VarNa and colour

Mikael Aktor aktor at
Fri May 16 08:54:19 UTC 1997

It seems to be the case 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 refered to skin
but suggests that they should be associated with the four cardinal points.
However, he gives no references 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, refering 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 reference.

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

Neither do I find a reference to a 4varNas-4colours scheme in Kane's
_History of Dharmazaastra_, vol.2,1, where we would expect it. (But who
knows whether he has touched upon it somewhere else on his 5-6000 pages?)

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 reference
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".

Hocart was probably right that these colours did not refer to skin (red
kSatriyas? yelow vaizyas?) but were used ideologically in some way, but if
it turns out that the scheme itself is only represented very randomly in
classical texts this must be acknowledged.

The Vajrasuucii text quoted by another list member was very explicit, but
what is the date of this text?

(Apologies if this message has been received already. It was sent yesterday
but I did not get it myself from the Indology listserver as I am supposed to

Best 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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