Wednesday, 23 October 2013

Hierarchy in Hinduism

Let's have a look at those lines, which are supposed to have defined hierarchy in early Indian society. Historians and sociologists keep quoting Purushasukta for the first reference of hierarchy existing between these four communities.

This is how their argument goes. " .... Though the Vedic texts describe a stratified society, it was not yet a caste society. The first text to actually mention the four varnas is the Purush Sukta of the Rig Veda. This famous text describes the brahmin as being born from the mouth of the primordial man, the kshatriya from his shoulders, the vaishya from his thighs, and the shudra from his legs/feet. The inequality of this -- the feet normally being considered lower (falling at a person's feet is still widely practised in India as a way of declaring ones humility before someone greater) -- is clear ...."

I am trying to read and decipher the original lines. I have tried to give their translation in Hindi (in brackets) and English. (Sorry for my bad Hindi). The hymn is describing a cosmic god.

ब्राह्मणों (ब्राह्मण) अस्य (उसके) मुखम (मुख) आसीत (थे) (Brahmins were his face/mouth. Meaning of "Mukham" in Sanskrit can be either of them. )
बाहू (बाह) राजन्यः (राजावोंसे) कृतः (कियाथा)  (Arms were made of kings/Kshatriyas)
ऊरू (जाँघ) तदस्य (उन्के) यद्वैश्यः (वैश्य का था) (His thighs were of Vaisyas)
पदभ्यागुम (पादसे) शूद्रो (शूद्र) अजायत  (जातेहुए) (Shudras came from feet)

First interpretation was, it states the origin of each community (Brahmins from face, Shudras from feet) and thus shows the hierarchy.

But reading the first two lines again, it is not stating the origin of the communities. Instead describing the parts of cosmic god. If we consider it that way, Shudras were not born by the feet, instead they became his feet. (The short sentences in Vedas can be sometimes played by interpreters).

Does Brahmin representing face/mouth and Shudra representing feet implies hierarchy? In my understanding No. The lines are describing the most important organ of each profession. (I will consider Mukham=mouth, as that explains the lines better).

For a Brahmin whose occupation is teaching, chanting mantram - mouth is the most important organ. For a warrior/fighter, his arms are precious. He must be having the strongest arms among the communities. (I cannot decipher the importance of thighs to a trader/merchant : Someone can enlighten me here. It could be the way they traded. Or is it hinting at navigation, as traders were also sailors?). A peasant who tilled the land, or a labourer who had to run around and assist others must have had the strongest feet.

To me the hymn is just trying to describe a God who is made up of most powerful organs. Mouth of a Brahmin, Arms of a Kshyatriya, feet of a peasant. Idea of hierarchy was narrator's interpretation.

The allegation on Brahmins is, they never taught Sanskrit or Vedas to other communities. But how did we conclude, others were interested to learn? Today, I am in a country which is not my homeland. I try hard to keep my kid in touch with his ancestral land. Teaching him our language, making him read our mythological books. Yes, I do not bother to teach a native child about our language or our religious books. Even that kid has no interest to learn. Will it translate to me holding knowledge within myself?

Not just Vedas, Brahmins were accused of holding knowledge in other fields as well. Wendy quotes, how Ekalavya was denied an opportunity by Drona. But wasn't Drona just a pawn used by powerful rulers? What would have happened to him, if he had override the rules laid on him? On contrast we have Parashuram (who was also a Brahmin), who could set up a parallel independent education system which provided education  "only to non Kshyatriyas". It was unfortunate, Eklavya could not meet him. Drona cannot be faulted alone for the failure in the system.

Next one is Manu Smriti. We know about the writer and meaning of those verses. What we yet need to know is, who followed. Was there any king or a kingdom who ruled according to Manu Smriti (say like Sharia laws). If not, how does a book represents a society? Today Subramanian Swamy says, Muslims should not be given voting rights. Say after few centuries if someone reads his statement and comes to a conclusion, Indian society treated Muslims like slaves, how accurate the interpretation would be?

I am not trying to argue, hierarchy between communities never existed in India. But considering it as Brahmin made, is kind of twisting the facts. Brahmin as a community might have been respected by the society. But they had enough power to to lead the rest of communities is a very linear assumption. The left wing people who consider Brahminism as the evil cause for the existence of castes or the Sanatanis who consider Shankara rescued Hinduism from clutches of Buddhism presume the same thing. Brahmins were the decisive factor. But did rest of the society really considered them so? Were the rest so meek and gullible?

Just like Brahminism, Bhagavad Gita is hyped to be the holy text for Hindus. Though Gita has been mentioned by Shankara, Gyanadeva and Jayadeva, it was not an essential part during Bhakti movement (in Karnataka at least). Dasa Padas of medieval Karnataka though has lots of poetry describing Krishna, Gita is rarely mentioned (except in few occasions where Krishna has been referred to as Jagadguru). Even today, 90% Hindus of our spiritual country would not have read Bhagavad Gita.

(I should share an episode which happened in mid 90s. Bangalore hoisted the Miss World competition. The whole media was a battle field between pro and anti beauty pageant competition. Pro people argued, how it will put India in global map, would bring revenues to government from international tourists. People against this argued, it will erode our native culture. One fine day, the event was over. It neither brought anticipated revenues, nor could make any difference in Bangalorean culture. What people thought as a big event, was not so big after all. The annual fairs held in town have much more history than this beauty contest. They don't get much media attention does not mean they are weak. People underestimate the power of the silence).

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