Varna and Jatis: The Need for Clarity
By: B Shantanu
Novermber 25, 2005
Views expressed here are author’s own and not of this website. Full disclaimer is at the bottom.
Recently, I came across this piece in the International Herald Tribune (i) mentioning that the United Nation Commission on Human Rights has recently appointed two special rapporteurs to examine the caste system and to specify a set of guidelines for policy and governance purposes.
The article by respected columnist, Sunanda Datta-Ray made the same error that Indian social commentators (particularly those writing in English) commonly make i.e. a literal interpretation of the Sanskrit term “varna” to mean “colour”. To quote, the UN will examine the “abominations of what has been called the world’s oldest color bar – the Sanskrit word for caste being varna, or color (sic)”
I thought this was an excellent excuse to examine the whole issue (and confusion) around caste, class, race, varna, jati and related terms.
What exactly do these terms mean?
In the words of Andre Beteille, “When one uses the term “caste” in English, one is actually translating two distinct terms in the classical as well as the modern languages of India. The first term is varna and the second is jati. Varna and jati have both been described as caste. They are not unrelated to each other but they are not the same, and it is very important to understand the distinction between the two in order to understand the social logic of caste.(ii).
To quote Rajiv Malhotra, “In particular, today’s common views of varna and jati are very narrow, and do not adequately describe Indian society. Jati is not caste, but became so under colonial rule (Dirks did a lot of good research on this). But more problematic is the distortion of Varna, which has become the basis for the whole Dalit conflict. I read far too many works that seem to insist on frozen jati-varna (wherein a whole jati has the same varna, and, furthermore, this varna is said to be unchangeable). But this is an inaccurate picture. I hope …students are given a more nuanced treatment than most South Asianized desis that I have come across on these matters.(iii)
Dr.Edmund Weber has written that, “The colonial term 'caste' is muddling the two sociological categories meaning completely different social states of affairs: 'jati' and 'varna'. Jati means real working community of birth, marriages, of profession, culture and religion (closer to the widely (mis)understood meaning of caste; varna, however, means the social rank, status, order (closer to class). ”Varna” does not mean the work-sharing assignment of the “jatis”. This has been always an element of the “jatis” themselves. The socio-cultural evaluation of the “jatis”, their ranking place (again, as in class), is expressed by the hierarchical “varna”.(iv)
Bear in mind that the origin of the word itself suggests the fundamental misunderstanding around the concept of racial purity. The word derives from the Portuguese word casta (also Spanish), feminine of casto which means “pure” from the Latin “castus”.
Also it is worth mentioning that the word “varna” does not directly mean colour. It is in fact derived from the root “vr” which means screen, veil, covering, external appearance. One of its indirect meaning is “appearance”. As appearance however, it does not refer to the colour of the skin of the people, but to the qualities (“guna”) of energies of human nature.
Ignoring the conceptual distinction between “jati” and “varna” (which is sometimes deliberate and ideologically motivated) doesn’t help either a deeper understanding of the origins of the system or serious efforts to combat the distortions that have crept in.
For an excellent analysis of broad categorisation of theories that attempt to explain the caste system, visit “The Origin of Caste” website athttp://www.islam4all.com/the_origin_of_caste.htm. It includes excerpts and brief summary from the book “Caste, Class and Race – A Study in Social Dynamics’ By Oliver Cromwell Cox, Ph.D. Professor of Sociology, Lincoln University]
The following excerpt illustrates just how much misunderstanding and confusion has been caused by the extremely narrow interpretation of the term “varna”.
“Probably the most common explanation of the origin of caste is based upon beliefs that the word “varna” means color; hence, caste must have originated in the Aryan’s passion for protecting their light Asiatic color from intermixture with the dark color of the Dravidians. However, as we shall attempt to indicate below, the early literature of the Hindus does not show this to be the case. “
Part of the confusion is simply due to ignorance or mis-understanding of several Sanskrit terms (which sometimes have fairly broad interpretation). In this context, it may be helpful to list a few key points:
Finally, here are a couple of points to think about. Is it really possible that a system as rigid as the caste order could be built upon skin colour – not even colour as such but by the parentage of the colour groups?
Even if we were to assume for a moment that the caste system originated due to the difference in skin-colour, how does one explain the apparent assumption of “natural superiority” by the Aryans when at the time of the “invasion”, the Dravidians evidently had a higher culture?
All this points to the need of creating awareness about these terms and more research into the origins of the caste system. Until that happens, social commentators, activists and politicians will continue to abuse the terms for their narrow ends.
Send your views to author
(i) [“An International spotlight on the caste system”, Sunanda K Datta-Ray, 13th May ‘05]
(ii) [“Caste, Inequality and Affirmative Action”, André Béteille, International Institute for Labour Studies, Geneva athttp://www.ilo.org/public/english/bureau/inst/download/andre.pdf ]
(iii) [“Is Hindutva the Indian Left’s ’Other’? Rajiv Malhotra in Outlook India, 15 Jan ’04,http://india.eu.org/833.html ]
(iv) [“Ambedkar and the Hindu Culture. Journal of Religious Culture No. 18b (1999)”, Dr.Edmund Weber, on the web at http://web.uni-frankfurt.de/irenik/relkultur18b.html ]
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