VARNA – A concept

Varna means “color”; it refers to a ideal system of four classes or groupings of society—the so-called caste system. Both these idealized classes and the current jati (birth) system of several thousand endogamous groups are translated by the word caste, which probably came into English from Portuguese. Surprisingly, the real caste system of jati and its world of marriage and occupation laws are not referenced in Hindu mythology. It is the ideal caste system of the four varnas that is noticed: the brahmana (brahmins), the priests; the rajanya (ksatriyas), a ruling or warrior group; the vaisya, artisans or merchants, and the sudra, ser­vants or workers.
In the modern era reformers Svami Vivekananda (often called Father of Renaissance Hinduism) and philosopher (and later president of India) S. Rad- hakrishnan talked about the ideal of interrelated support each group should give to the others for their mutual uplift spiritually, socially, and culturally. This type of support would explain how in the myths groups of persons were con­nected in their karma from one lifetime to the next as they jointly worked out their spiritual lessons.
Hindu mythology may be looking at the ideal of varna from another per­spective. Many myths offer nonorthodox conceptions: ks’atriyas changing to brahmins by their own austerities; brahmins who are evil, who maim or kill their enemies, who lie and deceive, who do not know the Vedas; all types of intercaste marriage; and brahmins who eat meat. Perhaps these departures from the ideal reflect the very theme of the myths—that this age is the kali yuga, when dharma has been forgotten, especially varna-dharma.For further reading:
A. L. Basham, The Wonder That Was India, rev. ed. (New York: Grove Press,
1963); Louis Dumont, Homo Hierarchicus: An Essay on the Caste System, translated by Mark Sainsbury (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1970); Morton Klass, “Varna and Jati,” Encyclopedia of Religion, vol. 15 and Caste: The Emergence of the South Asian Social System (Philadelphia: ISHI, 1980).

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