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Did Brahmins Monopolize Knowledge in Ancient India?

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One of the most common charges against the Hindu society is that the Brahmins monopolized knowledge and hence powered themselves in ancient India. They claim that only the Brahmins and Kshatriyas were allowed to perform Vedic Yajna while the Shudras and in most cases the Vaishyas were prevented from gaining any knowledge or power.

Anyone who is not addled with colonial, racist and anti-Hindu propaganda will realize that this is not true in most ways, but a case of a lie which when repeated a thousand times becomes a truth as they say. That is why it is imperative to interrogate this charge a little.

Modern Education should not be confused with the Vedas

An important point to understand is that when it is said that the Shudras were prohibited from ‘studying,’ people in modern times immediately imagine that they were prevented from every kind of education, including all kinds of vocational training. This is plainly wrong. Most of the fine art forms, be it music, dance, architecture, sculpture etc. employed not just non-Brahmins but also a huge number of Shudras. This type of education was not prohibited to anyone. But in absence of modern institutions and modern means of communication and transportation, families and extended clans were the best universities to learn any craft. This is why hereditary transfer of knowledge was considered the most efficient and in most parts the only means for mass education.

So when the issue of ‘prevention of knowledge in ancient India’ comes up, kindly differentiate between the Vedic knowledge and the education related to all other sciences, crafts and engineering. Most of the engineers and managers today would be considered Shudras in ancient India and they were always allowed to practice their crafts as much as they wanted.

We should keep this in mind while talking about ‘prohibition of knowledge in ancient India’. The prohibition was regarding the Vedas, and only about its practice in performing Yajna. All other subjects were freely studied by all other jatis and varnas. Shri Dharampal’s work in modern India when the British arrived in India proves this point beyond any doubt.

The Natyashastra

Monopolies are a common feature of the modern world, where giants like Amazon, Microsoft, Facebook, and Google etc. are trying to kill every other competitor in the world, including the smallest of vendors in the streets of countries like India. An essential feature of any monopoly is that those who create these monopolies make sure that their monopoly is not broken at any cost. They kill all means which bring free access to the service that they seek to provide.

Let us translate this principle into ancient Indian scenario for our purpose. And let us consider the charge against Brahmins to be true for a moment, the charge that they had created a monopoly of language. It then logically follows that the Brahmins would resist any means of dissemination of knowledge in any form.

The Natyashastra is a text which dispels this monopolist charge on the Brahmins completely. It is a text which expounds not just on the art of drama, but also on bhavas, mudras and is a foundational text on music, dance, iconography and many other disciplines which derive from these basics.  The stated goal of the Natyashastra is to take the knowledge of the Vedas to everyone. Here:

“As the Vedas are not to be listened to by those born as Sudras, be pleased to create another Veda which will belong to all the Varnas.”

(The Natyashastra – Chapter 1: Verse 12)”

The Natyashastra is called the fifth Veda, and the Veda which was created to take the knowledge of the Vedas to those who are not able to partake the knowledge directly through performing Yajnas.

A society in which Brahmins wanted to manipulate knowledge and preserve it for them and them only, why would such a society think of an instrument like the Natyashastra which is virtually an instrument of ending all monopoly on knowledge? In fact it is the Brahmins who devised these ways to take the knowledge to the masses. The Natyashastra was created by the Brahmins and so are most other texts.

Doesn’t it sit odd with the assertion that Brahmins meant to monopolize masses? Why would they create a monopoly on one hand and then create means to break it on the other?

To make a modern corollary, let us imagine that a Big Pharma company patents a cancer drug and then goes on internet and releases the entire process and all the ingredients used to create the drug. Sounds absurd? That is how the charge of Brahmins creating monopoly of knowledge sounds when seen in the light of texts like the Natyashastra. The existence of the Natyashastra directly and conclusively contradicts this.

The Itihasas

There are many texts which claim to be Pancham Veda, or the fifth Veda in India. The Mahabharata is an Itihasa text, and it is also claimed as a Pancham Veda. The purpose of the Itihasas too is to take the knowledge of the Vedas to those who are not able to perform the Yajna themselves. The Ramayana is also said to contain all the knowledge of the Vedas in a capsule form and it is written in a form of story which can be conveyed to the masses.

If this were not enough, then both the Ramayana and the Mahabharata were adapted for reenacting through various mediums such as stage play, poetry or songs sung by roaming bards. There was absolutely no bar on who these actors were. No one was bothered about the jati or varna of the roaming bard. If anything, they were most probably not Brahmins. They sang and talked about these great epics in the manner that pleased them, and in the language of their liking, making any sort of monopoly absolutely impossible.

Additionally, there are hundreds of authorized or recognized Ramayanas and many versions of various episodes of the Mahabharata. If the Hindu culture were an intolerant culture like Christianity, which was really monopolistic, then it would have convened a council of priests and declared all except one version of the Ramayana and the Mahabharata to be wrong and heretical. The fact that multiple versions of these great epics were allowed reflects the anti-monopolistic character of the Indic knowledge system.

The field of arts generally employed all varnas and jatis. Most of the dancers, singers, musicians and even sculptors and architects working in the temples were not Brahmins, but in fact belonged to all jatis, and most of them were Shudras.

The Fluid Category of the Pancham Veda

The Ayurveda is also called the fifth Veda. It is an entire science, an entire discipline. And yet it is called the fifth Veda for it is a life science and instructs not just on medicine or food, but on the entire lifestyle and thus qualifies to be a text akin to the Vedas in its orientation towards pure knowledge. It also shows that the very idea of Pancham Veda was kept fluid, to convey the sense that though the Vedas were to be respected highly, it was not impossible to attain the highest form of knowledge outside the Vedas.

The idea of the fifth Veda militates against the notion of Brahmins monopolizing knowledge. If they wanted to do so, why would they create so many fifth Vedas to break that same monopoly on knowledge? Most of the Ayurvedacharyas were Brahmins and so were the creators of most other texts.

The Hindu Temple

If the evidence above given was not enough then the example of the Hindu temple shall throw some more light on the issue. The very existence and birth of the Hindu temple as an institution was to take the knowledge of the Vedas to those who are not directly capable of performing the Yajna.

The Hindu temple is built in the image of a Yajna vedi. The temple vimana is imagined as the fire of a fire altar, of a Yajna vedi. The shape of the vimana which tapers, recedes and coalesces into one point at the top with many of half-vimanas, or half-shikharas or miniature aedicular vimanas decorating the ascent of the vimana resembles the sacrificial fire of a fire altar. (Rao 74) The Hindu temple is, in fact, an evolution of the Vedic fire altar, the Yajna Vedi, in which the Yajnas were performed. Stella Kramrisch says:

The Sulva-sutras contained in the Kalpa-sutras, represent the rules and give proportionate measurement for laying out and piling up the Vedic altar. On them basically rests the building of the Hindu temple.”

(Kramrisch 11)

The priests who performed the Yajnas invoked the deity through mantras and imagined His personified form in the Yajna fire. That is why the Vedas are the origins of all Hindu iconography of the later Puranas and Agamas, even though in Vedic times there were not many stone temples or permanent temples. Dr. R. Nagaswamy traces the roots of Hindu iconography directly to the Vedas in his seminal work Vedic Roots of Hindu Iconography.

The deity who was invoked and imagined in the Vedic fire took a permanent form in the temple in the form the temple deity and the entire temple structure was imagined as the Yajna Vedi. A temple priest was appointed who maintained the ritual cleanliness, necessary to maintain the divine presence. And he would offer worship on behalf of the devotee and thus anyone who wished, could participate in the divine process.

The entire institution of the Hindu temple existed to take the knowledge and the deities of the Vedas to those who are not in direct contact with them. Why would the Brahmins prevent the Shudras and others to establish contact with the devatas while performing Yajna and then create temples to bring those same deities to them on the other hand?

Thus the Dharmashastras do prevent the Shudras from taking part in the Yajna and sometimes even from listening to it, but on the other hand they do not prevent them from taking part in the Hindu temple, which is nothing but a Yajna Vedi in a permanent form, and just another form of the Vedic Yajna. So not only are the Shudras not prevented from taking part in the Hindu temple, but also it is imperative to note that in many states, more than 50% of the temples are managed by non-Brahmins with a considerable number of them being run by Shudras in which even the priests are Shudras. Why would a ‘Brahmin elite’ allow such a thing to happen if they wanted to exclude the Shudras permanently from the Vedic knowledge or any other kind of knowledge?

Yes, not every form of knowledge was for everyone. This is why adhikari bheda was practiced but this principle excluded all varnas and all jatis from one or the other kind of knowledge. This was because means of creating knowledge was a technical business and required a very difficult lifestyle. That is why to let anyone do it would destroy the entire system of creating and disseminating knowledge. But knowledge in total was not prohibited for any community. Only the purity of means of knowledge was protected.

The Concept of the Utsava Murti and Ratha Yatra

Every temple has a dhruva bera, or primary icon of the presiding deity in the garbha-griha or sanctum sanctorum. This dhruva bera is built of stone or metal and is fixed permanently in the garbha-griha in most cases and never comes out once it is consecrated there. Apart from that, there is also an Utsava Murti in the temple. This utsava murti is a portable icon of the presiding deity, usually of metal, which can be taken out on a procession.

Over time in the history of the Hindu temple, it so happened that some communities for one reason or the other were excluded from entering the temple for not following the charya (lifestyle) that was recommended for the devotees. There was no one community which was permanently excluded, but at different times and different places one or the other community was excluded in some temples.

But at least once (more than once in most temples) a year, the utsava murti of every temple is taken out on a procession across the whole town, and during this time everyone can have darshana of the deity. The concept of the utsava murti makes sure that even those who are excluded from visiting the temple due to some reason can have darshana of the deity at least once every year, without following any charya.

I know of no other system which simultaneously elevates individuals and communities by exhorting them to follow a better value system and also makes sure that even those who cannot follow any recommended charya are not completely excluded from the Hindu temple or from taking part in bhakti. I know of no other system which simultaneously elevates and then universally includes everyone in its fold.

Once again, why would the Brahmins create an entire institution for taking the deities of the Vedas, and the temple to everyone, if they wanted to monopolize any kind of knowledge, religiosity or spirituality? Why would they create so many vehicles of disseminating that same knowledge?

The adhikhara of performing Yajnas was of course limited. This was not only because performing Yajna was a technical job, which it was but also to perform Yajnas and to communicate with the devatas, which the Vedas are all about, was something which required a completely different lifestyle which could not be done on the side, or partially. Only someone who was born in an environment conducive to such a lifestyle and who would be schooled in that lifestyle would be able to bear it. That is why Yajnas were not something for everyone, though their benefits were invoked for everyone, not only for the human beings, but also all creatures and even inanimate objects.

To conclude, the Brahmins did not have the monopoly of knowledge; they had monopoly of ‘means of creating knowledge’ in some place, like the performance of Yajna. The dissemination of the same knowledge was not at all prohibited and in fact encouraged by various institutions and mechanisms.

REFERENCES

  1. Kramrisch, Stella. The Hindu Temple. Vol. I. New Delhi: Motilal Banarsidas, 1946. (2015 ed.).
  2. Ghosh, Manmohan (ed.) The Natyashastra. I-IV, Varanasi: Chaukhamba Prakashan, 2012.
  3. Ramachandra Rao, S. K. The Vastu-Silpa-Kosha: Encyclopaedia of Hindu Temple Architecture and Vastu. New Delhi: Divine Books, 2012. Vol. I.

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