Archaeology and Vaishnava Tradition, Part Four


Mahaprabhu bestows Prem on the Yavanas

Nov 29, 2010 — CANADA (SUN) — Part Four of a monograph by Ramaprasad Chanda, published by the Archaeological Survey of India, 1998.

The proselytizing activities of the Brahmans were not confined to alien invaders and immigrants only, but found a wider field in the islands of the Indian archipelago and in the adjoining parts of the Indo-Chinese Peninsula. Two rather puzzling questions which suggest themselves in this connexion are, how was the admission of aliens to the orthodox Brahmanic fold possible then, and why is it not possible now?

To begin with the first question, let us hear what the grammarian Patanjali, a contemporary of Heliodorus, has to say about the status of the Sakas and the Yavanas from the orthodox standpoint: for Patanjali was a great champion of orthodoxy. He begins his Mahabhashya with the statement, "Grammar should be studied in order that we may not turn Mlechchhas." [1]

In his commentary on Panini's sutra II. 4.10, Patanjali classifies the Sakas and the Yavanas as Sudras who are aniravasita, that is to say, who do not permanently pollute the utensils from which they take their food. The utensils from which such Sudras take their food may be purified by cleaning. Then, as now, the theory is the same: -- a Hindu is born and not made.

A man may be recognized as a born Hindu when he is born either as a Brahman, or a Kshatriya, or a Vaisya, or a Sudra, for, according to Manu, there is no fifth (nasti tu panchamah). So at a time when the Sakas and the Yavanas were recognized as clean Sudras, the door of the orthodox fold was open to them as Sudras, that is, on their acknowledging the supremacy of the Brahmans, and not, like the Kshatriyas of old, disputing the same.

Manu goes a step beyond Patanjali and says that alien peoples like the Sakas, Yavanas, Pahlavas, Chinas, etc., were originally Kshatriyas and have degenerated into Sudras on account of giving up sacred rites and not seeing or being in touch with the Brahmans (X. 43-44).

This and similar other texts from the Mahabharata are quoted and translated by Muir in his Original Sanskrit Texts, Vol. I (2nd Ed.), Chapter V. (pp. 480-488), including also legends from the Vishnu-Purana and the Harivamsa, which tell us that when Sagara, a king of the Ikshvaku race, was about to slaughter the Sakas, Yavanas, Kambojas, Paradas and Pahlavas, they sought the protection of the sage Vasishtha, through whose intercession Sagara allowed them to escape after destroying their caste (dharma) and making them change their costumes.

A dialogue from Mahabharata, Box XII (quoted by Muir) between king Mandhatri and the god Indra is very interesting. In this dialogue the king asks the god, what religion (dharma) should a king like him prescribe for such folks as the Sakas, Yavanas, Pahlavas, Kambojas, etc., and "persons of the Vaisya and Sudra castes." Indra says in reply that these Dasyus should perform ceremonies ordained in the Vedas and on proper occasions bestow gifts on the Brahmans. It is to be noted that here the alien barbarians or Dasyus are placed in the same category as the Vaisyas and the Sudras. When such beliefs obtained among the Brahmans it was not difficult for a Saka or a Yavana immigrant to obtain admittance into the orthodox fold as a Vaisya or a Sudra and for an alien ruler to rank even as a Kshatriya.

To answer the next question, why and when the Hindus abandoned the practice of admitting foreigners to the Hindu fold, is furnished by a Muhammadan writer, Abu Raihan Alberuni, who came to the Punjab after A.D. 1017 in the reign of Sultan Mahmud of Ghazni to study the different branches of the Sanskrit literature and write his work on India in the year of Madmud's death (A.D. 1030). In Chapter 1 of his book Alberuni describes "the barriers which separate Muslims and Hindus" and endeavours to trace their roots. The barriers mentioned by Alberuni are three in number: (1) the difference of language; (2) the religious prejudices of the Hindus; and (3) the self-conceit of the Hindus and their deprecation of anything foreign. About the second barrier he writes:

    "They (the Hindus) totally differ from us in religion, as we believe in nothing in which they believe, and vice versa … All their fanaticism is directed against those who do not belong to them – against all foreigners. They call them mlechchha, i.e., impure, and forbid having any connexion with them, be it by intermarriage or any other kind of relationship, or by sitting, eating, and drinking with them, because thereby, they think, they would be polluted. They consider as impure anything which touches the fire and the water of a foreigener; and no household can exist without these two elements. Besides, they never desire that a thing which once has been polluted should be purified and thus recovered … They are not allowed to receive anybody who does not belong to them even if he wished it, or was inclined to their religion." [2]

So it may be noted here that at the time of Alberuni the alien invaders from the west are no longer recognized as aniravasita Sudras, but as impure (niravasita) outcastes whose water or fire, to say nothing of utensils used for taking food, are permanently polluted. Alberuni ascribes this change of attitude on the part of the Hindus towards aliens to three different causes. First, to the degradation of the aliens by king Sagara in which legend he seems to find nothing incredible. [3] Secondly:

"Another circumstance which increased the already existing antagonism between Hindus and foreigners is that the so-called Shamaniyya (Buddhists), though they cordially hate the Brahmans, still are nearer akin to them than to others. In former times, Khurasan, Persis, 'Irak, Mosul, the country up to the frontier of Syria, was Buddhistic, but then Zarathustra went forth from Adharbaijan and preached Magism in Balkh (Baktra). His doctrine came into favour with king Gushtasp… The succeeding kings made their religion (i.e., Zoroastrianism) the obligatory state-religion for Persis and 'Irak. In consequence, the Buddhists were banished from those countries, and had to emigrate to the countries east of Balkh. There are some Magians up to the present time in India, where they are called Maga. From that time dates their aversion towards countries of Khurasan." [4]

The only historical interpretation that this confused statement admits of is that the establishment of the Sassanian monarchy (A.D. 226) and the subsequent vigorous revival of Zoroastrianism in the Persian kingdom led to the expulsion of the Buddhists from Khuraasan and other countries and thereby caused a revulsion of feeling among the Hindus with regard to the westerners. Whether there ever was any actual banishment of the Buddhists from the Sassanian kingdom we do not know. But the literature of the period in India that followed the establishment of the Sassanian monarchy discloses great veneration for foreign teachers on the part of the Indians.

Vatsyayana in his commentary on Gautama's Nyaya-darsana, I, 1, 7, says that authoritative testimony (apta-vakya) may proceed from Rishis, Aryas as well as from Mlechchhas. Vatsyayana's commentary is usually assigned to about the end of the fourth century A.D. [5] Alberuni, while speaking of the self-conceit of the Hindus of his own day, writes:

    "If they had traveled and mixed with other nations, they would soon change their mind, for their ancestors were not as narrow-minded as the present generation. One of their scholars, Varahamihira, in a passage where he calls on the people to honour the Brahmans, says: "The Greeks, though impure, must be honoured, since they were trained in sciences and therein excelled others. What, then, are we to say of a Brahmin, if he combines with his purity the height of science?" [6]


[1] Vyakarana-Mahabhasya, edited by Kielthron, Vol. I, p. 2

[2] Alberuni's India, Eng. Tr. By Sachau, London, 1888, Vol. I, pp. 19-20.

[3] Ibid, pp. 20-21.

[4] Ibid, pp. 21.

[5] M.M. Satis Chandra Vidyabhusana traces the influence of Aristotle on Akshapada, the author of the Nyaya-sutras commented on by Vatsyayana and on other writers on Nyaya (logic). J.R.A.S., 1918 pp. 469-488.

[6] Alberuni's India, I, p. 23 and II, p. 263. The stanza of the Brihatsamhita (II, 15) quoted here is thus translated by Kern: "The Greeks (Yavanah), indeed, are foreigners (mlechchah), but with them this science is in a flourishing state. Hence they are honoured as though they were Rishis; how much more than a twice-born man well-versed in astrology." J.R.A.S., 1870, p. 441


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