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Ambedkar’s Lessons, Ambedkar’s Challenges

Hinduism, Hindutva and the Indian Nation

Rahul Govind ( teaches history at the University of Delhi.

R Ambedkar’s methodological and substantive insights on the nature of Hinduism, caste and Indian history anticipated much contemporary scholarship on the subject. Even so, from his writings there is much to learn about the energetic rigour required in the attunement of political will and scholastic analysis. His powerful and persuasive argument has been at variance not only with those of figures such as Lokmanya Tilak and S Radhakrishnan but also with what has become the larger common sense on these issues, a common sense that informs political as much as jurisprudential discourse. This paper raises questions on the relationship between conceptualisations of the constituent bases of the nation and history in India as much as the means for and the stakes involved in negotiating collective pasts and collective futures.

I thank the anonymous referee for comments on the paper. I thank Sanghamitra Misra for reading and discussing the many issues brought up in it.

The Supreme Court in 2017 ruled by a four–three majo­rity that elections cannot be fought in the name of religion, caste or community. The press as well as political parties across the spectrum by and large hailed the ruling. However, in light of the fact that the seven-judge constitutional bench refused to revisit the 1995 Justice Verma “Hindutva” judgment, the implications of the maintained ruling are not clear. It should be remembered that the 1995 judgment “Hindutva,” Hinduism and “the way of life of the Indian people” as one; all three were in turn to be distinguished from “the strict practices of the Hindu religion as faith.” It therefore appears, in view of the recent ruling, that there is nothing wrong or illegal in demanding votes in the name of Hindutva or a Hindu, since these terms could be understood as interchangeable with India or Indian. But to ask for votes in the name of a (particular) caste or (particular) community would seemingly amount to contempt and interference in the secular activity of the elections. The above distinction between Hindutva/Hindu/Indian and caste/community may flow from the following section of the Verma judgment:

Thus, it cannot be doubted, particularly in view of the Constitution Bench decisions of this Court that the words “Hinduism” or “Hindutva” are not necessarily to be understood and construed narrowly, confined only to the strict Hindu religious practices unrelated to the culture and ethos of the people of India, depicting the way of life of the Indian people. Unless the context of a speech indicates a contrary meaning or use, in the abstract these terms are indicative more of a way of life of the Indian people and are not confined merely to describe persons practicing the Hindu religion as a faith.1

Thus, combining this with the present ruling, naming caste is outlawed in the name of a secularisation process—notwithstanding its recognition in constitutional provisions and governmental measures—while Hinduism and Hindutva are not, insofar as they represent “a way of life” of the Indian people. Hindutva as Hinduism is sui geniris identified with the nation and any other category—whether caste, community or perhaps class—is tainted with the brush of divisiveness.

Ronojoy Sen made an important study of the Verma judgment, tracing it toYagnapurushdasji v Muldas (1966), which was based specifically on Radhakrishnan’s arguments about Hinduism as a “way of life” (Sen 2010: 2–29). Sen and other scholars have pointed out the irony and fallacy involved in the conflation of Hindutva, Hinduism and “Indianisation” in the Verma judgment which would have been unacceptable to the text in which the term Hindutva is first formulated and elaborated that is V D Savarkar’sEssentials of Hindutva, which had clearly made a fundamental distinction between Hinduism and Hindutva (Sen 2010: 2–29). The Verma judgment was a departure from previous Supreme Court rulings in that while earlier Hinduism was defined in expansive terms as a “way of life,” it was only with Verma that this “way of life” was identified with Hindutva that is, Hindutva, Hinduism and Indian were more or less identified in Verma (1995).

I wish to emphasise a dimension that hitherto seems to have received less—if any—attention in this regard. It must be remembered thatYagnapurushdasji (1966) ruled on the right of “Harijans” to temple entry in Swaminarayan temples which were in this ruling said to be treated as subsumed within the Hindu fold. The ruling in itself appears to index a tension in the very understanding of Hinduism. On the one hand,Yagnapurushdasji explicitly traced to the Constitution the message of social equality and justice,after which, “the whole social and religious outlook of the Hindu community hasundergone a fundamental change2 (emphasis mine). On the other hand,Yagnapurushdasji, citing lines from the Gita and Radhakrishnan, credits Hinduism with such tolerance as though it already contained within itself the message of tolerance and acceptance that the Constitution formulated and guaranteed.3 The pivot of the tension lies in the relationship between caste and the making of the Hindu community that is, whether tolerance and equality was already and always a feature of Hinduism or whether the rights mandated by the Constitution was required precisely because of the lack of such features in caste-ridden Hinduism. It is this tension that is dissolved in the Verma judgment that seamlessly identifies Hindutva, Hindu and Indian as an a priori national and inclusive identity.

If the understanding of the Verma judgment (1995) of Hinduism and Hindutva would be unacceptable to Savarkar’s founding document, neither would it have been acceptable to the Chairman of the Constitution Drafting Committee, B R Ambedkar. In the following article I begin by focusing on the differences between Savarkar’sEssentials of Hindutva and Ambedkar’s writings on the subject and then move on to the set of issues that are at stake in Ambedkar’s more general critique of Hinduism and Indian history. In the course of this examination it will be shown that Ambedkar’s methodological and substantive insights on the nature of Hinduism, caste and Indian history anticipated much contemporary scholarship on the subject. Even so from his writings there is much to learn on the energetic rigour required in the attunement of political will and scholastic analysis. As will be detailed below, Ambekdar’s powerful and persuasive argument has been at variance not only with those of figures such as Lokmanya Tilak and S Radhakrishnan but also with what has become the larger common sense on these issues, a common sense that informs political as much as jurisprudential discourse. This is the urgent context in which one learns from Ambedkar. The following discussion hopes to therein raise questions on the relationship between conceptualisations of the constituent bases of the nation and history in India as much as the means for and the stakes involved in negotiating collective pasts and collective futures.

Ambedkar and Savarkar

It scarcely needs repeating, considering so much extant scholarship, that theEssentials of Hindutva finds its raison d’être in thedistinction between Hindutva and Hinduism—in explicit contrast to Verma (1995)—even as it identifies Hindutva with a particular vision of being Indian, anticipating Verma. The radically different positions in time are telling. While Savarkar is writing in colonial India, making an argument for the identification of Hindutva and the autochthonous Indian as opposed to the foreigner-invader Muslim, Verma is pronouncing in the long aftermath of partition in an India where Muslims constitute a sizeable population of the Indian nation.

Savarkar announces a resonant thesis: “Hindutva is not a word it is a history” (Savarkar 1969: 3). It is the naming of a subject whose self-naming has been erased in history that is, Savarkar, notwithstanding lack of evidence and logic, argues that the residents of the subcontinent had from time immemorial called themselves Hindus.4 However, almost in contradiction, it is simultaneously the naming of a subject that emerges in a specific conflict that is, the Hindutva subject, as a form of self-consciousness, is forged in war with Muslims.

Heaven and hell making a common cause-such were the forces, overwhelmingly furious, that took India by surprise the day Mohammad crossed the Indus and invaded her. Day after day, decade after decade, century after century, the ghastly conflict continued and India single-handed kept up the fight morally and militarily. (Savarkar 1969: 44)5

And further,

In this prolonged furious conflict our people became intensely conscious of ourselves as Hindus and were welded into a nation to an extent unknown in our history. (Savarkar 1969: 44)6

If Hindutva refers to a history and culture it inevitably also includes religion in that the Hindutva subject has to consider this land his “holy land,” thereby tacitly rendering doubtful the claims of Christians and Muslims to the land and culture. No other distinguishing features of this “culture” are proposed. Rather, Savarkar simply constantly asserts the unity of blood, culture and history. Questioning the divisiveness of caste, he turns the question around by asserting that examples of marriage across caste in ancient texts were evidence enough of a race unified (Savarkar 1969: 85). Rather than dwell on the violent condemnation of and anxiety towardsvarnasamskara, for Savarkar,

All that the caste system has done is to regulate its noble blood on lines believed—and on the whole rightly believed—by our saintly and patriotic law-givers and kings to contribute most to fertilize and enrich all that was barren and poor, without famishing and debasing all that was flourishing and nobly endowed. (1969: 86)

This whole schema of history—its immaculate intactness as it were—is detonated in Ambedkar’sBuddhist Revolution and Counter-revolution in Ancient India. In the first place, Ambedkar consciously displaces the problematic from “Islamic invasions” to what he calls the wars of the ancient period. Declaiming that he is not happy with the history of India because “too much emphasis has been laid on the Muslim conquest of India,” Ambedkar writes:

From the point of view of the permanent effect on the social and spiritual life of the people, the Brahminic invasions of Buddhist India have been so profound in their effect that compared to them, the effect of Muslim invasions on Hindu India have been really superficial and ephemeral. (Ambedkar: 107)7

The distinction between the profound and the ephemeral is again analysed as “cultural.” That is to say, while the Islamic invasions after a point did allow theculture of Hinduism to remain, the Brahminical conflict with Buddhism ended in the complete destruction of the latter. Ambedkar diagnoses the fundamental failure in Indian historiography to be one where it is assumed that ancient India shared one culture. In contrast to which he asserts that prior to the Islamic invasions there was not one intact culture but a war, “the mortal conflict between Brahmanism and Buddhism” (Ambedkar: 108).8

Ambedkar’s “exhumation” of Indian history extracts facts through the sieve of norms and thereby renders them meaningful. If history has to be distinguished from nature, the narrative significance of events cannot but be acknowledged in terms of norms as the operative and punctuating forces of history. Thus Ambedkar reads the Vedic texts by arguing that howsoever otherworldly and fabulous their stories, they necessarily reflected and expressed worldly concerns as much as worldly power. Their import is best deciphered by a counter norm, which for Ambedkar is to be found in the worldly compassion of Buddhism. Three phases in Indian history are identified: The “ancient regime” of the Vedic period, the revolutionary moment of Buddhism and the Brahminical reaction or counter-revolution.9 Ambedkar here makes two interrelated arguments that have enormous implications in terms of how contemporary Hinduism and Hindutva understand themselves in the scholarly world as much as in popular consciousness. The first point is that the dharma of the Vedas and the dharma of the Buddhists have to be clearly distinguished because the latter referred to certain norms of ethical behaviour and disposition whereas the former was directly linked to forms of ritual activity which in later renditions had varna as an essential content and context.10 And the second point relates to karma, where too the distinction between the Buddhists and the Vedic (and later Brahminical conceptions) lay between behavioural norms (within soteriological contexts) and ritual and sacrificial activity which became pronouncedly caste imbued.11 “Ritual” in the period of the “counter-revolution” inextricably linked notions of karma and dharma within the framework of varnashrama, and cannot to be seen as an abstraction or set of mechanical actions.

The effectivity of the norm of equality lies in its challenge to the older Vedic social order and in the danger it poses. Buddhism is successful, yet all too soon destroyed by the “restoration” of the Brahminical order, through the political force of the sanghas and the philosophical justifications of theManusmriti and theBhagavad Gita. The force of Ambedkar’s own argument lies in providing socio-historical loci for these texts that are often assumed to signify timeless truths. The eternal twins that are unitary culture and linear history are thereby unhinged. For Ambedkar, the distinguishing features of theGita lies in what it borrows from Buddhism and how it nonetheless transforms these ideas so as to justify and fortify chaturvarna in new ways (Ambedkar: 179–98).12 This social order when articulated in theManusmriti is rendered all the more rigid because social practice and conventions are reaffirmed with the force of legal sanction. For theGita, karma remains ultimately within the ritual and the social-existential contexts of the caste order. The “patriotic trick” of reading karma asmerely action in the general sense devoid of caste and ritual was something he attributed to Tilak. This is an argument for which Ambedkar found no textual basis (Ambekdar: 184).13

Ambedkar’s is an important historic-philosophical argument which requires both dimensions, that is, the fact that Buddhism predated and influenced texts such as theManusmriti andGita as well as the fact that Buddhism transformed key categories of the pre-Buddhist period such as karma and dharma. Thus, the high tenets of Hindu religion and culture—what we popularly take karma and dharma to stand for—are found to reveal and conceal the hierarchical varna order and it is this which constitutes the core of subcontinental history and identity. This is why even while recognising the role of the “Muslim invasions” in the devastation of Buddhism, Ambedkar is keen to argue that the decline of Buddhism had to be traced to the much earlier counter-revolution of Brahminism. Islamic invasions could not destroy the fundamental feature that the counter-revolution of Brahminism had bequeathed: the institution of varna which was indistinguishable from Hinduism.14 Invoking Savarkar one might say of chaturvarna that it is not just a term, it is a history.

In Savarkar, Hindutva history takes the form of nature, in the sense of the necessary. The most minuscule uncertainty, the slightest hesitation would amount to a crushing existential crisis. A position possessed of such fear is only defined by that which it is not. Such a culture can never accede to the minimum demands of rationality or reflection because in refusing to define itself it renders itself invulnerable to refutation. Doubt is betrayal. The conflation of race and culture has no place for a will or an end, no place for the future and what might be done, no place for reflection; except the war with the other. This is where Ambedkar stands furthest apart from Savarkar. For Ambedkar, on the other hand, history is not natural in the sense of the necessary but freedom as a lightning flash; it illuminates as much as it strikes. His conversion into Buddhism is an event that indicts and reveals the existing caste system as a fundament of social existence in India or what he alternatively calls Hinduism. It is a challenge to the weight of history but all the same a determination to make one of its own that recalls the lost call of Buddhism. The febrile notes that areRevolution and Counter-revolution are immanent to this event of conversion.

Thus while fundamentally at odds, for both Savarkar and Ambedkar, history is the name of a politics. Both anticipate contemporary historical research as much as popular consciousness. Savarkar’s insistence on unity empties time leaving the shell that is history: thus genetic science always existed in our past, in our culture, much like the fashionable purses of Konark sculptures.15 Put paradoxically, the past has no future, since it is eternally present and anticipates all. Whatever of value we do, we have always done, otherwise how could we exist? Ambedkar, by contrast, in his action—historical and existential—brings into relief the stake of history.

Ambedkar’s Critique of Caste: Philosophy

The language of history requires the grammar of norms to be understood. In this section key poles around which the self-representation of our religious and cultural idiom revolve such askarma,dharma andadvaita will be put to scrutiny. Their historical and differentiated nature will be analysed. And one must begin with Ambedkar’s insistence on the crucial role of Buddhism in the transformation of key concepts such asdharma andkarma, as well as its chronology, which has found (further) justification and elaboration in the recent works from the world of scholarship, such as those of Patrick Olivelle, Alf Hiltebeitel and James Fitzgerald, howsoever they may differ on other counts.16 What is important for us is to underline the double appropriation, Buddhist appropriation of Vedic words and terms such asdharma andkarma, and the further Brahminical appropriation of these very Buddhist concepts which are (re)formulated through the primary axiomatic of caste. The specifically Brahminical features of these doctrines—their formulation through caste—are effaced by philosopher-thinkers such as Vivekananda and Radhakrishnan which has become the inheritance of popular culture as much as certain forms of academic discourse.17 This erasure and appropriation (of Buddhism) finds its way into the common self-description of contemporary Indian and Hindu culture. It is such a perspective that one might find in some Supreme Court judgments.

The Ambedkarite challenge to our culture’s smug self-perception is at once philosophical and historical. Let us isolate and elaborate the philosophical dimension which consists in his indictment that theGita—which has almost become central to Hindu self-understanding—is devoid of any ethics, if by ethics we mean thinking through the principles andcriteria for goodhuman action in the world. For Ambedkar, and he provides much evidence through citation for this, the ethics of theGita is indissociable from caste (Ambedkar: 183, 185).18Svadharma is not “human” nature/duty but caste-nature/duty and therefore it cannot conceive of the principles of (modern) humanity, that is, equality, liberty and fraternity. Even though, in theGita, Vedic sacrifice is deemed insufficient and in an ultimate sense everyone can seek refuge in god, the social order of the caste system, and its division into a hierarchical differentiated social order is itself left intact. Ambedkar argues that the important line of theGita that allows all to take refuge in the lord, is most likely taken from the Buddhist argument that all caste distinctions are erased when refuge is taken in the Buddha and the sangha (Ambedkar: 189–90). Of course a key distinction lies in the fact that while the sangha is a “real” social institution that is to offer concrete means of escape, theGita provides no such concrete means of escaping the varna order. This coupled with other verses endorsing the varna order establishes that theGita does not provide a fundamental critique of chaturvarna. Such an interpretation of theGita is in direct contradiction to the arguments of Radhakrishnan et al who have argued thatsvadharma can be understood as “dispositional” and “psychological,” that is, there is only a human nature and no caste nature.19 Interpreting svadharma as merely psychological and dispositional by subtracting varna allows for a completely different—and questionable—rendering of theGita. Considering the evidence provided, it is difficult not to agree with Ambedkar, even if he did not know Sanskrit and thus did not have the credibility that Radhakrishnan the philosopher had.

However, Indologists, philosophers and literary critics, seem to have, since Ambedkar’s death, further established his basic contention. Wilhelm Halbfass in a deeply searching article on the question as to whether the category of the human existed in ancient India shows that there is no easy answer. While providing much textual evidence to support the conception of humanity as significantly distinct—consciousness of time and reason are important features—he nonetheless points to the enduring importance of varna which undermines such distinction.20 More recently, from a slightly different perspective, in ruthlessly rigorous fashion Bandyopadhyay shows that the contemporary self-understanding of Indian culture in its interpretation of Chapter 2, Verse 47 of theGita stands neither philosophical nor historical scrutiny. Where we think we are most ourselves, we are in fact sorry mimic variations of colonialist orientals, who were the first to systematically interpret “action” in theGita as devoid of a ritual-caste context; and present interpretation continues in this vain.21 Which is why we find it difficult to respond to Hegel’s critique of Chapter 2, Verse 47. This line in itself does not engage with the basic problematic of morality-freedom, that is, the nature of the distinction between good and not-good and how to distinguish one from the other in deciding on the course of action to take.22 That is to say, the ideal of action without desire cannot provide the justification for any specific action, and as such can post facto justify action of any kind.23

Closely associated with theGita, Sankara’sadvaita has become a central marker—and source of pride—for popular culture in contemporary times not only because of the writings of Vivekananda and Radhakrishnan. Monism is presumed to do away with all the divisiveness and discrimination that is present not only in caste but also the Abrahamic religions, which distinguish between believers and heretics. However, the fact that Sankara’s commentary, theBrahma Sutra Bhasya clearly disqualified the Sudras from Vedic knowledge (law/morality) and ritual while well recognised in the scholarship is not part of this popular consciousness.24 Monism is assumed to be a critique of caste, but this certainly was not the case with Sankara’s text. The issue is not simply of this or that interpretation of Sankara but the fact that his specific disqualification of Sudras was cited as authoritative and followed in the later medieval—early modern commentatorial tradition specifically on the question of the rights/authority of Sudras to Vedic knowledge.25 Philosophical traditions at a great variance with that of Sankara—whether Madhvacharya, Ramanuja, the Nyaya or Vaisesika—converged on the disqualification of the Sudra.26 The whole first millennium had indeed seen the development of a system of discrimination that was increasing in subtlety and force, to which we can also trace the emergence and construal of the “untouchable.”27

Logic of Historical Motion

While it has been recognised for a long time that a whole genre of text on the rights/duties of the Sudras developed in the later early modern period, it is only now that this corpus is being taken up for analysis.28 There is also the clear recognition that the emergence of this seemingly new genre of texts might have to do with the fact that the rulers of the period were “Sudras,” who all the same took to forms of Brahminical authentication. As Ambedkar argued, in his instantiation of history as normative effect, the most spectacular instance was the case of Shivaji going so far as to actually perform theupanayanam ceremony to establish his lineage from a line of genuine Kshatriyas; even as much historical research has established that Shivaji was not unusual in exhibiting the need for Brahminical legitimisation. That theSudra dharma texts usually scrupulously tried to deny Vedic knowledge and ritual to Sudras—notwithstanding giving other compensation in the form of other Puranic rituals—is of direct relevance to the fact that Shivaji claimed to be of Kshatriya lineage.29 All of this goes to show that the logic of historical motion in India is difficult to conceive of without a serious confrontation with varna just as it would not do to project commonsensical understandings of monism to the doctrinal elaborations as they were articulated in the past.

It is to state the obvious that Ambedkar found Hinduism to be irreducibly linked with the varna principle. His near contemporaries, whether Vivekananda or Radhakrishnan, did not think so and believed Hinduism, especially its scriptures, to teach a universal morality that was superior to whatever the world had to offer.30 On such contemporary understandings it would do well to follow Halbfass in making a distinction between self-consciously interpreting the past (therefore recognising that one’s interpretation is not the past itself) and asserting that what one is saying is the past itself. There may be value in reinterpreting the past and with it concepts such as dharma and karma but it is much less convincing to take contemporary conceptualisation of such notions (without the caste/ritual dimension) as authentic records of the past itself.31 Unfortunately, it is the latter that has played a role in the constitution of present-day Hindu culture as we know it leading to unthinking self-congratulation rather than serious intellectual curiosity and labour. Such confidence has led to a sapping of the critical spirit and therefore in today’s world, especially today, if one were to cite certain lines of Ambedkar about Hinduism, one might well find oneself in jail, prosecutable on a range of charges. Even as contemporary scholarship has—without always acknowledging it—only lent further credence to Ambedkars words.32 As we argued above, Ambedkar’s critique of culture as history was as philosophical as it was historical, and it is to the latter dimension that we now turn.

Ambedkar’s Critique of Caste: History

This is where Ambedkar’s historical works—whether theOrigin of Sudras or theRevolution and Counter-revolution—are pioneering. It is unfortunate that historians while often agreeing with his conclusions and arguments, still appear uncomfortable with his methods and claims. There is a clear methodological issue. Ambedkar is interested in the persisting force of the caste system as an “event,” one whose operational power and ability to renew itself is presently palpable. This is not to say that caste is ahistorical but that it is that within which politico–cultural history is accessible in its intelligibility. One might take the help of Hans Blumenberg’s distinction cum symmetry between a “pre-history” and a “history of effects” to understand Ambedkar’s reading of caste. There is a necessary discrepancy as much as alignment between a “pre-history” and the “history of effects” of an event such as that of caste, which cannot be captured by conventional accounts of context, since context presupposes as constant precisely the mutation that has already occurred, that is, the normative frameworks of Brahminical ideology obscure its own origin and historical emergence to which we are still in thrall.

Ambedkar states his intent very clearly inOrigin of the Sudras: “in the case of the Sudras the centre of interest is not the Sudras as a people but the legal system of pains and penalties to which they are subjected” (Moon 1989: 10).33 Elsewhere he says that the caste system was not merely notional, but penal. The distinguishing feature was not the fact of division of classes, but the divine and legal sanction given so as to constitute a principle, a principle of “graded inequality.” Not hierarchy, but the legitimisation of hierarchy through reference to the divine. And in his investigations, Ambedkar specifically targets a range of people, including the Arya Samajists, who argue that everything of value in today’s world could be traced to the
Vedas; a position that we are only all too familiar with today.

In the text marked by voluminous citation, Ambedkar argues that the Sudras were originally a tribe; in fact they were Kshatriyas. A conflict arose between the Sudras (as Kshatriyas) and the Brahmins, which led to the latter denying them the Upanayana ceremony, and consequently access to Vedic sacrifice. This implied the loss of access to both knowledge and law (the source of which was to lie in the Vedas) and property (which had as its end sacrifice and gift). This is how Ambedkar makes sense of the fact that the early Vedic sources provide evidence for Sudras as having access to sacrifice and (Vedic) knowledge, but from the later Vedic period into theDharmasutras and later, especially Manu, one witnesses an increasing degradation of the Sudra. Such an event shows that it is a deep violence that fractures a “prehistory” of the event from its “effect”; one that we are still living with. R S Sharma, who has perhaps written the most detailed study in recent times on the issue, will not disagree with this thesis; both on the possibility of the Sudras being a “tribe” and the decline in the position of the Sudras in the later Vedic period and theDharmasutras andDharmasastras.

However, while Ambedkar wishes to uncover the logic of discrimination coded in the power of the norm, Sharma pegs the textual literature on the abstract schema of a division of labour. The latter argument erases the specificity of caste, robbing it of its status as anact of discrimination. Notwithstanding his painstaking scholarship, this is a limitation in Sharma’s work.34 This becomes clearest in his reading of Buddhist scriptures which he at times sees as ultimately little different from the Brahminical sources because both of them record the degraded status of the Sudras and other labouring castes. The fact that they equally record degradation cannot imply the lack of difference between the two kinds of sources, because unlike the Brahminical texts, the Buddhists ones specifically critiqued the Brahminical principle of “graded inequality” and the hereditary qualifications required for real knowledge. By minimising the value of the intellectual and legal content to the texts he studies and reading them for evidence through which social reality is accessed, something is thereby lost.35

This is where it is important to return to Ambekdar, more particularly his fervent notes,Buddhist Revolution and Counter-revolution. Interestingly, in this text too the primary agency is given as much to Buddhism in its historical defeat, in its ethical afterlife. Ambedkar argues that while Vedic society did not enshrine the principle of graded inequality which was the varna system, it did not have any recognisable principle of morality.36 Thus one has a diversity of creation myths as well as direct reference to the importance and privileges of Sudras. The Buddha’s emphasis on conduct and universal compassion invited the wrath of the Brahmins who now in their turn, through texts like theManusmriti, transformed the original (Vedic) division of classes into a divinely sanctioned normative-legal principle (Moon 1989: 117–57). The specificPurusha sukta hymn—out of all creation myths found in the Vedic sources—is given specific importance and the Vedas themselves are now seen as the source of alldharma (law/morality). It is in such a context that the Vedas acquire the status of the divine word, a schema that continues until the modern—including colonial and postcolonial—period. The Vedic texts do not proclaim to be divine knowledge in the ways that theDharmasastras and later theMimamsa tradition claimed it to be. If one takes the lead of Olivelle one would have to say that this notion of divine scripture was itself to be traced to Buddhist notions.

Notwithstanding the difference between his historical works,37 for Ambedkar the discriminatory rationale of the caste system is itself a specific historical logic of naming and not a priori schema that is to be found universally across human societies as a function of material factors; such naming requires investigation because of its persistent and present vitality. In such a naming and excavation of historical principles Ambedkar’s view of history is explicitly to be distinguished from that of Savarkar’s, as well as many European thinkers. More specifically, Ambedkar’s view argues that the history of India and Hinduism cannot be rid of the caste system because it encodes the social institution with a religious rationale that is best exemplified in thePurusha sukta—an originary division of labour disallowing a principle of humanity—in its persistent reiterations. Thus, rather than dismiss the Vedic andDharmashastra texts as “normative” in the weak sense of having no historical hold, Ambedkar’s forceful analysis of the one case of Shivaji brings to a crystallised form the discriminatory force and enduring persistence ofchaturvarna across “Hindu” history. It is the Brahminical norm reverberating across centuries howsoever one might have the record of caste mobility as much as proliferation. In this argument, much of the recent detailed work on legitimacy follows in Ambedkar’s path, by underlining the power of normative frameworks and their ability to stage historical change.38

Ambedkar’s Buddhism: Revolution?

Fundamental to much history writing is the invalidation cum contextualisation of revolution and it is little wonder that historians have been particularly critical of Ambedkar’s stance that Buddhism was in a real sense a break with the past.39 Did Buddhism in its initial inauguration of the ethical and subsequent challenge to varna indeed mount a revolutionary challenge in the name of humanity? Again this would require a careful examination of the sources so as to understand them in terms of a discourse having a unity they self-consciously create. In this context, the recent detailed work of Eltschinger underlines a relentless critique of varna discrimination in the Buddhist corpus which is surely remarkable; a critique that often shaded off into “strictly philosophical” issues such as universality and perception (Eltschinger 2012).

Eltschinger argues that one can discern a pattern in Buddhist texts that systematically argued against caste which was diagnosed as a “reification” of social relations. The question of varna initially hinged on the question of humanity, picking up from Halbfass’s query, and is directed towards asking whether human beings could be rigorously “categorised” that is, divided into jatis. So a range of arguments were mobilised against the Brahminical argument that Brahmins constituted a different species with differentiating properties. One set focused on the inability to differentiate Brahmins physically from others and the fact that inter-mixture did not produce sterility. Others used Brahminical sources to prove that even by Brahminical standards of hereditary purity, there were many examples in their scriptures of inter-mixtures. Furthermore, this was linked to the arguments of karma as sacrament, since certain Brahminical texts argued that birth was impure and sacraments were needed to achieve purity and if certain acts were not performed this purity was lost. The Buddhists retorted that if one could “lose” purity, and the case was the performance of certain sacraments, did this not contradict arguments regarding birth/heredity as a marker of caste? There is the interesting related argument aboutmantras, and the fact that Sudras were disqualified from uttering sacred mantras. Here too, not unlike the argument about karma, the Buddhists asked whether the power of the mantra lay in that of its utterance (grounded in his status as a Brahmin) or in the mantra itself (which should not be affected by the “nature” of the person who utters it).

This debate moved from more commonsensical arguments to extremely subtle and complex questions such as whether conceptualisation involved perception.40 However, even here the trigger and guiding thread was the question about whether there was such an identifiable property such as Brahminhood. Thus the nature of such a long-standing debate is surely evidence not only of the importance of the varna principle, but of the fact that among all traditions, the Buddhists alone appear to have carried out a sustained philosophical critique of caste.41 What complicates matters is that the Buddhist critique appears to have influenced—although it is no doubt very difficult if not impossible to prove such things—a range of Brahminical sources. One can indeed find in the latter many instances of hereditary birth not being seen as an essential qualification for spiritual knowledge.42 However, they turn out to be nugatory, in the sense that there is no sustained critique like that which may be found in the Buddhist sources. It is only in this vague sense that one may say “influence”; since while there is a systematic anti-caste discourse in Buddhism, within Brahminical discourse, even if one were to include the epics, such a position was not systematically pursued.

It is often commented that while the Buddhist corpus was indeed critical of the varna order, there was no argument for social transformation envisioned in it. This indeed cannot be denied because while the sangha was seen as a place where hereditary birth did not matter this did not translate into any attempt to transform the world outside the sangha.43 However, such an argument need not diminish Ambedkar’s argument that Buddhism was revolutionary. Buddhist texts argued that what appeared as sacred ultimately was a means to the unwarranted privilege of a class (Brahmins). By doing so it (re)constituted the fundamental concepts such as dharma and karma denuding them of the ritual and caste privilege within which they were articulated and rearticulated. To argue against a specific class operating with power in the world which all the same guarded itself with reference to the divine, meant in fact opening up its claim to critical scrutiny. It also thereby outlined a theory of humanity thereby enshrining compassion as a fundamental value. Surely this set of arguments could be interpreted as revolutionary. This leads us to a more controversial and speculative domain. The question about whether the Buddhist critique resulted in the persecution of Buddhists and the “class war” that Ambedkar spoke about in his notes.

In many Brahminical sources—whetherManusmriti or theArthashastra—there is a clear denunciation of Buddhists who might have been the purported referents of terms that are otherwise translated as “heretics” or “unbelievers.”44 This critique continued into the Puranic period. According to Gail Omvedt, the argument that Buddhists were in fact actually persecuted and that the decline of Buddhism would be directly linked to a revived Brahminical polity cannot be dismissed as it once was.45 No doubt much more needs to be done to make this fully persuasive, but the fact that there is no explanation or even analysis of the demise of Buddhism from India makes it imperative that one at least attempts to answer the question. Even if one does not take it literally, the war between the Brahmins and the Buddhists may be taken figuratively as a contest over fundamental issues of ethics and politics. This in itself is surely an important enough claim to merit serious attention. After all, the whole ideological force of modernity is the claim of Western civilisation to have bequeathed to the world the norms of human liberty from which irradiates its various histories; notwithstanding the delicious irony in the dehumanisation involved in the spreading of such ideals and norms that are ­recorded in the imperial and colonial histories of our times.

In the face of the overwhelming evidence provided it seems impossible not to recognise with Ambedkar that the unifying feature of the history of the subcontinent and its intellectual traditions is intimately linked with the violence of caste discrimination. Especially if along with Ambedkar we realise that the force of caste discrimination was driven by the denial of a nucleus in which law, property and education were inextricably intertwined. The emphasis on the upanayana and its relationship to dharma as a source of law—normative as well as penal—is therefore of crucial significance in understanding history and culture. The inheritance of this discrimination today is undeniable in its force.46 If such awareness is sharpened only can it become change. Here in interpreting Buddhism too in his own way, Ambedkar is emphatic that reasoning and freedom cannot distinguished from each other. While Buddhism’s rigorous critique of varna appears uncontroversial, the fact that the sangha as a community depended in very real ways on the larger society whose transformation it did not call for, would have appeared inadequate to Ambedkar. And so Ambedkar’s stunning and consistent interpretation of Buddhism that went against the grain of his contemporaries.47 Here perhaps can be reactivated a much more ancient critique of Buddhism even when mired in the discriminatory codes of varna that is ascetic dispositions by their very nature cannot cultivate the virtues of hospitality or justice in the world.

Present History and Salvaging a Future

Ambedkar’s indictment of Hindu history as much as popular culture as caste infected, could evoke many responses. For the position that erases the history of caste violence is only as mainstream in today’s world as the histories and presents of Europe and America that elide the constitutive imperial violence that lies at the heart of their contemporary.48 Ambedkar’s history of caste will always singe in its relevance as long as caste discrimination exists; as long as concepts which have historically legitimated discrimination continue to flourish in our environment. Much of this is obfuscated by a refusal to confront the centrality of caste in historical, jurisprudential as much as popular discourse. It is cause for even greater despondence when it is believed that caste violence is but an aberration of a future and past joined by technocracy. At once the ethical struggle with our inheritance and the task of imagining a future are voided.

We are thus at a strange conjuncture today where the cultural question is closed; there is to be no self-reflexivity when it comes to renewing or rethinking key categories of our intellectual and cultural inheritance. Culture as mere assertion devoid of reflexivity converges in its characteristics with a technocratic agenda. And so studying, interpreting, working through and enjoying theKhandana or theSamtanantaradusana pales in front of the many joys of the selfie stick and the redemptive potential of Big Data. Prime Minister Narendra Modi, if reports are to be believed, has said that an online platform for commercial transactions, the Bhim Application, is comparable to our Constitution; which would involve Ambedkar’s immense toil towards it (Express News Service 2014). There is a double misrecognition involved in accepting a particular framing of the contemporary—technocratic science and economic development of a sort—as ineluctable results. The ineluctable is the identification of this contingent ideological frame with our history (“culture”) as much as our destiny (“development”). Ambedkar’s history forced the need to think of the future as freedom as much as freedom in terms of a future.

And this is why when judges pronounce on our culture and/or religion—adopting and taking for granted a particular framing of history—they tread on treacherous ground. The brutality of caste violence today embodies a caste-consciousness that claims a specific historical legacy. Anand Teltumbde’s fine work on caste violence very convincingly points to the very contemporary rationale that might drive caste violence.49 But one cannot all the same deny that at the core of this consciousness lies a conception of a natural hierarchy, and the just violence to be meted out to he who violates this. If the bestiality of caste violence is at all explicable it is only in terms of the bestialisation of those perceived lower. Teltumbde’s searing description of Khairlanji, shows us what such caste makes of “democracy”—for if democracy is rule by numbers what happened in Khairlanji is exemplary in directly and actively involving the entire village except for the victim family. This reminds us of M Aktor’s perceptive description of the logic of exclusion of the untouchable.50 It is not merely an exclusion, but rather a repression of those forms of impurity that cannot be done away with in our everyday lives; that are perceived as the dirt germane to the human condition and so a perpetual threat. For the traditional varna order, the untouchable is not the excluded but the cipher in which the act of exclusion takes place, an insistent and undeniable presence: the bhangi cleaner stands for the dirt that is cleaned, purity is itself defined in enacting the exclusion.

Binding the Normative and Historical

Ambedkar’s critique of Hindu scriptural texts, tradition and history is precisely to show the labour of interpretation. This is where Ambedkar will find support in one of his most important interlocutors, Gandhi, for whom theGita was not a historical document that determined us but a poem demanding a reading. Gandhi did not subscribe to a ready history, where all glory was to be found in the past, but arrogated to himself the freedom to preserve and discard what he believed—and argued through in life and text—to be essential.51 As Sibaji Bandyopadhyay perceptively argues, Gandhi’s reading of the Gita was tacitly a means to contest the interpretation of 2.47 as put forth by the Swadeshi movement.52 And yet, unlike Gandhi, Ambedkar binds the normative and the historical by treating theGita as a sign and site of power, appropriation and violence.

If we do not reduce the question of inheritance to mechanical or biological causality we might begin by recognising the need, freedom and pleasures in intellectual labour since it is impossible to merely present the past. That this kind of work has to constantly battle against Europeanist—practically racist—prejudices about the European nature of the philosophical and intellectual enterprise, would but be another example of the fact that forms of discrimination exist across the board.53 The conceptual power of categories such as karma and dharma will have to be measured by the manner in which they can diagnose and critique contemporary forms of violence. Important questions such as the following have been raised, and need to be raised again: Could humanity be defined as that which can consciously deprive itself rather than be defined in terms of the contemporary dogmas of self-interest? Might we think of action as a collective responsibility and inheritance as opposed to contemporary valorisations of individualism that occlude the structural asymmetries on which they are built? Ought the need to develop the virtues of hospitality and compassion be derived from an understanding of essential human finitude rather than be reduced to a philanthropy that codes charity as a personal allocation of a surplus that has rightfully been achieved.54 If sealed in the dogmas of an eternal “now,” such characteristics are also sealed from questioning contemporary injunctions to mass consumerism and authoritarian dictate. None of these questions will appear relevant to those votaries of our past which has value only in its anticipation of the present. Cultural pride is to
exclusively lie in the—easily refuted—theories of our epics having the knowledge of atomic physics and genetic science.

Ambedkar’s acute diagnosis of the present day caste discrimination allowed him to accurately decipher its genealogy. It is certainly cause for wonder that very specific and current forms of behaviour—such as using earthen mud vessels to prevent and avoid “pollution”55—echo almost to the letter millennium old prohibitions. Manu had said that

if a sudra mentions the names and castes of the twice born with contumely, an iron nail, ten fingers long, shall be thrust red hot into his mouth. If he arrogantly teaches Brahmins their duties the king shall cause hot oil to be put in his mouth and into his ears. (Sharma 1980: 211)56

There is much reportage on such forms of caste atrocities prevalent today; even if caste atrocities are not the preserve of the traditionally upper castes.57 The very fact that present practices are intelligible with reference to ancient and medieval scriptural texts is evidence of the overwhelming presence of our past. Delineated therein is a not a seamless history of an eternal present buoyant with pride but one of subtle appropriations and violent prohibitions.

Extant scholarship has established Ambedkar’s puncturing of the seamless folding of present and past in an eternal value; something that we see in Savarkar as well as the ideologues of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS). The eternal present also unfortunately codes another eternal antinomy between the Hindu and the Muslim, where all faults of the Hindus including varna discrimination are attributed to “Muslim” invasions. Such an antinomy flies in the face of the most minimal perusal of the “facts”: The Mughals had as their generals Rajputs who fought against Maratha rulers like Shivaji and varna discrimination well predates the Turkish invasions.58 The dogged insistence in speaking with such neat binaries of the autochthonous and the invaders and their implicit correlates in terms of religious communities in the face of all scholarly evidence to the contrary reveal that rather than referring to the historical record what is at play is the will to bring about precisely such a warring binary. That varna and untouchability have also much older and organic links within the history of the subcontinent have also been established from Ambedkar onwards. Unfortunately, the current government which is influenced by the RSS and Savarkar’s writings has only appointed people with no credentials in the world of scholarship to the most prestigious social science institutions. Creating a “Marxist bogey” they have in fact gone against the consensus and research established over decades across various methodo­logical orientations and continents without a shred of evidence.59

As opposed to such blatantly false readings of history as an eternal present and an eternal struggle, Ambedkar’s reading of history as the reverberation of norms and the need to conceive of a conceptual and ethical world view afresh has acquired an acute urgency now as never before. One is reminded of Walter Benjamin’s warning that fascism promises expression and identity without touching the asymmetric material conditions in which they may be found. The tension articulated in Yagnapurushdasji (1966) about whether the Constitution was a major effort at the new or a pale reiteration of the age-old is still palpable. What to make of the recent valorisation of Dronacharya and Parashurama with scarce cognisance of the treatment meted out to Ekalavya or the unknown untouchable woman whose head was cut off to replace that of Renuka’s?60 In the continuing controversy over Ayodhya and Ram Rajya, can one dare name Shambuka?61 The government of the day that clearly and self-consciously follows the intellectual agenda of the RSS will have to take a stand on whether it is Ambedkar’s Constitution or theManusmriti that they regard as the axis of our polity. In 1949, the RSS made it clear that they chose the latter.62 Has anything changed?


1 See, Dr Ramesh Yeshwant Prabhoo v Shri Prabhakar Kashinath Kunte & ... on 11 December 1995 ... in

2 See, Sastri Yagnapurushadji And ... v Muldas Brudardas Vaishya And ... on 14 January 1966

3 See footnote 2.

4 Recently, S Palshikar offers a good summation of the positions of the extant scholarship on the historical record of the use of the term “Hindu.” He writes, “The dates of the earliest reference to ‘Hindu’ (and ‘Turks’) can be pushed back even further if we take as authentic the Asiatic Society of Bengal version of the late 12th century textPrithviraj Raso. There is one reference in it to the two religions (‘din’)—‘Hindus’ and ‘Turks’—‘having drawn their curved swords.’ However it was by no means a commonly used term going by the record and surfaces in specific contexts such as Kabir’s poetry and that of the Gaudiya vaishnava hagiographic literature in Bengal.” SeeEvil and the Philosophy of Retribution, pp 21–22. Even here when speaking of “Hindu” as a religious community one must be aware that positing such a community would disallow treating it as a community in the way we understand the word today, that is, where equality is a rough presupposition. On a related register Halbfass, following P V Kane, has noted that classical jurisprudential literature often used the category of “sudra” to incorporate “foreigners” and “aborigines” (sometimes identified asdasyus ormleccha) into thevarna scheme; See Halbfass,India and Europe, p 180. There thus did not seem to be the articulation of a homogeneous group of people.

5 Many scholars have noted the change in Savarkar’s position on a range of connected issues from the relationship between Hindus and Muslims to the nature of the British Raj from his time as a revolutionary to his time after he came out of prison. See, for instance, Ashis Nandy (2009).

6 This understanding of continuous war and its being the crucial cause in the imagining the race/nation can be seen in strands of arguments during 17th century England and 18th century France. Such an understanding of race and nation continued well into the 20th century and remains an important—even if hidden—component of contemporary assertions about the nature of the nation state. For a historical analysis of the imagination of race wars and nation-building, see H Arendt’sThe Origins of Totalitarianism (Book II) and M Foucault’s,Society Must be Defended. Ashis Nandy has made one of the most powerful and convincing arguments linking Savarkar’s vision to that of a specifically European understanding of nationalism.

7 It is thus unclear why Omvedt writes that Ambedkar attributes the decline of Buddhism almost exclusively to Islam inBuddhism in India: Challenging Brahmanism and Caste, p 175. It must be noted that Ambedkar did write that the Islamic conquests was destructive of Buddhism. SeeBuddhist Revolution and Counter-revolution, pp 72–73. While Ambedkar recognised that “Muslims” were not a monolithic category (they were “Tartars, Afghans and Mongols”) and there were several motivations, one was “to destroy the Hindu faith”; See V Moon (ed),Writings and Speeches, Vol 8, pp 54–65. While contemporary historians have drawn attention to the fact that sources do not speak transparently, the broader issue brought forth by Ambedkar that even if something historically inaccurate, if accepted and believed by later generations, acquires a historical meaning and force of its own. That is to say even if it were untrue that acts of violence were committed in the name of Islam previously, if (contemporary) Muslims claim this heritage, such a claim itself has a historical force and has to be confronted.

8 Savarkar writes that “Hindutva is not a word but a history.” Yet the history as narrated in his book is unconvincing both from the perspective of evidence as well as logic. While, as stated above, the “Islamic invasions” are given a constituting role in the formation of the Hindutva nation, he also uses an incident mentioned in the Puranas, “half symbolic and half actual,” to tell us that, “The records tells us in a mythological strain how a big battle was fought on the banks of the river Haha, how the Buddhistic forces made China the base of their operations, how they were reinforced by contingents from many Buddhistic nations: [There appeared for battle a hundred thousand soldiers from Shymadesh as also from Japdesh, and millions from China] and how after a tough fight the Buddhists lost it and paid heavily for their defeat. They had formally to renounce all ulterior national aims against India and give a pledge that they would never again enter India with any political end in view.” SeeEssentials of Hindutva, pp 26–27.

9 The argument about the conflict between Buddhism and Brahminism can at least be traced to the work of Holtzmann. V Adluri and J Bagchee inThe Nay Science, have provided a detailed summation as well as forceful critique of the methodological premises of German Indology. However, as we will see Ambedkar’s critique of Brahminism cannot be confused with that of Holtzmann, for whom Buddhism was located within the theory of an original martial epic; Adluri and Bagchee convincingly point to a range of confusions in Holtzmann’s theory of the Mahabharata as a “composite text,” including the difficulties in reconciling Buddhism with the allegedly original martial bardic story. While Holtzmann’s method is fundamentally historical—he is uninterested in the content or effects of norms—Ambedkar’s is clearly about the historical effects of norms. Here recent scholarship, from Biardeau to Fitzgerald have in different ways recognised that many Brahminical texts were composed so as to refute Buddhism.

10 There has been much recent work on the shifting meaning ofdharma, perhaps most prominently in the studies undertaken by Patrick Olivelle and Alf Hiltebeitel. While the literature is vast, there appears to be a consensus thatdharma was not a key term or category in the Vedic corpus, and it is with the Buddhist corpus—as well as the Ashokan inscriptions—that it acquires fundamental importance as well as ethical, religious and theological significance. Olivelle writes, “If this hypothesis is correct, then it was within early Buddhism that dharma changed from being a peripheral concept to becoming a central and key theological concept defining the Buddhist religion. Within this transformation, there must have been a semantic development; dharma becomes increasingly ethicised within the primarily ethical religion of Buddhism. It came to define the good and righteous life and the truth (satya) the Buddha discovered which made such a life possible.” Olivelle also mentions the extensive use of Dharma in this specifically Buddhist sense in the Ashokan inscriptions, and thus “the emergence of the Dharmasastric literature, first in the form of the prose sutras and then in metrical treatises beginning with Manu, was a direct consequence of Buddhist and Ashokan reforms” (Patrick Olivelle (ed),Dharma, pp 82–83). Importantly in many of these argumentsdharma is related to royal rituals and increasing privilege to Brahmins. Hiltebeitel speaks aboutdharma in the Upanishads also being exclusively concerned with Brahmins, their duties, options and privileges; examples of which include the implicit hierarchising to be found in the Brihadaranyaka Upanishad. Furthermore he argues that “there is a growing consensus around the work of Olivelle that the earliestdharmasutras entail a response to Buddhist and other heteropraxies” (p 151). See Alf Hiltebeitel,Dharma for the above references. On the other hand, Hiltebeitel argues that M Biardeau, is the first to read the Mahabharata as a “riposte” to Buddhism, in “You have to read the whole thing,”Journée 2011 du Centre d’Études de l’Inde et de l’Asie du Sud, p 3.

11 For a recent argument about the radical innovation ofkarma though Buddhism that linked karma withintention thereby eliding ritual-social hierarchies, see Richard Gombrich’sThervada Buddhism, p 68.

12 Ambedkar makes this argument in the course of a critique of Telang and Tilak. While it is always difficult to precisely delineate “influence,” in this case there is no doubt that the composition of the Gita post-dated many of the Buddhist scriptures. SeeBuddhist Revolution and Counter-revolution, pp 188–90.

13 Ambedkar puts it succinctly, “That the Gita in speaking of Karma is not speaking of activity or inactivity, quieticism or energism, in general terms but religious acts and observances cannot be denied by anyone who has read the Bhagavad Gita.” Ambedkar’s reading, including the specific his specific critique of Tilak, finds elaboration in two recent nuanced studies of the Gita and its reception; Sibaji Bandyopadhyay’sThree Essays on the Mahabharata and Suhas Palshikar’sEvil and the Philosophy of Retribution. In Palshikar’s careful parsing of Tilak’s commentary he points to different ways in which Tilak’s reading of theGita unjustifiably divorces categories such as karma andlokasamagra from “traditional settings” which hadvarnashrama as a critical constituent. For instancelokasamagra would refer traditionally—as evidenced by premodern commentaries of theGita as its text—to varna and not a secularised “public welfare,” as Tilak would have it. However, it is important to note, as Palshikar points out, that Tilak himself did believe in thevarna scheme. This reading of Tilak, along with Gandhi and Aurobindo, is located within a larger argument about ways in which modern commentators disavow the traditional frameworks (importantlyvarnashrama) even when looking to tradition for authority.

14 On Buddhism, Savarkar had offered a very different interpretation. While praising the universal brotherhood preached by the Buddha, Savarkar argued that the invasions from the north-west meant that Indians could not be content with the “mumbos and jumbos of [Buddhist] universal brotherhood.” SeeEssentials of Hindutva, p 23. There was thus required a back-to-the-Vedas attitude. Furthermore he also argues that Indians needed to unify against the designs of the Chinese Buddhist rulers who could well rely on a fourth column present in India; basing his narrative on a 19th century source. It is to this situation that the decline of Buddhism is attributed. Savarkar was also very critical of Ashoka and praised Pushyamitra of the Sunga dynasty, in direct contrast to Ambedkar for whom Pushyamitra led the “counter-revolution.”

15 On Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s remarks on the presence of genetic science in early Indian history as evidenced in the Mahabharata, see On his remarks on Konark see

16 See note 10 above. Ambedkar’s use of “counter-revolution” is perhaps taken from Jayaswal’s,Yagnavalkya andManu. This might itself bear a superficial resemblance to Holtzman’s “counter-reformation,” though there are obvious fundamental differences relating to method (textual-historical vs conceptual/discourse) and substance (analysis of the conceptual-juridical distinctions between Buddhism and Brahminical ideology).

17 For a recent example of a historical work that in effect is nothing less than an erasure of caste as much as Ambedkar in the understanding of ancient history see Upinder Singh’sPolitical Violence in Ancient India. Towards the end of her work Singh remarks, “But the amnesia toward the context of intense social and political conflict and violence in which these thinkers [Mahavira, Buddha and Ashoka] emerged and with which they engaged often reduces them to simplified stereotypes, invoked from time to time for self-congratulatory rhetoric or political gain. Ambedkar simplified and idealized Buddhism, molding it to suit the needs of a program of social equity”;Political Violence in Ancient India, p 482. Earlier with reference to theManusmriti, Singh had argued, “Like theArthashashtra, theManusmriti also enjoys a certain notoriety. It is often seen as an upholder of the oppression of lower classes and women, but it is actually a complex text that defies simplistic characterization” (Political Violence in Ancient India, p 125). That Singh does not see Ambedkar as interpreting Buddhism in the context of violence in Indian history is ironical if not surprising since nowhere does she study Ambedkar’s historical writings or assessment of Buddhism in the book (the only work of Ambedkar in the bibliography is the essay “Marx or Buddha”) nor does she ever show how theManusmriti defied” the “simplistic characterization” of being a work that was an
“upholder of the oppression of women and the lower classes.” Hiltebeitel has argued, echoing much of the scholarly literature, that women and sudras are (ill)treated as “overlapping conceptual categories” in theManusmriti and thedharma­sutrakaras;Dharma, p 225. Purportedly a history of ideas and how ancient Indian political thought reflected on the question of violence, Singh erases the foundational importance ofvarna for the “political” thought that she takes as a subject by merely making perfunctionary references to it. For example, when citing theMahabharata on thedharma of the king encompassing otherdharmas (Political Violence in Ancient India, p 68), and its importance for maintaining order, Singh does not acknowledge the fact that the very passage which she refers to is cited and discussed by Fitzgerald to show and make the point that the King’s duty is to specifically ensure avarna order (not merely order in a general sense as Singh suggests) where Brahmins are given their privileged place (Fitzgerald,Mahabharata Book 11, 108–09);varna is indeed central in these passages on the “political.” Similarly a page later when citing a passage on the importance for the King to have self-control, Singh simply erases the hierarchicalvarna context of the passage, where Bhishma speaks of the absolute centrality of thevarna order. This cited passage too has been noted by the secondary literature before but not acknowledged or reflected upon by Singh; see Hiltebeitel’s detailing of the qualities of the King in hisRitual of Battle, p 216. Far from shedding new light on a specific problem or bringing new historical material to light, little justice is done to the issues as articulated in the secondary literature, from R S Sharma to Fitzgerald, which recognise the foundational relationship betweenvarna andrajadharma.

18 Ambedkar is provides voluminous citations to establish his case. On the argument that the Gita upholds varna he cites III 26 (where prescribed duties are to be followed), and then XVIII, 41–48 where we have perhaps the clearest arguments for varna, where Krishna speaks of the inborn qualities of the four varnas, with the Sudra having the quality merely to serve the other three castes. From both text and context it is difficult to interpret “inborn qualities” as dispositions that could be cultivated, and this certainly falls apart when it comes to the Sudra whose only quality is to serve the other three castes. Furthermore Ambedkar also says that notwithstanding the arguments that appear to diminish the importance of Vedas or Shastras (as opposed to the “pure” action of karma) he cites the following to underline the continuing importance of the Vedas and Shastras: XVI, 23, 24: XVII, II, 13, 24). Against the idea that Yagnas are diminished in importance he cites, III, 9–15.

19 Paul Hacker had traced Radhakrishnan’s argument to Bankim. He however argues that this has no basis in the traditional understanding—including the Gita—whereinsvadharma is certainly related to thevarna scheme. See Halbfass (ed),Confrontation and Philology, pp 257–73. Hiltebeitel has a detailed discussion ofsvadharma, citing Olivelle to the effect that the compoundsvadharma appears as a compound in the context of ritual and specific details specific to each rite, following from which, notwithstanding changes, in theDharmasutras and theGita, the term can only be understood within thevarna scheme. He also points to the simila­rity in the verses about it being better to carry out one’s ownsvadharma than another’s, that one finds in Manu and the Gita; see hisDharma, pp 183, 527. Halbfass regarding theGita writes, “Of course, theBhagavad Gita is distinguished by its avoidance of categorical and exclusive statements and its general tendency towards reconciliation, synthesis and ambivalence. For this reason, we should not expect it to explicitly play off the various meanings or aspects of thevarna concept or claim exclusive validity for one meaning or one aspect. At the same time, it is clear that the fundamental hereditary meaning of caste membership remains unquestioned, and is in fact defended in a subtle conciliatory and very accommodating manner against the ethicizing meaning represented by Buddhism; in the opening chapters the mixing of castes is repeatedly referred to as a threatening phenomena.” Pointing to the difficulties in relating thegunas to the fourvarnas, Halbfass cites even Radhakrishnan to the effect that heredity ultimately did play an important role in the absence of a heuristic to determine individual aptitude. Here he finds the traditional pundits, such as Dirgaprasad Dviveda, as more consistent in arguing that gunas were merely specifying “what by definition is implied in the hereditary membership of caste.” See hisTradition and Reflection, p 363. More recently Sibaji Bandyopadhyay inThree Essays on the Mahabharata, pp 80–81, has also traced to Bankim the newer “Indian” turn to the interpretation of the Gita, which explicitly did away with the traditional commentaries, and seemed to derive, in their orientation, from a European reception to the text.

20 Among other persistent and persisting narratives, thePurusha Sukta implies both an originary source for the “human” which is simultaneously originarily divided. In Halbfass’s reading—and in this he follows Paul Hacker—thesvadharma of theGita certainly could not be disassociated from varna. In fact, not unlike Ambedkar, he argues that theGita introduces ethical dimensions which however cannot be taken as a critique of caste: thus the Shudra too can be ethical, but only if he does the kind of work sanctioned by his hereditary caste. See Halbfass,Tradition and Reflection, pp 265–91, 360. It is this deep structural importance of the varna order in the ancient traditions that is recognised even by more recent scholarship. For instance, more recently Bowles has shown that when Yudhisthtira asks Bhishma about satya, the first part of Bhishma’s answer speaks about the importance of maintaining the varna order and then the discussion moves tosadharana dharma; the “universality” of the latter operates within the framework of the former (Dharma, Disorder and the Political in Ancient India, p 350). Heiltebeitel also critiques Kane for not recognising this embededness ofsadharana dharma within thevarna order (Dharma, pp 219–20).

21 While premodern commentaries interpreted Karma through the threefold schema ofnitya, naimittik andkamya, presupposing a normative framework that would include varna, the European commentators, and many Indian commentators following them, simply excluded the discursive context of caste and ritual. See Sibaji Bandyopadhyay, inThree Essays on the Mahabharata, p 87.

22 Thus even recent scholarship on the Gita sees the great difficulty in understanding how one who is non-attached can decide on acting. In this context it has to be mentioned that Amartya Sen’s contribution has been more obfuscating than illuminating. Initially in his essay, “Consequential Evaluation and Practical Reason” (2000) he see’s Krishna’s argument as “highly deontological” and Arjuna’s argument as “consequentionalist,” while in his more recentIdea of Justice (2009: 208–17), he sees this binary as misleading; though it is unclear who else but he has used such a binary. More important is his use of the phrase “just cause,” inIdea of Justice, to characterise the “deontological argument” of Krishna without giving any citation. Just Cause in the European tradition operated within a theological argument of “natural right” and “natural law,” whereas Krishna’s arguments for Arjuna to fight range across multiple registers but never approaches something like a “just cause” argument whether in its Christian theological sense or in the sense of modern everyday language use which operates with a robust theory of humanity. Other than the metaphysical arguments about the nature of the soul, his argument refers to Arjuna’s caste/Kshatriya duties (cited by Ambedkar above note 18) just as Arjuna’s arguments against the war use these very same varna specific arguments (the “corruption” of women and the mixture of castes). By eliding these arguments Sen’s reading of theGita becomes wholly dubious as does the manner of assimilating the ­positions in the text to contemporary theory. J N Mohanty has a much clearer interpretation of the Gita when he argues that unlike Kant’s universality maxim, theGita does not provide a rule by which duty or obligation might be specified. See his “Dharma, Imperatives and Tradition” in Billimoria et al (ed),Indian Ethics.

23 One might extend this argument to contest the contemporary interpretation ofsvadharma as dispositional/psychological which implies that caste can be changed according to disposition. Since if this were to be the case why did not ­Arjuna just “become” a Brahmin and/or sannyasin and leave the world? Krishna does not invoke past injustice which anyway would not apply in the face of a theory of desireless action.

24 This was noted by Ambedkar, and he certainly was not the first one to do so. For a discussion of this and concomitant notions ofadhikara, see Halbfass’sTradition and Reflection and M Aktor (2002).

25 Halbfass discusses Sankara’s commentary on Brahmasutra, as well as the fact that non-dualism in its traditional form in its acceptance and defence of the varna order cannot be made to square with the arguments that Vivekananda, Radhakrishnan et al, make. SeeTradition and Reflection, pp 377–86. Sankara also cites various passages from thesruti andsmriti including the one from Gautama’s Dharmasastra which “states that a sudra who illegitimately listens to Vedic texts should have his ears filled with molten tin or varnish.” Also discussed is Sankara’s reasoning—found convoluted by most recent commentators from Ambedkar to Halbfass—about the case of Janasruti in theChandogaya Upanishad. For a recent study of the continuing importance of Sankara’s arguments regarding the disqualification of Sudras in the early medieval period and the increase in texts devoted toSudra dharma see A Vajpeyi “The Sudra in History: From Scripture to Segregation” in L McCrea and W Cox (eds),South Asian Texts in History: Critical Engagements with Sheldon Pollock. Halbfass interestingly points out that Ramanuja, who accepted Sankara’s position on the admittance to Vedic study, “questions the legitimacy of a metaphysics [Sankara’s] that appears to be a priori incapable of providing a basis for the varna system and which poses a potential danger to thedharama.” See hisTradition and Reflection, p 381. Yet in view of the twofold nature of truth, there are also many texts which suggest that caste differences are ultimately of no significance, even if this has nothing to say about interpersonal relations in society. Thus Halbfass concludes his learned essay by saying that “In summary we may say that in ‘orthodox’ Advaita Vedanta, the assumption of the absolute unity in liberation remains linked to an uncompromising adherence to an unequal and caste bound access to it.” On Naya and the defence of varna see Bruce M Perry in E Franco and K Preisendanz (ed),Beyond Orientalism, pp 449–71. Like Ramanuja Vedanka Desika also critiqued the advaitin ideal because of the possibility of its subversion of the varna-asrama obligations. On this see S Palshikar’sEvil and the Philosophy of Retribution, p 120; Palshikar also has a sustained discussion of the jivanmukti ideal in premodern India and its articulation in Aurobindo, pp 58–93.

26 Interestingly the more orthodox Mimamsa tradition in their distinguishing between “worldly” (laukika) and Vedic, was willing to give lower castes authority in the former and not the latter. However Sankara’s advaita in no making the distinction, enforced a much stricter prohibition. See Halbfass,Tradition and Reflection, pp 51–87.

27 The work of Mikael Aktor, beginning with his entry on “untouchability” in theBrill Encyclopedia on Hinduism, which supplements the works of R S Sharma and V Jha in arguing about the slow elaboration on rules of untouchability, that had a very early origin. As Aktor argues in his entry, “The earliest texts that prescribe clear rules of untouchability are the Dharmasutras, dated about the 3rd–1st century BCE. These texts codified existing norms of good conduct among the upper layers of society at that time, and we may therefore assume that the practice had existed for some time. For instance, aChandala woman is mentioned as an example of a ‘foul  womb,’ together with dogs and pigs inChandogyopanisad 5.10.7.”

28 Although noted earlier by P V Kane and R S Sharma, detailed analysis of theSudra dharma texts has been undertaken only recently, in the form of the doctoral dissertations. See Ananya Vajpeyi’s University of Chicago dissertation,“Politics of Complicity, Poetics of Contempt: A History of the Sudra in Maharashtra, 1650–950 CE,” 2004) and T Benke’s University of Pennsylvania dissertation, “The Sudracarasiromani of Krsna Sesa: A 16th Century Manual of Dharma for Sudras” (2010). A portion Vajpeyi’s dissertation has been subsequently become the basis of her published article, “From Scripture to Segregation” in L McCrea and W Cox (eds),South Asian Texts in History: Critical Engagements with Sheldon Pollock.

29 Ambdekar had made this point very forcefully in hisWho Were the Shudras, pp 156–86.

30 The most controversial and sustained critique of such positions is Hacker; See Halbfass (ed),Philology and Confrontation. Halbfass makes the interesting argument that certain notions of “tolerance” in the sense of characterising the other’s position as simply an inferior/inadequate version of one’s own can be seen in Kumarila Bhatta’s critique of the Buddhists. Vivekananda and Radhakrishnan while speaking of the great tolerance of the Vedantic tradition are simultaneously clear that the Vedantic position is the most superior one; of course unlike traditional Mimamsa varna is not validated here.

31 In this context it might well do to underline the important critique that Halbfass makes of Hacker in arguing that the latter’s argument that the metaphysical theory of cosmic identity cannot have ethical implications is questionable, even if current arguments that treat this implication as one found in the tradition may be questionable in their own way. See E Franco and K Preisendanz (eds),Beyond Orientalism, p 588.

32 There has been the important, interesting and suggestive argument by Indrajit Bandhopadhyay that Hiltebeitel owed much more to Ambedkar than he ever cared to admit. See

33 In the context of current scholarship Pollock has perhaps articulated this Ambedkarite proble­matic, without necessarily recognising it as Ambedkarite, most pointedly in “Deep Orientalism Notes on Sanskrit and Power Beyond the Raj,”Orientalism and the Postcolonial Predicament, Van De Veer and Breckenridge (eds). Pollock writes about the difficulties in writing about precolonial India, arguing that “An adequate historical analysis of ideology as accessible to us in one important and paradigmatic sector of traditional India. One suggestion is that what we may find to be central in this morphology is something close to the problem we encounter in the analysis of orientalism, above all the problem of knowledge and domination: Here it is not just the instrumental use of Knowledge (indeed, ofveda) in the essentialisation and dichotomisation of the social order, the very control of knowledge that constitutes one of its elementary forms. The monopolisation of “access to authoritative resources” the most authoritative of all resources, Sanskrit (vaidika) learning becomes itself a basic component in the construction and reproduction of the idea of inequality and thus in what, again, can be viewed as a process analogous to colonization in precolonial India.” Later even more forcefully Pollock argues, restrictions on access to high-culture literacy, along with other juridical structures of inequality in the orthodox Sanskrit tradition particularly differentiation in (judicial) punishment and in (religious) penance, which seems to constitute almost an indigenous economy of human worth are among the components of a programme of domination whose true spirit we might begin to conjure with other comparable programmes, such as the Arierparagraphen of the NS state.” Even for those offended with that final comparison, we should not confuseArierparagraphen with the genocide, and it might do well to remember that racist legislation of such a sort was prevalent throughout the Western world in the early 20th century. James Q Whitman’sHitler’s American Model: The United States and the Making of Nazi Race Law, has documented the ways in which the Nazis learned from the Jim Crow laws, and students of colonial history in India do not need to be told of the vicious forms of racism—in institutional and everyday forms—that existed in colonial India. It is also true that we do not have documentary proof for institutional actions of such a sort in pre­colonial India in the way we have in the case of Nazi Germany or other imperial powers such as Britain and France.

34 Such might be the result of a more mechanistic application of material principles and departs from Marx’s own much more subtle and complex schema. Marx’s critique of Feurbach was precisely so as so salvage the active and “subjectivist” dimension, and the following lines from theGrundrisse demonstrate the complex relationship between past and present: “The so-called historical presentation of development is founded, as a rule, on the fact that the latest form regards the previous ones as steps leading up to itself, and, since it is only rarely and only under quite specific conditions able to criticizes itself—leaving aside of course the historical periods which appear to themselves as times of decadence—it always conceives them one-sidedly,” p 106.

35 See R Sharma’sSudras in Ancient India, and in this he is followed by Vivekananda Jha, “Stages in the History of the Untouchables” and “Candala and the Origin of Untouchability” in terms of broad methodological orientation; while both recognise the importance of the Buddhist critique of caste they do not make much of it. Uma Chakrabarti, inSocial Dimensions of Early Buddhism, in this context makes the argument that “it is important to point out that the system of stratification as portrayed by the Pali canon depicts a social phenomenon or existential reality, without religious sanction unlike the Brahmanical conception of hierarchy.” On the “real” implications and contexts of normative textual theories, M Aktor has argued about the specific ways in which genealogies were “composed” in the context of concrete circumstances, “As suchvarnasamkara genealogies functioned not as myth of speculative theories about certain people but rather as a set of legal definitions that could be applied in the process of controlling occupational interaction with respect to existing groups—and perhaps—even with respect to individuals who descended from inter-varna relations” (p 279). See M Aktor’s contribution in Daud Ali (ed),Invoking the Past. Aktor also cites Derret’s work to show that there have been instances where Pandits were actually consulted on matters of social relations.

36 See Chapters 1–3 of Ambedkar’sBuddhist Revolution and Counter Revolution.

37 Ambedkar’sWho Were the Sudras andRevolution and Counter-revolution are not seamless in their historical and philosophical explanation of the caste system. In the earlier text, the historical and historiographic point is how a particular instance of conflict (between the Brahmins and the “tribe” of Sudras) and its resolution in a discriminatory code (where Shudras are degraded into the fourth varna by denying them access to ritual) generates and is generalised in history. In the second, Buddhism is the first event that speaks of a universal moral ethic, which is in turn critiqued by the politico-philosophical Brahminical system, with the latter having as its legacy the caste-system as we know it.

38 See the works of R S Sharma and Suvira Jaiswal,Caste, among others on the nature of legitimation through the claims of Kshatriya status. Ambedkar had already underlined this tendency in his study of Shivaji inWho Where the Sudras. It must be noted that other than textual sources historians have also pointed out to inscriptions in their formulation of the normative valuation of varnashrama dharma.

39 In the works of R S Sharma and Vivekananda Jha among others, largely one might say that such arguments, minimise the import of intellectual discourse, and place too high a bar on what would constitute genuine change. For instance that Buddhism did not appear to fundamentally change society is supposed disallow it the status of being revolutionary. The nature of such evaluation take place on difficult conceptual terrain because there is recent so-called revisionist work on what are usually taken to be “revolutions”—whether the English, French or the Russian—which have disputed such a characterisation. Therefore, what it takes to be a “revolution” is not self evident and cannot be confined to a particular temporal context. Coming back to the importance of Buddhism, many other scholars—Sanskritists who do historical work—have been much more willing to accept the crucial significance of Buddhism. Recently Pollock has argued that the Buddhist thinkers did produce an “axial moment” and a “conceptual revolution,” emphasising, among other things, a semantic appropriation and a focalisation of human agency and history. He has argued that the Buddhist critique of social conventions (such as caste) required a Brahminical orthodoxy to develop ever more sophisticated methods to re-entrench, re-naturalise as it were, varna and associated institutions and discourse. See his contribution to S N Eisenstadt and B WittrockAxial Civilizations and World History. This would be compatible, at this level of generality, with the work of Olivelle, Hiltebeitel, Biradiau and Fitzgerald among others.

40 See Taber’s introduction inA Hindu Critique of Buddhist Epistemology, for an subtle and sophisticated examination and evaluation of the philosophical issues involved. In such a context perhaps the bracketing of the social varna problematic is acceptable because the endeavour is clearly and overtly a philosophical inquiry in itself rather than a record of the past.

41 We are only able to say this because there does not seem to exist as consistent and systematic critique over so long in the other “heterodox” traditions; this might well because of sources.

42 Many episodes in the Mahabharata, for instance, question the hereditary nature of Brahminhood. Among other places the following come to mind: (1) Yudhisthira’s answer to the Yaksha/Yama, (2) Yudhisthira’s answers to Nahusha, (3) The story of Kaushika; although here the enlightened butcher is born in such a state because of his misbehaviour with Brahmins. However, as Matilal argues in his examination of the Yudhisthira–Nahusa episode, this formed an “internal critique”; the standard morality was stillvarnashrama dharma as indicated by the normative values (as opposed to the “descriptively” recorded instances of mixed marriages) enshrined in the text. The natural-biological character emerges irrespective of socialisation, whether we take the examples of Valmiki or Karna. Taking a cue from Ambedkar, one might say, all the same, that speaking of the Brahmin as defined by behaviour and actions was a Buddhist trope which subterraneously influenced theMahabharata. In the normative literature there is the alluded position of Sabara (presented as a purvapaksha) who was to have argued that one cannot know whether one is a Brahmin or non-Brahmin. Kumarila Bhatta’s work takes great pains to refute this. In the same way Sankara’s disciple Suresvara “emphasised the identity of the “viewer” (drastr) that is the absolute subject, in Brahama (as well as in the Brahmin) and in the candela”; See Halbfass,Tradition and Reflection, p 382. But once again this did not appear to be a real refutation of socially existing codes of discrimination. There was no empirical site—such as the sangha—to turn to. While there were points where one could read an “internal critique” of the varna scheme which privileged behaviour this cannot blind us to the basic normative structure as revealed by the jurisprudential, philosophic and epic literature of the Brahminical corpus.

43 In this context it must be remembered that there is inscriptional evidence that Buddhist kings too speak of the importance ofvarnashrama dharma.

44 The words are pasanda and nastika. For Buddhists as the possible targets as “heretics” and “unbelievers,” see Wendy Donigger’sOn Hinduism, pp 36–70. See also Alf Hiltebeitel,Dharma, 194, 224, 274. Andrew Nicholson has a good discussion of the astika and nastika categories, arguing interestingly that even among certain Buddhist philosophers the “nastika” was a term of approbation. See A Nicholson,Unifying Hinduism, pp 166–85.

45 See Gail Omvedt,Buddhism in India : Challenging Brahmanism and Caste.

46 See A Teltumbde searing analysis and account of Khairlanji inPersistence of Caste.

47 See his interpretation of Buddhist doctrine in hisBuddha and His Dhamma where renunciation is prompted by Siddhartha’s principled position against war and against the majority of his clan who had decided to go to war with the Koliyas over disputed over water sharing. It is the concrete problem of conflict that necessitates a deeper reflection on the human condition.

48 The work of historians such as Foucault, Arendt, Agamben and Schmitt, have argued for this, from a variety of perspectives. On Christianity, prior to modern times, matters of belief could very well be coerced; see P Zagorin,How the Idea of Religious Toleration Came to the West. In what particular sense this changed with modern times is open to question.

49 See A Teltumbde,Persistence of Caste.

50 See Aktar (2002). One see’s this logic of inclusive exclusion even in moments of the Epic such as the replacement of the Pandavas with five “outcastes” in the lac house episode; See Mahasweta Devi’s brilliant subversive retelling of the episode inAfter Kurukshetra. Another episode is the unknown untouchable whose head replaced that of Renuka, Parashurama’s mother. See footnote 59 below. It is often in literature that one is to find a tacit critique cum renewal of the epic traditions.

51 See Simona Sawhney,The Modernity of Sanskrit, pp 86–125 for a discussion of the hermeneutic principles adopted by Gandhi. See also the examinations of Gandhi’s readings of the Gita by S Bandyopadhyay’sThree Essays on the Mahabharata and S Palshikar’sEvil and the Philosophy of Retribution.

52 Sibaji Bandyopadhyay,Three Essays on the Mahabharata, p 141. Bandyopadhyay also notes that while Aurobindo cited the Gita and even did so as he left Kolkata to finally find refuge in Pondicherry, on the other hand “the three martyrs, Khudiram Bose—Kanailal Dutta—Satyendranath Basu, were far from being believers. They, especially Kanailal, detested with great vehemence the Yogic practices or the reading of the Gita made compulsory by the Swadeshi Spiritual Guide,” pp 109–10. The versatile use of the Gita for revolutionary activity and spiritual seclusion speaks to both its popularity but also its ultimate opacity in orienting action. Bandyopadhyay discusses how confounding such a “randomization” can be and gives three pertinent and paradigmatic examples: the student, voter and labourer. See pp 157–59.

53 See among many others the work of B K Matilal, J N Mohanty, P Billimoria, A Chakrabarti. All these thinkers throughout their work have insisted on the importance of both philological as well as philosophical sensitivity when dealing with many of the traditions in the subcontinent. In their critique of the philological practice of certain German Indologists and their argument for a more philosophically nuanced approach to canonical texts, it is surprising that Adluri and Bagchee, inThe Nay Science, make no reference to the above literature. On the other hand, even in the history of science, there has been much neglect of the historical value of forms of scientific inquiry in India. See for instance, Arun Bala’s important study,The Dialogue of Civilizations in the Birth of Modern Science. Perhaps, the most interesting and provocative thesis in this regard is C K Raju’sCultural Foundations of Mathematics. Raju’s treatment of Christianity is problematic in the sense that his work does not attend to the complexities of the relationship between Christian theology and its role in the development of modern scientific inquiry studied by a range of scholars from H Blumenburg to E Grant to A Funkenstein. However, his thesis itself—simultaneously conceptual and historical—involves the argument that not only were forms of calculus developed in India (and then “taken” to Europe via Jesuit missionaries) but that these forms are more rigorous and effective today since they are unburden by the theological presuppositions that according to Raju still haunt present-day mathematic practice. While it is beyond this writers technical competence to fully evaluate this thesis it all the same needs to be said that it is unfortunate that Raju’s thesis has not been disseminated and discussed more widely.

54 See Charles Malamoud for relating the theory of humanity to work, sacrifice and an originary debt (as opposed to modern self-interest) inCooking the World. See B K Matilal’sMoral Dilemmas in the Mahabharata. See also his “Dharma and Rationality” as well as P Bilimoria’s “Karma’s Suffering,” on questions of collective responsibility and action, in P Billimoria et al (eds),Indian Ethics. See also A Chakrabarti’s “On Debts, Duties, and Dialogue: The Vedas and Levinas on the Ethical Metaphysics of Hospitality” on debt and the virtues of hospitality in L Kalmanson et al,Levinas and Asian Thought.

55 See M Aktor, “Rules of Untouchability in Ancient and Medieval Law Books.”

56 Earlier Sharma had written with the requisite documentation that “Manu lays down that the brahmana can confidently seize the goods of his sudra slave, for he is not allowed to own any property,” p 203. The injunction that the Sudra who illegitimately listens to Vedic texts should have his ears filled with molten tin or varnish is also to be found in the older Gautama’s Dharmasastra; See HalfbasTradition and Reflection, p 380. In a much cited and widely read essay, “Is there an Indian way of thinking,” Ramanujan makes the distinction between context sensitive (India) and context free cultures (the “West”). The argument regarding India makes reference to jurisprudential texts with variations; however it is unclear whether such normative texts make room for caste inversion or caste destruction and when caste intermixture is spoken about it is spoken about as an exception and/or condemnable. It is unclear whether something like a “context sensitive” culture is even intelligible since how can it be ascribed any identity if “it” varies with every “context.” Much like the relativist argument it is self-destructive.

57 See a recent report on caste atrocity, and the importance of the “word” as it were. As Teltumbe, has argued inPersistence of Caste, among others, perhaps the majority of caste atrocities are now committed by caste groups that were otherwise seen as lower in terms of the “traditional” caste hierarchy. The point is not that historically mobility would not have taken place, but mobility accorded with the specific norms of a “graded inequality.”

58 A Wink points out that the letters during the reign of Shahuji till the battle of Panipat often referred to the Mughal emperor assarvabhaum, “the lord of all the land” or “Universal emperor.” This continued with Nana Fadnis, and the Third Battle of Panipat was fought in the service of the Mughal ruler. Such explicit avowals of subordination were found in official treaties and agreements. See Andre Wink,Land and Sovereignty, pp 40–41. In the face of the evidence and analysis gathered over many decades it is unfortunate to hear the present chief minister of the state of Uttar Pradesh call the Mughals “invaders.” See What would be the attitude to all those Rajput and Rajput dynasties who fought on the side of the Mughals—will they all be called traitors and quislings? And what of the more uncomfortable and awkward questions regarding those who fought on the side of the British against others in the subcontinent?

59 For instance, neither of the Chairpersons of the ICHR or the ICSSR are recognised in their respective fields ie have published in journals that have academic credence nationally and internationally. Unfortunately the absence of the RSS in the national movement for independence is only to be matched by their absence in the world of credible scholarship. For B B Kumar, the newly appointed ICSSR head’s unsubstantiated views, such as that untouchability being attributable to “Islamic” invasions, see Such a position is easily refuted by the scholarship across the Marxist and non-Marxist divide, from R S Sharma to M Aktor.

60 In recent time the Haryana government has sought to direct reference to Dronacharya and Parashurama. Leaving aside for the moment the implications of a state government directly invoking figures from one particular religious tradition we are more concerned with the ethical implications of not engaging with the story as told by—and conceived—by this very tradition and the explicit valorisation of varna involved. The story of Ekalavya, who was later killed by Krishna is too well to be known to require recapitulation. For a literary re-capitulation of the Ekalavya story, see S Anand’sVyasa and Vigneshwara. It is to literature one often has to turn to subversively re-image episodes of the epics; unfortunately such reimaging does not reach a wide enough audience. For a recent brief retelling of the Parashurama story, see

61 Shambuka violated the varna order by practising penance as a Shudra. For this violation he was killed by Rama in the Valmiki Ramayana. The current controversy over the existence of a temple and its alleged destruction for the building of a mosque pays little attention to the historicity of temples and the nature of caste. Even if a temple did exist, it does not seem at all evident that such temples were open to all castes (or there was something like a homogeneous Hindu faith), or indeed that it played the same role historically as it does today. This proble­matic has to be taken into account prior to the question of what the destruction of temples might have meant in the precolonial period.

62 See Govindacharaya’s claim that the Constitution will be rewritten to reflect Bharatiya: It is not untypical that Govindacharaya is not precise about what he means by Bharatiya or how Bharatiya—if understood as a pristine historical record—is indeed capable of upholding the fundamental rights given and guaranteed by the Constitution. While I can only call it a happy coincidence that recently Jignesh Mevani has also asked that one should choose between theManusmriti and the Constitution, it can be no more than that since my paper was submitted to the EPW in mid-2017.


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Updated On : 29th Jan, 2018


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