This is a thread on Vedic ""racial"" terminology, specifically the terms "dāsa" and "varṇa".

I recently returned to teach a text (ii.12) where the phrase "dā́saṃ várṇam" turned up, and was reminded of MacDonnell's somewhat unsettling translation of it as "Dāsa colour". 1/
Now, let's first deal with "varṇa". It is probably from a root √vṛ , which can mean either "cover" or "choose". If the former, it might first have meant "type", if the latter, perhaps "coating". In the RV it has been extended to mean "appearance", "form", "shape"...

"light", and - pertinently - "colour". That said, the Sanskrit tradition suggests several possible roots. The truth is that we can't ascertain the precise etymological origin of "varṇa", so it's quite hard for us to establish its ~original~ meaning.

It is definitely used to mean "colour" in the RV, e.g.

náktā ca cakrúruṣásā vírūpe kṛṣṇám ca várṇamaruṇám ca sám dhuḥ (i.73.7)

"They made night and dawn of different forms, and they put together the black colour and the red"

It is also used to refer to different peoples, as in the example at the top of the thread. Specifically, it is used to distinguish between the "Ārya varṇa" (the primary authors of the RV) and the "Dāsa varṇa" (another group - discussed below).

I should note here that...

"varṇa" is not used to mean "caste" or "jāti" in the RV itself, even in the Puruṣa sūkta (x.90), which is the earliest attestation of caste ideology. That usage starts in the Brāhmaṇas some centuries later.

Now, hitting pause on "varṇa", let's look at "Dāsa". Again...

its etymology is unclear, but perhaps related to √dā "give" -> "people we give stuff to". It is closely related to the term "Dasyu", and their meanings clearly overlap. The Dasyu is characterised in x.22:

akarmā́ dásyurabhí no amantúranyávrato ámānuṣaḥ

"The Dasyu of non-deeds, of non-thought, not a son of Manu, whose commandments are other, is against us".

On this basis the Dasyus are people who do not abide by Vedic customs. Their only job in the RV is to fight the Āryas. Notably, nothing is said of their language.

The Dāsas, however, do appear named, and not always at war with the Āryas, e.g. viii.46.32

śatám dāsé balbūthé víprastárukṣa ā́ dade
"I, the poet, took [as payment] 100 [camels] from Balbūtha Tarukṣa the Dāsa."

i.e Balbūtha has commissioned a Vedic poet!
And with a name like that, it seems that this Dāsa is not of Indo-Aryan origin
(initial /b/ highly unlikely, among other things).

Additionally, in viii.56, "100 Dāsas" are given as a gift, suggesting that they may also have been enslaved by the Āryas (or at least by this..

character, who calls himself "Dasyave Vṛka", "Wolf to the Dasyu".)

So who are these Dāsas? And what is the implication for our translation of "varṇa"?

Here - you guessed it - Race Science rears its ugly head.

The early orientalists decided that the Dāsas were de facto the "indigenous" population of the Indus Valley, conquered and assimilated by the invading Āryas. The Āryas were light-skinned, the Dāsas were not, therefore "varṇa" = "pigmentation". Here's MacDonnell.

Oh and that reference to "kṛṣnám váraṇam"? Yep, that's the one I quoted earlier which *clearly* refers to the black of night and the red of dawn, not skin colour.

What shook me is that this view went forth into the C20th unchallenged. This is paper is from NINETEEN EIGHTY
No more quotes - but suffice to say I have encountered so very many discussions of the "darker indigenous" population which has absolutely no basis in the texts, but plays into the worst modern forms of racism & colourism from both colonisers and, as you see above, Indians.

The Dāsas may not have been "Indo-Aryan" on the basis of onomastics, but Witzel (1999) lists fully 22 non-IE names in the Veda, so perhaps not even all *Āryas* were "Indo-Aryan" in origin. And maybe some Dāsas were! Who knows.

In short, a strong race-centered approach to...

Vedic terminology is simply not justified by the text. The link between "varṇa" as "colour" & "varṇa" as "race" is a by-product of a C19th ethnographic obsession with pigmentation, and one that needs thorough interrogation.

Addendum: None of what I've said is particularly new, but MacDonnell is still one of the most useful anglophone resources for learning Vedic, especially from an IE perspective. It's what I learnt from. Until he's 100% replaced, correctives (*from IE-ists*) remain a necessity.
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