Lecture 1, Part 2: The Indian Obsession With Classification by Bharati

To the reader…

This is part of a series of posts on Indian Political Thought. They are transcripts of lectures delivered recently by Bharati. Each lecture will be divided into a number of parts and published separately. Bharati has not only endorsed their publication but also checked and improved the transcripts; for which, the blog renders its gratitude. However, yours truly and their good friend are responsible for tracing, checking, and arranging the references. These references are neither authoritative nor exhaustive; treat them simply as the attempts of two cluelesss students at helping themselves and other clueless students understand the lectures just a little better. Often they are pointers to material that might interest the slightly more advanced reader. Some are simply interesting (we hope) pieces of trivia.

Some things before you proceed:

  1. Sanskrit (and other non-English) terms are transliterated following the International Alphabet of Sanskrit Transliteration (IAST) standard. Though it not strictly necessary or even recommended, I try to transliterate most terms. Familiarity with Devanagri sounds is recommended.
  2. Please use the footnote markers ([1], [2], etc.) to jump to footnotes and back to the text.


The Indian Obsession With Classification

11. Everything in Indian thinking seems to be context-bound, by which I mean that you cannot ask whether a particular season, colour, food item, part of your body, person, dress, etc., is good or bad and hope to have a clear universal answer.[6] Is this person someone I can eat with? What is his status? What are his duties? In the Indian scheme, I cannot get a clear answer unless I place him or her within a general classification of varnas. The same goes for seasons, colours, directions, and so on. Colours are subject to a cultural evaluation but why is that evaluation context-bound? You know probably that which particular colour pleases which particular deity is already fixed. I mean if you didn’t know that and if you were to offer a white flower to a particular deity to whom a red flower is supposed to be offered, then some elderly person in your family will correct you and say that that is not the flower that you offer to Lord Ganesha (or Lord Vishnu or whoever). Now this rule is not a random thing but part of a very large scheme. And I somehow want you to read Ramanujan and then go into this other thing about classification that I am trying to introduce now.

12. The point is that ancient Indians were incorrigible classifiers. By ancient Indians, I mean of course the elites within ancient India and when elites do something, or say something, it becomes dominant within a society. And therefore in an indirect sense, it becomes a scheme of classification of the whole society, something which the whole society subscribes to even if it is working to their disadvantage. Everyone knows about the classification of society into what is called varṇa and caste, its hierarchical nature, and the challenges to that scheme, especially in the modern period. But very few people realise that this classification applies not just to human beings but to everything from sounds and colours and seasons to directions and even to metres.[7] There are certain metres in which traditionally poetry was composed. In the general scheme of classification, unique to early Indian culture, you get a classification of meters also and a hierarchy within them.

13. So, you have (a) a classification of all things (and not just caste or varṇa), which are (b) placed in a hierarchical order, and (c) these various hierarchies are related to each other by a certain relationship of correspondence or connection. What I mean is this. Let’s take the three classes or Varnas. (Although the word varṇa literally means “colour”, it is better translated as class. Because the moment you translate it as colour, it immediately implies that people belonging to different varṇa have different complexions and that is because they are racially different and that the story of the coming into existence of the varṇa society have got to do with the fair-complexioned people (outsiders who came from the North-West) having subjugated and perhaps enslaved, in some cases, the dark-complexioned people (from the South?). This entire story of the origin of the varna system is somewhat suspect, and controversial. We don’t want to commit ourselves without any enquiry to this explanation of how the varna system historically came into being. Therefore, to avoid any such precommitment, I am using the word varṇa in the sense of class or category rather than colour or complexion.

14. So everyone in the society was supposed to be classified into one of the three varnas. What about the fourth category or class which we are familiar with from anti-Brahmin or non-Brahmin politics? It does get mentioned in the old texts, but the funny thing about the very old texts is that they are fixated with the number three.[8] And it is only gradually that the number three becomes number four. Originally they used to classify everything into three and therefore the classification of the earliest variety was Brahmin,[9] Kṣatriya, Vaiśya. And some of the descriptions of the Shudras that we see later were originally part of the description of the Vaiśyas who were considered in the tripartite classification as the commoners, the common people. And their putative status and function underwent a change as the Indian society made a transition from a lineage society.

15. Remember we are talking about how things were supposed to be, and not necessarily how things actually were; we are not studying history in the sense of social history, we are studying the history of ideas, and therefore we are looking at the classificatory scheme of society as it was supposed to be. This is true of the earliest classificatory scheme of three varnas. Similarly with the aims of human life. Everyone knows about the aims and stages of human life. Everyone knows about artha, kāma, dharma. What about mokṣa? Again the interesting thing is that mokṣa gets added only later. Some of the earliest texts mention only three aims of life. That is why I am saying that the Indian texts start with tripartite division of everything in it. While for us, for our contemporary social and political purposes, the classification of human beings and their hierarchical ordering is indeed irrelevant, it is important to remember that it was originally part of a huge classificatory scheme which tried to be as comprehensive as possible so that everything in this world could be classified under that scheme, making the classification of human beings seem natural.

16. This classification was hierarchical. The division of society into Brahmins, Kṣatriyas, and Vaiśyas was not a horizontal division but a vertical division. You classify not only human beings but everything; and you not only classify everything but do so hierarchically. Up to this point, there is nothing very new. What might be new to you is the relationship of correspondence between a class of human beings and all those other things that we would not normally connect them with. Let me explain. What is the essential quality that Brahmin as a social class is supposed to represent? That is supposed to be brahman, (just as the Kṣatriyas are supposed to represent kṣatra). From this onwards, all the following are placed in the same category: Brahmin; splendour; agni; earth; morning (among the parts of the day); speech (among the faculties of human beings); Ṛgveda (among the Vedic texts); gāyatrī (among the various metres): all these come under the category of brahman. Which means, and this is an idea difficult to grasp because we think so differently from the way ancient Indians used to think, that there is some sort of a connection, a correspondence, between Brahmin, speech, Ṛgveda, morning, and the gāyatrī metre. There is a correspondence or homology between them. Similarly with Kṣatriya. You have a correspondence between Kṣatriya as a class and the idea of greatness (while for Brahmins it was splendour); a deity called Indra; the natural element, wind; the part of the day called midday; the bodily function called breath; the Vedic text called Yajurveda; and a particular metre called triṣṭubha. (S o we can say that the gāyatrī metre is a Brahmin metre whereas triṣṭubha is a Kṣatriya metre! (See Note [7])

17. You can think of this in terms of three columns each headed by a varṇa: Brahmins, Kṣatriyas, and Vaiśyas. Below or within each column, you list all those things like the meter, bodily functions, parts of the day, seasons, deities, and the Vedas to which they correspond. Within each column there is a correspondence between elements and across columns there is a hierarchy. This can be expressed by saying that gāyatrī has the quality of the Brahmin; that morning has the quality of the Brahmin, while midday has the quality of the Kṣatriya; that splendour is typical of and unique to Brahmins just as greatness is typical of and unique to Kṣatriyas, just as fame is typical of and is unique to Vaiśyas. So this whole business of connection or correspondence gives you a huge scheme of classification. Though it can be put in the form of a table, the ancient texts don’t present it as a table. It comes as part of several verses from which a modern scholar has constructed a table. And depending on which particular texts one is looking at, or even which particular part of the text one is looking at, you will get a more or less elaborate table. If someone were to go through the entire corpus of ancient texts, then he or she will be able to prepare a huge table fragments of which can be traced back to the old texts.

18. If you look at the columns [see below] laterally — Brahmin, Kṣatriya, Vaiśya — there is a hierarchy, while within each column, there is a homology. When we say correspondence, it is rough equivalence between elements. What are these elements? Practically anything in the world, as you can see from the examples that I gave earlier. Yet another way of expressing this is to say that the ancients seem to have taken bodily functions and classified them as typical of Brahmin, Kṣatriya, and Vaiśya. They seem to have taken metres of poetry and similarly classified them according to social classes. Same with parts of the day. And so on. In the end, you have a scheme of classification where you have not only a hierarchical relationship across columns, but within each column, corresponding to each class, you have a whole list of heterogenous elements all of which are supposed to have some correspondence with each other.

19. And that is why a Brahmin who is trying to pursue fame was to be looked down upon, according to this theory. Because fame is typical of and unique to Vaiśyas. There is a correspondence between Vaiśyas and fame. Or there is a correspondence between Kṣatriyas and greatness. A Kṣatriya who shuns war and glory is not a true Kṣatriya. And so on. From this classification emerges the rule — and remember, this is just an example of context-bound rules — that a Brahmin should pursue splendour; that a Kṣatriya should pursue greatness; that a Vaiśya should pursue fame. And hence any one of these trying to pursue anything which does not correspond to their class is supposed to be doing something that is wrong, something prohibited by the law books. Law books of course come later. The classification comes first. But the law books are in fact an elaboration and codification of this classification.

20. I hope that you are at least vaguely beginning to see the connection between what Ramanujan calls context-bound and what this scheme of classification is saying. This kind of research does not seem to have been available to Ramanujan when he wrote the essay. But you can see that he had intuitively grasped something central to the early Indian thinking. The reason why all the ancient Indian rules are context specific is because the law books emerge out of or are based on a huge classificatory scheme which goes back to those texts which come immediately after the Vedic texts. And on the basis of this classificatory scheme, the law books codify various rules that society must follow.

Brian Smith, Classifying the Universe, p. 67.


[6] Consider Max Weber’s remarks in the famous “Politics as a Vocation” lecture (Max Weber, The Vocation Lectures, trans. Rodney Livingstone [Indianapolis: Hackett, 2004], pp. 87–88):

Hinduism [] elaborate[d] the dharma of each individual caste in accordance with the intrinsic laws governing each profession, from the ascetics and the Brahmans down to the villains and whores. … This specialized approach to ethics made it possible for Indian philosophy to develop an internally consistent treatment of the royal art of politics, focusing entirely on its own particular laws and indeed intensifying them radically. A genuinely radical “Machiavellianism,” in the popular sense of the word, received its classic formulation in Indian literature as early as Kautilya’s Arthashastra (long before the Christian era, allegedly from the time of Chandragupta). Machiavelli’s The Prince is harmless in comparison.[^]

[7] Consider the gāyatrī , which is the shortest and most sacred chanda or meter, and comprises 3 feet of 8 syllables each. An example of a verse that uses the gāyatrī metre is, of course, the famous gāyatrī mantra (named after the meter!) of the Ṛgveda 3.62.10 (trans. Jamison and Brereton, vol 1, p. 554).

bhargo devasya dhīmahi
dhiyo yo naḥ pracodayāt

Might we make our own
that desirable effulgence of god Savitar,
who will rouse forth our insights.

Another metre called the triṣṭubha, the most prevalent in the gveda, comprises of four feet of 11 syllables each. An example from gveda 6.17.1. (trans. Jamison and Brereton, vol 2, p. 795).

pibā somamabhi yamugra tarda
ūrvaṃ gavyaṃ mahi gṛṇāna indra
vi yo dhṛṣṇo vadhiṣo vajrahasta
viśvā vṛtramamitriyā śavobhiḥ

Drink the soma! The cattle enclosure that
you will drill through to, mighty Indra,
when you are greatly sung— you bold mace-bearer,
who will hew apart Vrtra with your powers—

(See below for references to these two meters. The are many varieties of each. For an easy introduction, see Madhavi R. Narsalay, Chandas as Vedanga, Ancient Indian Culture Series [Tirupati: Tirumala Tirupati Devasthanams, 2019]).[^]

[8] To give three examples: the triple or TrayīṚg, Sāma, Yajur (Arthaśāstra, 1.3.1); the three sources of dharma — vedas, tradition, practice (Gautama Dharmasūtra 1.2.1–2); the three aims of human life or trivarga — dharma, artha, kama (Kamasūtra 1.1.5).[^]

[9] Brahmin is the Anglicised form of brāhmaṇa. It is one of the few words that I will not transliterate.[^]


Jamison, Stephanie W., and Joel P. Brereton, trans. 2014. The Rigveda: The Earliest Religious Poetry of India. 3 vols. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Narsalay, Madhavi R. 2019. Chandas as Vedanga. Ancient Indian Culture Series. Tirupati: Tirumala Tirupati Devasthanams.

Olivelle, Patrick, trans. 2000. Dharmasūtras: The Law Codes of Āpastamba, Gautama, Baudhāyana, and Vasiṣṭha. Sources on Ancient Hindu Law. Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass Publishers.

Smith, Brian K. 1994. Classifying the Universe: The Ancient Indian Varna System and the Origins of Caste. New York: Oxford University Press.

Weber, Max. 2004. The Vocation Lectures. Edited and with an Introduction by David Owen and Tracy B. Strong. Translated by Rodney Livingstone. Indianapolis: Hackett.