How Varna and Jati Were Consolidated by Two Distinct Processes

Jati only became the main principle for social segregation in India after the eighth century AD, but varna has more ancient roots.

The why, the wherefore, and the how of varna and jati in Indian civilisation need to be discussed, since they are like festering wounds for Indian society. Scholarship on these social phenomena has not yet resolved the emergence and spread of varna and jati as a social arrangement in ancient India and its continuation through ages. 

While explaining the source, it is customary to point one’s fingers at the Manusmriti or Manu Samhita. When one peruses the 2,685 verses of the Manu Code, the single comprehensive statement of the statutes for social regulation in ancient India, one likes to think of the smriti as the fountainhead of varna/jati ideas in India. They also read as a definitive statement of gender segregation. 

However, it is far from clear whether the Samhita is a single text composed either by a group of moral legislators – believed to be a tribe called the Manava in the northeastern part of India, or by an author Manu believed to be the ancestral patriarch of the Aryans belonging to a pre-Vedic era, or whether the one who falls historically between Vedic times and the age of composition of the statutes known as the Brahmanas.

G.N. Devy, Tony Joseph, Ravi Korisettar (editors) The Indians: Histories of a Civilisation Aleph Book Company (July 2023)

The age of Manu is conceptualised differently, ranging from the most orthodox estimate of 1500 BCE to the most modest date of 200 CE. Normally, the cross-references in other texts following the rise of a given text, or the lack of such references in the texts of any previous eras, should make the precise dating of a text possible. 

Similarly, linguistic evidence based on the evolution of meanings and etymological shifts should help one guess, with fair accuracy, the historical period of a text. 

This method does not work in the case of the Manusmriti.

For one thing, the variety of Sanskrit in which it has come down to us through centuries is sufficiently close to post-Vedic Sanskrit, that is, the kind of language in which the Mahabharata has come down to us through centuries. 

But, without any shade of doubt, the precepts of the Samhita find unmistakable echoes in the main body of the Vedas. Thus, we have the Purusha Sukta in the Tenth Mandala of the Rig Veda

On the other hand, the ninety-seventh verse of the tenth section of the Manusmriti is found reproduced, with very minor modification, in the third adhyaya of the Bhagavad Gita, verse 35: ‘Shreyan svadharmo vigunah paradharmat svanishtuthat; svadharme nidhanam shreyam paradharmo bhayavaha.’ 

The meaning is: ‘One’s own duty, even when less attractive, is better than another’s, even if it is more attractive. Death in one’s own duty is preferable over finding sustenance in another’s duty, for the latter is horrible’ (my translation).

Therefore, it is quite difficult to settle the precise period for the emergence of the Manu Samhita.

While a mythological Manu is believed to have preceded the Vedic Aryans, and numerous Manus preceded him from the beginning of human time, the version of genesis which the Manu Samhita presents, and on the basis of which it builds its entire social cartography, is several times contradicted by the literature of later Vedic times.

The Upanishads, particularly the Taittiriya drawn from the Yajur Veda, contain several versions of the genesis describing the process of evolutionary creation – a radical variation on the divinely granted creation – and several aspects of the creation dealing with the spirit, the mind, the consciousness, life and the human body. 

This Upanishad proceeds in its delineation of the process of creation without any trace of influence of the Manu Samhita version of the origin of life and society. 

The difficulties in deciding the precise period of the Manusmriti need not be taken as a plea for not holding it responsible for what it says. Yet, the uncertainty in dating it raises the important question as to whether the Manusmriti merely precipitated what existed as a social and legal practice before it and in its own time, or whether it originally proposed and propagated these practices.

The oldest Upanishads are between 2,000 and 3,000 years old. Photo: Wikimedia Commons/Ms Sarah Welch. CC BY-SA 4.0.

As a text with a relatively more certain historical description and containing a clear statement of the basis on which ancient Indian social cartography was attempted, the Purusha Sukta of the Rig Veda is the most outstanding. It describes the Purusha, the universe (of whom are born the rig and the saman – the Vedas) and later the horses, and other animals like goats and sheep. 

Then, the gods divided Purusha. From the mouth of the divided Purusha came the Brahmin; from the arms came the Rajanya; from the thighs came the Vaishya; and from the feet came the Shudra. 

Such genesis myths mark early literature, particularly the literature that comes to be seen as scriptural, in every civilisation. In the oral literature of tribal communities in India, we come across a variety of such creation myths and stories of the rise of the human species, with a certain moral responsibility to keep the universe going. 

Every religion is based on its unique genesis story, and every culture or nation finds it nourishing to have its own version of how or where it began in some mythical time. Some claim to have emerged from the Sun; others claim their origin in the Moon; yet others in some distant ocean, or a mythical mountain or forest.

What is astounding is that, in ancient India, the story of genesis was used as a basis for law governing inter-community relations. The hierarchy of the vocationally high and the low implied in the Purusha Sukta of the Rig Veda was taken to mean a prescription with legal sanction. Thus, any attempt in thought, move or gesture to change the hierarchy came to be seen as a sin against Purusha.

Later, at whatever date the Manusmriti came into circulation, Purusha of the Rig Veda was replaced by Brahma, a deity with whom Vedic lore would not have felt at ease.

The most critical account of the process through which the formulation articulated in the Purusha Sukta came to acquire an irreversible legal sanction is to be found in Dr B.R. Ambedkar’s scholarly enquiry Who Were the Shudras?

Also Read: What Dr Ambedkar’s ‘Who Were the Shudras?’ Tells Us About the Sacred Books of Hinduism

His thesis is that, initially, ancient India had only three varnas: Brahmin, Kshatriya, and Vaishya. The Shudras were not a varna but a community of the solar race. There was a continuous feud between the Shudra kings and the Brahmins. As a result of the enmity, the Brahmins refused to perform the upanayana ceremony for the Shudras. Due to the denial of the upanayana, the Shudras, who were equal to Kshatriyas, became socially degraded (Ambedkar 1970: 242).

This long historical process resulted in the creation of the Shudras as a varna. Ambedkar’s book is devoted to establishing the veracity of this historical process. In his view, upanayana was made a privileged entitlement of the first three varnas, and denied to the fourth one. The concept of upanayana rests on the idea of the possibility of a second birth, though a metaphoric one. 

In the initial form of the upanayana, the ritual did not involve the wearing of a yajnopavita, or the sacred thread, around one’s chest. This practice crept in later times when post-Vedic society started reading the metaphoric as being literal. Upanayana was, in its initial days, a symbolic birth, that is, the second birth of a person to the life of both the mind and the body. It was, in its original form, a rite of initiation. 

Such rites exist in various civilisations in a variety of forms. The Brahminic denial of ordaining a young person with the yajnopavatia or the denial to perform the ritual of upanayana came to mean that the possibility of a second birth was foreclosed in the case of the Shudras.

An upanayana ceremony. Photo: Wikimedia Commons/vinodbahal. CC BY-2.0.

One of the abiding concerns of the Manu Samhita was how to avoid getting into impious deeds by following the do’s and dont’s in relation to the inter-varna relations. All these prescriptions were heavily biased in favour of those who could perform the upanayana ritual, and against those who could not, and starkly severe to those who were denied the possibility of upanayana altogether. 

If the Shudras were denied the entitlement to the upanayana ritual, by a slight extension of the same logic, it meant that they were denied the entitlement to all other rituals. They were, thus, ritually exiled. 

If they had been denied the entitlement to rituals because they were supposed to have committed some ‘lowly acts’ in a previous life, then by a more aggressive extension of that logic, they were also destined to engage in all manner of ‘impure’ work in their present life – work such as scavenging, cleaning, skinning, tanning, etc.

Since warped logic denied the possibility of their rebirth, they came to be despised as being less than human and at par with other animals. Therefore, they could be treated as such, without any fear of the perpetrators gaining any spiritual demerits. Given that this kind of metaphysics got translated into social and legal practices, there was no possibility of creating a humane society. The argument for this was closed in India forever.

Also Read: The Laws of Manu and What They Would Mean for Citizens of the Hindu Rashtra

As the higher varnas found the given social arrangement to their advantage, they kept resisting every reformist movement.

After the eighth century, India witnessed the rise of many sects. The early sects arose round the figures of Shiva and Shakti. They originated in the southern regions first. By the eleventh century, the rise of sects had become a widespread phenomenon in the subcontinent. By the end of the fifteenth century, many founders of such sects had already been accepted in public memory as divine figures.

Since the idea of the avatar came to occupy centre stage in the dynamics of sect emergence, Krishna and Rama – the two heroes of the two pan-Indian epics – became the cult figures for many of the sects. 

This entire movement highlighted the possibility of ‘release’ for any individual, born high or low, negating the logic on which the varna system was based. The eighth to the eighteenth century is the period when jati became the main principle for social segregation in India. 

The jatis had no clear metaphysical basis. They were more an expression of difference in terms of language, region, occupation, cultivation practices, food habits and skills. But these differences, once accepted, lead to a particular jati formation, with its identity being invariably expressed in terms of the specific practice of worship.

If the metaphysics based on the story of genesis was the basis for varna consolidation, the perception of ‘difference’ leading to a metaphysical view was at the heart of the jati-formation process. In one, metaphysics was the cause; in the other, it was the consequence, expressive of the desire of the non-Brahminical classes to be counted at par.

It is not surprising that when the colonial Europeans arrived in India, they found the social segmentation utterly confusing. During the seventeenth century, the Portuguese in India followed the practice of describing every community as a ‘tribe’. This term became somewhat less favoured when the British, French and Portuguese started noticing the sharp distinctions between the dominating communities and the dominated communities in India.

Also Read: Caste Wasn’t a British Construct – and Anyone Who Studies History Should Know That

It was at this time that they began using the term ‘caste’ for the higher classes. The difficulty of the Europeans continued throughout their colonial rule in India, for while they could more easily understand the linguistic, racial and organised theological distribution of Indian society and the economic segregation of the different classes, the vast diversity of jatis, informal and non-institutional, eluded their anthropological grasp.

They could not fathom how jati consolidation works; how within the overall framework of varnas, the jatis place themselves in a defined social hierarchy; how endogamy and exogamy work in these jatis; and what makes a perfectly normal looking human act appear criminal in the eyes of another given community. Besides, colonial scholars had no means of grasping the structural principles of sects which permitted multiple belief affiliations.

British colonial officers, well-meaning or otherwise, made repeated attempts at understanding the social and linguistic cartography of India. Most of these attempts were initiated in order to meet the demands of consolidating the government’s authority, though that was not invariably the case. However, the inadequate understanding of the dialectic between religion and sect, varna and jati, and language and script often resulted in these attempts deepening the differences.

Excerpted with permission from Aleph Book Company from Chapter 20: Varna and Jati by G.N. Devy in The Indians: Histories of a Civilisation edited by G.N. Devy, Tony Joseph and Ravi Korisettar.