The Dawn: 14st December, 2012

Aryan caste system and socially mobile Punjabis

Mushtaq Soofi 

Harrapan civilization is the core from which the building blocks of what we call Indian civilization emerged. Home of the Harrapan civilization is Sapta Sindhu, the present day Punjab and Sindh. Harrapan people, though vanquished, contributed in innumerable ways to the formation of what later came to be known as Aryan society (Arya Vart) because of their superior social and cultural development at that point of time.

The Punjab, the first settlement area of the invading Aryans, was surely never fully ‘Aryanised’. At least the evidence gleaned from Vedic and post-Vedic literature suggests so. But first, a few words about Punjab. The word ‘Punjab’ itself apparently seems to be, in historical terms, relatively new. It was first used in the times of Emperor Akbar in the official revenue record, though without doubt the geographical description of the land of five rivers is pretty old. ‘Mahabharata’ calls it Aratta and its people the Balhika in several places. This is how the geographical position of their land is described:
“Where these five rivers, Viz, Satadru, Vipasa, the third Iravati, Candra-bhaga and Vistasta flow and where there are pilu-forests and (where) Sindhu is the sixth to flow out, this country is called Aratta….”

Satadrusca, Vipasa, Iravati, Chandrabhga, and Vitasta are Sutlej, Beas, Ravi, Chenab and Jhelum (local word for the river Jhelum is Vehit).

Another verse says: “That (region) where these five rivers, emerging from the mountains flow, this Aratta (country) is called Balhika where the Arya should not stay even for two days.”

The root cause for this apparent hatred lies in the difference that existed between the social organisation of Harrapan Punjabis and that of Aryans. Aryan social structure was strictly caste-based. The caste system, first mentioned in the ‘Rigveda’ which was composed in Punjab, was never strictly followed by the Punjabi people as was the case in latter days in the Gangetic plains. The Prusha Sukta (Hymn of Man) in Rigveda says: “The Brahmana was his (Purusha’s) mouth; the Rajanya was made out of both his arms. His thighs turned into the Vaishya; from his feet was produced the Shudra”.
While one cannot claim that the ancient Punjab had no caste system, but it can be said with certainty that social and occupational mobility was not a taboo.

Prof Malti G Shengde in her book “The Civilized Demons” quotes the impression of a Brahmin who visited the land of five rivers “having become Brahmins ones, a Balhika becomes Ksatriya, then (he became) Vaisya, Sudra and even a barber.

Having become barber, he again became Brahmin and having become a twice-born, he became a Dasa. In the same family one became Brahmin and the rest followed other professions”, and he concluded that ‘Gandh-aras, Madrakas and Balhika are utterly thoughtless’.

It simply demonstrates that in the ancient Punjab man was free to choose his profession other than that of his family, while it was obligatory to follow the profession of the family in the so-called Aryan society that was used to the strict observance of caste rules. For practices such as free occupational choice and social intermingling, the people of Punjab were denigrated and called Mleecha (aliens, people of border land) by those who believed that status and professions of a person were decided by the caste in which he was born.

That is why the religion of the ancient Punjabi was declared Nastadharama (destroyed religion). It had certain egalitarian aspects to the dismay of Arya divines. Hate spewing sages have a long and complex history. Probably as the Punjabi today again faces the same cycle of puritanical religious classification, going by purely historic trends we might well, hopefully, quickly reach the tolerant stage of ‘nastadharama’.

This is the first of a new weekly column by Mushtaq Soofi, poet, author and media person. After working with PTV for many years as producer and manager of programmes, since 2007, he is associated with a privately-run music studio in Lahore. He is a well known name of the Punjab literature and has seven books in the Punjabi language to his credit.

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