Noted Indian journalist and TV news anchor Sagarika Ghose in her blog, Bloody Mary, asserts that caste-system in India is not just a social arrangement, but a hierarchical system that is sanctified by Hinduism itself. She traces the origin of the caste system to a verse in the Purushasukta and makes an appeal to publicly re-write the Purushasukta, which she claims is a fundamentally unjust hymn.
She bases her assertion almost entirely on the western anthropologist Louis Dumont’s book Homo Hierarchicus, and buttresses her argument with quotes from “many dalit writers” as follows:
Today, many dalit writers argue that India will never be a modern society unless the Purusa-Sukta of the Rig Veda is re-written. The Purusa-Sukta is the hymn which states that brahmins are born from the forehead of the creator, khsatriyas from the arm, vaishyas from the stomach and shudras from the foot. The dalits, or “ati-shudras”, are the “un-born”. They exist outside the body of the cosmic being, thus they are doomed to endless pariah status, however far they advance in education and wealth. In a society subliminally conscious of the Purusa-sukta, Ambedkarism is bound to fail.
Further, Sagarika proposes a solution to end this God-sanctioned hierarchical system, which she claims is subliminally conscious in the Hindu society. She also endorses Dalit Activist Kancha Ilaiah as follows:
Dalit historian Kancha Ilaiah has a suggestion. Just as the Vatican meets periodically to modernise catholicism, he says, the Shankaracharyas should meet in conclave to modernise Hinduism. They should not only re-write the Purusa-sukta, but they should also decree that everyone, every woman, every tribal, every dalit, has the right to be priest of God and God is not the exclusive preserve of the brahmin.
Based on these assertions, she concludes that this God-sanctioned caste hierarchy has not yet brought India a social democracy despite having a vibrant political democracy. She questions the reason for the absence of a Dalit Bollywood hero, scriptwriter, lawyer, artist, model, musician, event manager, hotelier or tour guide and blames the “fundamentally unjust” Purusha Sukta for imprisoning the contemporary Dalit in the public sector.
First, Sagarika seems to accept the interpretation of the Purusha Sukta by Louis Dumont and many Dalit writers at face value without verifying the truthfulness of their claims. It must be understood that the Purusha Suktha is a hymn that appears both in the Rg and the Yajur Vedas. It describes the evolution of the cosmos and holds that the entire cosmos is nothing but the projection of Purusha (loosely translated, the “Cosmic Man”). Purusha Sukta says that the entire cosmos, of which the earth is a part, is a manifestation of cosmic energy in its various forms—that all beings, living and nonliving have emanated from the same cosmic source and therefore contain the same divinity in them. This then is what the primary source, the Purusha Sukta itself says.
This gives rise to the following obvious question: how could a hymn that imputes equal divinity to all things, sanction a hierarchical discrimination? To get both a wider and deeper understanding, we can examine what one of the most authoritative commentaries on the Vedas by the great scholar-sage Saayanacharya says on the matter:
mukham kimasya kau bahoo|
ka uroo paadaa uchyate||12||
[Now a bunch of questions were asked] What came out of the face of the Purusha? What came of his arms? What came of his thighs and feet?
brahmanosya mukhamasit |
bahu raajyanyah krutah||
uroo tadasya yadvaishyah|
padbhyam shudro ajaayata||13||
The Brahmins came from the face, the kshatriyas came from the arms. The vyshyas came from the thighs and the shudras came from the feet.
The Purusha Suktha uses the metaphor of the Cosmic Man envisioned as the human body to explain the various parts of the larger cosmos. The various parts of the human body are likewise, compared with the different classes of the society –sages/intellectuals, kings, businessmen and workers. Therefore, claiming that because the shudras came from the feet, they have been “doomed to endless pariah status” in society is a distortion of the meaning and spirit of the hymn. It also violates reason. When every organ of the body has emanated from the whole cosmic Purusha, how can any one part be singled out and said to be inferior to the rest? It is as absurd as claiming that the feet are less important than the head?
Additionally, the Purusha Sukta explains the origin of various other components of the earth.
Chandramaa manaso jaatah|
The moon came from the mind of the Purusha while from his eyes the sun arose. Indra and Fire came from his mouth while the wind emanated from his breath.
sheershno dyau samavartata||
tathaa lokam akalpayan||15||
From the navel of the Purusha sprang the space, heavens arose from his head, the earth from his feet, and directions from his ears.
By extending the same logic that Sagarika applies to the earlier verse, the moon must be considered more important than the sun while the wind, which emanated from the breath, must be less important than the fire which emanated from the mouth. Equally, Ether, which sprang from the cosmic man’s navel, must be ‘lower’ in hierarchy than the heavens or the earth that emanated from the other parts of the cosmic man’s body. Just as the sun, moon and the wind are equally important for the sustenance of life on earth, all the four classes of the society are required for the harmonious functioning of the society.
As far as Sagarika’s claim of the Dalits or the ati-shudras as being outside the body of the cosmic being is concerned, the burden of proof lies on her to substantiate it.
Sagarika then jumps to endorse Kancha Ilaih’s suggestion of Hindu Shankaracharyas coming together in a conclave to rewrite the Purusha Suktha.
First, Kancha Ilaiah does not possess any credentials as a spokesperson or critic of the Purusha Sukta or Hinduism. He neither knows Sanskrit nor has the training required for understanding, expounding or commenting on the Vedas or Hinduism. Therefore, his suggestions are invalid as they stem from ignorance, not understanding. Second, because Sagarika Ghose relies on his criticism, her claims and prescriptions too, need to be treated likewise.
Sagarika Ghose also chooses to conceal the fact that many dalit entrepreneurs, architects, lawyers, actors, theater persons and travel guides do exist in the Indian society today. To increase their numbers, we need to look at alternative ways to uplift them apart from handing out Government doles. Rewriting the Purusha Sukta is certainly not the solution.
In the end, it is clear that Sagarika Ghose’s article is a distortion of the meaning and the spirit of the Purusha Sukta and is a product of her ignorance of Hindu scriptures and society.
An alumnus of IndiaFacts, Tejasvi Surya is an Advocate practicing at the High Court of Karnataka, at Bangalore. He is also the co-founder of Centre for Entrepreneurial Excellence, an organization running projects in the spheres of education, employment and entrepreneurship. Tejasvi is currently the State Secretary for Bharatiya Janata Yuva Morcha, Karnataka.