The Mahabharata: A Brahminical Struggle for Power
The desire for power has always been an issue throughout the ages. As foreign ideas and invaders became a threatening situation, the Brahmin caste during time of the Mahabharata responded by stressing the importance of dharma in society. The writers of the Mahabharata's twelfth book, The Book of Peace, place extra emphasis on dharma to not only maintain order within the kingdom, but also to preserve the social status of Brahmins and dissuade other castes from converting to new and foreign influences in the Mahabharata. To better understand why such an act was needed, this paper will discuss the Brahminical social status relative to other castes, the importance of dharma in society to Brahmins, the growing influence of the Buddhism in India, and lastly the presence of Jainism in society and it’s minor effect.
During the period the Mahabharata was written, there was a clear defined four-tiered caste system consisting of the Sudras, Vaishyas, Kshatriya, and Brahmins. These classes were meant to maintain order by stressing that each class must to adhere to its proper dharma. The Sudras were the lowest level of the caste system. Known typically as slaves and workers, their dharma was to do be slaves or do hard labor. They held no power although they represented a large portion of society. They were owned by the Kshatriya, but they were considered “untouchable” by both Brahmins and Kshatriyas because of the impure stigma placed upon the class by the Brahmins. This idea of impurity of the Sudras pervaded even throughout the class itself, and at the pinnacle of the caste system, there were divisions within the Sudra class
The Vaisyas were placed below the Kshatriya and Brahmins and “slightly above the Sudras” in the caste system. This class’s main focus was agriculture and livestock. Scholars such as Richard Fick state that, “Originally in the oldest Vedic age Vaiyas was a name of the class of cattle-breeding and land-cultivating Aryan settlers, it later served the purpose of the theorizing Brahmins to bind together the unlimited number of social groups.”
They were unable to receive education in Vedic traditions. Since they were the closest to Sudras in class, these two groups occasionally formed distinct classes referred to as “Gahapatis and Kutumbika”
The Kshatriya class was known to consist of the warriors and kings of the caste system. They maintained a symbiotic relationship with the Brahmins. The Kshatriyas depended on the Brahmins to perform detailed rituals since they were the only ones who knew the knowledge to perform them. The Brahmins depended on the Kshatriyas for protection and sustenance. Although the Brahmins had the knowledge the Kshatriyas needed, this did not last. As the Kshatriyas gained access to Vedic literature, they demonstrated equal dedication to the texts as the Brahmins did . This access to Vedic literature prompted the Kshatriyas to begin to question brahminical ways. As the Kshatryias became more educated, “kings were not happy with the parasitical life led by the brahminical class.” This questioning and dissatisfaction aided the development of new ideas and influences.
The Brahmin class focused on performing rituals and the Vedic texts. They put new meaning to the saying, “knowledge is power.” Through their knowledge on how to perform complicated rituals and “special” mystical power, they were able to persuade all the other classes to give to them. Bhishma in the Mahabharata, “tells Yudhisthiria that priest of the sacrifice (rtvij), a family priest (purohita), a teacher, a disciple, relatives and kinsmen can be considered worthy of worship and honour if they are furnished with learning and virtue (Srutavrttopasamhita).”
Essentially describing the Brahmins, Bhisma tells Yudhisthiria and all other classes to give to Brahmins since they fulfill the required criteria on who to give to. The Brahmins were the most organized...
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