Who were the shudras ?

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Rig Veda, i.113.6 : "That some may go in pursuit of power, some in pursuit of fame, some in pursuit of wealth, some in pursuit of work, Ushas has awakened people so that each may go in pursuit of his special and different way of earning his livelihood."

This is as far as the Rig Veda had gone. The Purusha Sukta goes beyond. It follows up the notion of division of labour and converts the scheme of division of work into a scheme of division of workers into fixed and permanent occupational categories. Why does the Purush Sukta commit itself to such a perversity?

There is another point in which the Purusha Sukta departs from the Rig Veda. It is not that the Rig Veda speaks only of man. It speaks also of the Indo-Aryan nation. This nation was made up of the five tribes, which had become assimilated into one common Indo-Aryan people. The following hymns refer to these five tribes as moulded into a nation:

  1. (1)   Rig Veda, vi.ll.4 :" Agni, whom, abounding in oblations, the five tribes, bringing offerings, honour with prostrations, as if he were a man. [f24]

  2. (2)   Rig Veda, vii.l5.2 : "The wise and youthful master of the house (Agni) who has taken up his abode among the five tribes in every house.'[f25]

There is some difference of opinion as to who these five tribes are. Yaska in his Nirukta says that it denotes Gandharvas, Pitris, Devas, Asuras and Rakshasas. Aupamanyava says that it denotes the four Varnas and the Nishadas. Both these explanations seem to be absurd. Firstly, because the five tribes are praised collectively as in the following hymns:

  1. (1)  Rig Veda, ii.2.10 : "May our glory shine aloft among the five tribes, like the heaven unsurpassable. [f26]

  2. (2)  Rig Veda, vi.46.7 : "Indra, whatever force or vigour exists in the tribe of Nashusa or whatever glory belongs to the five races bring (for us). [f27]

Such laudatory statements could not have been made if the five tribes included the Shudras. Besides, the word used is not Varnas. The word used is Janah. That it refer to the five tribes and not to the four Varnas and Nishadas is quite clear from the following verse of the Rig Veda:

Rig Veda, i. 108.8: "If, 0 Indra and Agni, ye are abiding among the Yodus, Turvasas, Druhyus, Anus, Purus, come hither, vigorous heroes from all quarters, and drink the Soma which has been poured out. [f28]

That these five tribes had been moulded into one Aryan people is clear from the Atharva Veda (iii.24.2) which says : "these five regions, the five tribes springings from Manu."

A sense of unity and a consciousness of kind can alone explain why the Rishis of the Rig Vedic hymns came to refer to the five tribes in such manner. The questions are: why did the Purusha Sukta not recognise this unity of the five tribes and give a mythic explanation of their origin? Why instead did it recognise the communal divisions within the tribes? Why did the Purusha Sukta regard communalism more important than nationalism?

These are some of the riddles of the Purush Sukta , which come to light when one compares it with the Rig Veda. There are others, which emerge when one proceeds to examine the Purusha Sukta from a sociological point of view.

Ideals as norms are good and are necessary. Neither a society nor an individual can do without a norm. But a norm must change with changes in time and circumstances. No norm can be permanently fixed. There must always be room for revaluation of the values of our norm. The possibility of revaluing values remains open only when the institution is not invested with sacredness. Sacredness prevents revaluation of its values. Once sacred, always sacred. The Purusha Sukta makes the Chaturvarnya a sacred institution, a divine ordination. Why did the Purusha Sukta make a particular form of social order so sacred as to be beyond criticism and beyond change? Why did it want to make it a permanent ideal beyond change and even beyond criticism? This is the first riddle of the Purusha Sukta which strikes a student of sociology.

In propounding the doctrine of Chaturvarnya, the Purush Sukta plays a double game. It proceeds first to raise the real, namely, the existence of the four classes in the Indo-Aryan Society, to the status of an ideal. This is a deception because the ideal is in no way different from facts as they exist. After raising the real to the status of the ideal, it proceeds to make a show of giving effect to what it regards as an ideal. This again is a deception because the ideal already exists in fact. This attempt of the Purusha Sukta to idealise the real and to realise the ideal, is a kind of political jugglery, the like of which, I am sure, is not to be found in any other book of religion. What else is it if not a fraud and a deception? To idealise the real, which more often than not is full of inequities, is a very selfish thing to do. Only when a person finds a personal advantage in things as they are that he tries to idealise the real. To proceed to make such an ideal real is nothing short of criminal. It means perpetuating inequity on the ground that whatever is once settled is settled for all times. Such a view is opposed to all morality. No society with a social conscience has ever accepted it. On the contrary, whatever progress in improving the terms of associated life between individuals and classes has been made in the course of history, is due entirely to the recognition of the ethical doctrine that what is wrongly settled is never settled and must be resettled. The principle underlying the Purush Sukta is, therefore, criminal in intent and anti-social in its results. For, it aims to perpetuate an illegal gain obtained by one class and an unjust wrong inflicted upon another. What can be the motive behind this jugglery of the Purusha Sukta ? This is the second riddle.

The last and the greatest of all these riddles, which emerge out of a sociological scrutiny of the Purusha Sukta , is the one relating to the position of the Shudra. The Purusha Sukta concerns itself with the origin of the classes, and says they were created by God—a doctrine which no theology has thought it wise to propound. This in itself is a strange thing. But what is astonishing is the plan of equating different classes to different parts of the body of the Creator. The equation of the different classes to different parts of the body is not a matter of accident. It is deliberate. The idea behind this plan seems to be to discover a formula which will solve two problems, one of fixing the functions of the four classes and the other of fixing the gradation of the four classes after a preconceived plan. The formula of equating different classes to the different parts of the body of the Creator has this advantage. The part fixes the gradation of the class and the gradation in its turn fixes the function of the class. The Brahmin is equated to the mouth of the Creator. Mouth being the noblest part of the anatomy, the Brahmin becomes the noblest of the four classes. As he is the noblest in the scale, he is given the noblest function, that of custodian of knowledge and learning. The Kshatriya is equated to the arms of the Creator. Among the limbs of a person, arms are next below the mouth. Consequently, the Kshatriya is given an order of precedence next below the Brahmin and is given a function which is second only to knowledge, namely, fighting. The Vaishya is equated to the thighs of the Creator. In the gradation of limbs the thighs are next below the arms. Consequently, the Vaishya is given an order of precedence next below the Kshatriya and is assigned a function of industry and trade which in name and fame ranks or rather did rank in ancient times below that of a warrior. The Shudra is equated to the feet of the Creator. The feet form the lowest and the most ignoble part of the human frame. Accordingly, the Shudra is placed last in the social order and is given the filthiest function, namely, to serve as a menial.

Why did the Purusha Sukta choose such a method of illustrating the creation of the four classes? Why did it equate the Shudras to the feet? Why did it not take some other illustration to show how the four classes were created. It is not that Purusha is the only stock simile used to explain creation. Compare the explanation of the origin of the Vedas contained in the Chhandogya Upanishad. It says[f29]

"Prajapati infused warmth into the worlds, and from them so heated he drew forth their essences, viz., Agni (fire) from the earth, Vayu (wind) from the air, and Surya (the sun) from the sky. He infused warmth into these three deities, and from them so heated he drew forth their essences,— from Agni the ric verses, from Vayu the yajus verses and from Surya the saman verses. He then infused heat into this triple science, and from it so heated he drew forth its essences—from ric verses the syllable bhuh, from yajus verses bhuvah, and from Saman verses svar."

Here is an explanation of the origin of the Vedas from different deities. So far as the Indo-Aryans are concerned, there was no dearth of them. There were thirty crores of them. An explanation of the origin of the four Varnas from four gods would have maintained equality of dignity by birth of all the four classes. Why did the Purusha Sukta not adopt this line of explanation?

Again, would it not have been possible for the author of. the Purusha Sukta to say that the different classes were born from the different mouths of the Purusha. Such a conception could not have been difficult because the Purusha of the Purush Sukta has one thousand heads, enough to assign one species of creation to one of his heads. Such a method of explaining creation could not have been unknown to the author of the Purusha Sukta. For we find it used by the Vishnu Purana to explain the origin of the different Vedas as may be seen from the following extract:2[f30]

"From his eastern mouth Brahma formed the Gayatd, the ric verses, the trivrit, the sama-rathantara and of sacrifices, the agnistoma. From his southern mouth he created the yajus verses, the trishtubh metre, the panchadasa stoma, the brihatsaman, and the ukthya. From his western mouth he formed the saman verses, the jagati metre, the saptadasa stoma, the Vairupa, and the atiratra. From his northern mouth he formed the ekavimsa, the atharvan, the aptoryaman with the anushtubh and viraj metres."

The Harivansa has another way of explaining the origin of the Vedas. According to it: [f31]

"The god fashioned the Rig Veda with the Yajus from his eyes, the Sama Veda from the tip of his tongue, and the Atharvan from his head."

Assuming that for some reason the author of the Purusha Sukta could not avoid using the body of the Creator and its different parts for explaining the origin and the relation of the four classes, the question still remains as to why he chose to equate the different parts of the Purusha to the different classes in the manner in which he does.

The importance of this question is considerably heightened when one realises that the Purusha Sukta is not the only instance in which the different parts of the body of the Creator are used as illustrations to explain the origin of the different classes in society. The same explanation is given by the sage Vaishampayana to explain the origin of the various classes of priests employed in the performance of sacrifices. But what a difference is there between the two! The explanation of Vaishampayana which is reported in the Harivarnsa reads as follows: [f32]

"Thus the glorious Lord Hari Narayana, covering the entire waters, slept on the world which had become one sea, in the midst of the vast expanse of fluid (rajas), resembling a mighty ocean, himself free from passion (virajaskah), with mighty arms; Brahmans know him as the undecaying. Invested through austere fervour with the light of his own form and clothed with triple time (past, present and future) the lord then slept. Purushotiama (Vishnu) is whatever is declared to be the highest. Purusha the sacrifice, and everything else which is known by the name of Purusha. Here how the Brahmins devoted to sacrifice, and called ritvijas, were formerly produced by him from his own body for offering sacrifices. The Lord created from his mouth the Brahman, who is the chief, and the udgatri, who chants the Saman, from his arms the hotri and the adhvaryu . He then... created the prastotri, the maitravaruna, and the pratishthatri, from his belly the pratiharti and the potri, from his thighs the achhavaka and the neshtri, from his hands the agnidhra and the sacrificial brahmanya, from his arms the gravan and the sacrificial unnetri. Thus did the divine Lord of the world create the sixteen excellent ritvijas, the utterers of all sacrifices. Therefore this Purusha is formed of sacrifice and is called the Veda; and all the Vedas with the Vedangas, Upanishads and ceremonies are formed of his essence."

There were altogether seventeen different classes of priests required for the performance of a sacrifice. It could never be possible for anyone attempting to explain the origin of each by reference to a distinct part of the body of the Creator to avoid using the feet of the Purusha as the origin of a class, the limbs of the Purusha being so few and the number of priests being so many. Yet what does Vaishampayana do? He does not mind using the same part of the Creator's body to explain the origin of more than one class of priests. He most studiously avoids using the feet as the origin of anyone of them.

The situation becomes completely intriguing when one compares the levity with which the Shudras are treated in the Purusha Sukta with the respect with which the Brahmins are treated in the Hari-varnsa in the matter of their respective origins. Is it because of malice that the Purusha Sukta did not hesitate to say that the Shudra was born from the feet of the Purusha and that his duty was to serve? If so what is the cause of this malice?


The riddles about the Shudras mentioned above are those which arise out of a sociological scrutiny of the Purusha Sukta. There are other riddles regarding the position of the Shudra which arise out of later developments of the ideal of Chaturvarnya. To appreciate these results it is necessary first to take note of these later developments. The later developments of Chaturvarnya are mainly two. First is the creation of the fifth class next below the Shudras. The second is the separation of the Shudras from the first three Varnas. These changes have become so integrated with the original scheme of the Purusha Sukta that they have given rise to peculiar terms and expressions so well-known that everybody understands what they stand for. These terms are : Savarnas, Avarnas, Dvijas, non-Dvijas, and Traivarnikas. They stand to indicate the sub-divisions of the original four classes and the degree of separation between them. It is necessary to take note of the relative position of these classes because they disclose a new riddle. If this riddle has not caught the eye of the people, it is because of two reasons. Firstly, because students have not cared to note that these names are not mere names but that they stand for definite rights and privileges, and secondly, because they have not cared to find out whether the groupings made under these names are logical having regard to the rights and privileges they connote.

Let us therefore see what is the de jure connotation of these terms. Savarna is generally contrasted with Avarna. Savarna means one who belongs to one of the four Varnas. Avarna means one who does not belong to any one of the four Varnas. The Brahmins, Kshatriyas, Vaishyas and Shudras are Savarnas. The Untouchables or Ati-Shudras are called Avarnas, those who have no Varna. Logically, the. Brahmins, Kshatriyas, Vaishyas and Shudras are within the Chaturvarnya. Logically, the Untouchables or the Ati-Shudras are outside the Chaturvarnya. Dvija is generally contrasted with non-Dvija. Dvija literally means twice-born and non-Dvija means one who is born only once. The distinction is based on the right to have Upanayana. The Upanayana is treated as a second birth. Those who have the right to wear the sacred thread are called Dvijas. Those who have no right to wear it are called non-Dvijas. The Brahmins, Kshatriyas and Vaishyas have the right to wear the sacred thread. Logically, they are Dvijas. The Shudras and the Ati-Shudras have no right to wear the sacred thread. Logically, they are both non-Dvijas. The Traivarnika is contrasted with the Shudra. But there is nothing special in this contrast. It conveys the same distinction which is conveyed by the distinction between the Dvijas and the non-Dvijas except the fact that the contrast is limited to the Shudra and does not extend to the Ati-Shudra. This is probably because this terminology came into being before the rise of the Ati-Shudras as a separate class.

Bearing in mind that both the Shudra and the Ati-Shudra are non-Dvijas, why then is the Shudra regarded as Savarna and the Ati-Shudra as Avarna ? Why is the former within and why is the latter outside the Chaturvarnya ? The Brahmins, Kshatriyas, Vaishyas and Shudras are all within the four corners of the Chaturvarnya. They are all Savarnas. Why then is the Shudra denied the right of the Traivarnikas ?

Can there be a greater riddle than the riddle of the Shudras ? Surely, it calls for investigation and explanation as to who they were and how they came to be the fourth Varna in the Aryan Society.


chapter II


HAS the Brahmanic literature any explanation to offer which can account for the origin of the Shudras? There is no doubt that the Brahmanic literature is full of legends regarding creation which touch upon the creation of the universe, of man and of the different Vamas. Whether or not they furnish any clue to discover the origin of the Shudras, there can be no doubt that all such theories should find a place in a book which is concerned with the problem of the Shudras if for no other reason than that of assembling all material relating to the Shudras in one place and making their story complete. It would be better to take each piece of the Brahmanic literature separately, and note what contribution it has to make to the subject.



To begin with the Vedas. As to the Rig Veda, the legend about creation to be found in its Sukta known as the Purusha Sukta has already been set out in the previous chapter. It now remains to take note of the legends contained in the other Vedas.

There are two recensions of the Yajur Veda : (1) the White Yajur Veda and (2) the Black Yajur Veda. To take the White Yajur Veda first. The Vajasaneyi Samhita of the White Yajur Veda sponsors two theories. One is a mere reproduction of the Purusha Sukta of the Rig Veda with this difference that it has 22 verses, while the original as it occurs in the Rig Veda has only 16 verses. The six additional verses in the White Yajur Veda read as follows :


  1. 17. Brought forth from the waters and from the essence of the earth, he was produced by Vishvakannan in the beginning. Tvashta gives him form; that is the Universe of Purusha on all sides in the beginning.

  2. 18. 1 know this great Purusha, of the colour of the sun, beyond darkness. Only by knowing him does one go beyond death; there is no other path for going.

  3. 19. Prajapati moves in the interior of the womb; though unborn, he is born in many forms. Wise men see his source; wise men desire the place of the Marichis.

  4. 20. He who shines for the gods, he who is the priest of the gods, he who was born before the gods,—salutation to that shining offspring of Brahma.

  5. 21. The gods, generating the shining offspring of Brahma, said in the beginning; "That Brahmin who knows thus,— the gods will be under his control."

  6. 22. Sri and Laxmi are his wives; the day and night his sides; the Stars his ornament; the Ashwins his bright face. Grant me my desires; grant me that; grant me everything.

The second explanation contained in the Vajasaneyi Samhita is quite different from the Purusha Sukta. It reads as follows :

V.S., xiv,28. *[f33]"He lauded with one. Living beings were formed. He lauded with three the brahman was created; Brahmanaspati was the ruler. He lauded with five existing things were created; bhutanampati was ruler. He lauded with seven: die seven rishis were created: Dhatri was the ruler. He lauded with nine: the Fathers were created: Aditi was the ruler. He lauded with eleven: the seasons were created: the Artavas were the rulers. He lauded with thirteen: the months were created: the year was the ruler. He lauded with fifteen: the Kshatra (the Kshatriya) was created: Indra was the ruler. He lauded with seventeen: animals were created: Brihaspati was the ruler. He lauded with nineteen: the Shudra and the Arya (Vaishya ) were created: day and night were the rulers. He lauded with twenty-one: animals with undivided hoofs were created: Varuna was the ruler. He lauded with twenty-three: small animals were created: Pushan was the ruler. He lauded with twenty-five: wild animals were created: Vayu was the ruler (compare R.V., x.90.8). He lauded with twenty-seven: heaven and earth separated: Vasus, Rudras and Adityas separated after them: they were the rulers. He lauded with thirty-one: living beings were created: the first and second halves of the month were the rulers. He lauded with thirty one: existing things were tranquillized: Prajapati Parameshthin was the ruler."

Now to turn to the Black Yajur Veda . The Taittriya Samhita of the Black Yajur Veda gives altogether five explanations. The one at iv. 3, 10 is the same as has been put forth by the Vajasaneyi Samhita of the White Yajur Vedaa-t (xiv.28) and which has been reproduced earlier. Of the rest those which narrate the origin of the Shudra are set out below:

T.S., ii.4.13.1.[f34]—"The gods were afraid of the Rajanya when he was in the womb. They bound him with bonds when he was in the womb. Consequently, this Rajanya is born bound. If he were born unbound he would go on slaying his enemies. In regard to whatever Rajanya any one desires that he should be born unbound, and should go on slaying his enemies, let him offer for him this Aindra-Barhaspatya oblation. A Rajanya has the character of Indra, and a Brahman is Brihaspati. It is through the Brahman that anyone releases the Rajanya from his bond. The golden bond, a gift, manifestly releases from the bond that fetters him."

(2) T.S., vii. 1.1.4. [f35]Prajapad desired, may I propagate.' He formed the Trivrit (stoma) from his mouth. After it were produced the deity Agni, the metre Gayain, the Saman (called) Rathantara, of men the Brahmin, of beasts the goats. Hence they are the chief (mukhyah) because they were created from the mouth (mukhatah). From (his) breast, from his arms,- he formed the. Panchadasa {stoma) After it were created the god, the indra, the Trishtubh metre, the Saman (called) Brihat, of men the Rajanya, of beasts the sheep. Hence they are vigorous, because they were created from vigour. From (his) middle he foamed the Saptadasa (stoma). After it were created the gods (called) the Vishvedevas, the Jagati metre, the Saman called the Vairupa of men the Vaishya, of beasts kine. Hence they are to be eaten, because they were created from the receptacle of food. Wherefore they are more numerous than others, for the most numerous deities were created after (the Saptadasa), From his foot he formed the Ekavimsa (Stoma.). After it were created the Anushtubh metre, the saman called vairaja, of men the.Shudra, of beasts the horse. Hence these two, both the horse and the Shudra, are transporters of (other) creatures. Hence (too) the Shudra is incapacitated for sacrifice, because no deities were created after (the Ekavimsa). Hence (too) these two subsist by their feet, for they were created from the foot.

Coming to the Atharva Veda, there are altogether four explanations. One of these is the same as the Purusha Sukta of the Rig Veda. It occurs at xix.6. The others are as stated below :

  1. (1)  A.V. [f36] iv.6.1.—The Brahman was born the first with ten heads and ten faces. He first drank the soma; he made poison powerless.

  2. (2)  A.V., [f37]xv.S.I.—He (the Vratya) became filled with passion thence sprang the Rajanya.

  3. (3)  A.V., [f38]xv.9.1.—Let the king to whose house the Vratya who knows this, comes as a guest, cause him to be respected as superior to himself. So doing he does no injury to his royal rank, or to his realm. From him arose the Brahman (Brahmin) and the Kshattra (Kshatriya). They said Into whom shall we enter,' etc.

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