Tuesday, August 27, 2013

Shudra: Origins

This is a work of fiction, based on some accounts of historical facts that may or may not be true. Please criticize if you will, but do not lose your cojones over it or start badmouthing other religions/societies.

                                                        Shudra: Origins


For 200 years, till about the turn of 800 BC and the collapse of the Bronze Age, the Asian subcontinent was ruled by Hindu kings (of the lineage of Indo-Aryans). The glorious age of the Hindu dynasties were only beginning, which would lead to the invention of the zero and the complete subservience of over 15 mahajanapadas.

Some say the manifestation of the power and dominance of the Aryans was due to a system put in place by the Vedas – texts written by holy men (rishis), from a lineage of more than a dozen sages from epics held sacred by people even today. The Rig Veda, they said, was the oldest and most influential of them all.  

The Rajas had referenced the Rig Veda and used the scripture’s segmentation of society based on life traits and qualities on practicality. It kept the best people in the line of work that suited them most. Physical brutes were soldiers in the army, while the sharpest minds served as strategists and intellectuals in the kings’ own courts. The ironsmiths (as the Iron Age peaked in the valleys and plains of the Indian subcontinent) were skilled at creating weaponry and work tools – while the vaishyas were marked as those who could keep the rajkosha (the treasury) filled to the brim – through trade on the high seas and with the Chinese and nomads along what would later be christened the Silk Route.

An excerpt from the hymn shows how the scriptures showcased this segmentation, irrespective of hereditary factors that could force one’s hand at belonging to a certain varna.

“Rig Veda 9.112.3
—    I am a bard, my father is a physician, my mother's job is to grind the corn.”

All seemed well and the Hindu kings seemed likely to turn into oligarchs that would rule much of the world by the next half a century or so. It is then, when our story begins.


The little kingdom in the sun-burnt plains was idyllic. Wars were not a distant possibility, and the decade of good weather and a fertile soil had helped foment a people that were self sufficient and in peace.

But a good story is never in the happiness of being. Darkness builds the best stories. There was darkness here too, in the corners you let the cobwebs cover up for you.  

The king was old. He had been old forever. Like the hyenas that first nibble from the sides and then push off the lion off its prey, the warlords had siphoned off power from his hands. Sarsenapati Vajrapratap Rana (commander-in-chief of the kingdom’s small but well-trained army) led them. But he believed in staying behind the curtain and using the king like a puppet. The society would not like a coup. It would destroy the balance, his wise accomplices said.

But he wasn’t worried about that. Not today. The creases on his forehead bore the name of his son. His only hope of living in comfort looked dull. The social system that sorted out vocations was kind to him, but he knew it would not be so to Ashwatthama.

Before we could learn why, there was an intruder, with bloodied feet and dragging an axe.

Lost in thoughts, the sarsenapati did not see Matanga Bhil walk in. Unlike his namesake, the great sage of the Bhil tribe who went on to become a Brahmana, he was a beast. But he was no thug, which explained why he had rejected becoming a warrior and turned to the life of a woodcutter – a life of relative peace and tranquility in the outskirts of the forests by the hills. Upon finding the Sarsenapati so disturbed, he almost turned to walk away, but the magnitude of his reason to visit made him clear his throat instead.

Vajrapratap wheeled around, and stiffened.

“Oh Matanga! It is you! Did you walk here from your home? Your feet look sore!” 

“It is nothing, sire. I was compelled. A matter needs your attention, and I could only confide in you for I respect you the most, O valiant one!”, replied Matanga.

“Of course, of course. Nobody walks hundreds of miles for a free meal in the palace now, do they?” laughed Vajrapratap, and then with a wicked smile, added “or perhaps they do. You know better.”

Brushing his jibe aside, Matanga pressed on, “Sire, I know not what has fanned your anger. I do not have the audacity to ask you to calm down, but I do not have much time. I need your audience for a few moments only and then I will be gone.”

Matanga took a look at Vajrapratap, who seemed indifferent but attentive. He continued. “You must have heard of my son, Bhimbhadra. He has grown up to be a fine lad. And he has ambitions. I tremble at the enormity of them, but as a father it makes me proud too. You know that feeling sire, don’t you? You too are a father.”

A dark pall fell over the Sarsenapati’s face. The Bhil was mocking him. How dare he? But he also knew of what Matanga Bhil would say next. And he knew his worst fears were coming true.

“Sire, you may have heard, Bhimbhadra has become a legend in the Bhil lands already. He is a true warrior if there was one. And I have been helping him read every scripture and manuscript I could find on military science and war strategy - and he has been grasping on well. I came to you because only you can help him learn further, tricks of the trade rooted in realism. You are unrivaled, oh great one. Help my son become the senapati he wishes to be. The Bhils and the Shudras will be forever indebted to you.”     

Of course Vajrapratap had heard of Bhimbhadra. His articulation in the frontline battles as a mercenary were well known, and so were his ideation of new vyuhas (military formations) and ambush tactics. Matanga was right. Bhimbhadra, under the right mentor, could one day take his place.

But there was one little problem. Vajrapratap had envisioned this throne for his son, with reservations. Vajrapratap, as hard as he tried, had failed to train Ashwatthama in swordsmanship or archery, despite beatings and weeks of having him starved.

His son liked to dance, and had an ear for music. And liked flowers. He often roamed the plains with dozens of his female friends, giggling and gossiping. Many called him Krishna, but Vajrapratap knew that this was just a charade. He had heard his son play the flute, and had heard him recite poetry – and he knew his son was worthless in the fine arts too.   

Ashwatthama would soon be cast aside, like a deformed stone from a basket of gems. As much as he despised his son’s antics, Vajrapratap loved him. He knew he had to devise a way out.

In animated discussions with his ardhangini in the andarmahal every night, he had discussed this possibility. “You are out of your mind. He does not know how to hold a sword. He would attach an arrow to it and make a fool of himself, Kaushalya. How can he ever be the sarsenapati?” “Place him there rajan. The Sarsenapati can afford not going to the battlefield himself. And besides, there are no wars looming in a century so why bother? The king is worthless. He will not object.” Kaushalya was a sharp woman. And like all mothers, she had planned it to the very last grainy detail for her son. But Vajrapratap was not sure. Till now.

Matanga had turned the tide. But his face did not betray that emotion.

“Very well, Matanga! The Vedas state that one should be able to take control of their fate at will. Why not Bhimbhadra?! Send him to the garrison by sunset tomorrow, and his training shall begin!”

Matanga was beyond elation. The sarsenapati would train his son. His son! He thanked him profusely, waiting for the signal to leave so he could go share the news with his family and friends. His wife would be so happy. Two decades of dedication and sacrifice finally bearing fruit.

“Don’t forget the palace meal, Matanga”, Vajrapratap retorted one last time, bringing that crooked smile back on his face again, like magic, “Goodbye”. 

Matanga did not care anymore. He would not have cared even if the sarsenapati had kicked him and spat on him as long as he would take Bhimbhadra under his wings. He walked away.

As soon as Matanga left, Vajrapratap asked for his courtiers, his marshals and his accomplices, along with the minister. He also asked for his elite guards, the “Narpishachas”. He had a small task to assign before he rolled the stone of change.


It is said that only two things unite even the worst of enemies in men – greed was one of them. The other was opportunity. Vajrapratap knew he had to exploit the latter.

As the wide phalanx of men of significance, the priests, the warriors and the businessmen sat down to discuss and vet Vajrapratap’s plan, half a dozen men were already in pursuit of a Bhil trudging down the rugged path through the forests that separated the hills from the garrison city.

Matanga heard the riders before he saw them. He saw the army insignia and perhaps contemplated if they were coming for Bhimbhadra – perhaps the sarsenapati wanted him in the garrison earlier than he had declared. Oh how generous Vajrapratap truly was, he may have thought to himself. We know not for sure because arrows had already sewn him with his cotton overalls, and his bewildered gaze made permanent as the axe came down with a thud and severed head from his body.

Amused by Matanga’s last question that had not been able to escape his mouth, the leader unmasked himself and taunted, “We come from the one you foolishly sought to replace with your kin, Shudra!” Hundreds of birds flew out of the trees and into the wilderness, perhaps screaming to themselves about the horror they had just witnessed – but the sharpest of minds in the lands far and beyond had not deciphered the language of the wild.   

That night, the hut that Bhimbhadra and his mother slept in, accidentally caught fire. Some Bhils called it as fierce as the Jatugriha, for when they poured water, the fire only seemed to spread. Their favorite son, a man among men, was charred alive. 


The hills came alive at daybreak with the sound of drums. Message from the king, howled the men in royal colours. Curious folks crowded around them.

“Children of men will work and live and die doing what the fathers have been doing. The son of a kshatriya will learn swordsmanship. The son of a carpenter will master the hammer. The son of a sea trader will sail along with him. The children of a well cleaner will learn to love the mud. This is for a better society. And for a more prosperous future. If you have any questions, gather at the palace at daybreak tomorrow. Stay well.”

The murmuring would have risen to revolts in the Shudra ranks in villages far and wide but the elders that night thought it over.

“Why should we accept this? Some of our sons can be warriors and priests. Why must they toil in the sun like a mule?” a young man spoke up.

“You speak with much malice. The king and the priests must have discussed this already. We will be better off, didn’t they say so themselves?” – an elder advised.

“Yes. See, we know the best about working and cleaning and toiling. We will teach our sons right. We will prosper soon. There is no discrimination. We have nothing to lose.”

“If we try and make our sons warriors or priests they might turn out to be undertrained casual nincompoops like the sarsenapati’s son. Are we not better off here?” chirped another old bard.

“Shh. There are spies among us you fool. Do not speak ill like that. But yes you are right. And even if we do not agree with this ordinance, what will we fight it with? Pitchforks and shovels?” repeated the elder, the wisest among the lot.

The crowds nodded in agreement. They had nothing to fear. They hated the city. They were better off here.

But had they tiptoed around to the houses of the village elders that night, they would have been blinded by the gold shining by the lamplight – a sack for each. Greed united men, often against their own.


And thus the blueprint of the social structure that forced hierarchy to be the only factor in sorting vocations and skill sets for the people was formed. And it led to a lot of maladies, but the hands that could force change, were always filled with gold.

Avarice and opportunity. They don’t only unite men. They divide them too. Permanently.


1 comment:

  1. Religions have always been manipulated by the power possessors. Ruining the society and the future for their own benefits. Nice Job!