Sunday, July 03, 2011

Is it possible to be proud of one's Brahmin roots?

This post made me revisit a dilemma I have had for quite some time now. I will revisit my dilemma later on. First of all, I want to respond to this post. In this post Rahul Pandita, a journalist, talks about his Brahmin-ness and wonders why he should not feel proud about his Brahmin roots and culture.
It is important to understand the caste hierarchy. Brahmins, as we all know, occupy the topmost position in the hierarchy. Their position that they enjoy and have enjoyed over a period of years is also based on severe oppression of lower castes. Simply put, one is not a Brahmin just like that. The position of that of a Brahmin cannot be without oppression. To put it very simply, Brahmins became possessors of knowledge purely on the basis of exclusion. Because of the position they enjoyed, they could conveniently exclude people who were non-Brahmins and their power also could be sustained by centuries of exclusion. It still continues. I haven’t seen many non-Brahmin priests. It is still the domain of Brahmins. So what are we saying, when one says, “I am proud of Brahmin culture.” Can we be proud of a culture that has evolved under conditions of having oppressed such a large majority? I definitely don’t think so. Culture cannot be devoid of politics. Culture that evolved then was also an outcome of political economy of that given period. Thus, it cannot be viewed in isolation of this historic background. It is important to know and understand under what conditions the cultural practices originated from.

Rahul Pandita is a Kashmiri Pandit. Their history of displacement has been very painful to say the least. It just appears to me that he has taken recourse to his culture as a response to being a victim of displacement. Taking recourse to one's culture is a very common way of connecting to one's roots especially in the face of physical displacement. The history of caste oppression of Dalits has been happening across centuries and cannot even be compared to the displacement of Kashmiri Pandits. Their history of oppression existed long before the displacement of Kashmiri Pandits. That is why I think Kashmiri Brahmin culture cannot be contextualised without taking into account the centuries' old oppression of the Dalits.  Feeling sorry for the Dalits is futile if one doesn't take into account that their condition is very deeply connected to the Brahmin culture.

Recently, there has been a website that has been famously frequented by many Tamil Brahmins. It is called the TamBrahm RageTambrahm rage. It is a site where Tamil Brahmins collectively make fun of all things Tam Brahm. When I checked out TamBrahm Rage, I experienced mixed reactions. When I go through Tam Brahm rage, I feel an acute discomfort when I see people laughing at all the jokes and the rituals. That is because I often wonder if they are just mocking or actually being critical of the entire thing? But even as I say this, I also laugh at the same jokes that that I am being critical of right now. That is because I think there are some things I have no control over. For instance, my upbringing. And it does have a major influence on things I do relate to. All my life, I have seen all these practices happening all around me. It has been an inevitable part of my growing up and my reality. I have never bothered to join the innumerable Tam Brahm groups on various social networking sites as I find it absolutely ridiculous to talk at a platform where the main reason of association is that of being a Brahmin. But then, I do frequent Tam Brahm rage sometimes because it does consist of some (of the many) questions I asked in my childhood which were left unanswered. Many of which are also ultimately responsible for my disregard to Brahminism as a whole.

The issue of personal identity is a very complex one. While I don’t consider myself as a Brahmin per se, I am one by default, in terms of my upbringing; in terms of certain privileges I have enjoyed being one. While I consciously do not associate myself with the identity of being a Brahmin and its associated rituals, I wonder if I can be away from it at all? Ideally I would want the destruction of the entire caste system and the annihilation of caste identity.  But then, I also wearily sometimes wonder, is it possible?

Can one really separate culture from the oppressive conditions it thrived in? Carnatic classical music has been a preserve of only Brahmins till now. This clearly means that Brahmins would have isolated everyone outside of their community in the spread of the art. No wonder we only have Brahmin performers ruling the roost. But then, I love Carnatic music very much. I often wonder where I stand. I often wonder if I can ever enjoy it without these confusions in my head.


anantha said...

So today you decided to show up on the blog reader once again. May the frequency increase :)

Shobha said...

Ha Ha :-D So nice to see an old face again :-) It's amazing people still have me on their feeds..YAYY! :-D Yes I do intend to write more. How have you been? Also you are as irregular as I am. But I miss the good ol' days. I don't like twitter so much. But I am sure a lot of us have migrated there. You are on twitter too?

Shobha said...

Anantha: Where is the comment box in your blog? I couldn't find it. Crazy! :-S

Rex said...

I came across your comment on Kafila while revisiting the Rahul Pandit article, so here's my 2¢:
Your talk of 'oppression' sounds as though to say that there have never been destitute or poor among Brahmins. The caste system came about based on the division of labor; the original 4 castes were for priests, soldiers, craftsmen and laborers - the ossification and further division set in over the centuries.
I haven’t seen many non-Brahmin priests.
How many brahmins themselves, say you, or me, decide to take to the priesthood? Being a temple priest is not something lucrative to aspire for, they are paid a pittance for the work they do. Rest assured that if it were a great career path, the reservation brigade would have started clamoring!
One of the aspects of the 'Brahmin culture'(South Indian to be precise) is the emphasis on knowledge and studies as a means to success.
This is why the stereotypical career path of doing engineering followed by MS and moving abroad for so many Brahmins. Ridiculous reservation policies in South India further encourage people to study abroad; at least one can get there on merit.

It so happens that the world has shifted to a knowledge economy over the last 2 decades. That holy grail of most TamBrams - the IIT engineering degree - definitely confers far better career & matrimonial prospects than a degree from elsewhere (to say nothing of manual labor professions that have been the mainstay of other communities).

Today, if you find that TamBrams (how I hate the term) are very successful, it is due to the intrinsic value placed on education. Parents goad their kids to cram for competitive exams; the parents themselves tend to be working professionals or bureaucrats (again - thanks to knowledge work).

Who's being oppressed here? It's not as though every Brahmin's ancestors went around in palanquins lashing the lower caste laborers with whips to make them work harder!
My great grandfather and grandfather both were railway clerks with large families. The hard work and academic ethic made my father and his siblings study hard and take up professional careers, and they have continued to impart the same values to me and my cousins.

Whatever success you see today is entirely due to the individual hard work put in by people, and not because of 'hundreds of years of oppression'.
Portraying the SC/ST as the eternal victims has been the favorite pastime of politicians since Independence. Solid primary education for everyone should have been a priority, to enable the economically destitute to stand on their own two feet. Instead, the government took up a policy of handouts, which continues to this day with more and more communities agitating to be included under the SC ST label.

Also, it isn't for you to decide which form of oppression was worse- Kashmiri Pandits being driven out versus your own vague assertions of Dalit oppression over the centuries (what have the two in common anyway?), given that you belong to neither category, where at least some personal experience would lend credence.

Rex said...

While I don’t consider myself as a Brahmin per se, I am one by default, in terms of my upbringing; in terms of certain privileges I have enjoyed being one.

What were these privileges? How were they obtained, i.e. at the expense of lower communities? If anything, being born a Brahmin these days is a curse, whether or not you identify with being one. Given that how we somehow are to blame for 'oppression' centuries ago, or that we're all millionaires today thanks to the money all our combined ancestors leeched off the lower castes, so therefore it's justifiable that you have 70% or more reservation for SC/ST everywhere.

Carnatic classical music has been a preserve of only Brahmins till now. This clearly means that Brahmins would have isolated everyone outside of their community in the spread of the art.

Ridiculous.Kalaripayattu has been the exclusive preserve of the Nair community. Gatka is a Sikh martial art practiced with sticks, you'd be hard pressed to find non Nihangs practicing it.
Durga puja statues are made by a specific Bengali community.
There are numerous such arts that have traditionally been the exclusive preserve of an individual community.Why single out Brahmins for Carnatic music?

I guess my comment is lengthier than your original post :)

The point I'm trying to make is that you don't have to feel guilty for an imagined communal oppressive past. (Even if your ancestors actually were the whip wielding tyrants I depicted, how is that your fault?)

Caste adversely affects us all, but crying victim or guilt tripping isn't going to solve anything.

anantha said...

Hahaha. My feed reader just increases size. Never been pruned, unless the feed's taken over by a spammer, which happens often. And ya, I havent been on my own blog in months. I just keep it thinking I will write, but it never happens. :P
And yes, I am @anantha on Twitter.

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Subramanian said...

I think rex said what i wanted to,well there wa sno oppression or anything,I do not know where you come from.

I come from land lord families on both paternal/maternal sides and even today in our village,people love us.They would not do so if we ill treated them or anything and we lost all our lands at once and my family started getting educated later and it was difficult to catch up with lot of city folks but we did.

Please dont believe random propaganda and try to use your own intuition to make judgements.

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