The Politics of Knowledge And Caste
By Braj Ranjan Mani
20 March, 2012
In the pre-modern world, the predominant form of asset to production was land; capital became paramount with the Industrial Revolution; today the main asset is increasingly seen to be knowledge, information and technology. This trend which is pervasive today, carries the connotation that rights, status, privileges and power that were earlier based on birth and the will of God have now been replaced by the secular provenance of talent, technology and knowledge. It is said an individual's status and worth is determined no longer by membership in a family, caste, or class but by sheer talent, gifts and capacities. That today's globalised society is so beautifully organised that no power on earth can keep good and gifted men, women and children down. Such a rosy understanding of the contemporary world is part of a bigger bourgeois-brahmanic propaganda that with the liberal—(read) corporate—democracy and free market economy we are witnessing a great civilisational movement from darkness to light, from the closed, conservative society of the past to the open-ended globalisation of today. Pop philosophers of the new regime are singing hosannas on how humanity and society is reaching, or has already reached, the end of history, the end of politics, the end of ideology. In this context, w e often hear that knowledge, not weapons, is the currency of power today. And we often hear terms like knowledge society , knowledge economy and knowledge industry to underline inclusiveness, justice and fairness of the brave new world. With the triumph of knowledge and market forces, they say, the world has become free, fair and just, and there is no greater foolishness than raking up old and dead issues like caste, class, and patriarchy.
In the last century, as colonial imperialism was coming to an end, the empire-loving Winston Churchill had fondly predicted, “The empires of the future are going to be the empires of the mind.” More recently, the same point was made by social scientist Ernest Gellner, but with a different emphasis and a hint of dark undertone, “At the basis of modern social order stands not the executioner, but the professor.”
The truth is, empires of the mind are not a novelty, a new phenomenon but the emergence of a new form of an old power— knowledge power . The rise of the so-called knowledge power is the growth and evolution of a cerebral trend that took root with the very foundation of civilisation. The fact is, all hierarchies —and especially the inequalities of caste, class, patriarchy, etc.— were built on the claims of knowledge (both of the secular and supernatural religious variety). This well-concealed fact must be underlined and mercilessly debated if we are really serious to make our world exploitation-free. Marx underlined it when he said, “The ruling ideas of society are the ideas of the ruling class.” Our understanding of complicity between knowledge and power (from an anti-hierarchical perspective) is rather new, still confined to the academia, and as such it has yet to become a commonsense, a part of people's mental furniture. This does not mean, as many erroneously believe, that knowledge power itself is a new development. As early as the 16th century, Francis Bacon had said, “knowledge itself is power.”
Although Bacon gave it a compelling intellectual articulation (which caught the postmodernist imagination in the last 50 years or so), this understanding was not original to Bacon; many intellectual-writers in fact had pointed this out in one way or another in earlier centuries. The brahman in ancient India , for example, not only rapturously chanted the mantra of shabda brahma hai (word is the supreme power) but also went on to put it into practice. They monopolised shabda-shakti as their brahma-astra (the ultimate weapon) to subjugate the whole society in a caste mould in which everything was rigged in their favour. The dharma they envisioned was the cosmic order maintained by the correct performance of the sacrifice, which in turn was dependent on the maintaining of the requisite social hierarchy. In other words, the brahman would not establish dharma (which implied righteousness as well as justice) unless the brahman himself presided over it, unless dharma upheld caste hierarchy, unless righteousness was bound to caste order, unless righteousness was bound to political power, unless justice was one with danadaniti (rule of force) and matsyanyaya (the law of big fish swallowing small ones). All this was done on the strength of knowledge power—the knowledge which blurred the boundary between faith and reason, hierarchy and harmony and whose sole goal was power, by hook or by crook.
Similarly, Plato, the doyen of Western philosophy, (to paraphrase Derrida's words) would exclude the possibility of realising an ideal state as long as philosophers like him would not reign over it, as long as the aristocrats, the dynasts who dispose of power are not philosophers—that is, as long as philosophy is not bound to political power; in other words, as long as justice is not bound to power, as long as justice is not one with force. * [For Jacques Derrida's quote, see Simon Glendinning, Derrida ( London : Oxford University Press, 2011), p. 88.] What is remarkable and common in the Platonic-brahmanic intellectual tradition is the tradition of knowledge-construction which is bound to political power, a tradition of education in which justice and morality are bound to power, privilege and wealth. And this tradition of knowledge-construction, thanks to the clever, collusive obfuscation of modern pundits, still flourishes all over the world, albeit in a brand new language and grammar.
Today, the corrupting nature of power is well-known, well-theorised, and widely accepted, but the understanding of knowledge-power nexus still remains obscure and by and large hidden from the public view. Sorely missing, from the viewpoint of the oppressed, is a public debate on the politics of knowledge, and how it has been a tool of social and political control in the hands of the ruling forces, from the very beginning of civilisation. Instead, there is a dominant tendency to accept even closed and conservative education as good and desirable, and knowledge is, by and large, still mistaken as wisdom and virtue, without realising that “all knowledge that is divorced from justice must be called cunning,” as Socrates warned.
It is this more or less intact goodwill in favour of received education and knowledge that makes the most reactionary and oppressive forces sing the hosannas of knowledge in order to hide massive discriminations and disparities in today's world. There is need to debate afresh and vigorously the dark side of knowledge, and how this side—the abuse of knowledge—has been a constant in human history. There is need to hammer home the point how some of the world's leading knowledge-makers invoked the laws of nature, the hand of providence, the ruse of reason in a variety of ways, and did whatever they could to institutionalise human hierarchy. It is notable that the word hierarchy by its very etymology (in Greek) associates two ideas: “ruling” and “the sacred.” But even a cursory glance at history will reveal that ruling, or power, has been far more aligned with the profane than the sacred. In other words, the hierarchy of high and low was created by the powerful few to perch themselves atop the social pyramid and divide, rule and exploit the many who were pushed down to the bottom. This exploitation was material and mental, real and symbolic. The violence was not just social and economic but also moral and intellectual, and in fact there was a symbiosis between them. The construction of caste and its consequences is a living example of this epistemic violence. But before we come to the nexus of knowledge with caste, let's first understand, in broad brushstrokes, the duality and politics of knowledge.
Duality and Abuse of Knowledge-Construction
The light of knowledge dispelling the darkness of life is a universal and exquisite dream of humanity. We celebrate the classic rivalry between the letters and the arms, assuming that they are worlds apart, representing two altogether different value systems. All too often, we naïvely assume that the word represents the noble and the virtuous through which we can take on the killing machines, the forces of evil and oppression. We are in passionate denial that words can also be barbarous and wielded like swords. But history—and the unfolding present—gives us example after example of how letters and weapons can and do co-exist—with equal exuberance and earnestness—and the two can work in tandem and play havoc. Or, one can hold a scripture in one hand and a sword in the other—a murderer can wear the mask of religion and can kill people in the name of God. All words are not Buddha or Jesus' words that impart wisdom and healing touch to all humanity. Words are also employed by a Manu and a Hitler to spread casteism and racism. Words are employed to express both fair and foul, helpful and hurtful. One can use words to unite and integrate, love and forgive as well as to destroy and divide, hate and humiliate. Unqualified worship of words—even sacred words, not just satanic verses—is dangerous.
Knowledge is not wisdom or certitude, nor is its use necessarily disinterested or noble. Though it is seldom underlined, the long-standing nexus of knowledge with power and wealth has been the main source of hierarchies and oppressions since the Vedic age. Those who own wealth or control the means of production hold the real levers of power and turn knowledge into a privilege and a further, cynical justification of their wealth and power. As such, increasing knowledge does not often lead to a more evolved and inclusive worldview, but to a more cunning, covert and compelling defence of the established power. The quest of science, arts, excellence—the business of knowledge-construction in general—can indeed uplift some and humiliate others, for it carries the potential to divide as well as unite humanity. The knowing few who assume the role of telling fellow people the reality of the world and how things really work acquire the potential power to mislead or manipulate them. As biologist Humberto Maturana has pointed out, “When one human being tells another human what is ‘real,' what they are actually doing is making a demand of obedience. They are asserting that they have a privileged view of reality.” * [Cited by Peter M Senge in Preface to David Bohm's On Dialogue ( London & New York : Routledge, 2004), p. xi.] For this and similar reasons, it is important to grasp the production and politics of knowledge, especially its historical role in justifying or playing footsie with inequalities of caste, race, gender, class, and other oppressive categories within a country or of the races or peoples around the world. This fact—the dark side of knowledge—has been erased, suppressed, rendered invisible by the ruling classes around the world.
It will be in order to have a quick look at what knowledge is and how it is constructed before we move to critique its politics and paradox. Defining knowledge is difficult, but a functional definition is feasible—like the one provided by Oxford Dictionary of English : “facts, information, and skills acquired through experience or education; the theoretical and practical understanding of a subject.” Proven facts or information are incontestable but “the theoretical and practical understanding of a subject” can—and does—vary from person to person and create controversy. Knowing how knowledge is constructed, however, can help us better grasp the treacherous nature of knowledge, making us aware about the limitations of positivistic claims of clear, certain and perfect knowledge. Anyone can see that sense, reason, testimony and memory are four main sources of knowledge-construction. All the four sources of knowledge, however, are fallible—our senses can deceive us; our reasoning can be unsound; the testimony of others can knowingly or unknowingly mislead us; and our memories can be partial, selective or distorted.
Knowledge can be False and More Dangerous Than Ignorance
As our individual powers of perception about the world are limited, we depend on the understanding provided by experience, observations and theorisation of eminent and intelligent people about the human and natural world that are subsequently written or recorded either by themselves or others. To be persuasive and widely acceptable, knowledge has to be well theorised, well reasoned, and well articulated. The knowledge thus produced with a collective and well-documented memory—in the form of tracts, books, journals, or new electronic databases—becomes a prized human possession. But still there is no guarantee that our knowledge cannot be false. Our knowledge, even if it is standard or commonly accepted, is not always flawless, disinterested, or true for all time. Moreover, false knowledge is not solely a product of human failure (as in the realm of science); some individuals or groups for selfish reasons can knowingly and perversely construct false ideology, as we can see in many instances of social and political issues. Thus, false knowledge, or fabrication, is far more dangerous than ignorance.
As early as the fifth century bce , Buddha sounded a profoundly sceptical note regarding construction of truth and knowledge, and suggested some universal criteria to avoid the pitfalls of false knowledge.
Do not believe in hearsay.
Do not believe in traditional ideas or doctrines because they have been handed down to you through generations.
Do not believe in a scripture, surmise or axiom because they are accepted by many.
Do not believe in specious reasoning , or a bias to which you have become attached by habit. Do not believe merely on the seeming authority of elders, teachers and sages .
Have deliberation and analyse, and when the result agrees with reason, and conduces to benefit and happiness of one and all, accept it and live up to it. * [Kalama Sutta, Anguttar Nikaya 3.65. Translation mine.]
Many centuries down the line, the empiricist Roger Bacon ( c .1214 - 94), almost in the same vein, pointed out four major obstacles to grasping truth , which hinder even the wisest of people and hardly allow anyone to win a clear title to knowledge, namely, submission to faulty and unworthy authority; influence of custom; popular prejudice; and concealment of our own ignorance accompanied by the ostentatious display of our knowledge. No wonder, philosopher Pritim A Sorokin came to this sad conclusion, “The history of human knowledge is a cemetery filled with wrong empirical observation, false reasonings, and pseudo intuitions.” * [Pritim A Sorokin, “Integralism Is My Philosophy,” in Whit Burnett, ed., This Is My Philosophy (New York: Harper and Brothers, 1957), p. 181.]
Eugene Meehan makes an illuminating point that knowledge, at the most fundamental level, is organised experience, and, thus, “the search for knowledge is a search for patterns of organisation. The organisation is always created and not discovered.” * [Eugene Meehan, cited by Kenneth Hoover and Todd Donovan, The Elements of Social Scientific Thinking , 6th ed. (New York: St. Martin's Press, 1995), p. 47.] Knowledge, thus, is a social construction of reality—made under historical circumstances rather than simply found in nature. As knowledge is produced by people, both individually and collectively, it is not a loose-leaf notebook of proven facts that cannot be questioned. Any knowledge, especially social and political knowledge, is open to further inquiry because the questions we ask and the answers we get are shaped by context and location.
Buddha was forced to assail the Vedic-brahmanic knowledge-system—which still fascinates the pundits around the world—for its fundamental immorality. Rejecting the brahmanic claims to supreme knowledge and authority as “pernicious to people's well-being,” Buddha cautioned the people that what mattered was not the letter but the spirit, not flawless pronunciation but the overall meaning, not one's inherited exclusionary punditry but one's inclusive, compassionate understanding. In a different context, Euripides, the classical Greek dramatist, made the same point in fewer words: To know much is not to be wise . * [Euripides, “The Bacchae,” The Bacchae and Other Plays (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1954), p. 204.] And Socrates who naively equated knowledge with virtue was wise enough to clarify elsewhere: All knowledge that is divorced from justice must be called cunning. * [Socrates, cited in John Ralston Saul, On Equilibrium ( New Delhi : Penguin, 2004), p. 74.]
Double-Edged Sword of Knowledge and Social Darwinism
Knowledge can be both healing and oppressive, and more often than not a messy mixture of the two. Encompassing the potential for both the noble and the ignoble, knowledge can lead to good as well as evil consequences. For this reason, the history of knowledge, contrary to the popular perception, has had a rather messy, if not adversarial, relationship with the aspiration of human liberation. Even our objective knowledge, like other things in life, is what we make use of it. Very little depends upon our knowledge, and everything upon our practical and political demands or upon our will for framing principle or policy that we decide to adopt. One thing, however, stands out sharply: removal of false knowledge is necessary but not enough for human liberation; if our flawless knowledge does not enlarge our empathy, it does nothing morally, and detached from humane values and ethics, it acquires the potential to be dangerous.
People often extol the glories of knowledge but its politics has a much bloodier background than war. Take, for example, the case of a cunning concoction of knowledge and politics known as scientific determinism or Social Darwinism—and its various new and sophisticated variants that have sprung up in recent times—that openly or covertly justifies human hierarchies and oppression as natural and scientific because the human world, according to its enthusiasts, cannot, and should not, escape the hierarchies and cruelties in nature. The process of applying the rule of the jungle to the affairs of humanity, however, did not begin in the mid-nineteenth century with Charles Darwin's theory of evolution when it was turned into a wonderful tool for justifying racism, imperialism and violence by the social reactionary. The genesis of Social Darwinism may be seen much, much earlier when humans were still in some ways a part of the jungle. Its pioneers were the individuals who envisioned the philosophy of hierarchy, invented the dogmas of caste, race and patriarchy, and laid the intellectual-moral foundation of a vicious human civilisation, dividing the human world into castes or races like the different species of animal kingdom. Under different guises and nomenclatures, Social Darwinism—its articulation, justification and promotion in theory and practice—began with the Vedic-brahmanic philosophy of caste hierarchy in the ancient India and the Platonic-Aristotelian advocacy of slavery in the ancient Greece . Apparent differences in articulations apart, both caste and brahmanism in India and slavery and racism in the West were founded on the caste-patriarchal matrix of grinding down the “weaker sex” and working class. India's pundits who glorified caste hierarchies on both natural and supernatural grounds and the Greek philosophers who justified slavery in their quest for “truth, beauty and good life” had not only paved the way for a deceptive intellectual discourse (which continues to flourish in various schools of scientific determinism, religious obscurantism, and neoconservative theories) but also much of the dehumanisation and bloodshed in human history . The brahmanic-Platonic philosophy spearheaded a method—a cold-blooded intellectual device—of killing people without shedding blood.
A little knowledge is a dangerous thing, Alexander Pope famously said. But even a lot of knowledge, the veritable treasure house of knowledge, can be dangerous if it is seceded from ethics. Knowledge becomes treacherous, not just inane and barren, when it insulates itself from justice and social responsibility. The people, to give a telling example, who made the atom bombs that destroyed Nagasaki and Hiroshima were some of the finest scientists of their time. But they were easily purchased by the American regime to make the technology of mass killing. And they were no exceptions; only exceptional scientists or knowledge-wielders have ever refused to be bought over by the powers that be. Many eggheads are known to have sold their precious knowledge and expertise for a price. The likes of Hitler and Mussolini did not have to do much to drag in the entire scientist community of their countries into their nefarious schemes. Likewise, innumerable poets, artists and intellectuals are known to have squandered their best talents on pleasing their powerful patrons. A Firdausi, a self-seeking scholar, writing a Shahnama , a hagiography of a powerful charlatan, for a few gold coins, or maybe a fortune, has never been out of fashion.
Let the truth be told: few intellectuals have displayed virtue to withstand the highest bidder. Examples of complicities of intellectuals with the powerful, and together invoking truth, reason, or morality to plunder, loot and murder are scattered all over history. The East India Company (which turned many countries into colonies through its bloodstained politics—all in the name of commerce, and laid the foundations of the modern world's biggest empire) did not just manage to buy off the politicians back home but also recruited some of the country's leading intellectuals, such as Thomas Macaulay, Edward Strachey, Thomas Love Peacock, and both James and John Stuart Mill. Some eggheads are known to have sold their souls even for free. Else, how does one explain slavery and racialist thought in Carlyle and colonialism in Ruskin? There is no dearth of the Rudyard Kiplings who extol empire-building as white man's burden , and its savage wars of peace as an enlargement of the horizon of intellect and experience. And there is no shortage of the Radhakrishnans, the modern brahmanic wodsmiths, who see the highest values, theological openness, toleration and pluralism in caste and brahmanism. ( India celebrates the Teachers' Day on Radhakrishnan's birthday.)
A lie is an allurement, a fabrication that can be embellished into a fantasy; it is much more interesting and profitable than uncomfortable and subversive truth. The educated elitist knows this, and contributes his or her mite in finding novel ways of avoiding, concealing, or distorting reality. One of the greatest achievements of the modern times, to borrow Jules Henry's phrase, is “the enormous variety of ways of compelling language to lie.”
The history of use and abuse of knowledge is yet to be fully assessed and written. Three is no ambiguity, though, that words have played a deeply dual—constructive as well as destructive—role in human history. In Aldous Huxley's phrase, “Thanks to words, we have been able to rise above the brutes, and thanks to words, we have often sunk to the level of demons.” * [Cited in Gregory Bassham, et al., eds Critical Thinking , Second ed. ( Boston : McGraw Hill, n.d.), p. 119.] The dominant class has a long and shameful history of wielding words as a weapon to dehumanise children of the lesser gods. The sword is mightier with the pen. Conquering and coercion of the supposedly lesser humans become much easier with cognition that validates the oppressive system. This is not to say that good people have not used words for freedom, justice and human rights but to underline and bring home the point that knowledge has been a major tool of social control in the hands of the wily and the wealthy.
False Knowledge Foundational to the Construction of Caste
The dark side of knowledge is clearly visible in the construction, institutionalisation and normalisation of caste, “a diabolical contrivance to suppress and enslave humanity,” as Ambedkar, one of the greatest anti-caste intellectuals, angrily but aptly put it. * [Ambedkar, in Vasant Moon, ed., Dr Babasabeb Ambedkar: Writings and Speeches , vol. 7 ( Bombay : Government of Maharashtra ), p. 239.] Our understanding of caste will remain forever incomplete without understanding the politics of knowledge that nurtured and normalised it from the dim and distant past to the present time. I rrespective of its origin, no one can deny that caste as a system of organised and graded hierarchy—with “an ascending order of reverence and a descending order of contempt,” to quote Ambedkar again—was an elitist construction. Caste may or may not have pre-brahmanic origin, as many social scientists quibble, but there is little doubt that caste as an archetype of social stratification was not the handiwork of those who were not its beneficiaries, namely the shudras, atishudras, and adivasis.
The brahman conceived and institutionalised caste system and patriarchy, involving physical and psychological violence against the lowered castes and women, on the grounds that hierarchies represent an “integral part” of nature, reflected in the food chain in which the big fish devours the small one and this matsya nyaya , the natural order of things, they insisted, had a divine sanctity. * [For elaboration of this point, see my book Debrahmanising History (New Delhi: Manohar, 2005) Chapter I.] Might was not just right but also marvellously moral. Thus, justice became inequality, and was made the bedrock of the brahmanic religion and culture centred on caste. The system of caste was basically a religious hierarchy that encompassed the economic and the political, as Dumont has demonstrated in his outstanding work, Homo Hierarchicus. * [Louis Dumont, Homo Hierarchicus: The Caste System and Its Implications , Revised English ed. (New Delhi: Oxford University Press, 1998).] But what is often cast aside by the caste elite (who drive and dominate the academia and knowledge-construction, despite some democratic challenges from below in recent years) is the fact that caste is first and foremost an intellectual—and moral —construction, beginning with its cunning naturalisation-sacralisation in the Rig-vedic Purusha-sukta.
In the Vedic myth, the wheel of civilisation comes into motion with the creation of a hierarchical Body Politic when the cosmic Purusha , the Primordial Person, split himself—and divided humanity—into four asymmetrical castes, in which brahman is the head, kshatriya the arms, vaishya the thighs and shudra the feet. It is notable that the word veda itself means knowledge—from the root vid , “know.” To the ancient brahman, Veda is knowledge, the divine knowledge whose testimony— vedapramanyam —is enough to separate truth from falsehood. Revered as apaurusheya , “not of human origin,” by its votaries, Vedas are eternal, imperishable and indestructible. The Vedic approval and disapproval is the ultimate test of good and bad, desirable and undesirable. So much so that anything, including violence can be resorted to uphold the Vedic injunctions. As the old brahmanic saying goes, Vaidiki hinsa hinsa na bhavati —Vedic violence (epistemic violence) is no violence. Though this violent line of thinking did not go unchallenged, the Vedic-brahmanic forces ultimately prevailed over contesting ideologies. What gave the brahman a decisive edge over their critics—and challengers of caste—was the former's no-holds-barred politics of knowledge. The brahmanical caste order was achieved through, more than anything else, a ruthless and dirty politics of knowledge—a politics that continues to this day.
Let us briefly map the outline of this brahmanic politics—a multi-pronged politics centred on the construction of false knowledge to legitimise and normalise caste. In the first millennium bce, t here were several socio-religious communities and schools of thoughts, known as samanas , who challenged the forces representing what we know today as caste and brahmanism. To quote Romila Thapar, the samana believed in universal egalitarian ethics which radically “differed from the tendency to segment religious practice by caste which was characteristic of brahmanism.” * [Romila Thapar, “Syndicated Hinduism,” in G-D Sontheimer and H Kulke, eds., Hinduism Reconsidered ( New Delhi : Manohar, 2001), p. 58.] It was from this samanic and intellectually fecund community that Buddhism and Jainism arose, and posed the challenge to the authority and normative prescriptions of the brahman. The samana-brahman antagonism was so acute that the grammarian Patanjali likened it to the hostility between the mongoose and the snake. The author of Mahabhashya uses the example of samana-brahman to illustrate an antagonistic compound— samahaar dvandva —and remarks that the opposition of the two was eternal— yesham cha virodhah shashvatika. * [Uma Chakravarti, The Social Dimensions of Early Buddhism (New Delhi: Munshiram Manoharlal, 1996), p. 41; Thapar, ibid., p. 51.] The two contending systems were so powerful before and during the Buddha's time that the period as a whole has been characterised by B M Barua, in his Pre-Buddhist Indian Philosophy , as the “Age of the Shramanas and the Brahamanas.” * [Chakravarti, ibid.] This samanic-brahmanic rivalry for religio-cultural supremacy continued for centuries. The Buddhist and Jain texts, the inscriptions of Ashoka, the description of Megasthenes and the account of the Chinese pilgrim Hsuan Tsang, covering a period of a thousand years, all refer to the two main religious categories—the samana and the brahman. “This indigenous view of the dichotomous religions of India is referred to even at the beginning of the second millennium ad by Alberuni who writes of the Brahmanas and the Shamaniyya.” * [Thapar, ibid.]
Samanism, and especially the early Buddhism led by Buddha, opposed the brahmanic tendency to see all social and religious issues through the prism of caste hierarchy. He also rejected the brahman's reliance on tradition and inherited words of wisdom, and advocated instead the acceptance or rejection of an idea or proposition in the light of rationality and one's own experiences. Above all, Buddha was relentless in his criticism of sacrifices and the theory of caste. His egalitarian worldview comes across in his many eloquent phrases: chattaro vanna samasama honti (all varnas/castes are equal); chatuvai suddhi (all the four varnas are pure); bahujana hitaya, bahujana sukhaya (good of the many, happiness of the many). * [See my Debrahmanising History ( Delhi : Manohar, 2005/2011), pp. 102-3.]
Gyan-Kanda, Obfuscation and Essentialisation of Caste
The Buddhist-Samanic view that karma-kanda (ritual/sacrifices) was useless posed a threat to the brahmanic forces that were trying to build an elaborate system of cultural and religious dominance around the practice of ritual. If widely accepted, these anti-sacrificial views would render the brahman themselves redundant, thus causing them to topple from the top of the social hierarchy. In other words, the brahman saw the threat to the karma-kanda as a threat to the Veda, and the threat to the Veda as a threat to their social supremacy. So the threatened brahman came forward with a bewildering range of gyan-kanda (portions dealing with knowledge)—consisting of philosophical, technical, linguistic, specious arguments—to defend their hierarchical worldview. In this running battle with the contesting ideologies, the brahman erected defence after defence first to reinforce the theory and practice of social hierarchy—evidence of this attempt at caste reinforcement can be seen in Dharmashastras and Arthashastras, enjoining each member of society to strictly adhere to his or her caste and gender duties—and second, to justify and preserve the ritual, metaphysical fundamentals of Vedic worldview, which were bolstered through developing the six specialisms of Vedic knowledge, known as Vedanga —namely, Kalpa or the ritual canon, including the Dhrmashastras or legal codes; Jyotish or astrology; Siksha or phonetics; Chhandas or metre; Nirukta or etymology; and Vyakaran or grammar.
At a different level, this brahmanic knowledge-construction was also carried in the Vedanta , “acme of the Vedas,” that is, Upanishadic philosophy. Through a fine maze of metaphysical conceptions, the Upanishads basically tried to discover some unchanging eternal reality behind all the illusion of changing phenomena of the world. The quest of the absolute led to the concept of an eternal soul and its eternal Creator. This Upanishadic absolutism, too, was used, on the whole, to defend the human hierarchy as divinely designed because nothing happens in the world without the Almighty's concord. Thus, the leitmotif and common strands, woven intricately through the entire brahmanical knowledge-system, both religious as well as philosophical—Vedanga and Shad-Darshan (‘six-view-points,' or the six school of philosphy), Itihas and Purana, Upaveda and Tantra, Agama and Upanga, and so on—was the defence of human hierarchy embodied in the system of caste. This trend can be seen in the three prasthana or “supports” of the ancient scriptures called the prasthana-traya , comprising Vedana-sutra of Badarayana, the ten great Upanishads, and the Bhagavad Gita.
So fraudulently was fiction and myth-making interwoven with selective facts in the brahmanic texts that the anti-caste and non-brahmanic traditions, especially the contribution of the Buddhist-samanic movements, was completely erased, suppressed, or at the best, grossly misrepresented in some fleeting references. For instance, a Puranic text depicts Ashoka, one of the most benevolent kings in history, as a hated Buddhist and a despised shudra. * [Romila Thapar, Ashoka and the Decline of the Mauryas ( Delhi : Oxford University Press, 1999 , p. 12.] In fact, the brahmanic records completely ignore Ashoka until the time when, ten or twelve centuries afterwards, all danger from his influence had passed away. Buddha fared no better as the brahmanic forces tried to destroy his memory through a criminal conspiracy that stretched over centuries. After a long and vicious campaign against Buddhism, brahmanism almost succeeded in banishing Buddhism from India before the marauding Turks snuffed out its flickering existence in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries.
Not only did the brahmans not keep any historical records, specific chronologies and sequence of events, but also destroyed the records and literature of their supposed adversaries. A group of fanatics led by Pushyamitra Shunga, a disciple of the famed grammarian Patanjali, hatched a plot and beheaded the last Mauryan king Brihadratha in 185 bce . The period following this regicide saw the rise of militant brahmanism which indulged in large-scale vandalism and violence against their opponents, especially the Buddhists. It was also the period in which resurgent brahmanism indulged in massive forgeries to recast Indian culture in the brahmanic mould. They suppressed facts, changed names, confused places and periods, proffered false data, created fictitious dynastic pedigrees, frequently revaluated and tampered their own Vedas and Puranas, Sanskritised the epics (the Mahabharata and the Ramayana), and above all, brutally censured all oppositional voices and events.
The depiction of past in the guise of Itihas-Puran (mythical history and legends) was also animated by the fact that their makers could frequently alter their tales according to exigencies of time and circumstances. And this is exactly what happened: the Shastras and Puranas were frequently altered and rewritten over the centuries to incorporate elements (that were felt necessary for the brahmanic supremacy) that in historical terms were simply lies. Power politics , in other words, was at the heart of brahmanic knowledge-production. For establishing and maintaining the brahmanic power, it was essential to keep people in ignorance, uninformed of historical truth, even the truth of their own lives. In order to establish caste order and a religion based on it, brahmanism had to promote mass ignorance and prohibit any learning for the lowered castes and women.
Language, Caste and Sublimation of Violence
All societies have traditionally been more or less stratified, suffering from various pathologies of hierarchy and exclusion. But no society or country can beat the caste culture of India in terms of verbal violence, or vakparushyam, as the ancient dharmic charlatans would call it. Sublimation of violence in language—that is, linguistic discrimination and violence—is the defining feature of the some of the most ancient and sacred Sanskrit texts. Historian Ranajit Guha points out that the ideology of caste hierarchy moulded the very grammar of Sanskrit in its own image. A ground rule of Panini's grammar, he says, can be interpreted in such a way as to make the caste hierarchy itself in a compound of the dwndvasamaas class and put them together in their ascriptive order descending from brahman to shudra! * [Ranajit Guha, Elementary Aspects of Peasant Insurgency in Colonial India (New Delhi: Oxford University Press,  1999), pp. 41-2.] Similarly, vocabulary of Sanskrit, too, could serve for caste markers. For example, the standard expression for superiority or excellence in Sanskrit is utkrishtata , which is etymologically derived from utkrishta , or high born; while the common word for a work that is contemptible, condemnable or repulsive is nikrishtata , from nikrishta , or low born. The word shudra—the last varna or caste in the brahmanic social order—is derived from kshudra, which literally means contemptible, without any worth or value. But shudra, it may be notable, was also the code word for anyone—especially the Buddhists, Jains and foreigners—who would not accept superiority of the brahman. As a scholar of Dharmashastras put it, the word shudra identified the enemy and it encompassed a wide cross-section of society. “The reason why foreign ruling classes, such as the Greeks, Shakas, Persians, and Chinese, have fallen to the level of Shudras…is their lack of devotion to Brahmins.” * [Patrick Olivelle, Manu's Code of Law ( New Delhi : Oxford University Press, 2005), p. 39.]
Likewise, in the brahmanic parlance, women are commonly referred to as dhana or maal, that is, property of the male. If someone works on the glossary of abusive words for stree (women) and shudra (toiling castes) in the brahmanic literature and orature (where they are assumed to be born in sin and slavery— paapyoni , to use the phrase in the Bhagavad Gita ), it will run into several hundred pages!
The epistemic-semantic mechanism that keeps the powerless in their place has never gone out of fashion. In many visible or invisible ways, our marketplace, schools and colleges alongside social and political institutions tend to teach us to listen to—and follow—social higher ups and people-in-power. People are encouraged to latch on to every word dripping from the mouth of powerful men or women (who speak the dominant language), and to ignore the “uniformed” and “unintelligent blabbering” of the poor and the powerless. Directly or indirectly, we are taught not to listen to common men, women and children, at least not to hear their talk as a valid language, as a valid discourse. The inheritance through language and other symbols begins in the home, and reinforced by institutionalised religion, educational system, the media and the market.
(Due to increasing resistances from below, the use of casteist-sexist words are on the decline but their resonances still pervade the social world and become the basis of acute discrimination in contemporary India where ascriptive identity matters more than any other, despite the Constitutional laws to the contrary. In a recent judgement of the Supreme Court of India related to live-in relationships, two presiding judges used the word “keep” for a woman, and in their infinite wisdom noted, “If a man has a ‘keep' whom he maintains financially and uses mainly for sexual purpose and/or as a servant, it would not be a relationship in the nature of marriage. Merely spending weekends together or a one-night stand would not make it a ‘domestic relationship.' ” * [The SC bench headed by M Katju and T S Thakur delivered the judgement on October 21, 2010; see The Hindu , New Delhi, October 23, 2010.] )
The oppressor has always wielded knowledge as a social and psychological weapon to colonise minds and bodies of the oppressed. The brahman manufactured a vast body of religious literature to institutionalise a most vicious system of discrimination and dehumanisation. Words became their most effective weaponry to demoralise and divide the lowered castes. Proclaiming that knowledge is nectar ( gyanam amritam ) and shabda brahma hai (the word is the ultimate God, indestructible and sacred), and knowing that those who control the words—and their definitions—control the world, the brahman positioned themselves to be in the exclusive custody of words and their meanings. Manu says, “Speech is the brahman's weapon, and with that he should slay his enemies.” * [ Manusmriti XI. 33, see Patrick Olivelle, ed., Manu's Code of Law ( New Delhi : Oxford University Press, 2005), p. 216.] The brahmanic texts vie with one another to stress the sacred injunction that shudra and other toiling men and women ought to be strictly segregated from those who read and write; the former are polluting and should be completely excluded from the sacred, the world of knowledge. The punishment to a shudra for reading or hearing the Vedas, Smritis, and other “sacred” literature was brutal and barbaric.
If a shudra listens to a recitation of the Vedas his ears shall be filled with molten tin or lac. If he recites Vedic texts his tongue shall be cut out…He who tells [religious] law to a shudra and he who teaches him religious observances, he indeed together with that shudra sinks into the darkness of hell called Asamvritta. * [Such invectives are common in many brahmanic texts such as Shankar 's Brahma Sutra (Chapter one), Gautamdharma Surtra (12: 4) , and Manusmriti (8: 270).]
Hundreds of such violent utterances against shudras are scattered through the brahmanic socio-religious texts. Then there are instances in the texts like Bhagavad Gita where hatred and antagonism against the commonality are better hidden, and one has to culturally decode them to grasp their underlying meaning. The Gita rationalises caste in the name of karma and killing in the name of dharma.
Though the correspondence between language and social control is not unique to brahmanism, the extent and depth of its pervasiveness —through constant humiliation of and silence imposed upon the lowered castes and women— remains unparalleled . As Ranajit Guha has pointed out, what was sought to be controlled was not the spoken word alone, but also the zero sign of utterance—that is silence used formally and yet eloquently enough as “a significant absence” of speech. The brahmanic ban on various kinds of conversation could announce the subordination of junior kin to senior, of wife to husband, of low caste to high caste and generally of the underclass to the elite. Guha cites several sociological studies of the last century that shows the linguistic imposition of domination and subordination in everyday life.
In Gujarat a Patidar youth was not to initiate conversation in the company of his elders, and…in an Andhra village a young man would be sharply rebuked if he tried to put in a word edgeways ‘when big people are talking.' In the same village nuptial songs would insist that to ‘keep silent in your husband's house' was part of a young bride's novitiate. And silence was a sign of subordination to authority in other spheres too. In Orissa, a Bauri untouchable was not to speak to a high caste person unless spoken to, while in a UP village ‘one frequently finds a lower-caste individual sitting or standing at a slight distance from a higher group engaged in discussion, listening to what is said, but not participating. In parts of southern India a servant would cover his mouth while receiving his master's command in a sort of metalinguistic acknowledgement of the latter's power over himself. In Bengal a landlord would feel it an affront if a peasant were to speak up to him. * [Ranajit Guha, Elementary Aspects of Peasant Insurgency in Colonial India (New Delhi: Oxford University Press, 1993 ), pp. 46-7.]
As late as the last quarter of the nineteenth-century, William Logan came across the tradition of using language as a register of caste status in Malabar, Kerala. The imprint of hierarchical divisions within the society was so pervasive that it was impossible to say anything without indicating the caste relationship between the speaker and the listener. A man's deference towards those higher than himself in caste status was demonstrated in explicit verbal acknowledgements of his own inferiority. In any talk he had to degrade himself by stigmatising whatever he possessed. Convention required him to refer to his own food not simply as rice, but as “stony or gritty rice,” his money as nothing more than “copper cash,” his house as a “dung-heap.” Logan has recorded a list of words for houses that establishes the deep structural hierarchy in the late nineteenth-century Malabar society:
The house itself is called by different names according to the occupant's caste. The house of a pariah is a cheri , while the agrestic slave—the Cheraman—lives in a chala . The blacksmith, the goldsmith, the carpenter, the weaver, etc., and the toddy-drawer ( Tiyan ) inhabit houses styled pura or kudi ; the temple servant resides in a variyam or pisharam or pumatham , the ordinary Nayar in a vidu or bhavanam , while the man in authority of this caste dwells in an idam ; the Raja lives in a kovilakam or kottaram , the indigenous Brahman (Nambudiri) in an illam , while his fellow of higher rank calls his house a mana or manakkal . * [William Logan, Malabar , vol. 1, cited in Ranajit Guha, Elementary Aspects of Peasant Insurgency in Colonial India , p. 42-3.]
The Politics of Caste and Epistemic Violence
Such invasive hierarchisation and its brutal insidious consequences were directly related to the longstanding intellectual politics of brahmanism. Kautilya, the patriarch of ancient brahmanic statecraft and author of Arthashastra , indirectly refers to this sinister politics when he boasts of brahman's epistemic power to destroy his adversaries generation after generation: “The arrow shot by the archer may or may not kill a single person. But stratagems devised by a wise man can kill even babes in the womb .” * [Kautilya, cited in Robert Greene, The 48 Laws of Power (New Delhi: Viva Books, 2004), p. xix.] It is apparent from the tone and context, and the general ruthless spirit that pervades the Arthashastra , that Kautilya himself belonged to the gang of pundits who excelled in the business of snuffing out even unborn [shudra] babies. Like Manu, Kautilya emerges from the pages of history as a slimy and scheming character that never doubted the wisdom of his cruel precepts and prescriptions.
But Kautilya was more than an individual; he represented the mindset of caste and brahmanism. He had a whole battalion of soulmates and supporters to assist in their epistemic conspiracy. (The brahmanic scholars still adore him for his “nasty but necessary” pragmatism—“we produced our own Machiavelli, a more lethal one, so long ago!”) Lest the targets of brahmanic stratagems (that is, lowered castes and women) got the wind of—and did something about—the conspiracy of killing even “babes in the womb,” his soul-mates like Manu warned in his Smriti, na shudraya mati dadyat (do not impart knowledge to the toiling castes) and na stri swaatantryam arhati (the woman should never be allowed to be independent). Antagonism against the lowered castes and women was justified by the varna dharma (the religion of caste) with its fundamental assertion that various castes and genders have different essences and so they deserve differential treatment. This quintessential racist-sexist ideology in India was given a moral halo and religious gloss under the name of varnashrama dharma in one brahmanic text after another.
Since the days of the first ascriptive literature in Sanskrit, beginning with the Rig-Veda 's Purusha-sukta, the brahmanic knowledge-production in the subcontinent has been at loggerheads with humanity and dignity of the common people (lowered castes and women in general as the latter are often bracketed with the slave shudras in the Dharmashastras). * [For co-references to women and shudras in the brahmanic texts, see R.S. Sharma, Perspective in Social and Economic History in Early India (Delhi: Munshiram Manoharlal, 1983), pp. 45-48.]
Any dispassionate reader can see that the brahmanic texts in general and the Dharmashastras in particular are aggressively ascriptive and written with a specific agenda: the establishment of a highly unequal, stratified and patriarchal society. The Dharmashastras are the socio-legal texts for indoctrinating the caste laws, and among the most lethal ammunition in the brahman's intellectual arsenal. The texts and their contexts hardly leave any doubt that they are primarily intended to prescribe for society, not objectively describe it. They are actually a manifesto of a caste-based hierarchy and exclusion. * [Gail Omvedt, Buddhism in India: Challenging Brahmanism and Caste (Delhi: Sage, 2003), p.133.] The priest-prince combine of brahman and kshatriya—the nexus of intellectual and political elites—strove over the centuries to build a patriarchal-hierarchical society, a caste-feudal political economy and an exclusionary religio-cultural establishment. It was the “the brahman precepts and kshatriya arm,” to use D D Kosambi's phrase, that succeeded in establishing the caste system in India.
Brahmanism and its knowledge-construction turned the subcontinent into a caste society. Relentless socio-religious propaganda of brahmanism indoctrinated the people with the values of caste, class, and gender, forcing them—often with political coercion and psychological manipulation—to internalise self-oppressive norms and values. “Slavery is inborn in shudras and women” is a common refrain in the brahmanic religious texts. To validate and normalise such slavery, the brahman literati employed everything, from divine discourse to profane arguments, often resorting to violent and abusive expressions to demonise shudras and women. Sylvain Levi, the French anthropologist, one of the first modern scholars who studied the Vedic-brahmanic texts, came to this startling conclusion:
It is difficult to imagine anything more brutal and more material than the theology of the brahmanas. Notions which usage afterwards gradually refined, and clothed with a garb of morality, take us aback by their savage realism .” * [Cited in T W Rhys Davids, Buddhist India, reprint (Delhi: Motilal Banarassidas, 1981), p. 240.]
Neo-brahmanic Intellectualism subverts the dream of a Casteless Society
But Levi was rather exceptional in his recognition of the brutality and violence in brahmanic theology. Most scholars and Sanskritists, both Indian and Western, have grossly misrepresented the classical Sanskrit literature. Pundits such as S Radhakrishnan not only conceal the ascription and violence of brahmanism, they even discover unparalleled ethical and spiritual beauty in those texts. * [S Radhakrishnan, Indian Philosophy , in two volumes (London: George Allen and Unwin, 1962).] The modern elitist scholarship seems to be singularly dedicated to shielding—and hiding—the oppressive tenets and contents of the brahmanic literature. When the pundits describe or define the brahmanic—or Hindu, as they say now—socio-religious worldview, real history evaporates, actual meanings in the Sanskrit texts are marginalised or muted and what one gets is a distilled, idealised version of brahmanic religion and social order. With amazing verbal jugglery and sophistication, the brahmanic works of ancient India are held up as the acme of ancient Indian intellectualism, even spiritualism!
The Vedic-brahmanic celebration of power and violence is usually drowned in fantastic elaboration on some stray ethical verse, didactic phrase or abstract philosophical proposition. Even the greatest of modern pundits (such as Gandhi, Nehru and Radhakrishnan) and progressive intellectuals (such as Amartya Sen) remain enthralled by the philosophical grandeur of brahmanic Hinduism. * [For elaboration of celebration of brahmanic Hinduism in the works of these notables, see my Debrahmanising History , and my forthcoming book Reconstructing Knowledge .] The Upanishadic metaphysical unity of Atman (the self) with Brahman (the divine) is celebrated as the glorious Hindu spirituality without bothering to grasp how such ideals were interpreted in the real world where mind-boggling corruption and cruelties festered just beneath the veneer of the sublime and the beautiful. The commonsense understanding that in order to identify Atman or Brahman , Atman has to be separated from the empirical self betrays the utter irrelevance of such ideals in real social life. The elitist scholars, however, only see the outside beauty of brahmanic philosophy and the harmony of the varnashrama dharma that supposedly provided a peaceful principle of absorbing numerous groups within the Hindu society. They seldom bother to unravel the dharma , the “masterly moral code” as one scholar recently put it, and “open the trap-doors of the great monuments of ancient Hindu intellectuals” (to borrow Pandita Ramabai's phrase) and “enter into the dark cellars” of differentiated hierarchies and social cruelties.
Panini and Patanjali, Badrayana and Jaimini, Kautilya and Manu, Shankar and Kumarila Bhatta, and hundreds of authors and theoreticians who kept themselves wrapped in anonymity created an impressive body of knowledge that took brahmanism to the commanding heights of language and literature. The anti-caste forces failed to produce an effective line of scholars and writers who could take on the brahmanical knowledge-system. The early intellectual lead that brahmanism established over its challengers continued in the medieval and colonial period, despite some setbacks here and there. For example, Akbar's court was graced with many pundits; and even an Allopanishad was written in the Mughal period! And when the British came, the caste elites became their main interlocutors. With the establishment of modern education system in the 1850s, the caste elites surged forward and successfully reclaimed their rights as “natural leaders” of society. Before the birth of Ambedkar (who was the first matriculate from dalit community), there were 20,000 matriculates in India, mainly from brahman and allied caste groups. Despite challenges from dalit-bahujans led by the likes of Phule, Periyar and Ambedkar, caste elites emerged as the new intellectual class in India. This trend has not been reversed since India got Independence in 1947.
As there is a symbiosis between the oppressive past and the oppressive present, reconstructing the Indian history and recognising the anti-social orientation of brahmanical knowledge-construction becomes a necessary task for all those who are struggling for a just society. We cannot understand contemporary reproduction of caste under democratic veneer without understanding brahmanism and its politics. A century and a half ago, stressing the knowledge-power nexus in India, Jotiba Phule denounced the merchants of knowledge as kalam-kasai (the pen-wielding butchers), who weave an elaborate web of lies and fabrications, who facilitate the old structures of brutalities and inequalities to morph into new but equally oppressive system of hegemonies and hierarchies. Sixty years after Phule, Ambedkar wondered why the brahmans, who monopolised the intellectual work for centuries, failed to produce a Voltaire—that is, a single revolutionary dissenter.
Today, as in the past, reproduction of culture and knowledge in India remains, by and large, the fiefdom of brahmanic forces. The caste elites of different stripes—ranging from the liberal-democrats and secular-socialists to the critical traditionalists and Hindutva gladiators—either band together or indulge in friendly fight in the name of national interests, muffling the voices of the marginalised majority. Multiplicity of voices and competing visions of India apart, the politics of dominance brings the privileged groups together either in the secular or the communal camp of political brahmanism. The construction of two ideological poles and institutionalisation of the opposition between secularism and communalism (represented by the Congress and the BJP-RSS, respectively), like the earlier antagonism between colonialism and nationalism, has been done in such a way that this conflict subsumes or subordinates all other issues. Within this secular-communal divide, all other sources of oppression and exclusions are neglected to the point of giving a quiet burial to the interests of the common people. As both the camps share the hostility to the Phule-Ambedkarite dalit-bahujan visions of casteless reconstruction, the brahmanic secularism of Congress—actually, a form of soft Hinduism—never fails to foster the rabid communalism—Hindutva—of the RSS variety.
In contemporary India , more than anything else, it is this brahmanic division of labour between the so-called progressive-secular and the conservative-communal that has eroded and rendered ineffective the very core of the Constitution. The essence and spirit of democracy, equality, freedom and secularism have been smothered by promoting the neo-brahmanic politics of discrimination in every institution and structure like governance, administration, legal and judicial system, economy, infrastructure, management of natural resources, education and culture, thereby denying life with dignity to the majority of Indians. The reproduction of inequality is a fact. One major reason for this is the fact that the mainstream of academia and knowledge-production in India , despite some challenges from the margins in recent times, remains brahmanic. The past and present of India has been represented largely by the brahmanic mindset. This is a fact and this is the problem. The only possibility for a just and democratic change is to mainstream the egalitarian vision of the demoralised majority —the lowered castes, the working classes and women—in the realms of knowledge-production and in academic discourse. Exclusionary ideology and worldview can only be overcome by an inclusive ideology and worldview. Brahmanism cannot be sent to jail; it can only be banished from our minds and hearts, replacing it with a better ideology. We cannot ban or banish a bad idea, it can only be buried by a better idea. The way to defeat bad books is to write good books.
Braj Ranjan Mani is the author of Debrahmanising History (Manohar, 2005). This paper is based on Chapter Three of his forthcoming book, Reconstructing Knowledge: Transforming the Self and Society.
Due to a recent spate of abusive, racist and xenophobic comments we are forced to revise our comment policy and has put all comments on moderation que.