Volatile Revisions of History through Theory: Analysing Ambedkar's "Who Were the Shudras?"

Aritra Banerjee

Dr. B.R. Ambedkar's tract “Who Were The Shudras?” was first included in the 7th volume of the collection of works Babasaheb Ambedkar: Writings And Speeches published by the Education Dept. of the Govt. of Maharashtra in the year 1979. This piece was reprinted two times by the Ambedkar Foundation in the year 2014 and 2019 respectively. Now it is widely available in the formats of e-book and paperbacks all over the globe. Ambedkar writes: “But I take refuge in the belief that even the fool has a duty to perform, namely, to do his bit if the angel has gone to sleep or is unwilling to proclaim the truth” (11). Dr. Ambedkar critically rereads history and the socio politico-cultural nexuses over time and formulates bold theories questioning and critiquing the logic and principles ingrained inside the Hindu tradition which gives the community of the Shudras its placement below the four other Varnas, and allows them malevolence in their treatment of the Shudras as human. In every chapter of the book, the problem has been approached from various aspects, be it from the perspective of Law, Code, or the integration of a community. He critically and logically refuted the statements of the status quo.

In the beginning, he rides off with scrutiny of how a cosmogony such as Purushasukta which describes the origins and functions of the four classes is idealized to the extent of scaredness, which according to Ambedkar is a solidified idea not transformable with time and changes in society. And this cosmogony also formulates the law of the society as prescribed in the Chaturvarnya. A careful and logical approach based on comparisons between various reiterations in the Veda regarding this concept revealed certain riddles which questions and attacks it to the degree of criminalization, the concept of the formulation of society based on such principles. He ends this chapter by questioning the concept of the four subdivisions and their connotations. This problematic theory about the origination of the varnas quite naturally came from theories stated in the Vedic texts. As a result, Ambedkar attempted to deconstruct and priced a relativist reading of certain texts, like the ‘Vajasneyi Samita’ of the White Yajur Veda, ‘Tattiriya Samhita’ of the Black Yajur Veda, the ‘Brahmanas’ etc. It revealed that most of the theories, which again had numerous explanations about the origination, failed to prove and validate in any way about the origin of the Shudras. All the explanations were full of confusing and contradictory elements and none of them was able to give a clear-cut answer.

(In pic: Cover Image of Ambedkar's book. Courtesy: Kalpaz Publications.)

The next issue addressed by Ambedkar is an interesting one. Here he extensively discussed the status and the powers of the four classes as dictated by the Brahminical Law. A careful reading of the various ‘Smritis’, like the ‘Manusmriti’, ‘Visnhusmriti’, ‘Naradasmriti’ revealed that the community of the Shudras was just used as a scapegoat to validate every form of malevolence committed by the upper classes upon them. Also, another astonishing fact came to light which proved that the law gave only the Brahmins, access to unlimited power. The Kshtryias and the Vaishyas were also under this check and balance of power. For example, a Brahmin could mete out a more severe punishment while the others weren’t allowed to surpass this degree. Ambedkar summarizes his entire reading into 10 points. He then makes this fiery statement:

“It would not be unnatural if this catalogue of disabilities may not make any impression upon him. In the first place, by long habit and usage his moral sense has become so dulled that he has ceased to bother about the how and why of these disabilities of the Shudras. In the second place, those of them who are conscious of them feel that similar disabilities have been imposed on particular classes in other countries and there is therefore nothing extraordinary nor shameful in the disabilities of the Shudras. It is the second attitude that needs to be exposed... It is absolutely essential to show that these disabilities have no parallel anywhere in the world. It is impossible to compare the Brahmanic Law with every other legal system on the point of rights and disabilities. A comparison of the Brahmanic Law with the Roman Law ought to suffice” (57).

In the next few pages till the end of the chapter, he discusses this argument at length and proves his point.

Ambedkar now shifts his attention towards Western scholars and attempts to find a plausible theory regarding the origination of the fourth varna to explain the social fact. He examines evidence and statements given by stalwart philosophers like Prof. Ripley, Max Mueller, et al. Through a careful set of questions and close investigation, he summarizes a few postulates by saying:

“The conclusions that follow from the examination of the Western theory may now be summarized. They are: (1) The Vedas do not know any such race as the Aryan race. (2) There is no evidence in the Vedas of any invasion of India by the Aryan race and its having conquered the Dasas and Dasyus supposed to be natives of India. (3) There is no evidence to show that the distinction between Aryans, Dasas and Dasyus was a racial distinction. (4) The Vedas do not support the contention that the Aryas were different in colour from the Dasas and Dasyus” (85).

These stand in stark contrast to some of the theories claimed by Western scholars. I must emphasize the fact that every claim has its own logical and scientific evidence which had been discussed at length by Dr. Ambedkar. It is nearly impossible to describe each of the cases individually, so the summary must be kept in mind.

Moving on, in Chapter 5, Ambedkar traces various myths present in the various Brahminical texts and gave evidence for the fact that there was the presence of not one, but two Aryan races, which later had merged. For this, he again provides a relativist study of various creation myths in the Vedic texts. According to a lot of popular notions and a theory given by Prof Kane, the Shudras were often termed as dasas or dasyus and believed that they were the early inhabitants of the land conquered over by the Aryans. Ambedkar scrutinizes various pieces of evidence and proves the fact that this theory is a false notion propagated by the status quo:

“The theory I venture to advance may be stated in the following three propositions: (1) The Shudras were Aryans. (2) The Shudras belonged to the Kshatriya class. (3) The Shudras were so important a class of Kshatriyas that some of the most eminent and powerful kings of the ancient Aryan communities were Shudras” (114).

Dr. Ambedkar in this chapter had done a scathing reading of the Mahabharata and various other texts to come to such conclusions which are nothing less than volatile. However, we must also keep in mind that these are probably the results of a deep inspection of how faulty the Brahmanical texts are.

Having established the idea that the varna Shudra is not a separate but, a part of the other three, he goes on to examine the idea that the Purusha Sukta is a later interpolation. He discusses at length this idea with reference to the various tracts of Brahminical texts and theories of Prof. Max Muller. He concludes:

“For the reasons given above, it will be seen that my thesis about the origin of the Shudras creates no problem such as the one mentioned in the beginning of this Chapter. If it did appear to create a problem, it was because of the assumption that the Purusha Sukta was an authentic and genuine record of what it purports to say. That assumption has now been shown to be quite baseless. I, therefore, see no difficulty in concluding that there was a time when the Aryan Society had only three Varnas and the Shudras belonged to the second or the Kshatriya Varna” (139).

Proving earlier that the Shudras were one of the most powerful kings of the ancient Aryan kingdoms, Ambedkar addresses an extremely unique question that what was the reason for the degradation of the Shudras. He chooses to answer it by shifting and investigating through various pieces of evidence from myths from Markandeya Puran, Vishnu Puran, etc. It revealed that the Brahminical laws had an extremely biased perspective giving Brahmins access to the limitless agency which was due to a long going conflict between the hegemony of the Brahmins and the Kshtriyas, especially the one between King Sudas and Vashishtha. Power relations between Vashishtha and Vishwamitra were also carefully read to reach the conclusion. This chapter is probably the most important and interesting part of the entire thesis where Dr. Ambedkar discusses at length the phenomenon of the Upanayana and the adoption of the Gotra, and how it gave immense agency of the hands of the Brahmins to impose hegemony. After approaching this from a varied range of perspectives including Law and History, he claims:

“(1) That the Brahmins have the exclusive right to perform the Upanayana. Neither Shivaji, nor Pratap Sinha nor the Kayasthas, Panchals or Palashes wanted the Upanayana to be performed by a non-Brahmin. It is only once that the Kayasthas resolved to have their ceremonies performed by Kayasthas. But it was only a paper resolution. (2) The Brahmin has the right to say whose Upanayana he will perform and whose he will not perform. In other words, the Brahmin is the sole judge of deciding whether a given community is entitled to Upanayana.

(3) The support of the Brahmins for the performance of Upanayana need not be based on honest grounds. It could be purchased by money. Shivaji got the support of the Brahmin Gagabhat on payment of money.

(4) The denial of Upanayana by the Brahmins need not be on legal or religious ground. It is possible for the denial to be based on purely political grounds. The refusal by the Brahmins of Upanayana to Kayasthas was entirely due to political rivalry between the two.

(5) The right of appeal against the denial of an Upanayana by a Brahmin is only to a Vidvat-Parishad and the Vidvat-Parishad is an assembly for which a Brahmin alone is eligible to be a member” (185).

Despite several attempts of reconciliation, Ambedkar points out why exactly is such a thing never possible without an immediate revolution in the pages of this chapter. For the feud with the Kshatriyas, he takes examples from several accounts of stories that talk about this reconciliation. But they only establish the supremacy of the Brahmins over the other. For the case of the Shudras, he approaches it from the perspective of the Chandalas and comments:

“How different is the treatment accorded to the Chandala as compared to the treatment accorded to the Ayogava and the Kshattar when all of them are Pratilomas? Why should the Chandala be singled out as the most infamous of the Pratilomas? Only because he is the progeny of the hated Shudra. It is just an act of revenge against the children of one’s enemy” (200).

In this final chapter, Ambedkar summarizes the postulates of his thesis which are as follows:

“(1) The Shudras were one of the Aryan communities of the Solar race. (2) The Shudras ranked as the Kshatriya Varna in the Indo-Aryan Society. (3) There was a time when the Aryan Society recognized only three Varnas, namely, Brahmins, Kshatriyas and Vaishyas. The Shudras were not a separate Varna but a part of the Kshatriya Varna. (4) There was a continuous feud between the Shudra kings and the Brahmins, in which the Brahmins were subjected to many tyrannies and indignities. (5) As a result of the hatred towards the Shudras due to their tyrannies and oppressions, the Brahmins refused to invest the Shudras with the sacred thread. (6) Owing to the loss of the sacred thread the Shudras became socially degraded, fell below the rank of the Vaishyas and came to form the fourth Varna” (204).

This entire thesis is an eye-opener. Dr. Ambedkar critically examines the process of the origin of the position of the Shudras; radically criticizes through lengthy arguments the venomous hegemony imposed by the Brahmins which takes place through a detailed examination of the various myths and accounts that were placed in the texts of the Vedas, thereby logically critiquing the problematic statements that are considered to be divine. Each chapter deals with a newer, unique perspective ranging from sociology to anthropology to law. This scientific piece of work does not then get restricted to the boundaries of academic work but also becomes an important tool for a massive social change, effects of which can be seen (even though quite slow) in various parts of this nation.

Work Cited

Ambedkar, Bhimrao Ramji. “Who Were The Shudras?.” Dr. Babasaheb Ambedkar: Writings and Speeches. edited by Vasant Moon, vol. 7, Dr. Ambedkar Foundation, 2014.

Author Information

Aritra Banerjee studies English literature at Presidency University, Kolkata. His areas of interest include digital humanities, cinema and music. He loves to read poetry, especially the Beat generation and Modern Bengali poetry.

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