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How Kautilya’s ‘Arthashastra’ rendered Indian Shudra rulers powerless

The Brahmin priestly forces who, apart from being head priests in every kingdom, occupied the office of the prime minister in all Shudra monarchical states and other bureaucratic networks, have been in control of the State from the days of Kautilya, the author of 'Arthashastra' – a book of dangerous statecraft, writes Kancha Ilaiah Shepherd

But for the accidental reading of Shahu Maharaj’s letter to the former governor of Bombay presidency, Lord Sydenham, written in 1918, I would not have thought of writing this essay. As I wrote about Brahmin-Bania power over society and State both post Independence and earlier over the years amid threats to my life and cases foisted on me in various levels of courts, the Dwija pundits tried to dismiss my arguments. Many Brahmin-Bania liberal intellectuals argue that when so many Shudra kings ruled the Indian states in ancient and medieval times how could the Brahmin-Banias have controlled the system! For a long time, they also dismissed Babasaheb Ambedkar and Mahatma Jotirao Phule’s observations about the grip of Brahmins on the State and society on the same grounds. But a lengthy letter written by Shahu, as the king of the Kolhapur state that existed till 1947 and belonged to the dynasty of the great king Chhatrapati Shivaji, provides an indisputable testimony of how the Shudra kings suffered under the spiritual and intellectual yoke of Brahmins. This control of Brahmin priestly forces who, apart from being head priests in every kingdom, occupied the office of the prime minister in all Shudra monarchical states and other bureaucratic networks, has existed from the days of Kautilya, the author of Arthashastra – a book of dangerous statecraft.

This essay looks at the history of Shudra kings and their fear of Brahmins from the days of Chandragupta Maurya’s kingdom, in the light of Shahu Maharaj’s letter.

Kautilya’s Arthashastra stipulates that the State has to maintain the caste system in the following order:

As the triple Vedas definitely determine the respective duties

of the four castes and of the four orders of religious life, they are

the most useful.

The duty of the Brahman is study, teaching, performance of

sacrifice, officiating in others’ sacrificial performance and the

giving and receiving of gifts.

That of a Kshatriya is study, performance of sacrifice, giving

gifts, military occupation, and protection of life.

That of a Vaisya is study, performance of sacrifice, giving

gifts, agriculture, cattle breeding, and trade.

That of a Sudra is the serving of the twice-born (dwijati),

agriculture, cattle-breeding, and trade (varta), the profession of

artisans and court-bards (karukusilavakarma)[i]

“This people (loka) consisting of four castes and four orders of

religious life, when governed by the king with his sceptre, will

keep to their respective paths, ever devotedly adhering to their

respective duties and occupations.”

He further says “the observance of one’s own duty leads one to Svarga (heaven) and infinite bliss (Anantya). When it is violated, the world will come to an end owing to confusion of castes and duties. Hence, the king shall never allow people to swerve from their duties; for whoever upholds his own duty, ever adhering to the customs of the Aryas, and following the rules of caste and divisions of religious life, will surely be happy both here and hereafter. For the world, when maintained in accordance with injunctions of the triple Vedas, will surely progress, but never perish.”[ii]

Having stipulated strict caste duties and condemning the Shudras to serve Brahmin, Kshatriya and Vaishyas by investing their labour power forever, Kautilya makes a false spiritual promise of granting moksha/heaven to the Shudras. The Shudra masses were made to believe that if they did not adhere to the caste order they would be punished by Brahmin gods both in this life and after death. Nowhere in the world have authors of religious books played with the lives of innocent productive masses, who were illiterate and ignorant, in such an evil manner. By portraying the Vedas as divine texts both Kautilya and Manu created a barbaric civil society and State. The Brahmins who came after them practised the spiritual and political ideology formulated in those books. No book of divine origin would divide people into such inhuman categories and let the combined institution of religion and State unleash fear – and promise heaven if they remained slaves. No slave in the world other than in India would accept this kind of barbaric book knowledge as God-given. The Shudras and Dalits of India accepted this so-called divine sanction for millennia.

Shudra kings under a spell

The Shudra kings of India from ancient days, particularly from the times of Chandragupta Maurya to the present, came under the mystic spiritual spell of Brahmin writers. Though they knew warfare and could negotiate with nature and produce food, the Shudra masses surrendered the written word to the Brahmin and internalized a psychology of enormous fear and slavishness. The Brahmin assumed the status of God, and the food producers began to fear them and believe that they had all the powers that a God is said to have. While the idea of God among humans evolved as their way of life transformed from being hunters and fishermen to animal domesticators to agrarian producers, the Brahmin superimposed himself on them as Bhoodeva with an uncommon mystic wisdom. This distorted the very nature of religion in India. Kautilya projected this Brahmin divine power onto the State as far back as the 3rd century BCE.

Kautilya foreclosed any transmutability of caste in administering the State institutions. Even occupational change was arrested. To maintain the caste hierarchy, the State was made violent and ruthless. Kautilya gave the Brahmin, Kshatriya and Bania forces complete control over the State resources by totally disarming the Shudra/Dalits. Yet, it is the Shudras/Dalits who have been the main productive force. By various estimations of scholars we have now come to know that Manusmriti belongs to much later period than that of Arthashastra which was written during the rule of the Mauryan dynasty in the 3rd century BCE, when the Brahmin grip on the state structure became tighter. The economists, animal pastoralists and agriculturalists from the Harappan civilization, broadly known as Shudras, were pushed to the status of slaves once the “divinely ordained” Vedic civilization was established and the Arthashastra pushed that system into the State structure with a full violent force of the “fear of God”.

Even the Shudra kings were forced to suppress their own brothers and sisters who were toiling in the fields. Kautilya gave full freedom and leisure time to Brahmins and entitled them to gifts from the State and Shudras at will. The duties that he assigned to the Shudras, Vaishyas and Khsatriyas, including giving gifts of wealth to the Brahmin, shows the Brahmins were completely freed from the labour and production process.

The so-called mental labour the Brahmin assigned himself was very negative. If the Shudras did not part with their wealth in the form of a gift, he would say the State had to punish them. The Shudras had to pay taxes to the State for its maintenance and also provide for the labour-free life of the entire population of Brahmins. The Brahmin has only been a receiver and never a giver at any time in Indian history. This idea of Bhoodeva is opposite to the universal God who gives humans life, wealth and the knowledge to produce food from the earth and raise a family. Both the Brahmin god and the Brahmin himself are opposite to universal spiritual ethics and morals. Once the Shudra kings accepted Brahmin divinity, they lived against their own interests, framed laws against their own people.

Constitution vs Manudharma

Given this background of the Brahmin written word and its mystic power in the past it is important to understand the present ruling Hindutva forces projecting only Vedic and post-Vedic books written by Brahmins like Arthashastra and Manusmriti and Vastyanana’s Kamasutra as the source of Indian civilization. They are trying to re-establish the Arthasatric State and Manuwadi civil society even in the 21 century. Not many Shudras understand this historical process that they have been part of. As we have shown in The Shudras: Vision for New Path, K.B. Hedgewar, founder of Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), praises Manu’s laws as being greater laws than the laws written by Lycurgus and Solon and says “To  Constitutional pundits that (Manu’s laws) means nothing”. He had no respect for the Constitution that Ambedkar had helped draft and that paved the way for a person from the Other Backward Class (OBC) and the RSS, Narendra Modi, becoming the prime minister in 2014. While Modi was still the Prime Minister, Ram Madhav, an RSS leader, wrote in the introduction to his book Because India Comes First – Reflections on Nationalism, Identity and Culture (2020), “Through its living history of over five millennia, India has offered invaluable gems of wisdom enriching all of mankind … This wisdom was proclaimed in Manusmriti, one of the oldest constitutions of India.” He further quotes a Sanskrit sloka from the Manusmriti to say, “Men all over the world would come to beseech lessons in character through the lives of the great men born in this country.”[iii] According to Madhav, Manu was the greatest wise man of India from whom great men of the world should learn how to institutionalize – perhaps, caste and untouchability. He knows pretty well that Ambedkar burnt this “great constitution”, treating it as the most barbaric book, which does not deserve to be positively talked about at all. Madhav, a middle-aged RSS Brahmin leader from Andhra Pradesh, knows that the Shudras and Dalits all over the country treat Manuwadis as anti-national, as their book, the Manusmriti, has made them perpetually slaves. Prime Minister Modi never takes the name of Manu – he takes the name of Gautam Buddha on international platforms – but Ram Madhav tells the Shudras/Dalits/Adivasis working for both the RSS and its affiliate, the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), that they should follow only the Manusmriti that Ambedkar burnt and not the Constitution that Ambedkar championed, giving them equal rights with Brahmins, at least in the State institutions. In the Hindu spiritual system, Brahmins still control everything. Even the RSS Shudras/Dalits/Adivasis cannot become priests in the Hindu temples, even now. This is where the Shudras/Dalits and Adivasis working in the Sangh Parivar must realize that even in the 21st century the Brahmin leaders of the RSS from Hedgewar to Ram Madhav worship only Kautilya and Manu. They certainly don’t look up to Ambedkar who wrote a Constitution that liberated them in the political and legal domain.

Orthodox versus secular Brahmins

The Hindutva Brahmins quite openly own Kautilya and Manu but the secular, liberal and left Brahmins by and large remain silent about them. They pretend as if the ancient thought of Brahmins does not matter. There is no left-liberal and secular critique of these texts written in a manner that we could use to counter the Hindutva Brahmins. The silence of left-liberal Brahmins must be treated, for all practical purposes, as them being in agreement with the Hindu Brahmins and hence the Shudra/Dalit/Adivasis must suspect their liberalism, secularism and socialism. There is however, a fundamental problem with the Shudra-ness and Brahmin-ness, which I will examine at the end of this essay.

In the latter half of the last century, many leaders from Shudra castes became the chief ministers in different states and also state and central government ministers. For them, a question lies unanswered: for how long in Indian history the Shudra kings were made the slaves of the mystic powers of the Brahmin books? The RSS’s calculated silence means that they want the mystic power of the Brahmins to remain unchecked. The RSS Brahmin leaders know enough now to not let go of the Manu and Kautilya who gave them enormous power in the political domain.

The tyranny in Arthashastra

The Arthashastra does not talk of Chandal and Adivasi as separate categories. In accordance with the Kautilyan classification, the Dalits and Adivasis are part of the Shudra category. In Kautilya’s socio-legal formulation all the agrarian and artisanal masses are Shudras. But at the same time they all are fragmented based on their occupations and Kautilya asks the State not to allow them to move out of each one’s occupation and caste boundaries. Due to this kind of long enforcement of caste-occupational rules by the brahmanic state power, the Shudra masses who constitute about more than 52 per cent population of modern India believe even now that they must surrender to Brahmin authority, spiritually and socially. Irrespective of what their economic and political status in modern India is, they treat the Brahmin as Bhoodevata. Such a mental surrender has not allowed their intellectual, philosophical and spiritual energies to evolve even now. The Shudra and Namasudra submission to Bengal Brahmins and Kayasthas, whatever their ideology, left or liberal or Hindutva, is a strong case in point.

Though there has been a lot of discussion about Manu’s role in controlling the productive Shudra/Dalit/Adivasi masses with the iron grip of Brahmanism – through his socio-legal text Manusmriti –  there is not much discussion around Kautilya’s Arthashatra in terms of its role in controlling the State institutions as part of the brahmanical ideological apparatus through human management in accordance with the hierarchical Varna system. In his very serious critique of the Hindu social order, B.R. Ambedkar examined numerous key texts of Brahmanism except Arthashastra. But this is the text that strategized their perennial control over the State structure of India. They have a strong grip on the State institutions even in our times because the Kautilyan Varna classification has acted as the normative principle that guides the State. The so-called secular and liberal Dwij scholars have tried to hide this aspect of the Indian state as this provides them enormous scope to control post-Independence State institutions and civil society.

Many get misled with the title of the book Arthashastra mistaking it for a text on the science of economics. It actually is a book that gives hegemonic control to Brahmanism in every field of state activity and weakens the potential of the productive forces – the Shudra and Dalits.

The mischief in Kamasutra

The third book is Kamasutra, written by ancient Brahmin author Vastayana. It was meant to control the Shudra/Dalit masses, particularly women. He turned Shudra/Dalit/Adivasi women into sexual objects.

On the contrary, Wendy Doniger, a well-known American Sanskrit scholar, writes “The Kamasutra is almost unique in classical Sanskrit literature in its near total disregard of class (varna) and caste (jati). Of course, power relations of many kinds – gender, wealth, political position, as well as caste – are implicit throughout the text. But wealth is what counts most.”[iv] But that is not true if we look at the social distinctions mentioned while discussing sexuality. It is primarily a book for anti-production leisure of the Brahmin Kshatriya ruling class and Bania businessmen.

Kamasutra stipulates that the Brahmin women should be wives of only Brahmin men but the Shudra/Dalit women should work as Granikas (sex workers) for nagarikas (the urbanite Brahmin, Kshatriya and Vaishya leisure-centred male citizens).

No Shudra king in our long history could dare to oppose the brahmanical hegemony. Neither were they ingenious enough to record or authorize the history of the spiritual system of the productive masses that existed outside the brahmanical fold, nor did they establish schools for the Shudra children and commissioned writers to write books of their own, history, culture and civilization. The Shudras and Dwijas do not live like one nation. Rather, they are two different cultural and civilizational entities. Even the kings were made to obey the Brahmins unquestioningly as they themselves treated the Brahmin as God – Bhoodeva. Even the kings were like socio-spiritual slaves without any rights to read and write books. After getting the Kshatriya status some could learn to read and write but they too, having been injected with fear of the Brahmin-controlled gods, were forced to isolate themselves from the productive masses. The Shudra kings never realized that their ancestors had gods/goddesses who were different from the gods constructed by the Brahmins in their books. The gods in the Brahmins’ books were mainly their war heroes. The Shudra gods/goddesses evolved mostly from their culture based on production and science and development (see this author’s Why I am Not a Hindu) processes. But even today Shudra leaders revere Brahmin gods. Brahmins would tell the Shudra king that they themselves would curse the king if he did not obey them, or that their god would punish him. This whole spiritual ideology was a myth constructed to acquire wealth and power without getting involved in agrarian or artisanal production.

Shahuji Maharaj and Dr B.R. Ambedkar at the Dakshin Maharashtra Bahishkrit Varg Parishad convention in Mangaon, Kolhapur State, in March 1920; Maharaja Sayajirao Gaekwad of Baroda

Shudras should have doubted this spiritual theory propagated both orally and textually, for like the Brahmins they, too, are humans. The Shudra kings were also made to fear the books that the Brahmins wrote as if they were god’s words and the truth. When Brahmins told them they should not even touch their spiritual books the Shudras believed them. Such a dictum is patently a historical fraud committed in the name of spiritual theory. Once the right to read was taken away from Shudra/Dalit/Adivasi masses, their fear of Brahmins and their gods increased manifold.

Fortunately for us, Chhatrapati Shahu Maharaj has left evidence of the Brahmin grip on his state. He was a revolutionary ruler with a vision to overturn the caste hierarchy. He has put it on record the reality of his own kingdom – the Brahmin hegemony and control in all spheres of the state. His letter to the former governor of the Bombay Province talks about the role of Brahmins in that state. This is the only document available written by a king from the Shudra community with a commitment to their development.

Perhaps from the 3rd century BCE onwards, ever since Kautilya became the prime minister of Chandragupta Maurya, the kings who came from the Shudra varna have been virtually under the control of the Brahmin prime minister and the head priest. The situation did not change much even after the reign of Muslim kings and the British. It is a known historical fact that the Shudra agrarian and artisanal communities never rebelled against the varna dharma order that the Vedas, Arthashastra and Manusmriti ordained. Until the British came and opened school education for the Shudras they had no right to educate themselves and express their point of view in writing. The Shudra masses could never organize themselves cutting across the internal caste-occupation divisions. Rather than helping them advance, brahmanical knowledge stalled the growth and transformation of the food producers who were the main source of the national wealth production.

Even the epigraphs from the Shudra kingdoms were written by Brahmins. Except Ashoka, no other king could reject Brahmin authority. King Ashoka did that only after he became a Buddhist. Quite ironically, after Ashoka’s ancient Buddhist revolution and his pursuit of a welfare administration, a Brahmin counter-revolution took place with Pushyamitra Shunga capturing power. Since then Kautilya’s Arthashastra and Manu’s Dharmashastra have been systematically used to suppress Shudras in all fields of life. From that period to that of the Muslim rulers all the kings ran the state apparatus with Brahmins as the real drivers of administration.

I have examined in detail the fundamental difference between the Buddhist political and social thought and the Brahmin thought in my book God As Political Philosopher – Buddha’s Challenge to Brahminism (2000). After Buddhism became a major religion it influenced the kings who ruled India till Kautilya wrote Arthashastra, which changed the State structure in favour of the Brahmin ministers and priests regardless of whoever was the king. From Magadha rule to Nanda rule, that is till the 3rd century, Brahmins were not allowed to interfere with the State structure. Kautilya systematically planned to overthrow the Nanda dynasty and established the rule of Chandragupta Maurya, who was a Shudra, under his control. He became the prime minister and head priest. That authority and power of Brahmins continued into the post-colonial period as well.

It was a surprise to those of us who were born and brought up in Hyderabad, in Nizam’s state, how Brahmin authority over civil society continued to play a critical controlling role. Though the Muslim rule here had lasted more than 300 years, as soon as it ended in 1948, a Brahmin, Burgula Ramakrishna Rao, became the first Chief Minister, marking the beginning of several years of Brahmin control over united Andhra Pradesh and Telangana. Even during the Satavahana rule and later Kakatiya rule (from 13th Century AD onwards), the Brahmin bureaucratic and priestly power had continued unabated. The Kummaris, or potters, even today claim that Satavahanas belong to their community, which is of the lower Shudra order. Kakatiyas were Shudras, with several Shudra castes today claiming the community as their heritage. There is a strong claim that Kakatiyas were Kammas and Mudirajas in their organizational writings. The Kakatiya stone edicts, making adherence to the fourfold varna compulsory, were written by Brahmins.

Even the kings of the small princely states during the British colonial rule could not reject the Brahmin authority over what is now known as the Hindu system. The Shudra kings who fought bravely in battles with enemies feared the Brahmin spiritual power. All the Shudra warriors who won wars and became the kings were forced to take on the Kshatriya status without which the Brahmins said gods would punish them. Once they were declared Kshatriya they were told to stay away from the Shudra masses and follow only the Brahmin’s instructions and run the state in accordance with the Brahmin Prime Minister’s directions.

In the domain of religion the Brahmin head priest guided the king. The priests regularly took gifts from the king. In many cases they got huge areas of cultivable land as the temple Agrahara land. The priest’s family, over a period of time, made the land their private property. Again, this land was cultivated with the free labour of the Shudra masses. The priests and the ministers made the kings build massive temples for the Brahmin gods with State money in accordance with Agamashastras and the priesthood rights were taken in the name of Brahmin families in the vicinity.

In West Bengal, the famous Shudra woman queen Rani Rashmoni built a Dakshineshwar Kali temple on the riverbed of Ganga at Hooghly in the 19th century. She bought 33 acres of land around the temple. But the Bengal Brahmins did not allow the queen to inaugurate the temple. They told her the temple would be functional only if she granted the entire piece of land and the temple to a Brahmin. She transferred the ownership of that land and the temple to Ramakrishana Paramhamsa’s elderly father Ramkumar Chattopadhyay and Paramhamsa inherited that land and the temple. Paramhamsa built his spiritual image from that temple and its property. Gradually, they erased the queen’s place from history itself. Amitanghush Acharya, in his article in The Hindu, says, “As upper caste (Brahmin and Kayastha) Rajaram Mohan Roy, Easwar Chandra Vidhyasagar, Ramakrishna Paramhamsa and Vivekananda gained prominence, Rani Rashmoni who was one of the most influential icons of the 19th century, was relegated to the margins of history.”[v]

Thus Kautilya’s book entitled Brahmins to free land, free labour and exclusive rights to education, which continues to be the most important property of that caste granted by both the State and civil society. Their power was acquired from books – Vedas, Upanishads, Ramayana, Mahabharata, Arthashastra and Manusrimiti. They would not have retained such vast powers with physical strength or through any other method, except for the mystic power of the written word. With all that power and property, the Brahmins adapted to post-Independence India with a clever shift from Sanskrit to English as their private educational language. Under the leadership of Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru (a Brahmin with Kashmiri roots) the Brahmins mostly educated in England captured the State and civil society institutions and the Brahmins who could not go to England for English education either studied in local English-medium schools or in Sanskrit Gurukulas and became officers and priests in the temples. They defined all Shudras/Dalits/Adivasis as Hindu for keeping their political hegemony in a democratic polity without giving the Shudra/Dalit/Adivasi the basic spiritual rights. The Shudras/Dalits/Adivasis were forced to remain either illiterate or regional-language literates.

Historically, the productive community’s relationship with the king was quite consciously cut off by the Brahmin priest and the Prime Minister. The Shudra kings could not do anything to weaken the power of the Brahmin. The issue of graded inequality and caste-based human untouchability could have been gradually abolished if only the Shudra kings had rebelled against the Brahmin spiritual, social and political power. But that power was so deeply entrenched and Brahmin’s grip on the spiritual idea of god so strong that even the kings couldn’t muster the courage to oppose the Brahmin. The Shudras – both rulers and masses – did not realize that they had a spiritual tradition of their own, independent of the Brahmin tradition. But unlike that of the Brahmins, their tradition was not recorded in a book and did not have a systematically trained priesthood. That was so because the Brahmins refused to educate them in their gurukulas and did not allow the Shudra kings to open schools of their own. The Shudra kings also naively believed that if they opened their own schools the Brahmins and their gods would curse them. There are many examples of great warrior Shudra kings surrendering to the Brahmin power of spiritual letter and mantra.

Chhatrapati Shivaji of the present Maharashtra region was made to take Kshatriya-hood under the leadership of Brahmin priests. When the local Brahmins refused to coronate him, as he came from an ordinary Maratha family, he had a group of Brahmin priests brought from Kashi to crown him, thus surrendering to their spiritual authority. Even such a brave man could not think of training Shudra priests and keeping the religion under Shudra control. A man who fought Mughal rulers could not oppose the Brahmins who controlled the domain of religion. In fact, such a religion that was not open to all human beings could not be defined as religion. But the same Brahmin and Bania intellectuals defined Hinduism as an inclusive religion. The Shudra kings treated a Brahmin as God and gave whatever he demanded as the Kautilya stipulated in Arthashastra.

Take, for example, Sayajirao Gaekwad, the king of Baroda, who sent Ambedkar to the United States for higher education. He was a Shudra king. He was a visionary enough to send a brilliant Dalit student for his higher education to America. The scholarship given to Ambedkar came with the obligation of working for Baroda state after he finished his education. Yet, when Ambedkar began working for the Baroda administration after returning from the US, the Brahmins intervened. Even in the 20th century, they had not come to terms with the fact that a Dalit man had become their superior/colleague. The fact that Ambedkar studied in Columbia University and London School of Economics mattered little to them. So the priestly caste forced the king to send him away, as it was not agreeable to them to provide him accommodation within the city. Within four days, in 1917, Ambedkar had to leave the job and go to Bombay. That was the power of Brahmins in the kingdom of a Shudra king who was sympathetic to the cause of educating the exploited castes, including Dalits.[vi]

Even under Muslim rule, there were Shudra local rulers who depended on the Brahmin, Kayastha or Khatri’s knowledge of the Persian language. The Muslim rulers were also wary of the Brahmins because if they were not happy they would instigate the Shudra masses against the State. Hardly any Shudras learnt Persian in the Muslim period. There is no historical evidence that the Muslim rulers started Persian schools in villages to teach the Shudras who were main tillers of the land and builders of artisanal and animal economy.

It is true that rulers from Chandragupta Maurya to the kings of princely states in the colonial times and to the chief ministers of many states today have been Shudras. Yet, they could never control spiritual power. Their political power was heavily circumscribed by Brahmin bureaucrats and priests. The kings and the chief ministers have been virtually slaves to the varna spiritual control that the Brahmins imposed. This control remains intact as the Hindu spiritual system is not democratized.

Why were they so afraid of the Brahmin population which was so small and which never directly controlled the army? They had no role in food production and improvement of its technology. They in fact considered productive work in the fields as polluting. Yet their control on the Shudra masses and rulers was unbridled. As I said earlier their spiritual power came from the written word. The Brahmins spread all over India with their common language – Sanskrit – and the Shudra masses were forced to live in disconnected regions without a common language. It was not that the Brahmins did not learn the local languages. They learnt the languages and gradually Sanskritized them. Today all the regional languages that were developed by the productive masses over centuries have become Sanskritized in varying degrees. As the script of these languages developed, the Brahmin writers took to the task of injecting Sanskrit vocabulary. At the same time, they saw to it that the Shudra/Dalit masses did not learn Sanskrit or Persian under the Muslim rule and English under the British rule. Mahatma Phule and Ambedkar’s lives are proof of how difficult it was for them to learn Sanskrit or English. Ambedkar had to learn Sanskrit in Germany.

Even the children of Shudra kings had not received good education in Sanskrit, Persian or English by the time India achieved freedom from the British. Only the Dwijs whom Brahmins – particularly Kautilya and Manu – had historically given the status of three upper varnas that did not have to be involved in agrarian production or animal husbandry had become educated by 1947. Mahatma Gandhi, a Bania from Gujarat who was a son of the prime minister of a small princely state, and Nehru, a Brahmin with Kashmiri roots, became the main pillars of independent India. No Shudra king could get an English education like these two leaders. Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel, a peasant Shudra, and Ambedkar, a Dalit, competed with them with foreign degrees but they were kept away from the positions where the real power lay.  Ambedkar became a Buddhist and died and Patel died as an equal Shudra.

However, to understand the role of Brahmins in the states led by Shudra kings under British colonialism it is important to carefully read the full text of the memorandum that king Shahu Maharaj (1874-1922) wrote to Lord Sydenham, the former Governor of Bombay province.

Shahu Maharaj realized that the priesthood was critical to controlling civil societal life. He says “they control the religious and even the secular life of the people”. According to him a Brahmin is only for Brahmins. He describes the Indian society as “priest-ridden and caste divided”. He calls the Deccan as a society that was groaning under the tyranny of the (Brahmin) priests. They help each other at every place, in the darbar and in the court. They were the village land revenue officers called Kulkarnis who exploited the tillers. A similar system was also there in the rest of India, including in Telangana led by a Muslim ruler. The revenue system was under the control of Brahmins in my childhood in today’s Telangana state. Shahu thus came to a conclusion that unless a proportionate reservation system was put in place, the non-brahmin productive population wouldn’t get justice. But from that day to the present, the whole issue has been revolving around jobs in the government sector. There has been no demand from Shudras at the basic structural level – priesthood and handling of spiritual philosophy – for a share in every aspect of Hindu life.

Brahmins established their hegemony through the spiritual system and that system became institutionalized through philosophical written text. But understanding philosophy and the role of each symbol in a religion requires a critical reading of the religious texts. The Shudras, whether they were rulers or tillers or artisans, have not focused on that fundamental issue of equality in religious life. For example, Ambedkar in his seminal work, Who Were The Shudras: How They Came to Be the Forth Varna in the Indo-Aryan Society says:

“1) The Shudras were one of the Aryan communities of the Solar race. (2) There was a time when the Aryan society recognized only three Varnas, namely, Brahmins, Kshatriyas and Vaishyas. (3) The Shudras did not form a separate Varna. They ranked as part of the Kshatriya Varna in the Indo-Aryan society. (4) There was a continuous feud between the Shudra kings and the Brahmins in which the Brahmins were subjected to many tyrannies and indignities. (5) As a result of the hatred towards the Shudras generated by their tyrannies and oppressions, the Brahmins refused to perform the Upanayana of the Shudras. (6) Owing to the denial of Upanayana, the Shudras who were Kshatriyas became socially degraded, fell below the rank of the Vaishyas and thus came to form the fourth Varna.”[vii]

Ambedkar treats the Shudras as part of Aryan society. That may be because when he wrote this book the race question was not well studied with advanced methodological tools such as archeology and DNA studies. Now it has been settled that Shudras are Indo-Dravidians with Indo-African roots. The significant question, however, in Ambedkar’s thesis is his importance to the spiritual symbol, Upanayana (so-called sacred thread). The Brahmin priesthood is still associated with this symbol. Even now when the RSS defines all Shudras as Hindu, it does not want a debate on whether it wants all of them to get this right to Upanayana. The Shudra kings who were given the Kshatriya status got the Upanayana, yet they did not have the right to priesthood. Why? This fundamental control over religious power is exclusively kept in the hands of Brahmins. Today, the Kshatriyas and Vaishyas, while claiming to be Hindu, rather militantly, do not ask for the right to priesthood. But they ask for reservation in the State and in fact several Bania castes got the right to reservation quotas as they defined themselves as OBC.

The exclusive control of the spiritual system in the hands of Brahmins over its long history of political systems, monarchical and post-monarchical, made India a very stagnant nation. Even the priestly class did not face competition and never improved the systems in any meaningful direction. The Shudras and Dwijs, particularly Brahmins, remained frozen. The Shudras and Dalits got stuck not only in social fragmentation but illiteracy, spiritual backwardness and lack of national and international exposure. Both the masses and rulers remained helpless in their unorganized way of life. Both the Brahmin-ness and Shudra-ness became shackles and have kept the productive forces and market relations primitive. No revolutionary movements sprang up from the Shudra forces and the Brahmin-ness did not allow the priestly forces to self-reform with an understanding of the global changes. If not for the British – notwithstanding their violent colonialism – and their globalized knowledge system, the Brahmins, without any outside exposure, would have been even more regressive social forces in the subcontinent. The Sanskrit language would not have given them any additional advantage other than the spiritual control over the Shudra masses. All Indians lived a very fate-bound life.

On the other hand, a dynamic spiritual discourse involving the masses would have changed every other sphere from time to time. But Brahmanism was uncannily successful in assimilating and swallowing up all the revolt against its oppressive spiritual conspiracy. The only major shake-up that the Shudra masses and the Dwij encountered collectively in their living history was the Freedom Struggle. Even the arrival of Islamic rule and its existence in India did not bring about any significant revolutionary change in Indian life. The Muslim rulers and the Muslim ruling class remained more aligned with the Brahmins and other Dwijs than with the Shudras, both when they established their administrative authority over most of the subcontinent or in specific regions like Telangana, Mysore, Junagadh and so on. This historical fact needs a separate study.

[i]Kautilya, Arthashastra, Shamahastri’s translation, p 10

https://ia802703.us.archive.org/13/items/Arthasastra_English_Translation/Arthashastra_of_Chanakya_-_English.pdf Page 10

[ii]Ibid, p 10-11

[iii] Ram Madhav, Because India Comes First: Reflections on Nationalism, Identity and Culture, Westland, Chennai, 2020 ( Accessed here: https://www.amazon.in/Because-India-Comes-First-Reflections-ebook/dp/B08LDMMV2X?asin=B08LDMMV2X&revisionId=5e8f7294&format=1&depth=1 kindle version)

[iv] Wendy Doniger, ‘What is the Kamasutra really about? Wendy Doniger reads the classic text’, Scroll, 6 August 2015

[v] https://www.thehindu.com/society/the-shudra-queen-rashmoni-and-a-sacred-river/article34847554.ece

[vi] http://www.columbia.edu/itc/mealac/pritchett/00ambedkar/txt_ambedkar_waiting.html

[vii] Ambedkar B.R., Babasaheb Ambedkar Writings and Speeches, Volume 7, Government of Maharashtra, Bombay, 1990, 11-12

About The Author

Kancha Ilaiah Shepherd

Kancha Ilaiah Shepherd is a political theorist, author and activist. He has been a professor of Political Science at Osmania University, Hyderabad and director of the Centre for the Study of Social Exclusion and Inclusive Policy at Maulana Azad National Urdu University, Hyderabad. He is the author of ‘Why I Am Not a Hindu’, ‘Buffalo Nationalism’ and ‘Post-Hindu India’ 

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