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The Brahman Strategic Syncretism

Image Credit: South Asia Monitor
The Brahman Strategic Syncretism

Hinduism is “dharma” or a code of conduct; a disjoint from fundamentals is at the locus of its peculiarity. Its amorphism personifies its millennial survival and resilience. It is identified as one of the world’s oldest surviving religions with a recorded history of around 3500 years. However, the very essence of this inclusive and pluralistic faith is under attack by its adherents in the Bhartiya Janata Party (BJP), which rose to the throne of New Delhi by exploiting communal divides. This process of elite manipulation in India has been mobilised on two cultural symbols, communalism and casteism. Historically, a small caste-elite called the Brahmans, comprising around 5% of the total Indian population has been able to control the power, resources, and prestige in the Indian power structure. They have been instrumentalising bias against the Muslims and lower-caste Dalits; who comprise around 15% and 16.6%  of the population, respectively.

To sustain its cultural preponderance; the Brahman elite invented Hindu cultural nationalism through what Christopher Jefferlot refers to as “strategic syncretism”. It is syncretic because the new Hindu identity assimilated other incompatible groups’ cultural values, and strategic because this assimilation was essentially confining rather than cosmopolitanising. The syncretic effect is apparent from several socio-religious movements that sprang during the colonial period. The first among many was the Brahmo Samajh, which aimed to reverse the Vedic faith’s adulteration by social vices of “sati” and “jati.  Then came the Arya Samajh led by Swami Dayananda who refuted the concept of illegal social hierarchies based on “jati“. However, Arya Samajh legitimised the significance of “varnas” (castes) based on socio-economic complementarity. This syncretic process was crystallised by the rise of the Hindu Sabha and the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) complex. They incorporated the egalitarian values of Christians and Muslims, with a strategic goal of carving out a Hindu “Rashtra” (state) from British India by gaining decisive electoral leverage over the Muslims.

Essentialising Identities: Colonial Threat to the Brahman Elite 

Identity in the Indian sub-continent remained fluid over the centuries. However, the British’s introduction of a classification scheme generated the reification of castes and community differences. These traditional symbols were mobilised to maintain  British control over the subcontinent. This process created categorical identities of othering, where differences were essentialised, institutionalised, and operationalised.

The caste consciousness within the Hindu fold generated splintered movements affecting the electoral power of the Brahman elites. Nevertheless, they instrumentalised religio-cultural symbols to diffuse these movements. Apart from the lower-caste Dalits, further reformist movements, be it Sikhism or other belief systems splintered off from Hinduism like Jainism and Buddhism, were integrated into a united front to gain decisive electoral leverage over the Muslims who were considered foreigners. The strategy was, however, reversed soon on account of the partition of British India in 1947. However, this did not halt the forces of homogenisation led by the caste-elites. The Indian polity’s internal contradictions came to the foreground soon after the very founder of India, Mahatma Gandhi, was shot dead by Godse, who was an ardent follower of the RSS. This event alone epitomised the role of caste-community significance in the Indian political spectrum.

Operationalizing Brahmanism: Syncretic Revisionism 

Power in India is historically associated with the upper-caste Brahmans. Other communities in India appear to be swimming against the tide of social, political, and religious marginalisation imposed upon them through organised formal and informal processes. The main power, however, is consolidated in the hands of the Brahmans. They continue to pull strings with absolute impunity. More so, the trending hashtags like “Brahman Lives Matter” is one of the most apparent appropriations of a non-issue, as Brahmans are under no threat. By labelling the oppressor as a victim, new narratives are produced that legitimise the Brahman reactionary move towards those that they have dehumanised for aeons.

By labelling the oppressor as a victim, new narratives are produced that legitimise the Brahman reactionary move towards those that they have dehumanised for aeons.

Though shakha, where members of different castes come together for a physical exercise aimed at working voluntarily under the saffron flag, gives an illusion of caste solidarity within the RSS, its purpose remains revisionist. Besides, there is both an internal and external challenge to the Brahman civilisational vigour. The internal differences of political ideologies, caste, and religion are dealt with at the state level politics, and the centre politics gives a smokescreen of unanimity. These differences are prevalent in the contemporary discords holding historical roots.

The abrogation of Article 370 from the Indian constitution asserts the inherent target of homogenising India into a Brahman-led state where their civilisational superiority is unadulterated. Hence, Muslim students are forced to sing “Vande Mataram” that is antagonistic to the Muslim faith. Similarly, the Sikhs of Punjab are holding a Farmer’s Movement against the BJP-led government on the oligopolistic nature of the new agricultural amendments which can affect their bargaining leverage. Likewise, the Jawaharlal Nehru University incident earlier this year also marks the growing intolerance of the ruling party towards political differences. The power of “lathi” has since been used to dismantle dissidence and silence any sane voice.

India appears to be in a tug of war between a civilisational force led solely by the Brahmans and the force of modernism.

On the other hand, the lower-caste Hindus are not being spared either. Ambedkarism, which is the ideology of an egalitarian and merit-based Indian polity, has been put to the back burner by extinguishing the anti-Brahman sentiments. The emblematic moves like the rapes of the Dalit women by the upper-caste men seek to reinforce the Brahman masculinity.

The above-discussed segregation process within the Indian society is not primarily religious rather communitarian, where a small caste-community is inventing new narratives of nationalism. The new nationalism in India is deeply revisionist, parochial, and strategic. These developments are not new but have prevailed since time immemorial. The Brahman cult has also instrumentalised democracy to consolidate their worldview, both within their religion and vis-à-vis other religions. India appears to be in a tug of war between a civilisational force led solely by the Brahmans and the force of modernism.

Consolidating the Brahman Cult

The rise of the BJP associated with the increase in Hindu fundamentalism is an erroneous concept. As we have maintained that Hinduism is “dharma” rather than an immutable system of faith, like Abrahamic religions, there exists no integrity in its order of social structure as it is subject to change and manipulation over time. The rising intolerance in India is essentially due to the years-long organised process of elite revisionism starting from Golwalkar to today’s Modi.

Therefore, the Hindu nationalism born out of strategic syncretism is not purely Hindu but elitist. The process of assimilation has profoundly transformed the very essence of Hinduism. Strategic syncretism as an approach was instrumentalised during the colonial period. It was aimed at the sustenance of the Hindu caste-elites, yet it is employed in the contemporary times for Hindu revisionism. The type of Hindu cultural nationalism we witness from the BJP is upper-caste communitarianism. It instrumentalises syncretic norms to maintain the power and cultural equilibrium, and a mirage of development appears for the strategic aim of establishing a Hindu “Rashtra“. This process has dire implications for both the caste-based communities and religious communities, within and outside India.

The Brahman cult aims at re-establishing its traditional superiority by instrumentalising democracy and manipulating its principles while creating a façade of tolerance and coexistence.

India’s magnificent rainbow of cultural, linguistic, and religious colours is under dire threat. The Brahman cult aims at re-establishing its traditional superiority by instrumentalising democracy and manipulating its principles while creating a façade of tolerance and coexistence. It has exploited the fault-lines of democracy and Indianised it since time immemorial. Thus, the BJP has reinvented the exclusionary narrative of nationalism that is inherently communitarianism, based on Brahman power politics.

The question is; whether the larger Indian society will get over the Brahman hangover, or will the civilisation-state of the Brahmans compromise the inherent splendour and resilience of Hinduism?

Rida Fatima

Rida Fatima is a graduate of the School of Politics and International Relations, Quaid -I-Azam University. She serves as a Research Assistant at the Centre for Strategic and Contemporary Research.

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