Excerpted from "The Hindus: An Alternative History" by Wendy Doniger. Reprinted by arrangement with The Penguin Press, a member of Penguin Group (USA), Inc. Copyright (c) March, 2009.
Other Others: Marginalizing Intoxication and Addiction
The marginalized people in the lowest social levels of the Veda--Dasas, Shudras--may have included people who were Other not, or not only, in their social class but in their religious practices, such as the wandering bands of warrior ascetics the Vedas refer to as the Vratyas ("People Who Have Taken Vows"), who practiced flagellation and other forms of self-mortification and traveled from place to place in bullock carts. Vratyas were sometimes regarded as inside, sometimes outside mainstream society; the Brahmins sought to bring them into the Vedic system by special purification rituals, and the Vratyas may have introduced some of their own beliefs and practices into Vedic religion.
Or the Others may have been drop-out and turn-on types like the protohippie described in a poem:
THE LONG-HAIRED ASCETIC
Long-Hair holds fire, holds the drug, holds sky and earth. . . . These ascetics,
swathed in wind [i.e., naked], put dirty saffron rags on. "Crazy with asceticism,
we have mounted the wind. Our bodies are all you mere mortals can see." . . .
Long-Hair drinks from the cup, sharing the drug with Rudra."
The dirty rags identify these people as either very poor or willingly alienated from social conventions such as dress; that they wear saffron-colored robes may be an early form of the ocher robes that later marked many renunciant groups. Rudra is the master of poison and medicines, but also of consciousness-altering drugs, one of which may have been used here, as such drugs often are, to induce the sensation of flying and of viewing one's own body from outside. Rudra was the embodiment of wildness, unpredictable danger, and fever but also the healer and cooler, who attacks "like a ferocious wild beast." He lives on the margins of the civilized world as one who comes from the outside, an intruder, and is excluded from the Vedic sacrifice. He is a hunter. He stands for what is violent, cruel, and impure in the society of gods or at the edge of the divine world.
The Rig Veda also tells us of people marginalized not by class or religious practices but by their antisocial behavior under the influence of some addiction. One Vedic poem lists "wine, anger, dice, or carelessness" as the most likely cause of serious misbehavior. Wine and dice are two of the four addictive vices of lust (sex and hunting being the other two), to which considerable attention was paid throughout Indian history. We have seen dice in the Indus Valley Civilization, and we will see gambling with dice remain both a major pastime (along with chariot racing and hunting) and the downfall of kings. Ordinary people as well as kings could be ruined by gambling, as is evident from the stark portrayal of a dysfunctional family in this Vedic poem:
"She did not quarrel with me or get angry; she was kind to my friends and to me.
Because of a losing throw of the dice I have driven away a devoted wife. My
wife's mother hates me, and my wife pushes me away. The man in trouble finds
no one with sympathy. They all say, 'I find a gambler as useless as an old horse
that someone wants to sell.' Other men fondle the wife of a man whose possessions
have been taken by the plundering dice. His father, mother, and brothers all
say of him, 'We do not know him. Tie him up and take him away.' When I swear,
'I will not play with them,' my friends leave me behind and go away. But when
the brown dice raise their voice as they are thrown down, I run at once to the rendezvous
with them, like a woman to her lover." . . . The deserted wife of the gambler
grieves, and the mother grieves for her son who wanders anywhere, nowhere.
In debt and in need of money, frightened, he goes at night to the houses of other
men. It torments the gambler to see his wife the woman of other men, in their
comfortable rooms. But he yoked the brown horses in the early morning, and at
evening he fell down by the fire, no longer a man.
Like a character in a Dostoyevsky novel, the gambler prays not to win but just to stop losing, indeed to stop playing altogether; his inability to stop is likened to a sexual compulsion or addiction. The "brown horses" that he yokes may be real horses or a metaphor for the brown dice; in either case, they destroy him. (The gambler's wife who is fondled by other men reappears in the Mahabharatawhen the wife of the gambler Yudhishthira is stripped in the public assembly.) At the end of the poem, a god (Savitri, the god of the rising and setting sun) warns the gambler, "Play no longer with the dice, but till your field; enjoy what you possess, and value it highly. There are your cattle, and there is your wife."
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