Mleccha (from Vedic Sanskrit म्लेच्छ mleccha, meaning "non-Vedic", "barbarian"), also spelt Mlechchha, referred to people of foreign extraction in ancient India. Mleccha was used by the ancient Indians much as the ancient Greeks used barbaros, originally to indicate the uncouth and incomprehensible speech of foreigners and then extended to their unfamiliar behaviour.
In ancient India, this term was also applied by the ancient Indian kingdoms to foreigners. The word Mleccha was commonly used for 'outer barbarians of whatever race or colour'. The Indians referred to all alien cultures that were less civilized in ancient times as 'Mlechcha' or Barbarians. Among the tribes termed Mlechcha were Sakas, Huns, Yavanas, Kambojas, Pahlavas, Bahlikas and Rishikas. The Amara-kosa described the Kiratas and Pulindas as the Mleccha-jatis. Indo-Greeks, Scythians, and Kushanas were also mlecchas.
In the Mahabharata the root Sanskrit word barbar meant stammering, wretch, foreigner, sinful people, low and barbarous. The Vayu, Matsya and Brahmanda Puranas state that the seven Himalayan rivers pass through the Mleccha countries. Brahmanas lay mlecchas outside the varna system. Southworth suggests that the name comes from mizi meaning 'speak', or 'one's speech' derived from Dravidian for language.(see Southworth's etymological derivation of Tamil) The term 'Menchha' was also used by the medieval Marathi saint Samarth Ramdas. Buddhist scriptures use the terms 'Milakkha' or 'Milakkhuka' to refer to Mlecchas.
Some explanations of the name "mleccha" suggest that the word was derived from the Indo-Aryan perception of the speech of the indigenous peoples. Namely, "mlech" was a word that meant "to speak indistinctly." As such, some suggest that the Indo-Aryans used an onomatopoeic sound to imitate the harshness of alien tongue and to indicate incomprehension, thus coming up with "mleccha".
Early Indians spoke Sanskrit, which later got mutated to most of the various local tongues that we now have. Sanskrit was believed to have all the sounds that are necessary for communication. If unfamiliar languages were detected, early Indians would club them as foreign tongue "mleccha bhasha". As the Sanskrit word itself suggests, "mlecchas" were those whose speech was alien. Historians cite that knowledge of "correct speech" was a crucial component of being about to take part in the appropriate yajnas (religious rituals and sacrifices). Thus, without correct speech, one could not hope to practice correct religion, either.
The notion of being Arya suggested a knowledge of Sanskrit in order to effectively perform ritual hymns; thus suggesting the importance of language. Parasher discusses the importance of knowing the correct speech in order to perform sacrifice and ritual in the religion of the brahmanas. Parasher continued that: "The best experts of the sacrificial art were undoubtedly the various families of the brahmanas who, placed in a hierarchy within the Indo-Aryan social system, became the upholders of pure and best speech".
Historians note that early Indo-Aryans believed Sanskrit to be the superior language over all other forms of speech. As such, mleccha or barbarian speech was said to have meant any of the following: "1) a language which was not necessarily alien, but the speech of the person or persons was improper because it was either hostile or vulgar; 2) a language, and here most probably Sanskrit, that was mispronounced and, thereby, incomprehensible: 3) finally, any foreign tongue which was naturally incomprehensible because it was unintelligible to those who did not understand a particular language".
Professor Vasudeva Sharana Agrawala admits that the Indians were familiar with the mleccha language right from the time of Shatapatha Brahmana. In support of the contention he quotes the Mbh.(Adi Parva,2/103), which refers to the talks between Vidur and Yudhisthira in mleccha language. The latter explained the mleccha language to Kunti in Sanskrit, because it was indistinct for her. During the epic age some people having acquaintance with the Asuras used to speak their mleccha language. The Jaimini Dharmasastra (1.3.10) mentions certain mleccha words i.e. pika, nema, sata and tamaras meaning respectively a bird, a half, a vessel, a red lotus.
In Ancient India, historians have stated that the notion of 'foreigners' - those living outside of the Indian subcontinent - was often accompanied by the idea that one was a barbarian. Still, it seemed that groups who did not come from outside of these areas, as well as foreigners, were designated by the term mleccha, which carried with it a barbarian connotation.
Thus another distinction that was made between the mlecchas and non-mlecchas was area of habitation. Though they were considered a marginal group, the area characterize as the mleccha-desa (the natural border that separated their lands from that of the Aryans) was never permanent. Instead, it was defined by the changing ideas about the Aryavarta. Parasher noted that "the only consistent areas dubbed as mleccha desa were those regions inhabited by 'primitive tribes' who for long periods of time did not come under the sway of the brahmanical, Buddhist or Jaina influence".
Though the area of the aryas expanded with time, the notion that was held over all of the land was that of "purity." As Vedic literature refers only to the places and territories that were familiar to the Indo-Aryans, these lands eventually became part of the Aryavarta. Parasher thus indicates that the Aryavarta was designated as: "The region where the river Sarasvati disappears is the Patiala district in the Punjab. The Pariyatra mountains belong to the Vindhya range, probably the hills of Malwa. The Kalakavana is identified with a tract somewhere near Prayaga." Still, other interpretations of the Aryavarta refer to those areas where the black antelope roams, for these areas are fit for the performance of sacrifice. Early Vedic literature focused on defining the area of habitation of the aryas for this land was considered pure; yet there is no actual reference to the mleccha country or behavior. Wherever the territory, though, the implications of naming such lands as the Aryavarta is that any lands excluded from that area were considered impure.
Further, there is evidence that Indians of the Vedic period actually had contact with people outside of the subcontinent, namely the Persians. The Persians, who ruled over the Indus river valley during this time (522-486 BC) were not designated as mleccha, perhaps because they did not interfere with the brahmanical way of life.
Later Vedic literature speaks of the western Anava tribes as mlecchas and occupying northern Punjab, Sindh and eastern Rajasthan. The tribes of the north were mlecchas either because they were located on the frontiers such as Gandhara, Kashmira and Kambojas and therefore both their speech and culture had become contaminated and differed from that of Aryavarta, or else, as in the case of South Indians, they were once Aryas but having forsaken the Vedic rituals were regarded to mleccha status.
The word mleccha emerged as a way for the ancient Indians to classify those who did not subscribe to the "traditional value system," though the characteristics of the so-called system were ambiguous. In sum, though, the idea was that the mlecchas were peoples who did not conform to what was culturally acceptable.
Early writings refer to these foreign peoples as "half-civilized, unconverted people who rise or eat at improper times." They stated that monks and nuns should avoid certain areas of habitation because they were unsafe. Namely, that "the ignorant populace might beat, harass, rob them under the impression that they were spies from hostile villages." Further, while some of these non-mlecchas, such as those of the Jaina faith, had established contact with people of the forest tribes, they were automatically designated as mlecchas. Such was the typical attitude of people from the plains who took pride in their norms of settled agricultural and urban lifestyles.
Historians note that there were also systems in place to determine the validity - or "purity" - of certain customs, which would ultimately be judged by the brahmanas. As such there were intricate rules in place to define purity from impurity, laws of behavior, as well as rituals and customs, in an effort to educate the members of the brahmanical system. Namely, these advisors took great pains to ensure that peoples of the brahmanical system did not subscribe to any mleccha customs or rituals.
The sanskritizing of names was a common feature among both indigenous and foreign mlecchas who slowly tried to move away from their status of mleccha. Very often, in the case of ruling families, it took one to two generations to make a transition. One of the most direct forms of the expression of the brahmanical ritual purity was the form and type of food which a brahman could eat. He was forbidden to accept cooked food from any nonbrahman. Thus when the Punjab became a mleccha area the staple food was given a lower place in the food-ranking. By the twelfth century AD wheat was described in one lexicon as 'food of the mlecchas' and rice became the 'pure' cereal. Onions and garlic were also regarded as the food of the mlecchas and therefore prohibited to the brahman. Mlecchas drank alcohol and ate flesh of the cow, and this in later periods was strictly forbidden to an Indian.
Literature describing the Mleccha
In the epic Mahabharata, some Mleccha warriors are described as having "heads completely shaved or half-shaved or covered with matted locks, [as being] impure in habits, and of crooked faces and noses They are "dwellers of hills" and "denizens of mountain-caves. Mlecchas were born of the cow (belonging to Vasishtha), of fierce eyes, accomplished in smiting looking like messengers of Death, and all conversant with the deceptive powers of the Asuras" Chanakya refers to mleccha forces once attacked Chandragupta.
According to Swami Parmeshwaranand Mleccha tribe was born from the tail of the celestial cow Nandini, kept by Vashishta for sacrificial purposes when there was a fight between Vishvamitra and Vasistha. Mahabharata gives the following information regarding them:-
- Mleccha who sprang up from the tail of the celestial cow Nandini sent the army of Viswamitra flying in terror.
- Bhagadatta was the king of mlecchas.
- Pandavas, like Bhimsean, Nakul and Sahadeva once defeated them.
- Karna during his world campaign conquered many mlaccha countries.
- The wealth that remained in the Yagasala of Yudhisthira after the distribution as gifts to Brahmins was taken away by the mlecchas.
- The melecchas drove angered elephants on the army of the Pandavas.
The term is not attested in the Vedas, but occurs for the first time in the late Vedic text Shatapatha Brahmana. The law giver Baudhâyana defines a Mleccha as someone "who eats meat or indulges in self-contradictory statements or is devoid of righteousness and purity of conduct". Mleccha could refer to any being who follow different teachings than Vedic beliefs. In the Indian history some indigenous rulers in Assam were called Mlechhas (Mlechchha dynasty). In the Bhagavata Purana the term is used in the context of meat eaters, outcastes.
Medieval Hindu literature, such as that of Chaitanya Mahaprabhu, also uses the term to refer to those of larger groups of other religions, especially Muslims. In medieval India, a foreign visitor Al Biruni (died 1048) noted that foreigners were regarded as 'unclean' or 'Mleccha' and Hindus were forbidden any social or matrimonial contact with them.
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