In this treatise from 1946, Ambedkar focuses on the origin of the Shudra (Menial) class. It studies Vedic scripture to get a clear picture of the origin of the castes system. The treatise also refutes the Aryan invasion theory, that is popular today and in the time of Ambedkar.
Some background on the caste system will be needed. The caste system is a social structure in which people are segregated into groups that are typically associated with professions. People can’t marry outside of caste or get an occupation that is reserved for another caste. Certain types of contact from lower caste can cause the higher class to need cleansing. A ceremony conducted by a Brahmin (priest) can fill the cleansing requirement. There are four Hindu castes: Brahmin ( priest), Kshatriya (soldiers), Vaishyas (traders), Shudras (menials). The Dalit (untouchables) are considered to be a caste by some. However, most Dalits feel that they are outside Hinduism. Dalit are not covered in this treatise.
The prevailing theory of the origin of caste in 1940 was the Brahmin descended from a central Asian tribe called the Aryans. The Aryans conquered the native Dravidian people. The Brahmin are those with the purest Aryan blood, and the lower castes are mixed until finally, the lowest class was pure Dravidian. Aryans had a white skin complexion and Dravidians had a dark-skinned complexion. This idea of mixing of race degrading a people was used to segregate people all over the world. It also was also used to justify white rule in India and other places.
He begins by laying out his main premise.
- The Shudra were an Aryan community
- There was a time only three castes were represented Brahmin, Kshatriyas, and Vaishyas
- Shudra were Aryans and part of the Kshatriyas (soldier class)
- The Shudra began a feud with the Brahmin on the exclusive rights to religious ceremony
- In retaliation, Brahmin refused to perform Upanayana on Shudra, Upanayana are the rights that are a prerequisite to land ownership and education
- The prohibition on Shudras from owning land or being educated led to the degradation of the Shudra.
The Shudra were an Aryan community
The word “Aryan/Aryas” was never used to mean race in the Vedic text. It derives from a Sanskrit word that meant plowed land. The term was used to differentiate the Aryan people from less sophisticated scavenger and nomadic tribes. After Vedic times Aryan meant nobleman or respected person. The only physical description of the Aryan people describes them as long-headed. Long-headed people could have any skin color.
Not only do the Vedic text not imply that Aryans have white skin. Many of the main characters in the Vedas that are Aryan are said to have a dark complexion. Rama, Krishna, and Rishi Dirghatamas all are said to have had dark skin. It is most likely that Aryans were white, copper, and black in complexion.
Also, the Vedas say that Dravidians/Dasus would convert and become Aryans. That leads Ambedkar to believe Aryan and Dravidians are early cults of Hinduism. Individuals could experience Aryan culture and determine they wanted to switch. The ability to change Varna would not be possible if Aryan denoted race. Also, the word “Varnas” which is normally translated as color, actually derives from the Sanskrit word for faith.
There was a time only three castes were in Hinduism
References to the four castes are found in the Purusha Sukta, which Ambedkar proves is a late addition to the main text of the Rig Veda. Therefore, there was a time only three castes existed: Brahmin, Kshatriyas, and Vaishyas. These three are the only ones mentioned in the Rig Veda main text.
Shudras were Aryans part of the Kahatriya (soldier) caste
The Shudras are the mythic progeny of the Vedic character Sudas. Sudas was a king in ancient India. Sudas coronation was conducted by Brahmin, a sign that he was Kshatriyas. Sudas was also said to be wealthy and respected before the skirmish.
The Shudra fought the Brahmin for the right to perform religious services.
Ambedkar uses passages of the conflict between Vasishtha and Vishvamitra as an allegory about the conflict between Brahmin and Kshatriya’s priest. Both were performing religious rights. Vishvamitra was a Kshatriya and wrote some of the Rig Veda’s hymns. Vasishtha was Sudas chief priest. Sudas fires Vasishtha and hires Vishvamitra. Also, Vasishtha’s son is killed by Sudas. Vasishtha’s son questioned Vishvamitra on an important matter. To hold Vishvamitra’s honor, Suda’s murdered the young lad. The sons and all the progeny of the two sides continued the feud. The Purusha Sukta and the Manusmirti hold the information on this conflict.
In retaliation, Brahmin refused to perform Upanayana on Shudra, Upanayana are the rights that are a prerequisite to land ownership and education
To retaliate on the Kshatriya’s priest, the Brahmin refused to perform Upanayana on the Shudras. Upanayana was an initiation rite that allowed a person to be educated and own land. Conducting sacrifice according to the Vedas was the primary reason for property ownership. The Vedas also say the Shudra of that time were few. The Brahmin held power to perform Upanayana and deny it to anyone for any reason.
The prohibition on Shudras from owning land or being educated led to the degradation of the Shudra.
Because the Shudra did not have education or land, they could not do anything other than menial tasks. They were not genetically deficient or fated to live in a servile state. The denial of Upanayana to women caused the same situation.
Also, the modern day Shudra are not descendants of the mythic Sudas. Shudra came to mean “low-class” or uneducated person. All those not Dalit or upper class got the epithet. If people understood the modern Shudra were not the descendants of Sudas, violence against them would stop.
Ambedkar also debunks the Aryan invasion theory. The Vedas have no record of an invasion. If the Aryans were conquerors, they would boast about their conquest. Both Aryans and Dravidians were native to India and are not related to Europeans. The Aryan Invasion theory was started by Europeans to justify conquest and accepted by upper-caste Indians to justify caste rule.
Why is “Who are the Shudra” important”
Who are the Shudra shows how important it is to study something through many cultural lenses. Had Europeans and upper-caste Indians been the only ones looking into the subject, many biases would not have been uncovered.
Also, the roots cause of disparity between groups is the denial of education and land. Systematic economic disenfranchisement is true in Indian history, African history, and American history. There is no situation in which a people with full access to education and property over the entire history of a country ends up in a servile position.
The full-text can be found HERE