There are about 4000 castes (kulas and jatis) in India and only 4 well-defined varnas or categories (brahmana, kshatriya, vaisya, sudra) in the Hindu system.
Prof. M.N. Srinivas has done field studies and brought to “english” light the fact that the castes can move up or down the varna hierarchy, see : Indian Caste System: Then and Now: Jati, Varna, Kula for a little more information and references.
Sometimes this was done by mass caste conversions by kings who needed a certain number of Brahmans for temples or other purposes, sometimes by battles to become kshatriyas, warriors and kings and sometimes just by registering themselves as a higher varna at the time of the british census or when there was mass migration to new colonies eg west indies. Even recently I read that some girls are being converted to brahman varNa for the purpose of marriages on the west coast. (The first known instance is of Vasishtha‘s wife Arundhati).
Today of course we have a new “varna system” with women, forward, backward, other backward and scheduled castes and so on.. implemented by the government that covers all Indian citizens.
However in the Vishnu Sahasranamam Phala Sruti I found an interesting way of determining an individual’s varna.
For the caste’s varna to change all the members of that jathi have to change, but there is a way for individuals to know their personal varNa.
As a result of chanting the Vishnu Sahasranamam, this is one of the benefits.
vedAntagah brahmaNah syAt, kSatriyah vijayI bhavEt, vais’yO dhanasamRddhah syAt, s’Udrah sukhamavApnuyAt.
So if you chant the Vishnu Sahasranamam with devotion,
- you find sukham (comfort, happiness)., then you could think that you are of s’Udra varNa as an individual.
- you find yourself a dhanasamRddhah (growing very wealthy)., then you could think that you are of vais’ya varNa as an individual.
- you find yourself becoming vijayi (victorious)., then you could think that you are of kSatriya varNa as an individual.
- you find yourself becoming a vedantagah ., ie a philosopher, one who understands the end of all Vedas., then you could think that you are of brAhmaNa varNa as an individual.
- If you pray for sukha, dhana, vijaya or vedanta then you could identify your varna accordingly.
As a general rule women pray for the sukha of their families and loved ones, so its not hard to guess my individual varNA, but there have been in the past great rishikas and vedantins among women too. And it is also possible that I will improve with time and become a vedAntin or bhaktA! My guru always blesses me with “brahma vidyA siddhirastu”!
A friend of mine believes that she has a different varNa at each time of the day depending on what she is required to accomplish. That may also be a truth!
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