varna and jati

Yaroslav V. Vassilkov yavass at YV1041.SPB.EDU
Sat May 22 08:53:43 UTC 1999

>> Varna (`colour') is `race' or `caste', meaning skin colour.
>> Jati is `professional guild'.

>I respectfully disagree. While 'varNa' does mean 'social caste',
>and literally also means color, it does *not* mean skin color,
>nor does it mean race. Or at least, it doesn't unequivocally mean
>so.  Translating (or even footnoting) as such would be misleading.

I agree with Mr.Varadarajan. 'VarNa' never meant 'skin colour'
or 'race' - such interpretation seems to be a survival of XIX century
racist or "colonial" ideas. "VarNa' is a 'social class' or 'estate' and
its link with 'varNa' - 'colour' is very special: not the 'skin colour'
was meant, but rather the symbolic hierarchy of colours, as they were
connected with occupations and psychological characteristics of respective
social groups. Priesthood - the varNa of Brahmans - was associated with
the white colour which symbolized ritual purity, holiness; red colour -
associated with the KSatriyas - is psychologically linked with anger and blood
I can not be sure about the meaning of the Vaizyas' yellow varNa (colour
of the field?), but the black colour as marking ZUdras is perfectly clear:
it is the colour
of dirty and hard work, ritual pollution, spiritual 'darkness'. These 'colour
characteristics' of the social strata are probably universal, or at least
common for the peoples speaking Indo-European languages (Iranians and Celts
give us the closest parallels). Later this hierarchy of 'social colours'
was correlated by the Indian thinkers with the *guNa* system (brAhmana -
white - sattva; kSatriya - red - rajas; vaizya - yellow - mixture of the two;
zUdra - black - tamas).
        By the way, in the old, traditional Russia the nobility was designated
by the metaphoric expression "white bone", and the peasantry - as 'black bone',
with no racial shades of meaning, of course, both expressions being motivated
by the notions of 'clean - unclean' and psychological characteristics.
        Best regards,
                                        Yaroslav Vassilkov

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