[Advaita-l] Castes and definitions

Jaldhar H. Vyas jaldhar at braincells.com
Sun Feb 13 09:43:12 CST 2005

On Thu, 10 Feb 2005, Raghavendra N Kalyan wrote:

> 1. a son/daughter of a shUdra (this is the social reality)
> 2. a person of *bad* conduct (whatever bad may mean)

It has to be 1.  Now various statements in the shastras (such as the
famous account of varna by guna in the Gita) do seem to suggest 2, that
"Brahmana" = good and Shudra = bad, those same shastras also provide many
examples of villainous Brahmanas (e.g. Asvatthama, Ajamila, the kulapati
from the Ramayana story we discussed last month.) and virtuous Shudras
(Ekalavya, Karna, Vidura.)  Not to mention the story of Nahusha we just
discussed.  If we got the philosophical texts, Mimamsa and Vedanta, they
certainly don't agree with 2.

>    The first
>    definition is no definition as it is uses the term shUdra to define a
>    shUdra.

This statement illustrates a misunderstanding that has plagued this entire
discussion.  Social reality comes _before_ definitions.  Then the
intelligensia of a culture codify and define it.  There is an entire
science called sociology that deals with this but evidently it less known
in India than the Nirukta!

Any observer of the Indian scene who is not utterly blind must have
noticed that the 4-varna system described in the shastras _does_not_exist_
in real life.  Furthermore if they have studied history, they must be
aware that it has _never_existed_.  The "caste system" is and always has
been much more complicated.  The shastrakaras themselves were aware of
this and tried to explain the profusion of jatis by "varnasankara" (the
mixing of varnas.) but even this does not accurately describe social
reality. Only the Brahmana caste corresponds directly with a varna but
even there we see diversity.  For instance in TN Shivacharyas and
Saurashtras both make claims to be Brahmanas.  But Iyers and Iyengars
dispute that claim and do not intermarry with them.  The reality is "Iyer"
and "Saurashtra" not Brahmana.  When it comes to Shudras the diversity is
even more apparent.  No one says "I am the son/daughter of a Shudra" they
say (If they are Gujarati) I am the son/daughter of a Patel, Koli, Sutar,
Lohar, Kumbhar, Bhil, etc.  And what about say the Gujarati
Brahmakshatriyas?  They have typical Brahmana surnames like Bhatt or
Upadhyaya, and do intermarry with real Brahmanas but by their own
description they are "between" Brahmanas and Kshatriyas.  (Their tradition
is that they were born from the drops of blood that fell from Bhagavan
Parshuramas' axe when he slaughtered the Kshatriyas)  There are other
castes today whose poition within the 4-varna system is completely
anomalous.  And yet is the result Dharmic anarchy?  No all these groups
have a clear sense of what their traditions are.

So then does that mean we can deem the shastraic rules irrelevant and
simply throw them out?  No because some (not all) castes have historically
identified with certain varna positions.  For instance during the reign of
the Mughal emperor Akhbar, his Hindu prime minister Todar Mal (who was a
Punjabi Khatri) invited the learned scholars of the day to opine on the
varna status of the Khatris.  And Brahmanas have atleast as an ideal
maintained the ideas and concepts of the Brahmana varna.   All I  am is
that we have to look at social and historical practice first and then
interpret the shastras in light of that.

Jaldhar H. Vyas <jaldhar at braincells.com>
It's a boy! See the pictures - http://www.braincells.com/nilagriva/

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