Why do Bramha sutras say that Shudras cannot listen to Vedas?


The specific sutras you reference have always been controversial. All the arguments, on all sides, narrow down to one question - who is sudra, who is not; is varna from birth, or from conduct. The specific verses are Brahma Sutras 1.3.34-38. Before quoting these verses and some commentary in both Shankaracharya and Ramanuja, it is best to first reference Chandogya Upanishad as both reference it. The Chandogya Upanishad IV.4.3-5. These verses read (

Verse 4.4.3

स ह हारिद्रुमतं गौतममेत्योवाच ब्रह्मचर्यं भगवति वत्स्याम्युपेयां भगवन्तमिति ॥ ४.४.३ ॥

sa ha hāridrumataṃ gautamametyovāca brahmacaryaṃ bhagavati vatsyāmyupeyāṃ bhagavantamiti || 4.4.3 ||

  1. Satyakāma went to Gautama, the son of Haridrumata, and said: ‘Revered sir, I wish to live with you as a celibate. I have come, revered sir, to be your disciple’.

Word-for-word explanation:

Saḥ ha hāridmmatam gautamam etya, he went to Gautama, the son of Haridrumata; uvāca, [and] said; brahmacaryam bhagavati vatsyāmi, revered sir, I wish to live [with you] as a celibate student; upeyām bhagavantam iti, I have come to you, revered sir, [as a disciple].

Verse 4.4.4

तं होवाच किंगोत्रो नु सोम्यासीति स होवाच नाहमेतद्वेद भो यद्गोत्रोऽहमस्म्यपृच्छं मातरं सा मा प्रत्यब्रवीद्बह्वहं चरन्ती परिचरिणी यौवने त्वामलभे साहमेतन्न वेद यद्गोत्रस्त्वमसि जबाला तु नामाहमस्मि सत्यकामो नाम त्वमसीति सोऽहं सत्यकामो जाबालोऽस्मि भो इति ॥ ४.४.४ ॥

taṃ hovāca kiṃgotro nu somyāsīti sa hovāca nāhametadveda bho yadgotro'hamasmyapṛcchaṃ mātaraṃ sā mā pratyabravīdbahvahaṃ carantī paricariṇī yauvane tvāmalabhe sāhametanna veda yadgotrastvamasi jabālā tu nāmāhamasmi satyakāmo nāma tvamasīti so'haṃ satyakāmo jābālo'smi bho iti || 4.4.4 ||

  1. Gautama asked him, ‘O Somya, what is your lineage?’ Satyakāma said: ‘Sir, I do not know what my lineage is. When I asked my mother, she said to me: “I was very busy serving many people when I was young, and I had you. As this was the situation, I know nothing about your lineage. My name is Jabālā, and your name is Satyakāma.” So, sir, I am Satyakāma Jābāla’.

Word-for-word explanation:

Tam ha uvāca, he [Gautama] said to him; kim gotraḥ nu somya asi iti, O Somya, what is your lineage; saḥ ha uvāca, he [Satyakāma] said; na aham etat veda bhoḥ, I do not know this, sir; yat gotraḥ aham asmi, of what lineage I am; apṛccham mātaram, I asked my mother; sā mā pratyabravīt, she said to me; bahu aham carantī paricāriṇī, I was busy serving many people; yauvane tvām alabhe, I had you when I was young; sā etat, for this reason; aham yat gotraḥ tvam asi na veda, I know nothing about what your lineage is; jabālā tu nāma aham asmi, but my name is Jabālā; satyakāmaḥ nāma tvam asi, your name is Satyakāma; saḥ aham satyakāmaḥ jābālaḥ asmi bhoḥ iti, so I am Satyakāma Jābāla, sir.


Jabālā told Satyakāma the truth and, should anyone ask him, she told him to tell the truth also—irrespective

Verse 4.4.5

तं होवाच नैतदब्राह्मणो विवक्तुमर्हति समिधं सोम्याहरोप त्वा नेष्ये न सत्यादगा इति तमुपनीय कृशानामबलानां चतुःशता गा निराकृत्योवाचेमाः सोम्यानुसंव्रजेति ता अभिप्रस्थापयन्नुवाच नासहस्रेणावर्तेयेति स ह वर्षगणं प्रोवास ता यदा सहस्रं सम्पेदुः ॥ ४.४.५ ॥ ॥ इति चतुर्थः खण्डः ॥

taṃ hovāca naitadabrāhmaṇo vivaktumarhati samidhaṃ somyāharopa tvā neṣye na satyādagā iti tamupanīya kṛśānāmabalānāṃ catuḥśatā gā nirākṛtyovācemāḥ somyānusaṃvrajeti tā abhiprasthāpayannuvāca nāsahasreṇāvarteyeti sa ha varṣagaṇaṃ provāsa tā yadā sahasraṃ sampeduḥ || 4.4.5 || || iti caturthaḥ khaṇḍaḥ ||

  1. Gautama said to him: ‘No non-brāhmin could speak like this. [Therefore, you must be a brāhmin.] O Somya, go and get me some fuel [for the sacrificial fire]. I will initiate you [as a brāhmin by presenting you with the sacred thread], as you have not deviated from truth.’ After the initiation, he selected four hundred feeble and famished cows. Addressing Satyakāma, Gautama said, ‘O Somya, take these cows away [and look after them].’ As Satyakāma was taking them away, he said, ‘I will not come back until there are a thousand of them.’ He lived away for many years until they had become a thousand.

Word-for-word explanation:

Tam ha uvāca, he [Gautama] said to him; na etat abrāhmaṇaḥ vivaktum arhati, no non-brāhmin could speak like this; samidham āhara, get some fuel; somya, O Somya; tvā upaneṣye, I shall initiate you; na satyāt agāḥ iti, you have not deviated from truth; tam upanīya, having initiated him; kṛśānām abalānām catuḥśatāḥ gāḥ, four hundred thin and famished cows; nirākṛtya uvāca, having chosen, he said; somya, O Somya; anusaṃvraja iti, take these away; tāḥ abhiprasthāpayan, as he was leaving with them; uvāca, he [Satyakāma] said; na āvarteya asahasreṇa, I will not come back until they are a thousand in number; saḥ ha varṣagaṇam provāsa, he lived away for a long time; tāḥ yadā sahasram sampeduḥ, until they were a thousand. Iti caturthaḥ khaṇḍaḥ, here ends the fourth section.


The point is, no matter what Satyakāma’s birth was, he had the qualities of a brāhmin—love of truth and learning. Though he had to suffer much hardship living in the forest looking after the cows, he was more concerned with keeping his word than with seeking physical comforts.

Now, Shankara's Brahma Sutras read, Swami Vireswarananda translator (Chapter 1, Section 3, Adikarana IX -

Chapter I, Section III, Adhikarana IX

Adhikarana summary: The right of the Sudras to the study of the Vedas discussed

Brahma-Sutra 1.3.34: Sanskrit text and English translation.

शुगस्य तदनादरश्रवणात्, तदाद्रवणात्, सूच्यते हि ॥ ३४॥

śugasya tadanādaraśravaṇāt, tadādravaṇāt, sūcyate hi || 34 ||

śuk—Grief; asya—his; tat-anādaraśravaṇāt—from hearing his (the Rishi’s) contemptuous words; tat—that (grief); ādravaṇāt—owing to his approaching; sūcyate—is referred to; hi—because.

  1. His (King Janasruti’s) grief (arose) from hearing the contemptuous words (of the Rishi in the form of a swan); owing to his approaching (Raikva overwhelmed with) that (grief) (Raikva called him Sudra); because it (the grief) is referred to (by Raikva, who could read his mind).

In the previous Sutra it has been shown that the gods are entitled to the Vedas and Knowledge. This Sutra discusses whether the Sudras are entitled to them or not. Since, like the gods, the Sudras also are possessed of a body, strength, and desires, it naturally follows that they too are entitled. In Chhandogya 4.2.5 Raikva at first calls Janasruti, a Sudra, when he comes for instruction with presents, which are refused. But when he appears a second time, Raikva again calls him a Sudra, but this time accepts his presents and teaches him. So it is maintained that the Sudras also are qualified for Knowledge.

This Sutra refutes the view and denies the right to the study of the Vedas for a Sudra by caste, since the word ‘Sudra’ occurring in the text referred to does not denote a Sudra by birth, which is its conventional meaning, for Janasruti was a Kshatriya king (Chh. 4. 1 . 3). Here we must take the etymological meaning of the word, which is “He rushed into grief” or “He in his grief immediately approached Raikva.” The following Sutra also shows that he was a Kshatriya.

Brahma-Sutra 1.3.35: Sanskrit text and English translation.

क्षत्रियत्वगतेश्चोत्तरत्र चैत्ररथेन लिङ्गात् ॥ ३५ ॥

kṣatriyatvagateścottaratra caitrarathena liṅgāt || 35 ||

kṣatriyatvagateḥ—(His) Kshatriyahood being unknown; ca—and; uttaratra—later on; caitrarathena liṅgāt—by the indicatory sign (of his being mentioned) along with a descendant of Chitraratha (a Kshatriya).

  1. And because the Kshatriyahood (of Janasruti) is known later on by the indicatory sign (of his being mentioned) along with a descendant of Chitraratha (a Kshatriya).

Janasruti is mentioned with the Kshatriya Chaitraratha Abhpratarin in connection with the same Vidya, and so we can infer that Janasruti also was a Kshatriya, for as a rule equals alone are mentioned together.

Brahma-Sutra 1.3.36: Sanskrit text and English translation.

संस्कारपरामर्शात् तदभावाभिलापाच्च ॥ ३६ ॥

saṃskāraparāmarśāt tadabhāvābhilāpācca || 36 ||

saṃskāra-parāmarśāt—Purificatory ceremonies being mentioned; tat-abhāva-abhilāpāt—its absence being declared; ca—and.

  1. Because purificatory ceremonies are mentioned (in the case of the twice-born) and their absence are declared (in the case of the Sudras).

Purificatory ceremonies like Upanayana etc. are declared bv the scriptures to be a necessary condition of the study of all kinds of knowledge or Vidya; but these are meant only for the higher castes. Their absence in the case of the Sudras is repeatedly declared in the scriptures. “Sudras do not incur sin (by eating prohibited food), nor have they any purificatory rights” etc. (Manu 10 . 12 . 6).

Consequently they are not entitled to the study of the Vedas.

Brahma-Sutra 1.3.37: Sanskrit text and English translation.

तदभाव tadabhāvanirdhāraṇe ca pravṛtteḥ || 37 ||

tadabhāva-nirdhāraṇe—On the ascertainment of the absence of that (Sudrahood); ca—and; pravṛtteḥ—from inclination.

  1. And because the inclination (on the part of Gautama to impart Knowledge is seen only) on the ascertainment of the absence of Sudrahood (in Jabala Satyakama).

That Sudras are not qualified is known also from the fact that great teachers like Gautama made sure before imparting Knowledge that disciples like Jabala Satyakama were not Sudras. See Chh. 4. 4. 5.

Brahma-Sutra 1.3.38: Sanskrit text and English translation.

श्रवणाध्ययनार्थप्रतिषेधात् स्मृतेश्च ॥ ३८ ॥

śravaṇādhyayanārthapratiṣedhāt smṛteśca || 38 ||

śravaṇa-adhyayana-artha-pratiṣedhāt—Because of the prohibition of hearing, studying, and understanding; smṛteḥ—in the Smriti; ca—and.

  1. And because of the prohibition in the Smriti of hearing and studying (the Vedas) and knowing their meaning and performing Vedic rites (to Sudras, they are not entitled to the knowledge of Brahman).

Sutras 34-38 disqualify the Sudra for the knowledge of Brahman through the study of the Vedas. But it is possible for them to attain that knowledge through the Puranas and the epics (Ramayana and Mahabharata).

The digression begun from Sutra 26 ends here and the general topic is again taken up.

In Ramanuja's Sri-Bhasya, we see essentially the same verses and meanings. However, we see a slight difference here as the Sri-Bhasya has one more verse that reads (Brahma-Sutras Sri Bhasya, translation by Swami VIreshwarananda):

  1. And on account of Smriti texts (which prohibit hearing and studying of the Vedas by Sudras).

Smritis also prohibit imparting Vedic knowledge to Sudras. 'He is not to teach him (a Sudra) sacred duties or vows.' (Manu IV. 80.).

Who is Sudra? Who is not Sudra? Is Sudra by birth? Or by conduct?

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