Mahabharata and the Caste System


Nov 07, CANADA (SUN) — The Indian epic Mahabharata gives us a glimpse of the caste system that prevailed in ancient India. Apart from the four basic orders (varnas or castes) Brahmana, Kshatriya, Vaisya and Sudra, the Mahabharata mentions several other castes that sprang from their intermixing.

Intermixing of the Four Basic Castes

The son that a Sudra begets upon a Brahmana woman is called a Chandala. Begotten upon a Kshatriya woman by a person of the Sudra order, the son is called a Vratya. He who is born of a Vaisya woman by a Sudra father is called a Vaidya. The Vaisya, by uniting himself with a woman of the Brahmana order, begets a son that is called a Magadha, while the son that he gets upon a Kshatriya woman is called a Vamaka. The son begotten by a Kshatriya upon a Brahmana woman, is called a Suta (MHB 13:14).

If a Kshatriya begets a son upon a Brahmana woman, such a son, comes to be regarded as a Suta. The son begotten by a Vaisya upon a woman of the Brahmana order comes to be regarded as a Vaidehaka. If a Sudra unites with a woman belonging to Brahmana, the son that is begotten is called a Chandala. The son begotten by a Vaisya upon a Kshatriya woman becomes a Vandi or Magadha. The son begotten by a Sudra upon a Kshatriya women, becomes a Nishada (occupation: fishing) and upon a Vaisya women, becomes an Ayogava (occupation: Takshan: carpenter) Intermixing within these new classes create more castes. There were as many as fifteen such castes (MHB 13:48).

Emergence of Numerous Other Castes

From the union of Magadhas of a certain class with women of the caste called Sairindhri, there springs up another caste called Ayogava. Vaidehas, by uniting themselves with women of the Sairindhri caste, beget children called Maireyakas whose occupation consists in the manufacture of wines and spirits. From the Nishadas spring a caste called Madgura and another known by the name of Dasas whose occupation consists in plying boats. From the Chandala springs a race called Swapaka whose occupation consists in keeping guard over the dead. The women of the Magadhi caste, by union with these four castes of wicked dispositions produce four others. These are Mansa, Swadukara, Kshaudra, and Saugandha. From the Nishadas again springs up the Madranabha caste whose members are seen to ride on cars drawn by asses.

From the Chandalas springs up the caste called Pukkasa. The caste called Kshudra springs from the Vaidehaka. The caste called Andhra which takes up its residence in the outskirts of towns and cities, also springs up (from the Vaidehakas). Then again the Charmakara, uniting himself with a woman of Nishada caste, begets the class called Karavara. From the Chandala again springs up the caste known by the name of Pandusaupaka whose occupation consists in making baskets and other things with cleft bamboos. From the union of the Nishada with a woman of the Vaidehi caste springs one who is called by the name of Ahindaka (13:48). Some names like Vaidehaka, Magadha, Andhra etc were indicative of tribal names like Videha, Magadha and Andhra. The whole description seems to be the result of an attempt to include the non-Vedic tribes into the structure of four-order caste system.

Caste Based on Character

The idea that four orders and castes were based on birth was different from another school of thought that they were mere descriptions of different people in the society based on their character and occupation. In the second case caste was flexible, more a matter of choice and not based on birth. In later periods, caste system based on birth became rigid and numerous other castes started getting created. This devolved into the unbonafide systems of castes found in India today.

Many passages in Mahabharata describe the flexible caste system which in later periods was totally forgotten by the Indian society. An example is the conversation between Yudhisthira and Naga Nahusha (MHB 3:179):

    Naga: "O Yudhishthira, say, Who is a Brahmana?"

    Yudhishthira: "O foremost of Nagas, 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." Naga: "O Yudhishthira, truth, charity, forgiveness, benevolence, benignity, 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."

    Yudhishthira: "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 those qualities do not exist, even though he be a Brahmana by birth." Naga: "O king, if thou recognise a person 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."

    Yudhishthira: "In human society, O mighty and highly intelligent Naga, 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 beget 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 so ever we may be, we celebrate the sacrifice. Therefore, those that are wise have asserted that character is the chief essential requisite. The natal ceremony of a person is performed before division of the umbilical cord. His mother then acts as its Savitri and his father officiates as priest. He is considered as a Sudra as long as he is not initiated in the Vedas. Doubts having arisen on this point, Naga, Swayambhuba Manu has declared, that the mixed castes are to be regarded as better than the other castes, if having gone through the ceremonies of purification, they do not conform to the rules of good conduct, O excellent Naga! Whosoever now conforms to the rules of pure and virtuous conduct, him have I, here now, designated as a Brahmana."

Societies with Caste Based on Choice

Mahabharata provides evidence of societies where caste was just a matter of personal choice. At MHB 8:45 is the following passage:

    "Among the Bahlikas one at first becomes a Brahmana and then he becomes a Kshatriya. Indeed, a Vahika would, after that, become a Vaishya, and then a Shudra, and then a barber. Having become a barber, he would then again become a brahmana. Returning to the status of a brahmana, he would again become a slave. One person in a family becomes a brahmana: all the others act as they like."

The whole narration is the opinion of Karna on the tribe of Shalya, viz., the Bahlika tribe. Shalya was disliked by Karna due to some circumstances, So this opinion is biased against the Bahlikas. Yet, it gives evidence that the Bahlikas had a society where caste was a matter of personal choice.


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