Tuesday, November 8, 2016

“Who were the Shudras” : A critique


“Who were the Shudras – How they came to be the Fourth Varna in the Indo-Aryan society” is a scholarly written book by Dr. B. R. Ambedkar, which was first published in 1946.  While the debate over original homeland of the Aryans was a highly debated issue, Dr. Ambedkar found it necessary to probe in to the origins of the Shudra Varna, which is considered to be lowest in the Vedic social order, devoid of any Vedic ritualistic rights,  and hence an oppressed but largest part of the so-called Hindu society. The common understanding was, the Shudras were the indigenous aboriginal communities those were defeated by the invading victorious Aryans, enslaved by them and were termed as Shudras while making their social four-fold order in the process of assimilation, while maintaining their supremacy by denying any social, economic or Vedic religious rights to them.

Dr. Ambedkar proposed a new theory through this book to explain origin of the Shudra Varna. The theory is outlined as under:

(1) The Shudras were one of the Aryan communities of the Solar race. 

(2) There was a time when the Aryan society recognized only three Varnas, namely. Brahmins, Kshatriyas and Vaishyas.

(3) The Shudras did not form a separate Varna. They ranked as part of the Kshatriya Varna in the Indo-Aryan society.

(4) There was a continuous feud between the Shudra kings and the Brahmins in which the Brahmins were subjected to many tyrannies and indignities.

(5) As a result of the hatred towards the Shudras generated by their tyrannies and oppressions, the Brahmins refused to perform the Upanayana of the Shudras.

(6) Owing to the denial of Upanayana, the Shudras who were Kshatriyas became socially degraded, fell below the rank of the Vaishyas and thus came to form the fourth Varna.


Dr. Ambedkar explains that the original Shudras were part of the Indo-Aryan community and to devaluate them the code was invented and was strictly applied.  The other Shudras were not from the Indo-Aryan communities, were racially different, but to widen the application of the code to the innocent masses the term was used for them also. He says that the original word “Shudra” lost its original meaning of being a name of a particular community and became a general name for a low-class people without civilization, without culture, without respect, and without a position. He asserts that “ If the Hindu lawgivers had enough historical sense to realize that the original Shudras were different from the present low-class people this tragedy- this massacre of the innocents – would have been avoided.” He laments that the code that was meant for the original culprit Shudras is applied to the present day Shudras is unfortunate. (See preface)

However,  the fact is the word Shudra appears nowhere in Rig Veda except Purushsukta which is, Dr. Ambedkar too is aware of, a late addition to Rig Veda. Even if considered the Kshatriyas and the Shudras ranked equivalent, the fact is Purushasukta does not mention Kshatriya while enumerating the Varnas originating from the divine sacrificial body of the Purusha. Rather it mentions Rajanya, not KSHATRIYA and both the terms have different connotations. Both are not the equivalent to each other. Rajanya is mentioned as a second highest rank in the Vedic social order, however, Kshatriya does not appear at all as a name of a class or Varna. However, it seems Kshatriya was inserted removing Rajanya in later literature. That way, Purushsukta does not sanction any status to Kshatriya…rather it does not acknowledge it at all! 

There are many feuds mentioned in Rig Veda, but the word Shudra appears nowhere, though Dr. Ambedkar says Shudra and Kshatriya were equivalent. Dr. Ambedkar emphatically states that the Brahmins, out of hatred, denied Upanayana of the Kshatriyas and hence they fell lowest in the social order. At the least, the Vedas do not support this assumption. Upanayana was not a ritualistic ceremony in Vedic period at all hence there could not arise any issue over whether or not to deny Upanayana of any person of any rank.

The term Shudra finds no etymology. Dr. Ambedkar shows how false etymologies were attempted to explain the words whose original meaning was lost or forgotten by the half-educated people of those times. (page 107)  Dr. Ambedkar finds the word is a proper name of a tribe or a clan to which historians of Alexander mention as a “Sodari” (Sodrai) tribe Greeks came across in northwest India. Aitareya Brahmana informs us that beyond Vindhya ruled various Shudra tribes. Dr. Ambedkar also provides proofs of the mention of the Shudra as a tribe in Mahabharata, Markandeya and Brahma Purana. 

The main question is who were the Shudras? Dr. Ambedkar insists that the Shudras were Kshatriyas. Not only that, he states that “The Shudras were so important a class of Kshatriyas that some of the most eminent and powerful kings of the ancient Aryan communities were Shudras.” (page 121)

To prove his statement, Dr. Ambedkar gives an evidence from Mahabharata (Shanti Parva 40 . 38-40) where it is said that a Shudra of the name Paijavana performed fire sacrifice (Yajna) and donated heavily to the priests. Dr. Ambedkar has cross-checked 9 extant manuscripts of the Mahabharata, southern and northern recessions, and found different 9 variant readings of the word “Paijavana”.   To name a few variants, word “Paijavana” is found as pailavano, Yailanamo, YaJane, Vaibhavano etc. in different editions. Also, only six manuscripts agree that the person who conducted sacrifice was Shudra. Rest three does not mention as such.

In fact there are only three verses that mention this name, incident of Yajna, donation to the Brahmins and Varna of the person in question. Dr. Ambedkar treats the “Paijavana” reading as correct and yes, it is. So let us take it as an indisputable fact that there was a Paijavana, a Shudra of ancient times, performed sacrifice and Brahmins had no problem to perform the sacrificial rituals for a Shudra. Dr. Ambedkar illustrates that in preceding verses on the same chapter it is written that Shudra has no right at all to have wealth and is prohibited from chanting any Vedic mantra. Dr. Ambedkar derives that Shudras of ancient times weren’t denied the right to have conducted Yajnas for their benefit. (126-127)  

However, it seems from Manusmriti that sacrifices performed for Shudras weren’t unknown. Manusmriti verse 3.178  proclaims that “The giver (of a Sraddha) loses the reward, due for such a non-sacrificial gift, for as many Brahmanas as a (guest) who sacrifices for Sudras may touch (during the meal) with his limbs.”

From this, it seems that though the Brahmins, those performed sacrifices for the Shudras, were looked upon contemptuously; still there existed the Brahmins who did that job.  

Also, Shudra kings were not unknown to Manusmriti as verse 4.61 proclaims that “ Let him not dwell in a country where the rulers are Sudras, nor in one which is surrounded by unrighteous men, nor in one which has become subject to heretics, nor in one swarming with men of the lowest castes.”

This only does mean that even during the time of Manusmriti, there were numerous Shudra Kings and some Vedic Brahmins those performed sacrifices for them.

However, we have to discuss in more detail as Dr. Ambedkar’s premise of the whole theory depends on this sole incident mentioned in Shantiparva.

This is mainly because Dr. Ambedkar has connected identity of Paijavana with a Rig Vedic The- battle- of- Ten Kings fame king Sudasa who happened to be the son of Pijavana, hence also was called Paijavana. According to Dr. Ambedkar Shudra Paijavana of Mahabharata and King Sudas, who also was known as Paijavana, are one and the same, hence Shudras were Kshatriyas.

Superficially logic may sound very convincing, but then we have to look into the matter more seriously. First of all, Mahabharata nowhere mentions the famous battle of the ten kings in the entire bulk in which Sudasa had emerged as the celebrated hero after defeating the Puru and other tribes. This has surprised many scholars that why most illustrious war finds no mention whatsoever in Mahabharata where most of the ancient stories are enumerated?

Dr. Ambedkar shows that in Vishnu Purana, there are at the least two Sudasas, one is in the genealogy of Sagara and another one in the Puru family.  They obviously are different than the Sudasa of Rig Veda. Dr. Ambedkar also gives the family tree of Sudasa, of Rig Veda, where at one place he has inferred that Divodasa (father of Sudasa) is Pijavana.

We should not forget here that the Mahabharata genealogies are restricted to the regions where the distinct Puru/Kuru clan (descendants of Nahusha) ruled and not the Sudasa. Hence, there was no need to mention the Sudasa or his predecessors or successors in the Puru/Kuru lineage in Mahabharata. Most probably, the later writers of the Mahabharata had borrowed the names of Yayati’s sons such as Puru, Anu, Druhyu (From Sharmistha) Yadu and Turvasu (From Devyani) from the Rig Vedic tribal names to bridge the missing or forgotten link in the genealogy. In reality, there cannot be any possible relationship of these tribe-names with the personal names of Yayati’s sons, unless they were borrowed directly from the Rig Veda. If we try to assume that, the Yayati’s sons, establishing different kingdoms, formed the Rig Vedic tribes, we do not get any such support from the Mahabharata. Yayati had cursed his other sons, except Puru, when they declined to transfer their youth to him. (1.84, Mahabharata) However, the name Sudasa nowhere appears in Mahabharata.

Dr. Ambedkar too asserts that Bharata tribe of Rig Veda and Doushyanti Bharat of Mahabharata are distinct entities. (page 141)  

Considering this, the Bharata/Puru lineage of Mahabharata would seem to be rather fictitious, fabricated unless the Kurus borrowed the Rig Vedic names right from personal names such as Nahusha, Yayati (composers of some Rig Vedic verses) to tribal names like Puru, Anu, and Druhyu etc. or the names were, too, common to have been used by all other societies including the Vedics and others in different original forms.

And most importantly, Sudasa, a king of celebrated fame, who does not find any mention in any story, a passing reference to one Shudra Paijavana in Mahabharata cannot be linked with Rig Vedic Sudasa. However, Dr. Ambedkar states emphatically that this Shudra Sudasa belonged to the illustrious line of kings of Bharata tribe from which the country acquired name “Bharata”. (page 141)

We have seen earlier that Manusmriti knows there were Shudra rulers and the Brahmins those performed sacrifices for Shudras. Hence, the Mahabharata, which came to the final form only after 3rd century, finding mention of one Shudra Paijavana, for whom a sacrifice was performed, doesn’t come as a surprise. This Paijavana need not to be a part of Indo-Aryan (or Vedic) community.  Even if he was a Shudra, either king or a wealthy person, from non-Vedic community, could have performed sacrifice if he had desired to do so. Because some Vedic Brahmins used to do so in exchange of the heavy donations even if they were despised by their own brethren. Paijavana of Mahabharata too donated handsomely to the Brahmins.  

So, Paijavana of Mahabharata and Paijavana Sudasa of Rigveda are distinctly different  personalities. We have more proofs to make this point.

Dr. Ambedkar mentions a Rig Vedic feud that involves rivalry between his two priests, Vashishtha and Vishvamitra. It is assumed by the scholars as well that the rivalry between seer Vishwamitra and Vasishtha was the major cause behind the battle of ten kings. It is believed that Sudasa removed Vishwamitra from the post of chief priest. Hence, an anguished Vishwamitra left Sudasa to gather forces against him. However, to our surprise, we do not find any support to this assumption in Rig Veda as there is no mention of such event taking place. In all probabilities, the war was fought over religious issues as Rig Veda describes enemy, including the Purus, as ‘ayajju’, non-sacrificers or over the political supremacy issue. Hence there arises no reason why Brahmins would have treated him (Sudasa) a “Shudra” by denying Upanayana to him or his successors to proclaim them Shudras. And Mahabharata mentions Paijavana, to whom Dr. Ambedkar identifies with Sudasa, as a Shudra.  However, there appears no feud in the Vedic literature that would indicate rivalry between two classes, i.e. Brahmin and Kshatriyas. Rather the stories concerning to such rivalries emerge in late Brahmana period.

Hence, it would be the far-fetched statement that “…A Shudra to be an Aryan, a Shudra to be a Kshatriya, and a Shudra to be a king! Can there be a greater revelation? Can there be anything more revolutionary?” (page 139) We must bear in mind that in Rig Veda, Sudasa is nowhere mentioned as being Kshatriya, but mention is simply as Rajan.

Hence, considering Shudra class as a part of the Indo-Aryan community may not help us. Paijavana of Mahabharata can be anyone with the identical name the way Puru, Anu, Druhyu etc. appears in Mahabharata as personal names, which in fact are the names of the tribes, not individuals, in the Rigveda. Hence, comparing either genealogy with other does not yield any satisfactory result. Shudras couldn’t have been part of the Indo-Aryan club and their religion. The only fact, the way Dr. Ambedkar puts forth, that there were two types of the Shudras, one being the Shudras for whom the code was intended and enforced and the other was completely outside of Vedic religious pale, enjoying their own faiths, kingdoms and wealth.

The Shudra Varna does not appear anywhere in Rig Veda, except Purushsukta, only because Vedic Aryans had not come across this set of the people. Shudras were foreigners and unknown to them. It was never part of their Indo-Aryan or Vedic society hence it constituted of only three varnas. Dr. Ambedkar has deliberated on this issue in his book and has concluded in support of his theory that the two specific verses from Purushasukta is a forgery that sanctified Chaturvarnya.  In his opinion, there were only three Varnas in that period and Shudras belonged to Kshatriya Varna. (page151-52).

We all are aware of the Vedic designs of falsities and recklessly fabricating anything by interpolating to which they call sacred books. It is clear that the Purushsukta is a later interpolation. Not only this but Purushasukta too is not composed at once but there are seemingly different layers, fabrication of different times.

But this is not enough to prove that the Shudras were Kshatriyas of Indo-Aryan community. As stated earlier, the Vedics had not come across this new set of the people while delving in their own geography. The known people, whether friends or foes, find mention throughout Rig Veda except for the Shudras. This term finds no satisfactory etymology too in any language. It has no certain meaning. Why were Indo-Aryans forced to invent a term to name so-called degraded Kshatriyas which has no meaning? And how could such people, those enjoyed the high status of Kshatriya accepted such a degradation without wielding weapons?

Vedic religion came to India, not through the invasion. It came by missionary sort of work by the refugees. They came across the new people to whom they named Shudra or Shudra is a corrupt form of an original name of the people. “Sodari” (Or Sodrai) mentioned by Alexanders historians too is a corrupt Greek form of name of a tribe that inhabited North-West India. The Vedic refugees too first might have come across this tribe first and this name stuck to all the people residing in India, the same way as Hindustan name for the entire country was used first only for the people living in Indus valley that later was applied to the whole subcontinent. I have discussed more on this issue here.

Hence, Dr. Ambedkar’s theory gives us a foresight but does not satisfactorily solves the problem of the Shudras. Indeed it raises more questions.

It seems that the code that was intended against the Shudras those were a menial class taken in the personal service to meet daily needs. Rest of the people, though designated as Shudras by the Vedics, were free from that code which is evidenced by Manusmriti itself.  In the later course of the time the scope of the code was widened, but history does not prove that the Shudras heeded to it in practical life. The only worst influence the code (especially Vedic religious stories) seeded in the minds of the Shudras (non-Vedic people) was a sense of birth-based inequality among themselves.  So much so that almost every caste from so-called Shudra class tries to connect with Kshatriya origin to attain high social status. This is the outcome of the sheer influence of Vedic mythical stories those glorify Kshatryadom. Why this class lost its place from the Vedic society has been attempted to explain through some mythical stories, especially of Parshuram, but these stories are the product of the quite late era and have the completely different explanation to them. They also are not related to the era in question. The reasons behind fabricating such stories are completely different and not related to the Brahmin-Kshatriya rivalry, as Dr. Ambedkar suggests. 

Hence, the proposition that the Shudras were Kshatriyas and Rig Vedic Sudasa=Paijavana of Mahabharata, equation is not tenable on the ground of the proofs those are available before us. 

The fact, neglected by the scholars, remains that Kshatriya Varna has no Rig Vedic sanction. It places Rajanya in the second order, without mentioning Kshatriyas, though the term Kshatriya appears at the least 9 times in the Rig Veda. Rajanya was removed in the later course and was replaced with Kshatriya, but the term Shudra did not vanish, which is not present at all in the rest of the rig Veda. 


Had Shudras being Kshatriyas and the Kshatriyas were degraded in the later course, Kshatriyas wouldn’t find any place in the Vedic social order. In fact, this change, Rajanya being replaced with Kshatriya suggests more dramatic occurrences in the history of Vedic people on which we will discuss in next chapter.

1 comment:

  1. The Shudras were one of the Aryan communities of the Solar race.

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    Kya soorya devta ne kuch bacche paida karwae the?

    What is this solar race hullaballoo?

    The vedas do not allow for birth based caste system
    All men/women are born shudras. janmana jayate shudra, sanskaarat dvij uchyate.
    How did Jabala whose father's name was not known to his mother become a brahmin?

    ReplyDelete