The Mallik brothers, Jagmohan and Harimohan, are as different in temperament as day is with evening. The elder, Jagmohan, is a rationalist, a past master in the art of disputation. The younger brother, Harimohan, is a devout soul, faultless in his services to the cow and the Brahmin. While the latter indiscriminately pays obeisance to the gods, the former only acknowledges what he terms the sajib or the ‘full-of-life’. To counter Harimohan’s fervour for set rituals and daily recital of scriptures, Jagmohan, in line with his idea of the sajib, regularly hosts meals for the ‘animated’ in the shape of Muslims and untouchable Chamars. And then, in order to neutralise the sins incurred by his elder brother’s unheard-of effrontery, Harimohan feels compelled to organise elaborate feasts for BrahmINS, and Brahmins alone. Sick and tired of the endless cycle of defilement and purification, the younger brother at one point approaches the precincts of (colonial) law. Harimohan pleads that because of his despicable predilections, Jagmohan has forfeited the right to continue as a trustee of the Mallik devatra property. To get the judgment in his favour, Harimohan does not need to resort to bribes or other such dubious means. For, although an elite-caste Bengali by birth, Jagmohan has no compunction in declaring in court that he does not believe in gods, has no respect for taboos surrounding diet, has no objection to dining with Muslims, and, of all things, he does not know from which part of Brahma’s body Muslims have sprung. Following this candid testimonial, the district judge faces no legal obstacle in releasing Jagmohan from the responsibilities of the ‘sacrosanct’ property’s trusteeship.
The two brothers make their first ‘public’ appearance in Rabindranath Tagore’s 1916 novel Chaturanga (Quartet).
Jagmohan’s ‘ignorance’ regarding the organ of Brahma which had sourced the Muslim was a ploy to make flagrant the ‘Purusha Sukta’ or Rig Veda 10.90. More specifically, its twelfth stanza. 10.90.12, states: “When the Purusha (primeval man) was divided, his mouth became Brahmin, his arms Kshatriya, his thighs Vaishya and Shudra sprang from his feet.” To the likes of Harimohan, this Vedic pronouncement is not just ‘primeval’ and therefore inviolable, but foundational for every tenet apropos varna hierarchy. To the likes of Jagmohan, what matters more is the unsaid aspect of 10.90.12. They suspect that the twelfth stanza passes over, pushes out exactly those elements without whose support the discursive closure it parades could never have been achieved in the first place. But then, how does one lay bare the structural incompleteness of a presupposed self-sufficient discourse? Simple: locate a symptom; ie, highlight the element which, though extraneous to the enclosed ideological field, is absolutely necessary for the accomplishment of the field’s closure. Jagmohan employs the same trick of rupture. He transforms the populace left unaccounted for in the sukta, ie, those who are ‘impure’ by birth, products of union between unequal varnas, into symptoms of sorts. He zeroes in upon the telling blank in the tale of genesis of uncontaminated varnas/savarnas. The word ‘Muslim’ in Jagmohan’s proclamation—in which he substitutes ‘purusha’ by Brahma the Creator—is emblematic of every breed of the excluded who are nonetheless organic to the constitution of ‘pure’ selves.
The same year as Chaturanga came out, B.R. Ambedkar (1891-1956) presented a paper at an anthropology seminar in Columbia University titled Castes in India: Their Mechanism, Genesis and Development (published in The Indian Antiquary, 1917). In sharp contrast to Tagore’s Jagmohan, Ambedkar’s refutation of Brahminism does not stem from a sympathetic understanding of the downtrodden; instead, his rebuttal of scriptural niceties, be it the Purusha Sukta or the laws of Manu, besides being highly informed, come from the felt need of empathy with the population physically bearing the burden of priestly strictures. Epistemological considerations give to Jagmohan’s disputations the shade of irony; born as he was into a poor as well as untouchable-by-status avarna family, the ontological situation accords to Ambedkar’s disputations the metier of fury. Simmering with rage and punctilious in textual scrutiny, Ambedkar launches his attacks on Brahminical books from within the ‘blank’ that those books construe. Thus, the Fierce Untouchable’s reading of pre-modern Indian texts, in place of being merely theoretical, is invariably symptomatic in the sense of being ‘human sensuous activity’ or ‘practice’—to borrow Karl Marx’s terminologies, precisely because Ambedkar’s act of reading is an instance of ‘practical-activity’; it is ‘revolutionary’.
In Castes in India, Ambedkar contends, “class and caste, so to say, are next-door neighbours”. Next, he spells out a paradox: although “a caste is an enclosed class” and the Brahmin alone has succeeded in raising an ‘enclosure’ around itself, the “mechanism of the caste system” is such that no caste can afford to be “an isolated unit”. To crack the paradox of having an apparently enclosed unit at the apex, which is at the same moment surrounded by castes “complementary to one another”, Ambedkar embarked upon the project of systematic decentering of the phantasmal organisation. The question that drove him was how did some close the door and others found it closed against them.
To clarify the twisted relationship between two heavyweight categories, Ambedkar put forward the thesis in his essay Caste and Class that while caste was a “perversion of varna”, it had “borrowed the class system from the varna system”. Closing the essay with a kind of flourish, Ambedkar says there that leaving out the ‘class cleavage’ between the savarna and the avarna was akin to relating a fairy tale sans witches, goblins, ogres. But first, it was an imperative on his part to interrogate the genesis of varna. After all, if “caste [had] completely perverted” the idea of varna, then an investigation in the matter of the making of the varna was urgently called for.
Ambedkar rejuvenated the ‘eternal conflict’ between Brahmins and Shramanas—the blueprint for struggles in India embroiled in the caste-class nexus.
It is no wonder that a number of Ambedkar’s texts carry the expression, ‘Who Were They?’ in their titles. This interrogative phrase vis-a-vis constructed identity is there in Who Were the Shudras? (1946) and Untouchables: Who Were They and Why They Became Untouchable (1948). Ambedkar discusses the construction of constructions, the chaturvarna, in Annihilation of Caste (1936). In each, the seed-question is, ‘Who were the Brahmins?’; and, this in turn, renders to the ‘purusha sukta’ a spectre-like presence in Ambedkar’s works. At times implicitly, at others explicitly—e.g., in Who Were the Shudras?—Ambedkar refers to Rig Veda 10.90. He takes on the sukta with great aplomb in Riddles in Hinduism (written around 1955; published in 1987). The sixteenth riddle of the book is called ‘The Four Varnas—Are the Brahmins sure of their origin?’. Traversing the sruti, smriti and purana-texts, from the Vedic to post-Vedic literatures, from the Ramayana to the Mahabharata, Ambedkar demonstrates that there is no unanimity as regards the constitution of the chaturvarna. In conclusion, Ambedkar exclaims: “What a chaos! Why could the Brahmins not give a uniform and consistent explanation of the origin of the four varnas?” The inescapable conclusion he draws is that the fiction of four varnas is itself founded upon the fictitious authority of 10.90.12, the entire ‘purusha sukta’ being smuggled into the Rig Veda at a much later date. Ambedkar was keenly aware of this: the (impure) thought that the ‘origin’ was itself an interpolation would be a cause for consternation for those who were vociferous in claiming that the idea of chaturvarna in its purity was enshrined in the ‘purusha sukta’. As he put it in Who Were the Shudras?, it was “bound to act like [an] atom bomb” on their dogmas.
But he could not care less.
Speaking from the void, both created by the ‘purusha sukta’ and sustained by its reiteration, Ambedkar rejuvenated, made sajiv, the ‘eternal conflict’ between the Brahmins and the Shramanas, which still provides the blue-print for struggles in India embroiled in the ‘caste-class’ nexus. And it was his feeling of closeness with anti-Brahminical forces which reached its apogee when on October 14, 1956 at Nagpur—appropriately ironic that the city houses the headquarters of the exponents of a modern version of Brahmanism—Ambedkar embraced Buddhism, one of the many Shramana thought-systems.
The author is a critic and theorist. His latest book is Three Essays on the Mahabharata: Exercises in Literary Hermeneutics