Jalalul Haq’s The Shudra A Philosophical Narrative of Indian Superhumanism review: The persistence of a soul-crushing hierarchy

“The Brahmin is the superhuman who is raised above humanity while the Shudra is the subhuman who due to his birth can never attain humanity.”

“The Brahmin is the superhuman who is raised above humanity while the Shudra is the subhuman who due to his birth can never attain humanity.”

Is there a fundamental unity to Indian civilisation? Such a question can have two answers. The first, which is often made by leftist historians, is that there is no essential unity to the Indian civilisation that could have survived the last few thousand years. The history of India is like the history of other regions in being marked by discontinuity, rupture, and contingency. The second, which is common among the conservative factions, makes the claim that there is an essence or a spirit of Indian culture best preserved in religious practices and beliefs. This might take different forms in different historical epochs but it is still recognisably the same. The debate between the two sides hinges on the existence or the non-existence of this unifying principle. The public nature of this debate has succeeded in polarising opinions in such a way that it is futile to seek to occupy a middle position that would be neither here nor there. The only remaining alternative would be to seek to reconcile these two positions. But how could that be possible, keeping in mind their hostility to each other? Jalalul Haq’s book  The Shudra: A Philosophical Narrative of Indian Superhumanism attempts to do so in a unique manner: by claiming that the unifying principle is active in its absence rather than its presence. This unifying principle which is present in being absent is what Haq calls ‘man’. 

Disappearance of man 

Haq is a professor of philosophy at Aligarh Muslim University and the book under review is a revised version of the original which was first published by the Institute of Objective Studies in 1997. The fundamental claim made in Haq’s book is that in Indian philosophical and religious discourse we will find superhumans and subhumans, but never the human being. The missing category in Indian civilisation is man.

This disappearance of man does not happen at the end but occurs right at the very beginning when in the  Purusha Sukta of the  Rig-Veda the gods and priests sacrifice Purusha, who is the creator god.  As the  Purusha Sukta tells us, it is from the sacrifice of Purusha that the eternal social order or the caste system is born: Purusha’s mouth becomes the Brahmins, his arms turn into the Kshatriyas, his legs the Vaisyas, and his feet are the Shudras. The death of Purusha is the origin of the caste-man. The caste-man can be superior or inferior to other caste-men. They can be superhuman or subhuman, but never simply human. The Brahmin is the superhuman who is raised above humanity while the Shudra is the subhuman who due to his birth can never attain humanity. As Haq writes, “with the death of man, the ‘caste-man’ is born, who is no man at all”. This death of man, however, does not happen just once. Rather, as Haq argues, it is constantly reproduced, giving Indian history a peculiar kind of cultural unity. This is a history which is marked, above all, by the persistence and intractability of caste. 

Effects of philosophical impasse 

For Haq, caste is not merely a social or political contradiction but the effect of a philosophical impasse. The entire trajectory of Indian history is portrayed by Haq as an oscillation between two poles: the ascetic who privileges withdrawal, renunciation, pity, and non-activity, and the priest who advocates sacrificial indulgence, power, hubris, and lust. But the two are not opposed. Haq writes that the ascetic and the priest are both enemies and friends, indeed he even says that the ascetic is a priest in disguise. The ascetic and the priest together leave society with a stark choice between apolitical asceticism that denies the social bond, or a lust for power and wealth that preserves it but only by positing a soul-crushing hierarchy.  

The book consists of three chapters. The first chapter titled ‘The Death of Purusha’ begins from pre-Vedic times and continues till the Upanishadic era. The second chapter is titled ‘Sangham Sharanam’deals with the so-called heretical or heterodox era of Jainism and Buddhism. The third chapter titled ‘Waiting for Kalki’ concludes with an overview of developments in the post-Buddhist era beginning from the dominance of the ethics of the  Bhagavad Gita and concluding with medieval bhakti poets. What Haq finds is that despite the appearance of various revolutionary breaks in this long historical movement, there is something extremely monotonous concealed beneath this semblance of polyphony and diversity. What incessantly repeats itself is the movement between ascetic renunciation and priestly hubris. 

While it has been argued by many eminent thinkers such as B.R. Ambedkar that Buddhism was a revolutionary moment that sought to annihilate the system of caste that suppressed the Shudra and untouchable masses, Haq makes the argument that the same dynamic between ascetic and priest is reproduced in Buddhist thought right from the very beginning. According to Haq, Buddhist history is evidence of either a thoroughgoing asceticism of the individual seeking nirvana or the monastic consolidation of wealth. What unites Vedic and Upanishadic Brahmanism, Shramanism, the  Bhagavad Gita, and Shankaracharya’s Advaita, according to Haq, is the death of Purusha or god as a creative reality. What follows from this death of God is either the advent of an impersonal abstraction, whether  brahman in the Upanishadic tradition or  shunnyata in the Buddhist tradition, which cannot be appealed to by the worshipper, or the incredible profusion of theological divinities.

Haq writes that both of these are excesses that are born from the death of Purusha as a personal creative god. In this structure of opposing excesses, the middle can only appear as something elusive and absent. Man is that which cannot be thought. The ascetic and the priest collaborate, through their antagonism, to erase man and preserve only the categories of superhuman and subhuman. Caste, Haq seems to be saying, is but the name given on the sociological plane to the devastating effects of this philosophical impasse.

The Shudra: A Philosophical Narrative of Indian Superhumanism; Jalalul Haq, Navayana, ₹399.

The reviewer is a Ph.D. candidate at Jawaharlal Nehru University’s Centre for English Studies.

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Printable version | Jun 18, 2022 3:16:36 pm |