The Shudra: An extraction of the human

In 2019, when working on the annotations to Dr B.R. Ambedkar’s 1948 work The Untouchables (which resulted in Beef, Brahmins and Broken Men), we came across a forgotten book published in 1997—The Shudra: A Philosophical Narrative of Indian Superhumanism. We instantly realised we had stumbled on an unheralded classic. The author Jalalul Haq was an ungoogleable elusive man. We tracked the retired professor in Aligarh where he had taught philosophy at the eponymous university for decades. The ideas The Shudra explores are as enthralling as groundbreaking. We had to re-publish it. Prof Haq was more bemused than flattered by our enthusiasm, but he agreed to let us do a new edition. Here is a book that deals with some of the biggest concepts about Indian history—so much of which is mired in mythology and religious jugglery. So here it is again, with updates, revisions and additions—The Shudra: A Philosophical Narrative of Indian Superhumanism. When we presented this edition to thinking scholars, there was a chorus of ayes. Vaibhav Abnave of the Prabuddha Collective says, “Haq speculates a philosophical trajectory that provokes us to think the annihilation of caste”. Navayana author Aishwary Kumar of Stanford University thinks “The Shudra is a moral paleontology for our times”, and the historian Uma Chakravarti calls it “a brave book that should be widely read”. To showcase all this, November design studio’s Shiva Nallaperumal came up with an inspired cover.

What’s the ado about? For a lot us interested in Indian history, the trajectory is laid out. First there were the Brahmins, who created caste and cannot live without it. Then came heterodoxies like Buddhism and Jainism that tried to counter Brahmanism. In the end Brahmanism won out, and here we are today. But Haq throws a spanner in the works. Is it really so simple? Are Brahmanism and Buddhism really so separate? Wading through historical fictions Jalalul Haq reaches for the truth. He conducts a philosophical autopsy of ancient texts, meticulously reading between the lines to uncover the early history of caste. He shows how inequality pervaded Buddhism, Jainism and other heterodox sects, even as they tried to counter the hegemony of Brahmanism.

Vedic literature has the same word for both man and God—purusha. The Vedic seers ritually sacrifice Purusha, the God, thereby also killing purusha, the spiritual–cultural man. This births the ‘caste-man’, who is not man at all. The caste-man is either higher or lower. A handful are superhuman: gods, priests, Brahmans. And the masses are subhuman: the Shudra. From this clash of gods and demons, Haq attempts to extract the human.