Who – or what – is a Hindu?
There are no easy answers to this question.
From the Oxford English Dictionary:
Hinduism: A major religious and cultural tradition of South Asia, which developed from Vedic religion.
From Cambridge Dictionary:
Hinduism: An ancient religion with Indian origins whose characteristics include the worship of many gods and goddesses and the belief that when a person or creature dies, their spirit returns to life in another body.
Please note that both are stressing the Vedic roots, the former explicitly and the latter implicitly (the belief that the spirit returns to life in another body).
This bears witness to the fact that how much standardisation the term has undergone over the years: originally, “Hindu” meant anybody who lived in the vast tract of land eastward of the Sindhu (Indus) river. Sindhu was pronounced as Hindu by the Persians who did not have an “s” in their vocabulary. Subsequently, after the British conquest, it came to mean any Indian who was not Muslim, Christian, Sikh or Jew – and all the various gods and goddesses proliferating the countryside gained official status. However, by this time, the so-called “upper” castes had tightened their grip on the religion: Vedic Brahmanism was accepted as canonical, prescribing the strict hierarchy of castes (the Oxford definition quoted above goes on to say that the caste system is an integral part of Hinduism). The most miserable were the untouchable outcasts who were treated worse than animals.
Which is where Kancha Ilaiah comes in.
Kancha ilaiah is a Dalit social activist and writer. The term “Dalit” is used to describe anybody outside the Chaturvarnyam (four-caste system). It is a rebellious term, a challenge to categorising of the “lower” castes as Harijan (Children of God – a term coined by Gandhi and seen as patronising) or as Scheduled Castes/ Scheduled Tribes (SC/ST – a government term referring to their “protected” status and also considered insulting). “Dalit” means crushed or beaten, and is meant to indicate their centuries-old maltreatment at the hands of the upper-caste Hindus.
In the book under discussion, Ilaiah categorically rejects his official status as a Hindu, in the wake of the renewed upsurge of Hindu nationalism of the early nineties which lead to meteoric rise of the Hindu right-wing Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), which rejects the secular constitution of India for “Hindutva” – a term which signifies a broad acceptance of a common Indian culture on the moderate side or a strict enforcement of the Vedic religion as state religion on the fanatic side. What Ilaiah is worried about is the induction of millions of people under the Hindu wing, who were miserable outcasts in its original implementation – by stressing the pluses of a pluralistic culture, the BJP is trying recruit people to what essentially is a fascist agenda. To counter this, he presents arguments why most of the former untouchables and the majority of the Sudras (the lowest rung of the four-caste system – the servant class), whom he clubs together as Dalitbahujans, should not consider themselves as Hindus.
The BJP’s Hindutva rocket blasted off with a vengeance on December 6, 1992 when a fanatic mob of Hindu fundamentalists tore down the centuries-old Babri Masjid (“Babur’s Mosque”) in Ayodhya – the birthplace of the Hindu hero Rama, whom they consider an incarnation of Lord Vishnu. This was the culmination of decades of anger against the mosque, which was allegedly built on the exact spot where Rama was born – according to legend, the Moghul emperor Babur demolished a temple to build it. But the reason why it was suddenly brought to a head in the early nineties is, according to many, is the Mandal Commission Report, which advocates greater number of reserved seats for the backward castes in educational institutions and government jobs, which the Janata Dal government implemented a couple of years before.
The Janata Dal government was a mix of political parties, headed by V.P. Singh. They had come into power riding on the popular anti-incumbency wave against the Congress government of Rajiv Gandhi: however, the coalition was a contradiction in terms, comprising mostly secular and casteist parties, and supported from outside by the leftists and the right-wing BJP. The implementation of the Mandal Report was Singh’s attempt to consolidate power among the masses. There was widespread anger against this move by forward caste Hindus all over the country, even to the point of self-immolation by some students. The BJP, who is mainly supported by upper-caste Hindus, immediately demanded the demolition of the mosque and the building of a Rama temple in Ayodhya. This was a clever counter-move, as they knew the government could only refuse, and they could withdraw their support thus ensuring its collapse and the non-implementation of the report.
In the turbulent era following the fall of V.P. Singh’s ministry, the BJP slowly consolidated power, pulling more and more people into its predominantly upper-caste fold, until they really became a pan-Hindu movement: drawing on the resentment against the sops provided to Muslims as minority, they became even more belligerent. Castes which were marginalised were slowly accepted as “Hindu”, and they were encouraged to proclaim their “Hindutva” (Hindu-ness) in preference to their caste identity. In this process, what happened was not a positive disappearance of caste and creation of an egalitarian vision of Hinduism; rather, the Vedic religion was accepted as canonical, its gods were made universal, and attempts are still on to standardise Hindu rituals across India.
Dalits have always resisted this attempt at assimilation: Phule, Ambedkar and Ramaswamy Naicker are the prominent examples. During the struggle for independence, Gandhi was on one side, trying to include the backward castes under the Hindu fold as Harijans while Ambedkar was on the other, advocating a separate and rather combative identity. The Dalit struggle has continued since, attaining renewed vigour in the seventies and eighties as more and more marginalised castes became educated and came into the mainstream. There have always been two conflicting visions regarding the question of caste in Indian society: the beatific one of castes slowly melting away as more and more people get absorbed into the mainstream and the more revolutionary one of the downtrodden groups grabbing power and restructuring the Indian Democracy radically. Mr. Ilaiah is a subscriber to the second vision.
The book explores the socio-economic and cultural differences between Brahmins, Kshatriyas and Vaishyas on the one hand and the Dalits on the other based on an experiential framework. The author argues that “this is the only possible and the most authentic way in which the deconstruction and reconstruction of history can take place”. He is aware of the problems that such an approach can create, as how do you analyse the experience of another? For this, Ilaiah has relied on extensive interactions with people who came from Brahmin families (he says “particularly feminists”). He has analysed the differences between Hindus and Dalitbahujans with regard to childhood, family relations, power structures, religion etc. on the basis of this first-hand and second-hand experience.
(The perceptive reader will immediately spot problems with this approach. While it is excellent for a biography or a memoir, it runs the risk of missing out on a multitude of viewpoints in compiling a social critique. Moreover, analysing second-hand experience is always dangerous as the cross-section one utilises may not be representative: in this case, it is a given, because Ilaiah has relied upon information provided by progressive thinkers from the Brahmin community who are most likely to be prejudiced towards their own, reactionary social set-up.)
The author explores the Dalitbahujan experience vs. the Hindu experience under the following chapter headings:
- Childhood Formations
- Marriage, Market and Social Relations
- The Emergence of Neo-Kshatriyas and the Reorganization of Power Relations
- Contemporary Hinduism
- Hindu Gods and Us; Our Goddesses and Hindus
- Hindu Death and Our Death
- Dalitization Not Hinduization
The arguments are mostly repetitive, so instead of analysing them in detail chapter-wise, I will try to present the gist of what I gathered here.
- Hindus (comprising Brahmins, Kshatriyas and Baniyas) and Dalitbahujans (Sudras and the so-called ‘Untouchables’) are two totally different communities, having nothing in common with each other. However, historically Hindus have managed to incorporate Dalits into their worldview at a very low level, not even allowing them the common human dignities – a position the Dalits seems to have largely accepted till recently.
- All the social and political systems of Hindus are geared to keep them on the top socially and financially without doing productive labour. The productive Dalits are exploited to keep this order in place. The current educational system, modelled on the Hindu system of the past, actively prevents Dalits from coming to the fore.
- Hindu family and social systems are rigidly patriarchal with women having no voice or power, while Dalit systems are more democratic.
- The Hindu religion comprises mostly patriarchal gods, whose exploits mainly describe acts of violence against Dalits. The Dalit deities (goddesses mostly), in contrast, are more earth-bound and benign.
- Post-independence, Brahmins and other upper-castes have retained power because of the educational advantage they wielded: the systems are skewed in their favour. Even the communist revolutions have been hijacked by Brahmins. More and more Sudras have become ‘Neo-Kshatriyas’ (i.e. gained political power – in traditional Hindu system, the Kshatriyas were the rulers), and they have moved more into the Hindu fold than out of it. Even the urbanised Dalits have started adopting Hindu lifestyles.
- What is required in India is Dalitization; i.e. radical restructuring of Indian society by totally destroying the Hindu culture and replacing it with Dalit culture. This should be done in a peaceable way, through the ballot-box and re-education of Indian society.
Of these, I have absolutely no disagreement with the first two points. The traditional Hindu caste system is one of the most vile and disgusting systems ever implemented anywhere in the history of humankind. Man has always tried to subjugate fellow-man; however, only in India has it been legitimised with the stamp of religion and a complicated system of beliefs so that the downtrodden also came to believe in his unworthiness. Over the years, a small group of people have lived in luxury out of the riches eked out of the lifeblood of the large substrata of society.
However, when Ilaiah says that Hindu systems are rigidly patriarchal, I will have at least to partially disagree. I agree that this is the Hindu ‘virtue’ projected in traditional movies, novels and sitcoms and the ‘vice’ derided by progressive writers – but the truth is that all Hindu societies are not patriarchal, nor are all Dalit societies democratic. In Kerala, the Kshatriyas and Nairs are fiercely matriarchal, while the Ezhavas (a technically ‘backward’ class – though of late, they have come up in a big way) are patriarchal. However, the point he makes about both sexes being equal in work among Dalit societies is largely true; excepting the fact that all housework is still considered to be the woman’s share.
I also partially agree to the author’s analysis of how Hindu society has evolved post-independence. Many of the castes who were considered ‘low’ by upper-caste Hindus have come up politically, financially and socially. However, instead of trying to forge a classless society, they have been busy forming their own caste-based platforms and more importantly, aligning to the traditional Hindu model of attaining power based on caste. Thus, the Brahmin model has not been destroyed: it has been reinterpreted, introducing new castes into the power equation.
However, I have a slight caveat when he says that the communist revolution has been hijacked by Brahmins. The first democratically elected communist ministry in the world (in Kerala in 1957) was headed by a Brahmin (E.M.S. Namboothiripad), true. But one should understand that the whole concept of communism as a tool of social revolution was developed in Kerala mostly by Brahmins inspired by the evils prevalent within their community. Communism, however, has to side with the downtrodden, whatever caste he/ she may belong to, and is therefore prevented from addressing things exclusively from a caste point of view. I am also sure that the same goes for many Brahmin members of the Congress and other secular parties.
In my opinion, the book collapses when it comes to addressing religion, as it parrots many of the early Dalit arguments without taking into account the latest historical discoveries: i.e. Aryans destroyed the Indus Valley civilisation and pushed all the people to the south; Buddha was an anti-caste crusader; the whole of India became Buddhist at one point of time, and was forcibly converted back to Hinduism using strong arm tactics. All these arguments are partially true (except the first one – the Indus Valley Civilisation was long defunct before the Aryans set foot in India). Successive waves of Aryan migrations from Middle Asia did indeed subjugate and displace other cultures, but it was a slow process of assimilation. The Aryan Gods merged with the indigenous ones and created the rich tapestry that is the Hindu pantheon today. The Buddha was indeed anti-caste, but not at the social level: he destroyed the whole philosophical basis of Hinduism by positing the atman (soul) as a transitory entity which dies along with the body. The reincarnating monad was thus negated. And Buddhism was not destroyed, but assimilated by crafty Hindus, who made Buddha an incarnation of Vishnu! The Bhakti movement which originated in South India, which posited salvation was possible for anyone regardless of caste, creed or colour, brought a lot of the lower caste people into the Hindu fold.
Ilaiah describes the Hindu myths as wilful stories created by Brahmins to enslave Dalits – and here he does go overboard, trying to make the Hindu religion as evil as possible. I do not go into his criticism about the Bhagavad Gita or the Ramayana, which are widely discussed and carry considerable weight (according to me, at least): the Ramayana myth and the incarnations of Vishnu can be clearly viewed as the twisted history of an invading race. But myth is not only history – it springs from the unconscious, and there are many motifs in Indian Mythology which have clear parallels elsewhere in world myth. It is evident that the mythology we have now is a mix of the Vedic with the local.
According to Ilaiah, only the Hindu gods are violent or advocate violence (obviously he is unfamiliar with the Greek myths); the Hindu polytheism is somehow flawed and primitive, Levantine monotheism is more advanced (Hindu polytheism is actually pantheism, going much beyond monotheism, seeing God everywhere in life); and only male Gods of the Hindus have power. He even says that Brahma and Vishnu, the Aryan Gods, are placed above Siva, who is at least partly Dravidian! These are factual mistakes: Brahma has been relegated to a footnote in Hindu theology, much below Vishnu and Siva; and one of the most powerful Goddesses of the world – if not the most powerful – is Durga/ Shakti/ Kali, who is connected to the local Goddess culture prevalent all over India.
Which brings me to another point – the regional Gods and Goddesses Ilaiah mentions, who are outside the Vedic pantheon. Not all of them are derided by the Brahmins like he says. Lord Ayyappa, the local God of Kerala and arguably one of the most popular Gods in South India (worshipped by Brahmin and Dalit alike) is most probably a mountain God later adopted into the Hinduism, and given celestial parents and a royal foster father. This was the method of Hinduism: rather than confront, assimilate and sublimate. The same is the case of Mahabali, who is even now worshipped as an ideal king in Kerala (Ilaiah gives an interesting variant of the Mahabali myth in the book, but I do not know where he got it from). In fact, the stories of this sublimation can be read from the ten incarnations, but the author does not pursue this interesting concept.
Lastly, I also differ with Mr. Ilaiah on Dalitisation. The concept of one caste or religion taking over the polity and the society, however benign it may be, is anathema to the pluralistic Indian society. We have seen the oppressed grabbing power and becoming oppressors in their turn time and again in history; the same thing should not happen in India. What we have to aim for is a secular society where the underprivileged, regardless of caste, creed or colour, are protected and supported. What we should aim for is the destruction of caste in totality.
After reading the book through, I find myself in the curious position of agreeing totally with Kancha Ilaiah on his premise, but not at all with his analysis and the arguments he have brought to support it. Maybe I am too much of a leftist to agree to a caste revolution. Maybe, my love of Indian culture (moulded by my upper-caste Hindu prejudices, most probably) rejects his reductionist analysis of Hindu mythology. Whatever be the reason, the putting off of a potential sympathetic reader does not speak in support of the way the argument has been presented.
However, one thing is sure – unless the demon of caste is exorcised, India will never progress.