Tuesday, November 18, 2014

The myth of being a Brahmin by birth : I

One of the myths that has been perpetuated for centuries in this country is that some people are born 'spiritually' special - and are hence superior to the others - who were born to serve them in various ways. These people claim (probably believe) and other people have tended to believe that this claim to superiority by birth is enshrined in the Vedas - the most revered scriptures of a large number of people in India. They claim to be the Brahmins (not to be confused with Brahman, a word used commonly to denote the 'Supreme') that Vedas speak about and that they are endowed with this 'Brahmin'-hood by birth. 

For ages, although they revered it, not many people in the country have read the Vedas and even among them, a larger number are more conversant with the Samhita (or recitations in praise) and the portions dealing with the rituals than with the Upanishads. There are three reasons for this -
i)  access to learning the Vedas is restricted strictly. Probably to preserve this myth of 'superiority' at birth, the learning of the Vedas has over time been made an exclusive preserve of a few - who called themselves Brahmins. It was said that ' if a 'Sudhra' hears the Vedas intentionally then (molten) lead has to be poured into his ears !!!
ii) a large focus is on memorizing and recitation than on understanding and
iii) the language is esoteric and interpretations hence difficult

It is only in the relatively recent past when the texts were translated and published (they were earlier passed on from one generation to another by recitation of what was committed to memory), that the texts have became accessible to all. The spread of education, awareness and socio-economic changes in the county post independence, have dented to an extent the superiority that this group of people enjoyed - but they nevertheless, the 'superior' status in the 'spiritual' arena remains significant.

Given the benefits that the claim to Brahmin-hood by birth entailed - in the spiritual space, we need to consider two issues. And they are
i)  Do the Vedas accord such a superior status of 'Brahmin'-hood on a person, by birth and
ii) Who is a Brahmin ?

In resolving a question, three kinds or proofs or pramanas (அளவை ) are brought in. They are pratyaksha pramana - those that are obvious to the senses (காட்சி  அளவை ), anumana pramana - those that can be logically deduced (கருதல் அளவை ), and agama pramana - those that are drawn from scriptures / sacred texts and from words of the enlightened ones (நூல் அளவை). The general principle of any argument is that one uses the same method of pramana or proof that the opponent uses to counter the argument. In this case, as people who claim the superior status of Brahmin-hood by birth , use the agama pramana - arguing that their claim to superiority by birth is enshrined in the Vedas, we will use the same pramana or proof to examine their position. 

The most important pramana that is adduced by the proponents of the 'brahmin-hood by mere birth' is the Purusha-sukta - verse 11, 12 ( 12, 13 in some versions)

यत्पुरुषं व्यदधुः कतिधा व्यकल्पयन् ।
मुखं किमस्य कौ बाहू का ऊरू पादा उच्येते ॥११॥
Yat-Purussam Vya[i-A]dadhuh Katidhaa Vya[i-A]kalpayan |
Mukham Kimasya Kau Baahuu Kaa Uuruu Paadaa Ucyete ||11||
11.1: What did the Purusha (i.e. Virat) hold within Him? How many parts were assigned in His Huge Form?
11.2: What was His MouthWhat was His ArmsWhat was His Thighs? And what was His Feet?

ब्राह्मणोऽस्य मुखमासीद् बाहू राजन्यः कृतः ।
ऊरू तदस्य यद्वैश्यः पद्भ्यां शूद्रो अजायत ॥१२॥
Braahmanno-Asya Mukham-Aasiid Baahuu Raajanyah Krtah |
Uuruu Tad-Asya Yad-Vaishyah Padbhyaam Shuudro Ajaayata ||12||
Meaning:12.1: The Brahmanas were His Mouth, the Kshatriyas became His Arms,12.2: The Vaishyas were His Thighs, and from His pair of Feet were born the Shudras.

The premise hence is that as Brahmanas ( Brahmins) came from the head, they are superior to the others - the Kshatriyas, the Vaishyas and the Shudras who came from the 'lower' part of the body.  That this is not a valid pramana, comes from the subsequent verses of the Purusha-sukta itself.

चन्द्रमा मनसो जातश्चक्षोः सूर्यो अजायत ।
मुखादिन्द्रश्चाग्निश्च प्राणाद्वायुरजायत ॥१३॥

Candramaa Manaso Jaatash-Cakssoh Suuryo Ajaayata |
Mukhaad-Indrash-Ca-Agnish-Ca Praannaad-Vaayur-Ajaayata ||13|| 

13.1: The Moon was born from His Mind and the Sun was born from His Eyes,
13.2: Indra and Agni (Fire) were born from His Mouth, and Vayu (Wind) was born from His Breath.

नाभ्या आसीदन्तरिक्षं शीर्ष्णो द्यौः समवर्तत ।
पद्भ्यां भूमिर्दिशः श्रोत्रात्तथा लोकाँ अकल्पयन् ॥१४॥

Naabhyaa Aasiid-Antarikssam Shiirssnno Dyauh Samavartata |
Padbhyaam Bhuumir-Dishah Shrotraat-Tathaa Lokaa Akalpayan ||14||
14.1: His Navel became the Antariksha (the intermediate Space between Heaven and Earth), His 
Head sustained the Heaven,
14.2: From His Feet the Earth , and from His Ears the Directions; in this manner all theWorlds were regulated by Him.

Obviously hence, the verses refer to the cosmic being and the position of the body from which they 'emanate' does not in any way make them inferior or superior. Attributing such inferiority or superiority to parts of the Cosmic being is stupid. Such an interpretation can be made only by people who cannot discern truth (உண்மை ) from attributed praise or flattery (உபச்சாரம் / ஏற்றுரை). If the position from which they emanate be in-fact true - then verse 14 says that  Earth that came from the feet the verse 12 says the Sudhras also came from the feet , does it then mean that all inhabitants of the Earth are Sudras ?  But more importantly, there is no mention here that the Brahmin-hood is by birth. 

The other proof that is adduced in support of the argument is the Smritis. We however do not accept or agree with the Smritis for this reason : The Smritis can never be superior proof to the Sruthis or the Vedas. When the question is handled by the Vedas themselves, there is no need to bring in Smritis as proof. There are other reasons for not accepting Smriti - particularly the Manu Smriti, but that is not relevant in this context. 

The four Vedas run through several chapters and some verses may appear contradictory to the others, particularly if they are conveniently torn out of context .So while the Vedas are held as Swapramana (being its own proof), these apparent contradictions are resolved by evaluating how strong the proof or pramana is and a relatively stronger proof is considered more acceptable.Philosophers have a simple guidelines for using the Vedas as a 'pramana' or proof . The guideline are : 

a) Of the four parts of the Vedas ( some call it two parts), the Samhita, the Brahmana, the Aranyaka and the Upanishads - the last part or the end part ( anth - part) is the part which deals with 'wisdom', and the this anth part, called the Vedantha is held as a stronger pramana than the other parts. 

b) There are several Upanishads, at the end part of each of the four Vedas. There are 108 Upanishads listed on Muktika Upanishad. Some are considered major Upanishads and some minor. Each Upanishad deals with the one or two philosophical questions. For example, the Svetasvatara Upanishad ponders over the questions like  ' Is Brahman the cause (of the world) ? Whence are we born? By what do we live? Where do we dwell at the end? Please tell us, O ye who know Brahman, under whose guidance we abide etc.  The Katha Upanishad ponders over the question of what happens after death....etc. The guideline is that, the Upanishad that deals about a particular question specifically is a stronger pramana than other Upanishads where the question is touched in passing. 

Both these guidelines will appear to be unbiased and fair to anybody seeking such a view. 

The question of who is a Brahmin is dealt in the Vajra Suchika Upanishad. This is the only known Upanishad that deals with this question specifically and in great detail and is logically the strongest pramana or proof in handling this question. The Upanishad is a part of the Sama Veda. It is also one of the 108 Upanishads that is listed in the Muktika Upanishad. Although not among the ten Mukhya Upanishads translated by scholars of yore, it is one of the 18 Principal Upanishads that has been translated and commented on by Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan. Vajra - means diamond/ thunderbolt and Suchi - means needle, indicating that the Upanishad is akin to thunderbolt or a needle in piercing (and removing) ignorance. And it starts handling the question :
Who is this whom we refer by the name Brahmana? 
Is he (the subtle body known as) Jiva ? 
Is he the physical body? 
Is he (the descendent of) the community to which he belongs? 
Is he (the possessor of) the knowledge? 
Is he (the doer of) the actions he undertakes? 
Is he the practioner of Dharma ?

It goes about negating all of the above and finally establishing who a Brahmin is. The entire Upanishad merits consideration - and I will do it in my next post.

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