Mirror, mirror on the wall…


Mirror, mirror on the wall, who’s the fairest of them all? So goes the question in one of the most popular children’s fairy tales. The evil queen in the story of the Sleeping Beauty went to so much of trouble to find out who is the fairest and to plot evil schemes to ensure she remained the fairest in the land. Had the poor thing known that a well structured framework was already in place to answer her question, she could have saved herself all that trouble. All she had to do was ask the Hindus who are rooted in their vedas and varnas.

You see, there was a time when everything was too good to be true and there were no social hierarchies. As this was unacceptable, the time soon came to establish hierarchies (Why hierarchy? They needed it to know who was powerful, duh!), they decided to make it simple and easy to understand. Really nice of them, eh? So someone brought along a scale – this one did not have measurements, but shades of colour. And so people don’t get confused, it had only two basic colours – white at one end and black at the other. In between were shades of gray (not the 50 shades one :P). And the deciding authorities agreed hierarchies would be tied to the colour on the scale. Now was black better than white or vice versa? Oh this doesn’t need a data scientist to come in and analyse the various light frequencies to ascertain the better colour – don’t think so much! All you need is to look up and down. You see, by the time this decision was to be made, it was noon. And high up was the white sky and below their feet was the hot, black soil, dirtying their feet and making it sore. Voila! White is better than black and decision arrived at unanimously! Hurray!

Now, how does one associate this with people? How boring would it be to make people wear just the colours on the scale! And what if someone cheated and wore the colour they weren’t assigned? Blasphemy! Now think hard, what never changes? (Hint – we are not talking about westerners who like to tan in the sun) Skin colour! Eureka! Solution arrived at. The people whose skin colour matched the white end of the scale would be the Brahmins, the best of them all. Next came the Kshatriyas and then Vaishyas. The ones who had skin that looked like the life sustaining but dirty soil would be the Shudras. Now that the divisions had been made, the moral compass for each group was assumed to be directly proportional to the value on the scale. The Brahmins had the best moral values and the Shudras none. All done and dusted, problem solved. Wait! The system needed a name. What would you name it? Considering everything was based on colour after all and the Brahmins loved Sanskrit (their code language), it was an obvious decision to call the system “varna” – how does it matter that it now meant both colour and caste? As if the now ordained lower classes even had the wits to ask something like this!

The system has been so easy to follow, that it still exists. See the ingenuity of the forebearers? Even though we don’t know their exact names, the system still exists. And it is so successful that it doesn’t suffice to venerate or despise our compatriots based on the scale. We also gladly apply it to everyone around the world. Westerners with whiter skin will be revered, westerners with dark skin will be treated like or worse than the dirt beneath our shoes. Rohith Vemula or the Tanzanian girl – is this really warranted anymore? Being Human is not just about buying clothes in a mall, it is actually being humane. Or am I the one who is mistaken and is defending the asinine system more important? Mirror, mirror on the wall, what indeed is the point of it all?


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