Who were the shudras ?

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Among these, each preceding (caste) is superior by birth to the one following. [f3]For all these excepting Shudras and those who have committed bad actions are ordained (1) the initiation (Upanayan or the wearing of the sacred thread), (2) the study of the Veda and (3) the kindling of the sacred fire (i.e., the right to perform sacrifice) [f4]

This is repeated by Vasishtha Dharma Sutra which says :

"There are four castes (Vamas), Brahmins, Kshatriyas, Vaishyas and Shudras. Three castes. Brahmins, Kshatriyas and Vaishyas (are called) twice-born. Their first birth is from their mother; the second from the investiture with the sacred girdle. In that (second birth) the Savitri is the mother, but the teacher is said to be, the father.

They call the teacher father, because he gives instruction in the Veda. [f5] The four castes are distinguished by their origin and by particular sacraments.

There is also the following passage of the Veda : "The Brahmana was his mouth, the Kshatriya formed his arms, the Vaishya his thighs; the Shudia was born from his feet."

It has been declared in the following passage that a Shudra shall not receive the sacraments."

Many other law-givers have in parrot-like manner repeated the theme of the Purusha Sukta and have reiterated its sanctity. It is unnecessary to repeat their version of it. All those, who had raised any opposition to the sanctity of the ideal set out in the Purusha Sukta, were finally laid low by Manu, the architect of the Hindu society. For Manu did two things. In the first place, he enunciated afresh the ideal of the Purusha Sukta as a part of divine injunction. He said:

"For the prosperity of the worlds, he (lhe creator) from his mouth, arms, thighs and feet created the Brahmin, Kshatriya and Vaishya and the Shudra.[f6]

The Brahmin, Kshatriya (and) Vaishya (constitute) the three twice-born castes; but the fourth the shudra has only one birth. [f7]

In this he was no doubt merely following his predecessors. But he went a step further and enunciated another proposition in which he said:

"Veda is the only and ultimate sanction for Dharma.[f8]"

Bearing in mind that the Purusha Sukta is a part of the Veda, it cannot be difficult to realise that Manu invested the social ideal of Chaturvarnya contained in the Purusha Sukta, with a degree of divinity and infallibility which it did not have before.


A critical examination of the Purusha Sukta therefore becomes very essential.


It is claimed by the Hindus that the Purusha Sukta is unique.This is no doubt a tall claim for an idea which came to birth when the mind of man was primitive and was without the rich endowment of varied thought available in modem times. But there need not be much difficulty in admitting this claim provided it is understood in what respect the Purusha Sukta is unique.

The principal ground for regarding the Purusha Sukta as unique is that the ideal of social organization, namely, the ideal of Chaturvarnya which it upholds, is unique. Is this a sufficient ground for holding the Purusha Sukta as unique? The Purusha Sukta would really have been unique if it had preached a classless society as an ideal form of society. But what does the Purusha Sukta do? It preaches a class-composed society as its ideal. Can this be regarded as unique? Only a nationalist and a patriot can give an affirmative answer to this question. The existence of classes has been the defacto condition of every society, which is not altogether primitive. It is a normal state of society all over the world where society is in a comparatively advanced state. Looking at it from this point of view, what uniqueness can there be in the Purusha Sukta, when it does no more than recognise the sort of class composition that existed in the Indo-Aryan society?

Notwithstanding this, the Purusha Sukta must be admitted to be unique, though for quite different reasons. The unfortunate part of the matter is that many people do not know the true reasons why the Purusha Sukta should be regarded as unique. But once the true reasons are known, people will not only have no hesitation in accepting that the Purusha Sukta is a unique production of the human intellect but will perhaps be shocked to know what an extraordinary production of human ingenuity it is.

What are the features of the social ideal of the Purusha Sukta, which give it the hall mark of being unique? Though the existence of classes is the de facto condition of every society, nevertheless no society has converted this de facto state of affairs into a de jure connotation of an ideal society. The scheme of the Purusha Sukta is the only instance in which the real is elevated to the dignity of an ideal. This is the first unique feature of the scheme set forth in the Purusha Sukta. Secondly, no community has given the de facto state of class composition a legal effect by accepting it as a de jure connotation of an ideal society. The case of the Greeks is a case in point. Class composition was put forth as an ideal social structure by no less an advocate than Plato. But the Greeks never thought of making it real by giving it the sanction of law. The Purusha Sukta is the only instance in which an attempt was made to give reality to the ideal by invoking the sanction of law. Thirdly, no society has accepted that the class composition is an ideal. At the most they have accepted it as being natural. The Purusha Sukta goes further. It not only regards class composition as natural and ideal, but also regards it as sacred and divine. Fourthly, the number of the classes has never been a matter of dogma in any society known to history. The Romans had two classes. The Egyptians thought three were enough. The Indo-Iranians also had no more than three classes: [f9]  (1) The Athravans (priests) (2) Rathaeshtar (warriors) and (3) the Vastrya-fshuyat (peasantry). The scheme of the Purusha Sukta makes the division of society into four classes a matter of dogma. According to it, there can be neither more nor less. Fifthly, every society leaves a class to find its place vis-a-vis other classes according to its importance in society as may be determined by the forces operating from time to time. No society has an official gradation laid down, fixed and permanent, with an ascending scale of reverence and a descending scale of contempt. The scheme of the Purusha Sukta is unique, inasmuch as it fixes a permanent warrant of precedence among the different classes, which neither time nor circumstances can alter. The warrant of precedence is based on the principle of graded inequality among the four classes, whereby it recognises the Brahmin to be above all, the Kshatriya below the Brahmin but above the Vaishya and the Shudra, the Vaishya below the Kshatriya but above the Shudra and the Shudra below all.




These are the real reasons why the Purusha Sukta is unique. But the Purusha Sukta is not merely unique, it is also extraordinary. It is extraordinary because it is so full of riddles. Few seem to be aware of these riddles. But anyone who cares to inquire will learn how real in their nature and how strange in their complexion these riddles are. The cosmogony set out in the Purusha Sukta is not the only cosmogony one comes across in the Rig Veda. There is another cosmogony which is expounded in the 72nd Hymn of the Tenth Mandala of the Rig Veda. It reads as follows : [f10]

  1. 1.     Let us proclaim with a clear voice of the generation of the gods (the divine company), who, when their praises are recited, look (favourably on the worshipper) in this latter age.

  2. 2.     Brahmanaspati filled these (generations of the gods) with breath as a blacksmith (his bellows); in the first age of the gods the existent was born of the non-existent.

  3. 3.     In the first age of the gods the existent was born of the non-existent; after that the quarters (of the horizon) were born, and after them the upward-growing (trees).

  4. 4.     The earth was born from the upward growing (tree), the quarters were born from the earth; Daksha was born from Adili and afterwards Aditi from Daksha.

  5. 5.     Aditi, who was thy daughter, Daksha, was born; after her, the gods were born, adorable, freed from the bonds of death.

  6. 6.     When, gods, you abode in this pool well-arranged, then a pungent dust went forth from you as if you were dancing.

  7. 7.     When, gods, you Filled the worlds (with your radiance) as clouds (fill the earth with rain) then you brought fourth the sun hidden in the ocean.

  8. 8.     Eight sons (there were) of Aditi who were born from her body; she approached the gods with seven, she sent forth Martanda on high.

  9. 9.     With seven sons Aditi went to a former generation, but she bore Martanda for the birth and death (of human beings).


The two cosmologies are fundamentally different in principle as well as in detail. The former explains creation ex nihilo 'being was born of non-being'. The latter ascribes creation to a being which it calls Purusha. Why in one and the same book two such opposite cosmologies should have come to be propounded? Why did the author of the Purusha Sukta think it necessary to posit a Purusha and make all creation emanate from' him?

Any one who reads the Purusha Sukta will find that it starts with the creation of donkyes, horses, goats, etc., but does not say anything about the creation of man. At a point when it would have been natural to speak of the creation of man, it breaks off the chain and proceeds to explain the origin of the classes in the Aryan society. Indeed, the Purusha Sukta appears to make the explaining of the four classes of the Aryan society to be its primary concern. In doing this, the Purusha Sukta stands in complete contrast not only with other theologies but with the other parts of the Rig Veda also.

No theology has made it its purpose to explain the origin of classes in society. Chapter I of the Genesis in the Old Testament, which can be said to be analogous in intention and purpose to the Purusha Sukta, does nothing more than explain how man was created. It is not that social classes did not exist in the old Jewish society. Social classes existed in all societies. The Indo-Aryans were no exception. Nevertheless, no theology has ever thought it necessary to explain how classses arise. Why then did the Purusha Sukta make the explanation of the origin of the social classes its primary concern?

The Purusha Sukta is not the only place in the Rig Veda where a discussion of the origin of creation occurs. There are other places in the Rig Veda where the same subject is referred to. In this connection, one may refer to the following passage in the Rig Veda which reads as follows : [f11]

Rig Veda, i.96.2: "By the first nivid, by the wisdom of Ayu, he (Agni) created these children of men; by his gleaming light the earth and the waters, the gods sustained Agni the giver of the riches."

In this, there is no reference at all to the separate creation of classes, though there is no doubt that even at the time of the Rig Veda, the Indo-Aryan Society had become differentiated into classes; yet the above passage in the Rig Veda ignores the classes and refers to the creation of men only. Why did the Purusha Sukta think it necessary to go further and speak of the origin of the classes?

The Purusha Sukta contradicts the Rig Veda in another respect. The Rig Veda propounds a secular theory regarding the origin of the Indo-Aryans as will be seen from the following texts:


  1. (1)  Rig Veda, i.80:16: "Prayers and hymns were formerly congregated in that Indra, in the ceremony which Atharvan, father Manu, and Dadhyanch celebrated.'[f12]

  2. (2)  Rig Veda, i.l 14.2 : "Whatever prosperity or succour father Manu obtained by sacrifice, may we gain all that under thy guidance, Rudra. [f13]

  1. (3)  Rig Veda, ii.33.13 : "Those pure remedies of yours, O Maruts, those which are most auspicious, ye vigorous gods, those which are beneficent, those which our father Manu chose, those and the blessing and succour of Rudra, I desire. [f14]

  2. (4)  (4) Rig Veda, viii.52.1 : "The ancient friend hath been equipped with the powers of the mighty (gods). Father Manu has prepared hymns to him, as portals of access to the gods.'[f15]

  3. (5)  Rig Veda, iii.3.6 : "Agni, together with the gods, and the children (jantubhih) of Manush, celebrating a multiform sacrifice with hymns. [f16]

  4. (6)  Rig Veda, iv. 37.1 :" Ye gods, Vajas, and Ribhukshana, come to our sacrifice by the path travelled by the gods, that ye, pleasing deities, may institute a sacrifice among these people of Manush (Manusho vikshu) on auspicious • days." [f17]

  5. (7)  Rig Veda, vi.l4.2 : "The people of Manush praise in the sacrifice Agni the invoker. [f18]


From these texts it is beyond question that the rishis who were the authors of the hymns of the Rig Veda regarded Manu as the progenitor of the Indo-Aryans. This theory about Manu being the progenitor of the Indo-Aryans had such deep foundation that it was carried forward by the Brahmanas as well as the Puranas. It is propounded in the Aitareya Brahmana[f19] in the Vishnu Parana [f20] and the Matsya Parana[f21]It is true that they have made Brahma the progenitor of Manu; but the Rig Veda theory of Manu being the progenitor has been accepted and maintained by them[f22] Why does the Purusha Sukta make no mention of Manu ? This is strange because the author of the Purush Sukta seems to be aware of the fact that Manu Svayambhuva is called Viraj and Viraj is called Adi Purusha, [f23]since he too speaks of Virajo adhi Purushah in verse five of the Sukta.

There is a third point in which the Purush Sukta has gone beyond the Rig Veda. The Vedic Aryans were sufficiently advanced in their civilization to give rise to division of labour. Different persons among the Vedic Aryans followed different occupations. That they were conscious of it is evidenced by the following verse:

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