Who were the shudras ?

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Coming to the question of Shudras having been made slaves, it is nonsense, if not mendacious. It is founded on two assumptions. First is that the Dasas are described as slaves in the Rig Veda. The second is that the Dasas are the same as Shudras.

It is true that the word Dasa is used in the Rig Veda in the sense of slave or servant. But the word in this sense occurs in only 5 places and no more. But even if it did occur more than five times, would it prove that the Shudras were made slaves? Unless and until it is proved that the two were the same people, the suggestion is absurd. It is contrary to known facts.

Shudras participated in the coronation of kings. In the post-vedic or the period of the Brahmanas, the coronation of a king was in reality an offer of sovereignty by the people to the king. This was done by the representatives of the people called Ratnis who played a very important part in the investiture of the king. The Ratnis were so-called because they held the Ratna (jewel), which was a symbol of sovereignty. The king received his sovereignty only when the Ratnis handed over to him the jewel of sovereignty, and on receiving his sovereignty the king went to the house of each of the Ratnis and made an offering to him. It is a significant fact that one of the Ratnis was always a Shudra. [f57]

Nilakantha, the author of Nitimayukha, describes the coronation ceremony of a later time. According to him, the four chief ministers, Brahmin, Kshatriya, Vaishya and Shudra, consecrated the new king. Then the leaders of each Varna and of the castes lower still, consecrated him with holy water. Then followed acclamation by the twice-born. [f58]

That the Shudras were invited to be present at the coronation of the king along with Brahmins is evidenced by the description of the coronation of Yudhishthira, the eldest brother of the Pandavas, which is given in the Mahabharata. [f59]

Shudras were members of the two political assemblies of ancient times, namely, the Janapada and Paura and as a member of these the Shudra was entitled to special respect even from a Brahmin. [f60]

This was so even according to the Manusmriti (vi.61) as well as to the Vishnu Smriti (xxi.64). Otherwise there is no meaning in Manu saying that a Brahmin should not live in a country where the king is a Shudra. That means Shudras were kings.

In the Shanti Parvan of the Mahabharata, [f61] Bhishma in his lessons on Politics to Yudhishthira says :

"I shall, however, tell thee what kinds of ministers should be appointed by thee. Four Brahmins learned in the Vedas, possessed of a sense of dignity, belonging to the Snataka order, and of pure behaviour, and eight Kshatriyas, all of whom should be possessed of physical strength and capable of weilding weapons, and one and twenty Vaishyas, all of whom should be possessed of wealth, and three Shudras, everyone of whom should be humble and of pure conduct and devoted to his daily duties, and one man of the Suta caste, possessed of a knowledge of the Puranas and the eight cardinal virtues should be thy ministers."

This proves that the Shudras were ministers and that they were almost equal to the Brahmins in number[f62]

The Shudras were not poor and lowly. They were rich. This fact is testified by the Maitrayani Samhita (iv.2.7.10) and the Panchavirnsa Brahmana (vi.l.ll). [f63]

There are two other aspects to this question. What significance can there be to the enslavement of the Shudras, assuming it was a fact? There would be some significance if the Aryans did not know slavery or were not prepared to turn the Aryans into slaves. But the fact is that the Aryans knew slavery and permitted the Aryans to be made slaves. This is clear from Rig Veda, (vii.86.7;viii. 19.36 and viii.56.3).

That being so, why should they particularly want to make slaves of the Shudras? What is more important is why should they make different laws for the Shudra slaves?

In short, the Western theory does not help us to answer our questions, who were the Shudras and how did they become the fourth Varna?



  Part II







7. Chapter VII - The Shudras were Kshatriyas

8. Chapter VIII - The Number of Varnas, Three or Four?

9. Chapter IX - Brahmins Versus Shudras





WHO were the Shudras if they were not a non-Aryan aboriginal race? This question must now be faced. The theory I venture to advance may be stated in the following three propositions:

  1. (1)  The Shudras were Aryans.

  2. (2)  The Shudras belonged to the Kshatriya class.

  3. (3)  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.

This thesis regarding the origin of the Shudras is a startling if not a revolutionary thesis. So startling it is that not many people will be ready to accept it, even though there may be enough evidence to support it. My obligation is to produce the evidence, leaving the people to judge its worth.

The primary piece of evidence on which this thesis rests is a passage which occurs in Verses 38-40 of Chapter 60 of the Shanti Parvan of the Mahabharata. It reads as follows :

"It has been heard by us that in the days of old a Shudra of the name of Paijavana gave a Dakshina (in his own sacrifice) consisting of a hundred thousand Purnapatras according to the ordinance called Aindragni."

The important statements contained in this passage are three : (1) that Paijavana was a Shudra, (2) that this Shudra Paijavana performed sacrifices, and (3) the Brahmins performed sacrifices for him and accepted Dakshina from him.

The passage quoted above is taken from Mr. Roy's edition of the Mahabharata. The first thing is to ascertain whether the text is accurate or whether there are any variant readings. As regards the authenticity of his text, this is what Mr.Roy*[f1]says :

"As far as my edition is concerned it is substantially based on that of Royal Asiatic Society of Bengal, published about forty-five years ago under the superintendence of a few learned Pandits of Bengal aided, as I believe, by an English Orientalist of repute. Manuscripts had been procured from all parts of India (the South unexcepted) and these were carefully collated. Although edited with such care, I have not, however, slavishly followed the Society's edition. I have compared it carefully with the Maharajah of Burdwan's text in the Bengalee character which was edited with still greater care. About 18 manuscripts procured from different parts of India (the South not excepted) were carefully collated by the Burdwan Pandits before they admitted a single sloka as genuine."

Prof. Sukthankar, the erudite editor of the critical edition of the Mahabharata, after examining many editions of the Mahabharata, concluded by saying that :[f2]

"The editio princeps (Calcutta—1856) remains the best edition of the Vulgate, after the lapse of nearly a century."

Although the authenticity of Mr.Roy's edition of the Mahabharata canot be doubted, it would not be unreasonable if critics were to say that they would like to know what other manuscript support there is behind this text, which is made the basis of this new theory of the origin of the Shudras. In undertaking such an inquiry it is necessary to point to two considerations. One[f3] is that there is no such thing as a Mahabharata manuscript in the sense of complete sets of manuscripts covering all the eighteen Parvans. Each Parvan is treated as a separate unit with the result that the number of copies of the different Parvans to be found differ by a vast margin. Consequently, the number of manuscripts to be taken as a basis for deciding which is the correct text must vary with each Parvan.

The second[f4] consideration to which attention must be drawn is the fact that the text of the Mahabharata has been handed down in two divergent forms; a Northern and a Southern recension, texts, typical of the Aryavrata and the Dakshinapatha.

It is obvious that an examination of manuscript support must be based upon collation from a fair number of manuscripts and a fair distribution of the manuscripts between the Northern and the Southern recensions. Bearing these considerations in mind, the results of the collation[f5] of the text of Shloka 38 of the 60th chapter of the Shanti Parvan of the Mahabharata with which we are primarily concerned from different manuscripts is presented below :


1. Shudrah Paijavano nama (K) S

2. Shudrah Pailavano nama (M/l: M/2) S

3. Shudrah Yailanano nama (M/3 : M/4) S

4. Shudmh Yaijanano nama (F)

5. Shudropi Yajane nama (L)

6. Shudrah Paunjalka nama (TC) S

7. Shuddho Vaibhavano nama (G) N

8. Pura Vaijavano nama (A, D/2)

9. Pura Vaijanano nama (M) N


Here is the result of the collation of nine manuscripts. Are nine manuscripts enough for constituting a text which has a number of variant readings? It is true that the number of manuscripts taken for the critical edition of the different Parvans of the Mahabharata exceeds nine. For the entire Mahabharata the minimum number of manuscripts taken for constituting the text is only ten. [f6] It cannot therefore be contended that nine is an insufficient number. The nine manuscripts fall into two geographical divisions. Northern and Southern. MI, M2, M3, M4 and TC belong to the Southern recession. A, M, G, D2 belong to the Northern recession. The selections of the manuscripts therefore satisfy the two tests which experts have laid down.

I am grateful to the Bhandarkar Oriental Research Institute for allowing me to use their collation sheet. Letters in brackets indicate the index number given by the Institute to the manuscript. N or S indicate whether .the manuscript comes from the North or South. K is Kumbhakonam.

A scrutiny of the readings shows that :

  1. (1)  there is a variation in the description of Paijavana;

  2. (2)  there is a variation in the name of Paijavana;

  3. (3)  of the nine texts, six agree in describing him as a Shudra. One describes him as Shuddha and two instead of speaking of the class to which he belonged refer to the time when he lived and use the word 'Pura';

  4. (4)  with regard to the name, there is no agreement between any two of the nine manuscripts. Each gives a different reading.

Given this result, the question is what is the real text? Taking first the texts relating to the name, it is obvious that this is not a matter in which the question of meaning is involved. It does not raise any questions such as interpretation versus emendation or of giving preference to a reading which suggests how other readings might have arisen. The question is which is the correct name and which readings are scriptural blunders committed by the scribes. There seems to be no doubt that the correct text is Paijavana. It is supported by both the recessions, Southern as well as Northern. For Vaijavano in No.S is the same as Paijavano. All the rest are variations which are due to the ignorance of the scribes in not being able to read the original copy correctly and then trying to constitute the text in their own way.

Turning to the description of Paijavana, the change from Shudrah to Pura, it must be granted, is not accidental. It appears to be deliberate. Why this change has occurred it is difficult to say categorically. Two things appear to be quite clear. ln the first place, the change appears to be quite natural. In the second place, the change does not militate against the conclusion that Paijavana was a Shudra. The above conclusion will be obvious if the context, in which verses 38-40 occur, is borne in mind. The context will be clear from the following verses which precede them:

"The Shudra should never abandon his master whatever the nature or degree of the distress into which the latter may fall. If the master loses his wealth, he should with excessive zeal be supported by the Shudra servant A Shudra cannot have any wealth that is his own. Whatever he possesses belongs to his master. Sacrifice has been laid down as a duty of the three other orders. It has been ordained for the Shudra also, 0.! Bharata. A Shudra however is not competent to utter swaha and svadha or any other mantra. For this reason, the Shudra, without observing the vows laid down in the Vedas, should worship the gods in minor sacrifices called Pakayajnas. The gift called Pumapatra is declared to be the Dakshina of such sacrifices."

Taking the verses 38 to 40 in the context of these verses preceding them, it becomes clear that the whole passage deals with the Shudra. The story of Paijavana is a mere illustration. Against this background, it is unnecessary to repeat the word 'Shudra' before Paijavana. This explains why the word Shudra does not occur before Paijavana in the two manuscripts. As to the reason for the use of the word pura in place of Shudra it must be remembered that the case of Paijavana had occurred in very ancient times. It was therefore quite natural for the scribe to feel that it was desirable to put this fact in express terms. The writer being aware that there was no necessity for describing Paijavana as Shudra since that was made clear from the context, it was not necessary to emphasise it. On the other hand, knowing that Paijavana had lived in very ancient times and that that fact was not made very clear from the context, the writer thought it more appropriate to add the word Pura which was necessary and omit the word Shudrah which having regard to the context was unnecessary.

If this explanation is well-founded, we may take it as well established that the person referred to in the passage in the Shanti Parvan of the Mahabharata is Paijavana and that this Paijavana was a Shudra.

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