Indian Caste System: Then and Now: Jati, Varna, Kula

Authorship and Copyright Notice: All Rights Reserved : Satya Sarada Kandula

In this page I try to explore the concept of caste in India.

  • The english word ‘Caste’ sometimes indicates Varna (category) and sometimes indicate jathi.
  • The sanskrit word kula, sometimes indicates caste and sometimes indicates dynasty. It has a lot to do with occupation and with birth.
  • Below, I explain what other thinkers and researchers have said and I also provide my own view.
  • The rather free society of Sri Rama’s time had rigid-ified somewhat by Sri Krishna’s time.
  • Genetic studies do not add clarity yet as each study throws up a different result and reflects some of the initial assumptions of the researcher.
  • I am of the view that the racial classification situation today in USA is somewhat like the jathi system of ancient times (pre-Krishna).
  • Krishna’s effort was to bring 4 classes in the place of 4000 Jathis, and based on ability, nature and accomplishment, not based on birth. Please read on.

List of the sections in this article:

  1. Prof. M.N. Srinivas (a great sociologist)
  2. 20th century Leaders (Gandhiji, Ambedkar)
  3. 21st century thinking (Gurumurthy)
  4. Valmiki Ramayana
  5. Sri Krishna
  6. Mahabharata
  7. Upanishads
  8. Kautilya ArthaSastra
  9. Mrcchakatikam
  10. Personal View
  11. Caste Today
  12. Genome Research

Prof. M.N. Srinivas (a great sociologist):

  • He said (in 1950) that there are about 4000 Jatis in India, and that includes about 1000 Muslim and Christian Jatis.
  • Jatis are not really based on religion. The Sanskrit root ‘Ja’ is related to birth. So a Jathi is a set of people that typically marry within that set. (In America today a black is more likely to marry a black than a white.) People of one Jathi are more closely related than people of two different Jathis.  This does not matter much among the rich and powerful urbanites, but in the towns and villages, jathi matters. See : Nehru – Pandit – Khan – Gandhi
  • M.N. Srinivas tells us how every jathi, learned the habits and culture of the ‘higher’ varnam (class) and underwent  a process of Sanskritisation, to belong to a higher varnam. It was easy to acieve a Kshatriya Varna, by fighting and winning and getting the brahmans to validate it.
  • But the brahmans are both a jathi and a varna rolled into one, so no other jathi could ever become brahmin, even though they had all the ‘gunas’ and did all the ‘karma’. Like, Obama can become the President of the United States but he can never become a white man.
  • Similarly, the panchama varnam, or the 5th varnam, which was merely supposed to hold all the non-productive people, initially, could eventually never cross into the 4th varnam. They were segregated and disallowed. The panchamas or the fifth are today called the Dalits and there are very many jathis and sub-jathis among them.

20th century Leaders: There were many national leaders like Gandhiji, Ambedkar and others who came up with many original ideas to solve this problem. There has been some economic progress, some legal reform and some social change.

  • But when people of these jathis convert to Christianity or to Islam, they still retain their jathi. The government allows them all the same affirmative rights even after conversion. Ambedkar himself suggested Buddhism as the best choice for conversion.

21st century thinking: S Gurumurthy ( is a political and economic commentator and corporate consultant. He said in the Hindu (19/1/2009 – Vijayawada) that

  • Caste is good for economic development.  He says that  caste creates a very strong bond.
  • “Individuals are linked by families and and families are linked by caste.
  • Our Constitution is individual centric unlike our caste collective society.
  • Caste based politics mediates between traditional society and the modern state in India.
  • The entrepreneurship generated by the Patel caste dominates 2/3rds of the global diamond trade. The Nadar caste runs over 3/4ths of the retail trade, match works and fireworks in Tamil Nadu. In Tirupur, Goundar caste entrepreneurs, 80% of whom are not even matriculates compete at the global level, exporting knitwear garments valued at over 2 billion $. Many castes have risen to the global level using their kinship based social capital.
  • Traditional caste by re-orienting itself seems to be handling modernity well. It is the modern elite whose views about caste are outdated and do not know how to handle caste.”

Valmiki Ramayana:

  • Here you hear about many Jathis but not much about Varnas. Sri Rama himself was a friend of the Nishada king, Guha, the Vanara king, Sugreeva and the Rakshasa king Vibheeshana. A rksha warrior Jambavantha fought side by side with Rama in his battle against the rakshasa king Ravana, who Sri Rama fought and killed was the son of a brahman father Visrava and a Rakshasa mother, Kaikasi.  Antarjateeya Vivahams or Inter-Jathi marriages happened a good deal in Sri Rama’s times. Parasurama’s father’s mother, was Satyavati the sister of Viswamitra, a king who became a brahman by his tapas. While the Uttarakanda says that Valmiki was a Brahmarshi and a Bhargava, much popular lore sees Valmiki variously as a Bhil, a kirata, a nishada or an adivasi.
  • In the Balakanda, there is a short mention of Parasurama, who was born in a family of Brahmins, the Bhrgus, who was very warrior like in his temperament. Parasurama Bhargava fought and killed Kartavirya Arjuna, a powerful king, in retaliation for killing his father. Then he fought 21 more times eliminating all the Kshatriyas who sought revenge.
  • There is a lot more on jathis in the Uttarakanda, particularly the rakshasa jathi. Marriages between jathis were exceedingly common, generally with a view to progeny. Anjana’s son Hanuman was known both as Kesari Putra and Vayu Putra., the first (a Vanara) being his legal father and the second (a Deva) being his biological father. Hanuman proudly announces himself as such to Sita Devi, it was normal, not taboo.

Sri Krishna :

  • By the time Sri Krishna lived, every ‘antarjathi’ had acquired a name, and was disallowed normal priviliges.
  • The jathi system had become both complex and rigid. for eg Karna, the adopted son of Adhiratha was called a Suta Putra, with a Suta being the son of a brahman mother and a kshatriya father and therefore ineligible to rule a kingdom.
  • Sri Krishna was quite fed up. So, He created Four Varnams (Classes) based on guna (qualities) and karma (action). (See the Bhagavad Gita and the Vishnu Purana). …. Sri Krishna himself was a Yadava, a descendant of Yadu (the son of a brahman mother – Devayani and princely father – Yayati). Yadu was deprived of the kingdom and it went to his half brother.
  • Sri Krishna’s close friend Sudama was a poor brahman and another friend Vidura was a halfcaste son of a brahman father Vyasa and a sudra maidservant. Vyasa, himself, was the son of brahman father and a fishergirl mother. The pandavas were descended from Devas and Yadavas…..
  • Sri Krishna said that all the brave warriors who fought for the country should be one caste – the kshatriyas. (No more sutas and yadavas and nagas and rakshasas and so forth). All the learners and thinkers who preserved the knowledge of the society would be brahmans. All the traders would be vaisyas. All the skilled engineers, craftsmen, farmers, the mainstay of society would be the Sudras. And all the folks who refused to work, could stay outside the society.
  • Bhishma supported him in this concept as did many thinkers and rulers of the time. Sri Krishna did not respect the do-nothingers much… Sri Krishna disposed of the word jathi and put in a new word Varna. And he truly believed that there should and would be only 4 classes of people based on their nature and their actions and not 4000 jathis based on genetics. By this count he too would be kshatriya and not a yadava or a cowherd. Sri Krishna was a social reformer…. Sri Krishna said that knowledge was higher than defence. That defence was higher than commerce. And that commerce was higher than production. The effect of Sri Krishna ranking the 4 varnas, was that every jathi liked to register itself as belonging to a ‘higher’ Varna, without letting go of their jathi. The issue was that it was easier to identify a person’s parentage than to judge their qualities or actions. Varnas got added to Jathis.


  • In the Santhi Parva, Bhrigu Maharshi attributes the creation of the varnas to Brahma and assigns colours to them.
  • But Bharadvaja argues that all humans have the same physiology and emotions, so why this difference of varnas even?
  • In the Vanaparva of the Mahabharata it is said that it is pointless to talk of a person’s jathi because of the huge intermixing.
  • It says that cultured behaviour is more important than breeding. It says that a brahmana is one who possesses  virtuous conduct and has nothing to do with birth at all. Since everyone is born from the creator Brahma, all are brahmans.
  • Sukraniti also supports this view.
  • Sri Krishna says that such a virtuous and devout person (Brahmana) is a representative of himself and must be respected. (Even as today we respect our cultured professors and gurus.)  ….  In the Shanthi Parva, Parasara, Vyasa‘s father says that every person should strive to be virtuous to be called a human being and it does not matter to whom they are born.

Upanishads: In the story of Satyakama Jabali, we learn that, whoever is truthful, is worthy of being initiated into vedic studies even if her has no known father and no known lineage.

Kautilya ArthaSastra: This Arthasastra quotes the authority of the Vedas and states that:

Varna Dharma: The duty of the Brahman is study, teaching, performance of sacrifice, officiating in others’ sacrificial performance and the giving and receiving of gifts.That of a Kshatriya is study, performance of sacrifice, giving gifts, military occupation, and protection of life. That of a Vaisya is study, performance of sacrifice, giving gifts, agriculture, cattle breeding, and trade. That of a Sudra is the serving of twice-born (dvijati), agriculture, cattle-breeding, and trade (varta), the profession of artizans and court-bards (karukusilavakarma).

Asrama Dharma: The duty of a householder is earning livelihood by his own profession, marriage among his equals of different ancestral Rishis, intercourse with his wedded wife after her monthly ablution, gifts to gods, ancestors, guests, and servants, and the eating of the remainder. That of a student (Brahmacharin) is learning the Vedas, fire-worship, ablution, living by begging, and devotion to his teacher even at the cost of his own life, or in the absence of his teacher, to the teacher’s son, or to an elder classmate. That of a Vanaprastha (forest-recluse) is observance of chastity, sleeping on the bare ground, keeping twisted locks, wearing deer-skin, fire-worship, ablution, worship of gods, ancestors, and guests, and living upon food stuffs procurable in forests. That of an ascetic retired from the world (Parivrajaka) is complete control of the organs of sense, abstaining from all kinds of work, disowning money, keeping from society, begging in many places, dwelling in forests, and purity both internal and external.

Ahimsa, truthfulness, purity, freedom from spite, abstinence from cruelty, and forgiveness are duties common to all. The observance of one’s own duty leads one to Svarga and infinite bliss (Anantya). When it is violated, the world will come to an end owing to confusion of castes and duties. Hence the king shall never allow people to swerve from their duties; for whoever upholds his own duty, ever adhering to the customs of the Aryas, and following the rules of caste and divisions of religious life, will surely. be happy both here and hereafter. For the world, when maintained in accordance with injunctions of the triple Vedas, will surely progress, but never perish.  [Thus ends Chapter III, “Determination of the place of the Triple Vedas” among Sciences in Book I, “Concerning Discipline” of the Arthasástra of Kautilya.]”

Mrcchakatikam: One of the interesting comments made on this play by King Sudraka, is that many key characters are contrary to the caste definitions, a thief has kingly qualities and becomes a king, a courtesan has wifely qualities and marries a brahman, and the king’s brother-in-law is a lecher. It is believed by some that this work is about 5 centuries prior to Kalidasa’s works.

Personal View:

  • Will the jathis, ever disappear? M.N. Srinivas did not think so.  I don’t know.
  • I don’t think it is necessary for Jathis or for gender or for religion to disappear.
  • I think it is necessary for people to respect people for what they do and what they are like.
  • Karma and Guna . I think it is important for everyone to get a chance to pursue the careers they like.
  • And I think it is important for people to not look down on other people, not to ill-treat or enslave them, not to convert them and not to kill them. Just to leave them be.
  • I think the earth should celebrate its diversity and differences, else, what a boring planet  this would be!
  • An encounter with Devangas. My personal experience with Caste, Race, Gender, Religion, Nationality & Regionalism.

Caste Today : To get an understanding of the caste (jathi) system as it exists today, I have begun collecting links to various caste web-sites and articles on problems faced by different jathis. You will find them here:

See Also : 

Genome Research: I found links to studies with different conclusions. : The results provide genomic evidence that (1) there is an underlying unity of female lineages in India, indicating that the initial number of female settlers may have been small; (2) the tribal and the caste populations are highly differentiated; (3) the Austro-Asiatic tribals are the earliest settlers in India, providing support to one anthropological hypothesis while refuting some others; (4) a major wave of humans entered India through the northeast; (5) the Tibeto-Burman tribals share considerable genetic commonalities with the Austro-Asiatic tribals, supporting the hypothesis that they may have shared a common habitat in southern China, but the two groups of tribals can be differentiated on the basis of Y-chromosomal haplotypes; (6) the Dravidian tribals were possibly widespread throughout India before the arrival of the Indo-European-speaking nomads, but retreated to southern India to avoid dominance; (7) formation of populations by fission that resulted in founder and drift effects have left their imprints on the genetic structures of contemporary populations; (8) the upper castes show closer genetic affinities with Central Asian populations, although those of southern India are more distant than those of northern India; (9) historical gene flow into India has contributed to a considerable obliteration of genetic histories of contemporary populations so that there is at present no clear congruence of genetic and geographical or sociocultural affinities.

… In a recent study conducted on ranked caste populations sampled from one southern Indian State (Andhra Pradesh), Bamshad et al. (2001) have found that the genomic affinity to Europeans is proportionate to caste rank—the upper castes being most similar to Europeans, particularly East Europeans, whereas the lower castes are more similar to Asians. These findings are consistent with the migration of IE groups into India*, the establishment of the caste system, and subsequent recruitment of indigenous people into the caste fold. Because the Indian samples for this study were drawn from one geographical area, whether we can safely generalize these findings needs to be investigated.”

*(there is considerable debate about the Aryan Invasion Theory (AIT) – here I am just quoting the paper, as a data gathering exercise. I believe that there was a lot of interaction and blending in ancient times and people came and went in and out of India. But I do not believe in the AIT – Satya) : “The Indian origin of paternal haplogroup R1a1(*) substantiates the autochthonous (originating where found) origin of Brahmins and the caste system. “