No Branches without Roots –- An Understanding of Hindu Social Structure from the Outside-In — Part III
(Image courtesy: istockphoto.com)
Part III – Clearing Cobwebs
- The World of Subsistence versus the World of Surplus
- A Morality of Subsistence versus a Morality of Surplus
- The Six Principles of Social Organization as manifest in the West and in Bharat
- Individual Autonomy versus Community Collaboration
- Culture versus Civilization
- The Bridge of Sanatana Civilization
- The four Varna-centered Values and our Fellowship in the Purusha
- Seven tools from the Toolkit of Rishis
- Hinduism as a Confluence of Bottom-Up Bharatiya Cultures and Top-Down Sanatana Civilization
These ideas can help us radically overhaul the way we look at ourselves.
The Nature of Our Battlefield
I thank my detractors on Twitter for pushing me to clarify my ideas. I do not want to come across as an apologist for the culture of debasement that exists in many parts of Bharat.
Arya means noble, and nobility is the capacity for self-sacrifice for the greater common good without self-aggrandization or the demeaning of others. I defend the jaati-vyavastha and the varna-vyavastha for their beauty, diversity, and their ethical brilliance. I do not defend supremacy, whatever its ideological manifestation: political, cultural, social, or economic. I do not defend the belittling of people who are today called the Scheduled Castes. I do not defend the obnoxiousness exhibited by some people today labeling others “backward castes” and “upper castes”. I do not defend the traditional-determinist position that deals in IQ and race-based arguments to justify their lack of compassion.
We should see the exhibition of such un-Arya behaviour as debasements and these debasements as the playing out of human failings. The reasons for this debasement, I have alluded to earlier in PART-II of this essay series. During the course of our thousand-year war with the Islamist world, and our subsequent military and intellectual defeat to the British, the threads that bound our ethical vision started to come undone and our communities defensively reverted to the petty aspects of tribalism — pride, arrogance, greed, hunger for power, victimhood, and vanity. Let me record here that Sanatana Civilization has, from the outset, sought to control these negative human urges and bound us into a single body dedicated to excellence, dispassion, and moksha.
While we work to raise ourselves up out of this debasement, we must take great care to avoid laying the blame for it on our “religion”. The injunctions of other religions led the world to great evils of slavery, genocide, conversions, colonialism, and holocausts. Their downstream ideologies have further led us to more recent mutated evils personified by Churchill, Hitler, Stalin, Mao, Pol Pot, Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi, and the likes of Adam Lanza. And yet, the adherents of these religions remain unabashedly unapologetic. Conversely, the ethical fundamentals of our religion are so robust that even its failings did not lead to evil on any comparable scale. Yet, ironically, we remain constantly apologetic. It is very important that we keep this in mind even as we introspect.
No doubt, evil has shown its face even in Bharat. We have examples such as the Kilvenmani Massacre to be ashamed of. But in my opinion, even though I am aware that many disagree, evil was never institutionalized in Bharat because of the inherently decentralized nature of the social structure that our rishis consciously retained for this very purpose.
And while we may claim to be free from evil and supremacist ideologies, we must acknowledge the widespread appearance of un-Arya obnoxiousness within our communities. But unlike those who point to jaati, varna, the “manipulative Brahmins,” and the doctrine of Karma as culprits for our fall into un-Arya habits, I suggest we look to more mundane and material reasons. What we know as “caste” today is the status quo of our 19th Century debasement that has been frozen in time, extrapolated forward, and institutionalized indefinitely, first by the British in their cleverness, and then by the Indian State in its foolish hangover from colonial consciousness.
Starting with the Battle of Rajasthan, through the establishment of Vijayanagara, and all the way up to Shivaji Maharaj, we have evidence that the idea of the Arya as a person who stood for every Hindu was still strong. The thousand-year war with Islamist/Muslim forces had weakened us but not damaged us beyond recognition. However, the overwhelming military victory of the British, their take-over of our Commons, the institutionalization of Zamindari, and the closure of our indigenous schools seem to have finally sounded the death knell for our old ethical vision. We fell into the White Man’s black and white world of judgementalism. The institutionalization of that black and white vision in “independent” India, has, instead of delivering pride, self-respect, and mutual respect, led us into a deep pit from which we dig up the white man’s stories about ourselves… and in which we continue to water the seeds of our debasement. It is from that soiled earth and that alien pit that the tree of “free” India has grown. If we want to shape this tree or plant a new tree, we need to overhaul our understanding of our past. Let us start by clarifying what exactly we are squabbling about in Hindu society today.
Our war is being fought on two fronts:
- A 19th Century war to re-establish dignity for all jaatis, recognize every community’s contribution to our continued miraculous existence, and to reaffirm our communion in the Purusha.
- A 21st Century war to save our traditions (and by extension, our communities) from the poisonous onslaught of Western ideals and individualism. I have written about why we need to do so in a three-part essay dedicated to those topics.
People familiar with my work will know that my fight is the 21st Century fight. I am not fighting the 19th Century fight. So, when I defend the Jaati-vyavastha or Varna or a simpler community-centered world, I am not doing so in order to “retain my privileges” in the status quo of our debasement. I do so because I recognize that our head-long rush into the Western hyper-technologized world with its idealistic framework of Individualism, Liberty, Equality, and Rights is leading us to a level of adharma, ignobility, and irreverence that is frightening, and will be very quickly disastrous.
The champions of the 19th Century war should realize that the 21st Century war also needs to be fought. What is the use of fighting for the dignity of all communities when there will soon be no communities left at all? Unfortunately, though the 19th Century war is being fought by hundreds of millions of anti-caste warriors, they fight it under the banner of Western ideals of Individualism, Liberty, and Equality. This has perversely turned what should have been our rise from debasement into a festival of self-hate and fresh conflict. This war needs to be fought on a very different basis (which I will come to in the next section).
Similarly, those of us who are fighting the 21st Century war have to make our position on the 19th Century war clear. Our complex and subtle arguments in favour of tradition and community should not be used as a shield by supremacists and traffickers in debasement. Our fight is for the Bottom-Up Bharatiya Cultures and for their beauty, diversity, and decentralizing impulse. Our fight is also for Top-Down Sanatana Civilization, that orphaned force for Hindu unity, which continues to do its work in silence, un-noticed, and un-acknowledged by intellectuals…. That ancient Arya call to nobility, that we shall not abandon.
The Sanatana Basis for Hindu Unity
The need for Hindu unity is recognized by many, but at this moment in time, the Indian state as well as reformists of all hues are hell-bent on achieving Hindu unity through the erasure of our communities. It’s a bit like cutting off one’s hand because the elbow is itching. Elbow itching? No problem. No hand, no itch. Problem solved!
The statement “We need to be strong” has two parts – “we” and “strong”. There is a widespread belief that unity will bring us strength, and the way to unity is through the erasure of our communities. But almost nobody is focused on the first part of the phrase: Who are “We,” and what will erasure of our communities do to our self-definition?
The problem is that we are firmly in the grip of three Western Principles:
The Western Active Principle – the Market
The Western Social Principle – Individualist Autonomy
The Western Operative Principle – Ideals (Liberty, Equality, and Rights)
Under the influence of these principles, we have unconsciously turned against the equivalent Bharatiya principles of Dharma, Community, and our Moksha–centered Values.
We fail to see that attempting to reach Hindu unity under the banner of un-Hindu principles will, obviously, lead us to an un-Hindu place… and the evidence is everywhere. Even if we end up united, which I doubt very much, we will no longer be ourselves. So, what’s the point?
If we do want to rebuild our unity in an authentic manner, we need to do it under the banner of Sanatana civilizational values and mechanics. Unfortunately, the centralized state and the decentralized Arya spirituality do not dovetail very well. But the state can play a part in shaking things up.
The state needs to stop looking West and start looking to the toolkit of rishis for inspiration:
1. Come up with an acceptable deal for Resource Distribution
Reservations are ok, but the formula should emerge from consensus among all communities. More importantly, the raison-d’être for reservations should not be “reparations for past sins” but rather “inter-jaati peace”. If one were to ask me to blindly come up with a formula, I would say 30% merit open to all communities and the remaining 70% distributed demography-wise among all communities. This would literally be the modern equivalent of traditional jaati-specialization. Completely overhaul the upper caste/lower caste logic. There is simply no such thing.
2. Create the Grand Bharatiya Narrative
This will serve as the modern equivalent of the ancient Arya yagna. Institutionalize the teaching of this narrative in schools and in art/movies. It would include the mainstreaming of pride-filled stories from all communities. Stories of our inter-community skirmishes and betrayals should be studied for academic purposes, but they are irrelevant to our purpose of unity.
3. Institutionalize Nation-wide Purusha Festivals
Create a state-sponsored series of annual festivals that would celebrate our communion in the Purusha where all communities come together at the taluka level once a year to re-affirm their commitment to our ancestral treaty. The actual ritual form of the festival should be worked out by local mathas. Leverage how Thiruvizhas, Kumbha Melas, and Poorams are organized.
4. Decentralize and Overhaul Public Office Culture
Devolve more and more responsibility and control over local governance/communal and religious tradition to communities. Emphasize Sanatana values of excellence, Nishkama Karma, Daya, Dana, and Tyaga in public office. Move firmly away from “Liberty” and “Equality”. Move from a discourse of Rights to a discourse of Duties.
5. Media Control
Establish a responsible media arm and incentivize creation of art that harmonizes Sanatana values instead of revolutionary Western ideals.
6. Re-open the Sanatana Bridge
Create the governmental framework and the spiritual/ritual mechanism in consultation with our mathas for immediate and permanent on-boarding of peripheral and external communities onto the bridge of Santana Civilization. This will take a generation to accomplish, but media/education should make it clear to the coming generations –
- …that we are all one in the paramaatman. Leverage Vedantic and Bhakti thought to re-build linkages that are broken.
- …that in the Industrial Age, the ancient social taboos have ceased to be relevant.
- …that the communities who traditionally did taboo work should be acknowledged for their contributions to our common cause. Leverage the teachings of the Vyaadha Gita and the Gita itself.
- …that work that nobody wants to do, should be done by everyone or by machines.
- …that the communities who traditionally did taboo work were well educated (as Dharampal ji has shown) and continue to play economic and ritual roles in Bharatiya life. They are not, and in fact, never were “other” in classical Bharatiya imagination. The spectrum of subsistence communities ranged from Forest Dwelling Tribes (ST) – Forest Dependent Tribes (ST) – Nomadic Tribes (ST) – Agriculture Dependent Tribes (SC) – Settled Agricultural Tribes (BC/OBC) – Agriculture Enabled Tribes (GC).
It is time we internalized that the evolution of this spectrum was not a top-down imposition, this was the play of anthropological history, technological history, community choices, and compromises at work. The “caste system” as we know it is a photograph of this spectrum taken by the British in the 19th Century and we are now permanently locked into that photograph. We need to break free of the 19th Century photograph and start to see ourselves as a spectrum of possibilities again. We need to re-open the bridge of Sanatana values for all who wish to climb onto this bridge. It goes without saying that all who do not wish to get on the bridge are free to continue to live life as they see fit. They are all Bharatiya bottom-up cultures, and this land is their punyabhoomi too.
All this sounds like science fiction today, but it is surprising to know how much the first principles of our systems eventually affect individual behaviour. We are already witness to how the adoption of a “liberal” constitution transformed us in a mere 75 years. All that the vast majority of people really need is a framework that delivers the right incentives.
An Accurate Understanding of the Events of 1857 and their Implications for what is called Privilege
1857 was a watershed year. It was the year we fought our last war for independence. Everything we did post that was, and continues to be, within the locus of European systems. We were not enslaved prior to 1857 as we are told, but post-1857. The collapse of our institutions had started a hundred years before that, but that was the year we knew for sure that there was no going back to the Old Way. The entire machinery of ancient patronages collapsed, and with that, so did the old values and the communities that upheld those values. Shudras lost control of the natural/agricultural world and could no longer maintain the means of production for creative excellence; the old markets that Vaishyas controlled collapsed and they ran out of wealth to support temples and schools; Kshatriyas were militarily defeated and no longer had the power to maintain a Hindu state; and Brahmanas, without the infrastructural support of the other three varnas, could no longer follow the life of dispassion or teach the old values. The Purusha fell apart. A handful of communities continued to hold on to the strings that tied the Purusha together and we will discuss the fate of these communities a little later.
Communities from all four varnas then began to depend directly or indirectly on the systems developed by the White Man. It was every man for himself.
Vaishya communities that started doing business with the British became wealthy. Kshatriya lineages that accepted British suzerainty were rewarded with palaces and princely salaries. Brahmana communities that started working for the British became clerks and lawyers in the corridors of the Empire. Today, it is the children of those early movers who have figured out success in the Western Marketplace. And even out of this demographic, millions have only moved to middle-class lifestyles over the past two generations. Entire generations have had to slog all their lives in dead-end jobs in an effort to educate their children in the White Man’s ways. This hard-won success is today labelled, by revolutionaries, as a privilege. Ok, let’s call it a privilege, but let us be clear where it originates from. This material inequality that we see in modern India originates in the Western Marketplace, not in the ancient social structure of classical Bharat. In fact, it is a product of the collapse of that ancient equitable world.
It is fashionable in all circles, these days, to point fingers at “caste” like a curse that explains every social ill that plagues us. This is both lazy and ineffective. At most, the communities and people that got ahead can be accused of having betrayed the Purusha (and I think that’s a valid criticism), but since everyone today is trying to make it big on the White Man’s stage, and nobody truly cares for the Purusha, it is not really much of a valid or relevant accusation to make. Do the communities that fell into material poverty post-1857 need a leg up so that they too can compete in the Western Marketplace? Of course. The open-hearted spirit of the Arya must prevail even as we live within a foreign framework. But it should be understood by all that any re-distribution of wealth, resources, and knowledge is from a place of sharing and an ancient understanding of our one-ness, and not from a place of un-Arya guilt, blame, or shame.
An Accurate Understanding of the Bahujan Circumstance
In the world of subsistence, a significant proportion of people made a livelihood directly and indirectly off the land. Those who are called Bahujan in some revolutionized circles, even today, constitute some 70 to 80 percent of our population. These ingenious people stewarded our natural resources, farmed the land, kept it fertile for millennia, created 10,000 varieties of rice alone, husbanded our cattle, genetically bred over 60 native cattle breeds, harvested resources from forests and grasslands, built houses, wove cloth, made baskets, utensils, weapons, and built ships, our temples, and our murthis. They knew the lay of the land, they were the majority, they were physically robust, they controlled the entire means of production, and they owned the land and the cattle. To claim that these communities were weak, poor, or oppressed is a travesty. They were quite literally the economic engine of classical Bharat.
The advent of the Industrial Revolution rendered all their skills obsolete. From being the upholders of Dharma, these communities were progressively impoverished over two hundred years. The Commons, pasture lands, rivers, mountains, and forests all became the property of the Crown. The entire spectrum of tribes that depended on the Commons and had sustainably stewarded our natural resources for millennia found themselves without access to the necessities of life. Agriculture that used to be taxed at 15 percent was now taxed at 60 percent and a system of zamindars was set up to interface between the British and the village folk. As the British became more and more rapacious, so did the zamindars who were answerable to them. The proud Bahujan was broken. The agrarian rebellions all over the country were eventually brought to a bloody end.
The Bahujan now had to function within the Western Marketplace like everybody else, but his skills were no longer valued. Every skill that was hand/land-based was being mechanized. He was now obsolete in every way except the purely physical. He became labour for hire. This was a problem faced by agrarian communities all over the world, not just in Bharat. This is what the “Arts and Crafts Movement” in England sought unsuccessfully to overturn. In Bharat, this destruction of the World of Nature has been going on now for 200 years, aided in part by the unconscious or unheeding Indian state. The World-of-Human-Artifice will not rest until every square inch of land and every vestige of traditional life is accounted for.
This, and not the “caste system,” is why the Bahujan is materially poor and unprepared for modern life. This is the reason they need reservations, to prepare them with the skills needed to survive in the crazy, anonymous world we live in today.
Do some of these communities still face discrimination based on the fact that they are “backward”, “gawaar,” and because some of them used to do what was once considered taboo work? Yes. Does this un-Arya state of affairs need remedial action? Yes. Is it a cause of their pain? Yes. Is it a cause of their material poverty? No.
As I pointed out in PART-I of this essay series, as we make the move from the World-of-Nature to the World-of-Human-Artifice, we become like the White Man with his colonial gaze. Bharatiyas must avoid that way of being at all cost. We must internalize, once again, that we are all one in the paramaatman.
The Self-Perception of Scheduled Castes
It is fashionable in revolutionized circles to draw an equivalence between the communities that are today called the Scheduled Castes and the formerly enslaved Africans of the Americas. If one belongs to an SC community, this would be one of the greatest disservices one could do to the memory of one’s own ancestors. The SC communities were free and proud people.
An understanding of the spectrum of communities and the vision of Sanatana Civilization as a bridge gives us a useful framework to look at the history and position of SC communities.
Europeans claimed that the SC communities were genetically ASI (Ancestral South Indians) people who were enslaved by the genetically ANI (Ancestral North Indians) people. The Ambedkarites claim that the SC communities were Buddhists who were enslaved by Brahmanical Hinduism. Both these views of the world have been built with zero evidence. Not only that, but these views of the world are also problematic because they enslave the SC communities in a narrative of victimhood in which they will never be able to take pride in their ancestry and ancestors. It is, in fact, via this sleight of hand “emancipation” that the SC communities are being enslaved.
Allow me to propose instead that in classical Bharat, the communities that chose not to cross the bridge of Sanatana Civilization but lived instead in the vicinity of the bridge came to occupy a cultural position that was partially Sanatani and partially independent. Unlike the STs who lived almost completely independent lives, the SCs were nominally people of the plough. They were partially assimilated into settled civilization but simultaneously free to follow their own customs about marriage, food, worship, alcohol, dance, and art outside the strict regimentation of Varnashrama Dharma. They ended up doing taboo work because they were not fully assimilated and due to which they had to live and eat separately. This is true, but it is also true that this was such a common tribal phenomenon that it was not even considered worth mentioning by any observer of Hindu life right from Arrian all the way to Al Beruni and Domingo Paes. That the Jarawa do not eat, cohabit, or inter-marry with the Sentinelese is clear. It does not mean that either of those communities is enslaved.
But what is most important for all of us and especially dharmic SC people to note is that Sanatana Civilization never denied SC communities their spirituality, their culture, their family life, and their livelihood. They were educated along with all other people of the bridge in our indigenous schools as Dharampal has shown. They held important ritual positions in bridge life. These indigenous communities maintained monopolies over certain types of work, and participated in agriculture, craft, stewarding natural resources, temple building, and war. They were a free people, probably fiercely independent. Many of these tribes were labelled as “Criminal Tribes” by the British because they fought so hard and long. Our SC communities can take great pride in their ancestral contributions to our collective present.
People ask this: why would people choose to do taboo work? I ask, why do people choose to live life in the Arctic, in the Sahara, or in the Amazon jungles? In the world of subsistence, this question was irrelevant, as all that mattered was community, and community defined itself around skills and work. Any work and any socio-ecological niche that brought survival was valued. Communities accepted what they deemed to be a good deal. Between the hardship of total freedom in the wild (like the STs) and the discipline of life around the samskaaras of the bridge (like the BCs/OBCs/GCs), the SC communities found a middle path… an economic and cultural niche in the periphery of settled agricultural life. That’s all. There is no need to look further for arcane explanations.
Today, in our debasement, are SC communities denied entry onto the bridge of Sanatana Civilization? Yes. Do we need to remedy this situation immediately? Yes, because that is the very opposite of the reason the bridge was created in the first place by our rishis, which was to bring all the tribes of Bharat under one, united metaphysical/cosmic umbrella.
But, do the SC communities want to get on the Sanatana bridge now if such a mechanism was created? Or, do they want to continue to live just outside as their ancestors chose to? Or do they prefer the white man’s ideals and life as Hindu liberals or atheists or neo-Buddhists? I don’t know… as this is something they will have to decide. But the people of the bridge need to get that mechanism ready, pronto!
The Place of Brahmanas
Sanatana Civilization is not Brahmanism because Sanatana Civilization was not created by Brahmanas. Sanatana Civilization and its tools for ethical integration of the tribes of Bharatam were created by rishis. The Brahmana jaatis were merely in charge of one portion of the flame, just like the communities of all other varnas. They were appointed to be “living libraries” who had to learn and pass on the ancient lore verbatim, generation after generation. The ancient lore of every other civilization is extinguished. Only that of Sanatana Civilization lives on. This is entirely due to the decentralized nature of knowledge keeping that the rishis instituted in their genius.
If the Veda is the fount of top-down Sanatana Civilization and our umbrella of unity, it is no surprise that the keepers of the Veda came to be seen as the agents of top-down Hinduism. Ordinary Hindus recognize this and have no problem with this. But recently revolutionized former Hindus have taken to calling Sanatana Civilization as Brahmanism for this very reason. When they use Brahmanism as a pejorative as they do, they are actually saying that they reject top-down Sanatana Civilization and that Hindus are just a bunch of tribals, exactly the formulation that Christian missionaries use as a conversion strategy. The fact that Brahmanas have become everybody’s punching bag today shows that a substantial number of us have been converted out of Hinduism either consciously into atheism and Abrahamism but also unconsciously into “Liberalism” and “Secularism”.
Every community from every jaati and every varna has its own temples and spiritual/religious traditions, but the civilizational temples built by our kings and queens were handed over to specialists to look after. These specialists were from Brahmana lineages. The idea that everyone can build a house, but complex structures need specialist architects should be a formulation that is acceptable to all Hindus. Their expertise in memorizing the Veda was certainly one of the qualifications that set them apart as specialists, but what they were really experts in was saucha.
All ancient religions recommend the cleaning oneself physically and ritually before presenting oneself to the Gods. Even a revolutionary political ideology like Islam has people do some ritual washing of hands and feet before prayers. Take this idea of re-presentational purity and extrapolate it backward to include all the hours of the day, every day of the year, and not just from the beginning of a person’s life, but from all his lifetimes before this current one. That’s how seriously we approached our Gods in the old days. The Brahmana jaatis were chosen as specialists because their entire lives are filled with arcane rules and rites to maintain the ritual purity that makes them fit vessels for approaching the Gods. These civilizational specialists in saucha were appointed by our kings to represent all of society in the daily pujas at the civilizational temples, so that other people could go on with their normal lives bothering with saucha only in a specific context and at special times.
It is not hard to understand this formulation. It has nothing to do with “Equality” or any other revolutionary, academic, theoretical Western fiction. If, today, we genuinely want to roll back the saucha requirements for approaching the Gods, we should at least sit down and have a serious discussion about it with religious experts, not simply abuse it and ignore it. Reformists should introspect on the fact that true Hindus would not be so presumptuous that the Gods would be OK with dilution.
The Old Way
If in Greece tomorrow, an ancient, isolated population of Apollo worshippers were to be discovered in a secret valley, would all of Europe rally around to celebrate and protect them, or would they accuse them of monopoly and inequality and rebuke their ritual practice? I ask this question because that is exactly what we are doing to Brahmanas in modern India, in our reformist zeal.
This state of affairs does not apply only to Brahmanas in our civilizational temples in places like Tamil Nadu but it also applies to bottom-up traditions of all jaatis regardless of varna. Sabarimala is a case in point. The recent furore around the practices of the Madurai Adheenam is another case in point. Many Shudra communities and some Kshatriya communities still maintain ancient living traditions. Every Hindu worth his/her salt should rally around to celebrate and protect these remnants of our ancient traditions, and use these as springboards to revive their own traditions. Instead, what we have is a situation where these communities are being penalized simply for having survived the ethnocide of the last thousand years. This is evidence of our deep colonization by the West.
If reformist Hindus have new ideals and new ideas, the right place to manifest them is in the creation of new traditions that are built on those new foundations. Tearing down the old to manifest the new is completely un-Hindu. We, as Hindus, build up or branch out; we do not tear down. If one cannot find the self-respect within oneself to protect the dying whispers of one’s ancestors, then the least one can do is to leave what remains of the Old Way alone.
An Accurate Understanding of the Tamil Predicament
We have to understand that the original nature of the world of humans is not unity. The original nature is diversity and entropy. It takes effort and centuries of conflict resolution before tribes can be brought together under a single umbrella, united enough so that they would maintain peace. And in that peace, agriculture could flourish… and with that, prosperity, strength, and stability would come. The places that have had agriculture the longest are the places where peace has reigned the longest, and these are also the places where civilization is most deep-rooted. The nature of those civilizations will tell us something about the true nature of Man. Bharat and China are clearly the leading exemplars.
Dravidianists who believe that in the Sangam Age there was unity and peace which the Aryans destroyed with their divisive caste system have got the whole thing in reverse. As one goes further back in history, we have more divisions, not less. If at all there was unity in the distant past, it would have been a very localized tribal unity with no tools for touching the lives of other tribes. There is a reason why the great Tamil epics are unknown even in Chittoor district and indeed were forgotten even in Tamizhagam, but the Ramayana and the Mahabharata are all-pervasive. In every small hamlet of Tamil Nadu, therukoothu performances draw only from the itihaasa. That is because the Tamil epics were cultural, not civilizational. The values of pre-Sanatana Tamil culture (if there was such a thing and whatever they may have been) were obviously not articulated clearly enough with a fully fleshed-out metaphysics that would attract people from the outside. We must never forget that all the great Tamil expansions happened only after their complete absorption into Sanatana Civilization. And Tamils would do well to remember that as with every other place, Sanatana Civilization came as a bridge, not as a tsunami. Sanskrit came as an embellishment, not as an erasure. The Tamil language still enchants. The Tamil epics still exist. The Tamil Gods still live. There is no cause for bitterness except within the hearts of the small-minded. Every cultural facet that exists today is a result of decisions taken by our ancestors in full consciousness. At best, Tamilians can argue that their culture was one of the major influencers of Sanatana Civilization, and that would be a great cause for pride in itself.
Mobility in the World of Community
“Were the Irulas forced to catch snakes and eat rats?”
Nobody in his right mind will answer in affirmative to that question. The thing is, it just turned out that way. That is the socio-ecological niche of the Irulas. So, when people ask, why would anyone take on taboo work voluntarily, I ask, why do people live in the Arctic, why do they live in the Sahara Desert, or in the jungles of the Amazon? People just did, and people just do. That’s all. It was an opportunity, and they took it. Or they lived there, and they adjusted. These choices came with restrictions sure, but they also came with opportunities and a means for survival. The evolution of the spectrum of Bharatiya bottom-up cultures is a perfectly natural phenomenon of anthropological history. It is in fact the living manifestation of our journey from the Neolithic to the Iron Age and beyond.
In this world of Individualist Autonomy, the idea that one is stuck in one’s community or in work that one does not “choose” is anathema. But this was perfectly normal in the old world. The community was the basic unit of life, not the individual. So, belonging in a community was both essential and personal. Whenever people have been stuck in jobs, it is because they belonged in a particular community. A Konaar cow herder 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 is the old-world equivalent of a modern person asking “Why can’t I be you?” It is simply not feasible. Both economically, culturally, and in terms of sheer “personhood,” it would be an act of dilution or needing so much energy and effort that it would not be worth one’s while. 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, for the majority of time, life within their communities doing their sacred and their assigned work was more than sufficiently fulfilling.
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.
Mobility always existed, but it was a slow process. Getting an entire community on board for a change of profession is a serious, time-consuming exercise. Also, there would be another community already doing that job. What would happen to them? How to avoid conflict? And what about the responsibilities that the community currently had? How would they face their ancestors for that betrayal? All of these economic, practical, and metaphysical questions would have to be answered before a community could “move”. See how difficult it is for the Devendrakula Vellalars to “move” even in modern India.
Modern individuals may not understand this level of complexity, but they need to understand that these are not reasons to hate where we’ve all come from.
Don’t Use Bad Words #1 – “Discrimination”
Discrimination is literally life itself. Without discrimination, one can’t do anything. Every single choice or decision that we take means that we are using our faculties of discrimination. Who to marry? What names to give our children? Which school will we put them in? What will they study in college? What to cook for dinner today? Which television show to watch? Which friend shall we visit today?
Each of these choices requires us to discriminate. So, what is especially discriminatory about the Hindu religion? Today, discriminatory beauty pageants are held. Discriminatory entrance exams are also held. Elections are discriminatory, corporate structures are discriminatory. But we accept all of these discriminations without a second thought.
For example, do I resent Deepika Padukone for her success? No, she deserves it, she looks better than me and is probably a better actor. Do I resent Bill Gates for his success? No, he is probably a smarter businessman than I am. Do I resent Virat Kohli’s success? No, he’s probably a better cricket player than I am. So why do the old discriminations appear beastly today, but modern discriminations appear normal? That’s because, as I’ve pointed out in PART-II of this essay series, our values have changed.
We have exchanged our traditional Hindu metaphysics that was built around Punya, Paapa, Karma, Janma for Western principles and ideals. When we judge our traditional discriminatory practices using these Western ideals, of course, they appear beastly, even as our new discriminatory behaviors appear normal. It’s not the discriminations that are at fault, but it is we who have changed. We have adopted Western lens to view ourselves with, and when we do that, we are filled with self-hate. The question is, if we judge ourselves using foreign ideals, who exactly are we?
I’m not saying, we are perfect, and we don’t need to change aspects of ourselves. But that change has to come from an assessment of ourselves made with respect to our own highest values and metaphysics. For example, we can argue that our Scheduled Communities should be allowed into all our temples because…
- We are all one in the Paramaatman
- We are all one in the Purusha
- We are all one in our demonstration of Bhakti, Shaurya and Tyaga
- We are all one in our adherence to the samskaaras
- The taboos around their traditional work are no longer relevant
Change does not automatically imply “reform,” and reform does not automatically imply application of Western ideals such as, in this case, “equality”.
Don’t Use Bad Words #2 – “Oppression”
I sometimes make a provocative statement on Twitter, for example, like – “In a room of a hundred people, anyone who believes that five people brainwashed and oppressed the remaining ninety-five people, believes that their ancestors were either dumb or weak.”
The response usually is that the British did exactly that in India. I reply that the British, when they came to India, were a full generation ahead of us in weapons technology and defeated us militarily. The Brahmanas (who are cited as the agents of oppression) since 3000 BCE, on the other hand, only had a cotton thread. The land, the cattle, the armies, the weapon-making technology, all lay in the hands of the Shudra jaatis. It is obvious that they were not oppressed.
If this doesn’t close the discussion, I ask — “Why did Dheeran Chinnamalai, the great Vanniyar Gounder hero fight the British till his last breath, but never raise his sword against the Brahmanas of Srirangam?”
There is usually no answer to this question, but the answer is obvious. The great Vanniyar hero obviously saw the British as oppressive but not the Brahmanas of Srirangam. No matter that the current day cultural descendants of the great hero, who work for the atheist parties at power in the state, call out the British as great emancipators and the Brahmanas as oppressors, history tells us a different story. In the time before our morality was abducted by the West, it was the West that was seen as oppressive and the Brahmana as emancipatory through his personal demonstration of the spirit of dispassion —vairagya.
The Individual in the Community and in the State
The reason community is important, apart from all the reasons mentioned in PART-I of this essay, is that the communities are self-policing and intimate. An individual makes promises, but it is his community that helps him keep those promises. Without his community, an ordinary man will waver and likely lurch from one new year resolution to the next, but rituals of constancy performed in the community hold a man to the hard, disciplined, connected, and worthwhile life. That is the inner logic of the samskaaras.
A society is built on the lives of such men and women. In their absence, society quickly falls apart. That is cultural entropy at work. Hedonism and nihilism soon come knocking.
Community does half the work that states do, all without an ounce of effort, policing, or punishment. That is why a Dharmic state prefers to govern over communities rather than individuals. But the Western state with its focus on the Machine and the Market, prefers individuals who can be controlled and manipulated instead.
Today, we live in a Western state, but our social life is still reasonably communal. In my opinion, it is vital that we protect and retain that way of being for as long as we can because our communities are the buffer against the runaway state. Without our communities, we are mere individuals, who can be spied on, threatened, and manipulated into serving the will of the state, which in all reality is the will of global corporations… those non-human entities who serve the profit motive and ultimately the metaphysics of the Machine.
Where to Point Fingers – Bottom Up or Top Down?
The understanding that Hinduism is a confluence of “bottom-up” and “top-down” is very useful to clarify where our interventions are needed.
Recently, there was some hullabaloo about a dance maestro in Kerala who was excommunicated by his artist community because his son married a Muslim woman. People blamed the community for failing to support the man attempting ghar-wapsi of his daughter-in-law like Abrahamic communities may have done.
What internet Hindus fail to understand is that this is not a bottom-up problem at all. Communities, since time immemorial, have maintained their customs by excommunicating people who broke the rules. That’s the way communities maintain coherence. If at all there is a problem, it is a top-down problem. Sanatana Civilization has still not created a mechanism for dealing with situations like this for onboarding non-Hindu people who enter our families through marriages and for providing ritual direction to Hindus who have been excommunicated by their communities.
Similarly, “caste-centred” violence like this Jat protest is not a top-down problem at all. Blaming Sanatana Dharma for these problems, as Abrahamics do, is an obfuscation. These are bottom-up tribal problems that Sanatana Civilization has, in fact, been trying to resolve in an ethical manner at all levels — social, religious, and psychological, since the dawn of Hindu time.
A Final Word
On a trip to Rajasthan some years ago, I had hitched a ride in a jeep. The other people in the jeep were the driver-owner of the vehicle (a Rajput), a Gurjar shepherd, and a woman who was catching a ride home. Suddenly, the woman exclaimed that she had left her keys behind at her workplace. The owner of the vehicle was reluctant to drive all the way back to get the keys, but the Gurjar shepherd goaded him on. “Oh, you are a Rajput, it’s your duty to help her,” he said. He then turned to me, and by way of explanation said, “You see, he is Rajput… without his ancestors, none of us would be alive here today. He has to live up to their name.”
The expressionless Rajput gentleman turned his vehicle around and drove back to the woman’s workplace where she could pick up her keys, and we started our journey afresh.
People still have a memory of how things ought to be and some of the resentment against the so-called “upper castes” stems from the fact that many continue to claim the respect that was due to their ancestors while failing to honour the higher values that earned respect in the first place. Ordinary people see that birth-Brahmanas today do not live up to the value of dispassion; birth-Kshatriyas no longer demonstrate the Dharmic use of power; birth-Vysyas no longer demonstrate the Dharmic use of wealth; and birth-Shudras no longer demonstrate creative excellence. It’s no wonder that ordinary people start to doubt if there is such a thing as Arya nobility at all. Ordinary people will only accept a Dharmic hierarchy once again if they can see demonstrably that our Purusha is truly alive.
What can we make of this? How can we pick ourselves up?
“If our modern-day work is not dedicated to the Gods, then it does not qualify us to belong to any varna. If we want to reclaim the pride and nobility that was associated with work in ancient Bharat, we need to properly honour the idea of Varna in today’s world, and we need to develop a vision of work that goes beyond just job and salary. Work must be seen as a collaborative sacrifice. When we dedicate, together, to the Gods in this way, pride, quality, inspiration, and respect will automatically follow. This would be the first step in redefining Varna for the modern world. If we don’t restore this unique Bharatiya understanding of work as dedication, our Purusha will remain incomplete, ragged, and broken, while we, far from being the fitting heirs to a great tradition of work, will merely be well-paid but Westernized slaves in a chaotic global marketplace.”
References and Links:
- Halley Kalyan (August 13, 2021). “A.M.Hocart’s ‘Caste: A comparative study’,” Pragyata, https://pragyata.com/a-m-hocarts-caste-a-comparitive-study/
- Sonalee Hardikar, Ashish Dhar and Shivam Mishra (August 06, 2021). “The Real Cost of Leather: Chamars, Cow, and Colonialism,” Pragyata, https://pragyata.com/the-real-cost-of-leather-chamars-cow-and-colonialism/
- Indic Talks, Pandit Satish K.Sharma, “Caste, Conversion, A Colonial Conspiracy,” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bpervnxyZYQ | Caste, Conversion, A Colonial Conspiracy, Indic Talks, Pandit Satish K.Sharma
- Pramod Madhav (Augusust 17, 2021). “Tamil Nadu: Row over appointment of non-Brahmin priests in temple by DMK govt,” India Today, https://www.indiatoday.in/india/story/tamil-nadu-dmk-temples-appointment-non-brahmin-priests-subramanian-swamy-1842003-2021-08-17
- “Sabarimala Case: What the ‘People for Dharma’ Lawyer, who left the Supreme Court spellbound, had argued” (November 14, 2019, Swarajya, https://swarajyamag.com/news-brief/sabarimala-case-what-the-people-for-dharma-lawyer-who-left-the-supreme-court-spellbound-had-argued
- Pramod Madhav (May 05, 2022). “TN palanquin row: Madurai seer claims harassment by ruling party, threats to his life,” India Today, https://www.indiatoday.in/india/story/tn-palanquin-row-madurai-seer-claims-harassmentruling-party-threat-life-1945607-2022-05-05
- Aravindan Neelakandan (December 06, 2020) “This Community in Tamil Nadu wants to be taken out of the SC List; On Friday, it moved a step closer to the mission with a Major Victory,” Swarajya, https://swarajyamag.com/politics/this-community-in-tamil-nadu-wants-to-be-taken-out-of-the-sc-list-on-friday-it-moved-a-step-closer-to-the-mission-with-a-major-victory
- Ratnakar Sadasyula (April 17, 2018). ”History under your Feet: Dheeran Chinnamalai,” https://historyunderyourfeet.wordpress.com/2018/04/17/dheeran-chinnamalai/
- Rickson Oommen (March 16, 2022). “Poorkkali artist in Kerala banned from temple ritual over daughter-in-law’s religion,” India Today, https://www.indiatoday.in/india/story/kerala-poorakkali-temple-ritual-kannur-artist-banned-religion-non-hindu-house-muslim-daughter-in-law-1926114-2022-03-16
- Deeptiman Tiwary (February 24, 2016). “Jat quota stir turns into inter-caste violence: 4 non-Jats killed, shops burnt as per owner caste,” The Indian Express, https://indianexpress.com/article/india/india-news-india/jat-quota-stir-turns-into-inter-caste-violence-4-non-jats-killed-shops-burnt-as-per-owner-caste/
- Maragatham, “Light in the Forest: A Dharmic Landscape for Hindu Kids and their Parents”.