The Politics of Knowledge and Caste

  0 comments   |     by Braj Ranjan Mani

In the pre-modern world, the predominant form of asset to production was land; capital became paramount with the Industrial Revolution; today the main asset is increasingly seen to be knowledge, information and technology. This trend which is pervasive today carries the connotation that rights, status, privileges and power that were earlier based on birth and the will of God have now been replaced by the secular provenance of talent, technology and knowledge.  It is said an individual's status and worth is determined no longer by membership in a family, caste, or class but by sheer talent, gifts and capacities. That today's global society is so beautifully organised that no power on earth can keep good and gifted men, women and children down. Such a rosy understanding of the contemporary world is part of a bigger Bourgeois-Brahmanic propaganda that with the liberal—(read) corporate—democracy and free market economy we are witnessing a great civilisational movement from darkness to light, from the closed, conservative society of the past to the open-ended globalisation of today. Pop philosophers of the new regime are singing hosannas on how humanity and society is reaching, or has already reached, the end of history, the end of politics, the end of ideology. In this context, one often hears that knowledge, not weapons, is the currency of power today. And we often hear terms like knowledge society, knowledge economy and knowledge industry to underline inclusiveness, justice and fairness of the brave new world. With the triumph of knowledge and market forces, they say, the world has become free, fair and just, and there is no greater foolishness than raking up old and dead issues like caste, class, and patriarchy.  

Although Bacon gave it a compelling intellectual articulation (which caught the postmodernist imagination in the last 50 years or so), this understanding was not original to Bacon; many intellectual-writers in fact had pointed this out in one way or another in earlier centuries. The Brahman in ancient India, for example, not only rapturously chanted the mantra of shabda brahma hai (word is the supreme power) but also went on to put it into practice. They monopolised shabda-shakti as their brahma-astra (the ultimate weapon) to subjugate the whole society in a caste mould in which everything was rigged in their favour. The dharma they envisioned was the cosmic order maintained by the correct performance of the sacrifice, which in turn was dependent on the maintaining of the requisite social hierarchy. In other words, the Brahman would not establish dharma (which implied righteousness as well as justice) unless the Brahman himself presided over it, unless dharma upheld caste hierarchy, unless righteousness was bound to caste order, unless righteousness was bound to political power, unless justice was one with danadaniti (rule of force) and matsyanyaya (the law of big fish swallowing small ones). All this was done on the strength of knowledge power—the knowledge which blurred the boundary between faith and reason, hierarchy and harmony and whose sole goal was power, by hook or by crook.  

Today, the corrupting nature of power is well-known, well-theorised, and widely accepted, but the understanding of knowledge-power nexus still remains obscure and by and large hidden from the public view. Sorely missing, from the viewpoint of the oppressed, is a public debate on the politics of knowledge, and how it has been a tool of social and political control in the hands of the ruling forces, from the very beginning of civilisation. Instead, there is a dominant tendency to accept even closed and conservative education as good and desirable, and knowledge is, by and large, still mistaken as wisdom and virtue, without realising that “all knowledge that is divorced from justice must be called cunning,” as Socrates warned.  It is this more or less intact goodwill in favour of received education and knowledge that makes the most reactionary and oppressive forces sing the hosannas of knowledge in order to hide massive discriminations and disparities in today's world. There is need to debate afresh and vigorously the dark side of knowledge, and how this side—the abuse of knowledge—has been a constant in human history. There is need to hammer home the point how some of the world's leading knowledge-makers invoked the laws of nature, the hand of providence, the ruse of reason in a variety of ways, and did whatever they could to institutionalise human hierarchy. It is notable that the word hierarchy by its very etymology (in Greek) associates two ideas: “ruling” and “the sacred.” But even a cursory glance at history will reveal that ruling, or power, has been far more aligned with the profane than the sacred. In other words, the hierarchy of high and low was created by the powerful few to perch themselves atop the social pyramid and divide, rule and exploit the many who were pushed down to the bottom. This exploitation was material and mental, real and symbolic. The violence was not just social and economic but also moral and intellectual, and in fact there was a symbiosis between them. The construction of caste and its consequences is a living example of this epistemic violence. But before we come to the nexus of knowledge with caste, let's first understand, in broad brushstrokes, the duality and politics of knowledge.

Double-Edged Sword of Knowledge and Social Darwinism

Knowledge can be both healing and oppressive, and more often than not a messy mixture of the two. Encompassing the potential for both the noble and the ignoble, knowledge can lead to good as well as evil consequences. For this reason, the history of knowledge, contrary to the popular perception, has had a rather messy, if not adversarial, relationship with the aspiration of human liberation. Even our objective knowledge, like other things in life, is what we make use of it. Very little depends upon our knowledge, and everything upon our practical and political demands or upon our will for framing principle or policy that we decide to adopt. One thing, however, stands out sharply: removal of false knowledge is necessary but not enough for human liberation; if our flawless knowledge does not enlarge our empathy, it does nothing morally, and detached from humane values and ethics, it acquires the potential to be dangerous.  People often extol the glories of knowledge but its politics has a much bloodier background than war. Take, for example, the case of a cunning concoction of knowledge and politics known as scientific determinism or Social Darwinism—and its various new and sophisticated variants that have sprung up in recent times—that openly or covertly justifies human hierarchies and oppression as natural and scientific because the human world, according to its enthusiasts, cannot, and should not, escape the hierarchies and cruelties in nature. The process of applying the rule of the jungle to the affairs of humanity, however, did not begin in the mid-nineteenth century with Charles Darwin's theory of evolution when it was turned into a wonderful tool for justifying racism, imperialism and violence by the social reactionary. The genesis of Social Darwinism may be seen much, much earlier when humans were still in some ways a part of the jungle. Its pioneers were the individuals who envisioned the philosophy of hierarchy, invented the dogmas of caste, race and patriarchy, and laid the intellectual-moral foundation of a vicious human civilisation, dividing the human world into castes or races like the different species of animal kingdom. Under different guises and nomenclatures, Social Darwinism—its articulation, justification and promotion in theory and practice—began with the Vedic-Brahmanic philosophy of caste hierarchy in the ancient India and the Platonic-Aristotelian advocacy of slavery in the ancient Greece. Apparent differences in articulations apart, both caste and Brahmanism in India and slavery and racism in the West were founded on the caste-patriarchal matrix of grinding down the “weaker sex” and working class. India's pundits who glorified caste hierarchies on both natural and supernatural grounds and the Greek philosophers who justified slavery in their quest for “truth, beauty and good life” had not only paved the way for a deceptive intellectual discourse (which continues to flourish in various schools of scientific determinism, religious obscurantism, and neoconservative theories) but also much of the dehumanisation and bloodshed in human history. The Brahmanic-Platonic philosophy spearheaded a method—a cold-blooded intellectual device—of killing people without shedding blood.  

A little knowledge is a dangerous thing, Alexander Pope famously said. But even a lot of knowledge, the veritable treasure house of knowledge, can be dangerous if it is seceded from ethics. Knowledge becomes treacherous, not just inane and barren, when it insulates itself from justice and social responsibility. Let the truth be told: few intellectuals have displayed virtue to withstand the highest bidder. Examples of complicities of intellectuals with the powerful, and together invoking truth, reason, or morality to plunder, loot and murder are scattered all over history. The East India Company (which turned many countries into colonies through its bloodstained politics—all in the name of commerce, and laid the foundations of the modern world's biggest empire) did not just manage to buy off the politicians back home but also recruited some of the country's leading intellectuals, such as Thomas Macaulay, Edward Strachey, Thomas Love Peacock, and both James and John Stuart Mill. Some eggheads are known to have sold their souls even for free. Else, how does one explain slavery and racialist thought in Carlyle and colonialism in Ruskin? There is no dearth of the Rudyard Kipling’s who extol empire-building as white man's burden, and its savage wars of peace as an enlargement of the horizon of intellect and experience. And there is no shortage of the Radhakrishnans, the modern Brahmanic woodsmiths, who see the highest values, theological openness, toleration and pluralism in caste and Brahmanism. (India celebrates the Teachers' Day on Radhakrishnans birthday.)  A lie is an allurement, a fabrication that can be embellished into a fantasy; it is much more interesting and profitable than uncomfortable and subversive truth. The educated elitist knows this, and contributes his or her mite in finding novel ways of avoiding, concealing, or distorting reality. One of the greatest achievements of the modern times, to borrow Jules Henry's phrase, is “the enormous variety of ways of compelling language to lie.”  The history of use and abuse of knowledge is yet to be fully assessed and written. Three is no ambiguity, though, that words have played a deeply dual—constructive as well as destructive—role in human history. In Aldous Huxley's phrase, “Thanks to words, we have been able to rise above the brutes, and thanks to words, we have often sunk to the level of demons.” * [Cited in Gregory Bassham, et al., eds Critical Thinking, Second ed. (Boston: McGraw Hill, n.d.), p. 119.] The dominant class has a long and shameful history of wielding words as a weapon to dehumanise children of the lesser gods. The sword is mightier with the pen. Conquering and coercion of the supposedly lesser humans become much easier with cognition that validates the oppressive system. This is not to say that good people have not used words for freedom, justice and human rights but to underline and bring home the point that knowledge has been a major tool of social control in the hands of the wily and the wealthy.  

False Knowledge Foundational to the Construction of Caste

The dark side of knowledge is clearly visible in the construction, institutionalisation and normalisation of caste, “a diabolical contrivance to suppress and enslave humanity,” as Ambedkar, one of the greatest anti-caste intellectuals, angrily but aptly put it. * [Ambedkar, in Vasant Moon, ed., Dr Babasaheb Ambedkar: Writings and Speeches, vol. 7 (Bombay: Government of Maharashtra), p. 239.] Our understanding of caste will remain forever incomplete without understanding the politics of knowledge that nurtured and normalised it from the dim and distant past to the present time. I irrespective of its origin, no one can deny that caste as a system of organised and graded hierarchy—with “an ascending order of reverence and a descending order of contempt,” to quote Ambedkar again—was an elitist construction. Caste may or may not have pre-Brahmanic origin, as many social scientists quibble, but there is little doubt that caste as an archetype of social stratification was not the handiwork of those who were not its beneficiaries, namely the Shudras, tishudras, and Adivasis.  The Brahman conceived and institutionalised caste system and patriarchy, involving physical and psychological violence against the lowered castes and women, on the grounds that hierarchies represent an “integral part” of nature, reflected in the food chain in which the big fish devours the small one and this matsya nyaya , the natural order of things, they insisted, had a divine sanctity. * [For elaboration of this point, see my book Debrahmanising History (New Delhi: Manohar, 2005) Chapter I.] Might was not just right but also marvellously moral. Thus, justice became inequality, and was made the bedrock of the Brahmanic religion and culture centred on caste. The system of caste was basically a religious hierarchy that encompassed the economic and the political, as Dumont has demonstrated in his outstanding work, Homo Hierarchic us. * [Louis Dumont, Homo Hierarchic us: The Caste System and Its Implications, Revised English ed. (New Delhi: Oxford University Press, 1998).] But what is often cast aside by the caste elite (who drive and dominate the academia and knowledge-construction, despite some democratic challenges from below in recent years) is the fact that caste is first and foremost an intellectual—and moral —construction, beginning with its cunning naturalisation-sac realisation in the Rig-Vedic Purusha-sukta.  In the Vedic myth, the wheel of civilisation comes into motion with the creation of a hierarchical Body Politic when the cosmic Purusha , the Primordial Person, split himself—and divided humanity—into four asymmetrical castes, in which Brahman is the head, Kshatriya the arms, Vaishya the thighs and Shudra the feet. It is notable that the word Veda itself means knowledge—from the root vid, “know.” To the ancient Brahman, Veda is knowledge, the divine knowledge whose testimony— vedapramanyam —is enough to separate truth from falsehood. Revered as apaurusheya, “not of human origin,” by its votaries, Vedas are eternal, imperishable and indestructible. The Vedic approval and disapproval is the ultimate test of good and bad, desirable and undesirable. So much so that anything, including violence can be resorted to uphold the Vedic injunctions. As the old Brahmanic saying goes, Vaidiki hinsa na bhavati —Vedic violence (epistemic violence) is no violence. Though this violent line of thinking did not go unchallenged, the Vedic-Brahmanic forces ultimately prevailed over contesting ideologies. What gave the Brahman a decisive edge over their critics—and challengers of caste—was the farmer’s no-holds-barred politics of knowledge. The Brahmanical caste order was achieved through, more than anything else, a ruthless and dirty politics of knowledge—a politics that continues to this day.  So fraudulently was fiction and myth-making interwoven with selective facts in the Brahmanic texts that the anti-caste and non-Brahmanic traditions, especially the contribution of the Buddhist-Samanic movements, was completely erased, suppressed, or at the best, grossly misrepresented in some fleeting references. For instance, a Puranic text depicts Ashoka, one of the most benevolent kings in history, as a hated Buddhist and a despised Shudra. * [Romila Thapar, Ashoka and the Decline of the Maura’s (Delhi: Oxford University Press, 1999 [1961], p. 12.] In fact, the Brahmanic records completely ignore Ashoka until the time when, ten or twelve centuries afterwards, all danger from his influence had passed away. After a long and vicious campaign against Buddhism, Brahmanism almost succeeded in banishing Buddhism from India before the marauding Turks snuffed out its flickering existence in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries.  Not only did the Brahmans not keep any historical records, specific chronologies and sequence of events, but also destroyed the records and literature of their supposed adversaries. A group of fanatics led by Pushyamitra Shunga, a disciple of the famed grammarian Patanjali, hatched a plot and beheaded the last Mauryan king Brihadratha in 185 BC. The period following this regicide saw the rise of militant Brahmanism which indulged in large-scale vandalism and violence against their opponents, especially the Buddhists. It was also the period in which resurgent Brahmanism indulged in massive forgeries to recast Indian culture in the Brahmanic mould. They suppressed facts, changed names, confused places and periods, proffered false data, created fictitious dynastic pedigrees, frequently revaluated and tampered their own Vedas and Puranas, Sanskritised the epics (the Mahabharata and the Ramayana), and above all, brutally censured all oppositional voices and events.  

Language, Caste and Sublimation of Violence

All societies have traditionally been more or less stratified, suffering from various pathologies of hierarchy and exclusion. But no society or country can beat the caste culture of India in terms of verbal violence, or vakparushyam, as the ancient dharmic charlatans would call it. Sublimation of violence in language—that is, linguistic discrimination and violence—is the defining feature of the some of the most ancient and sacred Sanskrit texts. Likewise, in the Brahmanic parlance, women are commonly referred to as dhana or maal, that is, property of the male. If someone works on the glossary of abusive words for stree (women) and Shudra (toiling castes) in the Brahmanic literature and orature (where they are assumed to be born in sin and slavery— paapyoni, to use the phrase in the Bhagavad-Gita), it will run into several hundred pages!  The epistemic-semantic mechanism that keeps the powerless in their place has never gone out of fashion. In many visible or invisible ways, our marketplace, schools and colleges alongside social and political institutions tend to teach us to listen to—and follow—social higher ups and people-in-power. People are encouraged to latch on to every word dripping from the mouth of powerful men or women (who speak the dominant language), and to ignore the “uniformed” and “unintelligent blabbering” of the poor and the powerless. Directly or indirectly, we are taught not to listen to common men, women and children, at least not to hear their talk as a valid language, as a valid discourse. The inheritance through language and other symbols begins in the home, and reinforced by institutionalised religion, educational system, the media and the market.  The oppressor has always wielded knowledge as a social and psychological weapon to colonise minds and bodies of the oppressed. The Brahman manufactured a vast body of religious literature to institutionalise a most vicious system of discrimination and dehumanisation. Words became their most effective weaponry to demoralise and divide the lowered castes. Proclaiming that knowledge is nectar (gyanam amritam) and shabda brahma hai (the word is the ultimate God, indestructible and sacred), and knowing that those who control the words—and their definitions—control the world, the Brahman positioned themselves to be in the exclusive custody of words and their meanings. Manu says, “Speech is the Brahman’s weapon, and with that he should slay his enemies.” * [Manusmriti XI. 33, see Patrick Olivelle, ed., Manu's Code of Law (New Delhi: Oxford University Press, 2005), p. 216.] The Brahmanic texts vie with one another to stress the sacred injunction that Shudra and other toiling men and women ought to be strictly segregated from those who read and write; the former are polluting and should be completely excluded from the sacred, the world of knowledge.  The punishment to a Shudra for reading or hearing the Vedas, Smritis, and other “sacred” literature was brutal and barbaric. If a Shudra listens to a recitation of the Vedas his ears shall be filled with molten tin or lak. If he recites Vedic texts his tongue shall be cut out…He who tells [religious] law to a Shudra and he who teaches him religious observances, he indeed together with that Shudra sinks into the darkness of hell called Asamvritta. * [Such invectives are common in many Brahmanic texts such as Shankar’s Brahma Sutra (Chapter one), Gautamdharma Surtra (12: 4), and Manusmriti (8: 270).]  Hundreds of such violent utterances against Shudras are scattered through the Brahmanic socio-religious texts. Then there are instances in the texts like Bhagavad-Gita where hatred and antagonism against the commonality are better hidden, and one has to culturally decode them to grasp their underlying meaning. The Gita rationalises caste in the name of karma and killing in the name of dharma.

The Politics of Caste and Epistemic Violence

Today, as in the past, reproduction of culture and knowledge in India remains, by and large, the fiefdom of Brahmanic forces. The caste elites of different stripes—ranging from the liberal-democrats and secular-socialists to the critical traditionalists and Hindutva gladiators—either band together or indulge in friendly fight in the name of national interests, muffling the voices of the marginalised majority. Multiplicity of voices and competing visions of India apart, the politics of dominance brings the privileged groups together either in the secular or the communal camp of political Brahmanism. The construction of two ideological poles and institutionalisation of the opposition between secularism and communalism (represented by the Congress and the BJP-RSS, respectively), like the earlier antagonism between colonialism and nationalism, has been done in such a way that this conflict subsumes or subordinates all other issues. Within this secular-communal divide, all other sources of oppression and exclusions are neglected to the point of giving a quiet burial to the interests of the common people. As both the camps share the hostility to the Phule-Ambedkarite Dalit-Bahujan visions of casteless reconstruction, the Brahmanic secularism of Congress—actually, a form of soft Hinduism—never fails to foster the rabid communalism—Hindutva—of the RSS variety.  In contemporary India, more than anything else, it is this Brahmanic division of labour between the so-called progressive-secular and the conservative-communal that has eroded and rendered ineffective the very core of the Constitution. The essence and spirit of democracy, equality, freedom and secularism have been smothered by promoting the neo-Brahmanic politics of discrimination in every institution and structure like governance, administration, legal and judicial system, economy, infrastructure, management of natural resources, education and culture, thereby denying life with dignity to the majority of Indians. The reproduction of inequality is a fact. One major reason for this is the fact that the mainstream of academia and knowledge-production in India, despite some challenges from the margins in recent times, remains Brahmanic. The past and present of India has been represented largely by the Brahmanic mindset. This is a fact and this is the problem... Exclusionary ideology and worldview can only be overcome by an inclusive ideology and worldview. Brahmanism cannot be sent to jail; it can only be banished from our minds and hearts, replacing it with a better ideology. We cannot ban or banish a bad idea; it can only be buried by a better idea. The way to defeat bad books is to write good books.  
Braj Ranjan Mani is the author of Debrahmanising History (Manohar, 2005). This paper is based on Chapter Three of his forthcoming book, Reconstructing Knowledge: Transforming the Self and Society.  

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