38.) Does Varnasankara Make Any Sense?

Varṇa-saṅkara or admixture of castes, as it is commonly translated, was much on the mind of the Hindu law-makers. Thus

The continual injunctions to the king to ensure that ‘confusion of class’ (varṇa-saṅkara) did not take place indicate that such confusion was an ever-present danger in the mind of the orthodox brāhmaṇ. The class system was indeed a very fragile thing. In the golden age the classes were stable, but the legendary king Vena among his many other crimes, had encouraged miscegenation, and from this beginning confusion of class had increased, and was a special feature of the Kali-yuga, the last degenerate age of this aeon, which was fast nearing its close. The good king, therefore, should spare no effort to maintain the purity of the classes, and many dynasties took special pride in their efforts in this direction.[1]

It has therefore been duly noted that “as described in the law books, these four varnas [brāhmaṇa, kṣatriya, vaiśya, śūdra] were closed groups, and intermarriage between them is forbidden.”[2]

Nor was that all. Just as one dimension of the caste system is represented by varṇa another is represented by jāti,[3] which is typically a smaller endogamous and commensal unit subsumed under the larger category of varṇa. Thus while Manu “mentions about fifty different castes, he lays stress on the fact that there were only four varṇas.[4] Although one usually encounters the expression varṇasaṅkara, the allied expression jātisaṅkara is also not unknown.[5] Often simply the word saṅkara is used by itself.

The question arises: why was varṇasaṅkara such an issue? It could well be that its connotation varies during the different periods in the history of Hinduism. If, as is sometimes suggested, the varṇa system itself originated in colour differences among different sections of the population,[6] then the fear of varṇa-saṅkara might have reflected the fear of loss of complexion bound to occur through indiscriminate intermarriage. Subsequently, when the basis of caste distinctions came to rest more on vocational and life-style patterns, varṇasaṅkara may have come to reflect the fear of the collapse of normative social and ritual mores, as in the case of Arjuna in the Bhagavadgītā. In still later times, when caste became increasingly defined in terms of endogamy and commensality, the fear of “loss of caste” may have found an echo in the concept.[7]

In sum then, in order to make sense of varṇasaṅkara, one needs to realize how the word varṇa itself made sense. For instance, should the word varṇa we used essentially as a classificatory category, varṇasaṅkara would mean a confusion of categories, or even a category-error!

[1] A.L. Basham, The Wonder That Was India (London: Sidgewick & Jackson, 1967) p. 146.

[2] David R. Kinsley, Hinduism: A Cultural Perspective (Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey: Prentice-Hall, Inc. 1982) p. 123.

[3] Julius Lipner, Hindus: Their Religious Beliefs and Practices (London and New York: Routledge, 1994).

[4] Percival Spear, The Oxford History of India (fourth edition) (Delhi: Oxford University Press, 1994) p. 63

[5] P.K. Gode and C.G. Karve, eds., V.S. Apte’s the Practical Sanskrit-English Dictionary (Poona: Prasad Prakshan, 1958) Vol. II, p. 734.

[6] A.L. Basham, The Origins and Development of Classical Hinduism (Boston: Beacon Press, 1989) p. 26-27.

[7] Abbe J.A. Dubois, Hindu Manners, Customs and Ceremonies (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1936) pp. 38-39.


One Response to “38.) Does Varnasankara Make Any Sense?”

  1. Shankara Bharadwaj Says:

    Prof. Sharma, a nice one. Just an addition:

    The idea is that in a prosperous and stable society, all the specializations of knowledge, governance-polity-defense, commerce and occupations thrive. In a society that is faced with a crisis or decline or attack, the scope for these specializations becomes smaller, and one or more of these invariably suffer because of the higher priority of protection-survival over sustenance-growth. Which is when the Sankara actually happens. Varna is an abstraction of social functions and Varna-sankara is the loss of scope for functional specializations. Varna-sankara in Kali Yuga means the loss of social stability.

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