Culture & Society

Phenomenology Of Caste And The 'Holy' Brain

The most important thing to keep in mind when dealing with caste is that it does not just exist as a social phenomenon but as a cultural and philosophical thing

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Boys from the Brahmin caste crowd around for a photo Photo: Getty Images

Even after 88 years of the publication of Dr B R Ambedkar's book 'Annihilation of Caste', the question remains, How can caste be annihilated? One thing is for sure, caste is a very complicated entity as its behaviour and methodology changes and evolves with time and across geographical boundaries. It is exactly as Wendy Doniger defines the dual visions of Hindus in the preface to her book 'The Hindus: an alternative history'. The metaphor goes like this: "the image of a man in the moon who is also a rabbit in the moon, or the duck who is also a rabbit". So dealing with caste becomes very problematic because it can exist in this way across time and space and still provide privilege and hegemony in a hierarchical order.

So the most important thing to keep in mind when dealing with caste is that it does not just exist as a social phenomenon but as a cultural and philosophical thing. That's why the existological question of whether caste exists now or not is not valid, because it is actually in the philosophy of the everyday life and practice of Indians. However, in order to understand this evolution and its methodology, we need to understand the phenomenology of caste. So I'm going to take one particular aspect called intelligence, which is a caste quality according to Brahmanical philosophy and the caste system, and describe how it is interpreted to support the Brahmanical discourse.

Intelligence and the Brain - Brahmanical interpretations

Though I say that caste is a philosophy in itself, we must understand that it affects not only as a whole, but each space, each discourse and each sphere specifically. For example, if we take a human body, caste as a philosophical subject affects each part of the body individually and puts them into individual and separate philosophical moulds.

To validate my argument, let's take the case of a person's intelligence or intellectuality. In the Indian social context, these values are often associated with certain caste bodies. That is, they are seen as the natural qualities of the 'higher' castes. Gandhi's remark about Ambedkar that he thought Ambedkar was a Brahmin because he was an intellectual comes from this.

In earlier times, the oppressor castes argued that it was a natural difference that came from God Himself, but as the realm of science developed in the new era, along came the understanding of the brain and its activities, which helped us understand the brain as the source of intelligence. So the interpretation evolved as the association of caste with intelligence penetrated the scientific realm as the caste evolved philosophically and clung to it. The complexity of the brain's existence and brahmanical public and cultural consciousness has made this transition smooth :the brain is not something that can be physically pointed at or empirically experienced like the heart or the legs or even the stomach.

In the case of the heart, we can hear it throbbing when we put our hands on the chest, but the brain is for us like a third person or something that exists somewhere else. So if someone says that Brahmins have more heartbeats than others, we can easily prove them wrong. But if they say that the IQ of a Brahmin is higher than others by showing their dominance in various power holding institutions, then there is a philosophical dilemma to invalidate the argument because the brain exists as a third person or something outside our experience.

This ambiguity arises because of the everyday phenomenology of caste, which renders socio-cultural capital completely invisible, and so this caste link between brain and intelligence is also used to discredit arguments against Brahmanism. That is, the representation of the brain is such that it is seen as a small version of the religious concept of higher authority. According to Indian Brahminical philosophies, a Brahmin is considered equal to God or to God Himself. If anyone challenges this argument, they will again tell us about the achievements of Brahmins and the higher positions they hold in academia, the judiciary, the executive, the legislature and other professions, and conclude that a Brahmin's brain is very intelligent. In a way, this extends the higher authority given to the brain to the Brahmin himself. That is, the brain of a Brahmin is very intelligent only because he himself is a divine figure and that is why he is special. So they argue that there is a caste hierarchy for brains in India.

The French philosopher Catherine Malabou, in her work 'What Should We Do with Our Brain', considers the brain itself as a philosophy rather than a material object or organ, as opposed to the Brahmanical theory. According to her, we should understand the brain not as an organ with definite shapes and dimensions, but as a work. This means that the brain is not something that is in our heads, but something that is distributed throughout the body. And it doesn't just remain as something that constitutes bodily functions, but as a cultural intervention. It is something that extends outside the physical body in accordance with the socio-political and cultural location and as an entity that controls it. As Malabou defines it, the brain is a plastic material. That's how it can be a work, because a plastic material has plasticity, it can be shaped. That is to say, it can be shaped according to the socio-political and cultural situation, so that we cannot say that a person is intelligent by birth, but that we can understand intelligence as a combination of privileges and resources. So it is impossible for intelligence to be something associated with birth.

So what happens in the everyday practice and phenomenology of an Indian citizen is that they are forced to understand the brain as something covered within Brahmanical philosophy rather than as a philosophy itself. The complicated nature of the brain helps the oppressors to use it to their advantage because they have socio-cultural capital. Since caste also exists within the linguistic realm, it is very much embedded in the daily consciousness of an Indian person. So unless we understand the boundary and vision of Brahminical philosophy and replace it with a cultural philosophy of social justice, it will be difficult to annihilate caste.


Anandu Raj is a writer and social thinker from Kottayam, Kerala.