From: Vinod Karnik < >
On the Shudra Varna
The Shudras were the class of people in Indian society who were involved in various occupations such as:
- Engineering (nagaravAstushilpi) — civil works such building roads, bridges, dams, reservoirs, wells, etc
- Metal works (karmakAra orkarmAra) — ore-smelting, smithy, forging, manufacturing of weapons, agricultural implements, vessels, etc
- Pottery (kumbhakAra orkulAla) — all kinds of vessels and containers as well as other public monuments
- Carpentry (takShaka, sthapati)
- Weaving (paTakAra orsUtrakAra or tantuvAya) — all kinds of clothing manufacture
- Construction (gRhavAstushilpi) — houses, temples, and other buildings
- Cart-building & chariot-building (rathakAra)
So, you can clearly see that civilized urban life would not have been possible in ancient India without the irreplaceable contribution of Shudras. Every other community in society, including Brahmins, depended on Shudras for basics of everyday life.
So, it is illogical and unimaginable that Shudras would be actually oppressed because it is much easier for Shudras to boycott the rest of society if they thought they were being oppressed. Besides, Shudras always formed more than 75% of the population at any time in history, whereas Brahmins formed 5% or less. So, it is much easier for Brahmins to face actual oppression even though it may appear that they had all the power just because they wrote all the books that have come down to us.
It has become a common theme in modern times to selectively read through different kinds of traditional scriptures, and come to grossly erroneous and ill-informed conclusions about alleged atrocities or discrimination or denigration such as the question frames it.
The fundamental categorization of Hindu scriptures is in terms of shruti and smRti. The shruti texts are the Vedas, which are descriptive texts. This means they describe things as they really were. So they describe society and the different classes of people and their interactions as it really was. The smRti texts are prescriptive texts. This means these are various texts of individual authors who wrote their personal opinion of how things should be in their time. These are framed as “laws” and the texts can be called “law books” in modern parlance.
So, with this fundamental definition in mind, it is highly unintelligent to imagine that every single “law” written in these “law books” were actually implemented in practice without knowledge of how ancient Indian society was organized.
Caste-level organization had more power over people of the caste than the king or the theoretical law books written by Brahmins. More often than not, the caste elders were the representatives and spokespeople for the caste, and they negotiated power and influence with other communities and the state. This dynamic is seen throughout history as different castes rise and fall in their social status and power depending on changing conditions and needs of society.
Often, in the case of various Shudra communities, new technological developments changed the landscape of occupations, where one community’s traditional occupation is lost or taken over by another, thus causing a fall in the status of the first community and a rise in the status of the second.
For example, when earthenware was in high demand, potter community was highly respected. In fact, many of the Vedic metaphors use a potter’s wheel as the imagery for Brahman creating the world just as a potter creates pots from clay. When metallurgy began to advance, and more metal products began to be used, potters became secondary, and blacksmiths and smelters rose up in social status and importance. Clothes were always in demand, and so weavers were always held in high esteem.
First, let us look at how the Shudras are described in the shruti. In the Taittiriya Samhita 4.5 (which is famously known as Rudradhyaya or Rudra Namakam), the various Shudra occupations are mentioned as being forms of the supreme god Shiva himself:
(4.11) नमः क्षत्तृभ्यः संग्रहीतृभ्यश्च वो नमः — namah kShattRbhyah samgrahItRbhyashca vo namah — obeisance to teachers of charioteers and to charioteers.
(4.12) नमस्तक्षभ्यो रथकारेभ्यश्च वो नमः — namah takShabhyo rathakArebhyashca vo namah — obeisance to carpenters and cart-makers
(4.13) नमः कुलालेभ्यः कर्मारेभ्यश्च वो नमः — namah kulAlebhyashca karmArebhyashca vo namah — obeisance to potters and blacksmiths
(4.14) नमः पुञ्जिष्टेभ्यो निषादेभ्यश्च वो नमः — namah puñjiShTebhyah niShAdebhyashca vo namah — obeisance to bird-catchers and bird-hunters
(4.15) नम इषुकृद्भ्यो धन्वकृद्भ्यश्च वो नमः — namah iShukRdbhyo dhanvakRdbhyashca vo namah — obeisance to arrow-makers and now-makers
(4.16) नमो मृगयुभ्यः श्वनिभ्यश्च वो नमः — namo mRgayubhyah shvanibhyashca vo namah — obeisance to hunters and dog-owners (i.e. chandalas)
(4.17) नमः श्वभ्यश्च श्वपतिभ्यश्च वो नमः — namah shvabhyashca shvapatibhyashca vo namah — obeisance to dogs and to dog-keepers (i.e. chandalas)
So the Vedas (given to mankind by God,) and have such high respect for Shudras. Tradition says that in any matter if there is a difference of opinion between shruti and smRti, the former overrules the latter. Besides as mentioned above, shruti describes the thing as it really was, whereas smRti prescribes things according to an individual author.
So in reality, on the ground, it is unfair and incorrect to say that “Brahmins used Manusmriti as a tool to against Dalits”. The Manusmriti is a theoretical text book. There are many rules in it that are astounding and nobody would believe that anyone actually did what it prescribed. The rules for Brahmins in Manusmriti are hundred times more strict and severe than those for Shudras. For example, there is no punishment if a Shudra gets drunk, but if a Brahmin gets drunk his punishment is to insert a heated sword down his throat as far as the liquor has gone down.
Now let us look at actual history and see where the Shudras have been — at the “lowest position” as the question says or not.
Here’s a fact — more than 90% of the kings of India were Shudras. Here’s a list of Shudra kings:
- Maurya dynasty
- Chandragupta Maurya — the Brahmin Chanakya actually selected him to become king by destroying the Nanda dynasty which was Kshatriya!!!
- Bimbisara (son of Chandragupta Maurya)
- Ashoka (son of Bimbisara)
- Chalukya dynasty of Badami — ruled Deccan and south India for 700 years (6th-12th centuries)
- The kings of this dynasty such as Pulakeshi II were great patrons of Vedic religion and the mainstream Hindu culture, art, literature and architecture
- Rashtrakuta dynasty — ruled Deccan and south India for nearly 300 years between 8th and 11th centuries
- Once again, the great kings of this dynasty promoted and nurtured classical Hinduism and was also responsible for the exquisitely beautiful cave temples in Ellora (e.g. Kailasanatha Temple)
- Chola dynasty — ruled the Tamil country for nearly 350 years (10th-13th centuries)
- Rajaraja and his son Rajendra were great patrons of Hinduism and Vedic religion, and their trade relations with southeast Asia also carried Hinduism and Buddhism to that region.
- Vijayanagara empire —
- Famously the Brahmin Svami Vidyaranya chose the Shudras Harihara and Bukkaraya to lead an organized revival of a Hindu empire to thwart the incursion of Islam in south India.
- The second generation king Kumara Kampana rescued the Tamil region from Muslim rule
- Krishnadevaraya continued to strengthen the empire and it became a bastion of classical Hinduism all across India, and attracted scholars, musicians, artists from all over India. Temple architecture developed a new style with the tall imposing “Raya Gopurams” named for the Vijayanagara Kings (“Rayas”).
- Chandela dynasty — ruled central India between 9th and 13th centuries
- These kings were of tribalorigin, but established a strong Hindu kingdom and patronized the Vedic religion and all-rounded Hindu culture, arts, music, philosophy, etc
- They built the legendary Khajuraho temple complex
- They were a major resistance against early Muslim invasions of Ghaznavi and Ghori
- Gurjara-Pratihara dynasty — ruled over western India between 8th and 12th centuries
- Rajput kingdoms — famously valiant and fierce defenders of the western frontier of India and followers and patrons of Hinduism
- Maratha empire — Shivaji was a Shudra and he was educated by Samarth Ramdas. Shivaji is famous for a second revival of Hinduism after the fall of Vijayanagara and for bringing the downfall of the Mughal empire and resisting the British takeover of vast parts of India for nearly a century.
Also, until the 18th century, when the traditional education system of India was mostly undisturbed, every village in India had its own public-funded schools, and all children of the village received education. The composition of the children in these schools was 85% Shudras, 5% Brahmins and 10% remaining communities, and equal numbers of boys and girls. For a detailed study of this, please read the Beautiful Tree by Dharam Pal.
The present-day downfall of some Shudra communities can be traced back to the British policies of destroying indigenous industries so that British-produced goods could be sold back to Indians at exorbitant prices after stealing raw materials from India at dirt-cheap prices. This was also why Gandhiji started the Swadeshi Movement of making goods in India and wearing only Khadi.
The British census created a huge turmoil in the way Indians saw themselves. Prior to the first British census, various communities did not see themselves in a hierarchy. The British actually forced different communities into a strict hierarchy based on their utter misunderstanding of the complex Indian society, and thus forcefully placed Shudra communities at the bottom of the hierarchy, despite protests from those communities who saw themselves much higher in social status.
So please understand the complex effect of foreign interference on “caste discrimination” instead of ignorantly blaming Brahmins for everything.
“WR Cornish, who supervised census operations in the Madras Presidency in 1871, wrote that “… regarding the origin of caste we can place no reliance upon the statements made in the Hindu sacred writings. Whether there was ever a period in which the Hindus were composed of four classes is exceedingly doubtful”.
Similarly, CF Magrath, leader and author of a monograph on the 1871 Bihar census, wrote, “that the now meaningless division into the four castes alleged to have been made by Manu should be put aside”.
Anthropologist Susan Bayly writes that “until well into the colonial period, much of the subcontinent was still populated by people for whom the formal distinctions of caste were of only limited importance, even in parts of the so-called Hindu heartland… The institutions and beliefs which are now often described as the elements of traditional caste were only just taking shape as recently as the early 18th Century”.
In fact, it is doubtful that caste had much significance or virulence in society before the British made it India’s defining social feature.”