In Hinduism, the highest three castes of Hindu society are known as the twice-born (Sanskrit द्विज : Dvija) because they have undergone the sacred thread ceremony (Upanayana), in which male members are initiated into the second stage of life (ashrama) of a Vedic follower. This sacred thread ceremony is considered to be a type of second birth.
Traditionally, twice-born Hindus belong to the first three groups of the Hindu caste-system: 1) Brahmins, 2) Kshatriyas, and 3) Vaishyas. However, in many Hindu scriptures the word Dvija refers only to Brahmins in Hindu texts who possess mythical, religious superiority.
The doctrine of the "twice-born" has been criticized for promoting hierarchy and elitism in Hindu society but its supporters see it as a type of initiation and purification into a higher state of existence, analogous to baptism in other religions.
The Hindu doctrine of the twice-born castes arose from the fusion of a number of interrelated doctrines that provided ideological backing for this teaching. These affiliated doctrines are known as the Varna System, the ashrama system, and the purusarthas (four aims of life).
Asrama refers to the four stages of individual life prescribed for all twice-born Hindu males. A human's life was divided into four stages of equal time. Brahmacharya ("student life") for 25 years, Grihastha ("householder life"), after marriage, for another 25 years, Vanaprastha or age of retirement for another 25 years ("anchorite life") and if after that, Sannyasa ("renunciate life") or permanent seclusion from all human activities for the rest of life. These "stages of life for a twice-born man" or Ashrama are discussed in the Hindu Manusmriti. The Manusmriti goes into some detail, regarding what is expected of an individual during each stage.
These four varnas are as follows:
The first three varnas are called 'twice born'. They are allowed to study the Vedas. In India and Nepal, the sub-communities within a Varna are called "Jat" or "Jati." Traditionally, each Jati members are allowed to marry only within their group. People are born into their Jati and normally it cannot be changed, though there were some exceptions in Hindu Scriptures. Once someone is born to certain sub-community or Jati he or she cannot normally change their Jati, although some groups throughout history have risen or fallen according to their deeds.
The Brahmins (priests), The Kshatriyas (warriors, nobility), the Vaishyas (the craftsmen and men of commerce), and the Shudras (agriculture workers; menial workers) were the four varnas. A person of each varna was said to possess certain set of characteristics: the Shudras, they believed, were of the tamasic nature; the Vaishyas were either tamasic or rajasic; the Kshatriyas were believed to be noble, learned and selfless, his or her duty being the administration of the people and fighting of battles against intruders, often very spiritually inclined; and that the Brahmins were religious, pure, said to be society's bank of knowledge and wisdom for their memory of holy scriptures, the performers of rituals. However, there is a dispute as to which varna holds the greatest spiritual purity. Brahmins are associated with the evil Daksha, an arrogant Brahmin that received the head of a goat, and according to scriptures caused all Brahmins to be cursed by Nandi to never attain the greatest spiritual heights in Hinduism as Daksha insulted Shiva.
To the Brahmin, belongs the right of teaching and expounding the sacred texts Vedas. The occupations of the Vaishya are those connected with trade, the cultivation of the land and the breeding of cattle; while those of a Kshatriya consist in ruling and defending the people, administering justice, and the duties, of the military profession generally and ruling and expounding all Dharma. Both share with the Brahmin the privilege of reading the Vedas. Shudras were the serfs, and performed agricultural labour.
Manu Smriti is often quoted in reference to the Varna system as an inherited social class system.
The Manu Smriti claims that by the time it was written, Hindu society included another class (untouchables) of people without a position in any of the four Varnas and therefore associated with the lowest of the jobs. The upper classes, who were supposed to maintain ritual and corporal purity, came to regard them as untouchables. The people of this "fifth varna" are now called Dalits (the oppressed) or Harijans; they were formerly known as "untouchables" or "pariahs." However, this last addition social strata is not a part of the religion of Hinduism. Hinduism only categorizes occupations in to four categories.
In later times, with the elaboration of ritualism, class status became hereditary (the historians disagree as to when) and the Shudras were not even allowed to hear the sacred word of the Vedas. Use of the Manu Smriti by the British colonialists has been used by politicians and sociologists to denigrate those of the Hindu faith.
It is very clear that in the early Vedic times, the Varna system (if at all it existed) meant classes with free mobility of jobs and intermarriage. One hymn of the Rig Veda states:
Kanakadasa of the fifteenth century also denounced inherited social status. He believed that Life in every human being is Divine, and that only the ignorant wrought injustice against their own brethren by this practice. Basavanna of the twelfth century is said to have denounced inherited social status and tried to unify all communities under the Linga (form of Shiva). Critics point that the effect of communities (jatis) inheriting varna was to bind certain communities to sources of influence, power and economy while locking out others and thus create more affluence for jatis in higher classes and severe poverty for jatis in lower classes and the outcast Dalit. In the last 150 years Indian movements arose to throw off the economic and political yoke of an inherited class system that emerged over time, and replace it with true Varnashrama dharma, described in the Vedas.
In the religious scripture Mahabharata, Yudhisthira, is questioned by Yama in the form of a Yaksha, about what makes one a Brahmin. Yudhisthira, without hesitation, said that it is conduct alone that makes one a Brahmin.
Ramananda, an ascetic of the Sri Ramanuja's Sri Vaishnava sampradaya, accepted all varna as his disciples. Mirabai, the fifteenth century mystical poet and Queen of Chittor is known to have ignored varna distinctions and elected the cobbler, Sant Rohidas, as her guru. Annamacharya, a fifteenth century Telugu poet's famous Bramhamokkada song, preaches equality of all in the eyes of God and condemns inheriting social status as un-Vedic; and proposed a return to traditional varnashrama dharma. Which promoted equality and stressed the importance of all varnas. Ramakrishna Paramahamsa, the nineteenth century Hindu religious leader, also did not recognize varna distinctions and took his first alms as a twice-born Brahmin from a Shudra woman.
Many Hindu yogis and sages have, over the centuries, constantly commented about inheriting social status. Shri Chaitanya Mahaprabhu (fifteenth century), the powerful bhakti of Krishna also denounced inheriting social status. He famously distributed the Hare Krishna mantra to non-brahmins all around India, claiming this was the True path to moksha.
In response, defenders argue that Varnashrama dharma (Devanagari: वर्णाश्रम धर्म) refers to the system of classes of social life and stages of individual life in Hinduism. Varna refers to the belief that most humans were created from different parts of the body of the divinity Purusha.
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