VarNa and colour

Peter J. Claus pclaus at
Fri May 16 13:39:07 UTC 1997

Mikael Aktor provides a very useful review of the some of the literature
which deals with the relationship between varna and color. I certainly
would not discount popular interpretations, but it IS unfortunate that
scholars have not been very precise as to what source they see as
legitimating a claim. I would imagine that there are conflicting sources
in standard and classical (whatever that may mean) references. There are,
incidentally, a number of caste puranas in the non-Brahman oral tradition
(which sometimes make it into the literary tradition under certain
circumstances) which speak of more than 4 varnas (16 is a frequent number) 
and I don't think (indeed, I can't even imagine!) these are color-coded. 
So there doesn't seem to be any necessary relationship between varna and
color-scheme even in the most popular traditions. 

However, that doesn't mean that where it DOES occur (co-occur) it is not
interesting. I would still like to hear of such sources.  Doesn't the
Bhagavat Gita have a section on this, eg.?

Peter Claus

On Thu, 15 May 1997, Mikael Aktor wrote:

> Date: Thu, 15 May 1997 11:53:41 BST
> From: Mikael Aktor <aktor at>
> Reply-To: indology at
> To: Members of the list <indology at>
> Subject: VarNa and colour
> 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.
> Regards
> 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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