The Mahabharata is an epic poem of the Indian sub-continent, which is one of the most important text of the Hindu faith. It dates back as far as the 8th century BC, with later portions being added up to the 4th century AD. The name itself means roughly, Tale of the Bharata Dynasty, and it is a mythological history of ancient India.
The Mahabharata is more than 1.8 million words long, spread over 74,000 distinct verses, making it the longest epic poem in the world (roughly 10 times the size of the Iliad and Odyssey taken together) and continuous recitation would take close to two weeks. It covers a great deal of material, ranging from simple histories to entire philosophies on living. The Mahabharata begins with a claim of completeness, stating: "What is found here may be found elsewhere. What is not found here will not be found elsewhere."
The Mahabharata is of immense religious and philosophical importance in India. It is considered to be part of the Hindu itihasas, literally "that which happened," or sacred history. In particular, the Mahabharata is famous for including Hinduism's most widely read scripture today, known as the Bhagavad Gita, a section in which the avatar Krishna gives advice to the prince Arjuna during the battle at Kurukshetra, when Arjuna sees himself up against his own family members.
The main story arc of the Mahabharata is the story of two lineages of paternal cousins. These are the five sons of King Pandu and the hundred sons of the blind King Dhritarashtra. It centers on their feud and battles over the kingdom of Bharata. The sons of King Pandu, known as the Pandavas, were each the children of a so called god as well, and the gods play heavily in the story of the Mahabharata. They offer assistance and advice throughout, and the dynamic between the gods is as important at times as the dynamic between the mortals. This is similar in many ways to the Greek story of the Trojan War.
The most important of the gods portrayed is the supreme god, Vishnu. He comes to earth through his avatar Krishna to give advice to the Pandavas, particularly Arjuna. At times it becomes clear that Krishna in fact desires this epic war, and is in many ways using the Pandavas to accomplish his goal.
The story starts with the sons of Dhritarashtra taking advantage of the Pandavas, abusing them in many ways, and ultimately exiling them to the wilderness for twelve years and an additional year in hiding, with the understanding that at the end of this thirteen years their half of the kingdom would be returned to them. The Pandavas underwent their exile, but in the end the Dhritarashtra cohort refused to fulfill their obligation. This led to a monumental war between the two sides, which comprises the bulk of the Mahabharata.
Throughout the story of the Mahabharata, various gods and advisors espouse different views on righteousness, dharma, and man's role in the world. This philosophical underpinning is best seen in Krishna's sermon to Arjuna, but exists throughout. Ultimately the Pandavas win the battle, but only after abandoning the righteous path of war, and ultimately slaying four father figures. The conclusion of the Mahabharata is not a happy resolution, but in fact a sense of deep horror at what the war led to, and although many figures in the story, including Krishna himself, justify the actions, the reader is nonetheless left with a sense that the war was wrong.
The system of varnashram dharma (see caste system; apartheid varna system) is upheld by popular Hindu scriptures like Ramayana, Mahabharata and Bhagavad-Gita. In Ramayana, for example, Rama kills Shambuka simply because he was performing tapasya (ascetic exercises) which he was not supposed to do as he was a Shudra (low) by birth.
Similarly, in Mahabharata, Dronacharya refuses to teach archery to Eklavya, because he was not a Kshatriya by birth. When Eklavya, treating Drona as his notional guru, learns archery on his own, Drona makes him cut his right thumb as gurudakshina (gift for the teacher) so that he may not become a better archer than his favorite Kshatriya student Arjuna!
The much-glorified Bhagvat-Gita, too, favors varna-vyavastha. When Arjuna refuses to fight, one of his main worries was that the war would lead to the birth of varna-sankaras or offspring from intermixing of different varnas and the consequent "downfall" of the family (Bhagvad-Gita I: 40,41, 42,43). On the other hand, Krishna tries to motivate Arjuna to fight by saying that it was his varna-dharma (caste-duty) to do so because he was a Kshatriya. In fact, Krishna goes to the extent of claiming that the four varnas were created by him only (B.G. IV: 13.15). Thus, Arjuna's main problem was being born a Kshatriya. Had he been a Brahmin or a Vaishya or a Shudra by birth, he would have been spared the trouble of fighting a destructive war. Even the much-applauded doctrine of niskama karma is nothing but an exhortation to faithfully perform one's varnashram dharma in a disinterested manner.
The Mahabharata's teaching on "low" birth stems from the Hinduistic belief in reincarnation and the practice of caste, and is directly related to their religious beliefs (see karma). Hinduism teaches that anyone born into a lower caste is being punished for the sins committed in his past life. If such a person is calmly resigned to his fate and lives rightly, he will be elevated in caste in his next life. This premise tends to make the members of the lower castes and the untouchables submissive to the terrible economic and social conditions under which they live.
Originally, Hinduism recognized only four castes. These different castes fall under four basic varnas:
Brahmans, (highest) priests and scholars
Kshatriyas, (next) nobles and warriors
Vaisyas, (next) farmers and merchants
Sudras, (lowest) serfs and slaves
A Sudra is debarred from marrying a woman of the higher castes; if he does, their offspring will sink into a class even lower than his own. Still worse than the Sudras are the Dalits (also called Untouchables) who fall outside the caste system and are therefore the worst in the social hierarchy.
The castes became hereditary which meant that all sons are necessarily members of the same caste as their fathers and that he has to follow his father's occupation. The 25,000 modern castes even include a caste of thieves! If someone is expelled from his caste or has no caste by birth, he is known as an Untouchable or Dalit, a pariah, and such a person is in a hopeless and pitiable condition. There are currently more than 250,000,000 untouchables or Dalits worldwide with around 180,000,000 million of them living in India alone. Surely, only the devil could have come up with something this evil.
While the discrimination based on caste system (not the caste system itself) has been abolished under the Indian constitution since 1950, discrimination and prejudice against Dalits in South Asia still occur. According to a UN report, approximately 110,000 cases of violent acts committed against Dalits were reported in 2005. The report claimed 6.7 cases of violent acts per 10000 Dalit people. For context, the UN reported between 40 and 55 cases of violent acts per 10000 people in developed countries in 2005; and the total number of cases pending in various courts of India, on Dalit related and non-Dalit related matters were 31.28 million as of 2010.
Not only I do not regard Rama or Krishna as an avatar of god (nor any other false deities), I also do not regard them as ideal personalities. Rama, as mentioned earlier, was on upholder, of the varna-vyavastha. His cruel behavior with Sita, after fighting a destructive war with Ravana to get her released, is too well known. For those who don't know, Rama rescues Sita, and then controversially forces her to survive trial by fire to prove that she has not been dishonored by Ravana.
Krishna, on the other hand, is portrayed in the Mahabharata as the teacher of Bhagvat Gita , a book which expounds ungodly and harmful doctrines like avatarvada, karmavada, varnashram dharma and the doctrine of moksha and the belief that whatever evil or abominable actions one commits in life, so long as one is "engaged in devotional service he is to be considered saintly because he is properly situated in his determination" (Bhagavad Gita 9:30-31)!
In Mahabharata Krishna adopts and advocates adoption of unfair means like lying and deception for achieving one's ends. Obviously, he did not believe in the doctrine of purity of ends and means. There are several flaws in the character of Krishna as portrayed in the Mahabharata, Bhagvat and Harivamsa (see Bhagavad Gita).
The celebrated orthodox Hindu theologian Shankar, too, was a supporter of varna-vyavastha. According to him, Shudras are not entitled to philosophical knowledge (V.P.Verma, Modern Indian Political Thought (Agra: Lakshmi Narain Agarwal, 1991), pp. 50-51). However, the most elaborate exposition of varnashram dharma is to be found in Manusmriti, an important dharmashastra of Hindus. Let us turn to it in order to have a close look at the varna-vyavastha.
In the very first chapter of Manusmriti, it is clearly stated that Brahmins, Kshatriyas, Vaishyas and Shudras were created by Brahma (creator of this world) from his mouth, hands, thighs and feet respectively (Manusmriti (MS) I: 31).
Manu claims that the same Brahma, who created this world, also created Manusmriti and taught it to him (MS I:58).
The duties of the different varnas are also mentioned in the Manusmriti. The Brahmins were created for teaching, studying, performing yajnas (ceremonial sacrifices), getting yajnas performed, giving and accepting dan (gifts) (MS I:88). The Kshatriyas were created for protecting the citizens, giving gifts, getting yajnas performed and studying (MS I:89). The Vaishyas were created for protecting animals, giving gifts, getting yajnas performed, studying, trading, lending money on interest and doing agricultural work (MS I: 90). The Shudras were created by Brahma for serving Brahmins and the other two varnas without being critical of them (MS I: 91).
It is interesting to note that studying, getting yajnas performed and giving gifts or charity are common duties of Brahmins, Kshatriyas and Vaishyas; whereas teaching, accepting gifts and performing yajnas are reserved exclusively for Brahmins. The Shudras, of course, are denied the rights to study, getting yajnas performed by Brahmins or even giving gifts to them (see Apartheid Varna System).
Manusmriti further states that having originated from the mouth of Brahma, being elder and being the repository of the Vedas; Brahmins are the masters of the entire universe (MS I: 93, Also see, X: 3). Besides, Brahmins alone act as a sort of post office for transmitting sacrificial viands to the gods and the dead, that is to say. Therefore, no one can be superior to Brahmins (MS I: 95). All others are said to enjoy everything owing to the Brahmins' mercy (MS I: 101). The Manusmriti clearly states that Brahmins alone are entitled to teach this dharmashastra and none else (MS I: 103).
Manusmriti refers to the Vedas, which are to be regarded as the main valid source of knowledge about dharma, as shruti and to dharmashastras as smriti. No one is to argue critically about them because religion has originated from them (MS II: 10,13). Any nastika (non-believer) or critic of the Vedas, who "insults" them on the basis of logic, is worthy of being socially boycotted by "noble" persons (MS II: 11).
In short, the main features of chaturvarnya as elaborated in the Manusmriti are as follows:
1. Division of Hindu society into four varnas on the basis of birth. Out of these only the first three, namely , Brahmins , Kshatriya and Vaishya, who are collectively known as dwija (twice-born) are entitled to upanayan and the study of the Vedas. Shudras as well as women of dwija varnas are denied the right to study.
2. Assigning different duties and occupations for different varnas. This is to be enforced strictly by the king (MS VIII: 410). According to Manusmriti, if a person of lower caste adopts the occupation of a higher caste, the king ought to deprive him of all his property and expel him from his kingdom (MS X: 96. Also see, Kautilya, Arthshastra I: 3).
3. Treating Brahmins as superior and other varnas, namely, Kshatriya, Vaishya and Shudra as inferior to him in descending order with the Shudra occupying the bottom of the hierarchy. A Brahmin is to be treated as god and respected even if he is ignorant. Even a hundred-year old Kshatriya is to treat a ten year old Brahmin as his father (MS II: 135). Brahmin alone is entitled to teach. If a Shudra dares to give moral lessons to a Brahmin, the king is to get him punished by pouring hot oil in his ear and mouth (MS VIII: 272). Similarly, if a Shudra occupies the same seat as a Brahmin, he is to be punished by branding his waist (with hot rod) or getting his buttocks cut (MS VIII: 281)!
4. Treating women as unequal. Women, that is, even women belonging to Brahmin, Kshatriya and Vaishya varna are not entitled to upanayan and the study of the Vedas. For them, marriage is equivalent to upanayan and service of their husbands is equivalent to the study of the Vedas in the gurukul (MS II: 67). Even if the husband is morally degraded, engaged in an affair with another woman and is devoid of knowledge and other qualities, the wife must treat him like a god (MS V: 154). A widower is allowed to remarry but a widow is not (MS V: 168,157). Besides, women are not considered fit for being free and independent. They are to be protected in their childhood by father, in youth by husband and in old age by son (MS IX: 3). They should never be allowed by their guardians to act independently (MS IX: 2). A woman must never do anything even inside her home without the consent of her father, husband and son respectively (MS V: 147). She must remain in control of her father in childhood, of husband in youth and of son after the death of her husband (MS V: 148).
5. Treating different varnas as unequal for legal purposes. The Hindu law as codified by Manu is based on the principle of inequality. The punishment for a particular crime is not same for all varnas. In fact, the punishment varies depending on the varna of the victim as well as the varna of the person committing the crime. For the same crime, the Brahmin is to be given a mild punishment, whereas the Shudra is to given the harshest punishment of all. Similarly, if the victim of a crime is a Shudra, the punishment is mild, and the punishment is harsh in case the victim is a Brahmin. For example, if a Brahmin is awarded death sentence, it is sufficient to shave his head, but Kshatriya, Vaishya and Shudra are to actually die (MS VIII: 379). If a Kshatriya, a Vaishya, or a Shudra repeatedly gives false evidence in the court, he is to be punished and expelled from the kingdom, whereas the Brahmin is not to be punished, he is to be only expelled (MS VIII: 123). If a person has fornication with a consenting women of his own varna, he is not to be punished (MS VIII: 364). But if a person of lower varna rapes of fornicates with a woman of higher varna, with or without her consent, he is to be killed (MS VIII: 366). If a Brahmin forces a dwija to work for him, he is to be punished (MS VIII: 412). But if a Brahmin forces a Shudra to work for him, whether by making or not making payments to him, he is not to be punished, because Shudras have been created only for serving Brahmins (MS VIII: 413) If a Brahmin abuses a Shudra, he is to be fined mildly (MS VIII: 268), but if a Shudra abuses a Brahmin, he is to be killed (MS VIII: 267). On the other hand, even if a Brahmin kills a Shudra, he is merely to perform penance by killing a cat, frog, owl or crow, etc (MS XI: 131). Thus a Shudra is to be killed for abusing a Brahmin, whereas a Brahmin is to be let off lightly even if he kills a Shudra. Such is the unequal justice of Manusmriti.
In fact, this system of graded inequality seems to be the very essence of the varna-vyavastha. Whether it is the choice of names (MS II: 31,32), or the manner of greeting (MS II: 127), or the mode of serving guests (MS III: 111,112), or the method of administering oath in the court (MS VIII: 88), or the process of taking out the funeral procession (MS V: 92), at each and every step in life, from birth to death, this system of graded inequality is to be applied and observed. Manu does not even spare the rates of interest on loan. For borrowing the same amount, Kshatriya has to pay more as interest than Brahmin, Vaishya more than Kshatriya and the poor Shudra has to pay the maximum amount as interest (MS VIII: 142)!
6. Prohibiting inter-marriage between different varnas. According to Manusmriti, a dwija ought to marry a woman of his own varna (MS III: 4). A woman of the same varna is considered best for the first marriage. However, a dwija may take a woman of inferior varna as his second wife if he desires (MS III: 12). But Manu strongly disapproves of Brahmins and Kshatriyas taking a Shudra woman even as their second wife. They become Shudra if they do so (MS III: 14,15,16,17,18,19).
7. Supporting untouchability is also a part of the scheme of social stratification outlined in the Manusmriti. Manu clearly mentions that Brahmin, Kshatriya and Vaishya, collectively known as dwija and the Shudras are the four varnas. There is no fifth varna (MS X: 4). He explains the origin of other castes by saying that they are varna-sankara castes, that is to say, castes originating due to the intermixture of different varnas, both in anuloma (upper varna male and lower varna female) and pratiloma (lower varna male and upper varna female) manner (MS X: 25). For example, Nishad caste is said to have originated from anuloma relationship between Brahmin male and Shudra female (MS X: 8), whereas C handala caste is said to be owing its origin to pratiloma relationship between Shudra male and Brahmin female (MS X: 12).
Manu seems to be disapproving of pratiloma relationship more than the anuloma, because he describes C handalas as the lowest of the low castes (MS X: 12).
Let us see what Manusmriti, has to say about the C handala. The Chandala, says Manusmriti, must not ever reside inside the village. While doing their work, they must reside outside the village, at cremation ground, on mountains or in groves. They are not entitled to keep cows or horses, etc., as pet animals. They may keep dogs and donkeys. They are to wear shrouds. They are to eat in broken utensils. They are to use ornaments of iron, not of gold. They must keep moving from one place to another, not residing at the same place for a long duration (MS X: 50,51,52). They must not move around in villages and cities in night hours. They may enter the villages and cities in daytime, with king's permission, wearing special symbols (to enable identification), and take away unclaimed dead bodies (MS X: 54,55).
Moreover, how is the "religious" person to deal with the Chandala? He must not have any social intercourse (marriage, interdining, etc.) with them. He must not talk to or even see them (MS X: 53)! He may ask servants (apparently Shudras) to give them food in broken utensils (MS X: 54).
8. Granting divine and religious sanction to varna-vyavastha. Manu gives divine and religious sanction to the varna-vyavastha by claiming divine origin for the varnas as well as for the Manusmriti and demanding unquestioning obedience of it.
So, that completes my exposition of the varna-vyavastha. I want to emphasize in particular that my exposition does not contain any exaggeration at all. The reader may check each and every statement by comparing with the originalManusmriti in order to satisfy himself or herself.