Brahmins in the age of incredible coolness
O Lord, the glorious One,
Make me glorious too.
Lord, you who are the custodian of sacrifice for the gods,
Even so may I be the custodian of Sacred Knowledge for men.
The Gayathri Mantra
This post has been in my drafts folder for months now. I am glad to get it out.
First, a personal story to prepare the stage.
Last year, I attended a Upanayanam (sacred thread) ceremony for a friends son. My friend (lets call him Rajesh) was your typical IIT/ Purdue/ Silicon Valley “success” story. He is a genuine nice guy with a completely modern thought process. He has helped many people financially without expecting anything in return. He is completely westernized – used to play lead guitar, date American women, go skiing, eat hamburgers, married a Bengali girl, and owns a 6 bedroom house in the valley. There was one other thing : he was a loose atheist or atleast he revolted against tradition especially brahminical rules such as food restrictions, Sandhyavandanams, and temple rituals. He made his views known to everyone – and that added to his coolness factor.
I asked him why he was wasting his “India trip” on this Upanayanam. He said, “Yes, personally I am not a big fan of this stuff, but I want to do it for my son. When he grows up, I want to give him the choice of following tradition or choosing another lifestyle”.
His response really got me thinking. I knew there was something wrong with his line of reasoning. Yet, it seemed to hold up. What if his son did turn out to be interested in the Vedas or atleast not hostile to it ?
In any case, the event was a grand affair. Rajesh dressed up like a brahmin, put on a temporary poonol (sacred thread), went through the motions of Brahmopadesam, Gayathri mantrams. There were a couple of jokes about the vaathiyars (purohits) and how one of them even had a Blackberry for crying out loud! All these were of course in a lighthearted vein.
An overall enjoyable event, yet I had a sinking feeling. Was the sanctity of the event torn to shreds ? The disinterested coolness without the required dose of faith seemed to cheapen the spirit of the event. Was I overanalyzing it ? Have I lost the ability to just have some fun ?
End of story
Everyone of us knows atleast a variant of the above story. There exists an extremely large population of “brahmins-by-birth” – who are uneasy with the rituals, and feel encumbered by the strict rules and what they perceive to be outdated rituals. Yet, they go through weddings, upanayanams, birth ceremony (punya-janam), and umpteen other events in the traditional way. A reasonable explanation is that people from their caste have always followed this routine. Its a template – rubberstamp affair. Om Blah-Blah Swahaha.
Back to my friend Rajesh’s story. After some thinking I did settle my thoughts into a position that explained my uneasiness with his explanation. These rituals are not meant to have a “gap” like this. For centuries, it has been passed from father->son->father->son… based on caste only. The largely valid assumption was that a father from the brahmin caste would follow or atleast not repudiate the traditions. This was true then, but not true today. If a brahmin-caste father ridicules or displays a disinterest in the vedic traditions, he automatically loses the privilege of handing off to his son. Its like a 4x400m relay. You drop the baton and the race is over for your teammates downstream.
Time for another story : of Annamalai
I have another friend in our area. His name is Annamalai from Gingee area near Tiruvannamalai. He is from the Yadava (or Konar) caste. He is a moderately successful building mason in Chennai. What is striking about him is his faith in the hindu religion. Every year, come what may – he collects money for his village temple, and takes off for a week to participate in the tiruvizha. He never touches alcohol or eats non-veg , even eggs. Come Aadi, and he blasts devotional songs from an old amp powered by a truck battery. His son is only 4 years old, but has already been to Sabarimala. His wife is even more religious than him. I have known him for six years, and till date I have never seen him without the viboothi (religious mark) on his forehead – even at 10 PM.
End of story
While comparing Rajesh and Annamalai, we should be careful to not search for virtue. Rajesh is a good man in his own right, he has helped many people with financial support. Annamalai is not perfect either, he does not believe in equality of sexes. What matters for this debate is, “What should the relative position of the two individuals be in the Hindu religion, esp with regards to the brahminical mandates ?”
Also note, this debate does not cover the present day Vaadhiyars (Purohihts), Sivacharyas, or other brahmins that are still involved in vedic activities (Vaideegam). The question is who is suited to enter their fold ? What is the connecting link between them and the ‘cool dude uninterested – brahmin-by-birth’ ?
I have forumulated several ideas that I want to share in the next post.
1. Make it really easy for a brahmin-by-caste father to opt out his entire future generation from brahminism.
2. Vedic rituals, which exhort tradition, devotion to gurukulams, pledges for brahminical austerity and sacrifice- cannot be bandied around to people who are clearly uninterested. In my view, this is more demeaning to the hindu religion than a thousand atheist movements.
3. Most importantly, the rituals / mantras containing pledges – must be offered to people like Annamalai. It is not a question of caste conversion. It is one of who is more likely to take the mantras containing pledges seriously. When Annamalai’s son grows up, he will now have a choice of whether he wants to conduct upanayanam for his son or not.
4. When it comes to implementing this on the ground, there are problems but they are not insurmountable. Obviously, we need strong mutts – such as those in Karnataka as an enforcement point.
Two implementation issues :
1) How do you identify “uninterested” brahmins-by-birth who cannot be administered vedic pledges ? Clearly public figures (like Mani Shankar Aiyar, Kamalahaasan, etc) should be stopped in their tracks, but how about others (journalists, bloggers, cine artistes) who are open in their disapproval / ridicule. Could there be a system like the CSI Churches which announce upcoming weddings and allow people to object in the interim. I like that idea.
2) How to you identify and evaluate others who are likely to take the vedic pledges seriously ? The example of Annamalai above is an anecdote, but there needs to be a formal system. Could we propose a system based on “pilgrimage points” ? How about all Sabarimala guruswamis automatically become eligible and can initiate others ?