The big paradox

What it takes to be an honorary Brahmin.

Updated - November 17, 2021 12:11 pm IST

Published - May 10, 2014 03:37 pm IST

I am a Carnatic musician and that, by default, ‘places’ me in terms of caste and the caste group that I most associate with. I was born — need I say it — into a Brahmin family. Almost 99 per cent of the people within my artistic world including musicians, impresarios, organisers and connoisseurs are from this ‘top of the food chain’, privileged. Even those who are not ‘born Brahmins’ and yet lovers of this art are, in many ways, very ‘brahminical’ .

In my conversations with a number of Brahmins and other ‘higher caste’ men and women across South India, I have found a deep-rooted belief in the Brahmin way, in its rituals, identity and, generally, in the Vedic tradition. There is great pride in the systems that the Brahmins have put in place and a strong sense that these need to be nurtured and, even more significantly, protected. Even in families where there is no strong ritualistic streak, this ‘protectionism’ can be seen in the support of Vedic schools, temple reconstruction and programmes to protect the sacred cow. The buffalo, of course, is a lesser breed! In some ultra-traditional households, an air-wall stops non-brahmins at the kitchen door and house-help have taboos imposed on what they can touch and what they cannot.

Now comes the paradox. Would this same group of people, more or less as a group, go out of its way to proclaim its support to an ‘OBC’ for Prime Ministership? Yes it would, in fact, with great fervour. It is not that the upper classes have not voted for other castes in the past, but the great passion with which they seem to be backing Narendra Modi is very different. Does this mean that casteism has been erased from our minds? We know this is untrue. Then from where does this bond originate?

What the brahmins and the upper classes stand for goes beyond the rites and rituals of the Brahmin caste to something deeper — brahminism. It informs every aspect of Hindu culture framed and propagated by the controlling group — Brahmins. What does it actually represent? I do not accept the philosophical explanations given for this idea, which I believe to be excuses, as in social practice the manifestations are very different. Brahminism is about control, power, hierarchy, education, knowledge, purity and sanctity. Conceptually this idea permeates our social architecture. Achieving of these or certain combinations of the ideals gives people emotional, religious and intellectual superiority. Where does Modi fit in this structure? Through the constant development story he has given himself, he is a personification — and Brahmins love personifications — of education, knowledge, power and control. Add to that the overt exclusive Hindu religious image he has cultivated and what you get is a polished, pure and sanctified icon. Modi is always spoken about as powerful and decisive. These words are not just expressions of strength but they are also insinuations of a clear hierarchy where the rest follow the leader, almost like the rest follow the Brahmins. Quintessentially Narendra Modi epitomises brahminism.

Is this a purely middle-class Brahmin affliction? No, it runs across Brahmins, irrespective of their financial capital. The attraction is Narendra Modi — the symbol. As much as we will wax eloquent about the practical reasons to elect a person, ultimately we vote with our hearts. This draw comes from symbolism and, in the case of Narendra Modi, it is the Brahminism he is interiorising. And here it is a double whammy. Brahminism emanating from an OBC draws those lower in the caste structure to hope that they can embrace that very same ideal.

In the south, there is also the ideological possibility that many don’t think about Modi’s caste; an imperviousness that, under normal circumstances, I would applaud. But here the reason is different. Another ugly reality of our society is all that goes with skin colour. The fairer you are then the more brahmin you will be. Ask a random South Indian what caste he thinks Modi belongs to, and you are likely to hear “I assumed he is Brahmin.” Even if you are non-Brahmin, you can, if fair-skinned, get taken to be a ‘brahmin by colour’.

Modi has added another dimension to Brahminism. He wears his religion on his sleeve, shows it off and the upper classes are proud that he can take on ‘the others’ (read Muslims). Brahmins admire this tenacity that they feel they themselves lack. Modi combines that gumption along with all that brahminism represents. In doing so this honorary Brahmin unites the Hindu world and they call that sensation, Hindutva.

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