Friday, February 12, 2010

On the Varna System : Part IV

On the Manu Smriti

According to the Puranas, there are 14 Manus for each Kalpa , each making rules for a particular manvantra. In the current Sveta Varaha Kalpa the 14 Manus are Svayambu Manu, Svarocisa Manu, Uttama Manu, Tamasa Manu, Raivata Manu, Caksusa Manu, Vaivasvata Manu ( during this period), Savarni Manu, Daksha Savarni Manu, Brahma Savarni Manu, Dharma Savarni Manu, Rudra Savarni Manu, Deva Savarni Manu and Indra Savarni Manu. So my first impression is that because there are so many Manus – each giving laws – law is supposed to change /evolve with times and hence is not necessarily constant.

Not withstanding comments from scholars that the currently available work of Manu is filled with interpolations and hence certainly is not a reliable text, I have picked up a few verses that to my mind are relevant for the discussion on the Varna system.

Manusmriti 10-65 goes thus 'a Brahmin becomes a Shudra or vice versa on the basis of one’s merits , actions and abilities'. There are several verses which talk of a Brahmin becoming a Sudhra upon neglecting of his duties ( 2-37, 40, 103, 168; 4-245) and of Sudhra becoming a Brahmin (9-335) – which is as under

'A Sudra who is) pure, the servant of his betters, gentle in his speech, and free from pride, and always seeks a refuge with Brahmanas, attains a higher caste'

According to Manu a person who gets initiated into education for acquiring awareness of higher reality ( Brahmam) are the Dvijas ( twice born). Those who are only naturally born are called the Ekjatis.

(He who has not been initiated) should not pronounce any vedic text excepting ( those that are required for) the performance of funeral rites, since he is on a level with a Sudhra before his birth from the Veda ( 2.172).

A Brahmana who always connects himself with the most excellent (ones), and shuns all inferior ones,(himself) becomes most distinguished; by an opposite conduct he becomes a Sudra ( 4.245)

The concept of Upanayana (initiation) and becoming a Dvija seems to be later 'invention'. As detailed in my earlier, blog, Upanayana does not appear to be an essential requirement for learning Vedas or following Vedic rituals. However, texts that appeared subsequently have made it a mandatory requirement. Insistence on this requirement effectively led to discrimination of people - as the initiator could decide whom to initiate !. Flow of knowledge was hence controlled , channelized to specific individuals and Vedas were made exclusive. Knowledge of it became a source of power.

Manusmriti, atleast the version that exists today is certainly not egalitarian and prescribes differing standards of justice for different classes of people and certainly is pale and insignificant in ideals compared to the classical work Tirukural. Scholars of various hue now either rationalize the current version by forced interpretations or justify it on temporal basis. Others view several verses as interpolations by later authors. Of the 2685 verse available in the current work , only 1214 are considered authentic. There are inherent contradictions and motivated views in 1471 verses. This view is not entirely improbable. It is surprising that a work with over 50% verses suspected of being interpolations is still considered a great work.

But before we dismiss Manusmriti's current version, I will quote three verses which interested me - 10.82, 10.83 and 10.84.

10.83. But a Brahmana, or a Kshatriya, living by a Vaisya’s mode of subsistence, shall carefully avoid (the pursuit of) agriculture, (which causes) injury to many beings and depends on others

10.84. (Some) declare that agriculture is something excellent, (but) that means of subsistence is blamed by the virtuous; (for) the wooden (implement) with iron point injuries the earth and (the beings) living in the earth

Now compare this with verse 10.82

10.82. If it be asked, ’How shall it be, if he cannot maintain himself by either (of these occupations?’ the answer is), he may adopt a Vaisya’s mode of life, employing himself in agriculture and rearing cattle

There are two inferences
a) 10.82 is the original verse and 10.83 and 10.84 are interpolations
b) Agriculture is the occupation of Vaishyas – not Sudhras as we commonly believe. So the clear inference is until the time of Manu agriculture was considered a vocation of the Vaishyas and it was only later that it came to be considered as the vocation of the Sudhras. So by that logic, the dominant agricultural community - the vellalas ( of diffent hues) are Vaishyas and are hence eligible for both Upananaya and for learning Vedas

Assuming that 10.83 and 10.84 are indeed original , we will compare it with the verses in the Tirukural , which hails farming :

'Who plough and eat do really live - The rest , as followers, just serve and eat' 104-3

'Roam where you will , the world must go behind the plough; Farming , through toilsome, is man's supreme employ' 104.1

Obviously, there is a great difference in the thought processes between Manu (or some of the authors who interpolated into his work !)and Saint Tiruvalluvar. I will leave it to the reader to draw his interpretations and on what he thinks is a real work of virtue.

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

On the Varna System - Part III

Is it important that somebody has to be dvija to learn Vedas ? Are the Sudras prevented from learning Vedas?

Unlike the current versions of the Manusmriti - there is no differentiation in the Vedas of a Sudhra as regards initiation into learning Vedas or performing sacrifices. It appears that the Upananaya was either available for all four classes (including the Sudhras) or that it was not mandatory for reading the scriptures and performing sacrifices.

The Yajurveda ( 26.2) clearly gives rights to a Sudra to perform Yajna and for reading scriptures and shastras. The portion of the hymn means

‘ I have give the benevolent vedic sermon for all human beings – Brahmans, Kshatriyas ( rajhan), Vaishyas and Sudhras, women ,domestic help and other lowly people’.

Rigveda, in its hymn 10-53-4 reads 'panchajanaha - i.e., five classes of people who are entitled to peform yajna should carry out the agnihotra'

The five classes,i.e., the Panchajanaha are clarified by the Niruktha (3-8),as the people of the four varnas and the fifth are the nishadas - the panchamas.

It is quite possible that several more verses could have been purged by people interested in retaining learning within themselves.

Can somebody change his varna ?

There have been several examples of change in Varnas - clearly implying that it is not associated with birth. Let us look at examples - not from the Tamil texts , but from the Vedas, the Ithihasas and the Puranas itself.

Kavash Ailush , son of a slave woman and Vatsa, a son of a sudhra woman are Rig veda Rishis.

Vishwamitra , a descendant of King Kusha and born of Kshatriya parents and himself a king later went on to become a Brahmarishi and authored the Gayatri Mantra. Incidentally, Kaushika was one of the names of Viswamitra. Descendants of Kausika belong to the Kaushika Gotra. Of the 96 clans of Marathas , 11 belong to Kausika Gotra – including that of Sivaji ! – hence the Gotra has Kshatriya descendants. It is common knowledge that Kausika Gotra is also common among Brahmins .

Satyakam Jabal whose parentage was not clear, became a Brahmavadi Rishi (an exponent of highest reality)

• Matanga muni was born of a barber and a brahmin woman who was intoxicated –and was hence a Chandala

Rishi Valmiki was of a lowly birth and was originally a professional highway robber.

Rishi Vyasa was of a lowly birth ( was born to Rishi Parashara and fisherwoman Matchagathi who later became Satyavathi - who later married King Santanu ). Vyasya is known to have compiled and collated the 4 Vedas and is hence called Veda Vyasa . Veda Vyasa, also called Badarayana , wrote the Brahmasutras - one of the three primal works of vedic philosophy ( the three are called the Prasathanathriyam). This work has been commented by Acharya Neelakanda, Acharya Sankara , Acharya Ramanuja etc - who have used this to establish their philosophies. ( Some authors however opine that Veda Vyasa is different from Vyasa who wrote the Mahabharata)

• Slave woman’s son Vidhur became a prime minister for Raja Drithirastra

Sri Ram – a son of a kshatriya and Sri Krishna, son of a yadava king came to be treated as Gods – and venerated even by Brahmins.

• Ram’s ancestor Raghu ( hence Ram was called Raghukula thilala) had a son Pravridha who owing to his misdemeanor became an outcast and a demon.

• Pulastya Rishi’s descendant Ravana came to be treated as a demon ( Pulastya is one of the Sapta Rishis).

• Several of Rishi Vishwamitra’s sons came to be considered Sudhras,

Trishanku – once a king came to be considered a Chandala.

• Rishi Kashyapa – a Brahmin and one of the Sapta Rishis ( the son of Rishi Marichi – one of the mansa putra’s of Brahma) married Daksha Prajapati’s daughter Aditi and from whom descended the Aditya dynasty or the Surya Vamsha – which then became the Ikshavaku dynasty ( named after his great grandson) and later Raghu Dynasty or the Raghuvamsha denoted earlier ( All these being Kshatriyas)

• Rishi Kashyapa’s son from Diti ( also Daksha Prajatpathi’s daughter ) was Hiranyakasibhu ( a demon)

More notes follow....

Sunday, February 7, 2010

Thoughts on the Tamil problem

The King has won his seat again and his erstwhile General is on the run. The TNA would have preferred the ex General. I dont know why.

God does not give us the benefit of knowing the consequences of 'non-choices' - basically the course of event that would have followed if we had chosen an alternate we had not chosen. We can speculate - but that is just that. So we dont know what the General could have done. We have seen too many politicians to believe in promises.

In India, the Hawkish NSA, MKN has been replaced by Mr Menon. We will need to see how this will translate into policy actions. India has a huge strategic stake in the Island. Time will tell how the Indians act.

Whom should the Tamils look to ?

Relying on the Sinhalese Government or the Indian Government or the International community is putting the locus of control outside the Tamil hands. I still believe that the Tamils will need to do their part correctly.

Is an Independent State a solution ?

Any solution should not be too costly for its people. And Independent state will be costly solution. There are two ways for a separate territory to be carved out.

a) The State which has it cedes it.

This is not a likely solution. Nations are comfortable annexing territory - not ceding it. I am not aware of any instance in the recent past where it has happened peacefully. Plus, that is a difficult solution for any Government to sell to its 'majority' people.

b) The State is forced to cede it. This can happen if

i) The community fights and gets its region separate

I have not been convinced by the idea of fighting a State by military might in the current era. Let me elaborate this point.In a State, where a community - or race - or group in question is in minority in terms of numbers and is ruled by a Government of the majority community or race or group - fighting it for social, economic and political space militarily is a difficulty.It almost always does not succeed and is in general, bloody, painful and long. The State is all powerful. It can oppress, suppress and repress and still get away with it. A few heads may roll down the line and after significant damage is done, but as a State, it can get away with it. A State can pledge its territory , buy ammunition and fight a war against its people. Strange - but true. Look around the world and see what is happening. The fact is - the State can. So this does not appear to be great option.

ii) The international community - steps in , overwhelms the State , carves out a territory for the minority and gives it to it

Now, why will the international community step in. Certainly such a move will not come without economic costs - strings which may not necessarily be cheap. And even in this case, the State has an upper hand. It can go about promising / pledging market access / policy comforts, strategic interests easier than a region seeking independence. For example, it is easier for the Sinhalese government to 'buy' international support than for the Tamils - because the Government has more to offer - has it on its hands - than the Tamils. And the State can also counter one attempt at external interference with a support from another. This is what has happened. When the Tamils were drumming support from the EU , US - the Srilankan President met with Chinese premier. So this also does not appear to be great option.

So what could be a solution ?

In my view, atleast initially an even socio economic and political space on par with the majority sinhalese community is what is needed. Autonomy may be an ideal solution , but that might take time. The Tamils have shed too much of blood and tears. But, fighting physically for freedom is a passe. The game has changed.

Across the world, it is not the majority that rules. The community or group that is most powerful is the smarter ( and wealthier) minority.They may not be apparent - but look closely - they are there. And they generally wield it well.

In my view economy is a great tool - probably the most effective tool available currently. The Tamil population is a minority in the Srilankan State, but a large number - particularly in the diaspora have established themselves economically . If the Tamils need their rightful rights , they need to deploy this economic might well. And that need not be by confrontation. It can be done by working with the Srilankan Government and by making the Srilankan Government work for the Tamils. I dont see why this cant be done in the Tear drop island. In the process, the Tamil diaspora should enmesh significant Indian and international economic interests in the Island. That will ensure that the international community will not do just lip service in future.

Friday, February 5, 2010

On the Varna system :Part II

What do Varna and Jati mean ?

The determining factors in the Varna system are merits, vocation and capabilities. It is important to understand that the Varna system and the Jati system are contradictory propositions. Varna is based on vocation ( or occupation and merit), while Jati is based on birth. These words are not synonyms and if they are used interchangeably as is most often done, the interpretation is completely wrong.

To clearly understand this, it is important that we go to the etymology of the words (i.e the root for these words). The word Varna in sanskrit is etymologically derived from roots that mean vocation which is chosen. Acharya Yaska clarifies this in his Niruktha ( 2-14) as Varna is something to do with choice/ the selection (and in this context – one’s occupation). There are some authors who view that Varna has something to do with color and opine that the varna system is based on the color of the skin, with the 'higher' Aryan classes being fair skinned and the 'lower' Dravidian classes being dark skinned. This view is not necessarily correct - from the point of view of the context in which it is used. Infact later texts consider the dark skinned 'dasyus' as not a part of the Varnas at all. They were considered outside the Varna system. That brings us to another question - was the varna system only for the Aryans and not for the Dravidians ? This is a question which has been considered at length by eminent scholars like Maraimalai Adigal and can be discussed later. For the moment, we will assume that Vedas are for all humanity and go forward understanding the import of the hymns.

Jati is something to do with birth. It is used as a synonym for Janma (or birth) as is used in contexts in the Niruktha ( 1-201) to mean 'blind and deaf by birth, and in ( 4-148),to mean - remembers his previous birth, and as 'Dwijathi' ( twice born – once at birth and once on initiation of study), and Ekajathi (once born – not initiated for study). As long as the system was based on merit and vocation it was called Varna vyavastha and when it became based on birth – it was called Jati Vyavastha.

Does the word jati appear in the Veda or any early Scriptures or text ?

No. It is interesting to note that Manu in his Manusmriti has not mentioned any Jati or (gotra) subcaste. He has mentioned only the four varnas. A much respected law giver missing to mention it clearly indicates the absence of this ( i.e the Jati Vyavasta) in his time.

More on what Manu has to say follows...

On the Varna system - Part I

The Varna - asrama system and its current avatar - the Jati are probably the most (conveniently) misinterpreted and misunderstood beliefs affecting the Indian socio religious system.

The varna system that has been propounded is based on an individual’s profession, his merits and capabilities and it has its basis in the Vedic system.

The system finds mention in the three Vedas ( Rig Veda , Purusha Sukta 10.90.11-13, - which repeats in Yajurveda 31.10-11 and Atharva veda 19.6.506) .

What does the Purusha Sukta say ?

There are several versions of the Purusha Sukta. As per one version the sukta has 16 verses. As per another version there are 24 verses (the first 18 referred as Poorva narayana and the latter called the uttara narayana). This is the only hymn in the Rig Veda praising Purusha. Some authors hence are of the view that the entire Purusha sukta might itself be an interpolation in the Rig veda. Even considering the 24 verses, there is no mention of the words Vishnu or Narayana and it is surprising that this is considered a sukta praising Vishnu !

In the other Vedas too the numbering of these verses is different and depends on the version( which itself indicates that there is either a possibility of original material getting lost or addition of new material). (The Hymn is elaborated in Bhagavatha purana and Mahabharata )

Given the archaic nature of the old vedic language, it is very difficult to understand and properly interpret the real meaning of these verses. The translation given below is broadly based on the interpretation of two commentators – Bhatta Bhaskara and Sayana ( a commentator who lived in circa 1300 AD in the Vijayanagara kingdom and wrote along with his brother Madhava)

Following are some of the relevant verses that affect the topic under discussion.

Verse Twelve
yatpurusham vyadadhuhu
kadhita vyakalpayan
mukham kimasya kau bahu
kaavuru padavuchayate

(Now some questions are raised by the sages:) When the gods decided to (mentally) sacrifice the Viratpurusha (and produce further creation), in how many ways did they do it? What became of his face or mouth? What became of his two arms? What became of His two thighs? What were (the products of) the two feet called?

Verse Thirteen
brahmanosya mukhamasit
bahu rajanyah kritaha
uru tadasya yadvaishyaha
padhyagam shudro ajayata

From His face (or the mouth) came the brahmanas. From His two arms came the rajanya (the kshatriyas). From His two thighs came the vaishyas. From His two feet came the shudras.

Verse Fourteen
chandrama manaso jataha
chakshoh suryo ajayata
mukhad indrash chagnishcha
pranadvayur ajayata

From His mind was born the moon. From His two eyes was born the sun. From His mouth were born Indra and Agni. From His breath was born the air.

Verse Fifteen
nabhya asidanta riksham
shirshno dyauh samavartata
padhyam bhumirdishash shrotrat
tatha lokagamm akalpayan

From (His) navel was produced the antariksha (the space between the earth and the heavens). Dyuloka (or heaven) came into existence from His head. The bhumi (the earth) evolved out of His feet, and deek (or spacial directions) from His ears. Similarly (the demigods) produced the worlds (too).

More on the Purusha Sukta:

Nowhere in this sukta is a discrimination made between the four varnas. Further is clearly says that all the varnas came from a single cosmic being ( and as a natural corollary equal). If it were to be interpreted that the just because a varna came from higher position in the body – namely the face it becomes superior to the feet , how does one discriminate what came from the eyes and from the mind ? A subsequent verse also says that Bhumi evolved from his (Purusha’s) feet. Are we then to conclude that as the Sudras came from the feet and the Bhumi also came from the feet, all inhabitants on the bhumi are shudras ?

In fact it could properly be interpreted that no one class is superior to another and every class is needed for every other class’s survival. The entire hymn can probably be considered to signify the unifying presence of the Paramapurushan or can probably be considered to reiterate the fact that He is the primordial cause for all things to be there. It hence needs to be clearly interpreted for its philosophical meaning than for a biological one.