Dr Ambedkar on Asuras

Who were the Asuras, the Nagas, the Dasas and the Dravidas? What were, if any, the racial and linguistic differences between these classes of people? Dr Ambedkar reflects with scholarly insight in ‘The Untouchables: Who were They and Why They Became Untouchables’

Dr Ambedkar was a man of extraordinary intellect. Hardly any facet of India’s social, economic, political, cultural and religious life escaped his attention. He also studied India’s history closely and attempted an incisive analysis of the different communities that inhabited India, including their cultures, their zones of influence and their languages. He minutely scrutinized the indigenous and foreign sources (archaeological, historical, linguistic and literary) that could provide insight and information on these aspects of Indian history and presented his observations and inferences in the seventh chapter of his book The Untouchables: Who were They and Why They Became Untouchables. The chapter is titled “Racial Difference as the Origin of Untouchability”. Here, we will focus on the relationship between the Asura race and the Dasas, Nagas and Dravidas (Dravidians); we will try and find out what their language has been over the years, what changes came in them with time and also how this non-Aryan race has remained entirely different from the Aryans.

Dr B.R. Ambedkar

So, who were the non-Aryans, Asuras, Dasas, Nagas and Dravidians? How were they related to each other? What were the basic differences between them and the Aryans? Before answering these questions, Ambedkar raises one of the key mysteries of ancient Indian history. He writes, “When students of ancient Indian history delve into the ancient past, they often come across four names, the Aryans, Dravidians, Dasas and Nagas. What do these names indicate? This question has never been considered. Are these names – Aryans, Dravidians, Dasas and Nagas – the names of different races or are they merely different names for a people of the same race?”[1] Next, he asks, “Who were the Nagas?”[2] And he himself answers the question, “Undoubtedly they were non-Aryans.”[3] Dr Ambedkar goes on to probe the mutual relationships between the Asuras, Nagas and Dravidians and concludes that “it would seem tolerably certain that the Dravidians of southern India were of the same stock as the Nagas or Asuras of the North”.[4] He considers Dasas and Nagas the same and says that considering them different would be a great folly. He writes, “The Dasas are the same as Nagas. Dasas is merely another name for Nagas. It is not difficult to understand how the Nagas came to be called Dasas in the Vedic literature. Dasa is a Sanskritized form of the Indo-lranian word Dahaka. Dahaka was the name of the king of the Nagas. Consequently, the Aryans called the Nagas after the name of their king Dahaka, which in its Sanskrit form, became Dasa – a generic name applied to all the Nagas.”[5]

After concluding that the Asuras, Dasas and Nagas were the same people, Ambedkar probes their relationship with the Dravidians. Referring to the relationship between the Asuras and the Dravidians, he says, “Dravidians of southern India were of the same stock as the Asuras”[6]. Then he investigates the relationship between the Nagas and the Dravidians. “Who are the Dravidians?” He asks. “Are they different from the Nagas?” He concludes that “Dravidians and Nagas are two branches of the same race”. He also underlines the fact that “Dravidians, as Nagas, ruled not only over southern India but over southern and northern India both”.[7] He says, “It is clear that the Nagas and the Dravidians were the same.”

An Asur woman in Jobhipat village (Bishunpur block, Gumla district), Jharkhand (Photo Courtesy: Suresh Jagannatham)

Thus, Ambedkar considers Non-Aryans, Dasas, Asuras, Nagas and Dravidians synonymous. He underlines it by asserting that “the Dasas are the same as the Nagas and the Nagas are the same as the Dravidians”.[8] Earlier, he shows that Dravidians were descended from the Asuras, and the Asuras, the Dasas, the Nagas and the Dravidians were all non-Aryans.

The Nagas (Non-Aryans, Asuras, Dasas) dominated the politics and culture of India. Quoting the Rig Veda, Dr Ambedkar says, “The mention of the Nagas in the Rig Veda shows that the Nagas were a very ancient people.”[9] Quoting Kashinath Vishwanath Rajwade, he writes, “Not only did the Naga people occupy a high cultural level but history shows that they ruled a good part of India. That Maharashtra is the home of the Nagas goes without saying. Its people and its kings were Nagas.”[10] He also says, “That Andhradesa and its neighbourhood were under the Nagas during the early centuries of the Christian era is suggested by evidence from more sources than one.”[11] Nagas continued to rule till many centuries later. Ambedkar writes, “That during the third and early part of the 4th century AD, northern India also was ruled by a number of Naga kings is clearly proved by Puranic as well as numismatic and epigraphic evidence.”[12] The Asuras, Dasas and Dravidians, ie the Nagas, continued to rule and wield cultural influence in India till the 10th or 12th centuries. As has been quoted earlier, Ambedkar believed that “Dravidians as Nagas occupied not merely southern India but that they occupied the whole of India – South as well as North.”[13]

Dr Ambedkar and Periyar

Taking non-Aryans, Asuras, Dasas, Nagas and Dravidians to be one people, Ambedkar answers the questions challenging their ethnic and cultural unity. Most of the questions are about whether the Dravidians are the same people as the Asuras, Nagas and the Dasas. Ambedkar says, “It is thus clear that the Nagas and Dravidians are one and the same people. Even with this much of proof, people may not be ready to accept this idea. The chief difficulty in the way of accepting it lies in the designation of the people of South India by the name Dravidian. It is natural for them to ask why the term Dravidian has come to be restricted to the people of South India if they are really Nagas. Critics are bound to ask: If the Dravidians and the Nagas are the same people, why is the name Nagas not used to designate people of South India also. This is no doubt a puzzle. But it is a puzzle which is not beyond solution.”[14]

Ambedkar solves the puzzle himself, arguing that their descendants went on to speak different languages. He says that originally there were only two languages – the language of the non-Aryans or Asuras and the language of the Aryans. According to him, the non-Aryans, Asuras, Dasas and Nagas spoke a common language – Dravida – which was so different from the language of the Aryans that Aryans believed that the non-Aryans did not have a language. Ambedkar quotes from many sources to prove his point. Aryan scripture Shatpath Brahman says, “The Asuras, being deprived of speech, were undone, crying ‘He lava’, ‘He lava’. Such was the unintelligible speech that they uttered. And he who speaks thus is a Mlecha. Hence, let no Brahman speak barbarous language, since such is the speech of Asuras.”[15] The Asuras continued to speak this language till the time of Manu. Quoting Manu, Ambedkar says that, “In the time of Manu, therefore, the Aryan language and that of the Mlechas or Asuras were both in use.” He goes on to assert that that there is evidence to indicate that the non-Aryans of North India, ie the Asuras, or the Dasas or the Nagas, abandoned their mother tongue and adopted the language of the Aryans, whereas the Asuras or the Nagas of South India continued to speak their mother tongue, Dravida. Keeping this in mind, Ambedkar writes, “Tamil and cognate tongues were founded upon the ancient Asura speech.”[16] Thus, Ambedkar’s clear conclusion is that Dravida was the mother tongue of the Asuras.

A statue of Mahishasur in Mysore, Karnataka

He writes: Taking into consideration all the evidence which has been brought forward, the only possible conclusion seems to be that the Dravidians of the south of India were of the same stock as the Asuras or Nagas of the north.

What is important here is that ‘Dravida’ is not an original word. It is the Sanskritized form of the word ‘Tamil’. The original word ‘Tamil’, when imported into Sanskrit, became ‘Damilla’ and later on Damilla became Dravida. The word ‘Dravida’ is the name of the language of the people and does not denote the race of the people.

Tamil or Dravida was not merely the language of South India but before the Aryans came, it was the language of the whole of India and was spoken from Kashmir to Cape Comorin. In fact, it was the language of the Nagas throughout India. The next thing to note is the contact between the Aryan and the Nagas and the effect it produced on the Nagas and their language. Strange as it may appear, the effect of this contact on the Nagas of North India was quite different from the effect it produced on the Nagas of South India. The Nagas in North India gave up Tamil, which was their mother tongue and adopted Sanskrit in its place. The Nagas in South India retained Tamil as their mother tongue and did not adopt Sanskrit, the language of the Aryans. If this difference is borne in mind it will help to explain why the name Dravida came to be applied only for the people of South India. The necessity for the application of the name Dravida to the Nagas of northern India had ceased because they had ceased to speak the Dravida language. But so far as the Nagas of South India are concerned, not only the propriety of calling them Dravida had remained in view of their adherence to the Dravida language but the necessity of calling them Dravida had become very urgent in view of their being the only people speaking the Dravida language after the Nagas of the North had ceased to use it. This is the real reason why the people of South India have come to be called Dravidians.

The special application of the use of the word Dravida for the people of South India must not, therefore, obscure the fact that the Nagas and Dravidas are the one and the same people. They are only two different names for the same people. Naga was a racial or cultural name and Dravida was their linguistic name.

Thus, the Dasas are the same as the Nagas and the Nagas are the same as the Dravidians. In other words, what we can say about the races of India is that there have been at the most only two races in the field, the Aryans and the Nagas.

[1] Achoot, We Kaun The Aur Achoot Kaise Ho Gaye? Babasaheb Dr Ambedkar Sampoorna Vangmay, Volume 14, p 59

[2] Ibid, p 59

[3] Ibid, p 50

[4] Ibid, p 50

[5] Ibid, p 56

[6] Ibid, p 54

[7] Ibid, p 54

[8] Ibid, p 56

[9] Ibid, p 59

[10] Ibid, p 59

[11] Ibid, p 50

[12] Ibid, p 50

[13] Ibid, p 51

[14] Ibid, p 51

[15] Ibid, p 52

[16] Ibid, p 58

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