Dr. Babasaheb Ambedkar (Vol. 7): ‘Who were the Shudras?’ and ‘The Untouchables – Who were they and why they became Untouchables?’
Dr. Bhimrao Ambedkar (1891-1956) was a scholar, social reformer, powerful advocate of the rights of Dalits and women, chairman of the Constituent Assembly of India, and the country’s first law minister.
In 1976, the government of Maharashtra set up the Dr. Babasaheb Ambedkar Source Material Publication Committee to compile his complete works. The Committee consisted of the state’s then education minister and noted scholars and writers. In 1978, when Vasant Moon (Dalit activist, author and Officer on Special Duty) joined the Committee, it decided to procure and publish Dr. Ambedkar’s unpublished writings too.
The state’s Education Department started to publish a 22-volume series titled Dr. Babasaheb Ambedkar: Writings and Speeches in 1979, and brought out this seventh volume in 1990. The series was re-printed by the Dr. Ambedkar Foundation, an autonomous body under the Ministry of Social Justice and Empowerment, in January 2014.
The seventh volume is arranged in two parts or ‘books’ which contain Dr. Ambedkar’s writings on the origin of ‘Shudras’ and ‘Untouchables’.
Book I: Who were the Shudras?
Originally published in 1946, this book addresses the proposition that the social organisation of the Indo-Aryans was based on the theory of Chaturvarnya, the division of society into four classes – Brahmins or priests, Kshatriyas or soldiers, Vaishyas or traders, and Shudras or ‘menials’. Dr. Ambedkar states that Chaturvarnya made the principle of ‘graded inequality’ the basis for determining the terms of associated life between the classes. Under this system, “…the Shudra is not only placed at the bottom of the gradation but he is subjected to innumerable ignominies and disabilities so as to prevent him from rising above the condition fixed for him by law.”
The book challenges the Arya Samaj belief that there were always four Varnas in Indo-Aryan society, contending that there was a time when there only three. Dr. Ambedkar states that portions of the Vedas – particularly the hymn from the Rig Veda, Purusha Sukta – “…are fabrications by Brahmins intended to serve their own purposes.” He locates the origin of the Shudras in these ‘fabrications’ which made the Chaturvarnya system sacrosanct, beyond criticism or change.
The book highlights the differences between Roman and ‘Brahmanic Law’. While Roman law did not recognise equality in civil and political rights, it made no distinction between citizens in matters of criminal law. Brahminic Law, however, bestowed one class (Shudras) with all many ‘disabilities’, often to the benefit of another (Brahmins). For instance, if a Shudra commits an offence against a Brahmin, the Brahmin may demand a higher punishment than a Kshatriya or Vaishya could. Similarly, a Brahmin could take the property of a Shudra for performing a sacrifice without being guilty of an offence.
The book discusses the Western theory that the people who created Vedic literature belonged to a foreign ‘Aryan’ race, and the dark-skinned indigenes that they conquered came to be the Shudras. The Vedas do not acknowledge any Aryan race, Dr. Ambedkar says. Further, the ‘Aryan race’ theory is based on a philological proposition, not a physiological one. Dr. Ambedkar states that Western scholars invented this theory to assert the superiority of the Europeans on their colonial subjects.
Dr. Ambedkar argues that the word ‘Shudra’ is a proper name of a tribe and not a derivative word denoting ‘one overcome by sorrow’, as some ancient texts suggest. “The Brahmanic writers excel everybody in the art of inventing false etymologies,” he writes.
Further, Dr. Ambedkar presents evidence to show that the Shudras belonged to the Kshatriya class, and some of them were kings in ancient Aryan communities. He hypothesises that the Shudras were ‘degraded’ and made the fourth Varna as a result of a ‘violent conflict’ between Shudra kings and Brahmins.
Book II: The Untouchables – Who were they and why they became Untouchables?
This book, a sequel to Who were the Shudras?, was first published in 1948. Here, Dr. Ambedkar advances the theory that ‘Untouchability’ has no racial or occupational basis; that the distinction between the Hindus and Untouchables in its original form was similar to that between ‘Tribesmen’ and ‘Broken Men’ who were from alien tribes; that Untouchability had its roots in the Brahmins’ contempt towards Buddhists; and that Untouchables are distinct from the ‘Impure’ class, which appeared in the Dharma Sutras much earlier.
The book begins with two questions: do only the Hindus observe Untouchability? If not, how does Untouchability among Hindus compare with that among non-Hindus? Dr. Ambedkar explains that basis of Untouchability is “…the notion of defilement, pollution, contamination and the ways and means of getting rid of that defilement.” Such notions – and corresponding purificatory rituals – were found in ‘Primitive Societies’ in many countries, including Egypt, Greece and India.
In the transition from primitive to nomadic life, and subsequently to settled life, two problems arose – about the settled community’s defence against nomadic tribes, and about the ‘Broken Men’ and their need for protection and shelter.
Primitive society was fundamentally tribal in its organisation, every person had to belong to a tribe. An individual born in one tribe could not join another tribe. At the same time, there was always a floating population of ‘Broken’ tribesmen due to the continuous warfare between tribes.
‘Broken Men’ in many societies – such as those in Ireland and Wales – were absorbed by the settled communities and no longer made to live in separate quarters. This did not happen in India, where separate quarters became a permanent feature of Indian villages. Dr. Ambedkar attributes this to the notion of Untouchability, which perpetuated differences between tribesmen and outsiders in settled communities.
In ancient India, there was growing mutual contempt between Brahmins and the ‘Broken Men’, says Dr. Ambedkar. This antipathy is explained through the theory that the Broken Men were Buddhists, which led to them being shunned and treated as Untouchables.
Dr. Ambedkar investigates why Brahmins gave up eating beef though they widely practiced animal sacrifice. “That in an agricultural population there should be respect for Buddhism and revulsion against Brahmanism which involved slaughter of animals including cows and bullocks is only natural,” he reasons. And so turning vegetarian was a strategy to gain in public esteem as compared to the Buddhists.
Beef-eating, instead of being treated as a purely secular matter, was made a matter of religion as the Brahmins made the cow a sacred animal. This made beef-eating a sacrilege, states Dr. Ambedkar, and so “…the Broken Men being guilty of sacrilege necessarily became beyond the pale of society."
Focus by Aditi Chandrasekhar.
Dr. Babasaheb Ambedkar
First edition compiled and edited by Vasant Moon
Second edition edited by Hari Narke
The first edition was published by the Education Department, government of Maharashtra, in 1990. This is a 2014 reprint by the Dr. Ambedkar Foundation, Delhi, an autonomous body under the Ministry of Social Justice and Empowerment.