34.) The Puruṣasūkta: A Case of Fission or Fusion of ‘Castes’?

Most scholars are of the view that the Puruṣasūkta (X.90.12) not only sanctifies the division of society into four varṇas, it also sets up a hierarchy among them. From an etiological point of view the hymn is significant, inasmuch as it weaves that system into the very texture of the universe, making it a part of the cosmic template, as it were. As P.V. Kane puts it:

In the Puruṣasūkta (X.90.12) the brāhmaṇa, kṣatriya, vaiśya and śūdra are said to have sprung from the mouth, arms, thighs and feet of the supreme Purusa. In the very next verse the sun and the moon are said to have been born from the eye and mind of the Purusa. This shows that the composer of the hymn regarded the division of the society into four classes to be very ancient and to be as natural and God-ordained as the sun and the moon.[1]

A.L. Basham is equally emphatic on the point. He writes, after citing the relevant section of the Puruṣasūkta:

Among the entities produced from the gigantic victim were the four estates of the Hindu social order. This is the first appearance of the four, brought together in a single system. Since the four classes are numbered with cattle, horses, and sheep as products of the body of the giant, it is clear that they are already thought of as separate, and no amount of special pleading by a few scholars can controvert the obvious fact that they are ranged in hierarchical order. From the head of the Puruṣa came the brāhmaṇ, the intermediary between gods and humans, and thanks to his knowledge of sacrificial ritual, he keeps the world going. From the arms came the rājanya, later called kṣatriya, the warrior and ruler; the trunk of the victim yielded the vaiśya, the peasant and craftsman; while from the feet the humblest and lowest of the limbs was made the śūdra, the non-Āryan serf who had gradually drawn closer to his masters and more and more accepted their mythology and ritual, until he achieved a position, albeit a very subordinately one, in the Āryan social order.[2]

It will now be proposed that it may be possible to reverse the perspective in this matter. One must begin by noting that the “extent to which caste had been developed in the age of the ṚgVeda Samhitā has formed a subject of keen controversy among scholars”.[3] According to one view the Puruṣasūkta “establishes the essential features of the caste system as existing even in the earliest society in India”.[4] According to a more moderate view, the system was well on its way to crystallization rather than already in place, while according to the third and minimalist version the “utmost that can be said is that there were recognized professions like priesthood, or distinctions of nobility and that these had in many cases a tendency to become hereditary”,[5] but, as in other countries or societies, “their ranks might have been recruited from all section of the community”.[6]

Most scholars seem to agree that the development of the fourfold scheme of varṇas was preceded by a two-fold division of varṇas into ārya and dāsa. And if it be held that emergence of the last varṇa as a result of the encounter of the Aryans with the indigenous people of India, then clearly one could visualize an early phase of even greater egalitarianism.

In such a context it might be possible to suggest that the composer of the Puruṣasūkta was attempting to integrate the diverse emerging sections of society by making them parts of one cosmic being – the puruṣa – rather than trying to justify their emergence, given the egalitarian memories of the race.

In the same spirit, it may be further proposed that the association of the various functions of the varṇas, with various parts of the puruṣa, is purely functional and not hierarchical in nature, as the puruṣasūkta represents a case of an attempt at egalitarianism rather than constituting a justification of casteism.[7]

This possibility is strengthened by the following remarks of A.L. Basham, although be would probably be appalled by our use of them in this context:

There is evidence to show that when the Āryans first came to India – at least five hundred years before the composition of the Puruṣasūkta – there was a class distinction between patricians and plebeians within the Vedic tribes. A special class of priest, forgotten by the time of this hymn, may also have existed in those days. But the original Āryan class system seems to have been much looser than the four varṇas, or classes, of the brāhmanic scheme. Originally there were occasional promotions from a lower to a higher class, and intermarriage seems to have been permitted, as indeed it had been in India for centuries.[8]

[1] P.V. Kane, History of Dharmaśāstra (Poona: Bhandarkar Oriental Research Institute, 1974), Vol. II, Part I, p. 27, emphasis added.

[2] A.L. Basham, The Origins and Development of Classical Hinduism (edited by Kenneth G. Zysk) (Boston: Beacon Press, 1989), p. 25-26.

[3] V.M. Apte, “Social and Economic Conditions in R.C. Mujumdar, ed., The Vedic Age (London: George Allen Unwin, 1952), p. 385.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Ibid., p. 386-387.

[6] Ibid., p. 388.

[7] A.L. Basham, op. cit., p. 26.

[8] A.L. Basham, op. cit., p. 26.


2 Responses to “34.) The Puruṣasūkta: A Case of Fission or Fusion of ‘Castes’?”

  1. aa Says:

    Bhasam and Kane duo didnt have monopoly over the word scholar. There were billions before them. They represented a colonial analysis. Courtiers mislead by showing fake respect as if all these are pundits…no they are gistorians working on a political doctrine.

  2. s.p. attri Says:

    By S.P. Attri (USA )
    1. That is why the Jehadists of Islam swooped down on Mumbai, with their customary Islamic-Fury. The Jehadis, who were rifle-men, machine-gunners, & grenadiers, not only were lavishly-equipped, not only were very well trained, and highly-coordinated, but were very well informed about the lay-out of the city of Mumbai. Although they came by boats from the Arabian Sea, they seemed to know exactly where to hit. No way could they have struck the heart of Mumbai with such precision, without the active support of the local Muslim population. What about our Intelligence agencies of Police, Military, and Government ? They were caught sleeping…every one of them !

    2. Now we are hearing harrowing tales of slaughter, kidnapping, hostage-taking, killing dozens of innocents at every place, through rifle, machine-gun fire & grenade assaults. Certainly many Moslems ( if not all ) are relishing the devilish deeds of their co-religionists. Such acts of terrorism & barbarism go against the innermost voice of civilized societies, but terrorism is something very sacred in Islam. Islam’s leader, Hazrat Mohammed secured his prophet hood through terror. His Quran blatantly declares that:
    “ Allah is the enemy to Un-Believers ( that is Non-Moslem Infidels, identified as Kafirs in Quran ). “

    As a consequence, Allah will throw all Kafirs, into burning hell-fire.
    This makes both Hazrat Mohammed & his Allah as the biggest terrorists, yet Quran repeatedly calls Allah, the most-merciful & most-compassionate. Since this is the way of life, prescribed for a Moslem by Islam, how can Islam mean peace ? That is why though Islamic-Clergy presents Islam as a religion, of peace, love, & brotherhood, in actual practice, Islam is the worst type of terror.

    3. What is the response of GOI, to this blood-bath of the Kafir-Hindu, to this Islamic ceremony of murder ?
    They are issuing routine perfunctory statements, such as:
    We are horrified, shocked & stunned. They are advising the population to stay calm, while the expansionist barbaric ideology of Islam marches ahead, and wants the Kafir-Hindu only dead.

    Some Hindus also feel some kind of guilt. They say:
    “ We must have mis-treated these poor fellows ( Sullas ), that is why they keep coming back at us, again & again. “
    That is how they rationalize the barbarism of Islam.
    This is rationalization alright, but it is not true, it is a bummer, very depressing & disappointing. We Hindus have not mis-treated the Moslems. The poverty & backwardness of the Moslem, is in the very make-up of the Moslem mind. The Moslem believes that Islam is a perfect society, and Moslems are superior to all other communities in India. They are a minority in India, but never stop dreaming of spreading their faith throughout India & of ruling India. That is why they oppose family planning for Moslems of India, they are obsessed with the idea, of increasing their numbers to control things in India.

    4. Sullas don’t kill us Hindus, because of their poverty, but because they take pride in killing Kafir-Hindus, they perk themselves up as Ghazis after killing a hateful-Kafir. They become proud as a peacock, with a guaranteed ticket to Janat ( Moslem’s paradise ), where each one of them, will experience sex with 72 Houris & 28 handsome boys. They would kill any Kafir for that kind of rich-reward/ Bloated as they are with the pride of having killed Kafirs, since Mumbai is Not Dar-Ul-Islam, why should it have peace. Since the course of life in Islam, is based on terror & torture, it is disdainful & very shameful of Phoney-Liberal Hindus, to put up a good face on the savagery of Islam.

    This kind of attempt by the Phoney-Liberals, to deal with the terrorism & barbarism of Islam, has no credibility. They are not confronting Islam, they are playing games, they are putting their talents in a napkin, they are not thinking through the problem.

    5. The present outcome ( nightmare of terrorism, slaughter & destruction ) did not drop out of the sky. It is a “ Direct Pay-Off “ of the policy of going soft on terrorism by GOI. It is an after-effect & aftermath of the policy of Phoney-Liberalism, which does not have the motivation, to get tough on Sullas, without which Islamic-Barbarism cannot be defanged.

    What is disturbing is the individual Hindu’s attitude of selfishness, of blind-individualism, and lack of community-mindedness, which entices & encourages the barbaric-Sulla, to do his dirty-thing on the Kafir-Hindu, in accordance with the percepts of Islam, which teaches a Moslem to kill & get killed.

    Surinder Paul Attri

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