Varna is a Sanskrit term which can literally mean ‘colour’.  In social terms, it refers to a fourfold conceptualization of people, their social divisions and duties, which is traditionally seen as being rooted in the Rig Veda Samhita.  In the hymn known as the Purusha-sukta, on the sacrifice of the primeval man, it says:

 ‘When they divided the Man, into how many parts did they apportion him? What do they call his mouth, his two arms and thighs and feet?   His mouth became the Brahmin; his arms were made into the Warrior, his thighs the People, and from his feet the Servants were born’  (Rig Veda X.90.12, see Doniger 1981: 31)

This provided a model of ideal social relations based on a hierarchical division of characteristics and duties, as in many traditional societies.  Here, Brahmins formed the priestly class; Kshatriyas the warrior and ruling class; Vaishyas (originally, ‘The People’) the cultivating and trading classes; and Shudras the serving and labouring classes. In modern times, the metaphor of the body, invoked in the hymn as a sacrifice and to represent totality, has been read as indicating that, taken together, the varnas form a kind of organic, harmonious whole.  This was an ideal to which modern reformers, keen to revert to varna over the evils of untouchability, often appealed (see further below).

Many texts elaborate the characteristics and duties of each varna.  For example, the Bhagavad Gita is clear in marking out Brahmin actions as ‘serenity, self-restraint, asceticism, purity, patience, honest, knowledge, insight and religious faith’ (18: 42, see Johnson, 1994), whilst those of Vaishyas are marked out as ‘ploughing, tending cattle, and trade’ (18: 44).  For all four varnas, such qualities and duties are ‘derived from their own nature’: that is, their qualities are embodied, and this embodiment depends upon the balance between what are known as the three gunas, or ‘strands’, sattva, meaning light or purity, rajas, meaning passion, and tamas, meaning darkness, inertia (see BhG 18: 19-41).   In order to act according to dharma, then, a Brahmin or Kshatriya, Vaishya or Shudra, is required to follow the qualities of their varna; to do so is to act in accordance with one’s varnadharma or svadharma (own duty).  Along with the duties of one’s ashrama or stage of life (as student, householder, forest-dweller or ascetic), these duties form a behavioural matrix intended to provide a model for the conduct of the ‘twice-born’ castes in particular, i.e. for Brahmins, Kshatriyas and Vaishyas who each received the sacred thread at initiation into Vedic study, their second ‘birth’.  This matrix of varnashramadharma is elaborated in various ways in the voluminous Dharmashastra texts and is both assumed and challenged in many others, including the great Sanskrit epics, the Ramayana and the Mahabharata.

It is, however, important to remember that, despite its appearance in many texts, varna is not the same as caste.  We have already explained the idea of caste as a social construction emerging out of the colonial encounter.  In addition to this, one needs to remember that texts such as the Gita frequently present an ideal model, which does not necessarily reflect social reality.  This argument is quickly and easily supported by pointing out just two self-evident observations from everyday life in India.  First, the varna model refers, as we have seen, to four varnas.  What are not included in this model are the vast number of castes which are sometimes known as ‘untouchable’; these are social groups, in effect, millions of people, who are simply excluded from the model, even while, apparently in accord with the logic of the varna system, they perform vital duties in the maintenance of social order.  Secondly, even leaving aside the issue of untouchables, there are not four caste groups in India or the Indian diaspora.  There are literally thousands.  How can we reconcile the fourfold division of society with the existence of these thousands of social groups?  Some commentators have reasoned that these groups have proliferated as the fourfold social order has degenerated over many centuries, whether by intermarriage (as assumed in the Dharma texts) or with the general decline of Hinduism.  This latter is certainly, for example, the view taken by Dayananda Saraswati, the late nineteenth century founder of the Arya Samaj; much of his work was geared towards ‘re-establishing’ the fourfold varna system (see Jones 1976).  In his later years, a similar view was taken by M.K. Gandhi (Parekh 1989).  We need to be extremely cautious of such a view, however, because of the way it assumes a certain pattern of development, governed by an orientalist trope of degeneration from a so-called ‘golden age’.  As the anthropologist Chris Fuller states, ‘there is no sound historical evidence’ to support this view (1992:13). Varna then leaves us with various gaps in understanding the complex phenomenon of caste and the way varna is related to current social realities. To understand this better, we need to explore a further concept, jati.