37.) How Were the Jatis Formed and Why Should It Interest Us?

The caste system, as we know it now, is an amalgam the concepts of varṇa and jāti.[1] The relation between these two concepts, according to most scholars, involves elements of complexity and ambiguity.[2] The question we want to ask and answer is: what is the traditional explanation of the relationship between varṇa and jāti?

The relationship between the two may be stated in the form of the following propositions, according to the Hindu texts often referred to as dharmaśāstra:

(1) That there are the four varṇas: brāhmaṇa, kṣatriya, vaiśya, śūdra, and the order of enumeration reflects a ‘descending scale of social status’;

(2) That marriage should ideally occur within the varṇas;

(3) That marriage is permissible when the husband’s status if higher than the wife’s (anuloma), but it is reprehensible if the wife’s status is higher (pratiloma);

(4) That products of anuloma marriages generally enjoy ‘a position intermediate in status between the two parents’;[3]

(5) That the products of pratiloma marriages generally acquire a status lower than that of either parent;

(6) That these intermarriages account for the various subcastes called jātis, as distinguished from the four main castes or varṇas;

(7) That further subcastes ‘arise from the unions of the anulomas and the pratilomas with the four varṇas and of the male of one anuloma which the female of another, from the unions of the pratilomas among themselves and from the union of a male or a female of the anuloma caste and the female or male of a pratiloma caste.’[4]

(8) That there exists great diversity of opinion among the authors of the dharmaśāstra about the derivation and status of the various subcastes;[5] and

(9) That the system of subcastes or subclasses is believed to have resulted from varṇa-sakara or this admixture of castes, beginning with four varṇas but extending to the jātis as well.

The next question to be asked now is: how valid is this traditional explanation of the emergence of the castes system as we know it?

The answer briefly is that it is invalid. It is fictive. This traditional explanation may have been accepted by early Indologists but is now rejected in modern Indology.[6]

A related question also arises: what about the four original varṇas? Is that original formulation at least valid? Even here, according to many scholars, we are dealing with the ‘fiction of four original castes;’ in fact one meets with the even stronger statement, that ‘nobody can understand the caste system until he has freed himself from the mistaken notion based on the current interpretation of the Institutes of Manu that there were ‘four original castes’. No four original castes existed at any time or place.’[7]

In other words, could it be the case that the concepts of varṇa and jāti, like the concept of race in the West, wither under scrutiny?


[1] David R. Kinsley, Hinduism: A Cultural Perspective (Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey: Prentice-Hall Inc., 1982), p. 126.

[2] Ibid.

[3] P.V. Kane, History of Dharmaśāstra (Poona: Bhandarkar Oriental Research Institute, 1974), Vol. II, part, I p. 57.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Ibid., p. 58.

[6] A.L. Basham, The Wonder That Was India (New Delhi: Rupa & Co., 1999 [1967]), p. 147.

[7] Percival Spear, ed., Oxford History of India (fourth edition) (Delhi: Oxford University Press, 1994), p. 62.

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3 Responses to “37.) How Were the Jatis Formed and Why Should It Interest Us?”

  1. Krishen Kak Says:

    “system of subcastes or subclasses”

    Are caste and class synonymous?

  2. Dev Says:

    Well, if you are going to raise people from the level of pashu to that of vira and divya by means of Yoga then you must also upgrade their varna.

  3. Shankara Bharadwaj Says:

    Prof. Sharma, a few comments:

    1. Marriage is directly related to Jati, and related to Varna through Jati.

    2. The result of inter-jati marriage is change of Jati for the girl in case of patriarchy to her husband’s Jati, and change of Jati for the boy in case of matriarchy. Anuloma and Pratiloma definitions also differ for matriarchy and patriarchy. (Though rare, there still exist matriarchies, for instance in Kerala).

    3. An inter-jati marriage is not generally commented much by the Dharma sastras, but when the jatis fall in different varnas, then they are treated differently.

    4. Jati is determined by birth. Change of Jati for a person is possible either by adoption or by marriage.

    5. Varna is more of an abstraction unlike Jati which defines a social unit. Therefore change of Varna has more cases and can happen even if Jati does not change.

    6. Sometimes a whole clan or Jati gets elevated from one varna to another.

    Coming to how the castes formed, the four original varnas exist by default in any society. This does not mean there were only four Jatis. Multiplication of jatis always happens, as the society gets more complex. Basically any big socio-cultural unit becomes smaller units, gets defined as a set of those smaller units. It is just about growth and manageability. And then each of those smaller units grows bigger in population.

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