Reality Check India

Initiating new members into a fold

Posted in Uncategorized by realitycheck on June 18, 2019

I ran into this Tweet today on my Twitter TL.

this was in response to reports of  a Spanish woman who converted into Hinduism in the Srirangam Temple.

I feel this is an important frontline question that is not being adequately addressed.  At least not to the satisfaction of those raising this question.

Let me first distill out the  real question here to make it simpler.

Say I convert to Hinduism can I click on Brahmin caste.

In such a foolproof manner that others in that tribe will seek matrimonial alliances with me or that I can serve in sanctum of  major temples.

It is important to search and discover the actual question because otherwise you end up answering a strawman.   The Hindu framework can absorb any number of castes and tribes as long as the basic commitments to Dharmic principles and non hostility to rituals and nature worship are in place.  So our new Spanish Vaishnavite  can just start a new caste of Spanish Iyengar or join an existing one based on kinship or geography or race or occupation.  Caste is a kinship identity as well as a function.  Can she convert into Brahmin is like asking can she convert into Chettiar?  It can happen but  entering a kinship group is based on matrimonial alliances.  A different issue from  asking if her new found status  can enable her to  perform certain functions.

The functions today are not hotly contested. Most Brahmins do other functions like work in factory, army, finance and there is no real bar against others doing Brahmin functions.    There is no punishment of crossovers.

The political hot button issue here is that Brahmin kinship group in some key instances also have privileges – the most important one is in temple functions particularly in ancient agamic temples.  This is the single motivating factor behind these innocent questions. 

Based on my analysis of the Dravidian arguments , there are two flavors here

  • Marriage:  Can I convert to Hindu Brahmin and then will you marry  your daughter to me ?   Obviously the answer to that is YES, thousands of outsiders get married to Brahmin by “love marriage” . The real  question here is ; Can I convert and then get married to a Brahmin by Arranged Marriage?   While this is as absurd as asking, can I convert to Hindu and get married to Chettiar, Mudaliar, Thever etc by arranged marriage. This still needs a clear non-emotional answer.
  • Temple :   Can I take a 1yr  course in archana mantra and then become priest like the Brahmin sivacharyas in Madurai  or the Bhattars of Srirangam.  This angle is an institution question and is far reaching.

The marriage question is a specious one because at the root of it is the assumption that  there is some privilege to getting married to a Brahmin women over others.  This indicates a hypergamy desire (marrying a richer higher status)  rather than any social goal.  Marrying into any kinship group needs proof of non-hostility to their customs, rituals , eating habits, lifestyle, and belief systems.  These commitments are demonstrated over multiple group interactions.  Otherwise you end up with importing outside strife into your homes.  There is no further institutional issue involved so we can stop here.

The second one involves an institutional (#core4) question.   Say I am able to perform the basic rituals after a 1 year course  – can I convert to a Siva temple priest class (Adi Sivacarya) ?   The answer to that is NO.

The element that is missing is : degree of commitment.

Unlike prayer houses of Abrahamic religions , temples  in  Hindu fold have incredible diversity of practice, history,  and rituals.  None of them have any central sanction or enforcement wing.  These rituals  survive to this day only because of a multi generational commitment by a tightly knit group.  These sivacharyas / bhattars are not like your secular variety Brahmins.  Over two three thousand years, they have withstood famines, floods, invasions, change of rules, imperial rule,  hostile politics – yet they have not skipped a single day of ritual. Never late, never absent, never less.   They have not succumbed to the IT or modern economy boom – even though they are of the same stock and could have  easily excelled  in these lucrative fields.   This is the level of commitment that has given the Tamil hindus continuity into the past.  Even when others  have lost their moorings and have drifted this group is unshaken and unwavering to their divine purpose.

Impostor threat

Like any tribe, this group too  is vulnerable to impostors infiltrating.   Think about how you enter the Freemasons. The initiation is not a trivial task.  You have to be introduced by a multiple senior  member of the Lodge.  This is an act of vetting  by someone high up in the system as being a non hostile. Then the rituals and the ceremonies which may look nutty to outsider but tie the community together to a high level of commitment. Those longer in the system, more involved,  move up the hierarchy.   I am not suggesting Temple priests are like this rather showing the importance of detecting impostors.

Detection of impostors is far easier  in  Islam and Christianity because a pledge on the book and the prophets itself is a test covering about 99% of the cases.  There  is also  a strict regime for initiation and enforcement of diktats.  Novices  are initially placed in subordinate positions and have to prove themselves  over long periods to a higher ranking clergy.   In Islam the fear of being outed as an imposter is an automatic check due to the death punishment for apostasy.

I have showed how the Sivacharyas have insane level of commitment test that secular brahmins do not possess.  Hence the secular brahmins are not allowed any of the temple privileges either for the same reasons.  They can be impostors too. Imagine Mt Road brahmins  getting into these clans.

Now back to the question. How does one just convert into this group?  In my view,  the 1 year courses to induct new entrants is insufficient commitment.  This sets up a great incentive for an impostor to invest 1 or 2yrs  and then gain  a great strategic foothold into these institutions.   Remember that I am focusing on impostor detection and not on friendlies. The system may select 10 really committed students but it is the 1 hostile that will take you down. Same logic as airport security.

If a hostile impostor gains access, what is the fear?  The following can happen :   Giving false evidence against the insiders,  reconstructing the nature of the deity,  disrupting  the existing rituals using modern arguments,  defamation of devotees,  splitting the erstwhile tightly knit group into political factions,  and so forth.  There is no limit.  Unlike Catholics who have a very strong clergy who can detect and expel these, the Hindu priest order which is based only on long term unquestioning commitment , will be totally exposed to this person.

So does this mean outsiders can never be allowed ?

My take is that there is  merit in the first level rhetoric of Dravidians that all castes should get a shot.  I fully understand those who choose to contest this first level argument itself and eject the debate.  But you have to understand the inherent appeal of this demand, it evokes images of ancient saivaite adiyars like  Nandanar and Kannapan –  very highly committed devotees denied access. Even though the historical  Nandanar was admitted after a  trial by fire — metaphor for a commitment check   If you eject at this first level itself, you cede that space.  What is the strategic value of that space ?  I think  the opponents will park all the guns in that space and shoot at you.

A better way is to respond to this by drawing them into a second level check. A commitment test that only the truly inspired will venture into. A start can be opening up the entry level  as children into vedic / agamic schools perhaps  with recommendations from higher commitment religious personalities from all castes.   Once initiated in this manner along with their families, they will in effect be indistinguishable from other Brahmins.  This would be a win-win.

The bad news is these  kinds of responses need a very strong institutional layer to stage these from. Hence the #core1 ( freedom of education institutions)  is a necessary agenda item.