“An enquiry should begin with a question…”
May 22, 2019
Edited by Kumkum Roy and Naina Dayal, Questioning Paradigms, Constructing Histories: A Festschrift for Romila Thapar, is a collection of essays by Thapar's students and colleagues from across the world. The festschrift celebrates her contributions by applying her methods and insights to a range of historical, philosophical, sociological and cultural questions. Divided into five parts — "Political Processes", "The Symbolic and the Social", "Historical Consciousness and Reconstructions", "Looking Beyond India", "The Past and the Present: Dialogues and Debates" — the book celebrates the author and her work as one among the best historians of our time.
The following is an extract from the chapter "Ashoka's Writings: New Insights into Ancient Indian Cultural History" of the book.
Ashoka’s writings offer a fine example of the saying ‘silence speaks louder than words’. Historians have to train themselves to listen to the voices of silence, just as detectives do, as in the famous and fictitious Sherlock Holmes case of the dog that did not bark. I want to explore here similar silences in the Ashokan corpus, as also in other ancient texts, and what those silences tell us about ancient Indian cultural history. There is a saying: ‘In life, familiarity breeds contempt. In scholarship, familiarity breeds acceptance.’ I think one central task of scholarship is to make the familiar unfamiliar, to deconstruct accepted truisms.
In this paper I will touch upon four different but related topics: (i) the system of four varnas; (ii) the doctrines of rebirth, karma and liberation; (iii) the significance of the householder defined as gṛhastha; and (iv) the notion of the ‘twice-born’ (dvija).
Varna System and Brahmins
At the outset, let us explore what is accepted as the most central social institution of ancient India: the system of the four varnas or social classes. It is taken for granted by scholars and lay folks alike that ancient Indian society was divided into four broad groups known as varna, a division that provided the ideological groundwork for the caste system. This truism is repeated in most school textbooks and scholarly tomes dealing with Indian society and religion. I will cite but one example, because it is from one of the most sane, trustworthy, and authoritative sources,
Professor A. L. Basham, Romila Thapar’s own teacher to whom her book on Ashoka is dedicated.
We have seen that by the end of the Ṛg Vedic period the fourfold division of society was regarded as fundamental, primeval, and divinely ordained. The four varnas of India developed out of very early Āryan class divisions… A sharp distinction was made between the three higher classes and the śūdra. The former were twice-born (dvija), once at their natural birth and again at their initiation, when they are invested with the sacred thread and received into Āryan society. The śūdra had no initiation, and was often not looked on as Āryan at all.1
Although this was stated over fifty years ago, the same claims are made in more recent texts as well.2 The voices of silence that we will follow show that every claim in this statement is either inaccurate or has to be modified substantially.
The issue here is that succeeding generations of scholars, in whose ranks I place myself, have viewed ancient Indian society through the lens provided by texts such as the Vedas, the Sanskrit epics, and the Dharmaśāstras, all authored by Brahmins. We have been so well trained to view the distant past through this lens that it has become second nature. We hardly ever question it, except perhaps when numismatic, epigraphic, or archaeological evidence contradict the textual testimony. My close to half a century as a scholar of ancient India has been one as much of learning as of unlearning.
How can we escape the constraints of the Brahmanical lens? Does ancient India provide us with other lenses through which we may gather different perspectives? There aren’t that many, but one significant and important lens is provided precisely by the corpus of Ashokan inscriptions.
If we look at Indian society during the third century bce using the lens provided by Ashoka’s writings, which of the features that Basham identified as central do we encounter? None. First is the division of society into four varnas. Ashoka is completely silent on this; he never uses the term varna.3 Further, he never uses the names of the four varnas given in Brahmanical sources: Kshatriya, Vaishya, and Shudra. Brahmins, on the other hand, are mentioned frequently, but not with the meaning of a social class but as religious professionals most frequently juxtaposed to śramaṇa or ascetics in the compound śramaṇa-brāhmaṇa.4 In Rock Edict XII, furthermore, Brahmins constitute a separate pāṣaṇḍa. Even though in later literature this term takes on a pejorative meaning signifying ‘the other’, in Ashoka’s usage it has a neutral meaning and refers to a religious group or community. Other pāṣaṇḍas identified are Buddhists, Jains, and Ajivikas. So far from being a demographically identifiable social group, let alone one standing at the apex of the pyramidal formation of varnas, Brahmins are people given to religious undertakings, just as the Buddhists and Jains, even though Brahmins may have been unique in obtaining their identity by birth. Needless to say there is no mention at all of the twice-born, dvija, or how one obtained such a second birth. We will return to this later.
We also have the testimony of a foreigner a couple of generations before Ashoka who visited the imperial capital Pataliputra at the very end of the fourth century bce. He was Megasthenes, the ambassador of Seleucus Nicator to Ashoka’s grandfather, Chandragupta. He wrote a book called Indica about his observations during his visit, a book that is now lost but is cited by several later Greek historians. According to Megasthenes, Indian society was divided into seven classes, the highest being philosophers consisting of Brahmins and śramaṇas, reminiscent of Ashoka’s division.5 However, he never mentions either the varna system or the three lower varnas: Kshatriya, Vaishya, and Shudra.
Now it is true that silence on the part of one witness does not mean that the system of varnas did not exist in ancient society. Yet, it is significant that such silence obtains always when we venture outside the world under the sway of Brahmanical social ideology. At the very least, the varna system was not significant enough to warrant Ashoka’s attention and mention in his letters to his officials and subjects. Further, there were occasions in his letters where Ashoka may have been expected to mention the varnas if he was aware of them or thought them to be important. For example, in the Minor Rock Edict he talks about ‘elephant trainers, clerks, fortune-tellers, and Brahmins’, where we may have expected the varnas to be highlighted. In the Major Rock Edict XIII, where he expresses remorse at the loss of life sustained by various groups, including Brahmins and ascetics, in his Kalinga expedition, no mention is made of the varnas. And in his several definitions of dhamma, he talks about proper respect toward slaves and servants, where we may have expected a mention of Shudras.
The silence of Ashoka becomes all the more significant when we take into account the fact that most of the texts that give centre stage to the varna scheme are now recognized as rather late, possibly written after Ashoka’s time.6 Many texts that were viewed as pre-Mauryan, such as the Gṛhyasūtras, are shown to have been composed much later and as part of this Brahmanical response. According to Bronkhorst:
The data considered in Part I suggest that during this period [the last few centuries bce] Brahmanism revised and reinterpreted some of its traditions, furthermore introducing new elements that found expression in forms of literature that had not hitherto existed. Grammar had existed before Alexander, and received a new impetus from Patañjali’s Mahābhāṣya after the collapse of the Maurya empire… Our limited evidence allows us to surmise that the literature on domestic ritual and on Dharma, as well as epic literature, may have come into existence rather late, perhaps under the Mauryas or even later.7
Even though one may take issue with some of Bronkhorst’s conclusions,8 I think he is right in taking the construction and the widespread acceptance of the varna system to have taken place at a time much later than had been previously posited. Even more significantly, the latest research indicates that at least initially the varna system was not a descriptive account of social structures but an ideologically driven political philosophy that sought to fashion society and social structures according to that plan. This, however, does not mean that hierarchical divisions of society did not exist, perhaps different kinds in different regions; it simply means that the specific varna system of Brahmanical sociology was not descriptive of ancient Indian society at the time of Ashoka.
1 A. L. Basham, The Wonder That Was India, London: Sidgwick & Jackson, 1967, pp. 138–39.
2 See Gavin Flood, An Introduction to Hinduism, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996, p. 58; Axel Michaels, Hinduism: Past and Present, tr. Barbara Harshav, Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2004, p. 72.
3 In the discussion on this paper it was suggested that Ashoka was following the lead of Buddhist Pāli texts, which attached minimal importance to the concept of varna. First, there is not a shred of evidence that the Pāli texts as we have them are pre-Ashokan. Second, as Romila Thapar has shown, Ashoka was not preaching a Buddhist doctrine but instead constructing an imperial ideology. If varna was a significant social category, it was bound to have entered his discussion of society within his imperium.
4 For a discussion of the meaning of brāhmaṇa in Ashoka, see Timothy Lubin, ‘Aśoka’s Disparagement of Domestic Ritual and Its Validation by the Brahmins’, in Journal of Indian Philosophy, Vol. 41, 2013, pp. 30–35.
5 For a discussion of Megasthenes’s social divisions, see Thapar, Aśoka and the Decline, pp. 57–69.
6 See Johannes Bronkhorst, How the Brahmins Won: From Alexander to the Guptas, Leiden: Brill, 2016.
7 Ibid., p. 108.
8 See Patrick Olivelle, ‘Review of How the Brahmins Won by Johannes Bronkhorst’, Bulletin of the School of Oriental and African Studies, Vol. 81, (1), 2018, pp. 156–58.
Patrick J Olivelle is Professor Emeritus, University of Texas at Austin. He was President of the American Oriental Society. The author of over 30 books and 50 articles, his books have won awards from the American Academy of Religion and Association of Asian Studies.
Kumkum Roy teaches ancient Indian social history at the Centre for Historical Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University. She is interested in gender, political institutions, histories of marginalised groups as well as in pedagogical issues pertaining to the teaching of history, and has worked with teams involved in the production of school textbooks at the state and national level.
Naina Dayal teaches history at St Stephen's College, University of Delhi. Her research interests include the period c 320 BCE-300 CE, during which the Sanskrit Ramayana and Mahabharata took shape.
This is an excerpt from Questioning Paradigms, Constructing Histories: A Festschrift for Romila Thapar edited by Kumkum Roy and Naina Dayal and published by Aleph. Republished here with permission from the publisher.
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