Blame it on the Brahmin
Many readers might remember this poster that Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey was photographed holding while attending an event in our country – it carried the illustration of a young girl and the line ‘smash Brahminical patriarchy’. Mr. Dorsey, surrounded by ‘eminent activists’ and the ‘journalist’ (I feel more inclined to use the word ‘propagandist’) Ms. Barkha Dutt, seemed to be insinuating that Brahmins and their attitudes are constraining and oppressing Indian women. Justifiably, so many of us were offended and expressed outrage on social media. It resulted in Twitter being pushed into damage control and offering an apology.
What Mr. Dorsey committed that day, very likely urged on by the company he was keeping, was not a one off eccentricity. His behavior was actually expressive of a tendency; it originated in academia and rights’ advocacy, but is now being endorsed by a lot of popular culture as well (Twitter, as a social media platform, is an instance of popular culture). I call this tendency ‘blame it on the Brahmin’. Believe me, it can have utterly absurd manifestations. For example, during a recent visit to my alma mater Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU), I spotted one poster which blamed “Brahminical patriarchy” for “rape culture” and another which called the fee hike at the institution “a Brahminical conspiracy”. These had been released by the Students’ Federation of India (SFI, it is the students’ wing of CPI (M)) and Birsa Ambedkar Phule Students’ Association (BAPSA) respectively. In brief, the ‘blame it on the Brahmin’ tendency holds Brahmins accountable for every ill and injustice under the Indian sun. What are the roots of this lunacy? Let us try to uncover some of them below.
The ‘blame it on the Brahmin’ lunacy. The Students’ Federation of India (SFI) holds “Brahminical patriarchy” responsible for “rape culture”, while Birsa Ambedkar Phule Students’ Association (BAPSA) calls the fee hike at JNU “a Brahminical conspiracy.”
The Basis of Brahmin Blaming
It is theory. Nomenclature or concepts like ‘Brahminical’ and ‘Brahminism’ (which are deployed, as we saw above, in pejorative or castigatory senses) are outcomes of generalization and theorization efforts in which every sort of ill motive and evil is imputed to the Brahmins. One of the earliest attempts at theorizing ‘Brahminism’ seems to have been by Dr. B.R. Ambedkar. At a point in his oeuvre we see him terming “Brahminism” a “philosophy” and ascribing the following six “cardinal principles” to it –
“(1) graded inequality between the different classes; (2) complete disarmament of the Shudras and Untouchables; (3) complete prohibition of the education of the Shudras and the Untouchables; (4) ban on the Shudras and the Untouchables occupying places of power and authority; (5) ban on the Shudras and Untouchables acquiring property; (6) complete subjugation and suppression of women.”[i]
In more recent times, ‘Brahminism’ and the ‘Brahminical’ have been expounded upon and theorized in greater and more fictitious detail by a few insurgent scholars and activists. One of them is G. Aloysius. In an essay titled The Brahminical Inscribed in Body Politic, Aloysius terms the “Brahminical” the “native partner” of the colonizing British.[ii] It, for example, assisted the British in “the ethnographic recording of castes and tribes.”[iii] The imperialists too, he writes, preferred to collaborate with and valorized the “Brahminical”. This brought our society “closer to the colonially retrieved and sectarian Sanskritic-textual aspirations” as it transitioned to “modernity.”[iv] A consequence of this process, Aloysius claims, was the “material and non-material pauperization and the near total exclusion from the emergent public space, of the entire non-Brahminical as well as the historically developed anti-Brahminical masses.”[v] In case you are wondering what Aloysius means by “public space”, it is “education, employment and equitable participation.”[vi] This capaciously imaginative gentleman further argues that the “construction, constitution and conservation of” Hinduism took place through the “dovetailing” of the “Brahminical” with the British colonial state.[vii] Later, the emergence of Indian nationalism was also “nothing more or less than the self-same re-grouped and re-vitalized Brahminical turned anti-British.”[viii] And why did the “Brahminical” turn anti-British? It was because, Aloysius informs us, the British colonial government adopted measures such as “tenancy regulations”, “common procedural codes” for law courts in place of the communal (religious) ones, “regularization of recruitment procedures” for government employment, “extension of educational facilities to the ‘lower castes’”, etc.[ix] According to Aloysius, it was to the “Brahminical” “that effective power was transferred in 1947.”[x] In his view, thus, the post-colonial Indian state and all its defects are very “Brahminical” as well. Multiple political parties emerged on account of “wrangles” within the “Brahminical”[xi], due to the same “Brahminical” elementary schooling was neglected by the government and “people’s trade and industrial initiative were restricted.”[xii]
I think, dear reader, I have by now presented before you a fairly representative summary of Aloysius’s rant. Let me now move on to unpacking it so that the sinister and toxic freight it bears is revealed to your eyes.
What is Aloysius saying if translated into simple, intelligible language? Nurture no illusions, by “Brahminical” he simply means Brahmins; the nomenclatural subterfuge is perhaps so that he is not accused of instigating hate. I think he is saying the following – First, he is alleging that Brahmins were quislings, they collaborated with the British. Brahmins played, among other roles, the one of local informers and helped the British understand Indian society by identifying its units (the various castes and tribes). The British, on their part, took a shine to the Brahmins and their textual, shastric, tradition. Resultantly, our society, as it adopted a colonially handed down modernity, was organized as per the shastric regulations. This, in turn, caused the material and cultural impoverishment of the masses who were not Brahmins or against them. They were also barred from education, livelihood and a voice in public affairs. Further, the British-Brahmin collaboration invented and built up Hinduism. Later, Brahmins turned against the British because they empowered the common masses and reduced their authority and privilege through the measures that Aloysius mentions. Indian nationalism was nothing but an expression of the unhappiness the Brahmins now felt with the British. Finally, since Brahmins were the chief articulators of Indian nationalism, they dominated and shaped the independent Indian state born in 1947. Thus, all the woes of independent India were also the doings of Brahmins. As their aspirations and mutual disagreements grew, so did the number of political parties (the Brahmins used them to achieve what they wanted), mass schooling was neglected because the Brahmins did not want it, and trade and industrial activities were restricted because either Brahmins disdained them, or felt insecure at the prospect of general prosperity. Yes, our dear Mr. Aloysius, in his convoluted prose, appears to be making all these accusations against Brahmins. Dear reader, in case you are thoroughly infuriated, you have every right to be. But you must also know that this is pretty standard insurgent scholarship which young people are commonly exposed to at ‘radical’ institutions such as JNU, Hyderabad Central University and Jadavpur University. It so happens that Mr. Aloysius is quite popular among the radical Ambedkarites (ostensible followers of Dr. Ambedkar) active in all these places.
Another theorist and expositor of ‘Brahminism’ I know of is Ms. V. Geetha, apparently a “leading intellectual from Tamil Nadu”. She makes Aloysius look like a paragon of restraint and fairness. In the very second paragraph of her essay, Brahminism and the Anxieties of History, Ms. Geetha declares that “Brahminism has been viewed as an ideology that reflects the Brahmin caste’s impenetrable and murky consciousness”[xiii] (unfortunately, she does not bother to say by whom). Surprisingly though, she appears to understand this “impenetrable and murky consciousness” very well and further alleges that “the Brahmin class, intentionally and knowingly, thwarts the greater common good through deceit and dissembling to seek both sacred and profane advantages to itself”[xiv] (she means advantages in both religious and worldly matters). Thereafter, she terms “Brahminism a regime of power – a system of inequality which is not only regulative and restrictive, but productive as well.”[xv] Put in simple language, Ms. Geetha is saying that Brahmins are good at controlling society to garner benefits for themselves. Ms. Geetha is sure imaginative with invectives and uses a whole range of them to abuse ‘Brahminism’. Among other things, she calls it “a principle of rule and hegemony, domination and repression, an exercise in duplicity and cunning….”[xvi] Perhaps to shore up her arguments and provide an instance of Brahmins’ “duplicity and cunning”, Ms. Geetha argues that Brahmins deliberately began a “debate about the relevance or irrelevance of caste” (posed as reformers) in colonial India when their authority was challenged to “re-deploy” their hegemony.[xvii]
I conclude this section of my article by bringing up Uma Chakravarti and her essay Brahminical Patriarchy. (Yes, she seems to be the original artificer of the phrase that earned Mr. Dorsey his notoriety.) To cut a long story short, Chakravarti, a historian, presents “Brahminical patriarchy” as an elaborate social regimen, derived from a textual tradition authored by Brahmins, to control and restrict women. She inveighs that “in the ancient texts it is repeatedly stated that [women] can never be trusted.”[xviii] Further, in her eyes, “the essential nature of women is vested in their sexuality” by the “brahmanical system” whose “most prominent ideologue” is Manu.[xix] As women’s sexuality was seen to be completely brazen, Chakravarti argues, it was controlled “through ideology, through the stridharma, or pativratadharma, internalized by women who attempted to live up to the ideal notion of womanhood constructed by the ideologues of society.”[xx] And who were these “ideologues”? These were the Brahmins who “mapped out” “the design of the patriarchal caste-class structure”[xxi] for Hindu society. A little addendum – a lot of ‘textual authority’ that Chakravarti quotes to buttress her arguments is actually Buddhist. She, for example, frequently refers to the Jataka tales and their representations of women in her essay. But what is a little irony in the way of activist scholarship?
The Theory, a Tissue of Lies
All the theory that I have summed up above does not survive careful scrutiny. Made up of outright lies and obfuscation of facts, it simply wilts when one shines an empirical torch upon it.
Take, for instance, the six “cardinal principles” identified with “Brahminism” by Dr. Ambedkar. How valid are they from a historical, social and economic point of view? I dare say, not quite. “Graded inequality” between various “classes” cannot have been ordained by Brahmins when one notices that they themselves are so often at the receiving end of it. This was, for example, observed by the sociologist M.N. Srinivas when he wrote that some “Brahmin groups are regarded so low that even Harijans will not accept cooked food from them.”[xxii] We see him further pointing out that Brahmins in Punjab, western Uttar Pradesh and Rajasthan have a “low secular status” and “several Brahmin groups in Gujarat (for example, Tapodhan), Bengal and Mysore (Marka) are regarded as ritually low.”[xxiii] Moving on, did Brahmins keep “Shudras and Untouchables” from bearing arms and acquiring education? It does not look like. In Maharashtra itself, the part of India Dr. Ambedkar came from, writes Gail Omvedt, Dalit groups such as Mahars and Mangs “had a military tradition dating to the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries.” They, she points out, “were among the martial races of India, serving as common paiks or soldiers and occasionally as squadron leaders.”[xxiv] As he belonged to the Mahar caste, this fact could not possibly have been hidden from Dr. Ambedkar. I wonder how he could still write what he did. Again, in a North Indian context one could cite the example of the Jats (classified as OBC in seven states) who have traditionally been a soldiering people of great repute. The Mughal Empire had a hard time quelling their rebellion during the reign of Aurangzeb. Can one imagine the Indian army today without its Jat regiments? Moving on, a survey undertaken by the British in Madras Presidency (present day Tamil Nadu and Andhra Pradesh) in the early nineteenth century (Survey of Indigenous Education in Madras Presidency 1822-26) discovered that “the groups termed Soodras (sic.), and the castes considered below them…predominated in the thousands of the then still-existing schools in practically each of the areas.”[xxv] The phrase “still-existing schools” seems to indicate that it is schools of the traditional sort that were meant. Later, in the 1830s, a Baptist missionary called William Adams observed the same during his travels in Bengal. “His remarkable conclusion”, writes Arvind Sharma, “was that elementary education was accessible to all sections of the population.”[xxvi] I am sure a missionary who had arrived in our country to harvest souls had no reason to flatter our society by lying in the matter. What about the fourth and fifth charges? Did Brahmins enforce a “ban” upon “Shudras and Untouchables” wielding power and acquiring property? It does not look like. Srinivas, for example, brings to our notice (citing the historian K.M. Panikkar) that the “Shudras seem to have produced an unusually large number of royal families….”[xxvii] As about ownership of property, it has always been overwhelmingly common in the form of agricultural land among the categories that Dr. Ambedkar talks about. His own caste, the Mahars, enjoyed “a fixed amount of land that remained in their possession” in lieu of the services they performed in the Maharashtrian villages (serving as watchmen and disposing off dead cattle). Called a “watan”, we see that this land allotment put the Mahars in the same league as the village Patil (headman), Kulkarni (accountant) and Caugula (assistant to the Kulkarni) who also enjoyed it.[xxviii] As a matter of fact, the Mahars wielded a bit of judicial power too – they arbitrated land disputes.[xxix] Further, we see that several groups classified as OBCs in contemporary India are “dominant landowning castes”.[xxx] It could not have been so if Brahmins had historically barred them from owning landed property. Finally, what do we make of Dr. Ambedkar’s accusation that “Brahminism” brought about the “complete subjugation and suppression of women”? I think we ought to dismiss it as well. History is replete with examples of Brahmin women who excelled as scholars while women of the artisan and peasant castes commonly worked outside their homes, the specter of “Brahminism” does not seem to have frightened them into domestic seclusion.
Let us now move on to the charges made against Brahmins by Mr. Aloysius. Even the most perfunctory investigation reveals that they do not rest upon a foundation of facts. To what extent were the Brahmins local informers to the colonizing British? In the early days of colonialism, we do see a few Brahmins assisting the British as they investigated the Indian textual tradition – for example, William Jones learnt Sanskrit from some Pandits and translated the Manusmriti and Shakuntala, the play by Kalidasa. Later, a group of Brahmins hired by the East India Company produced the legal digest Vivadarnavasetu for use in its judicial administration. However, the impact of this ‘orientalist’ knowledge on colonial administration seems to have been minimal. The historian C.A. Bayly writes that “Few officials or soldiers knew or cared about orientalist knowledge even in a vulgarized form.”[xxxi] The information that really mattered in controlling our country, thus, was not derived from Brahmins. Take strategic information, for example. The Bengal Army of the East India Company, says Bayly, “developed close relationships with the controllers of ferries and tribal watchmen (paiks and ghatwals)”[xxxii] for information. For the colonial “police organization” the sources of information were “pilgrims, wandering holy-men or merchants” and rural night-watchman.[xxxiii] Did Brahmins help the British prepare the taxonomy of Indian society? Giving an account of the first census undertaken by the British (completed in 1872), the American anthropologist Nicholas B. Dirks writes that the “primary principle of classification” used in it was “varna”.[xxxiv] But I do not see him writing anywhere that it was done under the influence of Brahmins, the British seem to have spontaneously assumed that the four varna archetypes – Brahmin, Kshatriya, Vaishya and Shudra – also have a concrete social reality. However, as the “limits of varna seemed clear from the start”[xxxv] (barring the Brahmins, the other three varnas were hard to trace in society), the census of 1891 “formally abandoned varna as the central classificatory structure for enumeration in favor of occupational criteria”[xxxvi] based on models developed by colonial officials such as John Nesfield and Denzil Ibbetson. The classificatory frames of the colonial census do not really seem to have been influenced by Brahmins. Precisely due to this reason, there is no question of Indian society being organized by the British-Brahmin collusion (there was not one) as per the shastric tradition. After all, we have seen Bayly asserting that ‘orientalist’ knowledge, which mainly dealt with this tradition, had little bearing on colonial administration. Hence, the impoverishment of the Indian population was caused by a different factor altogether, namely, the destruction of native industry and agriculture by colonial rapacity. Consequently, Indians en masse lost the means to livelihood and education, just as they were also denied a say in the administration of their country by the early colonial regime – it did not distinguish between Brahmins and non-Brahmins. It is these tragedies, collectively borne by all Indians, which caused the first stirrings of Indian nationalism against the British (and not because colonial authority disgruntled the Brahmins). As it strengthened, Brahmins played a role and participated in it along with all other Indian social groups. If we have the Brahmin Chapekar brothers taking up arms against the British, we also have the Santhal tribesmen rising in rebellion and doing the same. I wonder if the learned Mr. Aloysius has even heard of the Santhal rebellion. As about his claim that Hinduism is some sort of fabrication by the British and Brahmins, it is so utterly ridiculous and offensive that I won’t even respond to it. Coming to post-independence India, it does seem that it neglected mass schooling, but its first Minister of Education was not a Brahmin. It was a man called Maulana Abul Kalam Azad. And yes, Nehruvian socialism did obstruct trade and industry with a great many regulations. But it appears so disingenuous that Mr. Aloysius does not bother to identify the most vocal critique of Nehruvian socialism (in case he knows) – it was C. Rajagopalachari, a Brahmin. He advocated market economics in India when it took courage to do so. Finally, the proliferation of political parties in India did not take place due to the rapacity of Brahmins. It occurred in the wake of the green revolution as the Congress failed to accommodate the aspirations of the economically ascendant cultivating castes – this is what many political scientists contend.[xxxvii]
If Mr. Aloysius sounds mildly absurd on so many counts, Ms. Geetha frankly seems a little touched in the head. But let me still counter her claim, citing instances from her home state, that Brahmins control society so as to enjoy advantages in both religious and worldly affairs. Robert Caldwell, a missionary who plied his trade in Tamil Nadu in the nineteenth century, observed that the “greater number of the priestly functions except in the more important temples…are now performed in South India by Sudras.”[xxxviii] So Brahmins obviously did not have a monopoly of priestly functions. Similarly, the Brahmins do not seem to have possessed any real powers to regulate society as we find instances of them being effectively treated as untouchables. In the early 1960s, doing fieldwork in rural Tamil Nadu, the sociologist Andre Beteille discovered a traditional belief among the Dalit Adi-Dravidas that a Brahmin entering their quarters (the cheri) means ill luck. In the past, we learn from Beteille, the Adi-Dravidas broke their cooking pots in such an eventuality.[xxxix] As about the worldly fortunes of Tamil Brahmins, in the pre-independence period we do see them preponderating in government jobs as they excelled in English education. But in other areas of the economy, they were laggards – all the zamindars in the province were non-Brahmins, they controlled trade in cloth, grains, groceries and precious metals, and the dominant peasant castes wielded considerable political and economic power at the village and tehsil levels.[xl] Brahmins were not hegemonic in colonial Tamil Nadu. Since independence, of course, Brahmins have only been marginalized in that state through a massive hate campaign (the ‘Dravidian movement’).
What do I say in response to Uma Chakravarti? Actually, I think I need not respond to her at all. I will just bring to the notice of the reader that elsewhere, in another essay (Beyond the Altekarian Paradigm: Towards a New Understanding of Gender Relations in Early Indian History), she laments that “there is a seriously limiting dimension” to the “existing material on women in early India.”[xli] And pray what that limitation might be? It is, she writes, that “the study of the identity of women is based entirely on Sanskritic models and the myths conditioning women.”[xlii] “Brahmanical sources”, she goes on to declare, reflect “the precepts of the brahmanas rather than the actual practice of the people.”[xliii] All right, so here we have her basically saying the following – Sanskrit, “Brahminical” sources are insufficient material with which to reconstruct the ancient history of women, because they provide us with only a partial picture, we learn from them what Brahmins prescribed for women rather than what actually happened in society. This is effectively an admission by her that social reality did not necessarily follow Brahminical prescriptions (which she also, rather amusingly, confused with the Jataka tales). This makes us feel that she (spitefully?) posited “Brahminical patriarchy” just so that she could discredit an entire society and its textual heritage. This is so very unfortunate.
Why the Lies?
Answering this question in full requires an entire
article in its own right. But I will conclude by saying that all the blatant
and brazen lies that are told in order to theorize ‘Brahminism’ or the
‘Brahminical’ as overarching systems of oppression have one pointed objective –
weakening and eventually dismantling Hindu society by creating faultlines and
generating strife between the Brahmins and the rest. Hence, beware of these
lies and learn to call them out whenever you hear them told.
[i] ‘Caste, Class and democracy’ in Valerian Rodregues (ed.), The Essential Writings of B.R. Ambedkar (New Delhi: OUP, 2002), p.146.
[ii] The Brahminical Inscribed in Body Politic (New Delhi: Critical Quest, 2010), p.8.
[iii] Ibid., p.9.
[iv] Ibid., p.10.
[vii] Ibid., p.13.
[viii] Ibid., p.14
[ix] Ibid., p.15.
[x] Ibid., p.20.
[xi] Ibid., p.21.
[xii] Ibid., pp.26-27.
[xiii] Brahminism and the Anxieties of History (New Delhi: Critical Quest, 2015), p.3. She is called a “leading intellectual from Tamil Nadu” in the brief bio on the back cover.
[xiv] Ibid., p.4.
[xvi] Ibid., p.6.
[xvii] Ibid., p.15.
[xviii] Brahminical Patriarchy (New Delhi: Critical Quest, 2013), p.15.
[xx] Ibid., p.19. Italics in original.
[xxii] Social Change in Modern India (Hyderabad: Orient BlackSwan, 2019), p.4.
[xxiii] Ibid., p.8.
[xxiv] Ambedkar. Towards and Enlightened India (Penguin Books, 2004), p.2.
[xxv] Quoted by Arvind Sharma in The Ruler’s Gaze. A Study of British Rule over India from a Saidian Perspective (HarperCollins Publishers, 2017), p.125.
[xxvi] Ibid., p.129. Italics in original.
[xxvii] Social Change in Modern India, p.9.
[xxviii] Eleanor Zelliot, Ambedkar’s World. The Making of Babasaheb and the Dalit Movement (New Delhi: Navayana), p.26.
[xxix] Ibid., p.28.
[xxx] Ashwini Deshpande and Rajesh Ramchandran, ‘How Backward are the Other Backward Classes? Changing Contours of Caste Disadvantage in India’, Working Paper Number 23 (revised), Center for Development Studies, Delhi School of Economics, 2014, p.7.
[xxxi] Empire and Information. Intelligence Gathering and Social Communication in India, 1780-1870 (CUP, 2017), p.168.
[xxxii] Ibid., p.155.
[xxxiii] Ibid., p.163.
[xxxiv] See Castes of Mind. Colonialism and the Making of Modern India (Delhi: Permanent Black, 2016), p.202.
[xxxv] Ibid., p.203.
[xxxvi] Ibid., p.211.
[xxxvii] One of them is E. Sridharan. See ‘The Fragmentation of the Indian Party System. 1952-1999. Seven Competing Reasons’ in Zoya Hasan (ed.), Parties and Politics in India (New Delhi: OUP, 2008), pp.475-503.
[xxxviii] Lectures on the Tinnevelly Missions Descriptive of the Field, the Work, and the Results with an Introductory Lecture on the Progress of Christianity in India (London: Bell & Daldy, 186, Fleet Street, 1857), p.39.
[xxxix] Caste, Class and Power. Changing Patterns of Stratification in a Tanjore Village (New Delhi: OUP, 1996), p.35.
[xl] Social Change in Modern India, p.108.
[xli] See Kumkum Roy (ed.), Women in Early Indian Societies (New Delhi: Manohar, 2019), p.72.
[xlii] Ibid., p.73.
[xliii] Ibid., p.74.
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Saumya Dey is an associate professor of history at O.P. Jindal Global University, Sonipat, Haryana. His primary research interests are intellectual and cultural history. He has, till date, authored one monograph and a collection of essays – Becoming Hindus and Muslims. Reading the Cultural Encounter in Bengal. 1342-1905 (Munshiram Manoharlal, 2015) and The Cultural Landscape of Hindutva and other Essays. Historical Legitimacy of an Idea (Shubhi Publications, 2019). He earned his PhD at the Center for Historical Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University.