Thursday, August 29, 2013

Understanding the Terms of Ancient Indian Social Organization

Below are excerpts from "The Renaissance in India" by Sri Aurobindo, where he explains clearly the terms used within India for various units of social organization and their distinction.

In summary,
varNa = color i.e., Brahmin, Kshatriya, Vaishya, Shudra
Jaati = caste, e.g., Vaidika, Niyogi Brahmin, Reddy, Kamma, etc.
Kula = vamsha (clan), e.g., Kuru, Yaadava, Panchala, Rajput etc.

varNa is a concept that is based on svabhaava and distinct from birth, whereas jaati is determined by birth.
Originally, jaati came from varNa and later got subdivided.
i.e., within a varNa there might be multiple jaatis (e.g., subdivisions of brahmin caste).
Within a Jaati, there might be multiple kulas.

For each, there is a dharma - varNa dharma, jaati dharma and kula dharma.

Excerpts from "The Renaissance in India" by Sri Aurobindo pp. 417-419 available for download from

The Indian political system was still maintained for many centuries in the south, but
the public assemblies which went on existing there do not seem
to have been of the same constitution as the ancient political bodies,
but were rather some of the other communal organisations
and assemblies of which these were a coordination and supreme
instrument of control. These inferior assemblies included bodies
originally of a political character, once the supreme governing
institutions of the clan nation, kula, and the republic, gaNa.
Under the new dispensation they remained in existence, but lost
their supreme powers and could only administer with a subordinate
and restricted authority the affairs of their constituent
communities. The kula or clan family persisted, even after it
had lost its political character, as a socio-religious institution,
especially among the Kshatriyas, and preserved the tradition of
its social and religious law, kula-dharma, and in some cases its
communal assembly, kula-sangha. The public assemblies that
we find even in quite recent times filling the role of the old general
assembly in Southern India, more than one coexisting and
acting separately or in unison, appear to have been variations
on this type of body. In Rajputana also the clan family, kula,
recovered its political character and action, but in another form
and without the ancient institutions and finer cultural temper,
although they preserved in a high degree the Kshatriya dharma
of courage, chivalry, magnanimity and honour.

A stronger permanent element in the Indian communal system,
one that grew up in the frame of the four orders—in the end
even replacing it—and acquired an extraordinary vitality, persistence
and predominant importance was the historic and still
tenacious though decadent institution of caste, jaati. Originally
this rose from subdivisions of the four orders that grew up in
each order under the stress of various forces. The subdivision of
the Brahmin castes was mainly due to religious, socio-religious
and ceremonial causes, but there were also regional and local
divisions: the Kshatriyas remained for the most part one united
order, though divided into kulas. On the other hand the Vaishya
and Shudra orders split up into innumerable castes under the
necessity of a subdivision of economic functions on the basis
of the hereditary principle. Apart from the increasingly rigid
application of the hereditary principle, this settled subdivision
of function could well enough have been secured, as in other
countries, by a guild system and in the towns we do find a vigorous
and efficient guild system in existence. But the guild system
afterwards fell into desuetude and the more general institution
of caste became the one basis of economic function everywhere.
The caste in town and village was a separate communal unit, at
once religious, social and economic, and decided its religious,
social and other questions, carried on its caste affairs and exercised
jurisdiction over its members in a perfect freedom from
all outside interference: only on fundamental questions of the
Dharma the Brahmins were referred to for an authoritative interpretation
or decision as custodians of the Shastra. As with
the kula, each caste had its caste law and rule of living and
conduct, jaati-dharma, and its caste communal assembly, jaati sangha.

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