Since the term has been too controversial, causing irreparable damage to the Indian society and outrage for its use in derogatory manner aimed for social suppression, indicating lowest status of the larger population of India since long time, we need to have a brief look at the reality.
The most importantly word ‘Shudra’ appears in the only hymn, Purusha Sukta, which otherwise is completely absent from Rig Veda. Many attempts have been made by various scholars to find the real meaning of the Shudra and who were they. The people Dasa, Dasyus have been mentioned many a times in Rig Veda, though contemptuously for their different faith. But Purusha Sukta mentions, instead of Dasa-Dasyus, the Shudras, as name of a class of the people, that too in a hymn that has been proven to be a later composition.
Suprisingly in later Vedic texts the term Dasa and Dasyus (equivalent to Iranian Daha, Dahyu), used in Vedas for the people, goes on vanishing and remains just as a suffix of the personal names or denotes the servants. They, Dasa/Dasyus, no longer remains to be a set of the people, whether rival or not. Rather while speaking of fourth section of the society, the people other than Vedics, the term Shudras have been applied in the Purushasukta.
The sudden shift in the terminology, assigned for the class of the people clearly means that the Vedic had come across the new set of the people and needed a new term to address them. It also is clear that the Dasa/Dasyu people were left far behind by the time of this hymn was composed. Rather appearance of the term Shudra for people is in itself a proof that the Vedic geography had changed from Afghanistan to India.
This also is evident because, we should note here that, the term “Shudra” or its equivalent is not present in Avesta at all. What we find is Daha – Dahyu, equivalent to Dasa and Dasyus, in Avesta applied to the people of the land or compatriots. To Rig Veda they are the people those adhere to the different faiths and thus were enemies. It would appear the term Shudra has been emerged from nowhere which have no meaning whatsoever! This sure creates a problem for the proponents of Indigenous Aryan Theory as well.
Also, let us not forget here that the term Shudra have no etymology, neither in so-called IE languages or Dravidian languages. R. K. Pruthi suggests that perhaps Shudra was originally the name of non-Aryan tribe. (Indian Caste System, edited by R.K. Pruthi, Discovery Publishing House, 2004, page 72) It may surprise us why then this tribe never came across the Vedic people to make its slightest mention in whole bulk of Rig Veda except for Purushsukta where suddenly it forms a major part of the society?
Rajwade suggests that the people those were taken in the personal service by the victorious Aryans were called as Shudras. According to him, the term was later applied to those all who were out of three Varnas. (Radhamadhav Vilas Champu, Preface, Edited by Vi. Ka. Rajwade, Sarita Prakashan, reprint2014, page 130-31)
Bhandarakar opines that the Shudras could be a tribe but afterwards came to signify anybody who was not a full-fledged Arya or a foreigner who has been partially assimilated by Arya culture. He further states that, from Sutras Shudra denotes a person other than the member of three Varnas, i.e. Brahmina, Kshatriya and Vaishya. (Some Aspects of Ancient Indian Culture, By D. R. Bhandarkar, 1989, page 12) Interestingly the term “Varna” for class too is new Vedic innovation because it is absent from Avestan scripts!
If removed Aryan and replaced with Vedic, it will be clear from above opinions of the scholars that those all who were not Dasas or Dasyus or Vedics, those all lived in the Indian subcontinent, practiced different religion, were Shudras for the Vedic people. The fact is, though in Purushasukta, Shudra seemingly is enumerated as fourth class of Vedic religion; it was never at all the case.
If we carefully read the RV 10.90.12, it makes clear that, the head of Purusha became Brahmin, hands became Kshatriya, and thighs became Vaishya….but Shudras were born of his feet. Feets didn’t become Shudra but were produced from it. It clearly indicates the distinction between Vedic and non-Vedics. (The Brahman was his mouth, of both his arms was the Rājanya made.His thighs became the Vaiśya, from his feet the Śūdra was produced. (RV 10.90.12, Trans. Griffith))
The term only would apply to Indian people as Purushasukta is a very later composition that got inserted in Rig Veda that mentions Indian tropical seasons too for first times and also uses the term Shudra for people first time and in the only verse.
It could have been essential for the Vedics to name the people other than them or it was a term already in use to address the people of India. Those who were originally Vedics and those were converted to Vedic religion and set in one of the three Varnas, authorized to Vedic recitals and ritualistic practices, were but naturally Vedics and part of three Varnas as Bhandarkar suggests.
Rest of the masses, following their traditional pre-Vedic religion seems to have been named as Shudras. Or alternatively it could have been a term used by Indians to address themselves from ancient times, but then the original term must have been phonetically quite different and Shudra could be the corrupt Vedic form, thus making us impossible to find its origin or any etymology.
Vedic corruptions of other loanwords are not new. It can be proved from one instance that Vedics in India pronounced corrupt form of the country name ‘Meluha’ (Melukkha) as ‘Mlechchha’, which, later on lost its original meaning and became synonym of the people who spoke strange or foreign languages. (The Indus Civilization, by A. H. Dani and B. K. Thapar, page 274,)
Same could have happened with “Shudra” which in later course of the time became a derogatory term; originally, it couldn’t have been the case. The fact is, we forget, Shudras were non-Vedic class, practicing idolatry from ancient times which was banned in the Vedic religion. Shudras were not authorized for Vedic rites or recitals because simply they didn’t need it for the sake of their own distinct religion they had preserved and still is practiced by the majority.
Another fact which we should not forget here is the Vedic class had not vanquished the local populations to enforce their languages and culture upon them, as many social activists like to believe. Rather we see uninterrupted Indian tradition of the culture since minimum of 7000 BC. R. N. Dandekar has explicitely stated that there is no significant iinfluence on the Indians those are practicing their religion since pre-Vedic times. The present Vedics cannot be blood-linked with the original preachers those had come to India; those too must have lost their ethnicity after inter-mingling in Indian populace. We find there have been the Vedics in India of different ethnicity and language groups because they are one whose ancestors had embraced to the Vedic faith in remote past. There is no foreign blood or so-called Aryan element in them to boast of. The Vedic religion became dominant after medieval period has socio-economic-political reasons.
The fact remains that the two religions, Vedic and pre-Vedic, coined together under common umbrella name ‘Hindu” were always and are distinct in practice, rituals and philosophy. The fact is that, although Vedics accepted idolatry gradually, they maintained their independent identity of religion with retaining all rights over Vedas, related literature and Vedic rites.
This cannot be called as assimilation of equal footings. The evil spell of many socio-psychological conditions, especially birth-based inequality, are direct or indirect products of it.
To sum up, Shudra was never a part of Vedic society, but indeed was an independent religion they are following from ancient times. To Vedics, like Dasa, Dasyus of Iran those followed different religions and hence looked upon contemptuously, similarly Shudras too became a derogatory term in Vedic literature to the adherents of different religion. The over-glorification of the Vedas and their divine origin, as we have seen in this chapter, has been a carefully nourished myth and deserves the rejection in totality.
The harm it has done, in the form of seeding inferiority complex and sense of the inequality in the minds of non-Vedic masses, needs to be removed in the light of the bare facts!