The British, at the pinnacle of their rule over the sub-continent succeeded in raising a wide section of Indic public opinion against brahmins. This resulted in several anti-brahmin movements that blamed the brahmins for the ills of various socio-ethnic sections of Indic society. They cited as proof for their grievance the dharma shAstras, chief amongst which was the mAnava dharma shAstra. These anti-brahminists claimed that these texts sanctioned the brahmins to ill-treat and oppress their people. These movements were orchestrated and their perceptions abetted by the British, and later by the collective Anglosphere, because they saw it as a potent tool to blunt the traditional Brahminical leadership of Hindu society against foreign invaders. This framework for the interpretation of the ancient Hindu texts was further built up by Anglospheric India-agents (“Indological scholars”) and their Marxist fellow travellers who had been planted in India just before freedom. So great has been the influence of these constructs that many Brahmins and other upper caste Indians in a defensive knee-jerk response try to deny the primacy of manu’s great work on dharma or concoct peculiar claims about castes and their nature. However, in the midst of all the sound and light created by the internalization of Anglospheric frameworks by Indians for the analysis of Hindu texts, the actual historical analysis of the texts and the nature of conflicts alluded therein , both perceived and real, have been largely ignored. I shall briefly discuss some of these points. But I must state upfront that these are a discussion of hypothesis and I am not necessarily accepting them as the final picture, which would require more investigation.
The first point, which many Hindus like to deny these days, but must be discussed without any mincing of words, is the ethnic structure of Indic society.
1) The brAhmaNas (brahmins) and the kShatriyas are in essense the descendents of the aristocracy or elite families of the invading Aryans. Overtime the kShatriya fold adopted other Indo-Aryan tribes outside of the pa~nchajana-ikShvAku orthodoxy, and various “honorary” kShatriyas of diverse ethnic backgrounds. These newcomers displaced or supplemented the original kShatriyas to a significant degree. However, in the case of the brahmin the displacement was less significant, though there was a noticeable ethnic diversification through the process of anuloma marriage and the 7 generation rule of ascent to brahmin-hood. Nevertheless the brahmins and kshatriyas do seem to maintain a significant component of their ancestral Indo-Aryan ethnicity as supported by recent genetic studies.
2) The vaishyas- these were in chief the descendents of the Indo-Aryan laity. However, they eventually included a diverse group of individuals.
3) shUdras- these seem to represent a mixture of individuals, namely: 1) those of Indo-Aryan ethnic and linguistic origins, but outside of the pale of the pa~nchajana-ikShvAku orthodoxy 2) Non-Indo-Aryan peoples of various origins. We shall discuss their case in greater detail below.
An examination of the Hindu texts reveal direct or indirect evidence for some major inter-varNa conflicts either in the period of their composition or within their historical memories.
1) In the core of the R^igveda the principal conflict is between the Aryas and the dasyus/dasas. We shall not discuss this conflict directly here. The terms dasyu/dAsa appears to represent the technical term for the foes of the principle protagonists of the R^igveda- the Aryas.
2) The post R^igvedic texts allude to the Arya vs shUdra conflict and the brahma+kShatra vs shUdra conflicts.
3) The mAnava dharmashAstra (manu smR^iti) and allied material alludes to the same 2 above-mentioned conflicts.
4) The bhArgava mythological and genealogical literature often embedded in the itihAsas and to some extant the purANas refer to brAhmaNa vs kShatriya conflicts. Some versions of this mention the brAhmaNas forming an alliance with vaishyas and shUdras against the kShatriyas in this conflict. It is typically centered around the bhR^igu epic of their struggle with the haihayas.
We shall first look into 2 and 3 and briefly at 4.
The common understanding amongst modern Indians, and definitely amongst almost all Western India-watchers, is that the term shUdra in these ancient texts refered to the “low castes”. While there is not much doubt that this term was applied at some point, typically, to the unskilled laborers, servants and slaves, there is more to it that is often missed in emotional analysis of the texts.
Firstly, the main “scholarly paradigm (with or without an explicit display of Marxism; eg. DD Kosambhi – explicit Marxist; M Witzel- not an explicit Marxist but using the same artifices )” is that the shUdras are the lowest caste of society being continually opressed by the brAhmaNa-s or the brahma-kShatra alliance.
Yet it is fairly plain from the manu smR^iti that the shUdra is feared as a danger to brAhmaNa-s. The same is true of the vaguer vedic allusions, where they are a threat to the Aryas or the brahma-kShatra aristocracy. It should stated here that this clearly contrasts the situation with the vaishyas. They are after all the “vish (people)” or the laity who function as traders and cultivators and should have the resources to for the brahma-kShatra or brahmin overlord to exploit. Further, given their resources they could actually mobilize a threat to the dominion of the aristocrats. Yet, there is no sense of hostile interactions vis-a-vis the vaishyas in the texts under discussion. They are discussed, variously, as Arya insiders or miscellaneous dvijas using a neutral or common-place terminology. This presents a major contradiction, for why should the brahma-kShatra, who were believed to be in power in Hindu society, fear the lowest group rather than the potential more dangerous vaishyas whom they are believed exploit. This is also in contrast with the generally neutral or positive treatment of the “low caste” trades which may be at the border of vaishya and shudra functions. The texts both vedic and the MDS, consider these trades and their practitioners a necessary feature of society that needs protection. So the sense of threat from the hostile shUdra suggests that term ‘shUdra’ was not merely applied to the lowest caste but actually extended to enemy of the brahmin or the brahma-kShatra alliance.
To provide some detail on this from extent text of the mAnava dharma shAstra:
MDS 10.129 warns that shUdras on acquiring wealth could harass brahmins. Importantly, this is never stated of vaishyas who have the potential to do so.
MDS 10.43-45 explains that the kShatriyas who have sunk to the state of shUdras due to negligence of rites are chInas, draviDas, yavanas, shakas, pahlavas and the like. They are also described as being dasyus, irrespective of whether speak Arya or foreign languages. So clearly several foreign tribes, typically hostile, were being identified with shUdras and they were also described with the older term of the foes of the Aryas- the dasyus. MDS 8.22 warns that a kingdom teeming with shUdra-run courts rapidly degenerates as though over-run by enemies of dvijas. MDS4.60-61 again mentions that the brAhmaNa should avoid residence in a shUdra kingdom, which is described as being over-run with inimical people and having practitioners of fake religions.
Thus, the term shUdra appeared to be used in the context of an hostile individual or individual who actually possessed power to harm the brAhmaNa or the Arya-s. So who were these hostile shUdras?
Obviously one subset of them included the named foreign tribes, many of whom were known for their invasion of India and specific anti-brahminical activities: for e.g the yavana Alexander the Macedonian’s execution of brAhmaNa during his invasion of the Punjab. The regions occupied by these invaders could be viewed as being ruled by the shUdra kings who were destructive to the ways of the Aryas. The Persians before them, with their anti-Daiva fanaticism also seem to be candidates for the other inimical class of rulers- the mlechChas.
P. Olivelle has suggested that the mauryas were the shUdra rulers who threatened the brAhmaNa-s of manu. This suggestions seems unlikely due to many grounds. 1) The Greek visitors during the mauryan period, clearly mention that the brAhmaNa was highly respected in the Indian social setting. 2) There is no evidence from the mauryan inscriptions that they were particularly anti-Brahminical, for after all the support for brAhmaNa is explicity mentioned in the ashokan inscriptions. 3) Hindu tradition ascribes the rise of mauryans to brAhmaNa advisers and what ever information we have suggests that the administration was dominated by brAhmaNa officials.
The same thing cannot be said of the nanda-s. The evidence suggests that they were indeed malignant to brAhmaNa (caricatured in the chANakya tale). This probably lead to the brahmin sponsored mauryan coup against the nandas. The brAhmaNa rulers of the bharadvAja family, the shu~Ngas arose by overthrowing the mauryans when the Greek invasions threatened to penetrate deep into India. But the shu~Ngas, stemmed this tide by routing the Greek armies and driving them beyond the sindhu. This incident too seems to have left a clear impression of potential shudra and mleccha threats to the Aryavarta-based nationalism of brAhmaNa (something they had inherited from their old predcessor of the kuru-pa~nchala state).
The redaction of the ancient law-books, which were in their core kuru-pa~nchala documents (as supported by their definition of Aryavarta=the kuru-pa~nchala realm; the territory of the bhAratas or sometime their feudatories and allies, the yadus and matsyas), seems to have occurred during the maurya, shu~Nga and kANva periods. These redactions were characterized by inclusion of negative references with respect to shudra, a term which specifically subsumed the recent hostile elements that the brahma-kShatra alliance had faced. However, the vedic references suggest that the redactors were not being innovative in this regard. It is clear that there was an ancient hostile sub-text to the shUdra term, as enemies of the Aryas. This parallels the term dAsa, that in ancient sanskrit literature was typically an individual or group hostile to the Aryans, but later also came to mean slave. These terminologies definitely have a link to the subjugation of hostile enemies and their eventual assimilation at the lower social rungs.
So in conclusion, I would state that the entire enterprise of searching for a doctrine of oppression in negative statements regarding the shUdras in the MDS and allied texts is a rather misplaced venture. These texts are a product of a certain historical conflicts, where the brahma-kShatra alliance is merely seen to be defending its interests against competitors and threats. Whether, their texts or their interpretations based on misunderstood terminologies were basis of social inequities, which are very natural in primate societies, is highly questionable. A dispassionate understanding of these texts as historical documents will definitely benefit the Indians, but it may be too late now.
Finally, I shall briefly consider the brahmin-kShatriya conflict of the bhR^igu mythological cycles. In their most drastic form the bhR^igu hero rAma jAmadgnya is described as exterminating 21 generations of kShatriyas. The reason being, the kShatriyas under haihaya, and his successor like kArtavIrya were extremely oppressive to brahmins in particular and the world in general. One version of the tale narrated in the mahAbhArata suggests that the brAhmaNa-s and the shUdras and vaishyas formed an alliance to defeat the kShatriyas after a long struggle. The references in the atharva veda and the older cycles of the bhArgava myth in the mahabhArata, suggest that the core of these events concerned a historical struggle between the bhR^igus and the haihaya rulers of mAhiShmati. However, the later pauraNic redactions of the myth, and late reinsertion in the mahAbhArata seem to have given it the color of a general struggle between the kShatriyas and brahmins+rest of castes. I believe that this generalization was actually inspired again by a similar constellation of much later historical events that inspired the manu smR^iti’s reaction to the shudra threat. These events were most probably the oppressive rule of the nanda-s, colored to certain degree by the atrocities of the foreign rulers (described as shudras by the manu smR^iti) around the same time.
The victory of the brAhmaNa ruler puShyamitra shu~Nga, probably inspired a mythological reworking, in which his clan’s glorious victories were compared to the historical struggle of parashurAma, and that tale romanticized to its extant mythological form. It is not a matter of coincidence that the politically pre-eminant brahmin clan, the bhArgavas were involved, both in the generalization of their family epic (the parashurAma epic) and the redaction of the manu smR^iti into its extant form.