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The Making of Brahmanic Hegemony

This is an excerpt from The Making of Brahmanic Hegemony: Studies in Caste, Gender and Vaishnava Theology (2021), written by Suvira Jaiswal and published by Tulika Books.

Reissued by Tulika Books in 2021, Suvira Jaiswal’s The Making of Brahmanic Hegemony takes issue with those scholarly approaches that seek to authenticate unreason and ahistoricism as an Indian episteme. Such scholarship claims to restore agency to non-western cultural practices but, as Jaiswal points out, by “India” it means “Hindu”, and where it speaks in terms of a “theophanic polity” or the “agency” of idols it lends support to elite caste groups. What a historian can fruitfully investigate is the role of such concepts, along with the related one of “pure” and “impure”, in instituting caste hegemony and patriarchy, along with the counter-hegemonic resistance this process has faced.  

The following excerpt is taken from the chapter titled “Power, Status and Ethnicity in Caste Formation”.

There is strength in the argument that the endogamous brahmana caste was formed by the assimilation of the Aryan with the non-Aryan, whether or not they were survivors from the Harappa culture. Madhav M. Deshpande cites Patañjali’s Mahabhasya (on Panini, II.2.6), which says that no dark person (‘of the colour of the heap of Urad lentils’) sitting in the marketplace would normally be identified as a brahmana; and a brahmana is expected to be ‘fair’ (gaura), of clean conduct and tawny-haired (pingalakesa). It is true that complexion is not race, though it is often taken to be a sign of race. Nevertheless, as against this passage, Kosambi quotes the Brhadaranyaka Upanisad (VI.4.16), which prescribes a certain type of diet to be taken by those brahmana parents who desire to have a black (syama) complexioned son with red eyes and have the ability to recite the three Vedas. The text also contains prescriptions for having a daughter or a son of fairer complexion, and suggests that there was an uninhibited blending of Aryan and non-Aryan elements in the formation of the brahmana caste. Such assimilation has taken place in later times too. The fragmentation of brahmana varna into a number of endogamous subcastes is a development that took place in early medieval times in a different socioeconomic and political set-up.

The emergence of a large, ritually superior caste of brahmanas in later Vedic times was mainly due to their control over Vedic sacrifices, which had by then become a highly specialized affair and required the services of a large number of ritual specialists, particularly for the performance of the sattra and soma sacrifices, such as the rajasuya and the asvamedha. The role of Vedic ritual and Brahmanical ideology in legitimizing the aggrandizement of the ksatriya chief over his own rajanya kinsmen as well as over the common tribesmen or the vi› is openly proclaimed in later Vedic texts, which emphasize the inter-dependence of the priestly class and the ruling groups, and their combining against the vaisya and sudra producers. The brahmanas even claimed to be the bhudevas, or gods on earth, with such magical powers at their command that a priest, if so desired, could even ruin his patron — for whom he was officiating — by deliberately committing an error in the performance of the sacrifice. Such exaggerated claims did not go unchallenged and although the Upanisads are mainly the works of brahmana thinkers, and, on the whole, propagate varna hierarchy and Brahmanical values, the ksatriyas were seen as challenging their supremacy in the field of knowledge and the brahmanas seeking instructions from them. But the real challenge to their supremacy and hierarchical position was articulated in the early texts of Jainism and Buddhism, which not only rejected the cult of sacrifices but also gave precedence to ksatriya varna while enumerating the varna orders.

Several factors contributed to the strengthening of the varna stratification and pre-eminent position of the brahmanas. The shift from Vedic ritualism to Puranic religion, which meant an appropriation of popular cults and heroic legends, such as those of Vasudeva—Krsna and Rama Dasarathi, and making them the vehicles for propagation of Brahmanical ideology through the remodelling of the Bharata epic and the composition of numerous Puranas and similar texts, provided an effective ideological tool for the perpetuation of the varna caste system. No less significant was the part played by the brahmanas in early medieval polity. The collaboration of the brahmana and the ksatriya that exists in the later Vedic age continued in early medieval times, not only ideologically but also functionally, in the administrative and political set-up of various regional kingdoms, particularly those ruled by the ‘improvised ksatriyas’ in an erstwhile tribal region where Brahmanical expertise was needed not only for fabricating genealogical myths but also for providing the details of administration. Attention has been drawn50 to the Sasana brahmanas of Orissa, who were not only experts entrusted with the performance of foundational sacrifices of the great temples and other ritual matters, but were also entrusted with specific administrative functions such as supervising revenue administration, and helping in the defence and expansion of the kingdom in the name of Lord Jagannåtha whose earthly representative was the king. Some of the brahmana clans belonging to the Atharvaveda school were responsible for the police and spy network, activities considered somewhat ‘polluting’. That this was a pan Indian phenomenon is clearly brought out by an inscription from Karnataka issued by king Madhavavarman II of the Talakad branch. It records the gift of five villages and a tenth share of taxes of Kirumundaniri nagara to twenty-two brahmana families, described as follows:

Versed in the six duties, the study of the Vedas and employed within the palace enclosure (prasada prakara baddhodyoganam), they were adept in counsel and the determination of usage to be followed; acted as envoys; advised on making alliance and wars; determined with whom to ally and when to keep quiet after proclaiming war (vigrahyasana) and how to march forth to battle in combination with others and how to attack the enemy in the rear. They were equally skilled in the protection of the kingdom (mandala), in wielding the implements of war, in the construction of fortresses; in governing rural (janapada) and urban (paura) areas and in managing the treasury (kosa). They were lords over men, protectors of the brahmanical social order (varnasramadharma), chief and lords over the Maµigråma ‹reµis and the citizens of the four subordinate districts (catu° såmanta de›a) of Tegure, Amaniya, Nandyala and Simbala. Adept in sacrifices to the gods and the manes, they were deeply versed in the Rg and Yajur Vedas and in uttering the words purified by sacred formulae. They engaged in congregational services and were lords over the merchants of the Tuviyal group.

Thus there is no doubt that the practice of making land grants to brahmanas in the tribal areas and the establishment of brahmana settlements — known as agraharas — served multiple purposes: extending the area under cultivation, creating a class of loyal intermediaries, and restructuring the tribal population into castes with division of labour suited to petty production in a natural economy. The system was so useful to the ruling classes that whether they were inside it or outside it, whether they were ascribed the status of ‘ksatriya’ or ‘sudra’, they supported the varna-dharma and the Brahmanical institutions enthusiastically.

The spread of Brahmanical culture in the tribal areas was not always through the agency of brahmana migrants. K. Suresh Singh has drawn our attention to the movement of the ‘non-tribal communities’ and the ‘functional castes’, that is, the agricultural and artisan communities, into tribal regions and the penetration of cultural influences through them. Comparing the nomenclature and the nature of tools and implements used by the tribal and non-tribal peasants and artisans in Bihar and central India, he asserts that ‘the diffusion of technology is more a function of tribe and peasant interaction and tribe and artisan interaction rather than a Brahmin—tribe contact’. The chiefs of the tribal kingdoms of middle India, such as the Cheros, the Nagabanshis and the Gonds, invited the non-tribal peasantry and artisans from the plains to settle and cultivate tribal lands and generate surplus with their superior agricultural technology, and thus ‘spared their own tribal people the strains of surplus production’. Apparently, the process was linked to the rise of states in the tribal areas with dominant lineages benefiting from such arrangements. It is well known that many of these chiefs forged links with established ksatriya families and claimed ksatriya status. But the effect of such migrations on the lower-ranking tribal segments needs to be explored further.

However, the spread of varna ideology to different regions in divergent circumstances modified the orthodox model of the notion of varna categories formulated in the later Vedic texts, and gave rise to the division of the sudra varna into sat (pure) and asat (impure) sudras, as well as a change in the signification of the vaisya category — issues that I have discussed in detail elsewhere. In the later Vedic times, the third varna, vaisya, was almost synonymous with peasantry, but it came to denote almost exclusively the merchant communities from the early centuries preceding the Common Era. This development is related to the depression of the peasantry and the widening gulf between those who were actual producers engaged in manual labour, and those who were able to extract surplus through various means and constituted the ruling aristocracy and ritual specialists. The hunting and food-gathering tribes, living on the margins of the agrarian society and dubbed as hina (low) jatis in the early Buddhist sources, were condemned as ‘impure’ sudras, for the orthodoxy regarded the varna categories as a god-created universal order in reference to which the existence of all communities had to be explained. This led to the invention of the theory of varna-sa³kara. The concept of a fifth (pancamavarna did not find much favour, so a shift of emphasis took place from the hierarchy of functions to a hierarchy based on the notion of pure/impure birth. I have argued that it was not the pursuit of ‘impure’ occupations which led to the relegation of certain communities to ‘impure’ or ‘untouchable’ status. Just the opposite. Those who were depressed and marginalized were condemned to carry out what were considered impure tasks. The exploitative nature of the whole system does not really need much elucidation.

This is an excerpt from The Making of Brahmanic Hegemony: Studies in Caste, Gender and Vaishnava Theology (2021), written by Suvira Jaiswal and published by Tulika Books. Republished here with permission from the publisher.

Suvira Jaiswal is an Indian historian. She is known for her research into the social history of ancient India, especially the evolution of the caste system and the development and absorption of regional deities into the Hindu pantheon. She was a professor at the Centre for Historical Studies at the Jawaharlal Nehru University from 1971 until her retirement in 1999. In 2007, Jaiswal was the General President of the Indian History Congress.

Courtesy: Indian Cultural Forum

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