Helots and Sudras
The Sudra varna of the ancient India, have been compared to the Helots of the ancient Spartans. No Spartan would intermarry with the Helots. Helots were disarmed but the Spartans, like kshatriyas were trained killers to perfection. Whereas the Ephors declared a state of war once a year, under Indian caste system the Sudra could be disciplined in a very violent manner at any time. It can be seen that with the exception of the pollution taboo of untouchability, which came later, the early Sudra servitude does bear some comparison with the helots of the Spartan state.
The distinctiveness of the Spartan way of life was fundamentally a reaction to their living in the midst of people whom they had conquered in war and enslaved to exploit economically but who outnumbered them greatly. To maintain their superiority over their conquered Laconian neighbours, from whom they had derived their subsistence, Spartan men had to turn themselves into a society of soldiers constantly on guard1.
This would be similar to the Aryan expansion into the indigenous Indian Adivasi territory with the autochthons being enslaved not as individuals but as a collective, but on a small scale basis, by the Kshatriya/Brahmin combined class which would be the Spartan equivalent of Spartan Hoplite warrior/Ephors.
It was the labour of this hostile population, compelled to farm to produce food for the free Spartans, that allowed Spartan men to devote themselves to full-time training for hoplite warfare in order to protect themselves from external enemies and to suppress helots rebellions, especially in Messenia. Later ancient commentators described the helots as “between slave and free” (Pollux, Onomasticon 3.83) because they were not the natural property of individual Spartans but rather slaves belonging to the whole community, which alone could free them1.
The Sudras were not slaves in the sense of being the private property of a single individual but at least in the initial stages they belonged to the Aryan clan to which they were attached.
In their private lives, helots could keep some personal possessions and practice their religion, as could slaves generally in Greece. Publically however helots lived under the threat of officially sanctioned violence. Every year the ephors formally declared a state of war on the helots to exist between Sparta and the helots, thereby allowing any Spartan to kill any helot without any civil penalty or fear of offending the gods by unsanctioned murder. By beating the helots frequently, forcing to get them drunk (on uncut wine) in public as an object lesson to the young Spartans, marking them out by having them wear dog-skin caps and generally treating them with scorn, the Spartans consistently emphasised the otherness of the helots compared to themselves and the helots to justify their harsh treatment of fellow Greeks1.
The disabilities and the ill treatment of sudras/helots was common to both societies, the violence in each case sanctioned by religion. We do not find large scale Sudra rebellions in India just as we do not find large scale rebellions of the helots in ancient Greek. The combined oppressive military, social and legal means were sufficient to keep the oppressed classes in check in both cases. It is in modern India that we find large scale atrocities reminiscent of the Spartan Ephors declaring wars on the helots, not on an annual basis but on more or less continuous basis whenever the situation demands itself.
By the classical period, older boys would be despatched to live in the wilds for a time as members of the “secret band” whose job it was to murder any helots who seemed likely to foment rebellion.
The historian Xenophon, who knew Sparta well, recorded the feelings of rebellious helots towards the Spartans: “They said that they would be glad to eat them raw” (Hellenica 3.3.6).
In the words of Tyrtaeus helots worked “like donkeys exhausted under heavy loads; they lived under the painful necessity of having to give their masters half the food their ploughed land bore”1.
So what were the essential differences between the society in Ancient Greece and in India?
The most important function of the system was to prevent the worker, the sudra, from learning the use of weapons and from learning to read and write. He had no share in the culture of his age and country. He could not resort to armed revolt. There remained no way for him to keep his tradition alive, indeed if he had had any in the pre-Aryan days; no means of expressing his agony or communicating extensively with his fellow co-sufferers: no escape except through religion. Even a change in rulers did not bring about a change in caste. The Brahman (Brahmin) relieved the warrior caste of the need of constantly policing the state to prevent an armed uprising. The benefits of an extensive helotage were obtained without Spartan efforts…… ….extreme forms of slavery which we see in Rome and Greece, human beings bartered like cattle , were not needed as a basis of production in India2.
1. Ancient Greece – Thomas R. Martin – Yale Nota Bene Yale University Press – 2000, pages 75-76.
2. The Emergence of National Characteristics in Combined Methods in Indology and Other Writings, D D Kosambi, Oxford University Press, 2005, pages 758-759.