Does the ideal of the Brahmin continue to be relevant to India, whether we define a Brahmin as one who cannot be bought, a seeker of the highest truth, or a teacher and guide?
Shouldn’t such a person, regardless of the jati she or he is born in, continue to be a beacon of light and leadership?
No right-thinking Indian can justify the ancient régime of varna vyastha, whose injustices, inequalities, and indignities have survived into our own times. Yet, arguably, it is caste, not ideology, that is still the driving force in Indian society and politics. This contradiction of repudiation-reification makes us pose the moot question, “Has the Brahmin disappeared from India?”
Some 20 years ago, Saeed Naqvi, in The Last Brahmin Prime Minister of India, conferred that dubious distinction on P V Narasimha Rao. Atal Bihari Vajpayee’s ascension to the august office proved Naqvi wrong. Rani Siva Sankara Sarma’s autobiographical account in Telugu, The Last Brahmin (2007), published soon after Naqvi’s, also asks similar questions, though from a socio-religious, rather than political, standpoint.
I was startled to learn that on his last visit to India in 1985, the great philosopher and teacher Jiddu Krishnamurti raised the same question in his conversation with Professor P Krishna at Rajghat, Varanasi (A Jewel on a Silver Platter: Remembering Jiddu Krishnamurti by Padmanabhan Krishna, Varanasi: Pilgrims Publishing, 2015). Krishnamurti is quick to clarify that “Brahmin” is “Not by birth, sir, that is so childish!” As the conversation unfolds, Krishnamurti narrates a story to illustrate.
After defeating Porus, Alexander is impressed by the efficiency of the former’s administration. Alexander hears that the person responsible, Porus’s Brahmin Prime Minister, has left the capital after the loss. Sending after him, Alexander is further surprised at the Brahmin’s refusal to call on him. Deciding to visit him instead, Alexander asks, “I am so impressed with your abilities. Will you work for me?” “Sorry,” says the Brahmin, “I must teach these children; I no longer wish to serve emperors.”
Krishnamurti’s tale is a variation of the story of Alexander the Great and the stoic. The latter refuses to give up philosophy even in face of the monarch’s threats or blandishments; clearly, this story has both Greek and Indian versions. Krishnamurti concludes: “That’s a Brahmin—you can’t buy him. Now tell me, Sir, has the Brahmin disappeared from this country?”
In thus defining a Brahmin, Krishnamurti is following a tradition as old as the Buddha. In Canto 26 of the Dhammapada titled, “Who is a Brahmin,” the Tathagata says, “who is devoid of fear and free from fetters, him I call a Brahmin.” Verse after verse clarifies, enumerates, and explains the qualities: “He who is contemplative, lives without passions, is steadfast and has performed his duties, who is free from sensuous influxes and has attained the highest goal—him I call a Brahmin” (386). “Not by matted hair, by lineage, nor by birth (caste) does one become a Brahmin. But the one in whom there abide truth and righteousness, he is pure; he is a Brahmin” (393).
Traditionally, those born in the Brahmin jati were supposed to aspire to and espouse such high ideals, whether Vedic or Buddhist. But in these contentious times, the Buddha’s words themselves have been politicised. There are many “modern” translations of the Dhammapada where the word “Brahmin” has been removed completely. The Vedas, of course, are rejected altogether for being “Brahminical.” The object is clearly to attack, denigrate, and destroy the abstract category called “Brahmin.”
Often, the main strategy is to ascribe all the evils not only of the caste system but of Hinduism itself to “Brahminism.” Actually, the latter word was invented by Orientalists to refer to the worship of “Brahman” in contra-distinction to the Buddha, which was called Buddhism. The rule of Brahmins, though there was possibly never such a thing in actual Indian history, should more properly be termed “Brahminarchy”, a term no one uses. Much misinterpretation has also entered our own languages through the back translation of “Brahminism” as “Brahmanvad.” The latter is understood as the ideology of Brahmin domination promoting a hierarchical and exclusionary social system.
The history of anti-Brahminism should not, however, be traced to Phule, Periyar, or even Ambedkar, who were all trying to reform rather than destroy Hindu society. The real culprit was more likely British imperialism. If the Muslim invaders tried to annihilate the Kshatriyas, the British attempted to finish off the Brahmins. After the East India Company assumed the overlordship of Bengal, their first execution was of “Maharaja” Nandakumar, a leading Brahmin opponent of the Governor-General, Warren Hastings. On 5 August 1775, Nandakumar was hanged for forgery, a capital crime under British law. But how was such a law applicable to India?
Macaulay, though an imperialist, called the execution a judicial murder. He accused Elijah Impey, the first Chief Justice of the Calcutta Supreme Court, of colluding with Hastings.
The hanging of Nandakumar took place near what is now the Vidyasagar Setu. The entire Hindu population shunned the British, moving to the other bank of the river, to protest against British injustice and to avoid the pollution caused by the act.
Today, India is filled not only with Brahmin-baiters and Brahmin-haters, but also of brainwashed and de-brahminised Hindus. My own university, JNU, is full of pamphlets and posters against Brahminism, one even blaming “Brahminical patriarchy” for the disappearance of Najeeb Ahmed, who went missing on 15 October 2016. Anti-Brahminism, however, is never considered hate-crime or hate-speech. Why? Don’t Brahmins have human feelings or rights? Brahmins, moreover, are soft targets, scripturally and culturally enjoined not to retaliate. As the Dhammapada verse 389 puts it, “One should not strike a Brahmin; neither should a Brahmin give way to anger against him who strikes.”
Is it time intellectually to re-arm Brahmins so that they maintain both their own dignity and the veneration of their inherited calling? Does the ideal of the Brahmin continue to be relevant to India, whether we define a Brahmin as one who cannot be bought, a seeker of the highest truth, or a teacher and guide? Shouldn’t such a person, regardless of the jati she or he is born in, continue to be a beacon of light and leadership? As to those born into the community, they may well remember the Kanchi Paramacharya’s sage advice: Fulfill the responsibilities but do not expect the privileges of your birth.
The author is Professor of English at JNU. His latest publications include The Death and Afterlife of Mahatma Gandhi (Penguin Random House, 2015), Cultural Politics in Modern India: Postcolonial Prospects, Colourful Cosmopolitanism, Global Proximities (Routledge, 2016), and Transit Passenger/Passageiro em Transito (University of Sao Paolo Press, 2016).