Standing up for the Purusha Sukta

Hindus have long been made to feel ashamed of the Purusha Sukta's casteist elements even though they have no reason to in reality.

Standing up for the Purusha Sukta


Anuradha Dutt’s novel Redemption (Evolutes Publ., Gurgaon 2017) is the story of the Chaudhury family from Dhaka, but also the analysis of a recent piece of Indian socio-cultural history. The one large-scale event at its centre is pregnant with dramatic potential, and has indeed brought dramas and tragedies to the lives of millions: the Partition. This family avoids the worst by moving out in time to what was then called Calcutta. But even in peacetime, that city of the dark goddess Kali is full of religious zeal and social friction, enough to fill a good novel with. And then the children move out to Varanasi, to Delhi, and again become part of the main episodes of post-independence history.

I won’t take away the suspense: the reader eager to know the destiny of the Chaudhury family will have to read the book for himself. If only for the sake of the many ancient mythic motifs made relevant by getting tied in with modern events, and in a more authentic way than in the new wave of myth-based novels, this book is simply a good read. Reviewing novels as such is not my specialism anyway, but here, the historical background is legitimate prey for my searchlight, so allow me to comment on that. 

Both an introduction and a plethora of off-hand references interspersed throughout the novel explain numerous aspects of Hindu society relevant to the narrative, especially caste. Indeed, for most Hindu laymen, it is the best summary of the relevant data they will ever encounter. So, do read this book, but nonetheless, also pay attention to the following remarks. These concern only a few lines in the whole book, but they are consequential.

Caste politics

When Hindu activists are confronted with the officially propagated view, thought up by Communist leader MN Roy, that Islam made many converts thanks to popular resentment against the caste system, they often counter this by alleging that, instead, Islamic rule hardened caste relations and other inequalities (especially between the sexes) and strengthened the hand of Orthodoxy over the other Hindus. That is indeed the position taken in Redemption. In itself, it is correct, but it is not the whole story: caste undeniably started earlier, before any Muslim appeared on the scene.

Similarly, Anuradha Dutt gives a good overview of the British uses and manipulations of caste as they appear from both public statements and candid references in private correspondence. Yes, the British did conduct policies calculated to maximize caste consciousness, often with a deliberate intention to “divide and conquer”. But then, they could only manipulate what was already there. 

The colonizers did not invent (or “concoct”) caste. Caste was already there when they arrived, just as it was a thousand years earlier when the Muslim invaders arrived. Yet it had not been eternal, and there too we agree. Caste had a history, including a genesis, a time of flowering, and at present a stage of decline. But then, where and how did it really originate?

Avestan “colours”

In the writer’s opinion, the Avestan four pistra-s, “colours”, are the origin of the Indian varna-s, “colours”. (p.xi) These are known from the Denkart, a book written down after the Muslim invasion of Iran had started, when the Zoroastrian priests realized that the very survival of their religion was under threat. It is based on oral tradition, till then kept from being defiled by writing, and no doubt very old, though not necessarily unchanged. The book itself could not possibly have influenced India’s social structure, even when the Parsi refugees brought it into India shortly after. We are then talking about the +9th century, some two thousand years after caste considerations make a number of appearances in the Mahabharata, the life of the Buddha and other old sources.

Rather, the Iranian division of society has a similar origin as the same division in Indian society. The Iranians came from India, as Shrikant Talageri has convincingly demonstrated. Moreover, the division is a natural one, present in every society. It may be tempting to push responsibility far from you, preferably to a foreign source, but in this case the Iranian option doesn’t fulfil your wish. Their status of “foreigner” is ambiguous, given that they came from India and are one of the “five peoples” alongside the Vedic tribe, deemed to descend from the two brothers Anu c.q. Puru, two of the five sons of Yayati. Iranians are quite present in the Veda, such as through the sages Bhrigu and Cyavana.

Hindus ought to give up this defensive stand of trying to appease critics. Yes, Christian missionaries, themselves veterans of much oppression and representatives of a culture that practised slavery till recently, do find fault with Hindu casteism, and with anything else they can lay their hands on, like Sati. So, lots of Hindus react by agreeing with them, yes casteism is bad Sir, and then trying to salvage Hinduism by disconnecting it from caste. (Or likewise, trying to disconnect it from Sati, alleging that this was caused by the Muslim invasions or so.) This only makes your critics laugh and is totally counterproductive. The result is that they multiply these argumentative tactics, e.g. today they have taken to saying that Hinduism is anti-ecological, so that flying kites on Uttarayana kills birds, bursting crackers on Diwali pollutes the air, the colours thrown on Holi are full of toxic chemicals, etc. The only thing left for Hindus is to wind up their whole noxious religion and convert.

Instead, you should assume responsibility for your entire history,– and make your critics do the same. So, the missionaries, along with the mullahs, carry the burden of slavery with them, and of lots of misogyny, superstition, iconoclasm and the rest, and Hindus uncontestably carry the burden of more than two thousand years of casteism. First there are the facts: no matter whether caste is bad or has some good features, fact is that caste has for long been closely bound up with Hinduism. Stop trying to explain away this fact. Then comes the work of finding out how and why this happened. And at the end, if caste is found to be a bad thing, assume the responsibility for remedying it. Let missionaries and mullahs set their own house in order instead of coming to trouble you, and do likewise yourself.

Look at me: my Celtic and Germanic ancestors brought human sacrifices. Near my place, there is a pond where, thanks to the composition of the soil, dead bodies are well preserved. They have dug up bodies there of people bearing ritual marks who had been purposefully drowned in the pond as sacrifice to the gods. So what? We don’t do that anymore, and if we did, I make bold that I would be among the abolitionists striving to stop this practice. But I find no virtue at all in denying it as a fact of history. So, please stop these attempts to wimp out from the ethically challenging parts of your own heritage. Hindu Dharma is good enough to exist and to continue, even if it has some stains to wash off.

Purusha Sukta: interpolation?

The author also declares that the Purusha Sukta (RV 10:90), the earliest metaphor for caste society as a body where all parts are doomed to cooperate even if different, was “a very late interpolation in the Rig Veda and clearly based on Avestan ideas”. (p.xi) How would she know?

As for the Avestan origin: see above, plus the fact that after the Rg-Vedic period, once Iranian culture had relocated to the far side of Afghanistan and ultimately to Iran, no meaningful contact with the Iranians is reported anymore. There is no indication for this Avestan origin of so central a Vedic hymn as the Purusha Sukta, and the perfect sameness of the body metaphor in Veda and Avesta rather points to a common origin. And this is not unlikely, given that the same metaphor is found in the Germanic myth of Ymir and the Chinese myth of Pangu. 

As for the hymn being an interpolation, that is indeed a widely-held belief, at least among 19th-century Orientalists, from whom Dr. BR Ambedkar copied it. And who, nowadays, would dare to go against Ambedkar?

Ostensibly the hymn is from the final stage of Rig-Vedic composition, shortly before Veda-Vyasa’s final editing of the hymns into the fully-formed Vedas. It soon became the Vedic bedrock of varna doctrine and gets reproduced or quoted to that effect in younger Vedic writings, including the Atharva & Yajur Veda (so, there also interpolations?), the Panchavimsha Brahmana, Taittitiya Aranyaka, Mahabharata and Bhagavata Purana. 

Linguistically, nothing sets the hymn apart from the others in the Tenth Mandala of the Rig Veda, though it may and does differ from the Family Books, the ancient core, centuries older. Thus, Friedrich Max Müller speculates that the word vasant, “spring”, is un-Vedic, because it doesn’t appear in the whole Rig Veda, “except in another hymn of book 10”. So, clearly, the word had come into use in the long intervening period, and is, in the final period of Vedic composition, no longer a Fremdkörper (“foreign body”) necessitating an interpolation from an even later period.

He, like HT Colebrooke, is also struck by the philosophical depth of this hymn, which both deem uncharacteristic of the Rig Veda. We need not even highlight the philosophical depth of early hymns like Dirghatamas’ Riddle Hymn (1:164), we need only point at contemporaneous (Tenth Book) philosophical hymns such as the Nasadiya Sukta. Philosophical depth was not beyond the late-Vedic poets. 

The whole idea of interpolations into the Vedas sounds very improbable. The Aitareya Brahmana does list some interpolations, and the Purusha Sukta is not among them. The Vedas are a very stable body of texts, a virtual “tape-recording” of actual recitations from thousands of years ago (says Harvard Sanskritist Michael Witzel), and were not easily trifled with. The defensive apologetic attempt to disown caste as “totally un-Hindu” or at least “totally un-Vedic” exists at least since the late 19th century, with the Arya Samaj. It has never convinced anyone who was out to fix the responsibility for caste on Hinduism; they only see it as transparent hypocrisy of the wily Brahmins.  

Yet, because the Purusha Sukta was used to confer Vedic legitimacy on a later practice, it stands to reason that the hymn could have been a later interpolation. But in that case, the interpolators would have made sure to include occupational heredity and endogamy into it. These are the two aspects of caste which, no doubt, parents regularly had occasion to convince recalcitrant sons and daughters of, so that some Vedic authority would have been useful to them. Instead, the hymn can serve as testimony of an earlier (viz. late-Vedic) age when these practices were not yet part of the budding caste system.

To sum up: it is an understandable and honourable hypothesis that the Purusha Sukta was an interpolation, but it is unproven and probably untrue.

Purusha Sukta: contents regarding caste 

In any case, it makes no difference, for Hindu tradition has assumed this hymn even if it were younger than the Vedas, have given it Vedic (“revealed”) authority, and have regarded it as the bedrock of varna ideology for some two thousand years. Nitpicking about its literary status as possibly an interpolation can’t undo this. Hindus have amply owned it up and now they have the responsibility to deal with it.

Yet, this dealing with caste does not mean dealing with the Purusha Sukta. There is something problematic about caste, even if it cannot be reduced to that, but there is nothing actually problematic about the hymn.

If you read more carefully that done by the traditionalists of centuries past and the Ambedkarites of our own time, you find that the hymn says nothing about caste. It only describes four functions in a developed society: priest, warrior, entrepreneur, and worker. It does not say that these functions are discreet, and among animal husbandmen (as the Vedic tribe apparently was), they were not. They overlapped, and initially, any householder could perform as priest, he could take up arms to defend his village, he could of course tend his cattle, and he could repair his utensils and do other menial work. The hymn doesn’t say jobs were allotted to one specific birth-group; nor that by birth you are predetermined to doing that profession, the same that your father did (of which the Veda itself provides counter-examples). It doesn’t say you can only marry someone from the same birth-group. 

Indeed, centuries later we see the Buddha uphold the idea that caste is purely patrilineal, a son is kshatriya because his father was and regardless of what his mother was. His friend Prasenajit, by contrast, disappointed because his wife turns out to be non-kshatriya, already espouses the norm of caste endogamy, which must then have been a innovation. At any rate, endogamy as a defining trait of the historical caste system is not yet present in the Purusha Sukta.

Meanwhile, the same body-parts metaphor for the social classes is paralleled not just in writings of ancient Scandinavia and China but also in two sources definitely familiar to 19th-century Orientalists: the Roman administrator Menenius Agrippa and the New Testament author Saint Paul, considered as the real founder of Christianity. In their case, the metaphor does not pertain to the correspondence between body parts and parts of the universe, only to that between body parts and societal classes (where the Purusha Sukta has both). If those worthies could think up the corporatist metaphor, so could the Vedic sages. The said Greco-Roman authors used the simile to deduce that everyone should know his place on the social ladder and be satisfied with it – just the conservatism and lack of social mobility that the missionaries and leftists object to in the case of Hindu caste society. And again, even if this trait of keeping everyone in his place was an aspect of the full-grown caste system, it was not part of the Purusha Sukta.


Hindus have learned to look at their own classics through the eyes of their enemies. Thus, they are very ashamed and embarrassed about their legal codes, the Shastras, because these do indeed contain some iniquitous casteist verses,– thus doing injustice to the rest of those books, often very inventive or lofty. They are even ashamed of their Purusha Sukta, which the enemy claims is casteist, but in fact is not casteist at all. 

And here too, there are other, non-controversial parts that get overlooked. Thus, the hymn opens by saying that the Universal Man (Purusha) has a thousand heads. That means: the Universal Man is a community of ordinary individual men. Hindus sometimes felt the need for a leader, but hey, the Purusha Sukta rightly prescribes: we together are that leader. When we put our limited heads together, we together become the Cosmic Man. Isn’t that profound? If I were a Hindu, I would be proud of my Purusha Sukta. I would never want it to be a mere interpolation from an obscure foreign source.

About Author: Koenraad Elst

Koenraad Elst (°Leuven 1959) distinguished himself early on as eager to learn and to dissent. After a few hippie years, he studied at the KU Leuven, obtaining MA degrees in Sinology, Indology and Philosophy. After a research stay at Benares Hindu University, he did original fieldwork for a doctorate on Hindu nationalism, which he obtained magna cum laude in 1998. As an independent researcher, he earned laurels and ostracism with his findings on hot items like Islam, multiculturalism and the secular state, the roots of Indo-European, the Ayodhya temple/mosque dispute and Mahatma Gandhi's legacy. He also published on the interface of religion and politics, correlative cosmologies, the dark side of Buddhism, the reinvention of Hinduism, technical points of Indian and Chinese philosophies, various language policy issues, Maoism, the renewed relevance of Confucius in conservatism, the increasing Asian stamp on integrating world civilization, direct democracy, the defence of threatened freedoms, and the Belgian question. Regarding religion, he combines human sympathy with substantive skepticism.

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