skin colour

Allen Thrasher athr at
Wed May 14 20:08:07 UTC 1997

On Wed, 14 May 1997, Patrick Olivelle wrote:

> 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-hoofed.
> 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:
I wonder if there is an uneven distribution (is this the terminology?) of
the words nIla and kRSNa: if something or someone can be called nIla as
well as kRSNa, the darkness is beautiful and good; if he, she, or it is
only called kRSNa is is bad and ugly.  kRSNa I think means (in English
color-divisions) black only; nIla blue, black, or even a dark purple
leaning towards blue rather than black.

Re desire for daughters:  The Karmavipaka literature clearly regards
having no daughters as a bad thing, though obviously not as bad as having
no sons.  I think it would regard the seven sons and three daughters that
Job got after his trials as a good thing (though maybe two would be even
better). I recall from my elementary S.  Asia anthropology course from
Cora Du Bois that one is not regarded as a fully adult man until one has
married off a girl, and daughterless men therefore will sometimes take the
leading role in arranging and paying for the wedding of a niece or a
friend's daughter. 

Allen W. Thrasher

The opinions expressed do not represent those of my employer.

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