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Colorism Is A Problem In India. But Who Cares? : Colorism in Ancient India

Let me first start with defining what colourism is and how it is different from racism. Colorism is defined as prejudiced attitudes and/or discriminatory acts against people based on the color (shade or tone) of their skin. On the other hand, racism is prejudiced attitudes and/or discriminatory acts against people based on their actual or perceived racial status (link). Now that we know the difference between them, let me ask you a question – why is colorism a problem in India and what is it’s history? 

India (and her culture) is ancient and many different countries have successfully colonized her, like the British Rule which lasted for 200 years or the Mughals who ruled for almost 180 years. One of the first groups of invaders, who are often mistaken as the original Indians, are the Aryans, who invaded India around 1500 BCE and were from modern-day Central Asia. Dravidians, who were the tribal people living in India, were dark-skinned (said to have immigrated from Africa) and were forcefully driven out of North India and pushed to South India. Aryans were light-skinned, however, their war against the Dravidians was not over colour or race, but simply for territorial control and wealth. 

To know more about Aryans and Dravidians, read this article.

Colourism, which was cemented during the British Rule, had its roots seeded in the caste system in India. The earliest classification of castes is found in the Rig Veda, which were based on occupation, not birth; however, over time, multiple misinterpretations altered the system to be birth-based and rigid. There are four castes in India and are said to be born from the self-sacrifice of Purush (primal man), or in many texts, they are said to be born from Brahma (the creator). Brahmin: From the head; Kshatriya: From the arms; Vaishyas: born from the thighs and Shudras: born from the feet. Additionally, there is a fifth class called the untouchables. People were free to choose their own occupations and therefore were born with equal socioeconomic status. However, these texts were misinterpreted and the highest class was related to Brahmin and the lowest caste was considered Shudras – now called the untouchables. Shudras did the “odd” jobs in the society like cleaning public areas, picking up trash, etc. but because they mostly worked in the sun they had a tan or very dark-colored skin. Therefore, dark skin slowly started to denote the Shudras and fair or white skin was associated with Brahmins. But this was not supposed to be since the caste system was determined not on the basis of colour but on the basis of occupation, and later, due to misinterpretation of texts, converted into the stronghold for colorism. 

Not even Gods were able to save themselves from colorism. One famous example would be the Hindu god Krishna, the eighth avatar of Lord Vishnu. Krishna in Sanskrit means “black” or “dark”; his skin color is described as the color of a dark cloud in many texts. Despite being depicted as very dark in color, he is celebrated as a hero and is the god of love, compassion, and tenderness. But in today’s media, Krishna is depicted as blue not black moreover, his unnatural blue color is preferred over his original black color. Some write this off as “blue color is the color of the sky, and of divinity”. Another such example is of the supreme god Vishnu (one of the three major gods that constitute the Hindu Trinity), the preserver of the Hindu Triad. Similar to Krisha, Lord Vishnu had dark skin in many religious texts but in the media is shown to have fair (sometimes blue) skin. Shiva is another important god in the Hindu Triad, known as “the destroyer”; his skin is pale and later turns blue after he drinks poison. There is no “good” or “bad” between these gods, as they are equally important in Hindu mythology and are considered majestic in their own way.

However, there is some discrimination based on color in Hindu goddesses. Kali, whose name literally means black, is a powerful and fierce goddess who was born as a destroyer of evil forces. Shown as a black-skinned goddess, Kali was wild so much that she unbinds her hair, dances naked, copulates in public, and drinks blood. To seduce and marry Shiva (as she was asked to do so by other gods) she dips in Yamuna and emerges as Gauri, the radiant and fair one. Kali was also associated with anger and destruction, but unlike Shiva, she is feared and disliked. Similarly, almost all the Rakshasas and Ashuras (monsters) are portrayed as black colored.

To read in more depth about discrimination on Gods, click here

On the bright side, many women were called “Shyamli,” which means “of dark (mostly brown) color” was the name given many to dark-skinned women in the 8th and 9th centuries to praise the beauty of their skin color. In Sanskrit, it also means someone who is related to Lord Krishna. 

Why is this important? It is clear that ancient India did not discriminate based on color. Darker skin color was not only accepted but celebrated as a feature of beauty. However, Hindu mythology did discriminate [mostly] against goddesses based on their color. But the caste discrimination was on the basis of occupation, never color. The prejudice in our society against darker skin also came from the long history of oppression by the British rule, which I will discuss in my next article.   

Hi! I'm a junior at NYU Stern studying Data Science and Marketing. I love to read and is passionate about astronomy, and cooking! I also write for my anonymous own blog. Want to have a chat? Contact me at [email protected] or reach out to me on Instagram (@_priyal.maheshwari_)!
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