‘For Tamil Brahmans, caste and class are one and the same thing’

Tamil Brahmans dominate the academic sphere not because of their innate intellectual superiority but because of caste and class privileges,Professor C.J Fuller and Assistant Professor Haripriya Narasimhan tell Radhika Santhanam on their ethnographic study on the community.

Updated - December 04, 2021 11:34 pm IST

Published - November 22, 2015 03:56 am IST

A Tamil Brahman couple circa 1945.

A Tamil Brahman couple circa 1945.

What triggered the idea of an ethnographic study on Tamil Brahmans?

In our research on the middle class in Chennai in 2003-05, which included a comparative study of IT professionals and engineers in manufacturing companies, we found that Tamil Brahmans were well represented in both groups. There has hardly been any serious anthropological or sociological research done among Tamil Brahmans since the Thanjavur village studies of Kathleen Gough (1950s and 1970s) and André Béteille (1960s). We, therefore, decided it would be worthwhile to undertake a new research project on Tamil Brahmans, which combined ethnographic research on them in villages, in Chennai and other Indian cities, and overseas, and also used older ethnography, historical materials, and so on.

You call Tamil Brahmans an ‘unusual’ social group. How unusual are they compared to other groups in Tamil Nadu?

The book discusses the unusual position of Tamil Brahmans at length and from different perspectives. In the concluding chapter, it compares them with other Brahman and non-Brahman communities throughout India on which there is reasonably good information. Our general conclusion is as follows:

“First, Brahmans … have been more completely transformed than any non-Brahman agrarian castes into modern, urban, middle-class groups. Second, although it is impossible to say whether they are unique, Tamil Brahmans are extremely unusual in how fully they have been transformed into an urban middle-class caste, so that they now constitute a social class-cum-status group, internally divided into upper and lower strata, which is itself structured by an isomorphism between Tamil Brahmanhood and middle classness.” (p. 227)

The crucial point about this isomorphism is, put simply, that Tamil Brahmans, unlike other communities, are now overwhelmingly an urban middle-class caste — and are assumed to be by Tamil Brahmans themselves; furthermore, this means that their caste and class positions are seen by them as one and the same thing. Hence, for example, success in the IT profession tends to be explained by many Tamil Brahmans by their caste’s supposedly superior intellectual ability, whereas in fact that success is mainly a product of their middle-class family background, good education, cultural capital, etc. (Neither it is, incidentally, a product of Tamil Brahman, monopolistic control over IT companies. Popular anti-Brahman explanations of Brahman success are no more accurate than Brahman ones.)

The book says little about modern politics because Tamil Brahmans say little about it.

In Tamil Nadu, much like the rest of the country, there is a nexus between caste and politics. You refer in places to the Self-Respect movement and to the Non- Brahmin Manifesto, but largely stay clear of politics. Is this deliberate?

An important feature of modern Tamil Brahmans is that hardly any of them are now active in party politics (as opposed to NGOs), except for the Chief Minister, Jayalalithaa, and one or two others. Our informants were consistently dismissive about politics, which they regarded as mostly a corrupt waste of time, and they never wanted to talk about it much — except to make stereotyped complaints about reservations. It is standard ethnographic methodology to concentrate one’s effort on the topics that most interest one’s informants, and that is what we did. The book says little about modern politics because Tamil Brahmans say little about it.

Data on caste, as you say, is woefully inadequate. Do you think having a socio- economic and caste census every five or 10 years is a good idea? How do you respond to critics of caste census?

There was a census about caste as an addition to the 2011 general census. No results have been published, probably because the results are meaningless and/or produce figures that lots of politicians don’t like. In principle, useful questions about caste could be asked as part of detailed sample surveys, for example, but we are sceptical about the likely value of a universal caste census today.

You speak of the process of ‘de-sanskritisation’. Yet, as you point out, Brahmans are dominant in the religious sphere, private sector, and cultural sphere. How do they think they manage to sustain this contradiction of giving up age-old customs which defined them and gave them a superior status and yet maintaining a superior status?    

The word ‘de-Sanskritisation’ occurs once in concluding the chapter on the changing position of women (p. 151), but only to say that this is not a process that Tamil Brahmans would recognise. It does indeed look contradictory to give up customs that defined superior status, while still maintaining a claim to superior status. But the simple solution to this contradiction is to insist, after the change, that the custom — e.g. child marriage — was never really important for the community anyway. This solution is not peculiar to Tamil Brahmans — it is found among many changing communities everywhere, whose members abandon inconvenient age-old customs, claim afterwards they never mattered much anyway, and adopt new customs.

Critics may view this as Brahmanocentric, as most views are of members of the community themselves. How would you react to that?

More information from non-Brahmans about Brahmans would probably have been useful, but it would not have made a big difference to a study that is about Brahmans, and within the time and money constraints of a research project it is impossible to collect data about everything.

It would probably be impossible to write a book about Tamil Brahmans without being accused by somebody of being Brahmanocentric, unless the book was a denunciation! We reject the charge. It is self-evident that a study of any social group must be based primarily on information about its beliefs and practices that have been collected from members of that group. More information from non-Brahmans about Brahmans would probably have been useful, but it would not have made a big difference to a study that is about Brahmans, and within the time and money constraints of a research project it is impossible to collect data about everything. It is also our job, as anthropologists, to describe the people we study empathetically and to try to understand their way of life and point of view. Their point of view, of course, often differs from that of non-Brahmans and varies amongst Tamil Brahmans themselves, as we show and explain.

How well we do this is for the readers to decide, but as far as we are concerned the book is not pro-Brahman — or indeed anti-non-Brahman.

How has the response to the book been?

Many people have told us they like the book and naturally Tamil Brahmans have been particularly interested in it.


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