Birth and Caste (was Re: [Advaita-l] RE: Vedic Shakhas ...)

Jaldhar H. Vyas jaldhar at
Tue Feb 8 16:23:31 CST 2005

On Wed, 2 Feb 2005, S Jayanarayanan wrote:

> The "similarity" in the genes between a nematode and a human is
> *only* in the *number* of genes (24000 for humans and 19000 for
> nematodes), NOT in the nature of the genes. I'm not sure why
> you're saying there is a lot of similarity between the genes of
> a human and a nematode?

I'm rapidly getting out of my depth here but I was under the impression
that the nematode was used in genetic research precisely because it was
similiar albeit simpler than the human genome.  If not the nematode then
substitute some other animal.  Just a couple of weeks ago there was a
story about Chinese scientists creating human/animal hybrid viable cells.
Genetic variety is a continuum not a set of discrete blocks.  If you can
accept that between species then why not within species?

> >  However scientific observations are
> > value-neutral.
> Scientific evidence like DNA, ballistics, pathology, etc. are
> brought in a court of Law for the sake of administering justice
> -- a value-based judgment.

But the use to which that evidence is put is limited.  Basllistics can
tell you if a person fired a gun that killed another person but what if:

* The bullet was fired by a thief robbing a jewellery store?

* The bullet was fired by a battered woman fighting off her abusive
  drunken husband?

* The bullet was fired by a soldier in a firing squad executing an enemy spy.

Do you think the same scientifically observed event would be treated the
same in each case?

> Just wanted to point out that there is scope for science in
> value-based judgments.

Yes, this is why we accept pratyaksha and anumana as pramanas.  But we
also accept other pramanas because those two are insufficient.

> There are two statements:
> 1) "By birth alone one becomes a BrAhmaNa or a Kshatriya".
> 2) "The ancestors of BrAhmaNas are all BrAhmaNas, and the
> ancestors of Kshatriyas are all Kshatriyas."
> The first one is value-based and hence cannot be judged using
> science, but the second one is not value-based and can be judged
> by science (Genetics).
> If it so happens that the second statement is false, the first
> statement is in serious doubt, and this is exactly why I brought
> in genetics.

> How about the following shlokas from Book 3, Chapter 179

I presume you meant chapter 177?  The context is that the Pandavas have
lost their gambling match against their cousins the Kauravas and as a
result have been exiled to the forest.  (Hence the name of the third book
is aranyaka or vana parvan -- "the book of the forest")  In the process
Bhima gets seperated and is captured by a giant snake.  It turns out the
snake is actually Nahusha (an ancestor of the Surya vamsha) who will only
be released from his snake form if Yudhisthira can answer his questions.
One of which is on Brahmanahood.

> 1) YudhishhThira first defines BrAhmaNahood:
> satya.n dAnaM kShamA shIlamAnR^isha.nsyaM damo ghR^iNA .
> dR^ishyante yatra nAgendra sa brAhmaNa iti smR^itaH .. 16..\\
> "Yudhishthira said, 'O foremost of serpents, he, it is asserted
> by the wise, in whom are seen truth, charity, forgiveness, good
> conduct, benevolence, observance of the rites of his order and
> mercy is a Brahmana."

Btw, the shloka does not say "it is asserted by the wise" it says "iti
smrtah", it is remembered (i.e, it is the tradition) or it is said in
Smrti.  Yudhishthira goes on to say a person with these qualities can gain
knowledge of the supreme Brahman which is beyond happiness and

Nahusha rejects this definition on the grounds that all four varnas can
posess these qualities.  Shudras also speak the truth, give charity and
are free from anger.  So Yudhishthira clarifies...

> 2) YudhishhThira goes on to forcefully *deny* BrAhmaNahood to
> one who does not have these qualities though he be born as one:
> shUdre chaitadbhavellakShya.n dvije tachcha na vidyate .
> na vai shUdro bhavechchhUdro brAhmaNo na cha brAhmaNaH .. 20..\\
> yatraitallakShyate sarpavR^itta.n sa brAhmaNaH smR^itaH .
> yatraitanna bhavetsarpata.n shUdramiti nirdishet .. 21..\\
> "Yudhishthira said, Those characteristics that are present in a
> Sudra, do not exist in a Brahmana; nor do those that are in a
> Brahmana exist in a Sudra. And a Sudra is not a Sudra by birth
> alone--nor a Brahmana is Brahmana by birth alone. He, it is said
  ^^^^^                             ^^^^^^^^^^^^^^
> by the wise, in whom are seen those virtues is a Brahmana. And
> people term him a Sudra in whom those qualities do not exist,

> even though he be a Brahmana by birth."

There are four possibilities

1.  A brahmana by birth without virtue

2.  A brahmana by birth with virtue

3.  A shudra by birth without virtue

4.  A shudra by birth with virtue

What is being said here is 1 might as well be 3 in the eyes of the public.
He further adds that 4 should be treated as 2.  Yudhishthira defends
this view against the arguments of the snake but he does not claim any
originality for it.   "it is said" or "it is remembered" in an impersonal
way. In other words he is quoting conventional wisdom.

Nahusha again argues for birth alone being the basis for Brahmanahood.
And the implication from the earlier shlokas is that those without the
right blood cannot attain the supreme Brahman which is beyond happiness
and happiness.

Yudhisthira replies that he thinks that nowadays due to the admixture
between castes it is very hard to determine who truly belongs where.  For
the Rshis it was sufficient to say "ye yajamaha"  (we [the implication
being whoever we may be] sacrifice to ___)

It is interesting that the same phrase "due to admixture between
castes..." is referenced in Mimamsa sutra 1.2.11 as an example of an
arthavada.  It cannot literally be taken as true because of course we know
which castes people to belong to.

Yudhisthiras argument is actually against your "genetic" argument above.
It doesn't matter if we don't know the origin of every drop of blood in a
person.  We know what they are from their actions.  The Brahmanas are the
ones who say "ye  yajamahe"  meaning they are the ones who have actually
practiced all the Brahmana rites.  Birth from a Brahmana mother and
father is a necessary condition but it isn't a sufficient one.  Only when one
is reborn with Savatri (Gayatri mantra) as the mother and the acharya as
the father is one "truly" a Brahmana.  Until then one is "shudrasama"
(equivalent to a shudra)  Yudhisthira quotes Manu Svayambhuva to back up
this assertion.  I haven't been able to find out if this is an actual
quote from Manusmrti or if Manu is just being used as the archetype of
knowers of Dharma but his invocation serves to underline that only the
traditional viewpoint is being explained here.

> 3) And finally, YudhishhThira affirms BrAhmaNahood to *anyone*
> who possesses the aforesaid qualities:

No he doesn't.

> yatredAnIM mahAsarpasa.nskR^ita.n vR^ittamiShyate .
> taM brAhmaNamahaM pUrvamuktavAnbhujagottama .. 32..\\
> "Yudhishthira said, 'O excellent snake! Whosoever now conforms
> to the rules of pure and virtuous conduct, him have I, ere now,
> designated as a Brahmana.'"

Whoever is _sa.nskR^ita.n_, who has passed through sanskaras such as
upanayana is to be treated as a Brahmana.  These are the "rules of pure
and virtuous conduct" (a rather bogus translation)  And note this leaves
out entire classes of people.

Note Nahusha has an ulterior motive in asking this question.  He was an
illustrious Kshatriya king.  By the performance of many yajnas he came to
usurp the throne of Indra himself.  But then he turned arrogant.  He had
himself carried around on a palanquin carried by 1000 Rshis.  Rshi Agastya
was having difficulty keeping up. So Nahusha kicked him saying sarpa!
sarpa! (faster, faster) whereupon the Rshi got angry and cursed him to
become a snake (also sarpa)

Yudhisthira calls him "vedavedangaparAga". By reminding him that it is not
the body he presently occupies but his knowledge and conduct that is the
cause of liberation, he frees him from the Rshis curse.

> So the above shlokas in the MahAbhArata are crystal clear on one
> point: BrAhmaNahood is by conduct *alone*, and not by birth.

No it is not by birth alone but by birth and conduct.  And while the
specific discussion in this question was the conduct of a Brahmana,
everyone is capable of good conduct in their own way.

Jaldhar H. Vyas <jaldhar at>
It's a boy! See the pictures -

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