New Internationalist

I, A Brahmin

Issue 380

U.R. Ananthamurthy is an Indian poet and writer famous for his outspokenness on issues of caste. He is also a Brahmin.

As a Brahmin, I have not enjoyed the distress and even anger that my stories have caused to other Brahmins. I remember once a mild-mannered, hospitable woman who had served me lunch, beckoned to me as I was preparing to leave.

‘Nobody likes us any more. Why do you poke fun at us? If you had ridiculed members of other castes could you survive? Because we endure it even when people sneer at us, everybody chooses to ridicule us. Is that the right thing to do?’

I was astounded. ‘What I have written are works of literature, they are symbols,’ I babbled, trying to cover up my embarrassment. She understood my difficulty and felt sorry that she had subjected me, her guest, to such a predicament. I couldn’t gather the courage to say that what I wrote was a necessary truth that Brahmins had to face.

It has become extremely difficult to perceive issues of caste with any kind of transparency. Old timers were better at it. They would unabashedly ask: ‘What caste do you belong to?’, while we gather information in a roundabout fashion by asking: ‘Who is your grandfather?’, ‘Which is your native place?’.

The smarter among us begin by abusing our own caste before we move on to hurl profanities at another caste. We become subtle casteists ourselves. The world of a naïve believer in caste is limited; their intentions are obvious; their cruelty towards the lower castes is clear. But there is greater danger from those who declare that casteism is bad, but view people of all other castes except their own with enormous suspicion. The caste that resides in their own mind poisons their entire being. The more they try to cover it up, the more they seethe from within. It is a state of mind that is incapable of any love. You can fight with a naïve casteist, but not with urban Brahmins who may have abandoned all religious practices but are strong believers in caste at heart.

It is difficult to understand people who believe in the practice of untouchability. They don't seem like a cruel lot when it comes to other issues

Naïve casteists

There was a time, at least in a village environment, when naïve casteists believed that one belonged to a particular caste not just for one’s self, but for the entire community. The relationship between caste and profession upheld social accord and stability, but led to stagnation in society. In the villages, people had no qualms about subjugating Dalits.

In cities, this relationship between caste and profession is being erased. However, what seems acceptable to the material world is not necessarily acceptable to the mind. That is where trouble begins.

It was the Brahmins who first gave up their caste-related profession. The follower of the vedic (relating to Hindu holy scriptures) way of life became a secular person. And those Brahmins who stuck to their original profession as Hindu priests did not move forward. Such people no longer wanted their children to follow in their footsteps. While Christians take pride in their children entering the priesthood, for the Brahmins it is neither a matter of pride nor a lucrative profession. In the past, it was important for the Hindu priest to earn the faith of the community. The mantras (religious chants) that he recited were not tangible. His value came largely from the faith that people vested in him. When this faith vanished, the priest became redundant.

A fertile imaginative rationalism was born only when the supremacy of Brahminism was questioned. Vivekananda,1 Gandhi and Ambedkar were the first to set this trend. They were responsible for this country getting a fresh lease of life. Earlier, others had failed to eradicate the caste system. But they were able to instil a sense of pride in what were then known as the ‘backward classes’ while they planted the seeds of suspicion in the values of the so-called ‘forward classes’.

Traditional Brahmins believe that by means of great self-discipline, they have imbued themselves with the values essential for the common good. So they think they are supreme – role-models for others. But after Gandhi, the values that this country upheld underwent such a sea change that conservative Brahmins began to appear comical. Today it is not the priestly Brahmins who are angry, but their secular counterparts. Though they no longer observe a religious way of life, they internally still cherish their notions of superiority. Brahmins who do not change this outlook cannot be creative, politically or culturally.

When Mahatma Gandhi died, I was barely 15 years old. My grandfather was a priest; my father was part-priest, part-secular. Most Brahmins believed that Gandhi was Kali incarnate (Kali Yug is the Era of Evil); that Gandhi had integrated the castes and was a corrupting influence. They also detested his taking the Harijans (his new name for ‘Untouchables’) into temples. But my father used to read Harijan, Gandhi’s newspaper. Though he never took part in the Freedom Movement (for Indian Independence), he had friends who did. I grew up listening to debates between my English-educated father and the village old guard.

When we heard the news of Gandhi’s assassination, we headed back home. Weeping, I declared that Gandhiji was no more. The otherwise good-natured, guileless elders of the village were full of glee for what they called the ‘annihilation of Kali’. As an act of rebellion, I sat on an island in the river and fasted.

Flawed tradition

It is at these junctures we realize our tradition is flawed. Ambedkar rejected the Hindu tradition precisely for this reason. Gandhi strove to iron out this evil practice and cleanse it.

It is difficult to understand people who believe in the practice of untouchability. They don’t seem like a cruel lot when it comes to other issues. If it were possible to call them barbarians it would be simpler. To this day, I am convinced that untouchability will be eradicated only when Dalits can walk in and out of any temple with ease. When this happens, it will also be possible to drink water from the same well and to eat together.

There are always chasms that divide truths about any faith from its worldly practices. Didn’t slavery exist in America in spite of Christianity? Economic structures and social norms have always imposed limitations on people. Gandhi, on a mission to transform Hindus, strove to make them feel ashamed of their own actions by exposing them to both the eternal truths of the religion and its failings. In the process of changing people, you must also retain the love and respect you have for them. This path is absolved of all arrogance; arrogance being the autocratic feeling of being the only one who has perceived truth. Like Gandhi, we have to devise methodologies that encompass both love and anger. An anger that is born out of love emits light even as it burns.

This is the reason that Gandhi became the greatest critical insider in Hinduism. He behaved in a manner that struck the Brahmin faith at its very roots. He placed a greater emphasis on physical rather than intellectual work. He cleaned his own bathroom (something traditionally only a Dalit sweeper is supposed to do), he made extensive use of tolerant non-violence. He thus stripped bare the values attached to the two major forces of Hindu society, the Brahmin (priest) and the Kshatriya (warrior), and upheld as models, the woman and the Sudra (labourer).

It is necessary to understand what is stagnant and what is dynamic in the present-day religious system. The people who do understand are those who participate in movements against ‘untouchability’; in struggles for equality and equal respect to all human beings; who desire equality between countries; who believe that animals, birds and plants have as much right to live in this world as we do; and who believe that all these struggles are interconnected.

U.R. Ananthamurthy won India’s most prestigious literary award, the Jnanapith. This is an excerpt from an essay originally published in Suddhi Sangaati, a weekly dedicated to the anti-caste movement; and later collected in his book of essays Pragnemattuparisara or Consciousness and Environment. Translated for the New Internationalist by Deepa Ganesh from the original Kannada.

  1. Swami Vivekananda, an Indian sage who lived from 1863 -1902.

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