Caste: Purusha and Varna

The dominant school of academic scholarship on the caste system makes very serious mistakes in understanding and conveying the meaning of the most fundamental Indic concepts of Purusha and Varna.

Caste: Purusha and Varna

It is said that memes are to cultural evolution as genes are to biological evolution. Memes are packets of information that pass from one brain to another, spreading by self-replication and in that way, become the building blocks of cultural growth. Teenage fads like weird hairstyles, pop sensations, fashion trends and new slang all spread rapidly via ‘memetic’ action and what we know as virality on social media is also an example of the same process at work. Obviously, not all memes last too long or spread too far. Their success depends on two main factors: How easy it is to comprehend the information they bring and how strongly they influence their ‘carriers’ to ‘infect’ others. Needless to say, ideas that are easy to comprehend and find the right political or cultural environment to spread make for the most powerful memes. The logical corollary is that politically incorrect beliefs or complex ideas, even if they’re closer to the objective truth are unlikely to spread as memes. As a result, it becomes necessary to break down a complex idea into simpler information for it to spread as a meme.

The Vedic truth upheld by the texts and practices of the Indic tradition is believed to be so simple that the mind tends to forget it, turned as it is towards the duality of the phenomenal world. Maya, in this context, is the stubborn tendency of the mind to forget. It would be no exaggeration to say that the goal of Indian art and culture is to remind us of the eternal truth through its myriad expressions in poetry, dance, music or thought. From the above, it could be surmised that Indian art works in exactly the opposite way as memes do, in that it adds layers of meaning and complexity to an idea that is, in itself, exceedingly simple.

In the introduction to this series, we drew attention to the dynamics of the relationship between scholarship, politics and media and how scholarship is upstream of the discourse prevalent in political circles and the media. A quick Google search shows us the pyramid (shown below) as the most dominant popular depiction of the caste system.

[Modern depiction of Varnas used interchangeably for caste]

While this may be understandable as a meme, having naturally evolved as the depiction of caste in contemporary society, it becomes problematic when renowned scholars and academicians aggressively propagate, what we will show to be a theoretically defunct idea, without bothering to closely investigate it. The problem becomes more acute when successive generations, with easy access to such memes on the internet or in textbooks, go on to profusely recreate “this structure” without questioning its validity.

Caste and Vedas

No less an intellectual than Dr B.R. Ambedkar has thrown his weight behind the belief that a particular verse in Purushasukta, one of the hymns of the Rigveda, is the fountainhead of caste-based discrimination in India. The verse reads as follows:

ब्रा॒ह्म॒णो॓‌உस्य॒ मुख॑मासीत् । बा॒हू रा॑ज॒न्यः॑ कृ॒तः ।
ऊ॒रू तद॑स्य॒ यद्वैश्यः॑ । प॒द्भ्याग्ं शू॒द्रो अ॑जायतः ॥

brahmano asya mukhamaseet | bahoo rajanya: krta: |
ooru tadasya yad vaishya | padbhyam shoodro ajayata ||

The Brahmana was his mouth, the Rajanya was made his arms; the being called the Vaishya, he was his thighs; the Shudra sprang from his feet. [1]

Dr Ambedkar declares:

The scheme of the Purusha Sukta is unique, inasmuch as it fixes a permanent warrant of precedence among the different classes, which neither time nor circumstances can alter. The warrant of precedence is based on the principle of graded inequality among the four classes, whereby it recognizes the Brahmin to be above all, the Kshatriya below the Brahmin but above the Vaishya and the Shudra, the Vaishya below the Kshatriya but above the Shudra and the Shudra below all. [2]

Instead of starting on the premise defined by Dr Ambedkar and his political progeny and trying to refute them, we will make an original inquiry and explore if the linkage drawn between the later caste system and the Purushasukta stands the scrutiny of reasoned analysis. The above-mentioned verse is the only time in the entire Rigveda that the four types of varnas are mentioned. Most academic papers or news reports or websites that discuss the current caste system open with the four varnas and the untouchables and hasten to talk of smritis, dharmashastras etc. We would like to take some respite from this oft-trampled path of inquiry and try to gauge what  varna  could possibly mean and what it could signify. Instead of a narrow, linear and chronological survey of references, we are going to broaden the scope of our search and look at references to Varna in texts rarely used for such an analysis but nevertheless equally relevant.

Purusha – The cosmic man

To come to a reasonable understanding of what the Purushasukta is all about, it is necessary to grasp the idea of the universe as Purusha, the cosmic man. The Vedic imagery of the cosmic man is encoded variously in the rituals of yajnas, in the speculative thought of the Upanishads and the Gita, the stories of the Puranas and the techniques and aesthetic principles embedded in art forms such as dance, music and sculpture. 

This brings us to the central distinction between the western and Indic view of creation. The western view traditionally explores unlimited space in linear time while the Indic approach has to do with the exploration of time in limited space. Therefore, even philosophical speculation around scientific theories such as the Big Bang concerns itself with locating where the arrow of time originates in an infinitely expanding universe. On the other hand, time is a cyclical phenomenon in all Indic thought streams and creation of the objective world is the act of finitizing the cycle of time to varying limits of physical space. In imagining the Universe as the Purusha, the hymn marks one of the first expressions of the Indic view of time and creation, attesting to the unity of the microcosm with the macrocosm. 

Purusha as metaphor

The metaphor of Purusha originates in the physical act of a man standing in three-dimensional space. As pointed out earlier, the metaphor permeates all of the later Hindu discourse – ritualistic, speculative, artistic and architectural – by depicting this imagery of the Purusha in their own unique and diverse ways.

Kapila Vatsyayan writes: 

The Brahmanical ritual and the Upanisadic philosophy of the Atman and Brahman evolved out of the concept of the Purusa or Man in space. Whereas the Brahmanas concretized Vedic thought, the Upanisads drew a chiselled abstraction from them, but the two were nevertheless in a continuum. Each built its structure, concrete or abstract, on the foundations of the image of Man in space, standing like a pillar within the periphery of a circle. Physical principles of the ritual and abstract speculations in the Brahmanas and Upanisads (respectively) directly emerge out of these. [3]

[Pic of cosmic man and circle]

In speculative thought, the human body is conceived of as a living vital symbol of the macrocosm and thus, the image of a vertical man-body represents the relationship between the earth and sky (also represented by the stambha or pillar), the upper limbs signify the directions while other cosmic attributes are represented by different parts of the body. The center of the imaginary circle in which the man-body is placed coincides with the navel, representing the stillness of the unmanifest universe and explained by the analogy with the hub (unmoving center) of the rotating wheel. In the different Vedic rituals, right from the selection of the site to the construction of the altars to the collection of various implements to the actual execution of the Yajna, there is a concerted attempt to concretize the imagery of the Purusha in varying contexts. Likewise, in the performing arts, the symbolism of the Purusha is invoked repeatedly from the design and layout of the theatre to the actual performance by the artists. As a case in point, the concept of sama in classical Indian music and dance, the basic posture or state from which the primary and secondary movements of the performance commence, is mapped on to the navel or the center of the circle in which the Purusha is based, signifying stillness. Similarly, it is hard to miss the striking similarity in temple design, as detailed in the Vastushastra, with the layout of the sites of Vedic rituals and their correspondence with the imagery of the Purusha. [4]

Temple as purusha

[Pic of temple as Purusha]

In all the above, the imagery of the Purusha is used to convey the interplay between what appear to be polar opposites in the phenomenal world but which ultimately derive their existence from the unmanifest reality. Broadly speaking, the square represents stillness while the circle represents movement and it must be remembered that a circle is nothing but a square rotated rapidly enough on its central axis. There is also the triangle, which is used to denote the flow of energy in the Universe. It is important to point out here that these geometrical motifs are not mere philosophical symbols that we are ‘interpreting’ in this essay but well-established techniques of concretization of aspects of the Universe that are accessed through the identification of the human body with the cosmic Purusha. The body is thus always treated as a whole albeit with different parts serving diverse functions and therefore, it is meaningless to declare one part of the body as more important than another. Consistent with this sentiment, Indic iconography dealing with the Purusha simply finds no place for a hierarchical structure like the pyramid. Ironically, that is precisely how the varnas, derived from the body parts of the Purusha, are depicted in writings of the colonial era, which inform the political rhetoric of post-colonial India.

Varna, jaati and caste

Having outlined the context in which the cosmic man of the Purushasukta must be imagined, we will now point out a glaring omission in the modern discourse on caste that confidently blames the origin of caste based discrimination on this hymn. The fact is that there is absolutely no evidence to prove that Indian society was organized along caste lines at the time when the Rigveda was composed and it would indeed be strange for the text to endorse or condemn a practice that simply didn’t exist at the time.

The categorization of people into Brahmin, Kshatriya, Vaishya or Shudra is equivalent to qualifying their Varna.  So, the very first step to understanding the verse, before speculating about its political implications, is to correctly decipher the meaning of the term Varna. As we explained in part 1 of this series, the word caste, derived from the Portuguese casta, finds its first mention in the Indian context only around the 16th-17th centuries, when the Portuguese colonialists tried to make sense of how society was organized in India. However, the proper study of Indian society was only started later by the Christian missionaries under the patronage of the British crown, who borrowed the Portuguese terminology and applied it to interpret the Hindu texts that they had begun to translate and study. The translations were problematic right from the word go because the complexities of social life in India were grossly mistranslated, as the translators tried to force fit what they saw in the framework of their pre-existing beliefs. While it is prudent to refrain from attributing any mala fide intent to the colonial scholars, their inability to comprehend the finer details of the Indic culture through what was an exclusively Christian lens is an unequivocal certainty.

One of the most fundamental errors in these translations was a conflation of Varna with Jaati and what is even more surprising is that even to this day, the terms are used interchangeably to denote caste. [5] If anything, this only indicates how pervasive the colonial discourse continues to be in the study of Indic civilization. From the above, it is clear that the equation, Jaati = Varna = Caste suffers from two flaws rather than one – a) use of inaccurate vocabulary (when Jaati or Varna are given the rigid identity of caste) and (b) use of incorrect paradigm in context construction (when jaati and varna are used interchangeably).

Although a full analysis of the distinction between jaati and varna is out of the scope of this piece, it is important to touch upon their real meanings and how the two relate to each other. Varna consists of tags and features that add up to define the traits of an individual according to a pre-defined scheme of classification. When individuals become a group, the common trait that defines the group is the jaati to which the individuals belong. The ‘appleness’ of an apple is its varna and when you have a bag of apples and oranges, their jaati would be fruit. As per this description of varna, there is nothing to suggest any hierarchy in the relationship between different varnas. An apple is different from an orange, not better or worse, objectively speaking. [6]

The Sanskrit alphabet is known as the Varnamala, a garland of varnas. The Akshara or the eternal non-destructive alphabet has varna at its root of classification. Further, the Tantras have elaborate expositions on the Matrikas, the essence and sacred nature of each vowel. As per Siva Sutra, Matrika stands for the mystic sound corresponding to each letter of the Sanskrit alphabet. The different groups of letters are presided over by different deities.

  • Avarga; (the class of vowels) – Yogīśvarī or Mahālakṣmī,
  • Kavarga (ka, kha, ga, gha, ṅa) – Brāhmī,
  • Cavarga (ca, cha, ja, jha, ña) – Māheśvari,
  • Ṭavarga (ṭa, ṭha, ḍa, ḍha, ṇa) – Kaumārī,
  • Tavarga (ta, tha, da, dha, na) – Vaiṣṇavī,
  • Yavarga (ya, ra, la, va) – Aindrī or Indrāṇī,
  • Śavarga (śa, ṣa, sa, ha, kṣa) – Cāmuṇḍā

In the Natyashastra, a song has four basic architectural varnas to empower its meaning, and these tone patterns are ascending line, steady line, descending line and the unsteady line. Similarly, in Jyotish Shastra, each Griha (planet) has a varna associated with him. For instance, Saturn, one of the most widely worshiped and revered planets, is a Shudra. [7]

Further, in the Indic tradition, social organization is conceived of in the image of the Purusha (cosmic man from the Rigveda) and many sampradayas assign colours to the different varnas. For example, kalachakramandala (Buddhist origin) assigns different colours to the varnas based on the predominance of a Guna in their Prakrti. Brahmin is symbolized by white, Kshatriya by red, Vaisya by yellow and Shudra by black.

As we can see above, there is nothing to suggest that the varnas are supposed to have a hierarchical relationship with one another, as is often suggested by the pyramidal depiction in colonial and contemporary caste literature. Or is there?

A careful review of the cultural background of the colonialists yields an interesting scenario that is likely to have influenced them into attaching certain connotations to Varna by virtue of its association with colour, as shown above. As Europe was dealing with the moral challenges of slave trade and the ensuing exploitation of the Negroes, much of its intellectual energies were directed towards proving that white was indeed ‘superior’ to black. It is not unreasonable to suppose that most colonial scholars, being products of the same cultural milieu, had internalized the theories of white supremacy that were peddled to rationalize the inhuman practice of slavery and when these same scholars encountered the Indic approach to varna as colour, Brahmin (white) became the superior class, depicted as the apex of a pyramid and Shudra (black) the inferior, depicted by the base.


Though the pyramidal representation of the ‘caste system’ may be close to a true illustration of the later notion of jaatis, we believe that this is a complete misrepresentation of the varnas as mentioned in the Purushasukta. As shown in the analysis above, varna and jaati are not identical to each other and where varnas are shown to originate from different parts of the cosmic man-body, the implications are not hierarchical by any stretch of imagination. The very limited point that our analysis makes is that while caste based discrimination may have been a harsh and undeniable truth of Indian society, its origin in the Rigveda is simply an untenable and unfounded claim. This claim has gained much popularity as it has for long found favour with politico-religious forces whose raison d’être has ironically been a denial of the unbroken link of modern India with the ancient Hindu civilization. They would have us believe that India did not exist before 1947 and yet, its societal ills all come from its Hindu antiquity. These forces have, for reasons beyond the scope of this piece, reduced to memes the complex web of ideas, symbols, rituals and geometrical motifs that find expression through Indian art and literature and these memes have found enthusiastic ‘carriers’ in a deracinated and secularized population that knows no better. It is difficult to imagine how else such fundamentally mistaken notions could have thrived for so long. The only way to see through the superficial certainty of these memes is to explore the interconnectedness of the many branches of Indic knowledge and treat them as parts of an organic whole rather than seeing them in the isolation imposed by the disruptive events of Indian history. In the next part of this series, we will continue exploring in greater depth the concretization of the Vedic metaphor of Purusha and concepts including Varna in the many Hindu art forms and knowledge systems, including Buddhist and Jain.


[1] Rigveda Hymn XC (translation by Ralph T.H. Griffith, [1896])

[2] B.R. Ambedkar – Who were the Shudras

[3] Kapila Vatsyayan – Circle and Square in Indian Art

[4] Alan Croker – The temple as a metaphor for the journey within

[5] McKimm Marriott – Varna and Jati

[6] Dr B.V.Venkatakrishna Sastry – Traditional Taxonomy of Varna–Jati and Kula

[7] Dr Robert Svoboda – The Greatness of Saturn


This is part 2 of the series. The other parts can be accessed by following the links below:

Part 1

Part 3

About Author: Sonalee Hardikar

Sonalee Hardikar has a bachelor in chemistry and a masters in mass communication. She is an alumna of the National School of Drama and was the first recipient of the "Jim Henson" fellowship, during which she studied scenic design. She is also a theater practitioner, a documentary film-maker, a student of Shaiva/Buddhist/Tibetan philosophies, a self-taught photographer and a teacher of Indian art and aesthetics at leading National Theater and Filmmaking institutes in India.

About Author: Ashish Dhar

Ashish Dhar is the co-founder of Pragyata and Upword Foundation and the Director of Operations at The Indic Collective Trust. He writes on History, Kashmir, Culture and Religion.

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