Who were the shudras ?

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These foregoing cases of conflict have been referred to by Manu in his Smriti:[f62]

"Through a want of modesty many kings have perished, together with their belongings; through modesty even hermits in the forest have gained kingdoms.

Through a want of humility Vena perished, likewise king Nahusha, Sudas, the son of Pijavana, Surnukha, and Nimi."

Unfortunately, the bearing of these cases on the position of the Shudra has not been realised as fully as it should have been. The reason is that nobody has realised that this conflict was a conflict between Brahmins and Shudras. Sudas definitely was a Shudra. The others although they have not been described as Shudras are described as having been descended from Ikshvaku. Sudas is also described as a descendant of lkshvaku. There is nothing far-fetched in saying that they were all Shudras. Even Manu had no idea of this. He represents these cases as cases of conflict between Brahmins and Kshatriyas. Dr. Muir has failed to realise that Sudas was a Shudra and has in recounting these stories represented that the parties to these conflicts were Brahmins on the one hand and the Kshatriyas on the other. In a sense, it is true that the conflict was between Brahmins and Kshatriyas because the Shudras were also a branch of the Kshatriyas. It would, however, have been far more illuminating if they had been described in more precise terms as conflicts between Brahmins and Shudras. The misunderstanding having been caused, it has remained and has continued to conceal the real nature of so important a part of the history of the Indo-Aryan society. It is to clear this misunderstanding that the hearing given to this Chapter is 'Brahmins versus Shudras' and not 'Brahmins versus Kshatriyas'. Understood as a history of conflict between Brahmins and Shudras, it helps one to understand how the Shudras came to be degraded from the second to the fourth Varna.







PART II Continued---

10. Chapter X - The Degradation of the Shudras

11. Chapter XI - The Story of Reconciliation

12. Chapter XII - The Theory in the Crucible




WHAT is the technique which the Brahmins employed to bring about the degradation of the Shudras from the rank of the second to the rank of the fourth Varna?

The discussion has so far centred round two questions as to whether or not the Shudras were originally a part of the second or Kshatriya Varna and whether or not the Brahmins had not received sufficient provocation to degrade the Shudras. It is now necessary to deal with the question, which is logically next in order of sequence. What is the technique of degradation employed by the Brahmins?

My answer to the question is that the technique employed by the Brahmins for this purpose was to refuse to perform the Upanayana of the Shudras. I have no doubt that it is by this technique that the Brahmins accomplished their end and thereby wreaked their vengeance upon the Shudras.

It is perhaps necessary to explain what Upanayana means and what importance it had in the Indo-Aryan Society. The best way to give an idea of Upanayana is to give a description of the ceremony.

As a rite Upanayana was originally a very simple ceremony. The boy came to the teacher with a samidh (a grass blade) in his hand and told the teacher that he desired to become a Brahmachari (i.e a student) and begged the teacher to allow him to stay with him for purposes of study. At a later date it became a very elaborate ceremony. How elaborate it had become may be realised from the following description of Upanayana in the Ashvalayana Grihya sutra :*[f1]

Let him initiate the boy who is decked, whose hair (on the head) is shaved (and arranged), who wears a new garment or an antelope skin if a Brahmana, ruru skin if a Kshatriya, a goat's skin if a Vaishya; if they put on garments they should put on dyed ones, reddish-yellow, red and yellow (for a Brahmana, Kshatriya, Vaishya respectively); they should have girdles and staffs (as described above). While the boy takes hold of (the hand of) his teacher, the latter offers (a homa of clarified butter oblations) in the fire (as described above), and seats himself to the north of the fire with his face turned to the east, while the other one (the boy) stations himself in front (of the teacher) with his face turned to the west The teacher then fills the folded hands of both himself and of the boy with water and with the verse 'we choose that of Savitri' (Rg.V. 82.1) the teacher drops down the water in his own folded hands on to the water in the folded hands of the boy; having thus poured the water, he should seize with his own hand the boy's hand together with the thumb (of the boy) with the formula' by the urge (or order) of the god Savitri, with the arms of the two Ashvins, with the hands of Pushan, I seize thy hand, oh so, and so,' with the words 'Savitri has seized thy hand, oh so and so' a second time (the teacher seizes the boy's hand) with the words 'Agri is thy teacher oh so and so' a third time. The teacher should cause (the boy, to look at the sun, while the teacher repeats 'God Savitri, this is thy brahmachari protect him, may he not die' and (the teacher should further) say Whose brahmachari art thou? thou art the brahmachari of Prana. Who does initiate thee and whom (does he initiate)? I give thee to Ka (to Prajapati).' With the half verse (Rg. 111.8.4) 'the young man well attired and dressed, come hither' he (the teacher) should cause him to turn round to the right and with his two hands placed over (the boy's) shoulders he should touch the place of the boy's heart repeating the latter half (of Rg. III. 8.4). Having wiped the ground round the fire, the brahmachari should put (on the fire) a fuel stick silently, since it is known (from sruti) 'what belongs to Prajapati is silently done,' and the brahmachari belongs to Prajapati. Some do this (offering of a fuel stick) with a mantra to Agni : I Have brought a fuel stick, to the great Jatavedas;by the fuel stick mayst thou increase. Oh agni and may we (increase) through brahman' (prayer or spiritual lore), svaha.' Having put the fuel stick (on the fire) and having touched the fire, he (the student) thrice wipes off his face with the words I anoint myself with lustre,' it is known (from sruti) for he does anoint himself with lustre. 'May Agni bestow on me, insight, offspring and lustre: on me may Indra bestow insight, offspring and vigour (Indriya) ;on me may the sun bestow insight, offspring and radiance; what thy lustre is. Oh Agni, may I thereby become lustrous; what the strength is, Agni, may I thereby become strong; what thy consuming power is, Agni, may I thereby acquire consuming power.' Having waited upon (worshipped) Agni with these formulae, (the student) should bend his knees, embrace (the teachers feet) and say to him 'recite. Sir, recite. Sir, the Savitri.' Seizing the student's hands with the upper garment (of the student) and his own hands, the teacher recites the Savitri first pada by pada, then hemistich by hemistich (and lastly) the whole verse. He (the teacher) should make him (the student) recite (the Savitiri) as much as he is able. On the place of the student's heart the teacher lays his hand with the fingers upturned with the formula [f2]place thy heart unto duty to me, may thy mind follow my mind; may you attend on my words single-minded; may Brihaspati appoint thee unto me.' Having tied the girdle round him (the boy) and having given him the staff, the teacher should instruct him in the observances of a brahmachari with the words 'a brahmachari art thou, sip water, do service, do not sleep by day, depending (completely) on the teacher learn the Veda.' He (the student) should beg (food) in the evening and the morning; he should put a fuel stick (on fire) in the evening and morning. That (which he has received by begging) he should announce to the teacher; he should not sit down (but should be standing) the rest of the day.

The Upanayana ends with the teaching by the Acharya to the boy of the Vedic Mantra known as the Gayatri Mantra. Why the Gayatri Mantra is regarded as so essential as to require the ceremony of Upanayana before it is taught it is difficult to say.

From this description of the Upanayana ceremony two things are clear. First is that the purpose of Upanayana was to initiate a person in the study of the Vedas which commenced with the teaching of Gayatri Mantra by the Acharya to the Brahmachari. The second thing that is clear is that certain articles were regarded as very essential for the Upanayana ceremony. They are (1) two garments one for the lower part of the body technically called Vasa and the other for the upper part of the body called Uttariya, (2) Danda or wooden staff, (3) Mekhala or a girdle of grass tied across the waist.

Any one who compares this description of Upanayana as it was performed in ancient times with the details of the ceremony as performed in later days is bound to be surprised at the absence of any mention of thread called Yajnopavita to be worn by the Biahmachari as a part of his Upanayana. The centre of the modern ceremony of Upanayana is the wearing of this thread and the whole purpose of the Upanayana has come to be the wearing of this Yajnopavita 1 So important a part this Yajnopavita has come to play that most elaborate rules have come to be framed about its manufacture and its use.

The Yajnopavita should have three threads, each thread to be of nine strands well twisted. One tantu (strand) stands for one devata (deity).

The Yajnopavita should reach as far as the navel, [f3]should not reach beyond the navel, nor should it be above the chest.

A person could wear more than one Yajnopavita.

A man must always wear Yajnopavita. If he took his meals without wearing the Yajnopavita, or answers the call of nature without having the Yajnopavita placed on the right ear, he had to undergo prayascitta, viz., to bathe, to mutter prayers and fast.

Wearing of another's Yajnopavita along with several other things (such as shoes, ornament, garland and kamandalu) is forbidden. [f4]

Three ways of wearing the Yajnopavita are recognised: (1) nivita, (2) pracinavita and (3) upavita. When the cord is carried over the neck, both shoulders and the chest and is held with both the thumbs (of the two hands) lower than the region of the heart and above the navel, it is called nivita. Suspending the cord over the left shoulder in such a way that it hangs down on his right side, it becomes upavita. Suspending it on his right shoulder in such a way that it hangs down on his left side, it becomes pracinavita.

How did this Yajnopavita come in? Mr. Tilak offers an explanation[f5] which is worth quoting. Mr. Tilak says :

"Orion or Mrigashiras is called Prajapati in the Vedic works, otherwise called Yajna. A belt or girdle of cloth round the waist of Orion orYajna will therefore be naturally named after him as Yajnopavita, the upavita or the cloth of yajna

The term, however, now denotes the sacred thread of the Brahmins, and it may naturally be asked whether it owes its character, if not the origin, to the belt of Orion. I think it does on the following grounds :

The word yajnopavita is derived by all native scholars from Yajna + Upavita; but there is a difference of opinion as to whether we should understand the compound to mean an upavita for yajna i.e for sacrificial purposes, or, whether it is the 'upavita of Yajnas.' The former is not incorrect, but authority is in favour of the latter. Thus the Prayoga-writers quote a smriti to the effect that 'the High Soul is termed Yajna by the hotris, this is his upavita; therefore it is yajna-upavita. ' A mantra, which is recited on the occasion of wearing the sacred thread means, 1 bind you with the upavita of yajna'', while the first half of the general formula with which a Brahmin always puts on his sacred thread is as follows :

Yagnyopaveetham paramapavithram prajhapatheryathsahajam purasthaath

The Mantra is not to be found in any of the existing Samhitas, but is given in the Brahmopanishad and by Baudhayana. This verse is strikingly similar to the verse quoted above from the Haoma Yesht. It says, 'yajnopavita is high and sacred; it was born with Prajapati, of old.' The word purastat corresponds with paurvanim in the Avesta verse and thus decides the question raised by Dr. Haug, while sahaja, born with the limbs of Prajapati, conveys the same meaning as mainyutastem. The coincidence between these verses cannot be accidental, and it appears to me that the sacred thread must be derived from the belt of Orion. Upavita, from ve to weave, literally means a piece of cloth and not a thread. It appears, therefore, that a cloth worn round the waist was the primitive form of yajnopavita, and that the idea of sacredness was introduced by the theory that it was to be a symbolic representation of Prajapati's waistcloth or belt."

This explanation by Mr.Tilak is no doubt very interesting. But it does not help to explain some of the difficulties. It does not explain the relation of the Yajnopavita to the two garments the Uttariya, and the vasa, which are necessary for a person to wear while undergoing Upanayana. Was the Yajnopavita in addition to the two garments? If so, how is it that there is no mention of it in the early description of the ceremony of the Upanayana? It does not explain another difficulty. If that thread is a substitute for the cloth, how is it that the wearing of the cloth is retained in the Upanayana?

There seems to be another explanation. I offer it for what it is worth. According to it, the wearing of the thread had to do with the adoption of the gotra. Its object was to tie oneself to a particular gotra. It had nothing to do with the Upanayana as such, the object of which was to initiate a person in the study of the Vedas. It is not sufficiently realized that under the Ancient Aryan Law, a son did not naturally inherit the gotra of his father. The father had to perform a special ceremony to give his gotra to his son. It is only when this ceremony was performed that the son became the same gotra as the father. In this connection, reference may be made to two rules observed by the Indo-Aryan Society. One is the rule of impurities. The other is the rule of adoption. With regard to the rule of impurity, brought about by death, the days of impurity vary with the kinship with the dead. If the kinship is very close, the days of impurity are greater than those in the case where the kinship is less close. The impurities attached to the death of a boy who has not been invested with the thread are very meagre, [f6] not extending for more than a few days. With regard to the rule of adoption, [f7] it lays down that a boy who was invested with the thread was not eligible for adoption. What is the idea behind these rules? The idea seems to be quite clear. The impurities are nominal because there being no thread, the boy had not formally entered into the gotra of his father. Adoption means entering into the gotra of the adoptive father. Once the thread ceremony had taken place the boy had already and irrevocably entered another gotra,.

There was no room for adoption left. Both these rules show that the thread ceremony was connected with gotra and not with Upanayana.

The view that the thread has connection with gotra seems to receive support from Jain literature. Shloka 87 of the fourth Parvan of the Padmapurana by Acharya Ravishena reads as follows :[f8]

"Bhagwan ! you have told us, the origin of Kshatriya, Vaishya and Shudra. I am anxious to know the origin of those who wear the thread in their neck."

The words 'those who wear the thread in the neck' are very impor-tant There is no doubt that it is a description of the Brahmins. From this it is clear that there was a time when the Brahmins alone wore the thread and no other class did. Read with the fact that the gotra relationship was confined only to the Brahmins, it is clear that the thread ceremony was connected with bringing the boy into— actually tying him up to the gotra— of his father, and had nothing to do with Upanayana which was connected with the initiation in the teaching of the Vedas.

If this is true, then the thread ceremony and the Upanayana ceremony had different purposes to serve. At some later date the two merged into one. The reason for this merger appears to be very natural. The Upanayana without the thread ceremony involved the danger of the Acharya taking the boy in his gotra. It was to avoid the danger that the father of the boy performed the thread ceremony before handing him over to the Acharya. This is the probable reason why the two ceremonies came to be performed simultaneously.

Be that as it may, Upanayana means the teaching of the Veda by the Vedic Brahmin.

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