Early Hinduism – the epic stratification

This essay is highly speculative in nature and I have many doubts about many of the things stated below, but I have tried to coherently bring together distinct threads of early Indian history into an explanation for the great stratification of Jati-Varna


Ancient history is in general a tricky subject to delve into, but when it comes to ancient Indian history, the tricky becomes almost entirely speculative. The entire narrative is based on a series of texts, from the Vedic canon to Pali texts – none of them are dated precisely in absolute terms. The paucity of inscriptions from ancient India makes dating much more difficult as oral texts are much harder to accurately date.

Ms Sarah Welch, CC0, via Wikimedia Commons
Ashoka’s major rock edict – the earliest inscription from Ancient India.

One of the early inscriptions from Ancient India, Ashoka’s 13th major rock edict from Kandahar reads

Except among the Greeks, there is no land where the religious orders of Brahmanas and Sramanas are not to be found, and there is no land anywhere where men do not support one sect or another.

Here Brahmanas are mentioned but not as a Varna per se but as analogous to various Sramanas (priests / philosophers). Some academics have come to regard the Sramana traditions as somewhat antagonistic to the orthodox Brahmanical traditions. However, the earliest written reference to these traditions, Ashoka’s Rock Edicts mention them always together. Patanjali and others too mostly mention them together and never as quite as antagonistic as later Sramana canon or modern scholarship would have us believe.

However, it is undeniable that one cannot be understood without the challenges presented by the other. Ahimsa and Vegetarianism are generally acknowledged (and contested) to be Sramana influences on Classical Hinduism. A lot of digital and literal ink has been spilled to answer the question of how these two currents have interacted and shaped each other – mostly through the lens of Ahimsa, Dha(r/m)ma, Moksha and only rarely Karma.

Vedic deities Indra and Surya at the entrance of Buddhist cave in Bhaja (200 BCE – 100 CE)

Johannes Bronkhorst’s Greater Magadha thesis offers a tenuous but interesting take on these interactions. The basic premise of the thesis is that the region of Greater Magadha was home to the Proto-Sramana traditions while the Kuru-Panchala region to the Vedic Brahmanas and that many ideas central to classical Hinduism like Karma, Rebirth, and Ayurveda came into it from the Sramana traditions of the Greater Magadha via the esoteric Upanishads (especially the ones which were composed in the horizon of Greater Magadha). The whole thesis rests on the revised chronology which only makes sense if the thesis is true – so I doubt the book is going to convince anyone. But it has catalyzed a rudimentary and dormant theory that came to my mind years ago while reading Ambedkar’s writings.

The composition of the Manava Dharma Shastra (100 BCE to 200 AD) is generally considered to be an indication (or instrument) of Varna ossification. The Varna system in some form ought to have existed (especially in the Gangetic heartland) since the late Vedic period (Purusha Sukta), yet both textual and genetic evidence points to this period as being one of great mixing. Hence it is fair to assume that whatever rudimentary Varna system existed, it was not very rigidly followed in these times. Also its important to note that traditional Varna system may have never been a reality south of the Vindhyas.

It is difficult to pin the Varna ossification to any particular political period. The only pan India ancient empire – the Mauryas are unlikely to have imposed any Varna hierarchy on their subjects as the pedagogic Ashoka doesn’t once mention Varna in his Rock Edicts. The Shungas are seen as the Brahmanical pushback against excesses of the Mauryan state but their power was both too limited in time and too restricted in region to have made any major impact. The same is true for most other political powers in the country for the next 500 years.

Brahmins had begun moving out of the Gangetic heartland as early as the late Vedic period itself. So why did the Varna system, suddenly begin to ossify  centuries later? Surely some metaphysical, philosophical, and/or political explanation is required to make sense of this phenomenon. Also, Jati endogamy which is the true hallmark of the Indian Caste system cannot be explained by the Brahmanical Varna system – even the rigid one prescribed in the Manusmriti. The answers may lie in a core philosophy of the Indic faith systems.

So what is the common characteristic that defines Indian religious thought? The answer is easy – the concept of Karma, Rebirth and Dharma. Even if we reject the thesis of Greater Magadha, we have to accept that the concepts of Rebirth and Karma are explored in far more detail in the Sramana schools – namely Buddhists, Jainas, and Ajivikas. The whole philosophical aim of the Sramana schools is to avoid Bad Karma to primarily get Good Karma and finally Moksha. This is in clear contrast with mainstream Vedic thought. Though the early Upanishads (Chandogya and Brihadaranyaka) touch the Karma doctrine it’s in no way as critically dissected as by the Sramanas. The lengths to which the Jainas and Ajivikas go to avoid all Karma; the detailed linking of the intention of the “Actor” to the Karma done by Buddha illustrate that the Sramanas, in general, were way more focused on Karma than their Brahmana counterparts. More importantly, the concept of Karmic retribution in Rebirth is much more detailed in early Sramana traditions than the Upanishads (Yajnavalkya doesn’t link Karma directly to Rebirth but discusses both separately). So it remains fair to assume that even if doctrines of Rebirth and Karma didn’t come into Classical Hinduism as an import from Sramana traditions, it can surely be thought that the Sramana innovations in the Karma and Rebirth doctrines challenged the more “this-worldly outlook” of the Vedic Brahmanas.

But how does this matter to the Jati Varna matrix? The initial conception of Varna sees it as a natural order of things (not unlike stratification seen in most ancient societies). Moreover, this conception is in no way rejected by the Sramana traditions even Buddhism – thought Buddha did not give Varna the emphasis it received from the Vedic Brahmanas.  Even today caste is practiced in the Jainas. So how did the conception of Karmic retribution affect this system? The answer seems obvious enough. It meant that the position of one in the Varna hierarchy could be justified as the fruit of Karma of previous births and not only as a Natural order. In other words, the ritual status was awarded to certain births for their good Karma and vice-versa. In many ways, Karmic retribution is a fundamental shift from the “this-worldly” ways of the composers of Rigveda.

This change is captured in the Bhagavat Gita, arguably the most important book of the Hindu canon. While there continue to be many interpretations of the doctrine of Karma espoused in the Gita, the one reading tells us to fulfill the Dharma (of your Varna/ Position/ Situation) with the implication that it would result in Good Karma and better Rebirths – the ultimate aim of Moksha notwithstanding. That indeed seems to be one of the simplistic messages of the Gita which would have begun spreading in the society with the final versions of Mahabharata. The prescriptive Manusmriti is one thing, but the bonafide revelation of Gita is another (though it is not my point that Karmic retribution is the core message of Gita but it is hard to argue against it being a vehicle of the spread of these memes). This doesn’t mean that Varna became birth-based at this moment in history – it is fair to assume it always was at least partially birth-based though more flexible. But we can state that at this stage, one’s Birth became Karma-based and Varna also became inextricably linked to Karma. 

This could have resulted in two primary effects:

  • It would mitigate the sense of injustice perceived by sections of the society who had it tough. The injustice of birth was not injustice but the karmic justice of previous births.
  • It associated “ritual Varna hierarchy and division of labor” with moral dimension (Karma of previous birth). Potentially this moral dimension would buttress the existing Varna hierarchy.

It’s easy to imagine how this would in turn result in decreasing porousness between Varnas. Incidentally, this is attested through the first/second-century inscription near Nasik by Brahmana Satavahana Queen Gotami, which praises how her son prevented the mixing of the Varnas. This is one of the most solidly dated references against the mixing of Varnas (as it is an inscription) issued by a political authority (not just religious abstractions).

However in a pre-modern subcontinent without a strong centralized state, these ideas would have spread very slowly through the network of Brahmins and various (particularly) Vaishnava sects through the vehicle of Gita. The Hindu Golden age of the Imperial Vaishnavite Guptas – who ruled the second-largest and arguably the richest empire of ancient India, in the fourth/fifth century AD nicely correlates with these timelines. Thus we could say that by the time of the Huna invasions of the 5th and 6th century the Varna ossification was prevalent, but even that doesn’t explain the complete story. Still, we have no philosophical or scriptural basis for Jati endogamy.

Irawati Karve – a pioneering Indian Anthropologist / Indologist

Anthropologist Irawati Karve in her book “Hindu society” was one of the earliest to claim that the Jati system was a pre-Aryan reality upon which the abstraction of the Aryan Varna system was imposed. Academically her work has been contested and not accepted in mainstream Indology, but her case is very compelling, given that it is based on her immense fieldwork in “Non-Aryan” tribes who have maintain very strict endogamy. But how does her thesis map onto what we know from genetics? Endogamy in India roughly seems to have ossified between 0 AD and 500 AD but who is to say that less rigid endogamy (not detectable) was not the norm earlier? Is it possible that the self-conception of Jatis is indeed is an ancient Pre-Aryan reality that was less rigid during the Vedic times? Clearly, there are no easy answers as all we can do is speculate and wait for Ancient DNA from India to show if there existed any pre-Aryan structure in the populations of the Indus valley.

Many tribal (hunter-gatherer) societies have endogamy baked into their cultures. But generally, as these tribal societies get integrated into the agricultural societies, this endogamy tends to break down – as evident for recent genetic findings (particularly Europe). But what if the tribal societies which integrated into the emerging Urban civilizations (first the Indus and then the Ganga) , never fully gave up their tribal/clan identities? The hundreds of excavated IVC villages point to sophisticated trade/occupational specialization. If both the sexes work in their ancestral trades per se, it would naturally result in tribal endogamy as it makes occupational sense. But that would not necessarily lead to rigid endogamy to the levels we see in the subcontinent- probably because this doesn’t exist elsewhere in the world. Though the identities of groups by kinship (precursor to Jati) may have existed even before the Varna system began to take form (let alone become rigid).

But why does this Jati endogamy become sharper with the ossification of the Varna system? Some take the explanation as Jatis arising out of the mixing of Varnas seriously, but that thesis (ludicrous imo) can be jettisoned without a second thought as Jatis exists even in those who are outside the Varna hierarchies. A potential answer may again lie in the doctrine of Karmic retribution.

Unlike the original simplistic Varna hierarchy – the concept of Karmic retribution enables hierarchies within hierarchies. Every Jati can be ranked within the Varna hierarchy based on the perceived moral inheritance (Karma) of their profession. Additionally, better births and even salvation are promised to the ones following their Jati-Varna Dharma. Thus Jatis would have both religious as well as occupational/cultural reasons for enforcing stricter endogamy which is far more believable than assuming these norms were somehow imposed across the subcontinent in pre-modern times by machinations of Dvija Varnas.

None of the above points are sufficient but all are necessary to explain the great vivisection of Indian society. Chronologically first the kinship-based (not gotra) groups were integrated into the expanding Aryavarta both culturally and genetically while the late Vedic abstractions of Varna and ritual purity began to take root in the orthodox Vedic traditions. When the rudimentary conceptions (Vedic or non-Vedic) of Karma and Rebirth were taken up by the Sramanas, taking them to a complex, philosophical, and rigorous extreme, they began to affect the Vedic philosophies.

In essence, the religious innovations of Karma, Rebirth and Dharma when coupled with pre-existing concepts of Varna, ritual purity, and tribal occupational endogamy conjure up a perfect storm that continues to flow through the blood of around 1/4th of humanity, in form of thousands of distinct streams. 


Post Script: 

  • What is not discussed above is the impact on the subcontinent of the violent Huna invasions which along with internal strife resulted in the collapse of the Gupta empire. The rapid de-urbanization which is speculated to have occurred in the fifth and sixth centuries would have also played a crucial role in this ossification. The second millennium with the Turkic invasions would have also played some role in the maintenance of this now-steady state.
  • I continue to have a lot of doubts about the above speculations, but when I read books on Indology and Indian prehistory, I find even more tenuous speculations (made by professional academics) than the ones I have proceeded to make in this essay. At least these speculations seem to align with the history alluded by the genetic data of caste (Or I have made them align).
  • I had thought along these lines even before reading about the interactions of Brahmanas and Sramanas but while reading the Greater Magadha thesis and following a YouTube seminar I thought the thrust of my current argument was staring me in the eye. I expected someone to draw the conclusions I had drawn, but was extremely surprised than no one has gone there.
  • The references for this essay are numerous and diverse to be noted here. Anyone interested please reach out to me.

 

M.J. Akbar’s Tinderbox & Aag ko Pani Ka Bhay: Thoughts on Indian Sub-continent.

A close childhood friend, a passionate and active supporter of Aam Aadmi Party-whilst he retains his deep personal and family linkages with the Congress party- his grandfather served as a minister in a Congress run Madhya Pradesh government in the 70s, is a regular sparring partner on arguments around ideological moorings of Modi Sarkar and its performance.

A comment he made in a recent argument, he was explaining to me why the opposition in India behaves the way it behaves and what is the opposition’s role, quoted a famous Hindi adage- Aag ko Pani ka bhay (The fear of water should be inculcated in every fire). Coming from someone who has been extensively involved in political mobilization and has had a close view of governance in this country, the comment is a remarkable summary of the sub-continent’s politics over the last 100 years.

The comment made me once again read M. J. Akbar’s seminal work on Pakistan- Tinderbox the Past and Future of Pakistan, relook at the structure of modern Indian state, its institutions and the incentives that drive the political parties in India.

Akbar’s book presents the intellectual foundation of the idea of Pakistan, the political land scape that nurtured the idea making the idea a potent force, eventually leading to the partition on the sub-continent on religious grounds and founding of an Islamic nation.

Akbar submits that the fall of Mughal empire and with the emergence of British as the de-facto rulers of the sub-continent, the Muslim elite that that ruled for over five hundred years felt politically disenfranchised and powerless.

One of the ways in which the elite responded to this defeat was by nurturing the idea that Akbar calls- Theory of Distance.  He credits the origin of this theory to Shah Walliullah a pre-eminent Islamic theological intellectual of 18th century. The theory claimed that the Muslims were suffering, because the difference between believers (the Muslims) and infidels (the Hindus) had blurred in India. They had abandoned the purity of their faith and forgotten they were a distinct entity.

As the British consolidated their rule over India in the late 18th and the 19th century, their policies encouraged this distinction and the Muslims increasingly felt the British were discriminating them vis-à-vis Hindus.

The British on their part, during the years in power, saw the Indian sub-continent not as one Nation but an amalgamation of multiple groups each with its own sectarian identity.

Their experience of 1857 made them consider Muslims as a political force that posed the gravest threat to their rule.

In the first half of the 20th century, they used the force of Muslim identity as a counter-weight to the nationalist movement which was primarily led by Hindu leaders.

The British stoked the fear of a numerically dominant Hindus will deprive Muslims of any power sharing. Starting with separate electoral colleges for Muslims, British support for ‘Theory of Distance’ culminated in Two Nations theory with partition and creation of Pakistan.

The British Raj ruled by the principles of pitting caste and sectarian identities against each other and using these identities bulwark against the freedom movement. Their encouragement and support of the Two Nations Theory has left a lasting legacy in the sub-continent.

Post 1947, the two nations have followed different trajectories.

Pakistan has slowly, steadily and surely moved in the direction that was envisioned for it, by founders of its idea. A state founded, as Akbar writes in his book- not only as a separate nation from Hindu India but also a laboratory and fortress of Islamic faith.

It’s laws today discriminate its citizens on religious grounds- only a Muslim by law can become its Prime Minister or President. It has enshrined Islamic practices in its constitution and its once Westernized Army, its most dominant institution, now has Faith, piety, Jihad for the sake of Allah, as its motto.

Although Islam could not hold the country together, its eastern wing seceded in 1971 to become Bangladesh, it has continued it march towards a homogenous Islamic country. Religious minorities made up for 31 % of Pakistan’s population in 1947, today they make for 4% of it’s population. Its current prime minister aspires to make Pakistan a modern-day version of Riyasat e Medina.

Akbar’s book introduces us to actors who gave birth to the ideas of Muslims as a separate nation, the need for an Islamic republic in the sub-continent and those who fought- politically and violently for fulfilment of these ideas.

It is unfortunate that we don’t read about these men- they are all men, in our school text books. Ideas of Walliullah, the Ulemas of Deoband, Maulana Madudi and Zia ul Haq have shaped the destiny of the sub-continent and continue to drive the actions of those running the countries in the sub-continent.

The book, well researched and mercifully does not read like a Phd thesis, fills this space remarkably. My one quibble with the book would be that it does cover the role played by Hindus in the emergence of two nations theory. The most towering leaders of the freedom movement were Hindus but they were avowedly secular and considered Muslims as equal stakeholders. Where and why did they fail in garnering mass support for their ideas of United Secular India.

India inherited the Raj in 1947. It opted for the Westminster style, first past the post model for it legislative function. Its bureaucratic service is modelled on the lines of British era Indian Civil Service and its police force even after 75 years of Independence follows the procedural manual laid down by the British. The Indian state continues to enforce The Indian Penal Code, enacted by the British in 1860 and India’s Supreme Court functions in English. Its successive governments not only inherited, and have largely preserved the British era state structure, they also inherited India’s sectarian fault lines.

Setting it up as a multi-party democracy, the founders of the modern Indian republic continued to see India the way British saw it- a union comprising of multiple religious and geographical identities. Shashi Tharoor captured the idea of the Indian Republic pithily when he compared India with a traditional Indian meal called –Thali.

A Thali is a traditional India meal comprising of an array of dishes in uneven quantity with each dish bringing its own distinct taste and flavor; a sum of its parts a Thali makes for a delicious wholesome meal with each dish contributing to the culinary experience.

The problem with looking and treating a country like a Thali whilst governing it as boisterous electoral democracy is that sooner than later politics of identity will kick in. Each sub-group will look to the trump its own interests over the interests of the larger group as a whole. Its design will make sure that the incentives of the politicians representing each sub-group, will always be aligned with achieving optimum output for the sub-group that they represent even if those goals are achieved at cost of the largest group- the nation state. While there is merit in the arrangement, why should the size of the largest group be allowed to dominate the smaller units, a side effect of this approach is that it leads to the politics of – Aag ko Pani ka Bhay.

In the absence of a unified Indian identity, crafted in a melting pot with its religious and geographical diversity as ingredients, we as a nation always end up playing the balancing act. Let us guard against the majoritarian tendencies of its majority community by vesting its religious and cultural institutions in the hands of a secular state. Let the dominant religious minority have its own personal laws otherwise it will feel alienated. Let us split the state purse on religious lines as a mark of our commitment to building a nation that treats all religions equally. Let us ride roughshod over rights of the real minority- the individual for the sake of a group’s sentiment. We have ingrained in our laws all these principles.

Design a state structure that looks as Indians first on what are their religious beliefs and then their caste denomination. Give them a polity that will thrive on amplifying their differences and pitting the fear of one identity against the other. Fail to build state capacity that can be a neutral arbitrator of conflicts between these identities or can forcefully maintain law and order and you will end up with the polity thriving, on politics of ‘otherization’ of the ideological and political opponents; and one that challenges state’s monopoly over violence repeatedly. Instead of supremacy of the law performing the role of Pani  to the Aag of anarchy or the will of the people acting as the Pani to the Aag of governments not delivering, politicians get to play one identity against the other.

The Indian sub-continent has been carved into three separate nations in the last 75 years in an attempt to balance Aag and Pani. While two of three nations are forging common national identity, for a better or for worse time will tell, the largest of three continues to stumble along. How soon its people come together and forge an identity that subsumes their smaller group identities- one wonder if its citizens even want to do that, will shape the destiny of the sub-continent in this century.

 

Browncast: Frank: a well informed Indian talks about India

Another BP Podcast is up. You can listen on LibsynAppleSpotify, and Stitcher (and a variety of other platforms). Probably the easiest way to keep up the podcast since we don’t have a regular schedule is to subscribe to one of the links above!

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This episode is somewhat unique in that the guest is anonymous. “Frank” tweets on twitter as @Frankisalegend1 and has a background in business and finance. He is well informed and well read and we had an interesting chat about Indian politics, recent history and his fascination with Steve McQueen.

 

 

Browncast: Chris Iwanek, India-analyst from Poland

Another BP Podcast is up. You can listen on LibsynAppleSpotify, and Stitcher (and a variety of other platforms). Probably the easiest way to keep up the podcast since we don’t have a regular schedule is to subscribe to one of the links above!

Krzysztof IwanekIn this episode Mukuna and Omar talk to Krzysztof Iwanek (aka Chris), who heads the Asia Research Center in the War Studies University in Warsaw, Poland. Chris also writes regularly for “The Diplomat” and is writing a book about the Ram Rajya Parishad Party (a small traditional Hindu party in India). We talk about Indian politics, his research and whatever else comes up..

The Parsis of Bombay

I just finished reading Michael Axworthy’s Iran: Empire of the Mind, one of Razib Khan’s recommended reads on Iran. The book serves as a useful primer on Iranian history for novices (such as myself), covering over 3,000 years of history in less than 300 pages. It lacks the literary flair and flourish of Tim Mackintosh-Smith’s magisterial Arabs. I found myself skimming through the latter parts of the book- the Pahlavi era and the subsequent Islamic Revolution- as I am broadly familiar with the events of the modern period.

 Pre-Islamic Persia was an advanced and sophisticated civilisation. Axworthy provides a good overview of the Achaemenid, Parthian and Sassanid periods of Iranian history. Ancient Iranians developed a complex and nuanced theology centred around the teachings of the prophet Zoroaster. Zoroastrianism was the predominant religion of the Sassanid Empire, one of the superpowers of the pre-Islamic world. All of this was to change with the arrival of Islam in the seventh century. The armies of Islam burst out of the Arabian Peninsula like a supernova and reduced the Sassanid Empire to dust. The Zoroastrian religion was swept away in this upheaval.

 One group of Zoroastrians escaped and sought refuge in Gujarat in Western India. These Zoroastrians are commonly known as the Parsis (from Pars or Persia). The essay below is a personal account of the Parsis of Mumbai. I had written it a decade ago. Reading Axworthy’s book brought some of those sweet memories back.  

Continue reading The Parsis of Bombay

Farmers vs Government: The Benefits and Limits of Democratic Redistribution

In its period of rapid economic growth, Indian democracy was successful in redistributing gains from urban centered, globalization led growth to the rural agrarian economy. The redistribution of available economic and administrative resources among competing groups is a primary concern of democratic politics. The situation is very different in non-democratic polities. In the figure below, we see that during globalization led growth, the ratio of per worker agrarian income to overall per capita GDP drops to less than a half in China and Vietnam, while it remained above or close to one in India and Indonesia. In other words, agrarian workers in one-party China and Vietnam became relatively poorer while their country became richer, agrarian workers in India and Indonesia did not incur a relative disadvantage.

Ratio of agricultural income per worker to overall GDP per capita for four Asian countries. In democratic, farmer majority India, the rural populace could always command a major share of the state’s redistributive efforts. After an initial decline from 1.4 to 1.0, the ratio in India stabilizes. In one-party China and Vietnam, the emphasis is on efficient agricultural production, not producers, and resources are invested heavily in urban areas.

In India the vast rural population with more than a century long experience in political mobilization, has pushed governments to spend money in rural areas. Redistribution has occurred via irrigation projects, rural roads, NREGA, subsidies, loan waivers and recently, direct income transfers. Any negative externality arising from agrarian activity has been borne by urban residents (eg: Delhi smog) but farmers were not penalized. Aside from rural-urban dynamics, democratic redistribution has led to a spatial equalization of agricultural productivity across the country.

Left image is district wise agricultural productivity in 2005. Since then, as the right image shows, agricultural growth has been concentrated in the most backward areas (dark red on left). The primary drivers have been irrigation projects and rural roads.

Though the condition of Indian cities is depressing, the upshot of a democracy dominated by the rural majority is comfortable food security. In fact, even though India’s use of pesticide is quite low by global standards, and its agricultural yields, cold-chain infrastructure sub-par, it has become a major net agricultural exporter. This is in huge contrast to China which has become a massive net importer of food. This is an important strategic advantage for India.

Net agricultural trade balance for India and China since 1961. China reverts to a net import situation as soon as its economy starts booming in the 1990s. in contrast India’s exports zoom in its period of economic growth.

There are signs, though, that India’s redistribution toolkit might be reaching the limits of its efficiency. Concurrently, a more reformist Indian government, awash with surplus grain, wants to re-orient farmers towards higher return crops or even an exit from farming. An urbanising electorate may also not be as willing to redistribute their hard earned tax monies towards their rural co-citizens.

The reorientation of the Punjab-Haryana farmer away from rice and wheat will require tact and persuasion, not ordinance fiat. The set patterns are very comfortable from the economic (MSP + diaspora remittances + armed forces recruitment) and psychological (we feed and secure the nation) perspective. The simple promise of higher incomes might not convince historically agrarian communities who havent fully embraced the money economy.

The Prime Minister has proven to be a masterful communicator. We have not yet seen the same skill in his dealings with the farmers. The approach there has oscillated between genuflection and disregard. The potential is there for the 200000 sq. km tract of well irrigated, fertile land in India’s north west to become the new California Central Valley (47,000 sq km). India can then become the land that greatly increases global access to premium agro-products like fresh, dry fruits and vegetarian protein. The latter (beef-mukt world) will also resonate with many urban supporters of the government and even the farmers themselves.

Book Review: Jugalbandi- The BJP Before Modi, by Vinay Sitapati

An oft mentioned take by the critics and opposition of the BJP and the ruling dispensation in India, on social media, reads- BJP and its supporters think that patriotism is a post 2014 phenomenon. A fair rejoinder to the take would be- opponents of the BJP and ruling dispensation think the fault lines in India and opportunist politicians aggravating these fault lines is a post 2014 phenomenon. The rejoinder got reinforced as I read Vinay Sitapati’s new book Jugalbandi- The BJP before Modi.

The book is on the careers and partnership of Atal Bihar Vajpayee and Lal Krishna Advani across their stints with the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), the Jan Sangh and with Bhartiya Janta Party (BJP).

The lives and careers of these two gentlemen coincide with the first six decades of the republic and in writing the story of their partnership, Sitapati gives us a ringside view of political developments that have shaped post-independence India.

Extensively researched, the book in part a biography of Vajpayee and Advani, commences with an introduction to their childhood and the early influences that shaped their lives- conservative Hindu and semi-urban mores for Vajpayee, growing up in the princely state of Gwalior, where the Maharashtrian rulers give RSS foothold and cosmopolitan, upper class mores that get overruled by the anxieties and aftermath of partition and nudge Karachi boy Advani towards the RSS.

As the duo evolve and grow in tandem with RSS and post-independence broader Hindu Nationalism, the book brings out the ideological pining, the organizational structure and years of grassroot work that paved the way for RSS, an organization banned in the aftermath of Mahatma Gandhi’s assassination, helping form the government at the Centre within thirty years of the ban.

Sitapati presents Hindu Nationalist ideology- spearheaded by the RSS as one convinced that Indian sub-continent is Hindu/Non-Abrahamic in nature, that lack of unity amongst the Hindus has caused hemorrhaging of territorial integrity and a fear of demographic change that will be disadvantageous to the Hindu majority. The purpose of the political arm of Hindu nationalism is to build a unified Hindu identity, overruling its various caste lines, that will help in maintaining the territorial sanctity and preserve Hindu cultural identity.

Sitapati alludes the success of RSS in becoming a major political force to its ability to work as a Unified entity, no individual is bigger than the organization and all disputes, owing to personality or ideological differences, are managed internally and away from the public eye. It’s ability to nurture and groom talent that helps communicate its point of view clearly to the world at large and talent that keeps the organization a well-oiled machinery and above all to an organizational design that fosters and forges a sense one family amongst its members.

Between the two of them Vajpayee and Advani help implement the RSS ideology, first with Jan Sangh and then later with BJP as they play the roles of the Orator- Vajpayee the supreme orator- within and outside the parliament and Organizer- Advani the quintessential party man and ace organization skills, with ear to the ground; Sitapati credits their Jugalabandi, fine-tuned with their long-standing personal friendship, that withstands the test of time, to the complementary skill sets that they brought to the partnership and their years spent as active workers of the RSS. A partnership that saw its high noon with Vajpayee serving as the Prime Minister and Advani as the deputy PM of the country.

In the book Vajpayee comes across as a wily politician, who seeks acceptance within and outside the parliament by sticking as close to the prevailing political consensus and what he feels is the popular mood. Advani comes across as an RSS man, who is happy to play second fiddle to Vajpayee till the late 1980s when he truly discovers himself as a political leader after the Rath Yatra. Sitapati contends they are both similar in their deference to the Nehruvian consensus- left of the centre on economy and extension of differential rights to religious minorities, till there is a ground up pushback to this consensus from populace at large.

It is in explaining the duos response to feedback from their voters that Sitapati presents an insight often overlooked by commentariat and ignored by polarized and angry participants on social media- politicians act in accordance with the wishes of their voters. They thrive and survive when they respond to what their voters wants.

Vajpayee and Advani, hard as it may be to believe, were laggards when it came to the Ayodhya movement, Indira and Rajeev Gandhi nurtured the movement before Vajpayee and Advani’s BJP took charge. The duos Jugalbandi that led to formation of an avowedly right-wing government, was the two of them letting go of their deference to Nehruvian consensus and whole heartedly aligning with mood of the nation. This submission leads to the question how much of present-day India is because of Modi or is Modi a product of present-day India.

The writing is lucid and the author sticks to the language akin to journalistic reportage. The expanse of the book- the collection of characters who make an appearance and events that unfold, are all written in the style of long form journalism, the book is unputdownable for new junkies and history buffs. The book however, does not help us understand what led to marginalization of Advani after 2004. What made the true organization man break the ideological connection- his statement calling Jinnah a secular leader on a trip to Pakistan in 2005? How much the disarray of BJP, between 2004–9, can be attributed to Advani? For the takeover of BJP by Modi and Shah is also one of the legacies of the Vajpayee Advani duo.

The big take away though is how political parties in a democracy respond to the public mood and the limited say they have in shaping the public opinion. Be it Indira Gandhi’s nationalization of banks, her polarizing the Hindu votes in elections in J&K or the support that Indira, Rajeev and the Congress party extended to the Ayodhya movement in its early years. V.P. Singh implementing recommendations of the Mandal commission report, Vajpayee accepting the indispensability of Modi to the BJP in Gujarat or Advani turbo-charging the Ayodhya movement. These are all instances of politicians responding to an incentive structure designed for catering to feedback from voters.

The ‘liberals’ and ‘resistance’ to current government in India perhaps need to relook at their methods of building a robust opposition. Op-eds in foreign publications, never ending columns on websites all written in a European language and tweets for an echo chamber can only go this far, opposition needs a political party that gets the pulse of the nation for there is no dearth of issues on which the Modi-Shah duo can be challenged.

P.S: Post reading the book I heard a podcast by Amit Varma where he talks to Vinay Sitapati about the book. The episode is available on Varma’s podcast channel The Seen and The Unseen, the episode is an excellent addition to understanding the Vajpayee Advani Jugalbandi.

 

Hindu Integration: Brahmanas and Gramadevatas

Annual Waari – Kalyani Bhogle

The pluralism in Hindu thought is often pegged back to the philosophically sophisticated एकं सत् विप्रा बहुधा वदन्ति  from Rgveda – first mandala. While that message underlies a lot of Hindu thought as we know it, it’s often overstated as it sounds sophisticated to the scholars/amateurs studying it. On the other hand, some hymns from the family books, particularly the Rgvedic Hymns 7-82 to 7-89 give a fascinating peek into the mind of the Bharata purohit Vasishta after the Dasarajna Yuddha. The hymns which are very repetitive mostly praise Indra and Varuna for the help given to Sudas(Bharatas) and the Trstus in the Dasarajna where the enemies also worshiped Indra. The important point to glean here is the different functional roles for which these deities are evoked. Indra for war, Varuna for prosperity, Aditi for light, etc. Varuna who is often paired with Mitra or Aryaman, gets paired with Indra here – which scholars (RN Dandekar, Michael Witzel, etc) see as conciliatory.

According to Dandekar, it was out of this experience of bhakti that Vasistha became essential in the conciliation of the Indra- and Varuna-cults and especially in “averting a schism in the Vedic community” by demonstrating “that Varuna and Indra were not antagonistic to each other but… essentially
complementary. ‘Indra conquers and Varuna rules.”

It is fair to speculate that such a conciliatory approach would go on to shape interactions the mainstream Vedic thought would have with non-Vedic deities as these hymns are the victor’s recollection. This conciliation and integration (A) appear much more pragmatic and economic than abstract ideals (B) espoused by एकं सत् विप्रा बहुधा वदन्ति or other sophisticated thought from Upanishads or Gita. For B to emerge and sustain, A appears essential. With A established, B in some form or other would follow as evidenced by other Eastern faith systems which also tend to be inclusive. It is fair to say a combination of A and B lays the foundation for the emergence of quintessential pluralism of Hinduism.

Let us segway into a short story: 

  • In a village in Vengurla (South Konkan), there was a local Saint/Warrior (non-Brahmin) who was extremely popular with the masses. 
  • He passed away and his devotees wanted to make a shrine/temple for him. A Kaashyap Brahmin who was a respected man in the village objected. His objection stemmed from the deification of a man (probably Shudra) and placing him on the same pedestal as the Devas. 
  • The Brahmin (who had quite a bit of clout in the village) opposed this Adharma with all his might but was almost overpowered by the “uncouth masses” in the story.
  • The landed or Kshatriya(ish) castes sided with the masses instead of the Brahmin and as a result, the Brahmin couldn’t prevent the deification.
  • Additionally, the humiliated Brahmin was expected to condone the practice and give the shrine his blessings.    
  • He couldn’t be part of this Adharma and hence left his lands, wealth, position, and went northeast and settled in Ichalkaranji near Kolhapur preferring his descendants living in abject poverty over condoning Adharma.
  • The replacement Gaargya Brahmin was happy to support the deification of the Saint. His descendants flourish economically in the village with large lands and respect but suffer spiritually.    
  • The shrine/temple remains popular to this day and most villagers have forgotten about this tale around the origin of that particular deity. 
  • The spiritual suffering of the current Brahmin was removed by the forgiveness of the descendent of the Kaashyap Brahmin some years ago.
Ravalnath

This is the fanciful tale of my great-great ancestor as told to me by my Chachera uncle (first cousin once removed). The Gotras are not important to this piece but the emphasis and obsession on Gotra is a salient feature of Brahmanism which deserves some attention. This tale is not very atypical. There have been other documented cases of such squabbles between village Hinduism and Brahmanism. This tale echoes many other tales from South Konkan – those of Ravalnath, Betal, etc. I am unsure if the deity in the tale of my ancestor is Ravalnath or Betal or something else entirely. But the contours of the tale are very similar. In both the cases of Ravalnath and Betal, there was initial resistance to these deities from local Brahmins in the medieval times – especially due to local traditions that involved blood sacrifices and other things frowned upon by Brahmins, but over time these deities got wider acceptance – even among local Brahmins. BetalWhile Ravalnath is a Kuladevata for most Goans (all castes), Betal is a Gramadevata of some local communities. Vithoba, the popular God of Pandharpur( the annual Waari) is a very important figure of the Bhakti movement. Religious scholar and Sahitya Akademi winner RC Dhere who extensively studied Vithoba also hypotheses pre Vedic origins of Vithoba. Khandoba is another deity whose origins are similarly muddy with a range of theories explaining him as the fusion of earlier deities including Kaal Bhairav. Interestingly in the Puranic tale of Kaal Bhairav “his struggle for the atonement of Brahmanhatya” is central. Khandhoba of Jejuri remains a deity for not only the Sudra castes, but Brahmins, Jains, Lingayats, and even some Muslims including the patronage of comparatively tolerant Bijapur Sultan Ibrahim Adil Shah. While it would be tempting to dismiss this as some tenuous Donigerish take, the sheer numbers of such stories spread across the country strengthen the hypothesis.

Coming back to the descendants of the uncompromising Brahmin from Vengurla. Today my extended family proudly worships all the Gramadevatas from Ichalkaranji whose origins may be very similar to the one whose foundation my ancestor had objected to. Ironically most of my paternal family follow a plethora of local Saints (in addition to the popular Bhakti Saints), whose tales of the origin have occurred within living memory and hence are far easier to negate. I would not go into rants about these Saints (esp Gajanan Maharaj) whose followers number in millions. While some traditional elite Hindus (especially Urban) are known to have disparaging views of Saints & local deities, mostly these distinctions have weathered away. It is not unlikely to find Hindus who fast on Mondays for Shiva also fast on Thursdays for some local Saint (who mostly claim intellectual or avatarish descent from Dattatraya).  Despite some initial friction, the Brahmanical thought has made its peace with such traditions. Most scholarship refers to this as – the local traditions (non-Vedic) being co-opted by Brahmanism. IMO this is an incomplete way of looking at it as it conflates organic integration which typically occurs over generations with the realization of some highly foresighted plan. Typically humans are not foresighted enough to pull off multi-generational machinations. From a multi-generation evolutionary paradigm, these would make sense but not if you take a snapshot at any particular moment in history.

With this background, we go into realms of pure speculation and come to the Post Vedic deities in Hinduism. The origin of some of these deities is highly contested – especially that of Shiva. While the Rgvedic Rudra is often said to be the precursor of Shiva, the meaning of Shiva is certainly in contrast with Rudra. Whether the Pashupati seal from IVC or other Proto-Lingas are Proto-Shiva or not will likely not be resolved till we decipher the IVC script, but these speculations seem very plausible. Even Parpola doesn’t dismiss them in his Roots of Hinduism. In addition, Parpola makes a good argument in the IVC origins of Durga with seals of Tiger riding goddesses from Kalibangan. Similarly, we can say the Dravidian Murukan and the Vedic Skanda gave rise to the Karthikeya we know today. We still don’t have any intelligent speculation about the origins of Ganesha (other than some references to Gajapati), buts it fair to assume the elephant-headed god is a pretty late addition to the Hindu pantheon. The aim here is not to discuss and speculate the origins of these deities but to guess the mechanisms of integration of these deities and customs into Brahmanism. Brahmins had a huge ritualistic/moral capital, but given the tenuous or conflicting relations they had with the Kshatriyas and other dominant castes (as seen through numerous puranic stories especially those of Parshuram) it is fair to assume Brahmins would not often get their way with subtracting traditions they found Adharmic or uncouth, yet they could continue to shape these traditions from inside with participation. Pressure both from the masses and Brahmins would’ve actively shaped the integration of these traditions for centuries to the point where it’s often hazy where Brahmanism ends and where “Non-Brahmanical” traditions begin. (This probably happened with Sramana or Proto-Sramana traditions competing with Brahmanism but that is a different discussion)

IVC goddess riding Tiger

While it is generally said Brahmanical thought absorbed the local traditions, it is equally or more appropriate to say that the village Hinduism made space for Brahmanism & tamed it – into the diverse and plural fold and this process was not complete for the entire subcontinent when Mahmud of Ghazni attacked Somnath. Scholars like to emphasize Adi-Shankara’s Advaita and Mutts, Upanishads, Rgvedic “एकं सत् विप्रा बहुधा वदन्ति” as it appears sophisticated and intellectual. However, the tendency of humans to pragmatically negotiate the boundaries of their traditions (in absence of exclusionary universalist ideas) when they already have multiple modes of worship tends to be underemphasized as it appears uncouth or folk. Roman religion easily absorbed Isis and Cybele into the Roman fold but couldn’t absorb the God of Abraham. In contrast, when Christianity conquered Europe it absorbed the old gods into the Christian fold as Saints but kept them subordinate to the one true god. However, Shiva and Ganesh did not bow done to Indra, and by the time of the Puranas, the mighty Vedic Indra was reduced to an insecure and somewhat petty King of Gods.

Maybe the Brahmin elites & Sanskrit managed to maintain a cohesive identity-based on sacred geography only because they themselves were tamed in similar mechanisms by the natives of the geography. If yes, then Hindu Pluralism and Syncretism is as much a legacy of numerous lost stories as it is of the philosophical moorings of the Vedas, Itihasas, and Upanishads. 

Postscript:

I had been thinking along these lines since my discussion with Mukunda and Omar on the Brown-cast about the roots of Indian pluralism. While commenting please stick to the topic and be civil & constructive. I will delete off comments for this piece.

Rape Culture, Indian Edition

There is news about another rape case (alleged rape case?) making wavers in India and Twitter regular @conradkbarwa posted some excerpts from a book by poet and journalist Nirupama Dutta that you can see below:

 

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The anecdotes listed in these pages are obviously very disturbing and shocking, and I have no doubt that even if Nirupama moves in unusually nasty company, many such cases do occur across the Indian subcontinent and in most of them the police are yet another source of oppression (and sometimes even a second rape in the police station). The excerpts above are from East Punjab, so from a land that we are not entirely unfamiliar with (apart from whatever similarities exist across east and west Punjab, my in-laws are from villages near Ludhiana). It made me think about our own Punjab and the various anecdotes I have heard about rape of lower class women in villages as well as the use of sweepers and servants for sexual favors in urban areas. And of course, about the well publicized recent rape cases in Pakistani Punjab and about Razib Khan’s comment somewhere that “THIS is what a real rape culture looks like”. Which led to a tangential question in my mind: what are the similarities and differences between rape culture in Pakistani Punjab and Indian Punjab? 

  1. Differences in terms of actual prevalence and mechanics? Is such rape more common? less common? about the same? What figures do we have? How reliable are they? What is the trendline? How does this compare to other societies? 
  2. Differences in how it is framed: rapes in Pakistan tend to be framed as either class oppression (mostly by leftist/liberal commentators) or as “declining morals due to Indian movies, western influence, modernization, etc” (Islamist and/or traditional commentators). Rapes in India tend to be framed as class oppression too at times, but it seems that liberals and even traditional leftists in India (or about India, this is also true of most sympathetic Western commentators) seem very likely to blame “Brahminism” and the caste system as very specifically Indian forms of rape culture, not comparable to similar atrocities that happen to lower class populations in other countries (though I assume that population numbers being what they are, most actual rapists in East Punjab are  likely to be Jats or other local elites, Sikhs rather than Hindus, and rarely Brahmins). There is also a traditionalist view in India (that “lax morals, westernization, bollywood ” etc are to blame) and of course Hindutva types will add “love jihad” or “Muslim/Turkic colonization” to the list of putative causes. What are the most important causes in your view? 
  3. Which brings me to the real trigger for this post: Do you think the focus on caste in East Punjab (as in Nirupama Dutta’s book) and its relative absence in Western Punjab stories reflects a real difference in how easy it is to rape poor girls and get away with it? I know most Pakistanis will say this is exactly the case and that we are much better off since we are Muslims and any caste-ism that exists in us is a legacy of Hinduism, is less than it is in East Punjab, is fading fast and is the reason we have less rapes already, while Indian society will remain stuck in rape culture because of “Brahminism”.  Of course this is a question that in principle can be answered. What is the prevalence of the rape/sexual abuse of lower class women in Pakistani Punjab vs East Punjab? If it is really lower, then it needs an explanation. If it is not lower, then it may be that the focus on Brahminism is taking the public discussion (and possible solutions) into unhelpful areas? Or is it Pakistan that needs to talk more about caste rather than class to catch up to the reality? 
  4. I am not revealing any secrets by adding that this is connected to a personal feeling that left/liberal discourse is focused on political needs (defeating BJP/Hindu revivalism in this case)  and when you add that the usual human thing of finding a convenient narrative and beating it to death, it is possible that Pakistanis are actually a little better at analyzing their own society because they don’t have to carry this burden. But I am aware that this may be an extension of “grass is greener on the other side” on my part, and it is in fact the case that conversion to Islam (or “Indus man superiority”) has made Pakistanis less rapey than Indians. But if this is the case, why are Sikhs still rapey? does Brahminism work on them more than it does on Punjabi Muslims? (I am also aware that 6 out of ten readers will misunderstand what I am trying to ask here, but that is par for the course and I am more interested in the 4 who do get the question).

Fire away…

Will the Sikhs Save India?

This topic came up a few days ago on Twitter because I happened to tweet:

 

The original tweet I was quoting is about the arrest of a Sikh leader who had gone to express solidarity (and serve tea) with the Shaheen Bagh protesters. I know nothing about him and have no idea if he is a Khalistani or a leftist or just a random guy who wanted to be nice to the protesters, so my tweet was not about him, but what was it about then? Several friends asked me this question (and others jumped in with their own theories, as expected on twitter), so i thought i would write a quick post to try and explain my quip.. Continue reading Will the Sikhs Save India?