VarNa and colour

Mikael Aktor aktor at
Thu May 15 10:35:36 UTC 1997

Indeed it seems to be correct that the straightforward relation between
varNas (B, K, V, Z) and colours (white, red, yelow, black) is more part of a
popular tradition than it is warranted by ancient and classical texts. But
there is a tendency among scholars to reiterate this tradition _as if_ it
were a textual one.

Hocart (_Caste in India_, 28) rejected that the four colours referred to
skin but suggests that they should be associated with the four cardinal
points. However, he gives no referrences in support of this view.

Inden ("Lordship and Caste in Hindu Discourse", _Indian Religion_ eds. R.
Burghart and A. Cantlie, 1985, 166) follows Hocart but associates the
coulours with guNas and mental qualities, referring to
ViSNudharmottarapuraaNa 1.7.9-12. (I have not got the text, but would like
to know what it actually says. Could someone check?)

R.S. Sharma (_Zuudras in Ancient India_, 3rd ed., 1990, 282) refers to
VaayupuraaNa, app. 818, quoted in Patil, _Cultural History from the Vaayu
PuraaNa_, 304, (what is the status of this "app. 818" in relation to the
extant VP? does anyone know?) and to NaaTyazaastra 2.49-52 and 21.112-113.
He also mentions Zaantiparvan but with no further referrence.

In contrast, Brian Smith does not, it seems, correlate varNa and colour at
all, neither in _Classifying the Universe_ (I have only checked his
otherwise very detailed index) nor in "Canonical Authority and Social
Classification" (_History of Religions_, 32, 103-25), see in particular his
tables, p.123.

Neither does Kane (_History of Dharmazaastra_, vol.2,1) refer to a
4varNas-4colours scheme. (But who knows whether he has touched upon the
subject elsewhere in his _History_).

In Aapastambadharmasuutra (and Baudhaayanadharmasuutra a
severe penance is prescribed for a Brahmin who "serves the black varNa for
one [day and] night". The commentators explain kRSNaM varNaM as a referrence
to a zuudra or caNDaala woman, seeing in the Brahmin's transgression a
sexual affair and a parallel to ManusmRti 11.179 which has "a zuudra woman"
(vRSalii) instead of "the black varNa".

Basically I agree with Hocart that these colours did not refer to skin (red
kSatriyas? yelow vaizyas?) but are in some way used ideologically, but if it
turns out that the scheme itself is not established at all, then we should
rather drop the whole isue.


Mikael Aktor, Research Fellow, cand.phil.

Department of History of Religions, University og Copenhagen,
Njalsgade 80, DK-2300 Copenhagen S, Denmark.

Phone: (45) 3532 8954 - Fax: (45) 3532 8956 - E-mail: aktor at

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