Perhaps a modern expression equivalent to the word Sudra, compatible with its original essence, is the word alien (newcomer, outsider or stranger to the tribe).
In any case, to express the mobility characteristic of sudra (as an alien, newcomer or migrant to society or tribe) it is expressed in relation to feet of the society (in humanlike or anthropomorphic form in the Purusha Sukta of Rig Veda – book 10: hymn 90)
Purusha Sukta hymn in the above uses anthropomorphic view of a tribe (society), symbolically reflecting different characteristics and origins of various groups – brahmin being the mouth or voice (indicates the importance of oration and transfer of knowledge in the tribe), kshatriya being the arms of society (important in maintaining order and law and ensuring tribe’s existence against outside attacks), vaishya as the thighs (acting as the support system for entire society and also representing the basic structure of the society), and sudra as the feet (reflecting newcomers to the society or tribe, and other transitional changes).
Incidentally, there is nothing demeaning here about the use of word Sudra or its expression in terms of feet of anthropomorphic Purusha. Note that any negative connotation involving the word Sudra probably could have arisen later — some people thinking that Sudra, as an outsider or alien, might be unfamiliar or ignorant about the tribe (society), and nothing more.
The reference to feet in the Purusha Sukta is not unique in relation to Sudra. When Purusha Sukta considers the world (in stead of the society) in humanlike form or anthropomorphic way, the word feet is used in relation to Earth and the other parts of body represent other heavenly bodies. In any case, Earth (even though looked at as the feet in the Purusha Sukta) is extremely revered in the Vedas – there are several Vedic hymns dedicated to the worship of Earth.
Alien (migrant – using the feet) versus servant (using the hands)
In the Purusha Sukta, ‘padabhyam sudro ajayat’ (using or with the feet Sudra appeared) is a reference to an alien or a migrant (transmigrating by using the feet) and not to a servant who in stead would be using his hands (‘hasta’) to provide service to others.
The references in the Purusha Sukta to different parts of body simply reflect the main characteristics of various groups, such as the mouth or ‘mukha’ (which is not the head btw) in case of brahmin (for oration of knowledge) and the feet or ‘pada’ in case of sudra (for transmigration). There is nothing here about the hierarchy or superiority of mouth over feet.
There is also nothing demeaning about the above reference to feet in the Purusha Sukta. Note that the very revered Earth in the Vedas is also referenced with respect to feet in another part of the Purusha Sukta (related to the world / cosmos).
Essence of the word sudra in the above is similar to a number of words currently in use, alien (in English) and ajnabi (in Arabic). Moreover, in spite of being a sudra (outsider or newcomer to the tribe, or a person of unknown or mixed origin) he could still pursue other professions (including the brahmin) and he was not limited to providing assistance and service to others. There are several examples of sudras going on to become famous brahmins (even sages) after getting proper training and education.
Among the noteworthy such cases from the past — sudras who became brahmins after getting education and training and had their names associated directly with ancient philosophy and literature — Valmiki and Satyakama are quite well known. In addition, there were several others who had one or both parents as sudra and they also went on to became brahmins (after getting education and training) and are now known only as brahmins in ancient texts (Vedas and the Epics etc.). Needless to say, analogous to these examples (famous brahmins from sudras) there must be other sudras long ago who also got education and training and became brahmins, but their names are not known now because they did not make significant philosophical and literary contributions in their acquired profession (brahmin), worthy of having their names mentioned now. Thus, unlike Valmiki et al., the names of these ordinary brahmins are completely forgotten now.
The Veda and Purusha Sukta (hymn)
It is to the credit of early humans (brahmins and others) for creating and compiling the veda (meaning knowledge). Vedas not only refer to the ancient religious texts but also include information and record of history of early civilization and its development. The information in the Veda was passed on by Brahmins, responsible for storing and transmitting the knowledge (information), from teacher to students and from one generation to the next in the form of sruti (oral form) because there were very few written manuscripts available at that time, mainly on papyrus etc. since the paper had not been invented yet.
The ancients also recorded in these hymns the usual as well as the unusual sightings and experiences they had. These hymns are now a great source of information to us about the distant past. They not only reveal as to what was happening long ago, but also shed light on important observations and realizations by our ancestors long ago. For example, as indicated in a number of Vedic hymns, people were aware about the need for clean environment (water and air etc.), importance of hygiene (washing etc.) on the part of physicians while practicing medicine, sunlight having seven constituents, and the Moon shining because of the sunlight and having a great influence on humans (including their emotional state) and vegetation (its quality), and so on.
In the Purusha Sukta hymn, the reference to Purusha is not really to a typical human but probably to a complex and strange being or beings. Or, perhaps it indicates an unusual occurrence or happening which came to the notice of hymn’s author. This strange observation or experience was analyzed and applied symbolically to a number of situations at that time by using anthropomorphic view etc. of society and cosmos (creation). It is also a reflection on trying to explain and probably relate to the mysterious Purusha (symbolizing the ancient happening or unusual experience) by using the effects of a later date (at the time of this hymn).
Pandavas traveling and working as Sudra
Originally there seem to have been only two groups of people: vaishya (those belonging to the tribe) and sudra (outsiders or not belonging to the tribe, whether wholly or partially). Vaishya used to have among themselves brahmins to work as priests and store and transmit the Veda (knowledge). In addition, vaishya would choose kshatriya to act in the capacity of tribal chief and to control and regulate the tribe. Thus, altogether, from the original two (vaishya and sudra), there were four classes or castes of people (vaishya, brahmin, kshatriya and sudra).
Note that there was nothing like the panchama (fifth) class or varna and nothing like the dalit category. Moreover, all the skilled and unskilled types of labor fell under the main category Vaishya. In other words, vaishya performed every task in the tribe, except priesthood (brahmin) and that of tribal leader (kshatriya). Vaishya was not limited to merchant and farming, but also included carpentry, leather making and working, cleaning of stables and crematoriums, and other vocations in the tribe.
On the other hand, shudra was just an outsider and new to the tribe and usually ended up providing help to Vaishya etc., whenever and wherever necessary. Note also in the following story, from the Mahabharata, in which kshatriya princes Nakul and Sehdev assume the roles of sudras in the kingdom of Matsya and provide help in performing unskilled job of cleaning the stables, etc.
Furthermore, there is little evidence in ancient Hindu texts (Epics etc.) about enslavement of people because of their caste. Even the problems of untouchability and discrimination against some people in India according to caste (sudra etc.) were not universal and widespread (everywhere and to the same extent). Moreover, such sporadic casteism (discrimination etc. on the basis of caste) did not go very far back and might be existing only for a few centuries recently, notwithstanding the existence of very questionable and spurious proclamations of Manusmriti.
In any case, the cases of caste based discrimination and ill treatment of people cannot be considered as enslavement. Similarly, any ill treatment of people at the hands of others had more to do with their poor economic condition rather than the caste label alone.
Enslavement of people on the basis of caste was not even possible in India. The tools (guns, rifles and bombs) used in the mass enslavement of people, especially when the minority enslaves the majority, are relatively new – only a few centuries old. And during that time, when guns etc. arrived in India, that country and majority of Hindus were under Muslim control. Thus during that time, Hindus living under the Muslim rule, minority Hindus (Rajputs and kshatriya etc.) could not enslave a large population of fellow Hindus (Sudra). Before that, when Hindus used to be free prior to the Muslim rule, they had only swords etc. and no guns and bombs. Note, swords are not ideally suited to enslave people on massive scale, especially if a small number people try to keep and control a larger group than themselves. This indicates that there is no historic possibility of a mass enslavement of Sudra by fellow Hindus. In other words, the very basis for such caste based enslavement (according to religion and weapons etc.) did not exist.
Consider also the following incident in the Mahabharata which indicates that people were doing all sorts of work without encountering and feeling the stigma of caste (their vocation).
During the exile of ‘kshatriya’ Pandavas from their kingdom Hastinapur when they were forced to live incognito for almost a year, they traveled (essentially on foot) and ended up virtually as unknowns (Sudra) in the Matsya kingdom.
There, Yuddhistra, the eldest Pandava, took a job as an adviser to Virata (king of Matsya). Bhima, the second brother / Pandava, started working as a cook in the kitchen. Arjuna, the third Pandava and most in danger from Kauravas, dressed up as a woman and taught music and dance to girls. The fourth and fifth brothers, Nakul and Sehdev respectively, took jobs in cleaning the stables and horse grooming. Drupadi, the Pandava queen, took a job as a maid in the royal household.
Pandavas and Drupadi stayed and worked incognito for almost a year in Matsya before revealing their true identities to Virata and others, and then returned to Hastinapur to resume their royal roles. This shows people could operate in different vocations and occupy different caste labels, even go back and forth, such as, from kshatriya to sudra and then back to kshatriya.
Moreover, before Pandavas returned to their kingdom from Matsya, Arjuna expressed a desire that his son Abhimanyu, who was away at that time and living with his maternal uncle, should marry Virata’s daughter Uttra whom Arjuna had taught music and dance while he disguised himself as a woman earlier. Uttra, with the approval from her father Virata, quickly and gladly accepted the marriage proposal to Abhimanyu. It shows that even while living and working as Sudra by Arjuna and other Pandavas in Virata’s kingdom did not impair the chances of Arjuna’s son marrying a kshatriya princess, Uttra (Virata’s daughter).
~ Dr. Subhash C. Sharma