Wednesday, 25 November 2009

A Kings Education: Importance of Vedic Knowledge

Note to earlier post: Having considered the book once again I believe I should be talking in terms of Book 1, Chapter 1 instead of chapters and sections. So this post onwards, the posts shall discuss books, chapters, verses.

Book 1, Chapter 2: The range of Vedic knowledge required by a king.

This chapter is more complex, taking on issues of the four varnas (NB: no, I won't use the term "caste" which actually says very little about the organisation of Hindu society and reflects far more about the European one which coined the term initially and then exported it willy-nilly to India). It also takes on the issues of duties during the four ashrams or stages of life. It also advises specific behaviour for a king regarding these two points.

The chapter begins with a verse that lists the most important knowledge for a king:

1. These include the three Vedas: Rg, Yajur and Sama;

2. Chanakya also adds Atharva Veda to the list here. I assume its because the Atharva Veda already existed at this point and provides crucial commentary required for understanding the other three. Interestingly, he adds this fourth in conjunction with "itihaas" or history.

3. He includes history in this verse as necessary for a king. Some modern commentaries seem to suggest that Chanakya was referring solely to the Mahabharata as "history" but it seems more logical to assume that he was also referring to knowledge of lineages, battles, past events.

Interestingly he explains in the next verse that an cultured man comprises of the following six areas : education (sometimes translated as phonetics), ritual and ceremonial requirements, grammar (or language as a whole), etymological interpretation (or making meaning), ability to create and understand verse, and astronomy. These six form a humans body parts, including eye, mouth, heart, feet, heart and here I am stumped: something called "nasika." Any ideas on this one?

Update: As Rishabh points below: the missing sense and word is nose. Doh!

Then Chanakya moves on to explaining that the Vedas explain the necessary duties for the four varnas: Brahman, Kshatriya, Vaishya and Shudra. According to his list, these include the following:

Brahmans must study the Vedas and ancient texts, must teach curious students and advise patrons, must carry out necessary rituals, and preside as priests at rituals carried out by the patrons.

Moreover, they must give in charity what they can and receive patronage from those with material wealth. They are the only ones with the capacity to receive charity as well as the requirement to give charity.

Curiously enough, there is no indication from Chanakya that the students or patrons are limited by varnas.

must also study the Vedas, get rituals and ceremonies done by the Brahmins, give in charity, make a living out of their martial ability and protect the people.

Again, curious that Chanakya points to charity as a key duty for a Kshatriya. I am reminded of the Jain belief that only a Kshatriya is capable of being the Mahavira as such a great spirit is marked by a limitless ability to give of oneself.

The Vaishyas are required to study the Vedas, support rituals and ceremonies (I assume by giving money), give charity, carry out agriculture, animal husbandry and trade.

And finally the Shudras are required to serve the "twice born" (Brahman, Kshatriya and Vaishya): this seems to be where most European translators stopped reading and declare the Shudras as the downtrodden, proleteriat and so forth.

But Chanakya continues his list by pointing out that the Shudras are also responsible for agriculture, animal husbandry and trade. Moreover, they are also artists and artisans, performers and actors, as well as poets.

Indeed, despite the infamous Manusmriti's often vile and limiting strictures on society, that text does point out that all humans are born as Shudras, and it is only after education and ritual "second-birth" that a human may be counted as Brahman, Kshatriya or Vaishya.

In contrast, Chanakya's view seems more liberal and appears to imply that Shudras - having acquired knowledge and education - are as capable of being "twice born" as all others. This means that acquiring the right training could allow anyone to become a priest or a warrior or a trader. This appears to be more logical given Chanakya's real-politik stance on the running of a state.

This also appears to resonate also with the idea of Bharata's Natyashastra (treatise on drama) as the fifth Veda which is accessible to all humans. Thus technically even the artists and poets who studied only Bharata's text could be considered to be studying the Vedas, blurring the social lines in ways that contradict Manu's far more rigid stance.

Considering the various text, I wonder if rather than edicts, these were more in nature of debates on the classification and organisation of society, with Chanakya taking a proto-realist stance while Manu's appears to be a proto-Neocon one.

It also appears that these varna classifications were far more fluid than we have been brought up to believe in Chanakya's era. Does this mean that social conditions determine how strict or liberal the social categorization would be in Indian history?

Also, it throws open an interesting case in point for modernity (and me personally) in India: As a Kshatriya-born woman, who chooses to work as a writer, do I count as a Shudra? Especially since I don't remember ever undergoing a "yagyopaveet" (second-birth) ceremony!

Does this also mean that a Shudra who found a guru, studied the Vedas, became a warrior and acquired the practise of sacrifice and charity could be a Kshatriya. The story of Eklavya really resonates here with me: wouldn't he be the perfect warrior and thus the perfect Kshatriya in the Mahabharata?

This reading is throwing up a lot of questions! And all feedback would be welcome.

The next post will take on the next set of verses in this chapter as they are really making me questions a lot of what I know and think about ancient India.