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The acclaimed Tamil writer opens his heart to S. Anand on the experience of being a Brahmin in Tamil Nadu.
For the Tamil Brahmins, it has been one century of being on the defensive. The community feels castrated. The Brahmins have never anyway been the placard-holding type; they have rarely expressed their feelings openly. The Tamil Brahmins have been used to taking insults. Hence perhaps the lack of visible protests or reactions. Theirs is a guilt-ridden existence, their spirit has been killed by a negative self-perception… They have been driven to a quiescent state. Their situation is very similar to that of the Jews in the 1930s.
With the anti-Brahmin movement dictating the terms, the urban Brahmins began to eschew ethnic markers that revealed their identity. They gave up the kudumi (tuft), began to sport moustaches like non-Brahmins, changed the manner in which they spoke Tamil, changed their attire, some even began to eat meat… they did everything so that they are not identified as Brahmins in the public sphere. These were all modes of defence, strategies for survival.
Today, few Brahmins speak the brahminical dialect. Despite all these camouflages, even today 50 percent of the Brahmins stand out in a Dravidian setup. One can easily mark them out physically! They are so obvious! Over the years, it has been fed into their psyche that they are different from the Dravidians. The Dravidian movement always called them vandherigal (immigrants/ outsiders)… Even in non-Vedic classical texts, there’s an injunction to safeguard and feed the Brahmins.
The Sangam epic Silappadikaram was written by a Jain monk, Ilango Adigal. When a wronged Kannagi ordains the burning of Madura, she says: ‘Let the city burn except the Brahmins and cows.’ Even the Jaina author showed high regard for the Brahmins. But the last 50 years have been very tough. The Brahmins gave up on government jobs, and in whatever they did have had to work harder to prove themselves. Natural discipline and thrift are brahminic qualities that have survived. If a nonbrahmin has a windfall he just spends it on meat and drink. The Brahmin always saves for the rainy day.
Though not a follower of the math, I had some regard for the earlier pontiff. In 1951, my mother was widowed. In 1954, Periyaval (Chandrashekarendra Saraswati) had camped in Chennai’s T.Nagar area as part of chaturmasya. It was a time when M.S. Subbulakshmi sang for the first time in the presence of Chandrashekarendra Saraswati, but at that point he ignored her and Sadasivam too. My mother repeatedly visited the Acharya on an empty stomach at his T. Nagar camp, but he never blessed her with the holy water since she was an unshaven widow. I never had much interest even in Chandrashekarendra Saraswati. The last I saw him was when my son and I attended the centenary celebrations of Periyaval (Chandrashekarendra Saraswati). He was a merely an exhibit on the occasion. It was humiliating to the Paramacharya.
After Jayendra Saraswati took over, I never visited the math. Jayendra Saraswati has been silly at times, making loose remarks and courting controversy. But when his arrest happened, I personally felt very shocked. Now, I’m indifferent. There must have been something murky in the Kanchi math. But the manner in which the case has been treated makes us feel that there is indeed persecution. Irrespective of a Brahmin’s faith or belief in the Kanchi math, the arrest of the Shankaracharyas and the manner in which the case is being dealt with is a humiliation for the entire community. The only sign of hope after the Shankaracharya’s arrest is that several women have come out in protest. This is encouraging and extraordinary for the community.
Brahmin-bashing is not confined to politics. It is a pastime of the cultural and literary worlds as well. Even the Tamil film industry merely caricatures the Brahmin. It is a totally non-brahminised public sphere that Tamil cinema depicts. It is very difficult for a Brahmin to get a foothold in the film industry today—as an actor, assistant director or lyric writer. Earlier, when Brahmins played a significant role in establishing the film industry, the world of cinema had a neutrality, but today an obviously non-Brahmin ethos permeates it.
[When pointed out that Kamal Haasan and Mani Rathnam are significant Brahmins in the industry today:] Kamal Hasan is a beef-eater who to debrahminise even espoused the philosophy of the Dravidar Kazhagam. Mani Rathnam is an intelligent filmmaker, he is a good entertainer, and yet the intellectual class of the little magazines circle targets every film he makes. There’s an undercurrent of anti-brahminism in everyday life.
The Tamil Brahmin community appears doomed. I see no possibility of a good leadership emerging from this community. Jayendra Saraswati certainly would not have made for a good leader. He is very poor in his understanding of religion or politics. C. Rajagopalachari would have been a good choice, but then he is not around. Institutions like Thambras cannot really provide the leadership we need. A Brahmin resurgence is very unlikely. Even in terms of Brahmin tradition, very few are learning the Vedas.
Maths may offer freeships for Vedic pursuits but there are few takers. Priesthood or the Vedic way of life is no longer a viable means of livelihood. Nor are there any Brahmin landlords left. My father-in-law owned a lot of land. Each time he got a daughter married, he sold a part of it… today his family owns no land. Even rituals have merely become social occasions. The marriage rituals are also much-abbreviated to reduce costs. Fortunately, the upanayanam (thread ceremony) still continues, but this is more an occasion to meet up with relatives. Sandhyavandanam should be done three times a day by a thread-wearing Brahmin. It is good thing to do. But who performs it? A Brahmin does sandhyavandanam only once in his lifetime and that is on the day the thread is bestowed on him. 50 years hence, perhaps even upanayanam would be given up.
Rituals are not easy to follow. They require a lot of energy and money. The 13-day post-death rituals are very, very difficult to observe. When my sister died, we stopped with the cremation rituals. Soon we may not have priests who know how to perform these obsequies. I have told my sons not to perform them for me... I of course remember my father on the day of his death, but I also wonder why are we really bringing the spirits of the dead back to this stupid world.
This is the full text; an abridged version appeared in the print magazine