“His mouth became the Priests; his arms were made into the Warrior, his thighs the People, and from his feet the Servants were born.” – Rig Veda 10.90
The Vedic tradition classifies Hindus into four Varnas or social groups each ascribed a different responsibility in the society. The Purusha Sukta of the Rig Veda illustrates the different body functions of the Purusha, or the cosmic man, which translates into the functioning of a society.
Philosophy professor Rajshree Vasudevan, Sastra University, Thanjavur says,
“It is common knowledge that the Varna system was initiated with the purpose of creating an order in the society. It was down the years that this scientific system got regressive and discriminatory.”
The Varna, which literally means colour, identifies four social groups – the Brahmins (priests and teachers), the Kshatriyas (warriors, rulers and administrators), the Vaishyas (traders and merchants) and the Shudras (serving the needs of the other three Varnas).
“The word caste strictly refers to the sub-divisions of the Varna and not the Varnas themselves,” says Vasudevan. The Dalits, who constitute 16.2% of the entire population, is the group which falls outside the Varna system. They are also referred to as Panchamas (the fifth Varna) and the Aspruhyas (the untouchables).
Assistant Professor Ruchi Jaggi, Symbiosis Institute of Media and Communication, Pune, points out: “Though the diversification of the Varnas was physical in nature, the concept of the “other” made it organic and overwhelming for those of the upper castes. This superiority leads to an upper caste looking down upon the work of those of the lower castes.”
It is to ‘annihilate’ this concept of the ‘other’ that Bhimrao Ambedkar, a Dalit, dedicated his life. He rose to emerge as one of the brightest political thinkers of India and was instrumental in framing the Indian constitution.