War against Casteism from Ramayana Days!

chokamela
Choka mela of Maharashtra.

Written by London swaminathan
Post No.1126; Dated 23rd June 2014.

N.B. If you want to reproduce this article, please email me for permission. Previously I gave blank cheque to some people. They have been uploading all the 1100 posts from my blogs which is not allowed from today. You must get written permission from me for each and every article separately. swami_48@yahoo.com

Many of us think that the reformers of 19th and 20th century only fought against the divisive caste system and before that everyone was very caste conscious and strictly followed the rules laid in the Smritis (Hindu Law Books. It is a false notion created by the English educated writers of the 18th century who did not study the religious literature in Tamil, Sanskrit and Marathi. From the days of Lord Rama and Lord Krishna, people gave respect to any one sincere and truthful. Educated were respected irrespective of their castes. There are innumerable anecdotes in the Hindu epics Ramayana and Mahabharata. I would like to narrate a few and compare them with the saints of Tamil literature.

Lord Rama embraced Kugan, who was a tribal leader and chieftain of the hunters (Ayodhya Kanda). He also embraced Jatayu, leader of the vultures (actually vulture tribe). He ate the fruits, half eaten by the tribal woman Sabari (Both in Aranya Kanda). He took into his fold Sugreeva (Kishkindha Kanda), a leader of the monkey clan/tribe and Vibhisana (Yuddha kanda), leader of the Rakshasa tribe. He treated all of them as his own brothers, according to Kamban who adapted Valmiki Ramayana in Tamil.
Nalvar copy
Four Saivite Saints of Tamil Nadu

Kamban puts it beautifully in one of his verses in Yuddha Kandam:-
“We became five brothers with Guha, six when we met Sugreeva, and Vibhisana! Now with you, we are seven brothers”.

Some of the verses in Tamil Kamba Ramayana are not found in Valmiki Ramayana; but he might have taken some verses from the other two Ramayanas : Vashista and Bodhayana Ramayanas. Kamban himself referred to the great three Ramyanas available at his time (12th Century CE).

Above all these, Rama sent Sita to Agni Pareeksha (Fire Walking Test) and to the forest because of a gossip among the washer men (dhobiwalas). He did not reject it because it came from a low caste person.

In the Mahabharata, we have the example of Dharma vyadha, a meat vendor, answering many questions put forward by sage Kausika. Even the Shambu incident in the Uttara Kanda of Valmiki Ramayana looks like an interpolation. Shambu , a Shudra, was killed by Rama just for doing penance! Several parts of Uttara Kanda go against the spirit of Ramayana. Nowhere else in the Ramayana, caste played any significant role.

Maharashtriyan_Saint_-_1__24877_zoom
Saints of Maharashtra

Tamil Reformers
2000 year old Sangam Tamil literature has several examples where caste was immaterial in the field of education and social life. Purananauru verse 183 by Pandya king Neduncheziyan says that the educated only will be respected even if he belongs to the lowest of the four castes. Manu also said that a high caste person can go and learn from a person of low caste, where it is necessary.

Kabilan, a Brahmin poet who contributed the highest number of poems in the Sangam literature, was praised by many famous poets. He was a good friend of Pari, a chieftain who attained fame through his philanthropy. Pari was killed by the conspiracy of three powerful kings Chera, Choza, Pandya. Then Kabila took charge of Pari’s two Kshatria daughters Sangavai and Anagavai and went to every chieftain for refuge or marriage. Lot of chieftains refused to accept the girls for the fear of enmity with the three powerful Tamil kingdoms. At last a chieftain in Thirukoilur area was bold enough to accept the girls. Kabilar felt very happy of fulfilling his life time mission and then self immolated himself. An inscription and a memorial were installed at that place. He was the first Tamil known to History who did community service, without bothering about caste.

gorakhumbar
Gorakhumbar, a saint from Maharashtra

Then the Saivite and Vaishnavite saints of the sixth and seventh centuries followed Kabilar who did not care about the caste rules. Though there were some protests from the orthodox sections, all melted away like wax in the fire. Saivite saint Sambandhar walked hand in hand with Neelakanda Yazpanar of lower caste. Appar sang that even a Pulaya (lowest) would be respected if he is a devotee of Lord Shiva. Vaishnavie saints from the lowest castes had the same respect of their counterparts from higher class. We saw similar scenes in Maharashtra with all the saints of low castes, not only respected but also worshiped.

Apputhi adikal, a Brahmin devotee of non Brahmin saint Appar also known as Tirunavukkarasu, named everything in his vicinity after Appar. He named his sons, the Free Water Distribution Pandal (watershed), the weights in the household — everything after Appar. When Appar visited him in disguise and teased him about naming everything after a person who he never met, he became very angry. Then Appar revealed his true identity and Appudi Adikal fell at his feet.

Now we know that it is not the reformers of 19th century who created this awareness and they were not the pioneers. They simply continued what Vyasa and Valmiki advocated in the two epics. The Bhakti movement in Tamil Nadu and Maharashtra had innumerable saints from the lowest castes who are worshipped until today. They were the pioneers of reformation.

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