Pandavas traveling and working as Sudra
Originally there seem to have been only two groups of people: vaishya (those belonging to the tribe) and sudra (outsiders or not belonging to the tribe, whether wholly or partially). Vaishya used to have among themselves brahmins to work as priests and store and transmit the Veda (knowledge). In addition, vaishya would choose kshatriya to act in the capacity of tribal chief and to control and regulate the tribe. Thus, altogether, from the original two (vaishya and sudra), there were four classes or castes of people (vaishya, brahmin, kshatriya and sudra). Ref.: “Vedic vocations were not related to heredity” -- http://www.geocities.com/lamberdar/_caste.html
Note that there was nothing like the panchama (fifth) class or varna and nothing like the dalit category. Moreover, all the skilled and unskilled types of labor fell under the main category Vaishya. In other words, vaishya performed every task in the tribe, except priesthood (brahmin) and that of tribal leader (kshatriya). Vaishya was not limited to merchant and farming, but also included carpentry, leather making and working, cleaning of stables and crematoriums, and other vocations in the tribe.
On the other hand, shudra was just an outsider and new to the tribe and usually ended up providing help to Vaishya etc., whenever and wherever necessary. Note also in the following story, from the Mahabharata, in which kshatriya princes Nakul and Sehdev assume the roles of sudras in the kingdom of Matsya and provide help in performing unskilled job of cleaning the stables, etc.
Furthermore, there is little evidence in ancient Hindu texts (Epics etc.) about enslavement of people because of their caste. Even the problems of untouchability and discrimination against some people in India according to caste (sudra etc.) were not universal and widespread (everywhere and to the same extent). Moreover, such sporadic casteism (discrimination etc. on the basis of caste) did not go very far back and might be existing only for a few centuries recently, notwithstanding the existence of very questionable and spurious proclamations of Manusmriti (“Manu, smriti and the medical paradox” - http://www.geocities.com/lamberdar/manu_smriti.html).
In any case, the cases of caste based discrimination and ill treatment of people cannot be considered as enslavement. Similarly, any ill treatment of people at the hands of others had more to do with their poor economic condition rather than the caste label alone.
Enslavement of people on the basis of caste was not even possible in India. The tools (guns, rifles and bombs) used in the mass enslavement of people, especially when the minority enslaves the majority, are relatively new - only a few centuries old. And during that time, when guns etc. arrived in India, that country and majority of Hindus were under Muslim control. Thus during that time, Hindus living under the Muslim rule, minority Hindus (Rajputs and kshatriya etc.) could not enslave a large population of fellow Hindus (Sudra). Before that, when Hindus used to be free prior to the Muslim rule, they had only swords etc. and no guns and bombs. Note, swords are not ideally suited to enslave people on massive scale, especially if a small number people try to keep and control a larger group than themselves. This indicates that there is no historic possibility of a mass enslavement of Sudra by fellow Hindus. In other words, the very basis for such caste based enslavement (according to religion and weapons etc.) did not exist.
Consider also the following incident in the Mahabharata which indicates that people were doing all sorts of work without encountering and feeling the stigma of caste (their vocation).
During the exile of 'kshatriya' Pandavas from their kingdom Hastinapur when they were forced to live incognito for almost a year, they traveled (essentially on foot) and ended up virtually as unknowns (Sudra) in the Matsya kingdom.
There, Yuddhistra, the eldest Pandava, took a job as an adviser to Virata (king of Matsya). Bhima, the second brother / Pandava, started working as a cook in the kitchen. Arjuna, the third Pandava and most in danger from Kauravas, dressed up as a woman and taught music and dance to girls. The fourth and fifth brothers, Nakul and Sehdev respectively, took jobs in cleaning the stables and horse grooming. Drupadi, the Pandava queen, took a job as a maid in the royal household.
Pandavas and Drupadi stayed and worked incognito for almost a year in Matsya before revealing their true identities to Virata and others, and then returned to Hastinapur to resume their royal roles. This shows people could operate in different vocations and occupy different caste labels, even go back and forth, such as, from kshatriya to sudra and then back to kshatriya.
Moreover, before Pandavas returned to their kingdom from Matsya, Arjuna expressed a desire that his son Abhimanyu, who was away at that time and living with his maternal uncle, should marry Virata’s daughter Uttra whom Arjuna had taught music and dance while he disguised himself as a woman earlier. Uttra, with the approval from her father Virata, quickly and gladly accepted the marriage proposal to Abhimanyu. It shows that even while living and working as Sudra by Arjuna and other Pandavas in Virata’s kingdom did not impair the chances of Arjuna’s son marrying a kshatriya princess, Uttra (Virata’s daughter).
- Seva (Subhash C. Sharma)