Origins of the Caste in Ancient India

Dominique.Thillaud thillaud at UNICE.FR
Thu Mar 26 07:40:02 UTC 1998

sudheer birodkar <sudheerbirodkar at YAHOO.COM> wrote

>In the new stone age these tribals lived in conditions
>of savagery and barbarism. There obviously was no room for caste
>division as each and every able-bodied male member had to help in the
>tribe's only vocation of
>hunting and gathering the means of subsistence.

        Probably a quite romantic vision, but that's not the problem.

>But with the domestication of fire, things began to change. It became
>necessary for some members of the Aryan tribes to undertake the task
>of tending the fire and
>prevent it from being extinguished. This was before the days when
>humans learnt to ignite fire through friction. Initially the fire must
>have been obtained from an
>already burning source like forest fires.
>In these circumstances, before the days of ignition the task of
>tending the fire was very crucial. The function of tending the fire
>became a specialised one which
>begun to be passed from father to son and this select group came to be
>called Agni-hotras i.e. 'preservers of fire'. As they tended to the
>fire they also roasted and
>later cooked food for the entire tribe.
>Fire was then, as it still is, an object of worship as the tribal
>peoples had seen fire as a powerful destructive medium in forest fires
>and volcanic eruptions. By virtue
>of being placed between the tribe and the domesticated fire, this
>section of the tribe also performed functions like making offerings to
>the fire and invoking it to spell
>prosperity for the tribe, victory in war, etc., apart from cooking
>which was their primary function. These Agni-hotras were the prototype
>of the brahmin caste of

        Some problems of datation and confusion between various stages of
humankind "progress". It seems you neglect the importance of the neolithic
"revolution" but that's a good point to show the role of the Agni-hotras in
the constitution of the brahmin varna, even if that is perhaps an
Indo-Aryan feature.
        But to link the cooking to the fire-cult is not so easy and some
problems remain.
        Before going back to the Indian varnas, let me make (you know
that's my domain) a small Greek digression:
        In Greece, the problem of the fire sacrifice is quite well known by
myths (Prometheus) and history (organisation of cult in Vth century BCE).
        Simplifying: The sacrifice was a feast, the only circumstance where
people eat meat, rituously equally shared between the human participants.
The central character was the "mageiros" who was playing three roles:
        - acting as a priest, he kills the victim and give their part to
the Gods (bones, fat, &c.), burning it in the fire.
        - acting as a butcher, he cuts equally the beast in pieces.
        - acting as a cook, he prepares the meal, roasting the offals and
boiling the flesh.
        Clearly, he is competent in three domains which can be easily
linked to the three dumezilian functions of the society, priesthood,
warfare, nutrishment.

        Back to India, specially to the Vedic and epic times where
sacrifying animals was accepted. There are two important clues which show
the kshatriyas playing a role as butcher and/or cook.
        - a priest, the zamitR* was a kshatriya.
        - in Virata's kingdom, Bhima, one of the two "true kshatriya"
Pandavas, disguise himself in cook; later, killing Duhshasana, he acts
explicitely as a sacrifier.

        And you can remember a recent discussion on the list showing the
potter treated as a brahmin. We can't reject the possibility that an
evolution towards the "purity" of the fire cult and the elimination of the
meat-eating, place the brahmins as the unique specialists of fire use.
        Hence, the importance of the Agni-hotra could be more recent than
the "old stone age", that could explain why we don't find the equivalent in
other civilization, even in Eurindian ones (excepting Iranian: the
(pejorative) term used by the muslims in the "1001 Nights" to design the
zoroastrians was uniquely "fire-worshippers" and I was invited to take part
myself in 1968 to such perfumed sacrifice in the Iranian town of Yazd).

* : my knowledge of the zamitR being just "second hand", I would be happy
if some specialists can give textual references, specially on his exact
role and his varna.

Dominique THILLAUD
Universite' de Nice Sophia-Antipolis, France

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