skin colour

jpo at jpo at
Wed May 14 14:05:19 UTC 1997

The problem of color in ancient India is not as straightforward (pardon the
pun) as black and white. Black has clear 'bad' connotations, but it also
has positive characteristics.

BLACK AS BAD: Jaiminiya Brahmana 1.42-44: naked black man gurading the
river of blood in the tale of Bhrgu; he is Anger personified. Again black
man with yellow eyes (may be Yama personified) in Satapatha Brahmana Black as death in Taittiriya Samhita; also Aitareya
Aranyaka 3.2.4; Sankhayana Aranyaka 11.4  Black bird as evil omen in
Atharva Veda 7.64 (also 18.3.55; 19.57.4). Black and greedy--associated
with dirty beasts such as dog, jackal, vulture: Atharvaveda 11.2.2. When
Trisanku becomes an outcast his skin is black and coarse, has black
garments: Ramayana 1.57.9. Ravana, of course, is dark, and his color is
contrasted with that of Sita (white), she is like the star in a sphhire!!
Ramayana 3.50.21-23.  In the Bharadvaja Pitrmedha Sutra (1.2.12) a black
bullock pulls the cart carrying a corpse; while at 1.4.3 a black cow is
offered, a cow that is old, dull, utterly bad, black-eyed, black--tailed,

BLACK AS GOOD: if Ravana is dark, so is Rama: he is as dark as a blue lotus
(Ram 2.2.33; 2.77.8; 2.82.17); and so is Barata (Ram 2.104.15). And, of
course, there is Krishna. Kalidasa also compares Dilipa and his wife to a
rain cloud with a streak of lightning (Raghuvamsa 1.36); an image similar
to that of the star saffire used re. Ravana's capture of Sita in the
Ramayana. Black is also associated with Varuna (and thus with
water--Taittiriya Samhita 5.6.11-12; Satapatha Brahmana Black is
the sign of Parjanya and rain: Satapatha Br.; Taittiriya Sam.;

Black/dark is also a desirable quality when applied to eyes or hair (so
Sita is dark-eyed: Ramayana 2.4.2). White hair is a sign of old age and
hence bad.

And finally at Brhadaranyaka Upanisad 6.4.14-16 we have rites to obtain
fair, ruddy, and dark sons (at least some people must have wanted a dark
son)--and, again breaking the stereotype we are used to, it gives rites to
obtain daughters!!

Patrick Olivelle

Patrick Olivelle
Director, Center for Asian Studies
Chair, Department of Asian Studies
WCH 4.134 (Mail Code G9300)
University of Texas
Austin, TX 78712-1194
UT Asian Studies website:

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