By Swami Harshananda
Antyaja literally means ‘the last-born’.
Division of society based on the nature and nurture of the individuals and also their professions is a phenomenon found in many parts of the civilised world. In the special context of India’s ancient history when races and cultures battled and blended, this division also took a unique shape. This is known as the ‘jātipaddhati’. Jāti also means birth. Since children usually adopted the professions of their fathers and forefathers, jāti acquired a functional character in a self-contained economy and a social structure, based on traditional values.
The varṇa system from which the jāti is supposed to have originated was a simple division based on two attributes:
This gradually developed into a labyrinth of jātis and upajātis most of which were grouped under an umbrella term called the ‘śūdras.’ Even among such jāti-s, a few were pushed to the lowest rung of the social ladder because of their unclean food habits and amoral attitude which were unacceptable to the rest of society. Hence they were named as ‘antyaja’ (‘the last-born’).
Probably for the same reason they were also considered aspṛśyas or untouchables. However, neither in the Vedas nor in the earlier smṛtis and dharmaśāstras it has been mentioned of them being treated as such, but only as śudras. The practice of untouchability seems to be a post-Vedic phenomenon.
Some of the jāti-s signified as antyajas are:
- Rajaka - the washerman
- Carmakāra - worker in hides
- Buruḍa - bamboo worker
- Kaivarta - fisherman
- Bhilla - of a forest-tribe or a hill-tribe
During the medieval ages, these jāti-s had often risen in social status due to their organization and wealth. Though jāti barriers have existed in some form all along at social levels, birth in a low jāti has never been considered a bar to spiritual enlightenment as depicted in the story of Dharmavyādha.
History is replete with stories of great saints, who, though born as antyajas, rose to very high spiritual states and were recognized and respected by the society. To mention a few:
- Mahābharata, Vanaparva, 210
- The Concise Encyclopedia of Hinduism, Swami Harshananda, Ram Krishna Math, Bangalore