Tuesday, April 28, 2020

Padma Subrahmanyam: A Brahmin Supremacist. Gandhi and Chadrasekharendra as Crutches

Padma Subrahmanyam, aged 77, uploaded a video called 'Food for thought' that is an unabashed call for Brahmin hegemony. To provide succor to her shameful arguments she brought in Gandhi and Chandrasekharendra, the Kanchi pontiff. Thanks to social media and her own sense of self-entitlement, that makes her think that every unfiltered nonsense swirling in between her ears is fit to be shared with the wide world, we now know what a bigot she is and how vacuous she is. If anyone wanted proof that being born a Brahmin is no guarantee of intelligence she has gladly provided it. Thank you madam.

Padma Subrahmanyam. Picture Credit 'The Hindu"

Padma's choice of individuals is striking. One was Gandhi, probably the most complex political leader of modern era and the greatest emancipator nonpareil. The other was Chandrasekharendra, pontiff of Kanchi mutt, a Hindu religious leader exclusively for Brahmins and a tireless advocate of literal interpretation of scriptures like any other fundamentalist. Padma is intellectually incapable of understanding the complexity of Gandhi and is spiritually incapable of truly following the pontiff. She reduces both to hatchets to be wielded in service of her shameful agenda.

Varnashrama: India's bloodless peace and the price

Indians of many stripes often think that the blood soaked history of Europe and the relatively bloodless history of India are not just accidents but due to very elemental differences that are intrinsic to Indian, to be specific Hindu, culture that Europe lacked. This is true only on the surface.

Historians like K.A.N Sastry have pointed out the lack of friction in ancient Indian society and, in my opinion, it could easily be attributed to varnashrama. Each section of a society in a place and each functioning accordingly. Sure, it has been called division of labor and its apologists have always pointed to the trade guilds of Germany. So, would Europe have escaped bloodshed if they too had, not just trade guilds but, a form of varnashrama? They might've but the world would've been poorer.

Historian Mary Beard in 'SPQR' identifies the revolt of the plebeians, in 499 BCE, against social exclusion and taxation as a watershed moment. Strikes and violence continued for two centuries. "One of the most famed plebeian victories came in 326 BCE, when the system of enslavement for debt was abolished, establishing the principle that the liberty of a Roman citizen was an inalienable right". By then another important victory was that plebeians could be elected consuls.

Take a leap to 14th century and rebellion stirs in England. Two centuries after Magna Carta, that great charter of liberty, "in the summer of 1381", writes Dan Jones, "a sudden and violent uprising against the country's richest and most powerful lords known as Peasants Revolt, was one of the most astonishing events of the Middle Ages".

India's varnashrama protected India from bloodshed but the price was literal wholesale enslavement of a large population for more than a millennia and a nation completely alien to the ideas of rebellion, revolt and rights until western educated Indian leaders arrived on the scene in 19th and 20th century. Note, this is not a concoction of my imagination. Many Brahmin speakers, from legal fraternity and elsewhere have drawn a distinction between India's 'Dharma' oriented society versus a Western society based on the notion of 'rights'.

Varnashrama did not just keep a people in servitude. What a man or woman can wear, how long can a dhoti be, what can they eat, where can they live, whether a man can carry an umbrella, whether a people can draw water using mud pot, what they can study were all within an iron framework that was not just invisible but did not need armies to be enforced. If any system qualifies to be called evil genius it is varnashrama and it'd take the prize too.

The Pariahs were denied not just education but access to healthcare and waterways amongst others was denied. The sheer human cost of such a draconian system over centuries would, if extrapolated with imagination, make the holocaust pale into background. The Pariah was prohibited from eating rice well into the twentieth century. Imagine the cost of lack of nutrition. 'Frictionless society'. My foot.

Very coolly Padma asserts that Brahmins are natural intellectuals forgetting the fact that for nearly two centuries the reputed institutions of learning in Chennai were the courtesy of Missionaries, colonial government, non-Brahmin philanthropists. She herself was a student of Ethiraj college, not some Brahmin educational institution. Brahmins really did not run educational institutions of repute or not on such scale. The Brahmin intellectuals were all products of western education. It was not only Brahmins who flocked to learn English. Practically all of India did. Gandhi and Nehru, a Bania and a Brahmin, were not stellar students and compared to Ambedkar were less educationally accomplished. It is easy to read Nehru and Gandhi whereas Ambedkar is highly academic and makes the reader sweat.

Gandhi and Varnashrama

Gandhi is best understood by Western academics, including Indians writing for Western universities and publications. My understanding of Gandhi is firmly rooted in the western tradition. America's founding fathers were slaveholders and at the same time emancipators. Abraham Lincoln ended slavery while holding on to the belief that Blacks were not intellectually equal to the Whites. Yet, within such inconsistencies they've nudged history. So too did Gandhi. And Gandhi, in turn, was nudged by Babasaheb Ambedkar.

Gandhi has undoubtedly praised Brahmins, called upon others to respect the Brahmin, he uncharitably compared the Dalits who converted to cows but was he just a sum of a few quotes? That he was not. Even if we went by quotes he was maddeningly tying himself in knots trying not to break Hinduism wholesale and provided fodder for both his detractors and others.

Invited by Gandhi to write for the first issue of Harijan, 1933, Ambedkar refuses but sends a terse message, "There will be outcastes as long as there are castes. And nothing can emancipate the outcaste except the destruction of the caste system". Publishing the letter Gandhi proceeds to answer him. "The moment untouchability goes, the caste system will itself be purified, that is to say, according to my dream, it will resolve itself into the true Varna dharma, the four divisions of the society, each complimentary of the other and none inferior or superior to any other".

Ambedkar was, in 1935, asked give an address to the "Annual conference of the Jat Pat Today Mandal of Lahore- an organization of caste Hindu reformers who wanted to do away with the caste system". Ambedkar's prepared remarks, titled "Annihilation of caste" alarmed the organizers for it called upon Dalits to leave Hinduism. The address was cancelled but Ambedkar published the speech. Gandhi responded in Harijan. Ambedkar responded back. An epistolary battle ensued.

Interestingly the Lahore organization now sent a message to Gandhi that he published in Harijan, August 1936. The message read, "Hindus are slaves of caste and do not want to destroy it. So when you advocate your ideal or imaginary varnavyayarastha they find justification for cling to caste. You are doing a great disservice to social reform".

Dissecting Gandhi's evolution on caste and spirituality, researcher Arvind Sharma writes, "In relation to Hinduism, then, Gandhi valued the overall structure of the tradition but wrought cardinal changes within it by introducing ordinal changes into it, thus resolving the paradox of belonging to a tradition but also transforming it while following it. …his programs, often moderate, and even traditional in formulation, were often radical in their impact"

This is clearly borne out by the impact of Gandhi's tour against untouchability. As Gandhi toured the length and breadth of India beseeching the upper caste Hindus to repent he was met with cries of 'Death to Gandhi'. His cavalcade was attacked and on couple of occasions he was almost assassinated. The upper caste savarna Hindus would dare to do him what Lord Irwin or any Muslim or Christian would not even attempt to do. The savarna Hindus understood the impact Gandhi was having on their cherished customs. It should be noted that a good number of Brahmins and upper castes stood behind Gandhi too. Christ told he'd split homes and pit father against son. Here was a modern day Christ tearing apart an ancient society.

"Gandhi Collecting Donations for Harijan Fund. Picture credit Kanu Gandhi. Source  6ad11bd683584fc7ebb050ff18a08a5d.jpg"

Gandhi evolved, on every issue, till the day he was felled by a fanatical Chitpavan Brahmin. The issue of caste was no different. The Gandhi of 1920s and 1930s, historian William Coward points out, evolved to the Gandhi of 1945 who sort of accepted his defeat to make caste Hindus realize that they need to change and advocated, as Ambedkar did, the politicization of Dalits. When the Constituent Assembly voted to outlaw untouchability the members cheered, "victory to Mahatma Gandhi". The man who presided over the legal change, included in the cabinet on the advice of Gandhi, was Ambedkar.

An important meeting during Gandhi's tour in 1934 was one between him and the Kanchi pontiff in Kerala. The pontiff reportedly pleaded with Gandhi not to destroy Hinduism by destroying untouchability. While Padma cites some booklet written by Gandhi praising Varnashrama she, owing to intrinsic intellectual inability, fails to understand that Gandhi, beyond his cardinal faiths of truth and non-violence, was always a work in progress and more importantly his approach to the sacred texts was very unlike that of the pontiff's.

When Ambedkar burned copies of Manusmriti and Dalits vowed severance with Hinduism Gandhi responded in Harijan writing, "Caste has to go". Gandhi asserted that Varnashrama did not have room for untouchability and that there was no prohibition against inter-dining or inter-caste marriage and more importantly he adds that it is his liberty to interpret the texts.

Akeel Bilgrami, Rhodes scholar and holder of Johnsonian chair of philosophy at Columbia University, in a perceptive essay on Gandhi, writes that Gandhi said of his approach to religious texts, "I am not a literalist". Bilgrami adds, "I want to stress Gandhi's interpretative ideal of focusing on the spirit rather than on the letter of religious texts. So, for instance, he says that of all the versions of the Ramayana, the one to which he most turns is Tulsidas because "it is the spirit running through the book that holds me spellbound"". Gandhi, with such interpretative zeal completely gave a new reading to Bhagvad Gita, a text commonly thought to be an unabashed call to war.

"My belief in the Hindu scriptures", said Gandhi, "does not require me to accept every word and every verse as divinely inspired". Bilgrami points out that in "many writings, Gandhi opposed the prevalent interpretation of the varna system".

Gandhi interpreted, Gandhi evolved, Gandhi fashioned his own philosophy, Gandhi entertained his critics and always published their criticisms in his own newspaper. This was a man cut from a very different cloth. He was human, all too human. Padma has reduced him to a caricature. This takes us to the Kanchi pontiff who was a literalist and an avowed fundamentalist.

The Kanchi Pontiff

Even those who are disgusted by Padma's views approve the pontiff's views, which more faithfully resemble her views than that of Gandhi's. The excuse is that the pontiff, very reverentially called by devout Brahmins as 'Maha Periyavaa', was a religious head and was merely asserting what his scriptures told him. Varnashrama and support for caste are the most polite of the so called saint's causes unlike other causes that are practically repugnant.

Writing in 20th century Chandrasekharendra advocated child marriage as ideal to promote loyalty in the minds of women from childhood towards their husbands. To Gandhi varnashrama did not prohibit inter-dining but to the saint it did. In several writings he returns obsessively to not eating food served by everyone and even asked diners to be mindful of those who they ate alongside. Happily he compared ritual pollution of inter-dining to being infected by a disease. He abhorred women working.

Padma knows full well that if she just cited Chandrasekharendra she would've been brushed aside by non-Brahmins and therefore she used Gandhi as a Trojan horse to suggest, "here's the Father of the nation, a non-Brahmin and an emancipator speaking like my beloved Aacharyaa". What she lacks in honest understanding Padma compensates in deviousness. While Gandhi's views on varnashrama were superficially close to Chandrasekharendra it is the Aacharya who Padma really needed.

Chandrasekharendra Swamigal -- Maha Periyavaal

Building on her theme of differences she cites a shameful parable narrated by the Aacharya. The Aacharya, Padma says, ridiculed the idea of equality asking "if everything is equal can we replace sugar with salt in making a sweet". One has to specialize in Indian rules of logic to come up with such a stupid example to undermine the idea of equality. Recently another pontiff, oh there's no shortage of them, asked, how can we promote inter-caste marriage, is it not akin to two different animals marrying? Which school of logic do these guys attend?

It is the citing of that stupid parable that illustrates Padma's real intention and brings her closer to the Aacharya than to Gandhi. Padma, obviously does not and cannot practice everything that the Aacharya held dear. She's cherry picking much like how most of Tamil Nadu learned only one thing from E.V. Ramaswamy, passionately hating Brahmins.

When Padma bemoans Brahmins slipping from their ordained destiny she probably had in mind her bigamous father who was a movie director.

Why now? Why not ignore Padma?

The question why now, is easily answered. The current political climate is built on the bedrock of a revival of Brahminical hegemony. Turn wheresoever you may you'd find glorification of a fabled past, mostly with no truth or half-truth, that is invariably conflated with a Vedic age when Brahminical imperialism was at its apogee.

Do I believe every Brahmin cheers Padma and every Brahmin wants a return of varnashrama? Absolutely no. From the days of Gandhi till today there are Brahmins who also stand up to the forces of atavism and regressiveness. It is complete nonsense to tar all Brahmins with the same brush or to assume every Brahmin will only act like Padma does.

This is where Ambedkar and E.V. Ramaswamy adopted an implacable stance of animosity and committed the same sin they said they were fighting, meaning reducing a person to nothing beyond his or her birth. "The Bania", wrote Ambedkar, "is the worst parasitic class known to history....He is like an undertaker who prospers when there is an epidemic. The only difference between the undertaker and the Bania is that the undertaker does not create an epidemic while the Bania does".

Thousands of Brahmins, at great personal cost, rallied behind the world's most famous Bania, to fight untouchability. To the one Bania that Ambedkar loathed most, a fearsome Afghan Pathan was capable of non-violence as much as anyone else. The Mahatma never lacked for faults and he was wrong on several important questions but what he never lacked was an abiding faith in a fellow human being to surmount hate.

Why not ignore Padma? Padma is a force to reckon with in the Bharatanatyam field and, according to a friend, was the ultimate authority in awarding Ph.D's for most researchers in the field. As a prominent artiste in a field already plagued by casteism and bigotry she occupies a position of immense influence. Who knows how many students and researchers, possibly better than her, she ensured did not get the due because of who they are?

In any other decent society Padma would've become a persona-non-grata and would be shunned by institutions promptly, any apology notwithstanding. But, this is India. She has unleashed her poodles who are now flooding sanctimonious stories about how egalitarian she is. Universities, colleges and Sabhas will continue to honor her. When the grim reaper does come, we can be sure we'll be flooded with articles reminding us what a doyen she was and all this would be rarely spoken of.

It is stunning that a Brahmin lady practicing an art that never belonged to her ancestors happily talks of varnashrama. Lady, thou art the definition of the word, chutzpah. Shame on you.


1. The Cambridge Companion to Gandhi - Ed. Judith Brown & Anthony Parel
2. Gandhi: A spiritual Biography - Arvind Sharma
3. Indian Critiques Gandhi - Ed. Harold Coward
4. Mahatma (Vol. 3 & 4) - D.G. Tendulkar
5. Missionaries and a Hindu State: Travancore 1858-1936 - Koji Kawashima
6. The Pariah Problem: Caste, Religion, and the Social in Modern India - Rupa Viswanath.
7. The Essential Ambedkar - Ed. Valerian Rodrigues
8.  Kanchi Acharya on Inter-Dining
9. Who can we eat with - Acharya
10. Acharya on child marriage
11. Can women work
12. தெய்வத்தின் குரல்: "ஸ்த்ரீ ஆண் மாதிரி பதவி, உத்யோகம் என்று வெளியுலக விஷயங்களில் ஈடுபடாமல் வீட்டு நிர்வாகத்தை எந்தவித குறையும் இல்லாமல் கவனித்துக் கொள்வதையே தன்னுடைய பிறவிப் பணியாகவும், நல்ல ஸாதனா மார்கமாகவும் வைத்து கொள்ள வேண்டும். வீட்டையும் கவனித்துக் கொண்டு வேலைக்கும் போகிறோம் என்றால் இரண்டிலுமே அர்ப்பணிப்பு குறைந்து போகும். ஒருவேளை இரண்டையும் சரியாக செய்ய முடிந்தாலும் அது அவளுக்கு தர்மமாகாது. ஏனென்றால், பலதரப்பட்ட பிரச்சனைகளை அவள் சமாளித்தாக வேண்டும். இந்த இன்னல்களுக்கு ஆளாகாமல், ஸ்த்ரீயானவள் தன் தார்மீகப் பொறுப்பான குடும்பப் பொறுப்பை ஏற்று சிறப்பாக குடும்பத்தை வழி நடத்திட வேண்டும்"
13. Padma Subrahmanyam https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Padma_Subrahmanyam
14. K. Subramanyam https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/K._Subramanyam


Prasanna said...

Why I am mot able to see your posts?

Sudarshan said...

Running out of ideas, are you & flogging her innocuous & well-meant comparison to tar & feather her & her community??

Anonymous said...

I find it shocking that a lot of people find Padma's statements shocking. I have been hearing such nonsense throughout my life from relatives (exclusively elder thankfully) every other week.