Who Were the Shudras?
This article contains too many or overly lengthy quotations for an encyclopedic entry. (March 2019)
Who Were the Shudras? is a history book published by Indian social reformer and polymath B. R. Ambedkar in 1946. The book discusses the origin of the Shudra Varna. Ambedkar dedicated the book to Jyotirao Phule (1827–1890).
Subject of the book
Ambedkar writes in the preface of the book,
"Undoubtedly the conclusions which I have reached as a result of my investigations. Two questions are raised in this book: (1) Who were the Shudras? and (2) How they came to be the fourth Varna of the Indo-Aryan society? My answers to them are summarised below.
- The Shudras were one of the Aryan communities of the solar race"
- There was a time when the Aryan society recognised only three Varnas, namely. Brahmins, Kshatriyas and Vaishyas.
- The Shudras did not form a separate Varna. They ranked as part of the Kshatriya Varna in the Indo-Aryan society.
- There was a continuous feud between the Shudra kings and the Brahmins in which the Brahmins were subjected to many tyrannies and indignities.
- As a result of the negligence towards the Shudras generated by their tyrannies and oppressions, the Brahmins refused to perform the Upanayana of the Shudras.
- 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."
Importantly, Ambedkar states that the Shudras of Hindu society are entirely different from Shudras of ancient Indo-Aryan Society. He writes,
"...Such an inference is without any foundation, for the Shudras of the Indo-Aryan Society are absolutely different in race from the Shudras of the Hindu Society. The Shudras of the Hindu Society are not the racial descendants of the Shudras of the Indo-Aryan Society. This confusion has arisen because of the failure to realise that the meaning of the word 'Shudras' in the Indo-Aryan society is quite different from the meaning it has in the Hindu society. In the Indo-Aryans the word Shudra was proper name of one single people. It was the name of a people who belonged to a particular race. The word Shudra, as used in the Hindu society, is not a proper name at all. It is an epithet for a low uncultured class of people. It is a general cognomen of a miscellaneous and heterogeneous collection of tribes and groups, who have nothing in common except that they happen to be on a lower plane of culture. It is wrong to call them by the name Shudras. They have very little to do with their namesakes of the Aryan society, who had offended the Brahmins. It is a pity that these innocent and backward people of later days have been rolled up with the original Shudras and subjected to the same penalties for which they had given no cause."
According to Arvind Sharma, Ambedkar noticed certain flaws in the Aryan invasion theory that were later acknowledged by western scholarship. For example, scholars now acknowledge anās in Rig Veda 5.29.10 refers to speech rather than the shape of the nose. Ambedkar anticipated this modern view by stating:
The term Anasa occurs in Rig Veda V.29.10. What does the word mean? There are two interpretations. One is by Prof. Max Muller. The other is by Sayanacharya. According to Prof. Max Muller, it means 'one without nose' or 'one with a flat nose' and has as such been relied upon as a piece of evidence in support of the view that the Aryans were a separate race from the Dasyus. Sayanacharya says that it means 'mouthless,' i.e., devoid of good speech. This difference of meaning is due to difference in the correct reading of the word Anasa. Sayanacharya reads it as an-asa while Prof. Max Muller reads it as a-nasa. As read by Prof. Max Muller, it means 'without nose.' Question is : which of the two readings is the correct one? There is no reason to hold that Sayana's reading is wrong. On the other hand there is everything to suggest that it is right. In the first place, it does not make non-sense of the word. Secondly, as there is no other place where the Dasyus are described as noseless, there is no reason why the word should be read in such a manner as to give it an altogether new sense. It is only fair to read it as a synonym of Mridhravak. There is therefore no evidence in support of the conclusion that the Dasyus belonged to a different race.
- Chapter I - The Riddle of the Shudras
- Chapter II - The Brahmanic Theory of the Origin of the Shudras
- Chapter III - The Brahmanic Theory of the Status of the Shudras
- Chapter IV - Shudras Versus Aryans
- Chapter V - Aryans Against Aryans
- Chapter VI - Shudras And Dasas
- Chapter VII - The Shudras were Kshatriyas
- Chapter VIII - The Number of Varnas, Three or Four?
- Chapter IX - Brahmins Versus Shudras
- Chapter X - The Degradation of the Shudras
- Chapter XI - The Story of Reconciliation
- Chapter XII - The Theory in the Crucible
The historian R. S. Sharma criticized Ambedkar's book for relying solely on translations of texts for his information, and stated Ambedkar wrote the book with the sole purpose to prove Shudras were of high caste origin, which was very popular among the highly educated parts of the lower castes during that time period.
- Dr. B.R. Ambedkar (1949). Who were the Shudras?. Bombay: Thackers.
- Karmarkar, A.P. (1946), "Review: Who were the Shudras? by Bhimrao Ramji Ambedkar", Annals of the Bhandarkar Oriental Research Institute, 30 (1–2): 158–160, JSTOR 41784527
- Bryant, Edwin (2001). The Quest for the Origins of Vedic Culture, Oxford: Oxford University Press. pp. 50–51. ISBN 9780195169478
- Sharma, Arvind (2005). "Dr. B. R. Ambedkar on the Aryan Invasion and the Emergence of the Caste System in India". Journal of the American Academy of Religion. 73 (3): 849. doi:10.1093/jaarel/lfi081. JSTOR 4139922.
- Sharma, Ram Sharan (1990). Śūdras in Ancient India: A Social History of the Lower Order Down to Circa A.D. 600. New Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass Publishers. p. 5.
- Sharma, Arvind (2005), "Dr. B. R. Ambedkar on the Aryan Invasion and the Emergence of the Caste System in India", J Am Acad Relig, 73 (3): 843–870, doi:10.1093/jaarel/lfi081