Egalitarian Ethos of the Vedas

Respect
for the Shudras and other downtrodden in Ancient India

In spite of so much propaganda to the contrary, the Vedic religion remained the cornerstone of socialism for all subsequent times to come. Thus the fourfold varnas
are merely a descriptive classification of society without any notion of discrimination in that. To eradicate any discrimination against the downtrodden, the Vedic religion explicitly promoted proletarianism. This prolitarianism inherent in the Vedas was brought to light by efforts of
Dayananda (Arya Samaj) and other such Hindu revivalists, who far from being secular or liberal, were quite orthodox in their world-view and religious approach. Dayananda maintained that not a word of the Vedas can be wrong.

Hence we will present below some quotes from the Vedas, which explicitly proclaim the superiority and supremacy of the shudras.

Shudras  were certainly revered in the Vedic society,
which has been explicitly mentioned in many of the hymns of the Vedas. For example, the Krishna Yajurveda (Taittiriya Samhita, 4.5.4.1, seventh line.) offers prayers to the downtrodden kSullaka and mahadbhaya. The Veda further salutes and pays tributes to carpenters, cart-makers, pottery-makers, blacksmiths, bird-hunters, fishermen, bow-makers, hunters and dog-eaters in the following hymns :

[kSullaka means poor, low, vile, distressed, abandoned. MW Dictionary]

[Note 1: mahadbhaya = mahat + bhaya; means those who are always in great fear (of the rich people), Monier Williams Dictionary. This meaning corresponds to the meaning of modern notion of ‘oppressed’ or dalit. It
may be inferred that during the Vedic times, there were rich and powerful people who kept the poor always under fear.]

[Note 2: Taittiriya Samhita, 4.5.4.2, lines 4, 5, 6, 7, 8 and 9.

See iv.4.5, lines l to r http://www.sacred-texts.com/hin/yv/yv04.htm

See mantra 9 & 10 in 4.5.4 in the link below

http://veda.007sites.com/1122XYZPDFABC/SANSKRIT/KYV-TS-4-5-Sanskrit.pdf

This section of the Krishna Yajurveda (Taittiriya Samhita),
fourth Vaishvedeva Kanda, pancham prapaatha is also included in the Shri Rudra Prashna Stotra. See page 10 in the pdf document in the link: http://www.scribd.com/doc/2601866/Rudram-and-Chamakam-with-English-Translation

It may be noted that during medieval and modern times people professing these all occupations or formerly associated with them have been considered to be the lowest castes and many of them were untouchables. Also
see, Kunal, Kishore, Dalit Devo Bhava, Publications Division, New Delhi, 2005.]

Namas-takshabhyo rathakarebhyash-cha vo
namah

We salute the carpenters and the cart-makers.

[taksha, tree-cutter or carpenter]

Namah kulalebhayah karmarebhashcha vo
namah

We salute the pottery makers and the
blacksmiths.

[kulAla, potter; karmAra, black-smith, artisan]

Namah punjishthebhyo nishadebhyah cha vo namah

We salute the bird-hunters and the nishada

[punjishtha, bird-catcher or fisherman; nishada is boat-man, fisherman or the forest livingtribal people]

 

Nama ishukridbhyo dhanvakridbhyah cha vo
namah

We salute the arrow-makers and the bow-makers (artisans).

[iSu-krit, arrow-maker; dhanvakrit, bow-maker, possibly dhanukh, (a scheduled caste of modern India)
represents former bow makers]

Namo mrigayubhayah svanibhayah namo
namah

We salute those who live by hunting animals, and we salute those who survive on dogs.

[Many poor people survived on flesh of dogs. Although they were categorized as chandal during later times, the Yajurveda pays salutations to them. These mantras are
binding for all Hindus.]

Similar hymns have been included in the Shukla Yajurveda too:

[See verse 27 in the link: http://www.sacred-texts.com/hin/wyv/wyvbk16.htm Griffith
Translation]

Homage to you carpenters, and to you chariot-makers homage.

Homage to you potters and to you blacksmiths, homage.

Homage to you Nishâdas and to you Puñjishthas, homage.

Homage to you dog-leaders, and to you hunters, homage.

Here the words used “namo namah” for salutation to the working classes and the downtrodden are the same which Vedas use to salute God and the divine. Such great respect was accorded to the downtrodden and workers because the Vedic society acknowledged the great importance of contributions of the shudras in the society. This is in contrast with other civilizations which almost always gave status of slave to the working classes. Shukla Yajurveda (26.2) further says:

“I to all the people may address this salutary speech,

To priest and nobleman, Sûdra and Arya, to one of our own kin and to the stranger.”

[see verse 2 in the link: http://www.sacred-texts.com/hin/wyv/wyvbk26.htm]

And also in the same Veda (18.48):

“O Lord! Please fill the brahmanas with light, kshatriyas with light, vaishyas with light and the shudras
with light; and in me fill the same light.”

[see verse 48 in the link: http://www.sacred-texts.com/hin/wyv/wyvbk18.htm]

The hard work of the shudras was considered ‘tapa’ or worship and this has been acknowledged in the thirteenth chapter of the Shatapatha Brahmana (SB, 13.6.2.10; See, K. Kunal, 2005, p. 63.) in the following words:

“Tapase shudram, tapo vai shudrastapa eva tattapasa samardhyatyevameta devata…”

Meaning:

Shudras are like taporupa, ascetics, their hard work increases the wealth and tapas of society.”

Kunal (2005) provides a large compilation of mantras expressing respect for the shudras from ancient Hindu texts like the Vedas, the Puranas and the Shatapatha Brahmana etc. Many verses explicitly mention that the
involvement of the shudras in Vedic rituals is essential, and that reverence to the lower classes pleases God.

It is important to exclude many of the Smritis and Purans from consideration, which had been written or finally edited during seventh to eleventh centuries, and a foreign influence is clearly visible on them. There was an influx of people from Iran and West Asia to north India and the Malabar Coast at this time. This is the time when distortions in Hinduism had started, and the distortions were complete long after the Muslim rule had been firmly
rooted in India.

The Apastamba Dharma Sutra (2.29.12.) gives due respect to the working classes by stating that the knowledge of the shudras is equivalent to the Atharva Veda. Thus the skills of the shudras were considered at par in status with the skills of the brahmanas. Kunal interprets this sutra to mean that the sudras have originated from the Atharva
Veda
. Such an association is possible because the Atharva Veda shows evidence of greater industrialization and specialization of professions. The Tattiriya Brahmana (3.12.9) mentions that the vaishya varna has originated from the Rig Veda, the kshatriya varna has originated from the Yajur Veda and the brahmana varna has originated from the Sama Veda. This allegory may actually mean that the Atharva Veda is more about skills of different occupations which were performed by
the shudras, while the Sama Veda is more orientated to the knowledge of atman and Brahman.

In the Mahabharata, (Shantiparva, 296.28) Rishi
Parashara compares shudra-s with God Vishnu, and explains this to king Janaka, both of whom were great scholars of Hindu theology:

Vaideha! Kam kam shudramudaharanti
dvija maharaja shrutopapannah.

Aham hi pashyami narendra devam
vishvashya Vishnum jagatah pradhanam.

Meaning: “O Vaideha (king Janaka), the brahmin
scholars of Vedas compare the shudras with Brahma; but I see the shudras as the Lord of the world, God
Vishnu.”

Here meaning of kam is Brahma, as explained in the Shatapatha Brahmana, 2.5.2.13: “kam vai prajapatih”. (Kunal, 2005:2)

Another mantra of the Atharva Veda states, “O Lord, make me beloved of (or dear to) the gods, the princes, the shudras and the noble men.” (Atharva Veda, 19. 62)

The fifteenth kanda of the Atharva Veda is devoted to praising the vratyas, who were those shudra-s who had not received the Vedic samskaras, and who did not follow the Vedic rituals and yajna-s (Atharva Veda, 15.1-18). [Monier Williams dictionary gives meaning of vratya as
“a man of the mendicant or vagrant class , a tramp , out-caste, low or vile person. That means a man who never acquired any ritual status because of lack of education, or one who has lost status through non-observance of the sixteen principal samskaras, or has become a mendicant.]

Translator Ralph Griffith titles two of hymns (viz. AV, 15.1and 2) as “The hyperbolical glorification of the Vrātya or Aryan Non-conformist.” The Veda declares in the first hymn that Lord Mahadeva (Shiva) was a vratya,
who got later elevated to the level of the Chief Vratya and lord of gods (AV, 15.1).

[http://www.sacred-texts.com/hin/av/avbook15.htm
http://www.sacred-texts.com/hin/av/av15001.htm]

In the second hymn the Veda claims that anyone who hates the vratya-s, earns the wrath of gods, and loses the fruits of many sacrifices (AV, 15.2). In the rest of the kanda 15, vratya-s have been allegorically depicted as the divine or the Parabrahma. Monier Williams notes in his dictionary that the “the kshatriya-s and even the Brahmanas
are said to have sprung from the vratya who is identified with the Supreme Being (AV 15.8.1; 15.9.1).”

[Monier Williams Sanskrit-English Dictionary, p. 1043, see vratya]

Thus we find that this particular hymn of the Veda declares the shudra class to be the Parabrahma, the highest Reality of Hindu theology.

Shukla Yajurveda makes it mandatory to include the shudras for the purpose of yajna dedicated to the God Savita (Sun). (For Brahman he binds a Brahmana
to the stake, for royalty, a Râjanya; for the Maruts a Vaisya; for Penance a Sûdra. See verse 5 in the link: http://www.sacred-texts.com/hin/wyv/wyvbk30.htm).

Ancient acharya Badari, who is also the author of the Brahma Sutras, directs that the shudras have all the rights to perform Vadic yajnas (sacrifices and rituals). (Jaimini, 6.1.27; Kunal:65)

 

Apastamba Dharma Sutra also explicitly mentions that the shudras did have right to cook offerings for the deities and participate in the samskaras (rituals). (Apastamba Dharma Sutra, 2.1.18; Kunal, p. 65).

 

Puranas, although very late texts, explicitly declare that many of the religious texts, especially the eighteen Puranas, the Ramayana and the Mahabharata have
been created especially for the benefit of the shudras, “Dharma shastrani rajendra shrinu tani nripottama, visheshashcha shudranam pavanani manishibhih.” (Bhavishya Purana, 1.1. 54-55) (Quoted by Kunal:27-8).

The Vedic Maharshi Kavasha Ailusha was not only born in a shudra family but also practicing shudra, just like Sant Ravidas of our age. But he was offered the presiding seat on the occasion of a great congregation of Vedic rishis, where all of them considered him the best of all rishis. [Kunal, K., 2005, dedication page.]  

The lawmaker Apastamba not only considers shudras and women entitled to education but also considers their knowledge more stable and full of dedication. (Apastamba Dharma Sutra, 2.29.11). He considers their knowledge equivalent to the Atharva Veda. (Ibid. 2.29.12). All
the remaining elements of dharma should be learnt from the women and from all the other varnas (which includes shudra). (Ibid. 2.29.15).

The  Sushruta Samhita, a medical text-book, clearly states that the knowledge of Ayurveda should be imparted to the shudra child also after giving him the sacred thread. (Sushruta Samhita, Sutrasthanam, 2.5).

Apart from these there is mention in the Rig Veda that “all the five classes of people are eligible to participate in the Vaidic havana and eat the havisha” (Rig Veda, 10.53.4). [see verse 4 & 5 in the link: http://www.sacred-texts.com/hin/rigveda/rv10053.htm]

In the next mantra the Rig Veda states, “O all the pancha-jana, you may get pleased with mine offerings (yajna) and the calves gifted to you all.” (Rig Veda, 10.53.5).
The general meaning of the pancha-janas in the Vedas is the five guilds of artisans of that time viz. Rathakara, Karmakara, Takshaka, Kumbhakara and Nishada-sthapati, which had evolved from the five forms of Vishvakarma namely, Twostar, Daksha, Takshaka, Maya and Rhibhus.

[Basham notes that rathakara was a most respected professional as long as Hindus were governed by the Vedas, yet this occupation became one of untouchable
during later times. Basham, The Wonder that was India, Rupa and Co, Bombay, Third revised ed (1967), thirty-fifth impression, 1999, p. 145.]

However Kunal thinks that it is a reference to five classes of people, the four Vedic varnas plus Nishad, because Yaska had interpreted pancha-jana mentioned in this hymn as brahmana, kshatriya, vaishya, shudra and  nishada (Kunal: 65). However, Griffith feels that the reference here is to the five Vedic tribes. Some authors opine that word pancha-jana meant the five Vedic tribes viz. Yadu,
Turvasha, Puru, Anu and Druhyu. [Singh, Upinder, A History of Ancient and Early Medieval India, Pearson
Education India, 2008, p. 187.]

It may be worthwhile mentioning here that the common mistake which historians have committed is the assumption that all the Vedic tribes, including these five
aforementioned tribes, were Kshatriyas. However, Jayaswal (1978) makes it clear that each such tribe had people working in all the different strata like brahmana (philosophers), kshatriya (warriors), labouring
class (shudra) etc. He quotes from Panini that there were brahmanas and kshatriyas within the Parshva Vedic tribe (Jayaswal:31, footnote).

[Mentioned by Jayaswal, K.P., The Hindu Polity, Fifth Ed., The Bangalore Printing and Publishing Co. Ltd, Bangalore, 1978, p. 31, footnote.]

He then quotes from Panini and Patanjali to prove that there were brahmana, kshatriya, shudra etc. within the Vahika (Bahlika) and Malava tribes too (ibid:29, and footnote of pp. 29 & 30). Panini also mentioned brahmana among the Nishada. Hence we can surmise that
all the varnas were present in all the tribes.

Conclusion:

Although Indians are only too eager to accept that Europe did not have a case system, and that the Vedas had a system which led to formation of castes, the learned
European scholars have better understanding of truth.

Thus, Comte wrote:

“We see it (the caste) now in the Asiatic races so exemplified that we are apt to regard it as proper to the
yellow races, though the white races in their season were equally subject to it, with the difference that, from their inherent superiority, or through the influence of more favourable circumstances, they disengaged themselves more rapidly from it.”

[page 56 in the pdf on the link:

http://socserv.mcmaster.ca/econ/ugcm/3ll3/comte/Philosophy3.pdf]

“Thus the great system of castes flourished
first in Egypt, Chaldcea, and Persia; and it abides in our day in those parts of the East which are least exposed to the contacts with the white nations, as in China, Japan, Tibet and Hindostan etc.; and from analogous cause it was
found in Mexico and Peru at the time of their conquest. Traces of these causes may be recognised … in western Europe as the Gauls, the Etruscans etc. The primitive influence may be perceived among nations whose progress has been accelerated by fortunate colonization. The general impress is recognised in their various ulterior institutions, and is not entirely effaced in the most advanced societies. In short, this system is the universal basis of ancient
civilization.”

[Same page; Comte.]

However Comte missed the fact that India was the only one among the ancient civilizations that abhorred birth-based professions, and birth-based discriminatory divisions of society.

For more about European caste system, see the link:

https://priyadarshi101.wordpress.com/2011/05/15/caste-system-in-europe/

For more about origin of absence of caste system from ancient Hinduism, and sources of Indian caste system, see the link:

https://priyadarshi101.wordpress.com/2011/05/15/caste-system-did-not-originate-from-vedic-varna/

Baba Saheb Bhim Rao Ambedkar had rightly remarked:

Ambedkar on
Origin of Caste

This fact, that the caste was absent from early Indian society, was noted by no less a person than Bhim Rao Ambedkar, who noted:

“…society is always composed of classes.
It may be an exaggeration to assert the theory of class conflict, but existence of definite classes in a society is a fact. Their basis may differ. They may be economic or intellectual or social, but an individual in a society is always a member of a class. This is a universal fact and early Hindu society could not have been an exception to this rule, and, as a matter of fact, we know it was not. If we bear this generalization in mind, our study of the genesis of caste would be very much facilitated, for we have only to determine what was the class that first made itself into a caste,…A Caste is an enclosed Class.”

…“We shall be well advised to recall at the outset that the Hindu society, in common with other societies, was composed of classes and the earliest known are the
(1) Brahmin or the priestly class; (2) the Kshatriya or the
military class; (3) the Vaishya or the merchant class; (4) the Shudra or the artisan and the menial class. Particular attention has to be paid to the fact that this was essentially a class system, in which, individuals, when
qualified, could change their class, and therefore the classes did change their personnel
” (emphasis added).

[Speech delivered by Dr. Ambedkar on May 9, 1916 at the Columbia University of New York, U.S.A. on the subject “Castes in India; Their Mechanism, Genesis and
Development” (The speech was published in Indian Antiquary, May 1917—Vol. XLI). Quoted by the Supreme Court of India in AIR, 1993 SC p. 549-550, para 76 of the Indira Shawhney  Judgment]

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3 thoughts on “Egalitarian Ethos of the Vedas

  1. Hi,

    Thank you for the great post. This is a wonderful compilation of Vedic Mantras that speak of equality and echo the respect and love Vedic Rishis attached with all labourers and workmen. The mantra from Shukla Yajurveda (26.2) has been quoted by Swami Vivekananda in one of his speeches, in which he urges that every Hindu of all castes have rights on the Veda.

    // [Note 1: mahadbhaya = mahat + bhaya; means those who are always in great fear (of the rich people), Monier Williams Dictionary. This meaning corresponds to the meaning of modern notion of ‘oppressed’ or dalit. It may be inferred that during the Vedic times, there were rich and powerful people who kept the poor always under fear.] //

    This explanation is wrong. the original word in the Mantra is “mahadbhya” (the great ones) and NOT “mahadbhaya”.

    namo mahadbhyaH kshullakebhyaH ca – salutation to the great ones and to the lowly ones.

    This is in line with many other mantras in the same section which praise the Supreme Being with contrasting epithets, like “namo virUpebhyo vishwarUpebhyash ca” (salutation to the one without any form and to the one with all forms).

    • The meaning you suggest may be correct, but then that needs to be substantiated “how?”

      For achieving that meaning one will have to assume that mahad-bhaya means “one who produces great fear in others”. Such an etymology would mean that the author (rishi) of the mantra himself feared that mahadbhaya person, and therefore offered salutions.

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