Classifying the Universe: The Ancient Indian Varna System and the Origins of Caste

Classifying the Universe: The Ancient Indian Varna System and the Origins of Caste

Classifying the Universe: The Ancient Indian Varna System and the Origins of Caste

Classifying the Universe: The Ancient Indian Varna System and the Origins of Caste

Synopsis

This is a comprehensive examination of the `varna' system - a classificatory scheme laid out in the classical Hindu Vedic literature and thought to underlie the concept of caste, which continues to exert a powerful and pervasive influence over Indian life.

Excerpt

Although this work on ancient Indian classification schemes must stand on its own, it might also be regarded and employed as a companion volume to my first book, Reflections on Resemblance, Ritual, and Religion (Oxford, 1989). In that earlier volume, I argued that Vedic ritual ideology and practice were governed by what I called "hierarchical resemblance." By this term I meant to encapsulate the ancient Indian notion that the universe was composed of mutually resembling and interconnected, but also hierarchically distinguished and ranked, components. The constituents of the universe--sometimes categorized as belonging to the realms of ritual (adhiyajña), microcosmos or self (adhyātman), and macrocosmos or world (adhidevatā, literally "belonging to the divine")--were joined together within a ritual that was regarded as primarily a constructive, or as I would now also put it, a classificatory activity.

The bandhus or connections I focused on in Reflections were those that linked higher to lower, prototypes to counterparts, forms to counterforms, and in some cases the "ideal" to the "real." I noted, however, that Vedic connections were really of two types: in addition to the "vertical" bandhus that brought together a prototype (e.g., the creator god Prajdpati) and its counterpart (e.g., the sacrificer and, indeed, the sacrificial ritual itself), Vedic ritual epistemology also encompassed what I termed "horizontal" linkages. Reflections dealt almost exclusively with the former. Here I am predominantly concerned with the latter.

While vertically oriented linkages fasten the universe from top to bottom, horizontal connections fuse it on all sides. They conjoin resembling components (e.g., the earth, the god of fire or Agni, and the Brahmin social class) of different hierarchically (i.e., vertically) organized registers (e.g., cosmology, theology, and sociology). The vertically connected prototypes and counterparts were thought to participate in the same essence although in different degrees; members of various orders of things and beings, located at the same rank within their respective realms, were horizontally connected--and were regarded as cosmic kin in the same degree. Vertical bandhus were drawn between higher and lower classes within the same category (e.g., Brahmins and the servant class called Shūdras) . . .

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