The Vishnu Purana

by Horace Hayman Wilson | 1840 | 287,946 words | ISBN-10: 8171102127

The English translation of the Vishnu Purana. This is a primary sacred text of the Vaishnava branch of Hinduism. It is one of the eighteen greater Puranas, a branch of sacred Vedic literature which was first committed to writing during the first millennium of the common era. Like most of the other Puranas, this is a complete narrative from the cr...

Chapter VI - Origin of the four castes

Origin of the four castes: their primitive state. Progress of society. Different kinds of grain. Efficacy of sacrifice. Duties of men: regions assigned them after death.

Maitreya said:—

Thou hast briefly noticed, illustrious sage, the creation termed Arvāksrotas, or that of mankind: now explain to me more fully how Brahmā accomplished it; how he created the four different castes; what duties he assigned to the Brahmans and the rest[1].

Parāśara said:—

Formerly, oh best of Brahmans, when the truth-meditating Brahmā was desirous of creating the world, there sprang from his mouth beings especially endowed with the quality of goodness; others from his breast, pervaded by the quality of foulness; others from his thighs, in whom foulness and darkness prevailed; and others from his feet, in whom the quality of darkness predominated. These were, in succession, beings of the several castes, Brahmans, Kṣetriyas, Vaisyas, and Śūdras, produced from the mouth, the breast, the thighs, and the feet of Brahmā[2]. These he created for the performance of sacrifices, the four castes being the fit instruments of their celebration. By sacrifices, oh thou who knowest the truth, the gods are nourished; and by the rain which they bestow, mankind are supported[3]: and thus sacrifices, the source of happiness, are performed by pious men, attached to their duties, attentive to prescribed obligations, and walking in the paths of virtue. Men acquire (by them) heavenly fruition, or final felicity: they go, after death, to whatever sphere they aspire to, as the consequence of their human nature. The beings who were created by Brahmā, of these four castes, were at first endowed with righteousness and perfect faith; they abode wherever they pleased, unchecked by any impediment; their hearts were free from guile; they were pure, made free from soil, by observance of sacred institutes. In their sanctified minds Hari dwelt; and they were filled with perfect wisdom, by which they contemplated the glory of Viṣṇu[4]. After a while (after the Tretā age had continued for some period), that portion of Hari which has been described as one with Kāla (time) infused into created beings sin, as yet feeble though formidable, or passion and the like: the impediment of soul's liberation, the seed of iniquity, sprung from darkness and desire. The innate perfectness of human nature was then no more evolved: the eight kinds of perfection, Rasollāsā and the rest, were impaired[5]; and these being enfeebled, and sin gaining strength, mortals were afflicted with pain, arising from susceptibility to contrasts, as heat and cold, and the like. They therefore constructed places of refuge, protected by trees, by mountains, or by water; surrounded them by a ditch or a wall, and formed villages and cities; and in them erected appropriate dwellings, as defences against the sun and the cold[6]. Having thus provided security against the weather, men next began to employ themselves in manual labour, as a means of livelihood, (and cultivated) the seventeen kinds of useful grain—rice, barley, wheat, millet, sesamum, panic, and various sorts of lentils, beans, and pease[7]. These are the kinds cultivated for domestic use: but there are fourteen kinds which may be offered in sacrifice; they are, rice, barley, Māṣa, wheat, millet, and sesamum; Priyaṅgu is the seventh, and kulattha, pulse, the eighth: the others are, Syāmāka, a sort of panic; Nīvāra, uñcultivated rice; Jarttila, wild sesamum; Gavedukā (coix); Markata, wild panic; and (a plant called) the seed or barley of the Bambu (Venu-yava). These, cultivated or wild, are the fourteen grains that were produced for purposes of offering in sacrifice; and sacrifice (the cause of rain) is their origin also: they again, with sacrifice, are the great cause of the perpetuation of the human race, as those understand who can discriminate cause and effect. Thence sacrifices were offered daily; the performance of which, oh best of Munis, is of essential service to mankind, and expiates the offences of those by whom they are observed. Those, however, in whose hearts the dross of sin derived from Time (Kāla) was still more developed, assented not to sacrifices, but reviled both them and all that resulted from them, the gods, and the followers of the Vedas. Those abusers of the Vedas, of evil disposition and conduct, and seceders from the path of enjoined duties, were plunged in wickedness[8].

The means of subsistence having been provided for the beings he had created, Brahmā prescribed laws suited to their station and faculties, the duties of the several castes and orders[9], and the regions of those of the different castes who were observant of their duties. The heaven of the Pitris is the region of devout Brahmans. The sphere of Indra, of Kṣetriyas who fly not from the field. The region of the winds is assigned to the Vaisyas who are diligent in their occupations and submissive. Śūdras are elevated to the sphere of the Gandharbas. Those Brahmans who lead religious lives go to the world of the eighty-eight thousand saints: and that of the seven Ṛṣis is the seat of pious anchorets and hermits. The world of ancestors is that of respectable householders: and the region of Brahmā is the asylum of religious mendicants[10]. The imperishable region of the Yogis is the highest seat of Viṣṇu, where they perpetually meditate upon the supreme being, with minds intent on him alone: the sphere where they reside, the gods themselves cannot behold. The sun, the moon, the planets, shall repeatedly be, and cease to be; but those who internally repeat the mystic adoration of the divinity, shall never know decay. For those who neglect their duties, who revile the Vedas, and obstruct religious rites, the places assigned after death are the terrific regions of darkness, of deep gloom, of fear, and of great terror; the fearful hell of sharp swords, the hell of scourges and of a waveless sea[11].

Footnotes and references:


The creation of mankind here described is rather out of its place, as it precedes the birth of the Prajāpatis, or their progenitors: but this want of method is common to the Purāṇas, and is evidence of their being compilations from various sources.


This original of the four castes is given in Manu, and in most of the Purāṇas. We shall see, however, that the distinctions are subsequently ascribed to voluntary election, to accident, or to positive institutions.


According to Manu, oblations ascend to and nourish the sun; whence the rain falls upon earth, and causes the growth of corn: burnt-offerings are therefore the final causes of the support of mankind.


This description of a pure race of beings is not of general occurrence in the Purāṇas. It seems here to be abridged from a much more detailed account in the Brahmāṇḍa, Vāyu, and Mārkaṇḍeya Purāṇas. In those works Brahmā is said to create, in the beginning of the Kalpa, a thousand pairs of each of the four classes of mankind, who enjoy perfect happiness during the Krita age, and only gradually become subject to infirmities as the Tretā or second age advances.


These eight perfections, or Siddhis, are not the supernatural faculties obtained by the performance of the Yoga. They are described, the commentator says, in the Skānda and other works; and from them he extracts their description: 1. Rasollāsā, the spontaneous or prompt evolution of the juices of the body, independently of nutriment from without: 2. Tripti, mental satisfaction, or freedom from sensual desire: 3. Sāmya, sameness of degree: 4. Tulyatā, similarity of life, form, and feature: 5. Visokā, exemption alike from infirmity or grief: 6. Consummation of penance and meditation, by attainment of true knowledge: 7. The power of going every where at will: 8. The faculty of reposing at any time or in any place. These attributes are alluded to, though obscurely, in the Vāyu, and are partly specified in the Mārkaṇḍeya Purāṇa.


In the other three Purāṇas, in which this legend has been found, the different kinds of inhabited places are specified and p. 46 introduced by a series of land measures. Thus the Mārkaṇḍeya states, that 10 Paramāṇus = 1 Parasūkṣma; 10 Parasūkṣmas = 1 Trasareṇu; 10 Trasareṇus = 1 particle of dust, or Mahīrajas; 10 Mahīrajasas = 1 Bālāgra, ‘hair’s point;' 10 Bālāgras = 1 Likhyā; 10 Likhyās= 1 Yūka; to Yūkas = 1 heart of barley (Yavodara); 10 Yavodaras = 1 grain of barley of middle size; 10 barley grains = 1 finger, or inch; 6 fingers = a Pada, or foot (the breadth of it); 2 Padas = 1 Vitasti, or span; 2 spans = 1 Hasta, or cubit; 4 Hastas = a Dhanu, a Danda, or staff, or 2 Nārikās; 2000 Dhanus = a Gavyūti; 4 Gavyūtis = a Yojana. The measurement of the Brahmāṇḍa is less detailed. A span from the thumb to the first finger is a Pradeśa; to the middle finger, a Nāla; to the third finger, a Gokerna; and to the little finger, a Vitasti, which is equal to twelve Angulas, or fingers; understanding thereby, according to the Vāyu, a joint of the finger; according to other authorities, it is the breadth of the thumb at the tip. (A. R. 5. 104.) The Vāyu, giving similar measurements upon the authority of Manu, although such a statement does not occur in the Manu Sanhitā, adds, that 21 fingers= 1 Ratni; 24 fingers = 1 Hasta, or cubit; 2 Ratnis = 1 Kiṣku; 4 Hastas = 1 Dhanu; 2000 Dhanus = l Gavyūti; and 8000 Dhanus = 1 Yojana. Durgas, or strong holds, are of four kinds; three of which are natural, from, their situation in mountains, amidst water, or in other inaccessible spots; the fourth is the artificial defences of a village (Grāma), a hamlet (Kheṭaka), or a city (Pura or Nagara), which are severally half the size of the next in the series. The best kind of city is one which is about a mile long by half a mile broad, built in the form of a parallelogram, facing the northeast, and surrounded by a high wall and ditch. A hamlet should be a Yojana distant from a city: a village half a Yojana from a hamlet. The roads leading to the cardinal points from a city should be twenty Dhanus (above too feet) broad: a village road should be the same: a boundary road ten Dhanus: a royal or principal road or street should be ten Dhanus (above fifty feet) broad: a cross or branch road should be four Dhanus. Lanes and paths amongst the houses are two Dhanus in breadth: footpaths four cubits: the entrance of a house three cubits: the private entrances and paths about the mansion of still narrower dimensions. Such were the measurements adopted by the first builders of cities, according to the Purāṇas specified.


These are enumerated in the text, as well as in the Vāyu and Mārkaṇḍeya P., and are, Udāra, a sort of grain with long stalks (perhaps a holcus); Kodrava (Paspalum kora); Cīnaka, a sort of panic (P. miliaceum); Māṣa, kidney bean (Phaseolus radiatus); Mudga (Phaseolus mungo); Masūra, lentil (Ervum hirsutum); Nishpāva, a sort of pulse; Kulattha (Dolithos p. 47 biflorus); Arhaki (Cytisus Cajan); Chanaka, chick pea (Cicer arietinum); and Sana (Crotolaria).


This allusion to the sects hostile to the Vedas, Buddhists or Jains, does not occur in the parallel passages of the Vāyu and Mārkaṇḍeya Purāṇas.


The Vāyu goes farther than this, and states that the castes were now first divided according to their occupations; having, indeed, previously stated that there was no such distinction in the Krita age: 'Brahmā now appointed those who were robust and violent to be Kṣetriyas, to protect the rest; those who were pure and pious he made Brahmans; those who were of less power, but industrious, and addicted to cultivate the ground, he made Vaisyas; whilst the feeble and poor of spirit were constituted Śūdras: and he assigned them their several occupations, to prevent that interference with one another which had occurred as long as they recognised no duties peculiar to castes.


These worlds, some of which will be more particularly described in a different section, are the seven Lokas or spheres above the earth: 1. Prājāpatya or Pitri loka: 2. Indra loka or Swerga: 3. Marut loka or Diva loka, heaven: 4. Gandharba loka, the region of celestial spirits; also called Maharloka: 5. Janaloka, or the sphere of saints; some copies read eighteen thousand; others, as in the text, which is also the reading of the Padma Purāṇa: 6. Tapaloka, the world of the seven sages: and 7. Brahma loka or Satya loka, the world of infinite wisdom and truth. The eighth, or high world of Viṣṇu, is a sectarial addition, which in the Bhāgavata is called Vaikuntha, and in the Brahma Vaivartta, Goloka; both apparently, and most certainly the last, modern inventions.


The divisions of Naraka, or hell, here named, are again more particularly enumerated, b. II. c. 6.

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