The spiritual slavery of the Shudras: Read an excerpt from Kancha Ilaiah Shepherd, Karthik Raja Karuppusamy's book
For as long as Brahminism has existed in India, Shudras have lived in a state of ignorance of Hindu religion.
In the fifth book of the Rethinking India series, editors Kancha Ilaiah Shepherd and Karthik Raja Karuppusamy have put together an anthology of essays that delve into the multi-layered predicaments faced by India's productive castes in the spiritual, social, economic and political spaces. The Shudras: Vision for a New Path also examines the historical and philosophical aspects of the community's collective fight against unequal upper caste structures, to reformulate its current position and carve a road towards the future.
It is a collection of essays which at once becomes a rising call to the Shudra castes to resist an image of the 'national' in which they remain devoid of representation, and paints an honest portrait of the marginalised status accorded to them in all key structures of the nation.
At the same time, the book analyses multiple ways for a path towards a more socio-spiritual equality. The extract that follows seeks to explore the very inequality which prohibited the Shudras from learning Sanskrit, the language of prayers and rituals, thereby thrusting them into centuries of acute spiritual slavery.
Excerpted from the essay, The Socio-spiritual Slavery of Shudras: A National Agenda for Their Liberation, contributed by Sunil Sardar.
Edited by Kancha Ilaiah Shepherd and Karthik Raja Karuppusamy
Spiritual Slavery: Past and Present
The social slavery of Shudras, seen by their forced servility, poverty and self-image, coexisted with their spiritual slavery.
The spiritual slavery of Shudras has been so total that it has robbed them of even being able to dream of and desire equality with Brahmins. Shudras were not allowed to learn Sanskrit, the language of Brahmins and the gods. This restriction forever preserved the career of Brahmins against the competition of a people that could have replaced them. By not learning Sanskrit, Shudras were not allowed to learn mantras. Mantras are the syllabic Sanskrit chants that make the gods dance. By chanting a mantra, the chanter is able to secure a blessing or a curse from the gods.
The gods become little more than vending machines, distributing anything the chanter asks for, so long as he has the right mantra. The Brahmin secured the mantras for himself, and by doing so, became even more powerful than the gods.
The Shudra was forced to do for the Brahmin anything he demanded in order to receive the mantra he needed to heal his sick wife, or bless his farm, or curse his neighbour. In fact, the Brahmin came to be known as Bhudev, or god on earth, because he held spiritual and religious authority, and no one could oppose him.
Denying Sanskrit to Shudras didn’t just protect Brahmins’ mantras, it also protected their scriptures. All Hindu texts were written in Sanskrit. They claimed that the gods spoke Sanskrit, and when the gods revealed their scriptures to mankind, they revealed them in Sanskrit. The real reason all their scriptures were in Sanskrit is that Shudras didn’t know Sanskrit, which would allow them to read and understand the scriptures for themselves, or worse, to write them. Scholars estimate that the Rig Veda existed orally for almost a thousand years before it was ever written down.
This was not because of the lack of a recording medium, but because by writing it down it might fall into the wrong hands — Shudra hands — and its power would be undone. The knowledge of Sanskrit by Brahmins was key to their domination over India. For as long as Brahminism has existed in India, Shudras have lived in a state of ignorance of Hindu religion. They do not know the laws, codes or procedures.
Instead of teaching Shudras about the Hindu religion and their relationship with the gods, they are taught nothing other than the need to come to them repeatedly for blessings and protection from evil spirits.
Shudras cannot be priests. They cannot administrate in temples in any way, especially India’s fabulously wealthy temples. They cannot perform their own weddings and funerals. They cannot pray for a blessing if they move into a new home or get a new job. They cannot collect financial offerings for the gods, and can only give them. They have no control over their own lives. As Valmiki’s Ramayana shows, they cannot perform penance, as Shambuka did, or they may be decapitated.
With the authority of the Brahmin so complete over the Shudra, the Brahmin is able to force the Shudra to do anything ridiculous, and he’ll have no choice but to do it. He may require the Shudra to walk a thousand kilometres just to acquire water from a place he thinks is holy, then send him to a temple another thousand kilometres away, and the Shudra will never question or doubt the Brahmin’s wisdom. The Brahmin may abuse him, still the Shudra will pay him money. The Brahmin can tell the Shudra that his birth chart or horoscope is bad, and the Shudra will sell his house to pay to fix the problem. The Brahmin can kick the Shudra, and the Shudra will press his feet.
Although the Brahminical scriptures of Hinduism give no scope for the advancement of Shudras, there are moments in history when they have been able to assert and prove themselves.
Sometimes they do so within the Brahminical scheme, as was done by Dantidurga, founder of the Rashtrakuta empire. He fought so magnificently that he established himself as king, and the Brahmins performed a ritual known as hiranyagarbha, in which Dantidurga emerged from a golden womb reborn as a Kshatriya. However, most Shudras must rebel against the Brahminical schemes to find a place of equality within India.
The above excerpt from The Shudras: Vision for a New Path, edited by Kancha Ilaiah Shepherd and Karthik Raja Karuppusamy, has been reproduced here with permission from the publisher Penguin Random House India.
In her debut novel, Meera Rajagopalan explores a woman's fading memory through her satirical journal entries
For Rajagopalan, the diary entries become a clever medium to bring home the intrigue of reading the accounts of an unreliable narrator, who might or might not have lived through the experiences that she records or understood those subjects that she claims to know all about.
Book excerpt: In The Heartbeat of Trees, Peter Wohlleben explores communication between humans and trees
The book, with the aid of the latest scientific research, shows how deeply humans are connected to the natural world.