Varna (Sanskrit, perhaps from vr, “veil,” hence “color”) is the term for the four social orders, or categories, of Hindu society: Brahmans, Ksatriyas, Vaisyas, and Sudras. The divisions originated with the early Ayran settlement of northern India, and, according to the Rg Veda, were created by the gods from the body of Purusa, the first man. From his head sprang the Brahmans, from his arms the Ksatriyas, from his thighs the Vasiyas, and from his feet the Sudras. Into these four major divisions the castes (jati) later fitted. Some maintain that there is a fifth category, the Harijans or untouchables, while others place them within the Sudra division, dividing this into two segments, the “clean” and “unclean.” The three upper varna are termed “twice-born,” since the male family members go through a thread ceremony (upanayana) which implies a spiritual rebirth, making the transition into adulthood, and the student stage (astrama) of life. Reading, writing and the pursuit of knowledge were regarded as irrelevant for the Sudra way of life, so that varna was excluded from the thread ceremonies.
Since the word varna means “color,” it is hypothesized that the system reflects an observed difference in appearance between the fair-skinned Ayran (“noble”) from the north and the darker skinned indigenous inhabitants (dasas, “slaves”). A certain passage in the Rg Veda discourages marriages between fair and dark individuals, and the ancient Indian scholar Patanjali found blonde hair to be a brahmanic attribute, although the occurrence must have been extremely rare even in his lifetime.
The individual’s varna, and, within it, his caste, gives his ascribed social status in society; he is born into it and remains in it throughout life, unless, as in former times, he was outcaste for some offence. Even in modern India, the varna provide a hierarchical framework for the castes, although an individual is no longer forced to undertake the occupation of his varna. A.G.H.
Bowker, John, The Oxford Dictionary of World Religions, New York, Oxford University Press, 1997, p.1015