Who Were the Shudras?: B.R. Ambedkar aims to provide clarity on the origins of the Shudra class in the caste system in India through this book of his. It was initially published in 1946, a time when caste discrimination in society was rampant, and the lower castes continued to suffer immensely. He provides evidence from the Vedic scriptures to provide a much clearer and relatively undistorted picture on the origin of the caste system in India. The book also outright denies the Aryan invasion theory, that is still a topic which continues to be debated upon. The Aryan invasion theory is the hypothesis that, Aryans invaded India and bought about the demise of the Indus Valley civilization. As a result of this, the dominant theory became that the upper castes that is the Brahmins, were people who descended from these Aryan conquerors. Brahmins were those people of the purest Aryan blood, while the lower castes were a mix or purely Dravidian. This theory of being of Aryan descent also served as a narrative in justifying the rule by whites in India. Ambedkar substantiates this claim by saying that there is no record of an invasion in the Vedas. Had the Aryans conquered India, it is only natural to assume that they would have recorded such an event. This would mean that Aryans were native to India in the first place and not some foreign invader race. To understand all this in the broader context, we must understand the caste system.
The caste system can be understood as a hierarchical social structure. This structure, segregated people into groups, on the grounds of the nature of the profession of an individual. It essentially prevented people from marrying a person from a different caste or pursuing a profession which was one that was solely reserved for a specific caste. There are four castes, Brahmin (priest), Kshatriya (warrior), Vaishyas (businessmen) and finally the Shudras (menial). There Dalit people or the ‘untouchables’ are considered a caste in this system by some. But Dalits are an odd outlier when looking at the origins of the caste system as a whole. The lower castes faced the brunt of this segregation for the most part. They were treated quite harshly to say the least. If a person of a higher caste came into contact with a person from a lower caste, especially physical contact, it necessitated a cleansing for the person from the upper caste. This cleansing ceremony would be done by a Brahmin priest of the upper caste. This was humiliation and dehumanization of the lower castes on a very substantial level.
Ambedkar goes about examining the origin of the Shudras in the caste system by laying out a few key points. Firstly, he establishes that the Shudras were an Aryan community. He then refers to a time where only three castes were present, that is, Brahmin, Kshatriya and Vaishya. The Shudras were actually Aryans and were part of the Kshatriyas. As time went by, a feud originated between the Shudras and Brahmins on the exclusive rights to religious ceremonies. In the act of retaliation, Brahmins refused to perform the Upanayana on Shudra. Upanayana was the right, that was a prerequisite to be able to own land and have access to education in society back then. This ultimately resulted in Shudras being unable to own land or to be educated, which led to their downfall in the long run.
Breaking it down, the first aspect to be understood is that the word “Aryan/Aryas” were not used to indicate race in the Vedic texts. The word which has Sanskrit origins translates to mean ploughed land. So, it was perhaps an effort to distinguish Aryan people from other tribes in that context. The physical description of Aryans is only that they are long-headed. There is no mention of any skin colour attributed to them. Long-headed Aryans could, therefore, have any skin colour. The whole act of ascribing fair-skinned people to be Aryans then acquires no proper base. In addition to this, many characters mentioned in the Vedas who are Aryan have a dark complexion. Two notable examples are Rama and Krishna. One can say then that Aryans were most likely people with varying skin complexions and not just fair-skinned people.
Coming to the observation made by Ambedkar that there was a time where only three castes were present, he refers to the Purusha Sukta. This, he claims was a later addition to the main text of the Rig Veda. Which could lead one to surmise that there was a time before when only three of the castes existed. Moreover, these three are the only ones mentioned in the main text of the Rig Veda.
An argument that Ambedkar makes for Shudras initially belonging to the Kshatriya caste is that the Shudras are actually the mythic descendants of the Vedic character Sudas. He was a well-respected figure before the conflict occurred between the factions for exclusivity to religious rites. The modern-day Shudras are not in fact, descendants of the mythic Sudas. The word came to be attributed to uneducated or “low-class” people. It soon became a widely used term for people who were not Dalits or from the upper class. This realisation that Shudras not being descendants of Sudas, is quintessential as it would reduce violence against them is the case that Ambedkar is trying to make.
Lastly, the prohibition on the Shudras from owning land was the real cause of their untimely downfall according to Ambedkar. As they did not have education or land, they were reduced to doing menial tasks. This further depreciated their status quo in the Indian socio-political context even more.
To conclude, this book is a very important piece of work that was ahead of its time. It helps us to look at the issue of caste from a very objective point of view. It is also important that similar research is undertaken seriously as it ensures the exposition of the unjustified treatment of the lower classes that exists even today in Indian society. The case of the Shudras that Ambedkar presents is that of a people who despite their initial successes, ended up in a servile position that spelled their downfall over many decades.
- Who were the Shudras? (2019, October 03). Retrieved from https://blackleaderanalysis.com/
- Shankar, R. (n.d.). It’s all in the genes: Does DNA call bluff on Aryan Invasion Theory? Retrieved from https://www.newindianexpress.com/magazine/2019/sep/15/its-all-in-the-genes-does-dna-call-bluff-on-aryan-invasion-theory-2032707.html