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Friday, June 2, 2023

Will the targeting of Brahmins ever end?

One of the first lessons which was taught to us as children was “Two wrongs do not make a right”. This a rejection of lex talionis or the law of retaliation – that a punishment inflicted should correspond in degree and kind to the offense of the wrongdoer; in layman’s terms, an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth.

Lex talionis is the law of tribal societies based on balanced opposition among groups, potential retribution being the main form of deterrence against attack. But what worked in tribal societies does not necessarily work in complex civil societies, particularly in liberal democracies. Civil societies require civility; replying to injury by injuring back is a violation of civility, lowering all parties to savage behaviour.

Yet, these elementary principles have been thrown to the wind for decades by the very persons who claim to be champions of social justice – politicians, activists, academicians, etc. and what is being seen today is a form of retributive justice against Brahmins.

Be it supporters of E. V. Ramaswamy Naicker (Periyar), who is known to have once said, “If you see a snake and a Brahmin on the road, kill the Brahmin first”, or more recently the former Chief Minister of Bihar, Jitan Ram Manjhi, who used the word “haraami” to describe pandits, there is no gainsaying that there has been and still is an insidious, simmering resentment against the community.

Reports have surfaced of their tufts and sacred threads being cut, them being compared with pigs, threatened with rape, and even subjected to physical violence, all in the name of anti-Brahminism. Even Dr. B. R. Ambedkar, venerated though he is by parties across the political spectrum, was known to speak of Brahmins in unflattering terms, such as:

“Historically they (Brahmins) have been the most inveterate enemy of the servile classes (Shudras and the Untouchables) who together constitute about 80 per cent of the total Hindu population. If the common man belonging to the servile classes in India is today so fallen, so degraded, so devoid of hope and ambition, it is entirely due to the Brahmins and their philosophy… There is no social evil and no social wrong to which the Brahmin does not give his support. Man’s inhumanity to man, such as the feeling of caste, untouchability, unapproachability and unseeability is a religion to him.”

Fashionable among anti-Hindu, Marxist, radical religious and separatist outfits, this is an ideology which is premised upon two faulty assumptions – that Brahmins were responsible for atrocities inflicted upon the lower castes, particularly Dalits; and secondly, that they, on account of their superior position in the caste – based hierarchical social order, have had more access to education and consequently, are not only more propserous but have a disproportionately higher representation in the echelons of the bureaucracy, judiciary, media, corporate organisations, and so on.

However, it is not very difficult to deconstruct  narratives. It may be that brutalities were perpetrated against the marginalized sections of society, but is there any evidence to suggest that Brahmins alone behind it? As Dr. Prakash Shah puts it, “virtually all the violence in Tamil Nadu against Scheduled Castes was by other lower castes, not Brahmins who have in any case left the villages.”

That apart, even in other parts of Bharat, caste related violence has been attributed to non-Brahmin communities, both upper and lower caste. Take the case of the 2006 Khairlanji massacre where a group of villagers, mostly Kunbis, sexually assaulted and murdered members of the family of Bhaiyyalal Bhotmange, who belonged to the Mahar community. While the Mahars are Dalit, the Kunbi are classified as an Other Backward Class by the Bharatiya government. Yet, there was no backlash against the Kunbi community as a whole.

Moreover, it would be factually incorrect to say that it is the lower castes alone who have been the victims of all caste – related violence. To cite just one instance, in 1948, following the assassination of Mahatma Gandhi,  thousands of Chitpavan Brahmins, the community to which Nathuram Godse belonged, were massacred by Congress workers, a pogrom which soon took a casteist turn with the Marathas joining the killer’s bandwagon, the social tension between the two dating back to the days of the Peshwa-Shivaji hostility.

And coming to the second argument, there is not an iota of empirical caste-wise data to suggest Brahminical hegemony in the echelons of any field. On the contrary, regarding the appointment of judges in the Madras High Court, Dr. Abhinav Chandrachud writes in his book, ‘Supreme Whispers:

“In June 1983, Justice Rajagopala Ayyangar told Gadbois that the backward community got all the advantages, that there were only a handful of Brahmins at the Madras High Court at that time. Likewise, TV Balakrishnan, son of the 1950s Supreme Court judge TLV Ayyar, said that since 1960, appointments to the Madras High Court were made on the basis of community and caste, that members of the forward community were discriminated against at that court and appointed late, and that there were just two Brahmins at the high court by June 1983.”

Even otherwise, it is absurd to think of Brahmins as an affluent, pampered class as a whole. Such perceptions belongs to the realm of myth or stereotype as is evident from the fact when the Kanpur Municipal Corporation invited applications in 2016 to fill in 3,275 vacancies for the post of a safai-karmachari, a job usually considered as menial, no less than one lakh Brahmins applied for the post.

The situation is not too different in the rest of Bharat. As Francois Gautier’s states in his 2006 article, ‘Are Brahmins the Dalits of today?’:

  • There are 50 Sulabh Shauchalayas in Delhi; all of them are cleaned and looked after by Brahmins. The institution itself was founded by Bindeshwar Pathak, a Brahmin.
  • 50 per cent of rickshaw pullers in Delhi’s Patel Nagar are Brahmins who like their brethren have moved to the city looking for jobs on account of lack of employment opportunities and poor education in their villages. These men make about Rs 100 to Rs 150 on an average every day from which they pay a daily rent of Rs 25 for their rickshaws and Rs 500 to Rs 600 towards the rent of their rooms which is shared by 3 to 4 people or their families.
  • Most rickshaw pullers in Banaras too are Brahmins.
  • 400,000 Brahmins of the Kashmir valley, the once respected Kashmiri Pandits, now live as refugees in their own country, sometimes in refugee camps in Jammu and Delhi in appalling conditions.

In the Southern Bharat too, the condition is not very different. The following extract from Meenakshi Jain’s article, ‘The plight of Brahmins’, published in the Indian Express in 1990, paints a similar picture:

“Them myth of the omnipotent Brahmin had been so successfully sold that most Indians missed the overwhelming evidence to the contrary. In recent years, however, a number of studies have appeared that detail the downward mobility that has been the chief characteristic of the Brahmin community particularly since independence.

Financially, the Brahmins have been very hard hit. State laws combined with fragmentation of land have had the effect of substantially reducing the size of family holdings so much so that most Brahmins today find it difficult to eke out a living from land. Traditional occupations like family and temple priesthood, recitation of the Vedas and practice of Ayurvedic medicine no longer prove remunerative nor command respect.

A study of the Brahmin community in a district in Andhra Pradesh (Brahmins of India by J.Radhakrishna, published by Chugh Publications) reveals that all purohits today live below the poverty line.  Eighty per cent of those surveyed stated that their poverty and traditional style of dress and tuft had made them the butt of ridicule. Financial constraints coupled with the existing system of reservations for the “backward classes” prevented them from providing secular education to their children.

In fact according to this study there has been an overall decline in the number of Brahmin students. The average income of Brahmins being less than that of non-Brahmins, a high percentage of Brahmin students drop out at the intermediate level.

In the 5-18 year age group, 44 per cent Brahmin students stopped education at the primary level and 36 per cent at the pre-matriculation level. The study also found that 55 per cent of all Brahmins lived below the poverty line that is below a per capita income of Rs.65 a month. Since 45 per cent of the total population of India is officially stated to be below the poverty line it follows that the percentage of destitute Brahmins is 10 per cent higher than the all-India figure. There is no reason to believe that the condition of Brahmins in other parts of the country is different.

In this connection it would be revealing to quote the per capita income of various communities as stated by the Karnataka Finance Minister in the State Assembly on July 1, 1978: Christian Rs 1562, Vokkaligas Rs 914, Muslims Rs 794, Scheduled caste Rs 680, Scheduled Tribes Rs 577 and Brahmins Rs 537.

Appalling poverty compelled many Brahmins to migrate to towns leading to spatial dispersal and consequent decline in their local influence and institutions. Brahmins initially turned to government jobs and modern occupations such as law and medicine. But preferential policies for the non-Brahmins have forced the Brahmins to retreat in these spheres as well. According to the Andhra Pradesh study, the largest percentage of Brahmins today are employed as domestic servants. The unemployment rate among them is as high as 75 per cent.”

So what does it mean when Jack Dorsey, the then CEO of Twitter, surrounded by female journalists, holds a poster entitled, “Smash Brahminical patriarchy” or when volunteers of a pro-Dravidian group hold a thread ceremony for pigs on a Chennai road as a form of protest against Brahminism?

The truth is that Brahmins have become the perfect scapegoats for just about everything and everybody. The country is not progressing – blame it on the irrationality and superstitutions propagated by the Brahmins. There is too much unemployment – it is because the Brahmins have taken up all the jobs. Inequality is widening – thanks to the birth based privileges and entitlement of the Brahmins. Dalits are being attacked – the attackers cannot be anyone else but Brahmins.

After all, why bother actually addressing the real issues such as development, job creation, providing opportunities to the needy, and maintaining law and order, when you have a one-size-fits-all solution for every malady in the country?

In fact, this inexplicable animosity towards an entire community bares striking similarities to the institutuionalised hatred towards Jews in Nazi Germany, the only difference being that in the Indian setup, State support is more tacit, unlike Hitler who made no bones about his anti-Semitic policies. Drawing parallels between the prevailing stereotypes about Brahmins in Europe and the Jews in Europe and the treatment meted out to them, Professor Jakob de Roover writes in his 2008 Outlook article, ‘The Indian Jews’:

‘Jews have been described as devious connivers, who would do anything for personal gain. They were said to be secretive and untrustworthy, manipulating politics and the economy. In India, Brahmins are all too often characterised in the same way.

Second, the stereotypes about the Jews were part of a larger story about a historical conspiracy in which they had supposedly exploited European societies. To this day, the stories about a Jewish conspiracy against humanity prevail. The anti-Brahminical stories sound much the same, but have the Brahmins plotting against the oppressed classes in Indian society.

In both cases, historians have claimed to produce “evidence” that cannot be considered so by any standard. Typical of the ideologues of anti-Brahminism is the addition of ad hoc ploys whenever their stories are challenged by facts. When it is pointed out that the Brahmins have not been all that powerful in most parts of the country, or that they were poor in many regions, one reverts to the image of the Brahmin manipulating kings and politicians behind the scene. We cannot find empirical evidence, it is said, because of the secretive way in which Brahminism works.

Third, both in anti-Semitic Europe and anti-Brahminical India, this goes together with the interpretation of contemporary events in terms of these stories. One does not really analyse social tragedies and injustices, but approaches them as confirmations of the ideological stories. All that goes wrong in society is blamed on the minority in question. Violence against Muslims? It must be the “Brahmins” of the Sangh Parivar. Opposition against Christian missionaries and the approval of anti-conversion laws?

“Ah, the Brahmins fear that Christianity will empower the lower castes.” Members of a scheduled caste are killed? “The Brahmin wants to show the Dalit his true place in the caste hierarchy.” An OBC member loses his job; a lower caste girl is raped? “The upper castes must be behind it.” So the story goes.

This leads to a fourth parallel: in both cases, resentment against the minority in question is systematically created and reinforced among the majority. The Jews were accused of sucking all riches out of European societies. In the decades before the second World War, more and more people began to believe that it was time “to take back what was rightfully theirs.” In India also, movements have come into being that want to set right “the historical injustices of Brahminical oppression.” Some have even begun to call upon their followers to “exterminate the Brahmins.”

In Europe, state policies were implemented that expressed the discrimination against Jews. For a very long time, they could not hold certain jobs and participate in many social and economic activities. In India, one seems to be going this way with policies that claim to correct “the historical exploitation by the upper castes.” It is becoming increasingly difficult for Brahmins to get access to certain jobs. In both cases, these policies have been justified in terms of a flawed ideological story that passes for social science.

Perhaps the most tragic similarity is that some members of the minority community have internalised these stories about themselves. Some Jews began to believe that they were to blame for what happened during the Holocaust; many educated Brahmins now feel that they are guilty of historical atrocities against other groups. In some cases, this has led to a kind of identity crisis in which they vilify “Brahminism” in English-language academic debate, but continue their traditions. In other cases, the desire to “defend” these same traditions has inspired Brahmins to aggressively support Hindutva.

However, if today someone were to say that the present Germans must be made to suffer for the crimes committed by the their forefathers against the Jews, it would be considered as laughable. But on the other hand, when Brahmins in India are targeted in the name of retributive justice, hardly anyone bats an eyelid.

Nevertheless, leaders of various outfits are slowly beginning to realized that this cannot go on forever. Unlike Hitler’s Germany, every vote matters in an Indian election and while bashing Brahmins may have been politically safe once, it is not the case today. While Mamta Banerjee has announced a monthly allowance of a thousand rupees and free housing for priests, politicians from the Samajwadi Party and the Bahujan Samaj Party have both promised to build statues of Bhagwan Parshuram in an attempt to woo the Brahmin community in the run up to the 2022 U.P. Elections.

But while the sensible amongst us will treat such doles and promises with an appropriate amount of salt, one cannot help but wonder if the Brahmins themselves are responsible for their lot. Had the community, though numerically small, collectively asserted itself when the seeds of anti-Brahminism were being sown, the movement could have been nipped in the bud. Even in the Srimad Bhagavatam, Kamsa’s ministers while advising him of the need to take immediate action against the enemies, say in verse 10.4.38:

“Yathaamayo ‘nge samupekshito nrbhir,

na shakyate rudha padash cikitsitum,

yathendriya graama upekshitas tathaa,

ripur mahaan baddha balo na caalyate.”

“Just as a disease, if initially neglected, becomes acute and impossible to cure; or as the senses, if not controlled at first, are impossible to control later; an enemy, if neglected in the beginning, later becomes insurmountable.”

But alas, the problem has reached such magnitudes that destroying it seems nigh impossible. And as the Brahmins continue to toil in a so-called “egalitarian” India with barely any socio-economic privileges and a setup that systematically discriminates against them, it would appear that only Bhagwan Parshuram can save them, given that anti-Brahminism has today become a force more powerful than the corrupt Kshatriyas he was forced to exterminate.

-by Shukr Usgaokar

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  1. It’s high time that the Brahmins who are financially capable come forward and support the weaker sections among the Brahmins and help them to at least get a decent job , also making them aware that they aren’t guilty as they have been told from the very childhood


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