Review: Upinder Singh's Latest Is Unable To Move Away From Stereotypes When Talking About 'Dharma' And 'Varna'

Aravindan Neelakandan

Feb 26, 2022, 06:47 PM | Updated 06:47 PM IST

The Dhyana Buddha statue in Amaravati. 
The Dhyana Buddha statue in Amaravati. 
  • Why Dharma is older, and varna more dynamic, than this book presents them to be.
  • Ancient India: Culture of Contradictions. Upinder Singh. Aleph Book Company. Rs 593.

    This is the first of a three-part review of 'Ancient India: Culture of Contradictions'.

    Dr. Upinder Singh is a really eminent historian of ancient India. Her book ‘A History of Ancient and Early Medieval India’ (Pearson, 2008) sets the standards in history textbook writing globally. One wishes our textbook makers use this book as a model for our history textbooks. Her book ‘Political Violence in Ancient India’ (HUP, 2017) is another scholarly book that deals with a tough subject. Here Dr. Singh avoids the attractive pitfalls of Brahminism versus Buddhism and shows an exemplary academic rigour.

    That is why the recent book ‘Ancient India: Culture of Contradictions’ (Aleph 2021) is a let-down. Nevertheless, a scholarly book, it contains distortions and selective depictions which usually to the followers of her work are not her hallmark.

    Right from the introduction Dr. Singh leads the reader through a scholarly odyssey. She uses the term the ‘medieval Islamicate heritage’ (p.15) explaining the term as broader than ‘Islamic’, which refers to only the religious, and as referring to ‘the various features of regions influenced by Islam’. So now apart from 'Islamic' and 'Islamist', we also have Islamicate.

    The book contains five long essays. Mostly the template is to take a contemporary event and then relate it to ancient Indian past – usually ending up showing how the understanding of the real complicated nature of the past might help us in a better understanding of the present – quiet a noble endeavour.

    The first essay titled ‘Inequality and Salvation’ starts with the suicide of Rohith Vemula. Referring to the 2001 Durban conference where sponsored ‘Dalit’ groups equated caste with race, she considers caste and race as not identical but comparable. While acknowledging that inequality is ‘woven into the fabric of all societies’, the essay concentrates on what it calls ‘the early history of four other bases of inequality—slavery, varna, caste, and untouchability’ (p. 19).

    Accordingly she takes up the case of Harappan civilisation, ‘as now, urban life was sustained by countless workers who built the structures, cleaned the drains and sewers, and provided labour and services to keep the cities going’. But it was not clear if ‘slavery’ existed (p.21). And it was in Rig Veda Samhita where ‘the earliest clear references’ to slavery are seen. The essay declares that the Vedas were ‘composed during c. 1500–1000 BCE in the valleys of the Indus, its tributaries and the Ghaggar–Hakra’ (p. 21). In her textbook on ancient Indian culture Dr. Singh had stated contrarily:

    Very early dates for the Rig Veda that fall within the 7th or 6th millennium BCE are clearly not acceptable. … Dates falling within the late 3rd millennium BCE or the early 2nd millennium BCE (calculated on the grounds of philology and/or astronomical references) cannot be ruled out. The date of the Rig Veda remains a problematic issue.
    A History of Ancient and Early Medieval India: From the Stone Age to the 12th Century', Pearson, p.185

    The turn from this flexible position to the emphatic assertion of place Rig Veda composition at 1500-1000 BCE is amusing.

    The late Dr. Iravatham Mahadevan, a Dravidianist scholar subscribing to the Aryan Migration Theory, through the analysis of terminal signs in the Harappan seals had suggested the possibility of varna-like social categories existing in Harappa, perhaps a proto-Varna system.


    That would suggest a continuity. However, the essay pushes a civilisational break here and so the emphatic assertion of date.

    While pointing out that the Dasas and Dasis (crudely slave men and women) existed, the essay acknowledges that ‘the children born of slave women could rise in the world.’ The crucial question omitted is this: while the Vedic society was having hierarchies and consequently social exclusion, like any other contemporary society, what were the values of Vedic literature? Kavashaka instance, which the essay refers to but marginalises as an exception, shows that Vedic values speak against social exclusion.

    Avoiding this discussion, the essay moves on to the Mahabharata, giving a detailed picture of slavery as a humiliating condition ‘possibly worse than death’ (p.24). Then the Dharmashastras come. Here, while highlighting the Manu Smriti, the essay side-tracks into the modern period, quoting from Ambedkar’s harsh criticism. The author is careful though to not give a crude black and white picture either. Pointing out how in the Arthashastra, cruelty to slaves, particularly to women and children, was discouraged, she moves onto varna.

    Here the essay flatly states the idealised view of varna division of society and the ashrama sequence of individual life as ‘false’. The essay considers varna as an ideology – an imposed ideology by Brahmins:

    Varna was not simply a description of a society divided into four strata. It was an ideology that justified social differences and defined social status, roles, boundaries, and ritual purity. From whose point of view? Obviously from the point of view of its Brahmana composers. Varna was based on birth. Members of the four varnas were supposed to have different innate characteristics that made them naturally suited to certain occupations and gave them a certain social rank. Varna remained an important part of Brahmanical social discourse for many centuries.
    Ancient India: Culture of Contradictions (p. 28). Aleph Book Company. Kindle Edition.

    Then the article minimises the importance of Dharma in pre-Buddhist Vedic literature and associates Buddhism as elevating Dharma with ‘ethical content’:

    Dharma is a word that occurs in Vedic texts but is unimportant and has a narrow meaning there. . .became important in Buddhist and Jaina works and in Dharmashastra. It is likely that it was Buddhism that injected it with ethical content and gave it a new meaning, referring to the ideal, good life.

    This is demonstrably wrong.

    Dharma not central in Pre-Buddhist Vedic Tradition?

    The scholarly consensus is that Chandogya, Brhadaranyaka and Taittririya Upanishads are pre-Buddhist.

    The Chandogya Upanishad (2:22:1) categorises Dharma into three groups. In the first category consists performing sacrifice, gaining knowledge and sharing the wealth for the needy. Tapas is the second category. The third is Brahmacharya life in a Gurukul – which essentially means a lifelong dedicated pursuit of knowledge.

    The Taittriya Upanishad has the famous statements ‘satyam vada. dharmam chara… dharmanna pramaditavyam’ (11.1): speak the truth, practice dharma … never deviate from dharma.

    A more relevant description of Dharma comes in the Brihadaranyaka Upanishad which also presents a version of the formation of varnas which is very different from that of Purusha Sukta.

    Prof. Arvind Sharma, Birks Professor of Comparative Religion at McGill University, points out that unlike its Vedic counterpart, this version has gone ‘relatively unnoticed’ though this account ‘is also historical and etiological.'

    Prof. Sharma further points out that given the facts that this Upanishad is one of the early Upanishads or perhaps the earliest and Purusha Sukta belonging to the late parts of the Vedas – both can be considered as almost contemporaneous accounts. Here the Upanishad speaks of all being Brahman in the beginning. Then the Kshatriyas were formed and they were conferred superiority by the Brahmins. So, whoever attacks the Brahmin, attacks his own source. Then came the Vaishyas and then the Shudras. But each time the Brahman generated the varna it was because it was not fully developed (Br. Upanishad, I.4.11-14).

    Yet Brahman did not flourish. He specially projected that excellent form, Dharma. This Dharma is the controller of the ruler. Therefore, there is nothing higher than that. So even a weak man hopes to defeat a stronger man through Dharma just as if by a king. That Dharma is verily truth.

    Here not only the head-foot model is abandoned but rather an evolutionary picture is assumed with all varnas derived from the Brahman substratum. More importantly, Dharma becomes supreme over the ruler and becomes the power of the powerless, strength of the weak and the voice of the voiceless. Clearly, not just individual morality but social ethics get imputed into the notion of Dharma here.

    As we can see in repeated instances in the case of later Hindu literature, the notion of Dharma plays a strong role over and above the social hierarchies – as in the case of Chilapathikaram (5th to 6th century CE) where the king dies at once when he learns that he had wrongly executed Kovalan belonging to the Vaishya varna. Halasya Mahatmya (not earlier than 9th century CE) records the efforts taken by the king to not falsely accuse a forest dwelling hunter who was charged by a Brahmin of murdering his wife. In all these Dharma becomes mightier than the king and secures justice for the weak.

    Between what Prof. Sharma points out as the ‘primal egalitarianism’ of the Upanishad and the ‘primal hierarchicalism’ of the Purusha Sukta, Mahabharata itself seems to go more with the former than the latter.

    In the epic we find Yudhishthira, who himself was called Dharma, answering his ancestor-turned-serpent Nahusha, the question on who is a Brahmana:

    According to the tradition, a Brahmin is he who has truthfulness, sharing his wealth, forgiveness, good conduct, absence of cruelty, self-control and compassion.

    The serpent goes on to state that these qualities could be seen in people born of Shudra parents and so if they should also be called Brahmin. Yudhishthira answers in the affirmative.

    Values, not birth, should be the determinant of whether one is a Brahmin. The serpent then asks what would be the value of birth in deciding the varna and Yudhishthira answers that it would be impossible to make birth as the basis of varna classification as there is always the mixing of people because of sexual attraction.

    Later in a conversation between two Rishis Bhrigu and Bharadwaja, the former starts with the fixed nature of varnas but Bharadwaja states that all Varnas are mixed.

    Bhrigu agrees. Bharadwaja makes a compelling argument for the impossibility of innate Varna differences.

    Desire, anger, fear, avarice, sorrow, anxiety, hunger, and exhaustion influence everyone. How can varnas be differentiated on the basis of this? ... Sweat, urine, excrement, phlegm, bile, and blood flow in the bodies of everyone. How can Varnas be differentiated on the basis of this?

    Bhrigu now explains the origin of different varnas, which is not based on Purusha Sukta but gels more (but not exactly) with the account given in the Brihadaranyaka Upanishad. Everything arose from Brahman. Subsequently everyone was in the beginning a Brahmana. In the celebrated cosmic form that Krishna shows Arjuna, the form does not have the varnas as part of It.

    Actually Hindu historians should highlight this aspect of Rishi Bharadwaj - questioning the notions arising out of social stagnation than associating him with the pseudo-scientific ancient aircraft.

    While in the Upanishad no inferiority is attributed to the Shudra, Bhrigu in Mahabharata states that those Brahmins who ‘became fond of untruth and injuring other creatures, possessed of cupidity, engaged in all kinds of acts for a living, and fallen away from purity of behaviour, and thus wedded to the attribute of Darkness, became Sudras.’ But this negative stereotype of Shudras is countermanded in the same conversation by two other statements of Bhrigu. He states emphatically that all the four Varnas have the right to sacred rituals. He also says that the Varna is to be evaluated based on action and not through lineage as it was conventional in all premodern societies:

    He is called a Brahmana in whom are truth, gifts, abstention from injury to others, compassion, shame, benevolence, and penance. … If these characteristics be observable in a Sudra, and if they be not found in a Brahmana, then such a Sudra is no Sudra, and, such a Brahmana is no Brahmana.

    In between these two dialogues we have the Bhagavad Gita which emphasises Guna-Karma and not Kula-Janma. Clearly the tension between birth-based and worth-based conceptions of varna can be seen between the ideal values and the social reality.

    Unfortunately, Dr. Upinder Singh does not even appear to try to present these complex dynamics. Rather, she goes by the framework that stereotypes the Buddhist-Jain movements as proto-reformist and Bhakti as a partial reformist response to the assumed challenges of Jainism and Buddhism.

    In fact, the much maligned ‘Brahmanism’ or more accurately Vedic tradition subsumed the authority of religion to the personal character of the person.

    Even more glaring fallacies of bias come later in the book.

    Aravindan is a contributing editor at Swarajya.

    Get Swarajya in your inbox.