If you're seeing this message, it means we're having trouble loading external resources on our website.

If you're behind a web filter, please make sure that the domains *.kastatic.org and *.kasandbox.org are unblocked.

Main content

Varnas and the Caste System

A discussion of how varnas as described in the Rigveda and Bhagavad Gita relate to the notion of "caste" in modern India.

Want to join the conversation?

  • spunky sam blue style avatar for user Maddy
    isn't it hypocritical to preach understanding of all (with the idea of braman) while sorting people into factions of status based on who their parents were? maybe i'm misunderstanding
    (5 votes)
    Default Khan Academy avatar avatar for user
    • duskpin ultimate style avatar for user CalebTheM
      Even though they are divided by class, Hinduism says that a person is made up of a Maya, or a more physical form, and the central Atman, which is the aspect of Brahman within them. I think what's happening is they recognize that everyone is fundamentally a part of Brahman and therefore interconnected, but the Maya is the part that is being divided into a caste.
      It can be considered a lesson that even if people are divided by caste, they are still one Brahman. Recognizing that even if people are different, they are still part of one central existence, is an important teaching in Hinduism.
      Hope this helped!
      Please comment if I got anything wrong. Thanks for reading!
      (3 votes)
  • leaf green style avatar for user iprema07
    So, Brahman is like a heaven or a nirvana, right?
    (3 votes)
    Default Khan Academy avatar avatar for user
  • duskpin ultimate style avatar for user deekshita
    Why are teachers and priests above rulers and warriors. Aren't kings more significant?
    (2 votes)
    Default Khan Academy avatar avatar for user
  • aqualine sapling style avatar for user Botond Bátorfi
    How does someone become a Dalit or "Untouchable"? Is it possible for them to join other classes later possibly the Brahmins or Kshatriyas?
    (2 votes)
    Default Khan Academy avatar avatar for user
    • leafers ultimate style avatar for user Stairway
      You are born into your caste. It cannot be changed except hypothetically by reincarnation. Since there is no evidence to support it, it remains a social tradition that some people are considered superior to others.
      Accordingly, anyone who is an "outsider" is Dalit by default, unless declared to be another caste by those of that caste or their superiors.
      (7 votes)
  • leaf green style avatar for user martinlobretto
    Isn't the Dalit/"Untouchable" caste now referred to as Scheduled Caste? This isn't mentioned anywhere in the video. Isn't Dalit a derogatory term nowadays?
    (3 votes)
    Default Khan Academy avatar avatar for user
  • starky sapling style avatar for user Kassi Siewert
    Could one say that the caste system, unlike it is portrayed in the video, is instead a system of self awakening or perhaps growth? For example, The Brahmins are the people who have evolved throughout their lives to a point of being near or having achieved a state of true Brahman acceptance, whereas the Dalit may be people who have shunned the system or who have committed crimes or do not have the same faith as the others. Instead of this being a class system comparing others as it is perhaps believed by some Hindus, could it be a self growth system? Could a person's spiritual journey throughout life (and onto other lives as well) theoretically advance them through these stages? My knowledge of Hinduism and Brahman is very limited so I may be completely missing the point, but this is just my interpretation of the selected texts.
    (2 votes)
    Default Khan Academy avatar avatar for user
    • leaf red style avatar for user Anmol Malviya
      It feels like you're missing the point here. Unfortunately, the caste system was just an organized form of discrimination. What you refer to sounds like Buddhism. Living steps in your life to reach nirvana is self growth. The caste system is not portrayed like that, because it was just a social hierarchy in which an individual had no choice what caste they fell into.
      (5 votes)
  • leaf green style avatar for user Elliott Fischbach
    Is the caste system a typical pyramidal hierarchy, i.e. small higher castes down to large numbers of lower castes? Or is it a flux of each?
    (4 votes)
    Default Khan Academy avatar avatar for user
  • blobby green style avatar for user sravya2507
    Does Varna caste system was adopted from Bharatam
    (3 votes)
    Default Khan Academy avatar avatar for user
  • aqualine seed style avatar for user Deepu
    Sal, in the video, initially it was mentioned as the Caste System and later it was mentioned as the varna system. Finally, the decision is left to the viewers about which terminology to use. There should be a clear distinction between the original varna system and the caste system that is being practiced today. Also, the Varna system was depicted as a hierarchical system in the above video. It was nowhere mentioned that the Varna system is hierarchical in any Hindu scriptures. Moreover, there was no mention of untouchable class in any Hindu scriptures. However, it was indeed true that at one point of time in history untouchability started and untouchables were denied entry into temples and ostracized from the society.

    Coming to the interpretation of Purusha Sukta from Rigveda mentioned here, it does not use the word ‘varna’. Instead, it mentions four types of people. It can be seen from the scriptures that the Varna system was neither based on birth nor hereditary instead it was based on the work and qualities of an individual. While it is true that the current-day caste system is birth-based and hereditary, why was there no mention of how it was institutionalized by the colonial administrators and the origin and roots of the caste system? Furthermore, how can something that was not sanctioned by Hindu scriptures be mentioned as innate to Hinduism?

    Also why just restrict the caste system in the Indian sub-continent to just Hinduism, several castes can be found among Muslims, Christians, and Buddhists as well. Why was it ignored? If the caste system is explicit to Hinduism, why were many castes present among other religions in India? As Dr. B.R. Ambedkar said, 'caste is a notion and state of mind' and is not linked with Hinduism.
    (3 votes)
    Default Khan Academy avatar avatar for user
    • starky tree style avatar for user Joro
      Good questions! My thoughts on this matter are that for one this isn't a deep dive of the caste system and is therefore not going to mention some of the facts that you stated. Also, to answer your last question, I think that the caste system is just more well known than the caste systems of other regions. Hope this was helpful. 😄
      (1 vote)
  • piceratops sapling style avatar for user Abdullah Khan
    What if you were born outside of India and don't come in any of these castes? How does Hinduism view this?
    (3 votes)
    Default Khan Academy avatar avatar for user

Video transcript

- [Instructor] In any textbook overview of Hinduism you will quickly encounter the caste system, and the caste system is the notion that people are born into the roles that they have to play in society. Now the reason why I put this in quotes is because they're associated this notion from the various Hindu scripture of Varnas, but the best translation from Sanskrit into English of Varnas is classes. And it's interesting to think about whether they were first intended to be just social classes, or also hereditary classes as the caste system implies. What we do know is that as we approach modern Hinduism over the last several hundred years, it did approach something that was more what you are born into. But we'll look a little bit at the scripture and I'll leave it up to you to decide whether it was more of a social class or if it was a class that you were born into. Now the four Varnas that are described in the Vedas and other Hindu scripture, at the top you have the Brahmins who are the priests and the teachers, not to be confused with the god Brahma or the ultimate reality, Brahman. Next you have the Kshatriyas who are the warriors and rulers. And it's interesting that at least in Hindu society the Brahmins were considered higher than the warriors, the rulers, the kings. After that you have the Vaishyas who are the farmers, the merchants. And then next the Shudras, the laborers, those who worked in service to the other three classes. Now you also had and have people who are outside of these four different classes. Today they refer to themselves as Dalits, which means the oppressed, but sometimes they've been referred to as untouchable, and that's because in traditional Hindu society many of these people weren't even able to enter temples, they were discriminated against, they didn't have access to resources, they weren't even allowed to shake hands or make physical contact with other members of Hindu society. And we'll talk a little bit more about how this may or may not be changing. Now to see the basis of the Varna system in scripture I will start with this quote from the Rigveda. Now this is from the Purusha Sukta, and Purusha in the Vedas you can view as this cosmic being, but they anthropomorphize this being, making it seem or making an analogy with a human body. "When they divided the Cosmic Being, "how many portions did they make? "What do they call his mouth, his arms? "What do they call his thighs and feet? "The Brahmin was his mouth, "of both arms was the Rajanya made." The Rajanya you could view as the Kshatriyas, the warriors and the kings. "His thighs became the Vaishya, "from his feet the Sudra was produced." So in the Vedas, and there's some dispute about whether this was originally in the Vedas or about whether it was added later, to have a creation story, but it is making reference to these four Varnas. But here it is not 100% clear whether it's just talking about the various classes of society. You're bound to have some priests and teachers, some warriors and rulers, some farmers, merchants, some laborers. Or are they saying something more fundamental? Now we can go to the time of the Mahabharata, when the Mahabharata was written and the subset of the Mahabharata which is the Bhagavad Gita, and they also make reference to this Varna system. So the Bhagavad Gita is the part of the Mahabharata where you have Krishna talking to Arjuna and reassuring him about his role in life, and this is what Krishna tells Arjuna. "A Brahman's virtues, born of his nature, are serenity, "self-control, austerity, purity, tolerance, "honesty, learning, and to know the truth "of things which be. "A Kshatriya's pride, born of his nature, "lives in valor, exuberance, determination, "resourcefulness, bravery in battle, "and generosity and noble demeanor as a lord of men. "A Vaisya's task, born with his nature, "is to till the ground, tend cattle, venture trade. "A Sudra's state, suiting his nature, is service." Arguably in service to the other three classes. Now once again, it doesn't make strict reference to you are born a Brahmin, if your father was a Brahmin then you have to be a Brahmin, or if your father was a Kshatriya, you will be a Kshatriya. It is making reference to this idea of being "born of his nature." So you could interpret that as, this is this idea that you have some innate gifts, you have some innate tendencies, and those innate tendencies are going to dictate whether you're going to be a Brahmin, a Kshatriya, a Vaisya, or a Shudra. I encourage you as always to look up the primary documents yourself, and especially when you're looking at something that is a translation, this is a translation from Sanskrit to English, how it is translated matters. So try to look up multiple translations and come to your own conclusion. Now regardless of whether the ancient Hindu scripture, the Bhagavad Gita is over 2,000 years old, if we're talking about the Vedas and especially if the Purusha Sukta was part of the original Vedas, we're talking about something that's over 3,000 years old, regardless of the original intent of the Varna system, whether it was supposed to be just talking about classes as opposed to a hereditary caste, the reality is is over the last several hundred years in India it did become a caste. People whose parents were Brahmins became Brahmins. People whose parents were Kshatriyas became Kshatriyas. And they married amongst themselves, and it did dictate their social status. And so to put all of this in perspective I'm going to give you a quote from really one of India's founding fathers. So this is a picture of B.R. Ambedkar and he was born a Dalit, and faced significant discrimination when he was growing up. He wasn't allowed to sit on chairs or eat next to his fellow students. As you can imagine his family wouldn't have had access to nowhere near the resources that other people in the village or in the city would have had access to. They would have been actively discriminated with, they wouldn't have even been able to make physical contact with members of the formal Varna system. But despite all of that discrimination he was able to get a significant education and eventually become India's first Law Minister, and not only that, but the principal architect of the Indian Constitution. And this is what he wrote about the caste system. "Caste is not a physical object like a wall of bricks "or a line of barbed wire which prevents the Hindus "from co-mingling and which has therefore to be pulled down. "Caste is a notion, it is a state of the mind." And if you look at modern India or if you talk to modern Hindus, many of them will say hey, we don't take caste seriously. We view this as a part of our past, and a part of our past that we're not necessarily that proud of. But there are still Hindus who do take the caste system seriously, especially if you go into rural areas and villages. Many of the things that B.R. Ambedkar faced, this level of discrimination, of Dalits not being able to go a temple, not having access to water resources, this is still happening in India. And in things like inter-marriage the caste system is still taken reasonably seriously by a large portion of the Hindu population. Now here's another quote from B.R. Ambedkar. "Some men say that they should be satisfied "with the abolition of untouchability only, "leaving the caste system alone. "The aim of abolition of untouchability alone "without trying to abolish the inequalities "inherent in the caste system is a rather low aim."