changed their names in order to move up in the
hierarchy.” (Ibid. p. 69).

Historians were late to understand origin of caste. Historians like

Romila Thapar earlier subscribed to the racist theory of Indian castes,
that the original Indians were subordinated by invading Aryans into
lower castes and the Aryans placed themselves in the top castes.
This hypothesis was originally product of linguists. Romila Thapar
recently changed her mind and found that castes originated from
guilds and tribes.
It may be understood that original Indian population must have
consisted of innumerable tribes based on territoriality. Whether they
spoke AA or IE or Dravidian or Sino-Tibetan, each smallest unit was
a tribe. As civilization evolved, tribes were drawn into larger regional
civilizations (like Mehrgarh or Harappa). It was only after a level of
civilization had been achieved, that people were considered as
classes. Vedas mention these classes. The oldest verses of Rig-
Veda mentions only two classes, Brahmana and Rajanya (or
Kshatriya), and the other two (vaishya and shudra) appear only in the
last mandal, ie Mandala 10, indicating that these latter classes were
products of increasing civilizational complexity in production, industry
and trade.

Although varnas were only few, Vedas always mentioned a large

number of vedic tribes (called jana or jan) like Kuru, Puru, Bharata,
Panchala etc. These tribes had local territories of origin. Each tribe
later developed its brahmana, khshatriya and other classes
depending on profession. Vedic values laid stress on forgetting inter-
tribal (or inter-jana) rivalry, and encouraged gotra-exogamy. Gotra-
exogamy led to establishing inter-jana relationships, and a stronger
feeling of Indian identity, leading to weakening of jana or tribal

But when Vedic institutions ended after ancient Indian Civilizational

institutions were terminated by Muslim invaders, regrouping of people
occurred leading to formation of modern castes. These regroupings
were based on either trade-guilds (gold-smith, black-smith, carpenter
etc), or micro-geographical territorial origins (like Marwari,
Ramgarhiya, Kanaujiya, etc) or religion (like Lingayat, Kabirpanthi,
Satnami etc).

In spite of Prof. Basham‟s clear discussion about the caste system,

many historians continued to translate varna as „caste‟. Romila
Thapar throughout her career as a historian wrote Indian history
following that line, although she always extensively referred to
Basham‟s book on other issues. Her line of thinking was naïve but
simple: The Aryans came to India from outside and they defeated and
enslaved the Dravids. Later the slaves became the shudras.
It is only as late as in year 2002 that Romila Thapar took a U-
turn, and incorporated in her theory of caste what Basham had
said long back. It is likely that she took a long time to understand it,
and the earlier misinformation by her regarding the Indian caste
system was not deliberate. The truth is that, as Srinivas has pointed
out, many of the Indians can actually never understand the difference
between varna and caste. Prof Romila Thapar in her earlier book
(1966) used caste to denote varna and sub-caste to denote jati. But
in her latest book (2002) she uses the terms varna and jati in English
also, and avoids the word caste at most of the places. Prof Basham
also had strongly discouraged the use of word „caste‟ to mean “varna”
(vide supra). Prof. Thapar in year 2002 also understands as to how
jati might have originated from clans (tribes) see p. 422, Thapar
2003). This understanding was not there in her earlier writings ( like
Thapar, Romila; A History of India, Volume 1, Penguin Books,
London, 1990, p. 39. First published 1966.).

We will now see what Prof. Thapar has said over the matter.
(Thapar, Romila; The Penguin History of Early India from the
Origins to AD 1300, Penguin Books India, New Delhi, 2003, First
Published 2002.)

First she analyzes, the reasons why it was difficult for her to
understand the caste system:

“In common with all branches of knowledge, the premium

on specialization in the later twentieth century has made it
impossible to hold a seriously considered view about a
subject without a technical expertise in the discipline.” (p.

“One of the current debates relating to the beginning of

Indian history involves both archeology and linguistics,
and attempts to differentiate between indigenous and alien
peoples. But history has shown that communities and their
identities are neither permanent nor static…. To categorize
some people as indigenous and others as alien, to argue
about the first inhabitants of the subcontinent, and to try
and sort out these categories for the remote past, is to
attempt the impossible.

It was not just the landscape that changed, but

society also changed and often quite noticeably. But this
was a proposition unacceptable to colonial perceptions
that insisted on the unchanging character of Indian history
and society.” (p. xxiv)

“That the study of institutions did not receive much

emphasis was in part due to the belief that they did not
undergo much change: an idea derived from the conviction
that Indian culture had been static, largely owing to the
gloomy, fatalistic attitude to life.” (p. xxv)

“But there are variations in terms of whether landowning

groups or trading groups were dominant, a dominance that
could vary regionally….This raises the question whether in
some situations wealth, rather than caste ranking, was not
the more effective gauge of patronage and power. The
formation of caste is now being explored as a way of
understanding how Indian society functioned. Various
possibilities include the emergence of castes from clans of
forest dwellers, professional groups or religious sects.
Caste is therefore seen as a less rigid and frozen system
than it was previously thought to be, but at the same time
this raises a new set of interesting questions for social
historians.” (p. xxvii)

“It is curious that there were only a few attempts to

integrate the texts studied by Indologists with the data
collected by the ethnographers. Both constituted
substantial but diverse information on Indian
society….Those who studied oral traditions were regarded
as scholars but of another category. Such traditions were
seen as limited to bards, to lower castes and the tribal and
forest peoples, and as such not reliable when compare to
the texts of the higher castes and the elite. Had the two
been seen as aspects of the same society, the functioning
of caste would have been viewed as rather different from
the theories of the Dharma-shastras.” (p. 10).

“The evolution of this idea can be seen from the Vedic

corpus, and since this constitutes the earliest literary
source, it came to be seen as the origin of the caste
society. This body of texts reflected the brahmanical view
of caste, and maintained that the varnas were created on a
particular occasion and have remained virtually
unchanged….Varna is formulaic and orderly, dividing
society in four groups arranged in hierarchy…” (p. 63)

Prof. Thapar‟s latest view of the origin of caste, which are

consistent with Prof. Basham‟s views are:

“However, there have been other ways of looking at the

origins and functioning of caste society. A concept used
equally frequently for caste is jati. It is derived from a root
meaning „birth‟, and the number of jatis are listed by name
and are too numerous to be easily counted. The
hierarchical ordering of jatis is neither consistent nor
uniform, although hierarchy cannot be denied. The two
concepts of jati and varna overlap in part but are also
different. The question therefore is, how did caste society
evolve and which one of the two preceded the other?
According to some scholars, the earliest and basic division
was varna and the jatis were subdivisions of the varna,
since the earliest literary source, the Vedic corpus,
mentions varnas. But it can also be argued that the two
were distinct in origin and had different functions, and that
the enveloping of jati by varna, as in the case of Hindu
castes, was a historical process.

The origin of varna is reasonably clear from the

references in the Vedic corpus…….The genesis of the jati
may have been the clan, prior to its becoming a caste.” (p.

“Interestingly, an account of Indian society written by the

Greek, Megasthenes, in the fourth century BC, merely
refers to seven broad divisions without any association of
degrees of purity. He says that the philosophers are the
most respected, but includes in this group the brahmanas
as well as those members of heterodox sects-- the
shramanas—who did not regard the brahmanas as being of
the highest status.” (p. 62)

“Jati comes from the root meaning „birth‟, and is a status

acquired through birth. Jati had a different origin and
function from varna and was not just the subdivision of the
latter.” (p. 123).

“The transition from jana to jati or from clan to caste, as

this process has sometimes been termed, is evident from
early times as a recognizable process in the creation of
Indian society and culture.” (p. 422)

“There are close parallels between the clan as a form of

social organization and the jati. Jati derives its meaning
from „birth‟ which determines membership of a group and
the status within it; it also determines rules relating to the
circles within which marriage could or could not take place
and rules relating to inheritance of property. These would
strengthen separate identities among jatis, a separation
reinforced by variance in ritual and worship…therefore,
these are entities which gradually evolved their own
cultural identities, with differentiations of language,
custom and religious practice. A significant difference
between clans and jatis is that occupation becomes an
indicator of status…” (p. 64)

“The conversion from tribe or clan to caste, or from jana to

jati as it is sometimes called, was one of the basic
mutations of Indian social history..” (p. 66)

“The conversion of clan to jati was not the only avenue to

creating castes. Since caste identities were also
determined by occupations, various professional
associations, particularly urban artisans, gradually
coalesced into jatis, beginning to observe jati rules by
accepting a social hierarchy that defined marriage circles
and inheritance laws, by adhering to common custom and
by identifying with a common location. Yet another type of
jati was the one that grew out of a religious sect that may
have included various jatis to begin with, but started
functioning so successfully as a unit that eventually it too
became a caste. A striking example of this is the history of
the Lingayat caste in the peninsula.” (p. 66)

“Intermediate castes have a varying hierarchy. Thus, in

some historical periods the trading caste of khatris in the
Punjab and the land owning velas in Tamil Nadu were
dominant groups.” (p. 67)