Sudras (also Sudhra or Shudra) are people occupying a position next to the bottom of the Hindu caste system in India. Most Sudras are menial workers. At times it is difficult to distinguish Sudras from untouchables (Dalits), who stand below them and are considered to be so polluted that they are regarded as outside the caste system entirely. The Vaisya (Vaishya) or merchant caste stands directly above the Sudras in India’s cast hierarchy.
Identifying a member of the Sudra class is a matter of recognizing subtle distinctions with which one becomes familiar after living around Sudras. They are usually identified by their vocabulary, which may include vulgarities; by the towns where they live or were born; by their occupations or by their personal names, which may include a reference to their occupations; and by other subtle characteristics. By tradition when a Sudra dies, the body is taken to the burial place through a south gate because all other gates are reserved for the upper castes. There have been times when the jobs performed by Sudras were considered to be so polluting that Sudras were considered equivalent to untouchables. Strictly speaking, this would not be their status by birth but by economic actions. In addition Sudras could be exiled or slain at will.
Caste, or varna (literally, “color”), is affirmed by the Vedas as an expression of cosmic law ( rita ). Sudras are associated with the color black, which may have originated in the colors assigned to the various varna . One Hindu justification for the caste system rests in the belief that people were created from parts of the body of the god Purusha. Social standing is defined by the part of Purusha from which a person and his or her line is descended. Sudras are said to come from the feet.
In the Hindu Rig-Veda, the dvijas (twice-born) are identified as members of the Brahman, Kshatriya, and Vaisya castes. At about twelve years of age, members of these castes underwent a ceremony that made them “twice-born,” and they were thereafter permitted to study the Vedic scriptures. The Sudras were not dvijas and therefore were not allowed to study the Vedas. Such study usually consisted of listening to recitations or readings of the Vedas because the very sounds were believed to have religious power. Some ancient legal books report that Sudras caught listening to Vedic recitations had molten lead poured into their ears. A Sudra could also have been forced to drink boiling oil if he or she claimed to have taught someone something learned from the Vedas.
The ancient Hindu Laws of Manu discusses castes in great detail. This text gives names to the offspring of unions of men with wives of the different castes and to those born to unmarried parents. The Chandalas were produced by the union of a Sudra father and a Brahman mother. A Nishada (or Parasava ) was produced by a Brahman father and a Sudra mother. A Sudra father and a Vaisya mother produced an Ayogava . A Sudra father and a Kshatriya mother produced a Kshattri . In addition the son of a Sudra man by a Nishada woman was identified as a Kukkutaka, among the many such designations outlined by the Laws of Manu .
The powerless Sudras were assigned to the rank of servants in India, and most service and menial jobs became their duties. According to the Laws of Manu, a Sudra faced with starvation could engage in handicrafts. However, the best way of life for a Sudra was to serve a Brahman, because this was the best occupation and prepared one for the next life. A Sudra is unable to lose caste, being already at the bottom; however, Sudras can prepare for the next world by imitating the virtuous.
Although Indians traditionally organized people into four major, rigidly defined social classes or castes, contemporary Indian society includes several thousand subcastes called jati, meaning “birth,” “lineage,” or “race.” Most jati probably developed from hereditary occupational practices. Many jati are regionally based. Some jati groups comprise only a few hundred families, while others may include thousands of families. Usually these are endogamous status groups.
Another function of varna is that it creates a complex system of purity and impurity. The ritual purity one acquires at birth may be enhanced by the practice of rituals during life. The higher the caste, the purer are its members. However, the higher castes are also considered to face the grave danger of ritual contamination from members of the lower castes. Purity regulations codify many areas of Indian life, especially those involving intimacy, such as drinking, eating, touching, and marriage. According to the Laws of Manu, drinking from a vessel after a Sudra used it would cause spiritual pollution of members of the higher castes. Purification requires a three-day regimen of drinking water in which kusa grass has been boiled. In addition twice-born Indians are forbidden to eat food prepared by a Sudra because it is considered to be impure. If a Brahman died with Sudra food undigested in his or her stomach, that person would be reborn as a Sudra. Sudras were urged to fast and eat only the leftovers of the dvijas . To become Vaisyas in the next life, Sudras had to abstain from meat.
Practices regarding touch have remained a sensitive area. If a Sudra should accidentally touch someone of a higher caste, such as a Brahman, then the Brahman would consider himself or herself contaminated, and extensive rites of purification would be necessary to remove the stain. Marriage is permitted only between members of the jati of a particular varna . According to the Laws of Manu, mixed-caste marriages violate the cosmic law of dharma that orders the world. Such marriages would therefore cause chaos.
In Tamil-speaking areas of South India, the population is made up mostly of Sudras, with only a few Brahmans and almost no Kshatriyas or Vaisyas living in many areas. Tamil-speaking Sudras have developed practices unknown to the original caste system of northern India. Among the numerous rankings of agricultural Tamil, the success of many Sudras has in practice put them above other castes in wealth and power.
Discrimination on the basis of caste has been against the law in India since the country achieved independence from Britain in 1947. However, the Hindu system requires castes, so the lives of many Sudras in tradition-bound rural India have barely changed. Many still belong to agricultural jati in which they are landlords or members of particular skill groups, giving them an incentive to maintain the caste system.
In urban areas the pace of life makes it more difficult to practice caste discrimination. While discrimination still exists in many rural areas, it is breaking down in India’s cities. Urban Sudras have been able to organize and use political power to advance the status of their caste. Their success has been limited, however, by their numerous jati and the continuance in many areas of Hinduism’s varna belief. Long practice enforces personal and informal discrimination despite the laws, but in many areas prosperous Sudras are marrying into higher castes. When this occurs, Sudras often change their names to disguise their Sudra origin.
SEE ALSO Brahmins; Caste; Caste, Anthropology of; Dalits; Distinctions, Social and Cultural; Hierarchy; Hinduism; Kshatriyas; Purification; Stratification; Vaisyas
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Pfaffenberger, Bryan. 1982. Caste in Tamil Culture: The Religious Foundations of Sudra Domination in Tamil Sri Lanka. Syracuse, NY: Syracuse University Press.
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Andrew J. Waskey