Barbara Ehrenreich and the Brahmin Fantastic

by Nandini Ramachandran

3 May 2010


The Genetic Intelligentsia

It is sometimes simpler (if reductive) to think of the varna system as a dichotomy, at least from the perspective of the people who invented it: the ‘Dwija’ (twice-born), and the ‘Shudra’ (the vast majority of humanity). The Dwija are the favored of humanity: Brahmins (priests), Kshatriyas (rulers), Vaishyas (rich folk), whose dharma is to do Splendid Deeds and reap good karma. The Brahmins get to proclaim who the Dwija at any given point in history are/were, usually with a firm eye on the politically expedient, and the Dwija have historically been a coalition of the High with people who rise to the top and can’t be ignored. The High here are solely Brahmins, the rest must work their way into being worthy of attention, and if they do well, are then given positions on the lower rungs of Dwija-dom.

Education has always been an exclusive privilege in India, especially formal, classical education: only Brahmins are (technically) allowed to read the Vedas, for example.  As a result, regional literatures across India retain a strong tradition against hegemonic, oppressive languages like Sanskrit (and now English); and writing in the vernacular remains a very political decision.

It is established history that the jatis that did much of the ruling and wealth gathering across the centuries were initially lowly folk, later worked into the grand tapestry of Kshatriya dynasties. The Central Asian tribes that became the Rajputs are famous examples of this tendentious historiography: they appeased the Brahmins (gave them land), and were conferred political legitimacy (Kshatriya status). It is not surprising Brahmins have pulled this trick off from pre-Mauryan times: the Mahabharata is a history devoted to the self-destruction of the original Kshatriyas. There could hardly have been enough of them left after that epic bloodbath to colonize the rest of India.

The Brahmin Imaginary
In Brahminical Hinduism, to be a Dwija (and a man) is mere qualification: there are still plenty of things that can get in the way of your dharma, disrupt your karma and interfere with your rebirth cycle. There are hells aplenty in Hinduism: you could go to the nether world and become man-cattle for the animals you have eaten, you could be born an insect (doomed to repeated death), a Shudra (retribution), or a woman (shudder).  That is the path for sinners; if you are born a Shudra or a woman, you must have done something to deserve it.

For a Dwija who lives a humdrum life, the canon offers him another birth with the same lifestyle, so he can try harder next time. The brilliant, the heroic, the extravagant, and the virtuous Dwijas are allowed on the path to salvation (‘moksha’), where one may go hang out with gods, become at one with the universe, zip around creation—Hinduism is as profuse in heavens as it is in hells.

cover art

The Hindus: An Alternative History

Wendy Doniger

US: Mar 2009

Boundary markers established, Brahmin philosophy assumes you are a male Dwija and goes about its business, pondering the ineffable: What is death in an illusory world? How do you go about attaining salvation? What kind of salvation do you want? How much do you want give up? Do you like your life enough to stick around for another generation? And so forth.  The basic exclusivity of this domain is its hallmark: these aren’t the concerns of the masses, for how could they possibly understand? (And if they did, who would serve us?) Besides, the justification of varna runs, if they deserved to dwell in arcana, why would they have been born women and Shudras in the first place?

Thankfully, Brahmins have faced many voluble antagonists, including radical challengers to caste and its allotted implications. The Buddhists were a famous rival, but there is a venerable tradition of incessant insurrection in Indian history, with Brahmins losing ground as fast as they could make it up. Hinduism has seen many cults bubble up and fade away—rationalists, monists, materialists, hedonists, nihilists, ascetics, flagellants, fanatics—only to be reborn in another place with a new god.  Apart from political exigencies, such as transforming ‘Mlecchas’ (barbarians) into kings, Brahmins have been forced into social compromises (such as giving goddesses both bite and autonomy); and the threat of irrelevance has often led to dramatic modifications even in the ivory towers of doctrine. 

The Vedic Brahmin, for instance, would’ve snorted at anyone brave enough to expound upon the notion of ‘Bhakti’ (intense devotion to a benign deity) to him; his was a violent and bloodthirsty pantheon appeased by ritual sacrifice. Yet the heart of popular Hinduism in India today is the loving deity who rewards the pious. There are hundreds of possible deities competing for the privilege points to Hinduism’s willingness to be all things to all people, but this basic democracy was hard won. The shadows of the warrior gods remain, nonetheless, embedded in myth and folklore. There are still some gods (and goddesses) one prays to just so they’ll ignore the pious and move on, others whom it is dangerous even to pray to for fear of drawing attention, and some that one can only call upon for vengeance.

Hinduism’s eclecticism and inclusiveness is ample proof of the sheer variety of ideas and opinions that have been flung its way.  The people who questioned the whole set up, fomented revolution, and raised havoc almost never wrote in Sanskrit, are rarely preserved by Sanskrit tradition, and often couldn’t write at all.  Education has always been an exclusive privilege in India, especially formal, classical education: only Brahmins are (technically) allowed to read the Vedas, for example.  As a result, regional literatures across India retain a strong tradition against hegemonic, oppressive languages like Sanskrit (and now English); and writing in the vernacular remains a very political decision.

Unfortunately for Indian historiography, the colonial administration conveniently co-opted the Brahmin imaginary to help along its own agenda: finding injustice to exploit is classic imperial strategy. Orientalist history, as well as the nationalist history it inspired, strongly emphasizes Sanskrit literature, belittling if not wholly excluding the many regional tongues that operated in practical life across India. In effect, the chaotic reality of jati in India was frozen into lists compiled by pedants, both old and new.

British administrators, enthralled by the new classical language they had ‘discovered’, condemned 2000 years of rich, diverse history to be told only by its most conservative observers. Successive translators of Sanskrit sanitized what grit remained, and the chronological period now known as “Ancient India” was born. British administrators took ideology to represent history, and went blundering in to reform caste with the ignorant, self-serving ham-handedness that characterized colonial rule in India.  Reform led to reaction, and the seeds of today’s defensive, reactionary Hindutva were sown.

Caste in the Corporate Dream
The Brahmin stranglehold on the telling of Indian history is twofold: literacy, and legitimacy. As the clergy, Brahmins were the only caste where formal education was in the job description. This made them readers, and collectors of manuscripts in a predominantly oral culture; the genetic intelligentsia. 

As a class, they have always been dependent upon royal power: first for ritual sacrifice, later for land grants. Divine kingship has always been a potent symbol in Indian politics: even the Mughals fell under its spell. The Brahmins, intermediaries to the gods, were convenient legitimators for any king seeking to attest his kingship and establish a dynasty. Thus, ritual sacrifice persisted in royal consecrations long after it had disappeared from the popular religion. Even the British found them handy collaborators, and from colonial times Brahmins have drifted off the land and into the professions.

Even in 2010 India, Brahmins dominate education, especially higher education. I suspect the trend would be especially prominent in the professions and the higher echelons of management: the very executives Bait and Switch talks about. Companies owned by other communities, such as the Parsis or Vaishyas, are nevertheless likely to employ a fair number of Brahmins in managerial posts. While the civil services and public companies reserve posts for the “scheduled” castes, private enterprise is free to hire who it wants, and they tend to prefer the dwija.

The obvious disadvantage Shudras in corporate India face is that they are relatively alone in a culture still dominated by kinship bonds: they have a far smaller network of family and friends to turn to for employment.  However, even as family businesses give way to the more impersonal firm and the corporate meritocracy entrenches itself, the process of exclusion is likely to continue unabated: caste privilege can operate in many covert, insidious ways. Idiomatic English, comfort with technology, dietary habits, an elite education, even a person’s name and home address can flag off their caste to potential recruiters, making candidates vulnerable to the potential employer’s prejudices.

In any case, verticality far predates the birth of the corporation in India, so one can be sure that access and promotion remain two very different things. It would be very interesting to study to how two famously opaque hierarchies, caste and corporation, interpenetrate within Indian corporate culture to create a new heaven of conspicuous consumption for the Dwija, oblivious to reality.  For the Dwija, reality comes with an escape clause. For the excluded majority, however, the really interesting question is this: when the lean times come, who among the Dwija will be shed?

Ehrenreich tells a compelling story about betrayed people living out the nightmare inversion of the American dream. I will hazard the guess that the advantages of the lean, mean corporate machine she experienced in America will suggest itself to Indian employers soon. When the new Brahmin heaven implodes, as so many have in the past, I am curious to see what the tenacious bunch does next. India’s rulers no longer require divine legitimacy, the traditional route Brahmins have for bouncing back. Brahmins have, however, spent centuries arbitrating employment and honing their blaming the victim expertise. Perhaps as in America, the Brahmins will just morph into the transition industry in the (even more) destitute India their vision leaves in its wake.


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