No Branches without Roots — An Understanding of Hindu Social Structure from the Outside-In – Part II
(Image courtesy: viewbug.com)
Editor’s Note: Part I in this series of three articles can be read here.
Part II – Community and Sanatana Civilization
(Concepts introduced in Part-I of this essay are frequently referred to, especially the ideas of the world of subsistence/the world of surplus and the six principles of social organization as manifested in the West and in Bharat. Do refer back when needed.)
Community — A Defense
People may imagine, upon reading my words, that I am an “upper caste” man trying to use clever arguments in order to retain my “privileges,” but this could not be further from the truth. I came to rural Tamil Nadu, two decades ago, running away from the ugliness of America and the growing Americana in the urban centres of modern India. Of course, I had already been brainwashed by Marxist ideas and the logic of social justice movements that were sweeping the West and that would soon become mainstream even in India. I spent years trying to square the circle, to fit my ideas into the village world I experienced every day. Luckily for me, the circle was never squared, and I was slowly but surely absorbed into the circle. The “OBC” (Other Backward Castes) Vanniyar jaatis and the “SC” (Scheduled Castes) Paraiyar jaatis who I worked with, whose kids my children played with, were to become my extended community. Their love for their traditions, their/my Gods, their many ingenious skills, and above all, their easy, non-judgmental hospitability slowly and inevitably nudged this fallen Liberal back into the Hindu fold. I do not deny this rural Hindu life’s share of skirmishes, squabbles, and entrenched problems. Millions see these issues as all-important and discuss them threadbare, but I see them as mere hiccups. It’s better we focus on what has been enabled by our ancient systems of community organization, self-regulation, and management because all of that has become invisible in the shrill anti-Hindu rhetoric of the past 150 years. If we set aside our individualist eyes for a while and suspend our knee-jerk application of the Western ideals of “Liberty” and “Equality,” we will reach a place of reasonable neutrality from where we can enter this familiar but different world.
What is apparent to any neutral observer of the community conscious Hindu world is the sheer harmony and beauty of what is happening here, every day, seemingly hidden from plain sight. Our liberal eyes fail to see the Maargazhi Kolams, the Aadi Thiruvizhaas, the annual Koozh-oothara Vizhaas, the daily offerings to Vepamaram Vediappan, the vellikizhamai alankaaram for Puttruamman, and the easy camaraderie between communities and clans that have kept the rice paddies fertile for millennia, maintained our water irrigation systems for centuries, maintained the peace through the sharing of pasture land and the exchange of seeds… the intricate eco-system of collaborative communal life that results in the grass growing in the yeris becoming the roof over our heads, all happening as if by magic, with no governmental presence and no top-down “system” or “organization”. And indeed, it is magic to see people being humans in a primordial sense, husbanding nature, settling their conflicts through ritual gift-giving, collaborating daily, and never forgetting to thank the Gods for all this hard-won bounty. How can something as remarkable, gentle, and beautiful as this be as evil as they say it is? I stand with this vanishing world of authentic human experience. I stand with my Vanniyar and Paraiyar brothers and sisters and the world they have created, nourished, and died defending. Urban Hindus, high on atrocity literature and the rhetoric of five millennia of oppression, do not realize that by aiming to erase “caste” they are teaching the children of our communities to hate where we’ve come from. By teaching our children to erase the beautiful and sustainable traditions that gave us life, they are not saving us from oppression, but in fact subjecting us to oppression. By “ethnociding” us “for our own good” the anti-caste brigade reveals itself to be a pawn of the Western Active Principle (that is, the global capitalist market) that detests diversity, community, and independence because they are inefficient. Don’t they see how ironic it is that they want to save us “subalterns” by erasing our cultures and traditions and by brainwashing our children into believing that the lives of their ancestors were inauthentic? Millions in our cities forced to do 9-5 jobs that they detest, that they dream of escaping from every day, stuck in traffic jams for hours, breathing in noxious fumes… all that is not oppression; but simple people coming together to create a local economy, build their homes, husbanding natural resources sustainably, growing their food, feeding thousands of others, maintaining good humour and fellow-feeling over millennia – that is oppression? What kind of a perverse Marxist mind would look upon reality, see nothing of its beauty or intricacy, imagine a non-existent system that has neither been defined nor seen to be implemented, and then dismiss reality itself as oppression?
Some inter-tribe skirmishes have been on the rise, prejudices flare up more often, natural resources are fought over more fiercely, and feelings of us and them are delineated more sharply. Yes. But should this not be expected in a land which has been fighting a war for 1200 years, where farmers were taxed 60 percent of their harvests for 700 years, where access to the commons has been restricted and outright denied for 200 years, where people have been denied their identities and pride for 70 years? Is a certain level of debasement not to be expected in a land where the wars, taxes, and denials have resulted in the closure of indigenous education systems, the impoverishment of our places of religious expression, and the erasure of pride in our ancestral work and traditions, basically everything that could have helped uplift us during the dark centuries? But still we maintained our dignity and our faith in the Gods and our customs. What stamina! What pride! What faith! Let us understand the context in which this debasement occurred. Let us start from the beginning… from the time before the debasement. Let us use that as a springboard the way Europeans ignored the dark ages and looked to the Greeks and let us build a narrative of pride. Let us use that narrative to build strength, and purpose, and unity, and figure out how to avoid a future debasement while remaining uncompromising in our essential character.
Let us start by turning the narrative on its head. Hinduism did not create “caste”. “Caste,” in the form of jaati, is nature itself. It is the tribalism that has existed in all places since the dawn of time, people banding together into comfortable groups in which trust can be verified and promises enforced, figuring out how to deal with other groups… this is jaati. Jaati gave us community, and jaati gave us the means to survive in the World-of-Nature. Remember that until 1900 CE, our population was 80 million people living in far-flung villages spread over 275,000 square miles of heavily forested land in which roamed 40,000 tigers. This is the context for jaati. In this land where the rivers flowed and the Gods blessed, our ancestors made their fires, transplanted rice, domesticated cows, harvested bamboo, maintained the peace, made art, shared stories, and participated in a life rich with meaning.
Let us not hate it.
Let me now offer a way to think about ourselves that will peel away the layers of foreign skins that have masked our self-perception.
Culture and Civilization — Looking in, Looking out
Culture is organically evolved. It represents the urge to localize. It is the tribal aspect of ourselves. Civilization, on the other hand, represents the urge to universalize. It refers to a set of uber values, ideals, and techniques that is capable of bringing people of different cultures together… to give them a common umbrella to band under, even though the cultural ground they stand upon may not be uniform. There are thousands upon thousands of cultures but only a handful of civilizations. Out of those handful, just a few are still with us today – Western post-Christian Civilization (the current hegemon), Han Civilization (that is currently making a bid for primacy even though it is heavily race-focused), Sanatana Civilization (that is awakening after centuries), Islamic Civilization (that is strongly entrenched but uncreative), and Japanese and Slavic Civilizations which were always race-focused and limited in their appeal. Out of these civilizations, only Western Civilization and Sanatana Civilization have the necessary epistemological tools to appeal to humanity. The other civilizations are necessarily self-limiting because of the narrowness of their worldviews.
All civilizations have grappled with the problem of how to bring the tribes together. This is the great task that civilizations perform and in doing so they have had to deal with all the ethical dilemmas that consequently arise. Different civilizations have approached this task differently — the out-and-out tough cop approach of Islam, versus the good-cop/bad-cop approach of Christianity, versus the “take this cash, this booze. and this sex while we brainwash your kids” approach of Liberalism. But it is only Sanatana Civilization that held the means to be just as important as the end… the ethics of how to approach the problem was taken to be as important as the ultimate unity to be forged.
How was the unity to be forged without erasure, without genocide, without enslavement, without the temptations of debasement, but with an invitation to nobility, and a deep belief in diversity, in beauty, and in collaboration? How to invite, rather than demand? How to entrench the values so deep and so naturally in work, in community, in ritual, and in geography, that we would not need weekly brainwashing sessions? That Sanatana Civilization engaged with these matters should be seen by all as its claim to ethical pre-eminence. Today we disparage it because we no longer have the subtlety of mind to appreciate the complexity of the task that it set itself to accomplish. So much easier to have enslaved communities, committed genocide, colonized other countries, built a short-lived unity through expansionism… but our rishis chose to take the high road. It was obviously a much slower road, but a much more beautiful one… a deeper process as a result. This is in evidence when we consider the diversity of culture, the beauty of tradition, and the depth of philosophy that took root in Bharat. Such a human garden exists nowhere else in the world. If the Islamic invasions had not disrupted this astounding ethical experiment, we may well have reached our destination, but alas, it was not to be.
Islamic Civilization and Christian Civilization spread under the banner of “expansionism”. The idea that one must expand at all costs resulted in leading both these civilizations straight into the jaws of great evils — slavery, genocide, and colonialism. What’s more, a unity forged in the fires of such evil is inherently weak. It falls apart as soon as expansionism is no longer possible. As long as colonial loot is flowing and rape is possible, the “converted” and “united” tribes are happy. As soon as the flow of ill-gotten wealth and women stops, the tribes fall into fighting over the spoils. We saw this in post-pagan Europe and more recently in twentieth-century Western Europe. We see this throughout the Muslim world — Iran versus Iraq, Saudi versus Yemen, Turks versus Kurds, Pakistan versus Bangladesh, Sunni versus Shia.
Western post-Enlightenment Civilization is also expansionist, but its methods are more sophisticated. Instead of using the sword or the gun, it spreads by appealing to our baser values — greed, selfishness, and lust, and labels them as our “true nature”. It then attempts to create a highly unstable system of control and punishment. Lust is encouraged as porn, greed is encouraged as the “market,” and selfishness is encouraged as individualism, but these values are criminalized when they cross arbitrary tipping points. So, get this, the very values that are the engine of Western life are criminalized beyond arbitrary tipping points. This is the schizophrenia that modern Westernized people labour under.
Sanatana Civilization, on the other hand, appeals to our nobler values — nishkaama karma, seva, daana, and tyaaga. It posits that these values lead to the revelation of our true nature, which is aatman, and further that the true nature of the aatman is the paramaatman. This truth that Sanatana Civilization offers us is free of internal contradictions. A society that functions as per these values is self-limiting, self-policing, self-sustaining, and uplifting. It exhibits integrity. Sanatana Civilization invites us to step up so that we can take control. Western civilization tempts us to step down so that we can be controlled.
When a civilization comes, it usually expects local cultures to surrender to it. Most civilizations believe that unless disparate cultures give up the ground under their feet, they will not be able to come together under the new civilizational umbrella. So, the agents of civilization indulge in ethnocide, genocide, and enslavement. This was how Christian Civilization spread to the Americas, Africa, Australia, and Asia. This is also how Islamic Civilization spread in West Asia, North Africa, and Bharat. These examples of violent civilizational spread are so ingrained in our consciousness that we imagine all civilizations to be similar. It is the reason why many awakened Hindus have ironically turned into apologists for “Empire”. They insist that Europe “won” because it deserved to win and that if we want to win, we must become like them. It is also the reason why 18th century Europeans could not but imagine that there must have been a war-like Aryan race that came to Bharat and subjugated the indigenous people…because they simply could not imagine any other way…and the rest, as they say, is history.
The Unique Nature of Sanatana Civilization — Building a Unity in Diversity
But Sanatana Civilization was qualitatively different. It was not just a force for unity, as it was simultaneously also a force for the moral good — Dharma. It is for this reason that it is known as Samskriti. Similarly, Hinduism as a religion is qualitatively different from the Abrahamic religions in that it represents the pursuit of Satya rather than the forceful implementation of commandments. It is for this reason that it is known as Dharma. But I will continue to use the word “civilization” and “religion” for ease of comparison with global phenomena.
Unlike the spread of other civilizations, when Sanatana Civilization first emerged and spread in Bharat, it did not come upon the wings of erasure, genocide, and slavery. It did not come as a destructive tsunami; it came instead as a bridge. The bridge was a call to nobility. Tribes were invited to belong, to sacrifice their competitive instincts for the greater good, to honour a set of common values, and participate in a great collaborative yagna. Tribes were encouraged to see themselves and each other as parts of a single divine body, and the divine body, or Purusha, was here on Bhu Devi to offer excellence to the Gods. This dramatic vision, manifest on Bhu Devi, is our collaborative effort, our coalition, and the weave of the cultural fabric of this nation. Some tribes made it all the way across the bridge, some made it halfway, and some were hesitant and watched it from afar, but our rishis built that bridge and left it there for all time to come. The people who crossed the bridge continued to interact with people who did not. The tribes who chose to stay on the periphery of the bridge or in their forest strongholds continued to bring their produce and skills to the bridge because the bridge was a source of work and wealth. A visit to Kutch even today will show us how the people-of-the-bridge continue to interact with, and value the nomadic Rabaris. A visit to Kotagiri will show us how the people-of-the-bridge continue to interact with, and value the mountain-dwelling Khotas and Kurumbas. A look at this video will show us how the Kaani vanavaasis continue to relate to and work alongside the Travancore royal family. And of course, we have the famous example of the Bhils and Maharana Pratap forging unity for a common goal. Given these living examples, I find it hard to accept that the oft-referenced ill-treatment of SCs was an established civilizational practice. I would rather look towards the documentation of “caste” practices pre-18th Century to come to a reasonable understanding of how classical Hindu society used to function at a time when we still held ourselves up to the name Arya.
The British censuses and the institutionalization of “caste” post ’47 have essentially permanently closed access to our civilizational bridge. Today, many who are heirs to the values of the bridge would rather jump onto a ship headed for foreign shores. Today, many communities who lived on the periphery of the bridge have been schooled to see the bridge as a monster. But those of us who still believe in the bridge and what it stands for need to work out how to re-open the bridge, to re-establish its noble values as aspirational, and unblock the flow of samskriti for the benefit of all communities.
In a time when people were willing to wait lifetimes and Sanatana Civilization was willing to let the natural flow of time leave its mark on the destiny of communities, we never did develop a mechanism for actively bringing peripheral communities on board the bridge. In this age of speed and excess, we are not afforded that luxury. Now is the time to build the institutional mechanism for bringing all interested people on board the bridge. If there is one task that our acharyas must collectively engage in, it is this.
The Mechanics of Sanatana Unity — The Toolkit of Rishis
So, if top-down Sanatana Civilization did not create jaati, what did it do with jaati?
How did it build unity without coercion? How did it bring diverse people to the table and make sure they all left relatively satisfied?
The rishis who designed Sanatana Civilization used several tools to achieve their purpose. Remember, it was a communal world they were dealing with. How communities interact and the expectations they have are totally different from how individuals behave. And as we’ve seen earlier in Part I of this essay, a communal world is the long-term stabilizing force in the world, as the individualist world is unstable and unsustainable. So, the toolkit of rishis is, in fact, the toolkit of solutions to human strife.
“There are unities more essential and more important than any political unity; and these are based on common understandings of the ultimate ends of life rather than upon its immediate purposes, as to which there can be an almost endless variety of notions” – Ananda K. Coomaraswamy in his Letters, 1942
What I’m going to describe will make sense only to people who appreciate that at the social level, the value of “Harmony” is one of the highest moral goods to aspire towards, not “Liberty,” not just mere “Peace,” but actual harmony. So, let us begin to unpack the toolkit of rishis…
#1 Establishing an Acceptable Deal for Resource Distribution
The first thing Sanatana Civilization did in order to bring lasting peace and end inter-tribal war, was to encourage occupational specialization within the tribes. This was the first step, without which the tribes of Bharat would have gone down the route of the tribes of Africa. In sub-Saharan Africa, the Bantu-speaking tribes swept across the continent, displacing all the other tribal communities, sending many to extinction and pushing many of the earliest tribes to remote pockets. This never happened in Bharat. No one jaati caused ethnic or actual physical cleansing of any other jaati. Just look at European history to see what ethnic fighting looks like. Wave upon wave of ethnic wars. It was only the access to colonial loot that stopped their fights temporarily. And even that “peace” broke down in 1914 and again in 1938. Let us be clear that the 70 years since then do not represent “the end of history,” though the White man imagines it to be so. The essential internecine nature of materialist Europe will reappear again and again.
In a subsistence world where the number of jobs as well as types of work were severely limited, the jaati-vyavastha granted, reserved, and provided for work to every single community, creating a cultural milieu where every type of work was equally valued as a route to the divine (as per Shri Krishna Himself). And it did this, with seemingly zero enforcement. This makes it the original decentralized, community-centered, spiritual communism. It avoided every pitfall of centralized atheist communism – soul-sucking uniformity, inhuman scale, inequality, and corruption, over what is possibly a timescale a hundred times longer.
#2 Envisioning a Metaphysical Purpose
Making sure the tribes don’t fight one another over resources is one thing but bringing them together to create an economic engine is an entirely different thing. This was accomplished in Bharat with a call for yagna. The jaatis were invited to offer excellence through their work as a sacrifice to the Gods. The Nishkama Karma of our communities was the fuel that lit the fire of our civilization.
“The vocation, whether it be that of the farmer or the architect, is a function; the exercise of this function as regards the man himself is the most indispensable means of spiritual development, and as regards his relation to society the measure of his worth” – Ananda Coomaraswamy, ‘Christian and Oriental Philosophy of Art’, 1956
#3 Envisioning a Metaphysical Road While Distributing Responsibility
The yagna is our destination, yes, but what is the road that gets us there? The road to get to the yagna-shaala too was a metaphysical one. The vision offered to our communities was the vision of the Cosmic Purusha. Thousands of disparate jaatis were brought together under four uber-groups representing the legs, hands, torso, and head of this divine being. Varna. This is clearly an act of unity and not of division as many claim. Shudras represent creative excellence, Kshatriyas represent power, Vysyas represent wealth, and Brahmanas represent dispassion. When we come together like this, we manifest the Cosmic Purusha here on Bhu Devi and we have glorious Bharat.
#4 Establishing an Aspirational Value with an Inverse Relationship to External Power
External Power (wealth, land, weapons, armies) draws respect automatically, so our rishis made sure the opposite force was institutionalized as aspirational – Internal Power. The ability to have control over the inner world, thoughts and emotions, desire itself, was held up as the paragon – Dispassion. This great inversion served as the only check and balance we ever needed. Not that nyaya was never consulted, but by and large, communities became self-policing. The Brahmana jaatis who specifically represented dispassion were specially respected as long as they lived up to that goal. The Kshatriya jaatis who gave their lives and energies to protecting Dharma were specially respected. The Vysya jaatis who donated their wealth to Dharmic causes were specially respected. The Shudra jaatis who put their sweat and ingenuity in the service of Dharma were specially respected. Respect was given to all who acted selflessly. And that respect was all we ever craved…to be seen as the ones holding up the flag of Dharma, to do our communities proud…to stand as equal contributors at the cosmic yagna-shaala.
A Transcendental Principle is important to give society a sense of shared destination. In our case, it is the idea of Moksha. Values that follow from that transcendental principle are what lend cohesion to society. And within those values, a hierarchy of aspirational values is what points society in the direction of the shared destination, it is the compass, it is the agent that generates societal potential difference. In every society, people who adhere more closely to the cherished values of that society are given greater respect. This is true even today when wealth, fame, power, and physical beauty are the anointed aspirational values. The Musks, the Kardashians, the Trumps lead the pack. A quick Google search of the top twenty Twitter accounts will lay out in clear terms who our heroes are and what kind of people we aspire to be like. In a different world, when tyaga, daana, bhakti, nishkaama karma were the aspirational values, a different kind of paragon was held up as aspirational, as heroic.
#5 Creating Interdependencies
To further the collaborative spirit amongst jaatis, deep interdependencies were created, many of which had both economic as well as metaphysical dimensions.
Halley Kalyan delves deeper in this talk (16:45 onwards).
“About the Pattachitra, a type of scroll painting…there are a particular class of artist jaatis called the Nakashi jaatis who make these paintings. So, the Nakashi jaatis make these paintings which are used by other jaatis in their narrative traditions.
For example, you have a purana called the Jamba Puranam which is narrated by a jaati called Dakalees and they narrate it for another jaati called the Madigas. Similarly, the purana called the Markandeya Purana is narrated by a jaati called Kunapuli for the sake of a jaati called Padmashali.”
It is impossible to tell how such complexity was instilled and encouraged, whether it was done subtly or if it happened organically, but what is clear is that there is no historical memory of how all of this came to be. We only have our puranas and our customs as explanations and evidence.
#6 Establishing an Explanation for Hierarchy around that Aspirational Value
I have not read the shaastras and I don’t know if they say that a Shudra is “low-born” and a Brahmana is “high born” but the word on the street is that it is so, and so let me address this problem at the metaphoric level. If, within the Purusha, Brahmana represented dispassion and Shudra represented creative excellence, the rishis seem to have determined that dispassion is a higher value than creative excellence. They seem to have chosen dispassion as the value that would lend Sanatana Civilization its uniqueness and societal potential difference. Dispassion was anointed as the aspirational value that brought one closer to the transcendental principle, Moksha. As a civilizational value it was of course available to one and all and encouraged among all communities as Nishkaama Karma, but, even so, to be born into a community whose entire existence revolved around that value was seen as a sign of having earned a greater degree of purvajanma punya.
The formulation is clear and should be acceptable to anyone really interested in Hindu society. But unfortunately, this is not the case. People of all kinds today have serious problems with this formulation. Why is that?
When we dig deeper, we find that it’s not that people do not understand the logic of this formulation, but it is rather that they resent the fact that this formulation was applied to entire communities and not to individuals. But we forget that the subsistence world had only communities… there were no individuals!
This inability to appreciate the old way stems from our having adopted wholesale the Western “Social Principle of Individualist Autonomy” over the traditional Bharatiya “Social Principle of Community”. Punya is earned by individuals, yes, but also by communities because the two were tied at the hip in a subsistence world. Most people were not “free” of their communities. The idea that one can walk in and out of our birth communities is a product of the world of surplus. Subsistence does not allow us that luxury. There literally was no such thing as the individual (though we all had our personalities). The individual, as we know him/her today, is a creation of the “Machine”. In the subsistence world, for the many, their communities would determine what they stood for (and I want to stress “that is perfectly ok”). But we must also acknowledge that for the few (leaders and inspired souls), their inner fires determined what they stood for. Entire communities could rise in station or great individuals could take their communities along to a new horizon, and this did happen more often than we care to recognize in our modern-day blame game. It is meaningless for both camps to rant about and rail against this or that.
Hierarchy is one of the most difficult topics to broach because post-Marx, people have all sorts of false notions about it. Let me start by saying that hierarchy exists everywhere, in all societies, in every subset of every society, in our jobs and in our families. Without hierarchy, there is no potential difference that induces movement, aspiration, inspiration, order, peace. The only real question worth asking is what are the values that determine that hierarchy? In so far as the hierarchy represents the cherished values of a society, it is the very force that animates society. But if the hierarchy no longer represents the values that people hold dear, then that same hierarchy will come to be seen as oppressive.
The fact that we, today, see the social structure of our ancestors as oppressive is no evidence that our ancestors were in fact oppressed; it is merely evidence that our values have changed. As we have moved from Moksha to the “Machine” and from Karma to the “Market” in our metaphysics, we see things differently, we judge things differently. To throw more light on this phenomenon let us investigate the “Active Principle” a little.
An average American flipping burgers at a restaurant makes an annual income of 22,000 dollars. Elon Musk makes 22,000 dollars every minute. That’s an insane potential difference of half a million times! But we see this as normal. As just even. Why is that? It’s only because we have accepted, unquestioningly, the “Market” as our “Active Principle”. The “Market” literally flows in our veins. Anything the “Market” does is just because it is perceived as unbiased.
There is a one-to-one correspondence between this modern worldview and the karmic worldview. In the old days, the “Active Principle” that guided our ancestors was Karma. It was Karma that flowed in their veins. It was Karma that was seen as just. It was Karma that was unbiased. It was Karma that determined if one was born to the Punya equivalent of a burger flipper or an Elon Musk.
The difference is that the “Market” assigns responsibility for life’s uncertainties outside of us, and calls it “Chance” while Karma assigns responsibility for life’s uncertainties within ourselves and calls it Prarabdha.
If the Market’s currency is money, Karmic currency is Punya. Both metaphysical systems are clear that anyone and yes, everyone, can gather currency and is in fact ordained to do so. That is the aim of the game, to gather the currency of choice. As one gathers currency, one rises in station.
Today, the ideas of equal opportunity and growing the pie are used as inducements to sweeten the Western deal, to justify the insane societal potential difference between the burger flipper and Elon, to convince us that we too can one day be Elon Musk. But it is just sleight of hand. There is a thousand times more inequality today in the Western industrial world than there has ever been in classical Hindu society. We don’t let it affect us because surplus has given us the cushion of “mixie-grinder-tv-fridge”.
The fact is that both the ideas of equal opportunity and growing the pie are ideas of the world of surplus. They could not exist in the world of subsistence where the ideas of limits and distribution were the governing ideas. To turn around and blame the doctrine of Karma for the inequalities of today’s market economics, as many do, is unfair.
People misread the doctrine of Karma in two ways:
- They blame Karma for people being forced to do jobs they didn’t want to do. This is false. Whenever people have been stuck in such jobs, it’s because they belonged in a particular community. A Konaar cow herd walking into a Vishwakarma Aasaari carpenter’s community saying that he wants to belong there is just as impossible as a Kurumba person walking to the Toda village and saying that he wants to start being a Toda person. It’s the old-world equivalent of a modern person asking, “Why can’t I be you?” It’s simply not feasible. Both economically, culturally, and in terms of sheer “personhood,” it would be an act of dilution. This is not a karmic issue, but a tribal issue… and we have seen that the world of subsistence was tribal in nature. If change was truly desired, an entire community would have to shift professions, or a true leader would need to guide his community to a new horizon. And this did happen more often than we think. But for the vast majority of people, most of the time, life within their communities doing their sacred work was more than sufficiently fulfilling. The idea that communities that are today called SCs were constantly doing menial work is an absolute fiction. The SC communities were a free people, probably fiercely independent, making beautiful craftwork, building beautiful houses, making and performing art, stewarding nature, playing their part in agriculture, temple building, village rituals, and war. History shows that the so-called “criminal tribes” and the forest tribes fought the hardest against British occupation and have resisted conversion to Islam the longest in Pakistan.
- People also make the mistake of blaming Karma for creating a birth-based hierarchy of intrinsic worth. This is false. The hierarchy is of values not of human worth. Birth is the only moment when the chips from one’s purvajanma actions are encashed. It has nothing to do with a person’s intrinsic worth in this life. It has nothing to do with a person’s capacity for Dharma and Moksha in this birth. People of all communities who follow the higher values of Sanatana Civilization, tyaga, nishkaama karma, daana, bhakti, ahimsa, shaurya, excellence, etc., are noble and are considered Arya and worthy of respect. Wherever we have moved away from this understanding in our debasement, we need a course correction.
What most people don’t realize is that even today, when the idea of Karma has lost its hold on people’s minds, if I were to ask a Vanniyar Gounder or a Vishwakarma Aasaari or a Paraiyar or an Irular if he wants to be a Dikshitar at the Chidambaram Temple, his answer would be “no”. Why is that? If he feels that his station in life is “low” and that of the Dikshitar is “high” then why wouldn’t he exchange positions? In the modern West, the burger flipper would most certainly take the opportunity to exchange positions with Elon Musk. What’s different here?
A few things are.
a) The idea of community is still strong, and one cannot simply walk away from one’s extended family and into someone else’s extended family.
b) The idea that all work is sacred is still strong. One cannot abandon one’s own sacred work and take on someone else’s sacred work just like that without going through the grind of mental and ritual preparation for it. It would be a betrayal of one’s own ritual priesthood.
c) The “higher” in station one is, the more difficult the life, the greater the sacrifices of pleasure, the greater the adoption of stringent rules of saucha. Nobody really wants this. This inversion of the relationship between value and power, that we discussed earlier, is deeply familiar to all Sanatanis and they respect its implications.
Recently on Twitter, someone accused me saying that Brahmanas had the privilege of “pole position” and they held on to it monopolistically. Let’s take a look at what this “pole position” entailed. Here is Al Beruni in the 11th century:
“The Brahmana’s duty is to practice abstinence, to make the earth his bed, to wash himself thrice a day and make a sacrifice to the fire at dawn and dusk. He fasts a day and breaks fast the next day and is never allowed to eat meat. Whatever alms he receives, he places before his master and eats only the leftovers. During Grihasta, he co-habits with his wife only once a month. The Brahmana lives from what he gathers on the earth or from trees. He may not participate in trade or the keeping of cattle. He must continually read, perform the sacrifices, take care of the fire which he lights, offer before it, worship it and preserve it from being extinguished, that he may be burned by it after his death.”
This is what “privilege” in the Hindu universe looks like – the privilege to lead a life of hardship and self-denial, the privilege to voluntarily humble oneself by begging for food every day, and the privilege to subordinate oneself to a string of arcane rules and regulations in order to maintain the purity of being that makes one a fit vessel to reach the Gods on behalf of all society. This is what a “high” station looks like. This is what the gathering of karmic currency, Punya, will bring upon you. This is not what anybody who is not steeped in the Hindu universe actually wants.
This inversion of the relationship between power and value is what generates respect in the Hindu universe. It is the single reason why classical Hindu society was so stable, why it never generated resentment or revolution.
Modern Hindus whose minds have been revolutionized do not understand this at all, they mistakenly identify the inequalities that have arisen in post-1857 modern India as artefacts of the social structure that existed in classical Bharat.
#7 Fractalizing the Uber Hierarchy of Values within all Groups
Last but not least, a final set of nails were hammered into the framework. The uber values that the four varnas represented were distilled into the Purushartha and made available to all Hindus regardless of jaati or varna… Shudra –– Creative Excellence as Kama; Vysya –– Wealth as Artha; Kshatriya –– Power as Dharma; and Brahmana –– Dispassion as Moksha. This fractalization ensured that every Hindu walked on parallel paths regardless of their starting points or the speed with which they could walk.
Purushartha is the Purusha manifest!
In his review of A.M.Hocart’s “Caste: A Comparitive Study” on Pragyata.com, Halley Kalyan points to this exact same insight – the fractalization of our highest values made available to all. Barbers, washermen, drummers, farmers…everyone functioned simultaneously as a priest in a specific fractal part of the Hindu verse.
Halley Kalyan observes that Hocart’s foundational insight on “caste” is the realization that in India, every occupation is a priesthood.
“…castes are merely families to whom various offices in the ritual are assigned by heredity. To the European the barber is just a man who shaves others, the washerman a man who does the laundry. For a native, these two mean much more than that. “Practically on every occasion,” says my first Tamil witness, “the barber and washerman will have to be present. They are called the children of the family”. When we analyse what he means by “occasions” we find that he has in mind festivals, such as weddings, funerals etc. Thus, at a Tamil wedding the musicians (Nattuvar) walk before the bridegroom, the washerman spreads clothes for the bridegroom (who for the time being is God Siva) to walk upon. In the rear, other washermen assisted by barbers sing or howl blessings and praises of which he (the bridegroom) is the subject. The barber carries the Tali or marriage necklace (equivalent of our wedding ring), and the cloth called kurai for the bride. What the bridegroom wears while he is being shaved becomes the pre-requisite of the washerman and the barber. At a funeral, the barber, the washerman, and the drummer are sent for, not the musicians…the barber prepares the fire for cremation and conducts the person who lights the fire three times round the pyre. He is like a priest on the cremation ground.”
Ananda Coomaraswamy makes a similar observation. In traditional society, he says, “The artist is not a special kind of man, but every man is a special kind of artist.”
In this age of surplus, we may not agree anymore with the framework that the rishis made for us, but unless we can, again, imagine an equivalent framework that accomplishes these seven tasks, we do not have the right to tear down, in a fit of ignorance and self-hate, what we are utterly incapable of building up.
Sanatana Civilization, far from being the great divider that people accuse it of being, was actually the compassionate force that brought the jaatis of Bharat together under one grand metaphorical umbrella. and it did so without erasure, without genocide and without slavery. Varna was one of the spokes of that metaphorical umbrella. One that laid the foundation for the most sustainable, ethical systems of social organization ever devised on Bhu Devi.
(That many of us don’t live by its values but continue to claim the privileges that our ancestors earned through great sacrifice is a modern problem and I will refer to it in Part-III of this essay.)
Hinduism: A Confluence of the Bottom-Up and the Top-Down — Establishing an Accurate mind-model of Hindu Society
Civilization is indeed a top-down force, but it doesn’t have to be ethnocidal, as Sanatana Civilization has shown. It can appear as a bridge or a ladder or the branches of a tree pointing skyward. Our cultures meanwhile are bottom-up, they are the roots of the tree that connect us to Bhu Devi and our Kula Devatas. So, in order to truly understand Hinduism, as we know it, in its everyday practicality, we have to see it as a confluence of the two streams – the bottom-up Bharatiya well-spring and the top-down Sanatana glacial stream. These two living bodies of water come together to create the river that Hinduism is.
Bottom-up Hinduism is the collective of our Bharatiya cultures, our jaatis, kulas, local traditions, traditional occupations, kula devatas… everything that gives us our beauty and diversity.
Top-down Hinduism is Sanatana Civilization, our morality encoded in ritual, our self-perception encoded in metaphor (puraana), our history encoded in poetry (itihaasa), divine alliances encoded in geography (teertha). And through this complex web of interlinkages run the philosophical ideas of the Veda – Karma, Dharma, Purushartha, Bhakti, Jnana, Moksha… everything that gives us our commonality and strength.
People from the political left insist that the top-down does not exist and that Bharat is just a collection of unconnected tribalisms. People from the political right insist that the bottom-up ought to be erased, and an Abrahamic-style, top-down uniformity needs to be mainstreamed that would draw from a mix of Western ideals, Islamic mechanics, and Sanatana philosophy but would consciously reject Bharatiya cultures. Both positions ignore the complexity and genius of our condition.
Without the bottom-up part of ourselves, we would be no different from the desert cults, full of arid injunctions and commandments creating zombies, and relying on weekly brainwashing sessions to hold the flock together. No beauty, no diversity, no tradition, no breadth. Without the top-down part of ourselves, we would be no different from the tribes of Africa and Papua New Guinea — isolated, alone, and fearful of each other. No Karma, no Dharma, no Advaita, no Yoga, no depth.
The fact is, we are not this OR that, but we are this AND that. We didn’t end up like colonial Britain, ethnocidal Turkey, or Nazi Germany because of the bottom-up part of ourselves that understands diversity and limits. And we didn’t end up like the Democratic Republic of Congo, Rwanda, and Papua New Guinea because of the top-down part of ourselves that understands our commonality and our one-ness in the paramaatman.
This two-headed nature of Hindu society has not gone unnoticed. The European mind, unable to see that these two heads, far from being rivals, actually had a symbiotic relationship with each other, has tended to pit the two heads against one another – Dravidian/Aryan, Tribal/Brahmanical, etc. But the Hindu heart sees them as the warp and woof of our social fabric… or perhaps the engine and the petrol of our Hindu life, if you prefer a more modern metaphor.
Here, Pingali Gopal quotes from MVNL Sudha Mohan’s Sivasya Kulam in his review in Pragyata.com:
“Hindu society consists of two parallel religious systems — Vaidikam and Tantrikam. The practices of the latter are clearly Siva-Sakti worship, and they are the various Kulams of South India. They have their counterparts in North India, like the Nath tradition. The Tantrik practices range from simple Grama Devata practices to more esoteric ones. At the extreme end, there might be practices that can offend one’s sensibilities as they involve uninhibited sex, alcohol, blood, and meat.
However, in many of the common Grama Devata festivals, the traditional Brahmins also get involved, but the further rituals typically involve non-Brahmin priests. For example, in one of the villages in Telangana, in a three-day festival called Bodurai, a Brahmin initially performs some rituals and then recedes. Later, a specific community of Chaakalis (cloth washers) conducts the priestly rituals. Many of these temples have priests from the toddy-tapper (Gouds), carpenter (vadrollu), and other so-called “lower castes” performing rituals. The point is that the interface between the Vaidikam and the Tantrik methods has been ranging from indifference, to a mutual give and take, to a complete shunning (in extreme Vamachara practices). At no point perhaps, there was a violent suppression of one by the other.”
The Dharma Tree — A Visual Representation of the Breadth and Depth of Hindu Complexity
The Dharma Tree: it is why the Tamils go to Kashi, it is why the Awadhis come to Rameshwaram. It is why, in the villages of Tamil Nadu, Vediappan sits in regal splendour under his Neem tree, awaiting offerings of blood and alcohol, while in the same village, dare-devil youth throw themselves at oil-slicked khambams and build seven-storied human pyramids for a taste of butter like their beloved Sri Krishna did in the Dwaapara Yuga. It is why Malayadhwaja Pandya fought alongside the Pandavas in Kurukshetra and why his daughter Meenakshi wed the Lord of Kailasa Himself in a wedding where she was given away by her brother, Shri Vishnu Himself. It is why Tamil and Sanskrit are seen as two sides of Ishwara’s damaru. This is not a competition, this is not “Brahmanism,” this is not a game of oppressor-oppressed for simpletons, this is not Western-style erasure, and this is not any of those black and white structures that the westernized mind is capable of understanding. This is a magnificent Banyan tree that only the Hindu mind and heart can appreciate.
This tree shall not die. This tree shall cover Bhu Devi again when the citadels of greed have fallen.
Maargazhi Kolams: Intricate rangoli patterns made by women in front of their houses get especially elaborate and beautiful in the sacred month of Maargazhi (starting mid-December to mid-January, ending in the festival of Pongal).
Aadi Thiruvizhaas: The sacred month of Aadi starts in mid-July and ends in mid-August. This is a time of the year when all the village kula devatas are honoured. The festivals are called thiruvizhas (sacred festivals).
Koozh-oothara Vizhaas: Every village (at least in the Vanniyar/Paraiyar communities I am familiar with) perform the festival of cooking and offering koozhu (fermented porridge) to the graama devata. The koozhu from all the households is then mixed together in a giant pot and re-distributed among all the families. A beautiful and practical ritual of burying differences and restating community unity.
Vepamaram Vediappan: Vediappan is a Tamil deity usually represented by rounded stones (and sometimes by the murthi of a hunter). The deity is usually found under the Neem tree (vepamaram).
Vellikizhamai alankaaram for Puttruamman: Friday is the day sacred to the Devi and many communities who see the Devi represented as the snake who lives in the termite mounds (Puttruamman) offer milk and decorations of flowers to the divine feminine on that day.
- Ananda Coomaraswamy, Letters, 1942
- Ananda Coomaraswamy, “Christian and Oriental Philosophy of Art”, 1956
- Jāti Purāṇas of Tēlaṅgaṇa – Bhāratavarṣa’s Narrative Traditions, Halley Kalyan
- “Al Beruni’s India, 1030CE,” translated by Dr.Edward Sachau
- A.M.Hocart’s “Caste: A comparative study”, Halley Kalyan
- “Sivasya Kulam: Decoding Caste, Untouchability And White Man’s Burden,” By MVNL Sudha Mohan. Review by Pingali Gopal.
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