Vedas are open to all

Introduction

The story of Janasruti in Chandogya Upanishad (Ch. U.) is largely unknown to the vast majority of Hindus. It should be widely known, however, since the story suggests that the Upanishads and the Vedas are open for study to all Hindus. If this is true then why is it that most Hindus are today convinced that the Vedas support discrimination against Shudras? The answer to this question will be answered in this article.

 
My interest in this story was first aroused after I read a letter written by Vivekananda on 7th August, 1889. I give below an excerpt from that letter:

1. Does any narrative occur about Satyakama, son of Jabala, and about Janasruti, anywhere else in the Vedas excepting the Upanishads?

2. In most cases where Shankara quotes Smriti in his commentary on the Vedanta Sutras, he cites the authority of the Mahabharata. But seeing that we find clear proofs about caste being based on qualification both in the Bhismaparva of the Mahabharata and in the stories of the Ajagara and of Uma and Maheswara, has he made any mention in his writings of this fact?

3. The doctrine of caste in the Purusha Sukta of the Vedas does not make it hereditory – so what are those instances in the Vedas where caste has been made a matter of hereditary transmission?

4. The Acharya could not adduce any proof from the Vedas to the effect that the Shudra should not study the Vedas. He only quotes "The Shudra is not conceived of as a performer of Yajna or Vedic sacrifice" (Taittiriya Samhita VII.i.1.6) to maintain that when he is not entitled to perform the Yajnas, he has neither any right to study the Upanishads or like. But the same Acharya contends with reference to "Athatho Brahmajijnasa" (Now then commences The inquiry about Brahman) (Vedanta Sutras I.i.1) that the word Atha here does not mean ‘subsequent to the study of the Vedas’, because it is contrary to proof
that the study of the Upanishads is not permissible without the previous study of the Vedic mantras and Brahmanas and because there is no intrinsic sequence between the Vedic Karma-Kanda and Vedic Jnana-Kanda. It is evident, therefore, that one may attain to the knowledge of Brahman without having studied the ceremonial part of the Vedas. So if there is no sequence between the sacrificial practices and Jnana, why does the Acharya contradict his own statement when it is the case of Shudras, by inserting the clause "by force of the same logic?" Why should the Shudra not study the Upanishads?(1)

I decided to find out about Janasruti and the context of Vivekananda’s questions after reading his letter. The story of Janasruti is in Ch. U. Once when King Janasruti was resting on the roof of his house he overheard a flock of swans discussing about him. The swan at the back of the flock warned the lead swan not to cross the effulgence of Janasruti for that would scorch him. Apparently King Janasruti was a spiritually advanced person. The lead swan was astonished and asked the swan at the back whether Janasruti was a spiritually
pure person like Raikva. Ch. U. goes on to say:

On hearing this, Janasruti took with him six hundred cows, a gold necklace, and a chariot drawn by mules and went to Raikva and addressed him thus: ‘O Raikva, here are for you these six hundred cows, this gold necklace, and this chariot drawn by mules. Now, revered sir, instruct me about the deity whom you
worship.’

The other man answered him thus: ‘Ah, O Shudra, let this gold necklace together with the chariot and the cows remain with you.’ Thereupon Janasruti again took with him one thousand cows, a gold necklace, a chariot drawn by mules and his daughter and went to Raikva.

Janasruti said to him,’O Raikva, (these are for you) these are one thousand cows, this gold necklace, this chariot drawn by mules, this wife, and this village in which you reside. Now, revered sir, please instruct me.’

Taking that princess to be the portal for the conveying of knowledge, Raikva said, ‘O Shudra, you have brought all these! Even by this means (i.e. the princess) you will make me talk! The king gave away to him all those villages in the Mahavrsa country known as Raikvaparna where Raikva lived.(2)

It struck me that the story is suggesting that Shudras could be king, could also study the Vedas, could be spiritually advanced persons and there was intermarriage between the various Jatis — everything we have been told Vedas do not suggest. Given the importance of the story, I was sure that there must
be a discussion of this story in the Brahma Sutras (also known as Vedanta Sutras), Shankara must have commented on it and Vivekananda’s criticisms and questions must be tied to Shankara’s commentary. I found sure enough that the story is mentioned in the Brahma Sutras and Shankara had commented on it. I
give below Shankara’s commentary about this story in his Brahma Sutra Bhasya (BSB) I.iii.34: (Purva Paksha is giving a view that Shankara refutes as a Vedantin)

Purva Paksha: Now then, the apparent conclusion is that Shudra is also qualified, for he can have the aspiration and ability. And unlike the prohibition, "Therefore the Shudra is unfit for performing sacrifices" (Tai. S. VII.i.1.6), no prohibition against his acquisition of illumination is met with. Even the disqualification for sacrifices that arises for the Shudra from the fact of his not being qualified for lighting a sacrificial fire, is no sign for his being debarred from knowledge. For it is not a fact that a man who has no fire – Ahavinya and the rest – cannot acquire knowledge. Moreover, there is an indicatory sign confirming the Shudra’s competence. In the section dealing with the knowledge of Samvarga (merger of all things), Janasruti,
grandson of Putra, and an aspirant of knowledge, is referred to by the word Shudra: "Fie, O Shudra, keep to yourself that chariot and the necklace, together with the cows" (Ch. U. IV.ii.3). And in the Smritis are mentioned Vidura and others as born into the Shudra caste but endowed with special knowledge. Hence Shudras have competence for special knowledge.

Vedantin: Faced with this, we say: The Shudra has no competence, since he cannot study the Vedas; for one becomes competent for things spoken of in the Vedas, after one has studied the Vedas and known these things from them. But there can be no reading of the Vedas by a Shudra, for Vedic study presupposes the investiture with the sacred thread, which ceremony is confined to the three castes. As for aspiration, it cannot qualify anyone unless one has the ability. Mere ability in the ordinary sense also cannot qualify anyone, for scriptural ability is involved in scriptural matter. But this scriptual ability is denied by the prohibition of the right to study. As for the text "The Shudra is unfit for performing a sacrifice" (Tai. S. vii.1.1.6), since it is based on a logic having a common application, it suggests that the Shudra has no right to knowledge as well, for the logic applies both ways. …. The fact, however, is that this word Shudra cannot guarantee his competence anywhere because it occurs in a corroborative statement (Arthavada). On the contrary, this word Shudra can be construed with someone already having the competence.

How?

The answer is: On hearing this utterance of the swans, "Hello, who is this one, insignificant as he is, of whom you speak as though he were like Raikva of the chariot?" (Ch. U. IV.i.3), which was a personal disparagement for him, Janasruti, grandson of Putra, was struck with grief. Raikva hinted at this
grief by using the word Shudra…This is what we can understand. For, a born Shudra has no right to knowledge.

How again is it suggested by the word Shudra that he was struck with grief?
The answer is: "Tat-adravanat". Because the word Shudra can be split up thus to mean that he (Raikva) approached towards (abhidudrava) that (tat) grief (sucam); or he was approached (abhidudrave) by that (tat) sorrow (suca); or he rushed (abhidudrava) to that (tat) Raikva, because of sorrow. And this
derivative meaning has to be accepted because the conventional meaning is inadmissible.(3)

The Purva Paksha argument is a straightforward reading of the story from Ch. U. Shankara, on the other hand, refuses to read the story in a straight forward manner. It is remarkable that Shankara could not find a single passage in the Vedas barring any Hindu from reading the Vedas and is forced to use a Taittiriya Samhita (Tai. S.) verse about a Shudra being unfit for performing a sacrifice to make his case that a Shudra is not eligible for studying the Vedas. The point Shankara is making is that since a Shudra is not eligible to the performance of the rites of the Vedic Karma-Kanda, he is also not eligible to study the Upanishads and gain illumination. Is this argument logical and consistent with Shankara’s own interpretation of the entire Brahma Sutra? The answer is a definite no! Vivekananda pointed out Shankara’s illogical position in point 4 of his letter. Shankara has commented on "Athatho Brahmajijnasa (Hence is to be undertaken thereafter a deliberation on Brahman)" (BSB I.i.1) that:

The word Atha (thereafter) is used in the sense of "sequence" and not commencement; for brahmajijnasa is not a thing that can be commenced. And the meaning "auspiciousness" cannot enter syntactically into the purport of a sentence. Besides the word atha, even when used in some other sense, serves the purpose of auspiciousness from the very fact of its being heard.

The meaning of "sequence" being taken for granted, one has to mention that earlier thing which is a prerequisite for a deliberation on Brahman, just as much as a deliberation on religious rites (or deeds) depends invariably on an earlier study of the Vedas. The mere fact of the study of the Vedas cannot be
the prerequisite sought for here, since this is a common factor (in both cases of deliberation on Brahman and religious rites.)

Purvapaksha: A previous understanding of the religious rites can be accepted here as the special factor (leading to the deliberation on Brahman).

Vedantin: Not so, since it is logically possible for a man who has studied the Upanishads to undertake a deliberation on Brahman even without deliberation on the religious rites. And no sequence is meant here between these two — for there is no proof either establishing relation between these two like that between the whole and its parts, or showing any derivative competence.

Moreover, the deliberations on virtuous deeds and Brahman differ as regards results and objects of enquiry.(4)

Shankara, as is seen in the above quote, has said at the very beginning of his commentary on the Brahma Sutras that the study of the Upanishads and illumination have absolutely nothing to do with Vedic religious rites. He is now contradicting his own commentary on BSB I.i.1 and saying that a Shudra cannot study the Vedas since a Shudra is not eligible to carry out the rites of the Vedic Karma-Kanda. It is clear that it is this illogical stance that Vivekananda was pointing out in his epistle.

Why does Shankara contradict his own commentary on BSB I.i.1? To understand his predicament we have to understand the issue at stake. On the one hand Tai.S. vii.1.1.6 is saying that all Shudras are barred from taking part in Vedic Karma-Kanda rituals. This would imply that Tai. S. is saying that all Shudras are morally challenged persons. On the other hand Ch. U. story of King Janasruti is showing a noble Shudra King who is actually studying the Upanishads. Both Tai. S. and Ch. U. cannot be right if the word Shudra means the same in both texts. There is thus an apparent contradiction in Sruti.

Shankara had two options here. The first option would be to say that the word Shudra does not mean the same thing in the two texts and the exact meaning would have to be deduced from the context. The other option would be to somehow explain away the story of Janasruti in Ch. U. The second option is chosen by Shankara to harmonise the two Sruti texts. By choosing the second option, Shankara contradicts his own commentary on BSB and also, as pointed out by Vivekananda, is ignoring the considerable literature on guna-karma based caste in the Mahabharata and the Gita. Shankara could have easily harmonized the Sruti text by interpreting the word Shudra in Tai. S. to mean Shudra Varna and interpreting the word Shudra in Ch. U. to mean Shudra Jati but he didn’t.

Why Shankara ignored the Mahabharata definition of caste in his BSB remains a puzzle. For example, there is a famous conversation between Yudhisthir and the Yaksha (serpent) in the Mahabharata on the issue of caste:

The serpent said," O Yudhisthira, say – Who is a Brahmana and what should be known? .."

Yudhisthira said," O foremost of serpents, he, it is asserted by the wise, in whom are seen truth, charity, forgiveness, good conduct, benevolence, observance of the rites of his order, and mercy is a Brahmana. And, O serpent, that which should be known is even the supreme Brahma, in which is neither happiness nor misery —- and attaining which beings are not affected with misery; what is thy opinion?"

The serpent said," O Yudhisthira, truth, charity, forgiveness, benevolence, benighnity, kindness and the Veda which worketh the benefit of the four orders , which is the authority in matters of religion and which is true, are seen even in the Sudra. As regards the object to be known and which thou allegest is without both happiness and misery, I do not see any such that is devoid of these."

Yudhisthira said," Those characteristics that are present in a Sudra do not exist in a Brahmana; nor do those that are in a Brahmana exist in a Sudra. AND A SUDRA IS NOT A SUDRA BY BIRTH ALONE – NOR A BRAHMANA IS BRAHMANA BY BIRTH ALONE. He, it is said by the wise, in whom are seen those virtues is a Brahmana. And people term him a Sudra in whom qualities do not exist, even though he be a Brahmana by birth. And again, as for thy assertion that the object be known (as asserted by me) doth not exist, because
nothing exists that is devoid of both (happiness and misery), such indeed is the opinion, O serpent, that nothing exists that is without (them) both. But as in cold, heat doth not exist, nor in heat, cold, so there can not exist an object in which both (happiness and misery) can not exist?"

The serpent said, "O king, if thou recognize him as a Brahmana by characteristics, then, O long-lived one, the distinction of caste becometh futile as long as conduct doth not come into play."

Yudhisthira said, " In human society, O mighty and highly intelligent serpent, it is difficult to ascertain one’s caste, because of promiscuous intercourse among the four orders. This is my opinion. Men belonging to all orders (promiscuously) begat offspring upon women of all the orders. And of men, speech, sexual intercourse, birth and death are common. And to this the Rishis have borne testimony by using as the beginning of a sacrifice such expressions as — of what caste server may be, we celebrate the sacrifice. Therefore, those that are wise have asserted that CHARACTER IS THE CHIEF ESSENTIAL REQUISITE. …. WHATSOEVER NOW CONFORMS TO THE RULES OF PURE AND VIRTOUS CONDUCT, HIM HAVE I, ERE NOW, DESIGNATED AS A BRAHMANA." (5)

There is ample evidence that towards the end of his short life Adi Shankaracharya  agreed to such a definition of caste since he says, for example:

He who in his direct experience of the Immaculate Supreme-Bliss-Eternal, has come to the firm understanding that the entire universe is but an extensive play of pure consciousness, all projected by his ‘ignorance’, expressed in the three moods of his mind, while he himself is but that Brahman – he alone is my Guru, be he a sweeper, be he a Brahmin.(6)

This is a remarkable verse since here Adi Shankaracharya admits the possibility of a sweeper being illumined, directly contradicting his own commentary on BSB I.iii.34. It is unfortunate that Shankara’s position in BSB is widely known while his later change of heart is ignored.

References

  1. The complete works of Swami Vivekananda VI.208-209, Advaita Ashrama, Kolkata.
  2.  Chandogya Upanishad IV.ii.1-5 by Swami Swahananda, Sri Ramakrishna Math, Chennai.
  3.   Brahma Sutra Bhasya of Sri Sankaracharya I.iii.34 by Swami Gambhirananda, Advaita Ashrama, Kolkata.
  4.   Brahma Sutra Bhasya of Sri Sankaracharya I.i.1 by Swami Gambhirananda, Advaita Ashrama, Kolkata.
  5. Mahabharata translated by Ganguly.
  6. Maneesha Panchakam of Sri Sankaracharya by Swami Chinmayananda, Central Chinmaya Mission Trust, Mumbai.

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