Reading Dr. Ambedkar’s Who Were The Shudras

The Spirit of History, The Spirit of Justice, The Spirit of Generosity


Babasaheb Ambedkar’s prefaces to his works were often as penetrating and incisive as the main body of the work that followed. His book, Who were the Shudras? How they came to be the  Fourth Varna in the Indo-Aryan Society  written in 1946, was dedicated to Mahatma Phule (or Fule): “Inscribed to the Memory of  MAHATMA JOTIBA FULE,” runs the dedicatory line in the book.

For Dr. Ambedkar, Phule (or Fule) was the “Greatest Shudra of Modern India,” of course, “because he made the lower classes of Hindus conscious of their slavery to the higher classes” but more specifically because he “preached the gospel that for India social democracy was more vital than independence from foreign rule.”

Babsaheb had already set forth this argument in his book from the 1930s, Annihilation of Caste (AoC), wherein he had stressed on the need for social reform to precede political reform. It was in the spirit of searching for ways to get to the bottom of social deformities and emerging with clues towards social reform that he had undertaken the project of investigating the history of the Sudras.

Who were the Shudras was written before Dr. Ambedkar embarked upon the successor volume, Who were the Untouchables, which appeared in 1948. As the title of the former book makes it clear, it was regarding the Shudras, who were, in the caste hierarchy, a rung above the Untouchables, Ambedkar’s own people. Yet, in the overall spirit of seeking justice from the Hindu social order, in tribute to the groundwork laid by Jotiba Phule in anti caste struggle, and to address the “problem of the Shudras,” as he calls it, he undertook the remarkable project of researching and writing Who were the Shudras. 

He explained the seriousness of the problem at hand to justify a penetrating study into the historical background of the problem: 

Under the system of Chaturvarnya, 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. Indeed until the fifth Varna of the Untouchables came into being, the Shudras were in the eyes of the Hindus the lowest of the low. This shows the nature of what might be called the problem of the Shudras. If people have no idea of the magnitude of the problem it is because they have not cared to know what the population of the Shudras is. Unfortunately, the census does not show their population separately. But there is no doubt that excluding the Untouchables the Shudras form about 75 to 80 per cent of the population of Hindus. A treatise which deals with so vast a population cannot be considered to be dealing with a trivial problem.

What mattered to Ambedkar was the fact that the Shudras were “subjected to innumerable ignominies and disabilities,” and given their large proportion in the population of Hindus, their condition pointed to the severity of the social ills within Hinduism – and thus the crying need for social reform.

But, being the brilliant legal mind, he also undertook this painstaking study based on empirical evidence of the fact of the Shudras’ and Untouchables’ actual prevailing condition as proof of the continuance of the Varna system, despite what someone might have claimed. “The best evidence to show that the Varna system is alive notwithstanding there is no law to enforce it, is to be found in the fact that the status of the Shudras and the Untouchables in the Hindu society has remained just what it has been. It cannot therefore be said that a study such as this is unnecessary,” he observed.

He repeated his conviction about the primacy of social reform at different places over the years. In the Preface to Who were the Shudras, he once again alludes to it explicitly, when he describes the possible reactions from his Hindu readers to his book. Speaking about the “politically minded” class of Hindus – surely an influential class of Hindus – Babsaheb felt that they would be “indifferent to such questions” because for them, “Swaraj [was] more important than social reform.”

His book, with its deep interrogation of Hindu sacred literature, was directed at scholars too, since Ambedkar knew that his thorough engagement with that literature had scarcely been carried out by anyone else, either by the Brahmanical Hindus for whom the literature was sacred, or by the Indological scholars who had pioneered the study of India’s past by utilizing its Brahmanical literature. 

Ambedkar was confident of the fruit of his labours, for he felt that even his scholarly critics would “have to admit that the book [was] rich in fresh insights and new visions.”

But, while he was solicitous of the reaction of the scholars and the general Hindu reader, he also anticipated their charges against him, as a non-expert in matters of religion and religious history of India: “I have already been warned that while I may have a right to speak on Indian politics, religion and religious history of India are not my field and that I must not enter it.”

With disarming simplicity and directness, Dr. Ambedkar, while agreeing to the charges that he was not proficient in the Sanskrit language, responds to the accusations against him by turning them on their head by revealing their pettiness: “For I venture to say that a study of the relevant literature, albeit in English translations, for 15 years ought to be enough to invest even a person endowed with such moderate intelligence like myself, with sufficient degree of competence for the task.”

Dr. Ambedkar is actually making several very important points here, all at once, even under the modesty of acknowledging himself as “ a person endowed with…moderate intelligence.” He is making the claim that a sufficient amount of engagement with so-called specialized material (“15 years”) by someone even of moderate intelligence should be grounds enough for a certain degree of understanding of the material. 

He also seems to be  undermining the vaunted loftiness and impenetrability of the Hindu sacred literature while making a case for the non-expert to be fully capable of acquiring a modicum of competence in dealing with an area deemed for experts. He also seems to be conveying that, despite the accusations of not using the sacred texts in the sacred language, he has utilized the best scholarship available in the form of translations. 

For, anyone with even a superficial familiarity with the fields of scholarship in matters of Hindu Brahmanical traditions and their literature, what is termed Indological research, will know that Dr. Ambedkar utilized the most recent and reliable scholarship in the field in his time and before, whether Indian or European. 

In Who were the Shudras, he references a stunning array of scholars as was his hallmark, and these include not just Europeans like Max Mueller, John Muir, V. Fausboll, Horace Wilson, but Indian scholars like P.V. Kane (of Dharmashastra fame), V.S. Sukhthankar (“the erudite editor of the critical edition of the Mahabharata”), K.P. Jayaswal (Hindu Polity) and S.D. Satwalekar (Rig Veda).

It might be pertinent to note that Dr. Ambedkar’s zeal to explore the depths of Indian religious traditions. He had attempted, while still in London for his London School of Economics thesis, to try to learn Sanskrit from one of Europe’s leading Indologist, Hermann Jacobi, at the Bonn University in Germany, as described by scholar Maria Bellwinkel-Schempp. That did not come to pass but it just goes to indicate the burning quest Dr. Ambedkar was on. Those 15-years of study that he mentions in the Preface were marked by intense effort at engaging with all manner and complexity of textual material, as recorded by his personal aide in Delhi, Nanak Chand Rattu, in his book Reminiscences and remembrances of Dr. B.R. Ambedkar.

Even when referencing Indological scholars, many Europeans among whom were the target of niggling disagreements about their methods and intentions down the years, Ambedkar exercised his own judgement in evaluating every interpretation they offered. Consider his verdict on the description of Shudras as “anasa” at several places in the Rig Veda. While heavyweight Sanskritist and Indologist Max Mueller parses it as “one without a nose,” Sayana, the 14th century commentator on the Rig Veda, holds that it means “mouthless, that is devoid of good speech.” Dr. Ambedkar casts his vote for Sayana’s version based on a contextual evaluation of the description of the Shudras, thereby not blindly privileging a leading Indologist’s opinion.

Not just that, as a uncompromisingly conscientious scholar, he left nothing to chance, especially the issue of Sanskrit passages in his text, which he had cross-checked by competent scholars: “I must thank Prof. Kangle of Ismail Yusuf College, Andheri, Bombay. He has come to my rescue and has checked the translation of Sanskrit shlokas which occur in the book. As I am not a Sanskrit scholar, his help has been to me a sort of an assurance that I have not bungled badly in dealing with the material which is in Sanskrit,” he notes in the book.

It is worth noting at this stage that the so-called expert’s domain as also fenced-off by the expert’s language is an exclusionary stance, meant to keep away the well-meaning “non-expert” who might uncover inconvenient truths. All traditions which originally record their sacred literature in a sacred language – Brahmanical Hinduism, Christianity, Islam, Judaism – also develop traditions of commentaries (and sub commentaries) to elucidate the message and purport in the sacred language. 

Many of these commentaries are not written in the sacred language but in other, “non-sacred” languages, but are held in great esteem down generations. Casting doubts on Dr. Ambedkar’s relatively less-advanced grasp of Sanskrit as evidence for his ineligibility to make a foray into Indian religions and their literature is obviously baseless. This is more so if one considers the kind of utilitarian research that Dr. Ambedkar sets out to perform in Who were the Shudras, where he mostly looks for evidence of certain names, meanings of some terms, and some more historical and mundane information, rather than engaging with possibly multi-layered ideological interpretations. 

More recently, the noted linguist and political activist, Noam Chomsky, when faced with similar criticism for expressing opinions in a field he is not considered an expert in, is said to have observed that, “Virtually anybody who stops watching television, paying attention to sporting events, or playing the stock market, and concentrates, instead, on the society in which he or she lives, could effect an appropriate political critique.” 

Even with regard to the historical method he employs, Dr. Ambedkar makes his procedure clear: “Firstly I claim that in my research I have been guided by the best tradition of the historian who treats all literature as vulgar – I  am using the word in its original sense of belonging to the people—to be examined and tested by accepted rules of evidence without recognizing any distinction between the sacred and the profane and with the sole object of finding the truth.” One cannot miss the method of constant examination and testing “by accepted rule of evidence” employed scrupulously by this polymath who also happened to be a legist. 

The book itself, Who were the Shudras, is testimony to the thoroughness of a scholar on a quest for uncovering the truth. Dr. Ambedkar probes every “sacred text” he can lay his hands on to make his argument. His reading and references are staggeringly vast, covering pretty much the entire Vedic corpus as it is known – from the Vedic Samhitas, to Aranyakas, Brahmanas and Upanishads – to other “sacred texts” such as the Dharma Sutras, Dharma Shastras, the Epics and Puranas. He also strays into Indo-Iranian texts and linguistics to find instances and meaning of cognate terms.

His methods, mostly of textual analysis, are not unlike those utilized by a lot of Indological scholars, but crucially, Dr. Ambedkar was not writing a generalist’s descriptive book on Vedic history of mythology; he scoured these often repetitive and ritualistic texts for instances of things like origin stories and was able to compare them with acute observation – and draw conclusions. Just dealing with the host of ancient personages especially in Vedic literature and  keeping all the accounts with their tiny variations in some sort of order and organization is a feat that even experienced Indologists and textual scholars might not be able to match. 

All this, “to proclaim the truth,” as he declared in the book, and needless to say, to seek justice for those who suffered from the system of graded inequality, which, as he reiterates in the book, “is not merely notional [but] is legal and penal.” 

But even in his quest against this system of inequality, engaging with the Brahmin’s books which, according to him, “contain[ed] fabrications which are political in their motive, partisan in their composition and fraudulent in their purpose,” he never lost his grace and magnanimity. Much like in the Annihilation of Caste, he addressed the  Orthodox Hindus too: “[N]o matter what happens…follow the determination of Dr. Johnson in the pursuit of historical truth by the exposure of the Sacred Books so that the Hindus may know that it is the doctrines contained in their Sacred Books which are responsible for the decline and fall of their country and their society; secondly, if the Hindus of this generation do not take notice of what I have to say I am sure the future generation will.” 

Despite all the doubts cast on his abilities and abuses hurled at him for challenging orthodoxy, he still had kind advice for the orthodox Hindus – and hope in the future generation of Hindus. He even had the intellectual capaciousness to quote a line from the Sanskrit poet and playwright, Bhavabhuti: “Time is infinite and earth is vast, some day there will be born a man who will appreciate what I have said.” He can rest assured that there are an increasing number of women and men around the world who deeply appreciate what he said. —

Umang Kumar is a socially conscious citizen living in the National Capital Region of Delhi.



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