varNa question

Jean Fezas jean.fezas at WANADOO.FR
Thu Jan 27 08:33:09 UTC 2000

At 16:45 26/01/00 +0100, you wrote:
>Dear list members,
>I've got to make a small work about the system of varNa in India. While
>trying to collect some data, I found 2 sources with 2 very different
>One says that, for a given crime, a shudra was punished more heavily than a
>vaishhya, himself more than a kshhatrya (with a reference to Manu smRti).
>The second source says the opposite, that the punishment was in relation
>with the responsability, i.e., a vaishhya would receive a punishment twice
>as heavy as a shudra, and a kshhatrya twice as heavy as a vaishhya.
>Now, in Mahabharata,the eldest brother among pandavas, Yudhistir was asked
>to do a justice for a crime which involved four people from four different
>varNa. He gave the severest punishment possible to the one who was from
>BhramaN varNa since he was the most knowledgeble among the four to know what
>is right and wrong. Whereas he gave the least punishment to the person from
>shudra varNa because he was uneducated and was least likely to plan for that
>I would like to know which source is right (maybe both?) and possibly get
>more textual references.
>In advance thank you.
>Dr. Eric Robert

Dear Eric,

To solve the problem, we have to forget some "prejugés" (exemplified for 
instance by Louis Dumont reproducing Bouglé's mistake on the subject) : it 
is not true that the punishment of the Brahmin is ALWAYS lighter than the 
punishment of the zUdra). We must analyze the kind of offence involved :

The relevant smRti text is Gautama dharma-sUtra chapter 12  :

12.1.   A zUdra who intentionally reviles twice-born men by criminal abuse, 
or criminally assaults them with blows, shall be deprived of the limb with 
which he offends.
12.2.   If he has criminal intercourse with an Aryan woman, his organ shall 
be cut off, and all his property be confiscated.
12.3.   If (the woman had) a protector, he shall be executed after (having 
undergone the punishments prescribed above).
12.4.   Now if he listens intentionally to (a recitation of) the Veda, his 
ears shall be filled with (molten) tin or lac.
12.5.   If he recites (Vedic texts), his tongue shall be cut out.
12.6.   If he remembers them, his body shall be split in twain.
12.7.   If he assumes a position equal (to that of twice-born men) in 
sitting, in lying down, in conversation or on the road, he shall undergo 
(corporal) punishment.
12.8.   A kSatriya (shall be fined) one hundred (kArSapaNas) if he abuses a 
12.9.   In case of an assault, twice as much.
12.10.  A vaizya (who abuses a BrAhmaNa shall pay) one and a half (times as 
much as a KSatriya).
12.11.  But a brAhmaNa (who abuses) a kSatriya (shall pay) fifty (kArSApaNas),
12.12.  One half of that (amount if he abuses) a Vaizya,
12.13.  (And if he abuses) a zUdra, nothing.
12.14.  A kSatriya and a vaizya (who abuse one another shall pay the same 
fines) as a brAhmaNa and a kSatriya.
12.15.  (The value of) property which a zUdra unrighteously acquires by 
theft, must be repaid eight- fold.
12.16.  For each of the other castes (the fines must be) doubled.
12.17.  If a learned man offends, the punishment shall be very much increased.
12.18.  If fruits, green corn, and vegetables are appropriated in small 
amounts, (the fine is) five kRSNalas (of copper).
12.19.  If damage is done by cattle, the responsibility falls on the owner.
12.20.  But if (the cattle) were attended by a herdsman, (it falls) on the 
12.21.  (If the damage was done) in an unenclosed field near the road, (the 
responsibility falls) on the herdsman and on the owner of the field.
12.22.  Five mASas (are the fine to be paid) for (damage done by) a cow,
12.23.  Six for a camel or a donkey,
12.24.  Ten for a horse or a buffalo,
12.25.  Two for each goat or sheep.
12.26.  If all is destroyed, (the value of) the whole crop (must be paid 
and a fine in addition).

(Standard translation : G. Bühler, Sacred Books of the East)

This text shows that :
a) [sUtra 1-13] Some offences are punished according to the varNa because 
they are connected with the respective status of the offender and the 
offended*. Punishment is proportional to the hierarchical distance between 
the persons involved. Such a system exists in every hierarchical social 
group : a soldier who abuses an officer is heavily punished, not the 
reverse (you can substitute teacher / husband / father to officer and 
student / wife / children, to soldier, etc., etc.). Such punishments are 
the substantiation of hierarchy and, as such, must be proportional to the 
distance between the protagonists.
*Except sU 4-6, which are connected with the transgression of a taboo (the 
access to the Veda) by a zUdra.

b) [15-17] Some offences are punished according to the varNa of the 
offender, without taking into account the varNa of the offended, such is 
the case of sU. 15-17: the higher the status of the offender, the heaviest 
the punishment. These offences are heavily punished, because they show that 
the offender is unworthy of belonging to the upper strata of society, and 
because they put the blame on the whole group to which he belongs. (In 
fact, this system is the same as the one applied to "religious" 
transgressions : it is a general rule that eating forbidden food or 
drinking forbidden drinks results in much heavier sanctions for a Brahmin 
than for a zUdra...)

c) The other offences [18 sqq] are punished without taking into account the 
status of the culprit, because they do not involve problems of hierarchy. 
If an animal is causing some damage, the sanction is the same, whatever the 
status of the person responsible.

Many parallel passages are found in the smRti literature for the (a) 
category [see the synopsis of parallel passages of Bühler's edition of Manu 
sub Mn. 8.267-284]; it is the same for (c).

(b) category  --- to my knowledge --- appears only in Gaut and Mn. 8.337-338.

12.15.  aSTApAdyaM steya-kilbiSaM zUdrasya.
12.16.  dviguNottarANItareSAM prativarNam.
12.17.  viduSo 'tikrame daNDa-bhuyastvam.

8.337           aSTApAdyaM tu zUdrasya steye bhavati kilbiSam/
                 SoDazaiva tu vaizyasya dvAtriMzat kSatriyasya ca//
8.338           brAhmaNasya catuH-SaSTiH pUrNaM vApi zataM bhavet/
                 dvi-guNA vA catuH-SaSTis tad-doSa-guNa-vid dhi san//

This shows, incidentally, how much the 8th book of Manu relies on Gautama's 
text*. The absence of a rule prescribing a heavier punishment for the 
higher varNas in case of theft in later smRtis seems to imply that this 
rule was only theoretic (or "moral", i.e. a theft committed by a Brahmin 
had heavier "unseen" consequences than a theft committed by a zUdra). Hence 
the decision of Yudhisthira, whom we know as an impersonalization of dharma.

*Manu also adds empty rhetorics to Gautama, see 8.336 "Where another common 
man would be fined one kArSapaNa, the king shall be fined one thousand; 
that is the settled rule"


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