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Home > News > Columnists > Swapan Dasgupta

The Brahminical stranglehold

November 22, 2004

Maybe we have become too inured by predictable images of a dharna. Maybe our measure of outrage has become unnecessarily conditioned by explosive images of Falujah and Palestine. Or maybe the battering ram of aggressive rationalism has pulverised our faith in institutions that personify faith and tradition.

Whatever the reality, the sight of a glum-faced BJP top brass trooping out of Rashtrapati Bhavan on Friday night and sitting impassively on a dais in Patel Chowk on Saturday failed to convey the magnitude of the occasion. To the uninitiated, they could well have been demanding the inclusion of Maithili into the 8th Schedule or pressing for compensation to the victims of Bihar's rampaging gangs.

The issue is not the choreography of dignified protest in a made-in-media society. The real issue, to my mind, is the bewildering lack of mass outrage to a cynical assault on one of India's premier Hindu institutions.

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Let us accept grim reality for whatever it is worth. The Shankaracharya of Kanchi, a powerful symbol of the sanatan dharma, was arrested on the night of Diwali and charged with murder. He was produced in court the next day, dubbed an 'undeserving criminal' by the public prosecutor and remanded in police custody. He was allowed no special privileges and lodged in an ordinary jail. When he returned to court three days later, he was mocked for his aversion to rahukalam and for his unwillingness to sign documents.

As devotees recoiled in horror, police sources fed a hungry media with 'evidence' of his mendacity. He was accused of facilitating cash payments to supari killers, of being in telephonic contact with goons and even of plotting an escape by helicopter to Nepal. The Junior Shankaracharya was said to have demanded a CBI probe and, with hints of a monastic coup, it was said that his brother had turned approver.

It now transpires that very little of these grave charges can be substantiated. In fact, the police have not even submitted their preliminary evidence to court. You would have imagined that the authorities would have proceeded against a person as revered as the Shankaracharya on the strength of watertight evidence. But no, they arrested him and humiliated him on the basis of suspicion.

The reasons lie in the vagaries of Dravidian politics, particularly the competitive inclination to invoke anti-Brahmin sentiment. Let us not forget that the DMK had threatened an agitation against the state government if it did not proceed against the Kanchi seer.

Karunanidhi was, in effect, daring the Brahmin Jayalalithaa to take action against the Brahmin Shankaracharya. For him, this was just another handle to beat Jayalalithaa with. By ensuring the Shankaracharya was booked, regardless of the evidence, Jayalalithaa has at least ensured that Karunanidhi can no longer charge her of having a Brahminical bias.

The question is: Why was the Shankaracharyua allowed to become a political football between two Dravidian parties who are bound by an ideological aversion to the Hindu faith? The anti-Hindus, in Tamil Nadu at least, have proceeded on the assumption that there is no worthwhile Hindu sentiment. A Hindu nation, divided along caste, regional and denominational lines, it is believed, will stomach any indignity. This is a belief that binds all the secularist parties.

Judging from the muted response to the arrest, the secularists may well be right. There is disquiet that the Shankaracharya was treated shabbily and there is pain that a premier Hindu institution has been brought into disrepute. But equally, there is astonishing passivity. The Shankaracharya of Puri may claim that the assault on his Kanchi counterpart is a 'blow to the existence and ideology of Hindus,' but the average Hindu still believes this is an overstatement. Hindus have ceased to react as Hindus.

Yet, Hindus have not ceased to believe and conduct themselves as Hindus in their private lives. It is just that they have gradually abdicated the public space to secularists and organised minorities. It is an abdication that has happened by default. The claimants to the Hindu public space have erroneously focussed on the traditional institutions of the faith. Unfortunately, these institutions, like the Kanchi Math, have become identified with a narrow Brahminical order.

This may be unfair to Sri Jayendra Saraswati who has consciously taken the Kanchi Math out of the orbit of pure spiritualism and involved it in social and philanthropic ventures. He created philanthropic institutions, campaigned for Dalit rights, championed the Ayodhya cause and resisted conversions. Yet, the public image of Brahminical exclusivity has persisted.

In being wedded to orthodoxy, neither the present Shankaracharyas nor their institutions have had the temperament to be defenders of the faith. The Maths and their groupies have come across as socially aloof, insufferably arrogant and casteist. Their Hinduism has not been inclusive. This explains why there was no spontaneous explosion of fury at the arrest of the Shankaracharya.

The popular energies of Hinduism have traditionally vested in the little traditions, epitomised by the many stand-alone Maths, the numerous gurus and the many living Gods. It is these sects, headed by the charismatic individuals who we see on the likes of Astha channel and God TV, who are keeping popular Hinduism alive. Their Hinduism is vibrant, inclusive and imbued with some social vision. To be effective, Hindu politics has to connect with this evangelical Hindu energy.

This should have been obvious to every BJP leader who was present at last Saturday's dharna in Delhi. Throughout the morning and afternoon, there were barely 1,500 people at the venue. The mood changed with the arrival of the charismatic preacher Asaram Bapu. On hearing on television that he was at the venue, there was a rush of his devotees to the dharna. The crowds swelled considerably and the BJP leaders requested him to return the next day too.

The Ayodhya movement was one of the few moments when Hindu nationalism and Hindu religious energy converged. The convergence also happened because of the broadening of the social bases of Hindu nationalism to incorporate the backward castes, Dalits and adivasis.

Today, after six years of seeking respectability from the India's secularised elites, the BJP appears to have glossed over the social constituency that made its great leap forward possible. Just consider this small but crucial detail: of the seven-member BJP delegation that went to meet the President last Friday, five were Brahmins. The tragedy is that this imbalance didn't even strike the leadership.

Unless Hindu politics can break out of this Brahminical stranglehold, the cynical assault on Hindu institutions cannot be checked.


Swapan Dasgupta


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Number of User Comments: 123




Sub: Anti-Brahminism

Its really easy to criticise Brahmins saying they ibtroduced caste system, all of u r forgetting that had caste system been not there in India ...


Posted by Nitin





Sub: The Brahminical Stranglehold

Dear Vipin, For heaven's sake donot repeat the story of the lamb and the wolf. Why should anyone apologise to anyone else if someone up ...


Posted by Dr Y N I Anand





Sub: Brahminical stranglehold

'Mahatma' Gandhi broke the brahmin supremacy by putting his SC/ST on top of the list. They get all the resrvations for education and jobs. Has ...


Posted by dv sikka





Sub: are you talking about Brahminical Stranglehold!!!!!

Dear Mr. Swapan Das Gupta!! Its great to see the episode of Jayendra Saraswathi from Hindu point oif view and feel like lots and lots ...


Posted by Rajakumar Sankula





Sub: Kudos ....

Swapan, Kudoes for figuring out, quite meticulouslt I must say, the number of brahmins that went to meet the president. And to describe in vivid ...


Posted by Amit




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