(Second part of a series of thoughts on the Indic Way)
The first part ended with a contention. “The Indic way is ideally a culture built less on rituals, rooted in philosophy, subject to critical scrutiny, progress in science, confident of its heritage but free of dogma and discrimination.” This contention is to be tested purely from a perspective of reality around. Else, it will remain an argument appealing only to hope or wishful thinking.
When birth imposes constraints and prevents an individual from claiming or performing his/her chosen role, that is discrimination — inhuman discrimination known to us as Caste. A cursory examination of the structures and mores of Indian Society leads one to observe that Caste has a significant influence on our life. Yes, Caste is the elephant in the room, a definite stumbling block in creating a community free of discrimination — a stigma on the Indic way — a substantial departure from its ideals.
Therefore, the question is, does the Indic philosophical framework fail the test of consequences? If it does, which of the two approaches do we take? Is it the approach of finding out why and correcting the basis for the unintended but shameful practice? Or do we find fault with the entire philosophical framework and judge it only by this practice? Is Caste, as practiced, inadvertent, or does it flow from some foundational principles?
The oppressed, quite naturally, have no reason to study the causality of their oppression; expecting them to do so is akin to asking the victim to defend the perpetrator. Thus, deliberating an approach to find answers and evolving a curative response remains the unfinished job of those who have benefited from this skewed social structure. In simple terms, what we have is not a “Dalit Problem,” but what we have is a problem caused by the “privileged” and necessarily to be solved by the privileged.
Having advocated for the principle of using the foundational precepts to negate discrimination, the approach cannot be to pore through texts and find references to varna and establish that varna cannot be interpreted as Caste. The argument that references to the four varnas or fears of caste pollution in the Bhagavad Gita or the references to varna in Purusha Sukta of the Rig Veda are contextual relies on wordy and scholarly interpretations. These contentions are often contested fiercely. The reality as it exists in Society is rightly offered as an incontrovertible proof, much to the chagrin of those offering benign interpretations. This debate has not only taken up most of the space, but it is nigh impossible to convince either side to listen. The stances and arguments have become ossified. It is no longer a debate that can lead to a solution but only a discussion that further alienates.
Like any religion, Hinduism has rituals and some designated places of worship that include temples. The temples and traditions, along with specific rituals, are controlled by one class. Ritual practice and continuity in the purity of tradition are standard features in many other belief systems. In most belief systems, a ritual is supposed to sanctify those who participate, irrespective of who participates in the ceremony. However, in the Indic Way, approval, including the right to participate in the sanctification, is decided by those of a specific lineage. This is where the problem begins to emerge. One can argue that the existence of a priestly class as preservers of the rituals is not uncommon to any belief system. The problem is compounded when the preserver of the faith begins to exclude some and includes others. Assuming for himself the unintended role of a gatekeeper and the final authority from his unique position bestowed by birth. This power to exclude puts him at the center of the faith and grants him a special status. Those excluded are now automatically termed impure by all those included.
Consequently, exclusion from the faith leads to exclusion from Society. This is a natural consequence as everyone is competing to conform to rigid norms and ensuring they distance themselves from the excluded. This concept of a person being judged as pure and impure merely based on birth is very unique and extremely problematic. Those with varying levels of purity now start living in proximity to each other, segregated based on how pure they are. This hierarchy is defined by the level of access to the ritual. Those totally excluded from participation are thus sent away, far enough from the entire settlement. Such cruelty is perpetrated ostensibly to preserve personal purity and, by a convoluted flight of logic, the sanctity of the faith.
This cruel segregation filters down to even the plan of a settlement. In every small town or village, one notices the Temple right at the center of the territory. In the immediate vicinity are the living quarters of the Brahmins. The rest of the settlement spreads seamlessly around, and finally, at a distance, are the excluded, literally those banished from interacting with the others. One can now see that the strands of thought induced by ritual purity and sanctity extend to the settlement as a whole. Thus further calcifying social structure. Pause and ponder that those banished are condemned to follow professions essential for human existence. However, these essential professions are considered unclean or impure. Added to this cruelty is the instruction that this profession is hereditary. Therefore, those born are perpetually stuck in this vicious cycle of a hereditary profession, making them impure and consequently segregated. The root lies in how purity and sanctity are defined and dictated. When these traits are defined as a necessary part of the ritual, they solidify this inhuman structure and segregation. This leads us to a set of questions, especially for those who want to preserve the Indic Way. Is the Indic way merely sanctified rituals ostensibly conducted by the “pure” for those they classify as reasonably “pure”? ii) Is there a greater philosophical heft that undergirds and defines the faith that needs to be preserved for the good of humanity? Is it time to let go of practices that have led to brutal consequences?
It is not that these aspects have not been discussed before nor that efforts have not been made to reform society. However, the oppressed can reasonably argue that not enough has been achieved. Providing reservations in education and the laws created to remove discrimination is a necessary but only a tiny step in the right direction. Societal change has been slow, and that pace is cruel to the oppressed. Nevertheless, most of the oppressed have kept faith in Society and the Indic Way, some have responded with anger, and very few have reacted violently. The relative peace in Society is because the majority wait patiently for us to evolve and affect large-scale change. That is more a tribute to their resilience and not to be understood as an approval of any real reform. This silent affirmation with their continued participation in the Indic Way’s culture, the peace, and relative calm must not lead us to be sanguine and fail to hasten change.
While arguing for inclusion, there is a tendency among reformers to attempt assimilation without good and considered thought. It is true that the places of worship, rituals, and even culture inextricably linked to worship, have been classified as no-go zones for the excluded or oppressed. Any change must give them equal access to participate, and that would be an essential step. However, it is more crucial to recognise that the Indic way is incomplete if we negate the existing mores. Over the centuries, the oppressed classes have evolved and adapted their own cultural systems, devotional practices, and art forms which are as much a part of the Indic Way as those practiced by the others. Any attempt at reform needs to include a greater acceptance and adoption of these into the mainstream. Visiting their places of worship, appreciating cultural practices, and incorporating their art forms into the mainstream is more than a symbolic gesture. It accords basic human dignity by recognising their way of life and cultural legacy as equal. It gives an “Identity” denied over centuries. Creating an equal social space must be a celebration of equality and not a grudgingly shared privilege or a condescending invitation to partake on the high table.
How do we then approach the philosophical framework of the Indic Way? Do we reject it? Is there the risk of succumbing to the “Guilt by Association” bias? Should An entire philosophical framework be negated, or should we focus on the reasons that led to this? The risk that a wholesale approach has a chance of rejecting parts of the philosophical framework that can lead to the desired outcome is real. In addition, negation will have the unintended consequence of uprooting cultural influences and creating a rootless society. On the other hand, an approach based on rejecting rituals, especially those leading to an inhuman exclusion, and using the philosophical frameworks widely acknowledged to be foundational to negate the basis for discrimination will be incredibly beneficial.
This approach has been used before, but none expounded on it with the clarity of Dr. B R Ambedkar. He split the way into a) Brahmaism, b) Vedanta, and c) Brahmanism. The distinction between Vedanta and Brahmaism does not lead to discrimination, and the differences are philosophical or esoteric. However, those between Brahmaism and Brahmanism result in the Indic Way moving from Enquiry to Dogma.
Brahmaism is based on the Mahavakyas from the Upanishads
a) Sarvam Khalvidam Brahma — All this is Brahma
b) Aham Brahmasmi — Atman (Self) is the same as Brahma. Therefore I am Brahma.
c) Tattvamasi — Atman ( Self) is the same as Brahma. Therefore thou art also Brahma.
He identified the traits of Brahmanism as a) Belief in Chatur Varna, b) sanctity and infallibility of the Vedas c) Sacrifices to gods the only way to Salvation.
“If all persons are parts of Brahma, then all are equal, and all must enjoy the same liberty, which is what democracy means. Looked at from this point of view, Brahma may be unknowable. But there cannot be the slightest doubt that no doctrine could furnish a stronger foundation for democracy than the doctrine of Brahma. To recognize and realize that you and I are parts of the same cosmic principle leaves room for no other theory of associated life except democracy. It does not merely preach democracy. It makes democracy an obligation of one and all.” — Dr. Ambedkar argued in his work The Riddles of Hinduism.
Therefore if one had to choose a foundational principle for the practice of the Indic Way into the future, the choice is very apparent. Most would tend to vote for Brahmaism and the wisdom of the maha vakyas over any dogmatic assertion. However, this vote is not necessarily translating into practice, and the present argument is that it must and urgently. Practicing the wisdom of the Upanishads, we do not lose the cultural moorings of the past but are only asserting the foundational principles on which the Indic Way is based.
The Indic way needs an urgent freeing itself from dogma. Its proponents and well-wishers must subject it to critical scrutiny and find those parts providing a basis for discrimination and discard them. We must use the Vedic negation principle of “Neti, Neti, Neti” ( Not this, Not This, Not this) for a more practical purpose. What we will be left with after this exercise will be inherently a sense of pristine enquiry with the wisdom of the Upanishads or Vedanta as enunciated in the Maha Vakyas as a guide.