It is regrettable how the colonial writers could make contradicting versions on the Brahmins. They used to start the report with an admonition of the Brahmins as perpetrators of Manu neethi and caste discrimination but proceed to record the details of other castes designated as lower than Brahmins, doing their rituals with the assistance of the Brahmins. How did the writers miss the point of how the supposedly superior- most caste, could go to the houses of lower castes and do a job for a fee, if he was indeed prejudiced against them?
To cite an example, in the context of enumerating the people of Berar, the 1881 Census Report says as follows:
" Mr. Kitts writes: " "The Brahman stands first. 'By right he is,' says Manu, 'the chief of this whole creation; 'he is born above the world the chief of all creatures.' (1-a) "
Then it proceeds to arrange the other castes in a social order that the British thought right. The irony is that many of them claimed higher status as having come from kingly class and so on. There was a mention of Bel or Beldar – the equivalent of VEl of Tamilnadu who ruled Tamil lands and were praised for their philanthropy by the Sangam poets.
Yet another dignitary in the list of castes "degraded" by the British was Salivahana, the progenitor of the current Era. (sahaptha)! The British had collected the information from the people about Salivahana but hardly thought it fit to consider as a historical fact. Salivahana was born to a Kumbhar, (potter) and a Brahmin female but rose to become a legendary king. What could possibly be the social status of the caste of Salivahana? (1-b)
Grouping every citizen under some caste bracket was done by the British. Who comes before or after who was decided by the British. Even the 'caste' of "Gandhi" was discussed in the Notes written in 1883. The Gandhi was a Gandha Banik, a trader in perfumes. They came in the lineage of Koteeswaras, millionaires. They traced their lineage to 2 sources, one from Padma Purana and another to Krishna's times.
" This caste claims to be the same as the Banya of Hindustan, and traces its descent from Chandra Bhava, commonly called Chand Saudagar, "an accomplished man, the son of Kotis-Vara, the lord of crores," and Saha Saudagar, mentioned in the Padma Purana. Although this ancient lineage is assumed, the caste no longer wears the Brahamical thread; and instead of mourning like the Agarwala Banyas for thirteen, mourns like pure Sudras for thirty days." (2-a)
There is yet another story of their origins from a girl who worked for Kamsa. She was carrying sandalwood when she first met Krishna. From that time onwards she and her lineage started trading in perfumes only. (2-b)
Gandha – Banik became a caste, identified so by the British who found Gandhi to be a perfumer of any caste or religion. (3)
Like this numerous listings were made by the British with the label of superior or inferior to others. But the Brahmins always continued to occupy the top of the social ladder because Manu said so! The British also noticed that many Brahmins were poor, but that was not an issue for the British. They were only keen on identifying who were 'degraded' and how to group them as a caste.
As far as the Brahmins are concerned, the Census Reports reveal that Brahmins had conducted the functions for the so called depressed classes and even the aboriginal tribes. The situation is the same throughout India. It was also recorded that Brahmins followed "Desachar" – the customs of the country they resided. The generally catered to the needs of the people in their immediate vicinity.
In a system of self –contained village life, everyone fulfilled the needs of everybody else within their capacity. It must be noted that until half a century ago, only the females of certain castes which the British termed as degraded castes worked as mid-wives. All the babies, anywhere in India, including Brahmins babies were born with the assistance of these females during delivery. The Census Reports make a mention of them as hailing from Cobbler and Drummer castes. It was a case of division of labour and specialization in a particular job. Like them, the Brahmins also had also rendered their help to others as Purohits and for fixing auspicious times for marriage and other functions.
To quote a few examples from the census reports, even the castes mentioned as Shudras, such as the Ahirs and Gauriya people of Bengal had engaged Patit Brahmins in their religious ceremonies. This shows that Shudras did follow Vedic customs. (4)
The cultivators of Oudh namely Ayodhya Kurmins had employed Sakaladweep Brahmins to officiate their functions. (5)
The Kumhars, the lowest of the potter types engaged Brahmins for death related ceremonies.(6)
The various sub divisions of potters, Chhatris and out casted Mags were helped by Brahmins in their religious ceremonies. The Chhatris of East Bengal employed Saraswati Brahmins! The Kandho people, a sub division of Chandalas did their rituals with the help of Brahmins! (7)
Within the depressed classes there are further differences of one caste not sitting on par with others or not partaking food from others. But the Brahmin had not differentiated them nor treated them as untouchables and had acceded their request to officiate the rituals. The report also says that Brahmins officiated the ceremonies of Chandals!
"The Chandals of Eastern Bengal have only one gotra, the Kasyapa, and the large majority are Vaishnavas in creed. They have a Patit Brahman of their own, but he is not so necessary to them as to the Sudra castes. The washerman and barber are Chandals, as professional workmen decline to assist them. The Bhuinmali is loth to work for them, there being much secret jealousy between the castes, which in some places has broken out into open feuds. At village festivals the Chandal is treated as equal in rank with the Bhuinmali and Chamar, and obliged to put off his shoes before he sits down in the assembly. The clean Sudra castes occasionally, and the unclean tribes always, sit with the Chandal, and at times will accept his dry pipe. Nevertheless, vile as he is according to Hindu notions, the Chandal is polluted if he touches the stool on which a Sunri is sitting. Furthermore, the Sudra Brahmans will nowadays eat food in a rich Chandal's house, and a Srotriya will accept of a meal, but not partake of it within his walls, although were he to do so in the utterly vile Saha's, he would be irretrievably lost." (8)
The Dhangars of Maharashtra who are currently agitating to get the Schedules tribe status used to get the services of Brahmins for the marriage ceremonies, according to the records of the 1881 census. The Dhangars themselves had their own rules of discrimination among others. They did not touch a wet bone of a cow or buffalo thinking that it would cause pollution; but a dry bone, may be touched without loss of caste. Similarly, the touch of a dead ox, cow, or buffalo entails pollution, while the carcase of a dog, cat, donkey, or horse may be touched. Eating in a Mahammedan's house, provided beef was not touched, brings only temporary pollution; but the eating of beef, either accidently or intentionally, or dining with a Dhobi, or low caste man, entails permanent loss of caste. (9)
All these were not taught to them or fed to them by the Brahmins. Like this each caste or group of people had their own prohibitions and prejudices which were not thrust on them by anybody but evolved due to certain reasons in course of time. In such a background, singling out the Brahmins as root cause for creating the divisions is wrong. This was the handiwork of the British which the Dravidian chauvinists adopted without hesitation.
Most castes had recorded in the census reports of the 19th century that they either employed Brahmins for conducting rituals or sought their help in fixing auspicious times for their ceremonies. No record of refusal by the Brahmins is found .
What is more, even the Muslims – most of whom were converts against their wishes were conducting their Hindu ceremonies until the beginning of the 20th century.
The Report of Census 1901 makes a significant record of facts of how Muslims in core Muslim areas of Baluchisthan and other areas continued to worship Hindu deities and followed Hindu customs. The highlight of this is that Brahmins had officiated their ceremonies of Hindu customs! Here are the details:-
" (3) Rajputana and Baluchistan.
656. In Rajputana the Muhammadans of local origin "still retain their ancient Hindu customs and ideas. The local saints and deities are regularly worshipped, the Bráhman officiates at all family ceremonial side by side with the Musalman priest, and if in matters of creed they are Muhammadans, in matters of form they are Hindus." (10-a)
"Before the recent crusade against idolatry it was the regular practice of low class Muhammadans to join in the Durgá Pujá and other Hindu religious festivals, and although they have been purged of many superstitions many still remain. In particular they are very careful about omens and aspicious days. Dates for weddings are often fixed after consulting a Hindu astrologer; bamboos are not cut, nor the building of new houses commenced, on certain days of the week, and journeys are often undertaken only after referring to the Hindu Almanac to see if the proposed day is auspicious.
When disease is prevalent Sitalá and Rakshyá Káli are worshipped. Dharmaráj, Manasá, and Bishahari are also venerated by many ignorant Muhaminadans.* Sasthi is worshipped when a child is born. Even now in some parts of Bengal they observe the Durgá Pujá and buy new clothes for the festival like the Hindus.
In Bihar they join in the worship of the Sun, and when a child is born they light a fire and place cactus and a sword at the door to prevent the demon Jawán from entering and killing the infant. At marriage the bridegroom often follows the Hindu practice of smearing the bride's forehead with vermilion, In the-Sonthal Parganas Muhammadans are often seen to carry sacred water to the shrine of Baidyanáth and, as they may not enter the shrine, pour it as a libation on the outside verandah. Offerings are made to the Grámya devatá before sowing or transplanting rice seedlings, and exorcism is resorted to in case of sickness. Ghosts are propitiated by offerings of black fowls and pigeons before a figure drawn in vermilion on a plantain leaf. These practices are gradually disappearing, but they die hard, and amulets containing a text from the Koran are commonly worn, even by the Mullahs who inveigh against these survivals of Hindu beliefs. "(10-b)
The report from Dacca (east Bengal) says how the Muslims still continued their Hindu memories while keeping a distance from the Christians! They bathed on touching a Christian as it amounted to pollution!
Under pretence of greater sanctity and stricter orthodoxy they unconsciously practice many other Hindu usages; thus, on touching a Christian they bathe, and on his entering their houses, throw away all cooked food or drinking water. (11)
What is made out from this is that centuries of existence as Muslim converts did not change them. Until 1901, they had followed the Hindu customs. If only the situation was made conducive by the Hindu reformists and the government of the day, most Muslims would have come back to their parental Hindu fold. But within the last one century they were made to forget their roots.
This narration takes us to 2 diverging scenarios that are needed to be discussed. One was how Brahmins who were ready to help the Muslim converts on one side by conducting the religious ceremonies, had kept a distance from those of the others who ate beef and killed cows. The much talked about woes of the Paraiahs can be traced to this.
Another thread is why some castes refused to accept Brahmins – a case exploited by Dravidian Chauvinists to accuse Brahmins – while the fact was that a majority of people including Chandalas engaged Brahmins for their rituals. This thread will take us to a historical story which the British took up as a proof for Brahmin domination. Such an interpretation of that story was absurd from the point of view of a Hindu, for it was the story of Parasurama, an Avatar of Vishnu! We will take up this issue in the next post before moving to the Paraiahs.
(to be continued)
(3) James Wise , ( 1883 ), Notes on the Races, Castes and Trades of Eastern Bengal , London , Her Majesty's printer Harrison and Sons , p. 280
(4) http://www.chaf.lib.latrobe.edu.au/dcd/page.php?title=&action=next&record=4271 Notes on the Races, Castes and Trades of Eastern Bengal , 1883 report.
(10) a&b - H.H. Risley and E.A. Gait , ( 1903 ), REPORT ON THE CENSUS OF INDIA, 1901 , Calcutta , Superintendent of Government Printing , p. 375 http://www.chaf.lib.latrobe.edu.au/dcd/page.php?title=&record=1514