During the Rajasthan assembly elections, a Congress candidate, C P Joshi, was singled out for a casteist public speech. Brahmin by birth, Joshi declared that the likes of Narendra Modi, Uma Bharati and Sadhvi Ritambhara, who came from castes traditionally considered "low", had no right to speak about Hinduism. That prerogative, he suggested, squarely rested on the Brahmins who had the requisite knowledge. Had Joshi been aware of his community's historical role before and during the British period, and expressed himself in a more nuanced manner, he could have avoided embarrassment to himself and his party.
Brahmins formed an alliance with the British and derived great benefits, which continued into the decades immediately following Independence. But the numbers game, inescapable in a democracy, has increasingly pushed them to the margins.
Traditionally Brahmins, except in rare cases where the learned ones received land grants, depended on alms and honorariums for performing domestic rituals and occasional gifts from rich patrons. With the coming of the Europeans, Brahminical learning and their old manuscript pothis became internationally marketable commodities. Even before the British became a territorial power, Pandits agreed to go to the residence of Europeans to teach them Sanskrit for monetary considerations. Eventually, the very definition of mlechchha was changed to suit the times. Instead of being a despised barbarian, a mlechchha was now one who could not pronounce Sanskrit correctly. Post the Battle of Plassey, the new rulers hired Brahmins at high salaries, treated them with due respect, and patronised their institutions. Sanskrit was taken out of the preserve of the Brahmins, and Hindu sacred texts made their way to public libraries.
If the Brahmins opened the doors of Sanskrit learning to mlechchhas, they could not possibly have kept the erstwhile shudras out. In colonial Bengal, the old aristocracy was destroyed and its place taken by people from whom, traditionally, Brahmins would not even accept drinking water. They were selectively given a ritual upgrade so that Brahmins could accept gold from them. The biggest zamindar of colonial Bengal, Maharaja Nubkissen, was born a sonar-bania but successfully passed off as a kayastha. His adoptive grandson, Raja Radhakant Deb, emerged as the biggest Sanskrit scholar of the 19th century and a leading conservative leader of his time.
With a view to blunting the attack on Hinduism by the missionaries, Ram Mohan Roy (caste surname Bannerjee) met them more than half-way by arguing that the superstitious practices which deform the Hindu religion have nothing to do with the "spirit of its dictates"; and that the real or pure Hinduism was the one based on the Upanishads. In the late 1810s, while building the case for banning widow burning, he selectively enlisted the support of ancient rishis like Manu and Yajnavalkya, while condemning authorities such as Gotama. Similarly, a generation later, when Ishwar Chandra Vidyasagar (Bannerjee) campaigned for widow remarriage, his opponents far outnumbered supporters. The government did not go by head-count, but by Vidyasagar's assertion that, "this custom is not in accordance with the Shastras, or with true Hindu law". The roots of Hinduism were pushed further back to the Vedas themselves by Gujarat-born Swami Dayanand Saraswati, who gave them the status of revealed texts.
British patronage made Brahmins less rigid. In 1832, the appointment of Premchand Tarkabagish as a professor in Sanskrit College Calcutta was opposed by the highfalutin Brahmin professors and students on the ground that he was a Sudrayaji Brahmin (one who administered ritual to the low castes). Horace Hayman Wilson who oversaw the College imperiously told the objectors to leave if they so wished. Of course, nobody left.
In matters of social reform, most Brahmins were conservative, the Benares ones the more so than those from Bengal. The reform movements, however, were invariably led by Brahmins. The explanation may simply lie in the caste psychology. The Brahmins considered themselves the living repositories of tradition which they had a right to preserve, interpret and modify if need be. For the non-Brahmins (such as Radhakant Deb), tradition was a fossil that had come their way and which needed to be preserved as it was.
The 19th century, solutions to contemporary problems had to be justified by selectively quoting ancient scriptures. Hinduism in actual practice was brought to the centrestage by Mahatma Gandhi when he set out to make the nationalist movement mass-based.
Gandhi first spoke of Ram Rajya on May 8, 1915, in the context of the Ramayana. In 1920, he contrasts the British Rakshas Raj with Ram Rajya, describes himself as a Sanatani and a Vaishnav, and quotes Tulsidas and the Gita. However, by 1929, he is ready to make his Ram Rajya secular: "By Ramarajya I do not mean Hindu Raj. I mean by Ramarajya Divine Raj, the Kingdom of God. For me Rama and Rahim are one and the same deity." It is remarkable that Gandhi takes a term from a popular Hindu epic and tries to develop it to serve a secular purpose.
Jawaharlal Nehru was rather fond of being addressed as Pandit. And yet, he formulated and propagated irreligious secularism. This was laid to rest by Atal Bihari Vajpayee's soft Hinduism. Concerted moves are now afoot to bring in its place a harsh Hinduism. This new formulation does not distinguish between sense and nonsense and does not know how to reconcile Puranic and archival Hinduisms.
From Rammohun and Radhakant Deb to Gita Press, the activists at least read the texts and sought to employ them to serve their purpose. The harsh Hinduism of today is based on illiteracy, and is unhistorical, pisive and hateful.
Kochhar is author of The Vedic People: Their History and Geography