Long Read: The Demonisation Of The Brahmin
The Hindu is moving to provide himself as a Vishwa Guru, one who is not against anyone but one who takes everyone together.
And for this, the Hindu is thankful to the Brahmin.
One wonders if there is any social class anywhere in the world that is demonised as much as India’s Brahmins by those occupying the intellectual spaces. The amazing irony is that Brahmins have little temporal or physical power with which they can do any harm of any type to anyone. But they do have spiritual power.
On this note, I do not wish to go into any detailed definitional issue relating to the term Brahmin. While I recognise that there is a caste called Brahmin, there have been many individuals in Hindu history who have been endowed with the same spiritual power and who were not born in a Brahmin family. Then, there have been Brahmins who have excelled in occupations other than what are called priestly duties. And there have been Brahmins who did hold temporal power, either directly or indirectly.
Important as these issues are, I would like to restrict myself to launching an inquiry into why there is this hatred towards Brahmins. Some time ago, we saw a wholly manufactured controversy when the head of Twitter, Jack Dorsey, visited India. The controversy was manufactured by the head of Twitter’s legal team at its head office in the US, and Barkha Dutt, an Indian journalist, was one of the prominent persons to figure in a photograph where Dorsey posed next to a banner titled “Smash Brahminical Patriarchy”.
The reality is that Brahmins have been leading many of the social movements in a Hindu history spanning thousands of years. In the late nineteenth and twentieth centuries, many of those who started socialist and communist movements in India belonged to the Brahmin caste. So also those who opposed these movements, offering an alternative based on Hindu civilisational terms.
Christian Missionaries And The Brahmins
I do not know if Islamic invaders tried to incorporate Brahmins into Islam in order to convert the rest of the population to their religion.
However, it is well established that the Christian missionaries, who came to the land of the Hindus on the coat-tails of a colonising power, made serious attempts to first convert the Brahmins. And it is only when they failed that they targeted other communities. Success was achieved only where they had the support (covert or subtle) of a temporal power.
It has been standard practice in Europe for Christian missionaries to first convert influential sections of society, starting with Emperor Constantine, in order to pave the way for establishing Christianity in the target country.
In the Americas, they used terror in the form of mass killings to capture territories and resources from those who had occupied the land before them. In Africa, they just converted the people and took away their land.
However, in the land of the Hindus, these tactics could not be used because the times had changed by the time the missionaries reached here.
Moreover, one can speculate that Hindu philosophy had already reached Europe, and was noted for its sophistication. The use of any crude tactic from the past would create a backlash in their home countries where the ethical basis of Christianity was already being questioned.
The missionaries thus had to use new tactics for their programme of conversion. There were three strains that were used.
The first was what is today called inculturation by Christian theologists, and the original practitioner of it was Roberto de Nobili, a Frenchman belonging to the Society of Jesus.
He was in South India in the seventeenth century. He established symbols of Christianity in a temple-like structure, sat on the floor in a lotus position, and said he was a Brahmin from Rome. He also claimed that the Bible was the fifth veda. This ruse worked, and he started to get a following from the local people. It is not known whether he formally baptised his followers.
However, his success created jealousy amongst his peers in the Roman Catholic Church in India, because the others were not as successful in their endeavour to convert the people. They complained to the higher authorities in India that De Nobili’s methods were against the Catholic liturgy and that he could be considered to have turned an apostate.
The bishops in India sent complaints to Rome. And, since apostasy is considered to be a most serious crime, De Nobili was instructed to stop the experiment. The Hindu following quickly vanished.
The second method was to have a dialogue with those who had the spiritual power within Hinduism. In his book Why I am a Hindu (Aleph, Delhi, 2018, p33) Shashi Tharoor writes:
The French traveller Francois Bernier, on his well-documented journey through India in the seventeenth century, tried to introduce some Brahmins in 1671 to Christianity, and was startled by their response: ‘(The Brahmins) pretended not [that] (Hinduism) was universal; that God had only made it for (the Hindus), and it was, therefore, they could not receive a stranger into their religion: that they thought not (Christianity) was therefore false, but that it might be it was good for (the Christians), and that God might have appointed several different ways to go to heaven; but (the Brahmins) will not hear that (Christianity) should be the general religion for the whole earth; and (Hinduism) a fable and pure device.”(Francois Bernier, Travels in the Mogul Empire, Manchester: Archibald Constable & Company, 1670.)
Tharoor summarises what the Brahmins were saying thus: “We respect your truth, the Brahmins were saying, please respect ours.”
The Christian missionaries had no logical way to counter this position which is still projected by all those who have empathy towards Hinduism. But respecting Hinduism would be the last thing on their minds.
The third strain was what happened in Bengal. The missionary propaganda held that because Hindus believed in polytheism, they were, by their definition, an inferior people. This approach did make a handful of prominent people convert to Christianity.
As a counter, some Hindus like Raja Ram Mohan Roy said that Hindus were also monotheist, and hence not really different from Christianity. Roy also made some favourable noises about Jesus Christ.
This made some Christian churches target Roy for conversion.
However, even as he seemed to be deviating from the true plural spirit of Hinduism, he was all the time disputing the merits of Christianity as being superior. He ensured that the ground did not slip under Hinduism, and soon we saw the rise of Ramakrishna Paramahamsa, whose famous disciple was Swami Vivekananda.
One common factor seen in all these threads is that the Christians realised that the Brahmin was held in high esteem by the people at large, as well as others who had temporal and monetary power.
In effect, people were saying that if Christianity was not good enough for the Brahmins, then it was not good enough for them either. And so the conversion programme failed, even though it had good support from the colonial administration.
It is probably for this reason that the Christian missionaries started to hate the Brahmin, who was coming in the way of their conversion attempts. Even with the backing of the temporal power of a colonial regime, there was little they could actually do to make the Brahmin ineffective in society.
Even as we realise the spiritual power of the Brahmin in Hindu society, we should also realise that the Brahmin was not beholden to those who held temporal power for his sustenance. He depended on the alms provided by the people at large – both rich and poor. And he went to the people seeking alms. He did not wait in his abode for them to come give alms. In this way, his loyalty was to the people, and it is their well-being that was uppermost in his mind.
The Brahmin, therefore, often spoke for the people when he thought some injustice was done to them by those with temporal power. And because of the respect that people had for Brahmins, those with temporal power realised that they could not misuse it. This informal system of checks and balances was what kept society in a state of harmony. No one was afraid of another, and everyone respected each other.
As I had said before, nearly all social movements were started by Brahmins. They were not exclusive in providing leadership, but had a very significant role in starting and nurturing it at the initial stages, while leaders from other social groups were grooming themselves to provide the numbers required as the movement started to grow.
There were two types of social movements – one that was based on the parameters of Hindu civilisation and culture, and another based on the assumptions about society set out by Western thinkers and philosophers. While the latter ideas did have merit in their own home societies, application of the same without inquiring about their worth within Hindu norms, ensured that they did not find sufficiently deep roots in the society to have natural growth.
Even as these Western philosophies were doing the rounds, those Brahmins who offered a different perspective (but not always in opposition) based on the Hindu ethos were also in play. And soon it was the latter that started to be increasingly accepted by the people.
However, in the intellectual space it was the Western philosophies that dominated, in terms of what appeared, through the written word, in books, periodicals, mass media, etc.
For the outsider, who relied on these Westernised (in thinking) Hindus as their interlocutors about what is happening in society, it appeared that the social reforms taking place were not exactly within the civilisational norms of the people at large. An entirely new paradigm seemed to be emerging, which seemed to be premised on moving away from the ancient ethos of Hinduism.
In many ways, the paradigm seemed to be an aversion of much of the core of this ancient ethos. It appeared that the Hindu was ready for another conversion – to socialism and communism.
(In some ways, these two isms were also competing with each other, with socialism not willing to take away personal liberty that communism demanded. But this is an issue for another discussion.)
When it came to a move from the intellectual space to the spaces of the people, a realisation dawned on those propagating the Westernised reform movement that the people were really not with them. Not that they were against them – the people were looking for something that would be more robust than what was being offered to them by the intellectuals. Something that they could relate to on a culturally instinctive basis.
Furthermore, the Westernised reformists had worked out their whole model without really talking to the people or understanding what their needs were or talking to them in an idiom that they could comprehend. In effect, these Westernised reformists were saying: “I know your problems and I know the solution, and I expect you to come and sit at my feet and listen, without questioning what I have to say.”
The reformists rooted in the Hindu ethos went to the people in the manner in which Adi Shankaracharya did, and said: “You have inherent goodness within you. Let us work together to see how we can all be better.” To gather the people together, various methods were used – time-tested methods and simple to organise.
Thus, there would be a satsang which can be explained as follows: the idea behind satsang is that in a favourable environment, where there is the presence of holy people, listening to holy scripture or music, an individual can elevate his mind from one that is worldly towards a higher level of thought. It is said that the satsang constitutes one of the four ways – along with contentment, the spirit of inquiry, and self-control - by which people who are 'drowning' in samsara (repetitive history) can be saved.
In this elevated state, what the holy person speaks about becomes a dialogue which helps the listener bring what he knows at the level of the sub-conscious to the level of consciousness. And this dialogue helps the holy person to know the samaj and its needs.
The Westernised reformer did not see himself as a Brahmin, because his training made him look at this term in negative light.
However, the indigenous reformer had no such qualms of identifying himself as such because the people at large did not see it in negative light.
Hence, just as the Christian missionary saw the Brahmin as an obstacle to his programme, so also the Westernised saw the Brahmin in the same light. And so he too started to hate the Brahmin in the same manner in which the Christian missionary did.
This hatred did not seem to have any effect on the people at large even though the intellectual discourse continues to be in the “Brahmin-is-evil” mode. With the Shri Ram Janmaboomi issue moving to the centre stage of social and political discussion from 1985 onwards, a more explicit expression of one’s Hindu identity emerged.
And, since 1995, with the advent of the Internet, Hindus have been able to force discussions on their perspective as much as the Westernised one. And since the Hindu perspective was rooted in the Hindu cultural ethos, the people at large related to it better. The articulation of this perspective on the Internet helped other Hindus push their points of view in all discussion forums, even those that they were explicitly excluded from.
The “Brahmin is evil” mode is alive only amongst who form part of the ‘Khan Market gang’ all over the world. The dominant discussion, however, has moved away from this mode significantly. While the average Hindu recognises that there is much to be done from within, he is making the changes in a confident way. For him the guide to move forward is provided by what Swami Vivekananda had said:
We are Hindus. I do not use the word Hindu in any bad sense at all, nor do I agree with those that think there is any bad meaning in it. In old times, it simply meant people who lived on the other side of the Indus; today a good many among those who hate us may have put a bad interpretation upon it, but names are nothing. Upon us depends whether the name Hindu stands for everything that is glorious, everything that is spiritual, or whether it will remain a name of opprobrium, one designating the down-trodden, the worthless, the heathen. If at present the word Hindu means anything bad, never mind; by our action let us be ready to show that this is the highest word that any language can invent. It has been one of the principles of my life not to be ashamed of my own ancestors. I am proud to call myself a Hindu, I am proud that I am one of your unworthy servants. I am proud that I am a countryman of yours, you the descendants of the most glorious Rishis the world ever saw. Therefore, have faith in yourselves, be proud of your ancestors, instead of being ashamed of them. I am one of the proudest men ever born, but let me tell you frankly, it is not for myself, but on account of my ancestry.”
The Hindu is moving to provide himself as a Vishwa Guru, one who is not against anyone but one who takes everyone together. And for this, the Hindu is thankful to the Brahmin.
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