The Caste System and
the Stages of Life in Hinduism
The pattern of social classes in Hinduism is called the "caste system." The chart shows the major divisions and contents of the system. Basic caste is called varn.a, or "color." Subcaste, or jâti, "birth, life, rank," is a traditional subdivision of varn.a. [pic]
The Bhagavad Gita says this about the varn.as:
 The works of Brahmins, Ks.atriyas, Vaishyas, and Shudras are different, in harmony with the three powers of their born nature.  The works of a Brahmin are peace; self-harmony, austerity, and purity; loving-forgiveness and righteousness; vision and wisdom and faith.  These are the works of a Ks.atriya: a heroic mind, inner fire, constancy, resourcefulness, courage in battle, generosity and noble leadership.  Trade, agriculture and the rearing of cattle is the work of a Vaishya. And the work of the Shudra is service. [chapter 18, Juan Mascaró translation, Penguin Books, 1962] There are literally thousands of subcastes in India, often with particular geographical ranges, occupational specializations, and an administrative or corporate structure. When Mahâtmâ Gandhi wanted to go to England to study law, he had to ask his subcaste, the Modh Bania, for permission to leave India. ("Bania", means "merchant," and "Gandhi" means "greengrocer" -- from gandha, "smell, fragrance," in Sanskrit -- and that should be enough for a good guess that Gandhi was a Vaishya.) Sometimes it is denied that the varn.as are "castes" because, while "true" castes, the jâtis, are based on birth, the varn.as are based on the theory of the gun.as (the "three powers" mentioned in the Gita). This is no more than a rationalization: the varn.as came first, and they are based on birth. The gun.as came later, and provide a poor explanation anyway, since the gun.a tamas is associated with both twice born and once born, caste and outcaste, overlapping the most important religious and social divisions in the system. Nevertheless, the varn.as are now divisions at a theoretical level, while the jâtis are the way in which caste is embodied for most practical purposes. Jâtis themselves can be ranked in relation to each other, and occasionally a question may even be raised about the proper varn.a to which a particular jâti belongs. As jâti members change occupations and they rise in prestige, a jâti may rarely even be elevated in the varn.a to which it is regarded as belonging. Associated with each varn.a there is a traditional color. These sound suspiciously like skin colors; and, indeed, there is an expectation in India that higher caste people will have lighter skin -- although there are plenty of exceptions (especially in the South of India). This all probably goes back to the original invasion of the Arya, who came from Central Asia and so were undoubtedly light skinned. The people already in India were quite dark, even as today many people in India seem positively black. Apart from skin color, Indians otherwise have "Caucasian" features -- narrow noses, thin lips, etc. -- and recent genetic mapping studies seem to show that Indians are more closely related to the people of the Middle East and Europe than to anyone else. Because Untouchables are not a varn.a, they do not have a traditional color. I have supplied blue, since this is otherwise not found, and it is traditionally used for the skin color of Vis.n.u and his incarnations. Chief among those is Kr.s.n.a (Krishna), whose name actually means "black" or "dark," but he is always shown blue rather than with some natural skin color. The first three varn.as are called the twice born. This has nothing to do with reincarnation. Being "twice born" means that you come of age religiously, making you a member of the Vedic religion, eligible to learn Sanskrit, study the Vedas, and perform Vedic rituals. The "second birth" is thus like Confirmation or a Bar Mitzvah. According to the Laws of Manu (whose...
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