chapter  16
26 Pages

Varn.a and Jåti

ByMcKim Marriott

The word “var~a,” which means “light” or “color” in the language of the ¸g Veda, isused in later Vedic and subsequent discourse for each of four cosmogonic human types whose properties are attributed also to gods, animals, plants, and other things. Jåti, an equally early word meaning “birth” or “genus,” is used for any set of beings supposed to cohere as a biological and/or social “community” (samåja)—a race, clan, region, occupation, religion, language, nation, gender, or var~a (Kane 1930-62, 5.2: 1632-33); most often it designates one of the many, now thousands of marriage and kinship networks existing among South Asian families. The varied ways such networks have related to each other and to var~a types over three millennia are summarized here from texts, histories, and twentieth-century observations, with special attention to indigenous categories and logics.1