The Myth of the Gentle Brahmin
In the course of my anti-caste writing and advocacy, I’ve repeatedly come across one argument: namely, that it is unfair of me to criticise Brahmins, as they are not the ones perpetrating casteist violence. I’ve been asked many times: why am I not railing against other dominant castes who engage in violent suppression of oppressed-caste communities? Why target the Brahmins, a tiny community supposedly rooted in peacefulness?
I’ve given this some thought after a recent conversation in this vein, and the answers are manifold. First, and most obvious, is that I come from a Brahmin family. It’s my right and my duty as someone born into privilege to scrutinise my heritage and highlight every instance of bigotry I see within it. But that isn’t my only reason for critiquing my community – for the truth is that “Brahmins are wholly nonviolent” is an idea grounded not in reality, but in casteist ideals.
It is important to acknowledge that violence can be perpetrated in many ways. There is physical violence, and there is sexual violence, and there is the violence of the mind – a far subtler and slipperier thing to pinpoint. Historically, Brahmins, in their position at the top of the caste hierarchy, have used all three forms of violence against Dalit-Bahujan communities.
Take physical violence. From an ancient time, the normalisation of violence directed from privileged to oppressed castes has been rampant. In the Mahabharata, the Brahmin teacher Drona is incensed when he finds out that Ekalavya, an Adivasi youth, has been teaching himself archery and mastering it at an even more rapid pace than his golden student Arjuna. He orders Ekalavya to cut off his own right thumb as payment for the “lessons” he learnt from Drona, in order to incapacitate Ekalavya and ensure Arjuna remains the top archer in the kingdom.
Such violence is not confined to the realm of myth. Countless incidents of physical and sexual abuse across India illustrate this. In 1992, a Rajasthani Dalit woman named Bhanwari Devi tried to intervene in a child marriage, and was gang-raped in retaliation by five men. One of them was a Brahmin, a fact which was used against Bhanwari Devi when the judge presiding over her case claimed that a Brahmin man would not stoop to assault a “low” Dalit woman. In 2016 in Uttar Pradesh, a Dalit man celebrating a wedding was severely beaten by a group of Brahmins for the crime of touching a Brahmin man’s hand. His family, too, was assaulted, including a pregnant woman. The police covered it up, calling it a “drunken brawl” between Dalit men. 2018, Jammu and Kashmir: eight-year-old Asifa Bano, a Muslim Adivasi child, was held inside a temple and raped and tortured to death by a gang of men led by Sanji Ram, the temple priest. Also in Jammu and Kashmir, in 2021, Dalit women were attacked by Brahmin men for daring to draw water from a communal well. Bihar, 2021: a Dalit teenager who was seeing a Brahmin girl was murdered by her family in an honour killing.
But, one might argue, this doesn’t show the whole picture. Plenty of non-Brahmin dominant-caste people have committed atrocities against Dalit-Bahujan people. And what about Brahmin people who are the target of atrocities, like the Brahmin girl who was killed by her parents for falling in love with a Dalit youth? What about queer people from Brahmin families who are forced in to the closet and subject to homophobic abuse?
This is where the third axis, structural and mental violence, comes into play. Brahminism is not a series of isolated violent incidents. It is the very foundation of the caste system itself. The first mentions of caste in the context of the subcontinent come from the Vedas, texts created by Brahmins and treated as their sacred birthright. There are many supposedly-divine origin stories for caste described in these works. One of the most demeaning comes from the Rig Veda, the oldest Vedic scripture and a core text of Brahminism. The Rig Veda alleges that Brahmins emerged from the head of the creator god, while oppressed-caste Shudras came from his feet. Dalits, classified as even lower than Shudras, did not originate from the creator god at all. Is this imagery, of people being born from a “dirty” body part such as the feet, or being excluded from holy creation altogether, not a form of violence in itself? Certainly it is used to justify violence, what with privileged castes citing the so-called uncleanness and cursedness of oppressed-caste people as an excuse to enslave, torture, murder, and assault them.
Brahmins, although relatively small in number, wield disproportionate economic influence in many regions of India, as well as in the global diaspora, due to their position at the very top of the hierarchy. According to one study, 50% of Brahmins fall into the richest social class in India. Brahmins are continually exalted as highborn, deserving of honour and status simply due to an accident of birth. They are encouraged to pursue educational goals as part of their scholarly birthright, whereas many students from oppressed castes are bullied to the point of suicide. Brahmins have historically inherited far more opportunities to go abroad and find economic success: Indian-Americans, who are overwhelmingly upper-caste, have a median annual income of $100k, making us far richer than the average American of any other ethnicity. Meanwhile, oppressed caste Indians have historically been denied education and travel. They often work menial, stigmatised jobs such as manual scavenging. They are at a high risk of falling victim to human trafficking organisations. This culture of economic inequality, this breeding ground of human rights abuses and starvation and mental illness, is also violence, born from the Brahminical view that only the upper echelons truly deserve a chance at education.
There is also a far more insidious form of inequity bred from Brahminism. History is, as they say, written by the victors: and nationally-endorsed Indian scholarship seems determined to adhere to that view. In 2020, Tony Joseph, the author of a groundbreaking book on Indian prehistory, highlighted that an official committee formed to study Indian culture consisted entirely of upper-caste Hindu men with a Vedic, Sanskrit focus. Non-Brahmin cultures were completely excluded, as if they are not worthy aspects of Indian society. Is this not violence as well? Does it not send a powerful message that all those who fall on the lower rungs of the caste ladder are destined for cultural invisibility as well as economic, physical, and sexual oppression?
Of course Brahmins may not be the direct perpetrators of every violent casteist incident which occurs in the subcontinent. But, just as white Americans are born into a system created by their ancestors specifically to benefit white people, so too are Brahmins born into a world which enforces their own privilege in a million little ways. In a society built on the premise of our ancestors being innately superior to the ancestors of others, in a society rife with the casual everyday violence of the oppressor against the oppressed, how can we claim that Brahmins are a nonviolent people by default?
Perhaps the truth is uncomfortable to face. But from discomfort is born change. So I hope we will make a deep and concerted effort to uproot this system for once and for all.