Of the Subalternate Universe.
“The Brahmin Burden”
It is a sad truth that most revolutions and independence movements subside but simply by replacing one form of oppression by another. The pomp, songs, flags and vigor will all be soon appropriated by a new ruling class and symbols of liberation will later be held in sway over the proletariat as if they were imperial scepters.
People often ask me why I am so adamant about learning and professing the language of my oppressors, referring to English, and as a lower-caste person, I retain my position that I have always had more than one oppressor and the British were not the worst of them. I have always been of the opinion that Postcolonial school of thought is insufficient for understanding the state of things in India. Almost all of India’s problems are pre-colonial and have existed for 1000s of years and they were all swept aside by one crudely nationalistic anti-British narrative which was professed by an exclusively upper-caste Congress leadership who conveniently left behind 70% of India’s population, the Real people of India.
To this day, most of this 70% live like an invisible and voiceless class of people, at the receiving end of a form of feudalistic oppression, the likes of which could be found nowhere else in the world.
I was a part of the University of Delhi, an institution of eminence, the previous year. A quick look around the campuses presents the sheer dominance of Brahmin-Savarna classes in the composition of the student body and an utter paucity of representation from people outside of those brackets. The same applies to other prestigious spaces of higher learning, like the Indian Institutes of Technology (IITs) and Indian Institutes of Management (IIMs). This is overlooking the fact that the faculty at these institutions would be almost entirely Brahmin.
The upper-caste hegemony is in no way restricted to the educational sector of India. The emphasize I placed on it is simply because of the fact that I am myself a student and it is these institutions that help mould the young minds who are the future of the nation and of course, the disparities in educational opportunities later manifest themselves as disparities in living standards.
But the worst part is when I had to hear educators and lecturers make statements like, “We as Brahmins, despite belonging to the privileged echelons, have done a lot to address the problems of inequality and improve the lives of lower-caste people.” The extravagant toxicity of this is tantamount to a white person going around the United States of America saying, “We as white people, have done a lot for the emancipation of slaves. Black people could not have done it without white people.”
It is unfortunate that such narratives are still tolerated and promoted all over the country. The idea that the oppressor and the liberator are the same people is abominable and is colonial in its essence, it has implications to the idea of a “Brahmin Burden” with parallels to the concept of a “White man’s burden”.
In reality, any form of meaningful change can materialize only if the call for change comes from the lowest rungs of the society. While looking at the success story of the region of Kerala, I have always ascribed its achievements in bringing about manumission to its downtrodden people in the scale that it could, to the fact that most of its reformers belonged to underclass communities.
But when it comes to the rest of the country, even today, most of the intellectuals who speak about or against caste inequalities would belong to upper-caste communities themselves. I cannot help but doubt if this could lead to any concrete realization or optimal upliftment of the lower-caste identity.
The Lower-Caste Identity.
I was in a moral conundrum as to whether or not I should utter the statement that I am “lower-caste and proud”. I have an urge to say this, but considering how unnatural and demeaning the entity of caste is, I question if there is anything to be proud of in belonging to any caste group whatsoever. On the other hand, I wonder if I am only able to make a choice about this because of the meagre privileges I can afford due to the fact that I was born in the state of Kerala, whose socialist liberal ethos has fostered a form of economic equality unattained by any other place in the country. Most others of similar social stature might not have this privilege and live overwhelmed by the wretchedness and ignominious shame of being born lower-caste.
While there is nothing to be proud of in belonging to any caste group, I am of strong conviction that no one has the right to claim themselves to be completely “casteless” in a nation where a part of the population is oppressed by it and the other part attaches their respective caste nomenclatures to their own names like ornaments, as if it defines their very personalities.
However, it is absolutely crucial that the shame associated with being born lower-caste is purged, so as to uplift the self-image of those people. In order to do so, the people of the nation has to cease projecting these communities as integrally “weak” and “vulnerable” entities and view them as the distinct cultural entities that they really are. It is always important to remember that each caste-community or ethnicity of India would have differences in the scale that any two races of the world would have. Their unique histories, heritage and both stories of oppression and resilience against oppression have to be heard, talked about and accepted as integrally Indian values and patrimony.
If the locus of India’s cultural and civilizational values does not shift from the Savarna-Brahmin echelons to that of the majority, each new section of society that overcomes caste hierarchies would sooner than later transfigure themselves into Neo-Brahmin entities, seeking upward social mobility through upper-caste emulation.
It is very common in Kerala for people of my parents’ age from middle-class backgrounds, to point to the thriving Christian and Muslim population of the province and make statements like, “Look at how devout they are, how often they go to churches and mosques, no wonder why they are so united and strong!” and associate all that is wrong with middle-class Hindu youth today with our impiety and the reluctance to attend services at temples.
To this, I always retort that it was never in the cultural DNA of middle-class (non-Upper caste) Keralites to be a part of any religious communion whatsoever, simply because of the fact that all of the non-Brahmin communities were marked Untouchables in Pre-Renaissance Kerala, that is, at least until the 1950s.
However, the Keralite reaction to the exclusion from religious rights was remarkable. It led to the revival and wider acceptance of the parallel systems of believes and worship, a set of Rebel Gods who were conceived in the imagination of the downtrodden people, deities who, like the devotees themselves, came from the lowest rungs of Hindu belief systems and folklores, gods that the underclass could actually relate to.
Those belief systems were unpretentious and Dionysian in its scale and unapologetically celebrated heathenness, profanity and even being openly sexual. But surprisingly, these entities later found space, albeit marginally, alongside temples and more conventional spaces of devotion, and even though they receive eye-rolls from the self-righteous bourgeoisie, the Rebel Gods are worshipped even today all over the state in many middle-class households.
If one looks close enough, similar cultures of resistance could be found all over the nation, although they are more than often sidelined and ignored as socially undesirable. Given that Hinduism as an organized entity, is an exclusively upper-caste religion and mainstream Hinduism in particular is almost completely synonymous with Brahminism, it is my opinion that, in order for the lower-castes to properly reclaim their rights and identities, they must first refuse to be enamored by upper-caste systems of worship and ritualism.
It is a rather sacrilegious opinion of mine that (reflecting on what William Blake said about John Milton*) the lower-castes were always the people of the “Devil’s party without knowing it.” In a world where children are taught to imagine demons like the BIPOC and angels like the fair Aryan people or in an Indian context, where, in popular representations, the Asuras are made in the image of archetypal South Indians or lower-caste people and the Devas (Gods) in the image of Indo-Iranian North Indians, it is time to discard the politically charged binaries that curtail the very scope of human perceptions. It is important to remember that the lines between the binaries of God vs Devil, Good vs Bad or Masculine vs Feminine, have all been defined and influenced by the historically dominant party. It is usual for the Gods to be hijacked by the people in power in order to give divine justification to their rule. In case of Hinduism, by the virtue of religious sanctions, the religion itself became almost synonymous with its caste hierarchies.
As long as the majority of the people of India feels the need to masquerade their cultural identities and appropriate upper-caste culture to feel like they belong in the general society, the culture of Anti-Brahminism, as propounded by leaders like Ambedkar and Periyar, will retain its significance.
Also by me:
India is an incredibly diverse country, but it is also one of the most racially intolerant, casteist and Islamophobic. In order to understand this paradox, one must look at the nation through the eyes of its minorities, the people who really make it special, but who are also at the receiving end of things.
- The title is my rendition of George Orwell’s famous quote from Animal Farm (1945), “All animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others.”
- William Blake’s notorious comment on Paradise Lost (1608–1674) by John Milton: “The reason Milton wrote in fetters when he wrote of Angels and God, and at liberty when he wrote of Demons and Hell, is because he was a true Poet and of the Devil’s party without knowing it.”