Monday, February 11, 2008

Down with brahmins, up with brahmanical values seemed to be the undeclared motto of the reformers

Title : A long ethnocentric barrier Author : Meenakshi Jain Publication : The Hindustan Times Date : February 24, 1997
The political scene in India seems stalemated with no party able to make the great leap forward. The ubiquitous caste factor appears to be once again at work, its long arm preventing cross-varna alliances. Uttar Pradesh may be an obvious victim, but the malaise affects the entire union.
In this deadlocked situation it may seem perverse to claim that a homogenised Hindu society is very much in the offing - a social order, sanskritised and brahmanised to a degree never before in the country's history. The widespread anti-brahmin sentiments notwithstanding, we seem forward bound.
The roots of this development can be traced to the reform movement two hundred years ago when a concerted effort began to remake Hindu society. Down with brahmins, up with brahmanical values seemed to be the undeclared motto of the reformers. It was this apparent paradox that led scholars to describe socio-religious reform in Hindu India as "double-edged sword" that tended to reinforce superior values even as it sought to undermine superiority itself.
Till about a hundred years ago, village goddesses as localised forms of Devi - the Goddess - constituted the single most important category of deities worshipped in the Indian countryside. In contrast to the great gods who were linked to the universe as celestial space, goddesses were tied to the world and the earth. Bhudevi, for instance, was earth divinized.
The divinity rubbed off on the village goddesses as well. They were the presiding deities of their little kingdoms, their sovereignty being coterminous with the boundaries of the settlement. They were responsible for the protection of the populace within the village precincts. Agricultural production and human reproduction were also dependent on their grace. Thus Village India was dotted with countless shrines of mata, amman, and so on. Whatever their local name or form, all village goddesses shared certain common features. The vast majority were represented without male consorts. Though not necessarily unmarried, they stood alone in their temples. The Tamil village goddess Angalamman, for example, was depicted both as an auspicious married woman with sons, and as a virgin without husbands. In both cases the male consort was absent.
Goddesses could stand and act alone because they embodied shakti, the energising power. Such single goddesses, however, were generally perceived as dangerous, quickly angered and bloodthirsty. They demanded animal sacrifices as appeasement, a trait which further set them apart from the great deities of Hinduism who., were, all vegetarian.
But in the modern era, village goddesses underwent a metamorphosis. Dietary reform now became the rage. The brahmanical commitment to vegetarianism was elevated to an all-India ideal. Overnight, Mahatma Gandhi made it the new moral imperative. By making all Hindus pure and superior, he struck a powerful blow at caste inequality.
The emphasis on vegetarianism had a telling effect on the position of the village goddesses. Here, too, Gujarat led the way. The state had witnessed powerful Vaishnava devotionalist movements which vigorously opposed animal sacrifices. This triggered off a reform of village goddesses. They were either made vegetarian, or, if they still demanded animal sacrifices, abandoned. The overall result was a marked decline in the popularity of village goddesses.
This phenomena, though most pronounced in Gujarat, is visible elsewhere as well. Distinctions between the so-called high and low deities are dissolving right across the board. C. J. Fuller writes, "reformist pressure tends to make all gods and goddesses the same; they must all be vegetarians who never get blood sacrifices. Obey must, in other words, all be converted into Superior 'Sanskritic' deities, so that divinity - by a new path - is made uniform and substantial, rather than variable and relational."
Village goddesses are not the only category to be transformed. When the government of independent India granted Harijans entry into temples, the purity of the high castes and their very idea of worship was endangered. In such a situation the only viable solution was the reform of Untouchables so that they would not longer be "abettors of impurity." Since they were traditionally associated with animal sacrifices, reforming Harijans entailed the abolition of sacrifices.
It would be disingenuous to assert that India has abolished all forms of separatism and realised the twentieth century dream of a classless world order. Ale point is that Hindu society is being reconstituted and the political crisis reflects the flux.
As in the case of religion, society, too, is being streamlined. Varna solidarity is replacing jati consciousness, as the local is rising to regional and national stature. The millenia - old hierarchical ranking is no longer legitimate. Caste equality is the in slogan, a situation which has prompted many old timers to complain that "there is no caste left."
This process is vertical decline and horizontal growth has been called the "ethnicisation of caste." The new ethnic caste identity is often expressed as a Hindu identity. 'Re symbols of Hindu identity and the new ethnic caste identity are routinely interchanged. Many castes insist that their distinctive caste culture is a manifestation of Hindutva, or Hinduness. But clearly, the process is not yet advanced enough to pull us out of the present quagmire.

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