Varna, Caste System, and Skin Color: Shallow understanding and Dubious arguments

Last updated on Apr 13, 2012

Posted on Apr 13, 2012

There is a sad problem with those who consider themselves “Hindus” in India and those who comment on the larger history of the Hindus.  Personally, I don’t like this term because it boxes India’s historical ethos into a box.  Indians prior to religious invasions were “Dharma” oriented.  So Dharmic.  Religion is a restrictive concept.

“In the ancient scriptures, epics, or folk tales, the good character is always portrayed as being fair in complexion, suggesting that the fair are fair dealing and the dark complexioned has evil intentions,”

So says Shyamala Bhatia, an associate professor in history at the Bharati College, University of Delhi.  Self deprecation may be interesting but when combined with lack of knowledge and facts, it can be.. well, fairly nonsensical.

Another such person, low on facts and knowledge but high on vitriol attempts something similar –

This reaction to skin color has its roots in the caste system and the degreeto which it has insinuated itself into Hindu culture-which is, to a large extent, indistinguishable from Indian culture.

It is very convenient to use Caste System as a boggieman for every thing that is wrong about today’s society in India.  But do the facts bear that out?

Caste and Skin Color

There is this usual rhetoric forwarded by uninformed, illiterate “Hindus” and Indologists whose work has been to discredit the Indian historic legacy – that Higher Caste Brahmins and Kshatriyas were light skinned and Vaishyas and Shudras were Dark Skinned.

First lets deal with this obsession about Caste system and Skin color out.  Brahmins (Teachers and Sages) like Rishi Kanva – who wrote some shlokas of Rig Veda – and Chanakya (Vishnugupta) were dark colored.  Lord Shiva – the Adi Guru, the Adi Yogi and the Guru for Saptarishis was dark sinned.  Kshatriyas like Krishna, like Rama were dark skinned.

Valmiki, on the other hand, who was a lower caste, though one of the greatest Rishis, was not considered dark by any account.

Its pretty simple that skin color had no relation to caste.  But wait, where did the concept of Color related to Caste come from?  Some lazy indologist translated Varna as color, and lo and behold, everyone was falling over each other writing thesis on relationship of Skin Color and Caste.

What is Varna?  Is it caste?  Is it Color?  It is neither.  Varna has many meanings, but its core root is Vṛtra वृत्र.  It means to expand and envelope.  It also represents essence or quality of something.  When the essence and expanse of an entity are looked at, one is taken specifically away from the implication of the word being Color, which is synonymous with Conditioning.  Essence is what you are inherently, coloring/conditioning is what taken on and is superficial.

So, if at all, Varna is the opposite of Color, as it has been defined within the scriptures.  As for relationship of work and Varna, it is important for people with a certain quality and essence to take up certain work.  As long as there are avenues to advance such intentions.  Until the time Indian landscape was full of Ashrams and Universities, such movement was a strong possibility.  When the invasions led to burning of Universities like Nalanda, Takshashila, and killing of many Sages, the route for social movement was closed.  Varna – the essence and quality of a person could no longer be asserted or nurtured.

Therefore, Varna is neither Caste system nor does it lead to Caste system.  Rather its the opposite.  Caste rigidity came up due to the fact that Varna was no longer flowering!

Dark and Light

The dark and light skin color have never been the basis of defining beauty in the scriptural and historical accounts.  It has been the features.  In Ajanta and Ellora paintings, for example, the treatment of both dark and light colored people is similar.  Their importance, their clothes and jewellery etc are equally done.  No one is superior because of skin color.

Even in Natya Shastra, where Indian-centric aesthetics and beauty concepts have been discussed, skin color is not emphasized.  Similar is the case in other scriptures like Samudrika Shastra.

Generally, light and dark is usually linked to the lunar phases – Shukla Paksha and Krishna Paksha.  Although Shukla Paksha is considered useful for the wordly, Krishna Paksha is very significant for a spiritual seeker.  Two of the most important dates in Spiritual calendar – Krishna Janmashtami and Mahashivaratri – fall in the Krishna Paksha.

So, although many call Shukla Paksha as auspicious time, its relevance is most for the worldly.


It is sad that Hindus do not even want to understand their own concepts in proper context.  As for the others, using such boggies like Caste system is useful to bring down Indian historical legacy.

Knowledge of Varna and Skin color amongst even the intellectuals is really at best skin deep.

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