Last Updated 16 Feb 2021

The Mahabharata: a Brahminical Struggle for Power

Category Buddhism, Hinduism, India
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The desire for power has always been an issue throughout the ages. As foreign ideas and invaders became a threatening situation, the Brahmin caste during time of the Mahabharata responded by stressing the importance of dharma in society. The writers of the Mahabharata's twelfth book, The Book of Peace, place extra emphasis on dharma to not only maintain order within the kingdom, but also to preserve the social status of Brahmins and dissuade other castes from converting to new and foreign influences in the Mahabharata.

To better understand why such an act was needed, this paper will discuss the Brahminical social status relative to other castes, the importance of dharma in society to Brahmins, the growing influence of the Buddhism in India, and lastly the presence of Jainism in society and it’s minor effect. During the period the Mahabharata was written, there was a clear defined four-tiered caste system consisting of the Sudras, Vaishyas, Kshatriya, and Brahmins. These classes were meant to maintain order by stressing that each class must to adhere to its proper dharma. The Sudras were the lowest level of the caste system.

Known typically as slaves and workers, their dharma was to do be slaves or do hard labor. They held no power although they represented a large portion of society. They were owned by the Kshatriya, but they were considered “untouchable” by both Brahmins and Kshatriyas because of the impure stigma placed upon the class by the Brahmins. This idea of impurity of the Sudras pervaded even throughout the class itself, and at the pinnacle of the caste system, there were divisions within the Sudra class The Vaisyas were placed below the Kshatriya and Brahmins and “slightly above the Sudras” in the caste system.

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This class’s main focus was agriculture and livestock. Scholars such as Richard Fick state that, “Originally in the oldest Vedic age Vaiyas was a name of the class of cattle-breeding and land-cultivating Aryan settlers, it later served the purpose of the theorizing Brahmins to bind together the unlimited number of social groups. ” They were unable to receive education in Vedic traditions. Since they were the closest to Sudras in class, these two groups occasionally formed distinct classes referred to as “Gahapatis and Kutumbika”

The Kshatriya class was known to consist of the warriors and kings of the caste system. They maintained a symbiotic relationship with the Brahmins. The Kshatriyas depended on the Brahmins to perform detailed rituals since they were the only ones who knew the knowledge to perform them. The Brahmins depended on the Kshatriyas for protection and sustenance. Although the Brahmins had the knowledge the Kshatriyas needed, this did not last. As the Kshatriyas gained access to Vedic literature, they demonstrated equal dedication to the texts as the Brahmins did .

This access to Vedic literature prompted the Kshatriyas to begin to question brahminical ways. As the Kshatryias became more educated, “kings were not happy with the parasitical life led by the brahminical class. ” This questioning and dissatisfaction aided the development of new ideas and influences. The Brahmin class focused on performing rituals and the Vedic texts. They put new meaning to the saying, “knowledge is power. ” Through their knowledge on how to perform complicated rituals and “special” mystical power, they were able to persuade all the other classes to give to them.

Bhishma in the Mahabharata, “tells Yudhisthiria that priest of the sacrifice (rtvij), a family priest (purohita), a teacher, a disciple, relatives and kinsmen can be considered worthy of worship and honour if they are furnished with learning and virtue (Srutavrttopasamhita). ” Essentially describing the Brahmins, Bhisma tells Yudhisthiria and all other classes to give to Brahmins since they fulfill the required criteria on who to give to. The Brahmins were the most organized class of the time, and this allowed them to declare their broad rule.

It did not matter if the Kshatriyas had the thrown; the power over the thrown essentially made them the ruler of the land. Excess power corrupts, and the Brahmins were clearly overstepping their bounds. Kings began to see their relationship with Brahmins as parasitic rather than symbiotic. One of the most famous Kshatriya, Siddhartha Gautama, was raised with this mentality, and would use this as a base for Buddhism. However, Brahmins were still kept in high regard. In the Mahabharata, The Book of Peace is essentially a long argument in favor of Brahmins. It looked upon them as walking gods on earth who should be obeyed and honored. ” Though this is the case, scholars such as V. S Sukthankar believe that “the tradition which revised and recast the epic according to the Vaishnava and brahmana need was the Brighu tradition. ” One of these instances can be seen in “Top of the list of Bhargavas second only to Bhrgu himself, is Rama Jamadagnya, the militant brahmin hero responsible for the destruction of the ksatriyas, whether this story is intended to as a military or a literary victory. If Sukthankar’s theory is correct, the Brahminization of the Mahabharata exemplifies the power the Brahmins had in their era. They not only had the ability to influence public policy in the Vedic era, but also how they are portrayed in religious texts that transcend both borders and time. Braminization was not only a way to maintain power at the time, but ensure that their power be maintained for future Brahmins as well. Compared to all other classes, the brahminical class best understood the political and social needs of the time.

This allowed them to gain increasing power and respect not only in their era, but future periods to come. Dharma was the way of life in the Vedic society. Adharmic acts are not taken lightly as seen in the Mahabharata when Yudhisthria’s chariot falls after half-lying about Asvattamma’s death. The idea of dharma can be traced back to the Vedic period when the concept of dharma was represented as the word rita . In Book 12, Bhisma defines dharma as, “it helps acquisition and preservation of wealth. The sages have declared that dharma restricts and limits all evil acts of men.

All creatures prosper by the growth of dharma and deteriorate with its decay. ” (12. 91, 14-15) Bhisma goes on to discuss how dharma is important in all parts of the caste or varna system. A majority of The Book of Peace is describing how a king should act, what should a kingdom provide, and how dharma needs to be followed (unless during special situations such as war), however, Bhisma spends time to educate what dharma means for those not in the position of king. Not only does Bhisma specify what type of lives Sudras, Vaishyas, Kshatriya, and Brahmins should live, but also how to live one’s life at specific ages.

There are four modes of life that Bhisma reveals in The Book of Peace. The first is Brahmacharya Ashrama which instructs one to “lead a life of celibacy and obey the order of preceptor” (12. 168. 8. 10) . This time lasts from age 12 when a child goes to a preceptor and ends at the age of 25 when he returns. The next role is Grihastha Ashrama where Bhisma instructs one to “enjoy life, gratify his senses, follow all ethical sanctions enshrined in the Samayadarma and help people who were in distress” (12. 186. 11. 16) One should get married at the age of 25 and remain in this mode until 50 years old.

At the age of 50, one enters Vanprastha Ashrama where he can accept the life of a hermit. At the late age of 75, one can enter Sanyasa Ashrama, where a hermit can detach himself further from the world and become an ascetic. These modes of life are directed towards the Bhramins, however, Kshatriyas can take on these roles, “after duly observing his caste duties, in his old age, could accept the hermit’s and ascetics mode of life” (12. 63. 16. 21) and “an aged Vaishya, after virtuously performing his duty and serving the king might adopt other modes of life with the king’s permission” (12. 3. 15) The class structures which include age are extremely structured. This is so because, “the social mechanism of dharma was a clear attempt to moderate class struggle and competition with the help of the varna system. ” The caste system worked because of the wide understanding of dharma among its many followers. With the Braminzation Theory in mind, it is entirely possible that the Brahmins, through Bhisma’s voice, were the true advocates for dharmic living. The idea of dharma was to maintain the stability and the status quo of the time .

The highly structured design acted as an instrument to fulfill the Brahmins desires. The importance of class structure focuses on maintaining the power of the Brahmins which is why it was alarming to witness Brahmins acting like Kshatriyas and vice versa. One of the developing influences during the Vedic period was Buddhism. Mentioned earlier, Siddhartha Gautama, the founder of Buddhism, was born into the Kshatriya caste. This provided him with a primary bias against them, but his reasons for going against the brahminical caste were much deeper than an underlying bias.

The Buddha was disgusted by the animal sacrifices to the Gods, along with the hypocritical and lying nature of the Brahmins. He was also “critical to their advice to kings” and “opposed to the Brahmin claim over the Kshatriyas. ” To gain followers, the Buddha took advantage of the ailing brahminical caste. He showed support for the sudras by “speaking against the caste and admitting the sudra castes into the snagha . ” The Buddha convinced the Kshatriyas to convert by using his family roots, and stressing his supremacy thus implicitly stating that Kshatryas were supreme.

After gaining the Kshatriyas on his side, the Buddha moved on to the Vaisya class lending them money at an interest, and since the Vaisya class focused on livestock, Buddha’s rejection of animal sacrifices only added more reason for the Vaisya to join his snagha. Buddhism even managed to recruit “a significant part of their elite from good Brahmin families and which scattered the countryside with shrines and monasteries. ” Furthermore, Buddhism gained strong support by Asoka the Great, an Indian emperor, who converted to Buddhism. Asoka did not reject the entire brahminical tradition.

He also strongly desired for his people to be dharmic. His strong adherence to dharma rivals that of the Brahmins. The danger of Buddhism was not only the converts it was amassing, but the stressing of equality across all caste and the ridding of the caste system all together. Since much of the Brahmin’s power was a result from the strict caste system, it was in their best interest to preserve it any way they could. In response the surge of Buddhism, the Mahabharata was released to counter the threat of outside invaders and new influences.

This new text served to learn from the mistakes of past mistakes of the overextended Brahmin caste. “But the text does not resemble the hymns of the Veda at all; it is a narrative text which is replete with all manner of didactic wisdom. And it is a text which has, in its intention, and in fact, moved away from the social exclusivism and esotericism of the Vedic Brahmin tradition. ” The act of adaptation of the Brahminical tradition is impressive because it maintains the same concepts conveyed through the first four Vedas while presenting it in a new fashion that speaks to the audience of that era.

Although a remarkable cause, Buddhism waned in India because “the Kshatriyas were afraid of Buddhism because it threatened the very foundation of their existence as a class as oppressed people encouraged by its equality preaching were trying to rise” In response to this rising issue, the Brahmins and Kshatriyas formed a new alliance to reestablish the caste system , and as a result, Buddhism slowly faded in India. An additional threat to the Brahmins at the time was Jainism.

Lead by Mahavira, a born and raised Kshatriya who renounced his caste, Jainism became an increasing threat to the Brahmins. “In this remarkable spiritual exploration of Mahavira, there was a break with traditionalism, the response and challenge to the orthodoxy of the Brahmins. ” Although Jainism is not a considered a “revolt” against Brahmanism since it some of the tenets find roots in Vedic ideas , many of the ideas were alarming to the Brahmins. Mahavira did not think of the Vedas as authority and did not believe that the Brahmins “were the bearers of spiritual truth .

He also viewed animal sacrifices as wrong and rejected the animal ritual sacrifices such as the Horse Sacrifice popular in Vedic Brahmanism. “There is no doubt that the emphasis on ahimsa, non-killing was a reaction against the Brahminic sacrifices which required sacrifices of live animals” Although alarming to the Brahmins, Jainism had unattractive qualities which dissuaded many from converting to the lifestyle. Since “Jainism was less of an anti-caste than anti-Brahmin movement” , those angry with the current caste system did not find much reason to convert.

Kshatriyas found this new ideology unappealing because it asked them to forego their warrior and bloody lifestyle to one that had no blood or violence. Despite these unappealing qualities, Jainism still managed to amass a group a followers particularly from the Vaiysa caste which sought to increase their status and distinguish themselves from the Sudras. Although a smaller influential group, Jainism still was a threat to the Brahmin way of life which demanded addressing. The ultimate goal of politics transcends time. In today’s society, politics emains the same – a constant battle for power. Through analyzing the Bhraminical social status relative to other castes, the importance of dharma in society, the growing influence of the Buddhism in India, and the presence of invaders during the time of the Mahabharata, it is apparent that they were on the top of the caste system and were reluctant to move from that position even when many pressures were apparent. It is quite remarkable how the Mahabharata not only serves as present day religion text, but also as a response to the growing influences of Buddhism and Jainism.

It is further exemplified that dharma is used as a tool to maintain order within the kingdom and attempt to preserve the social status of the Brahmins. Although the brahminical power eventually ended, their epic passion and zeal to maintain their status is not only inspiring, but also deserves some reorganization in the Indian Epic, the Mahabharata.

Works Cited

  1. Ahir, D. C. Asoka the Great. Delhi: B. R. Pub. Corp. , 1995. 9-137. Brekke, Torkel. "Contradiction and the Merit of Giving in Indian Religions. " International Review for the History of Religions 45 (1998): 302.
  2. Chousalkar, Ashok S. "Social and Political Implications of Concept of Dharma. " Social and Political Implications of Concepts of Justice & Dharma. Delhi: Mittal Publications, 1986. 55-112.
  3. Fitzgerald, James L. "Journal of the American Academy of Religion. " The Great Epic of India as Religious Rhetoric: A Fresh Look at the "Mahabharata 51 (1983): 611-30.
  4. Fitzgerald, James L. The Mahabharata: 11. the Book of the Women, 12. the Book of Peace, Part One. Vol. 7. Chicago, Ill. ; London: University of Chicago P, 2004. 79-124.
  5. Gandhi, Raj S. The Rise of Jainism and its Adoption by the Vaishyas of India : a Case Study in Sanskritisation and Status Mobility. " Social Compass 24 (1977): 247-60.
  6. Hiltebeitel, Alf. "Empire, Invasion, and India's National Epics. " International Journal of Hindu Studies 2 (1998): 387-421.
  7. Ilaiah, Kancha. "Pre-Buddhist Society. " God as Political Philosopher: Buddha's Challenge to Brahminism. Kolkata: Mandira Sen for Samya, 2001. 27-43.
  8. Leslie, Julia. "Identifying "Valmiki in the Early Sanskrit Text. " Authority and Meaning in Indian Religions: Hinduism and the Case of Valmiki. Aldershot, Hants, Engand: Ashgate, 2003. 83.

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