Sunday, May 31, 2020

Caste and Research Topics: From Brahmin Centric to Dalit Centric

Caste remains a dominant factor that determines many things from birth to death and everything in between in India. In that backdrop it is but natural that caste should determine topics of research interests. As Indian intelligentsia, largely upper caste, began academic researches in the colonial era the journals run by Brahmins and non-Brahmins demonstrate this very effectively. 

Journal of Oriental Research

Sir P.S. Sivaswamy Aiyer, a lawyer by profession, wrote in his foreword to the first edition of Journal of Oriental Research, “For ages past the Hindus were notoriously indifferent to the value of history and the claims of historical studies. It required several decades of western education and contact with western thought before the Indian mind could realize the value of history and of independent research”. Stunning words if one contrasted it with the present climate when no one, particularly a Brahmin, would dare say the same.

Sivaswami Aiyer continued, “There is no province in India which, at the present moment, enjoys a more well deserved reputation for scholarship of the orthodox pundit type than Madras, It is high time that scholars in Madras should redeem themselves from the charge of sterility and give proof of the cultivation of Western methods of research, which are essential for the reconstruction of our past history”

The passage could possibly called as tinged with caste pride. I say, “possibly” because the words “orthodox pundit type” need not have been necessarily with reference only to Brahmins. “Pundit” was a term that was not infrequently used by the learned of other castes too. After confessing to a sterility of the pundits Sivaswami Aiyer unabashedly calls for adoption of “Western methods of research”.

Launched in 1927 in Madras the Journal frontispiece depicts goddess Saraswathi, Hindu god of learning, and the words “Tamasoma jyotirgamaya” (‘from darkness lead me to the light’) from  Brhadaranyaka Upanishad. The editorial board is notable for the sheer domination of lawyers in an academic journal of research and that almost without exception all are Brahmins. 

The topics of interest that the journal addressed were exclusively Brahminical and those that’d interest primarily Brahmins. This is not to say that a research into a topic like Bhagavad Gita is of no interest to any non-Brahmin. Published from Madras the journal is notable for not only being in English but including articles written entirely in Hindi (or Sankskrit. I don’t know the difference) and nothing in Tamil. Even articles by research students only focus on topics like Indra, authorship of Unadi Sutras etc. 

A Journal Sample

Prof D.S. Sarma, Professor of English at University of Madras, read a paper titled “The Mystic Way of the Bhagavad Gita” at the Sanskrit association of the Presidency college that is notable for his erudition and for the interesting parallels he draws to make the case for mysticism in Gita. 

While the authors were mostly lawyers I’d say that the articles were written in such intellectual depth and clarity of language that would put to shame university professors of today. Sarma, for a change, was a professor.

Plunging headlong into the topic Sarma says that “Dean Inge in his lectures on Christian Mysticism quotes twenty six definitions of the word (myticism)”. William Ralph Inge, referred as Dean Inge, was an Anglican priest and professor of divinity at Cambridge. The lectures that Sarma refers were delivered by Inge in 1899. 
Sarma’s paper quotes myriad authors from across the world and across cultures. Byazid, a Persian mystic, Niffari a tenth century Muslim mystic, St. Augustine, William Blake, Ralph W. Emerson.

Conceding that the author of Gita, Krsna, could be as historical as Christ of the Gospels or The Buddha or Socrates in Dialogoues of Plato, Sarma says his focus is the text rather than the author because like the others the author could be only a “mouthpiece” of later disciples who contributed to the text. 

One can only wistfully think if such dispassionate scholarship, however sectarian in focus, is lost from the academic portals of India today? Such a question includes, all castes and I’d even add that while the sectarian focus still remains characteristic of Brahmin dominated educational institutions the scholarship and catholic erudition, pun intended, of yore is lost. 

The Journal's Focus, Criticism and Editorial Rebuttal

Princeton University has literally a full row of books by and about Marcus Tulles Cicero (106 BCE - 43 BCE). We know the law suits that Cicero appeared in as advocate including details of the arguments. Yet, we know very little of even the author of a 12th century poet in Tamil. The authors of the Journal of Oriental Research sought to address some important lacunae in the understanding the history of authors and works. ‘Date of Andal’, ‘Date of Thiruppavai’, “Date of Periyalvar” , ‘Date of Srikantha”, Date of Manickavasagar” are few of the titles in just the first two issues of the journal. 

The focus and character of the journal survives well into the fifties thus completely bypassing the torrential political winds of anti-Brahminism that swept the state at that time. However, the editorial in the very second issue, dated April 1927, addresses a few criticisms.

The first criticism was, of course, the ‘Sanskritic’ focus of the journal. The editor writes, “For the satisfaction of our Muslim friends in the north and here, we state that we are ready to publish any article contributed by Scholars in Arabic or Persian, even though there may not be facilities for such studies in Madras and they may not interest the majority of the public.”

The dismissal of the criticism is notable for its self-blindness. The Madras province at that time included a considerable number of Muslims and even Muslim ruled princely provinces. While Brahmins were a distinct minority, then as now, universities and colleges abounded in departments devoted to the study of Sanskrit as is evident from the professional designations of many of the Journal’s authors. Moreover any journal aspiring for academic excellence should care more about variety than about whether a majority cared for the topic. If majority interest was the benchmark then it is fair to question how did the editor determine that an abstruse paper on the mysticism of Gita would interest the majority of Hindus or a dating of Periyalvar? 

The editor further added, “Sanskrit study is an absolute concomitant for any investigation in any branch of Oriental research; and without it, Oriental research will tend to be defective, narrow and, sometimes even misleading”. A breathtakingly sweeping assertion that coolly ignores, even if one accepts the mandatory necessity of knowledge of Sanskrit, knowledge of sources in other local or foreign languages. Historian K.A.N. Sastry discovered, to his horror, how his lack of familiarity of Dutch sources affected his knowledge of Oriental history. 

Citing the support for knowledge of Sanskrit by the Maharajah of Mysore, “an enlightened Hindu ruler”, the editor concludes the support of an “enlightened non-Brahmin ruler of a premier Native State” is sufficient to discredit the criticisms. 

Was the intellectual arena dominated by Brahmins? It was not. Another journal, of even an earlier origin, gave space to another dominant community, the Pillais. 

The Tamil Antiquary

“The Tamil Antiquary” established circa 1907 from Trichinopoly (now known as Tiruchirapalli) by Pandit D. Savariroyan provides an interesting window into a different section of Tamils. One, there is no adornment of any god or Sanskrit verse though here too we see a selection of Brahmin authors. 

A 1909 paper on ‘The Age of Tirujnana-Sambandha” is dedicated “as a mark of Esteem to Dr. E. Hultzsch, the leader of Historic Research in Southern India”. Hultzsch (1857 - 1927) was professor of Sanskrit at the University of Halle and an epigraphist noted for his his work on Mauryan inscriptions and for deciphering the inscriptions at the Brihadeeswarar Temple in Thanjavur. It was probably duets Hultzcsch that we now know it was Rajaraja Chola that constructed the famed temple. It is also interesting to note how study of Sanskrit was prevalent not just within colonial India but in premier universities of Europe. This focus on Sanskrit is what produced the enviable publications of India’s ancient knowledge that people now take pride in but it also meant the near total neglect of anything not in Sanskrit. 

The topics are slightly more eclectic that the Journal of Oriental Research. T.A. Ramalinga Chettiar on “Age of Pattupattu”, A. Mututthamby Pillai on “Lanka and Tamil Sangams”, Joseph C. Panjikaran on “St. Thomas the Apotsle and India”, Rev. J. Lazarus on “Kural”. (See picture below)

Tamilian Antiquary Table of Contents

One T. Ponnambalam Pillai of whom I could not find any further information appears to have been a prolific contributor to the journal, notably an essay titled “Manicka Vacagar and the Early Christians of Malabar”. This kind of a paper today would create a furor. 

A surprising article was one titled, “Heroic mothers of ancient Tamilagam” by Pandit Raghava Iyengar. Written in Tamil the article is additionally called “வீரத் தாய்மார்”.

Here too we see the preponderance of the legal fraternity as authors is surprising. That said the quality of articles, as I said before, is certainly good and would rank better than what many professors write today.

Between these two journals what we find missing is any discourse on upheavals of that era. Even if one took that the focus was on ancient history we find many histories missing. Particularly the Dalits received literally no attention. It is an injustice that is beginning to be addressed in recent times as we see in a book like “Dalit literatures in India” edited by Joshil K. Abraham and Judith Misrahi-Barak

Dalit Writing

Tulsi Ram, “author of a Dalit autobiography, Murdhaiya”, is spot on with his observation, “The literature of a class or a community in any society grows in direct proportion to the their political representation or domination…..Thus the history of Indian society and its literature revolves around the Varna system”. 

Dalit researcher Ravi Shankar Kumar draws attention to the common criticisms of Dalit literature being “propagandist”, “repetitive” or “resentful” and suggests that “conventional criteria of literature or aesthetics are not adequate to understand the ‘uniqueness of Dalit literature”. Sharmila Rege argues that Dalit literature is a “contest, explicitly or implicitly, the ‘official forgetting’ of histories of caste oppression, struggles and resistance”.

“Dalit writing”, Jasbir Singh’s essay on Dalits and conversions suggests, “expresses both a conscious and an unconscious need to reclaim their myths, histories and culture”. It is in this backdrop I’d like to study Iyothee Thass’s writings of Dalits as erstwhile Buddhists. While the historicity of that claim is questionable the understanding required to contextualize that claim should be gentler and wider beyond an instinctive dismissal. 

Dalit Poets of Punjab and Their Exclusion in Historiography

Raj Kumar Hans’s essay, “Dalit Intellectual Poets of Punjab: 1690 - 1925”, highlights three Punjabi Dalit poets and pointedly questions their exclusion from historiography.

Bhai Jaita (1657-1704) was the one who took, at great personal risk, the severed head of Guru Tegh Bahadur to his son Guru Gobind Singh. He was also a poet. His verses crackle with militant rationalism. A sample, “Neither we desire Namaz nor the Sikh prayer of Rehras, we burn the temple as we burn the mosque”. The poet warrior is grudgingly acknowledged in Sikh iconography says Raj Kumar Hans.

Sadhu Daya Singh Arif, “born in a landless untouchable Mazhabi Sikh family in 1894”, was a poet whose verses centered around transience of life and unity of faiths. “Unity”, Daya Singh’s poetry declared, “all around, wherever my eyes rove”. Though widely published Daya Singh’s name was omitted in what was considered a landmark work of history, Mohan Singh’s history of Punjabi literature. Taking their cue from Mohan Singh latter day historians followed suit says Hans. 

Dalit Witnesses and Interlocutors

Ranjith Thankappan’s essay, “Kallen Pokkudan’s two autobiographies and the Dalit print imaginations in Keralam” highlights a different issue beyond exclusion. Thankappan’s essay shows how Dalits even when they attempt to be their voices are often dominated by interlocutors who seek to speak on their behalf.

Kallen Pokkudan’s first auto-biography, “My life among Mangroves”, was supervised by Marxists Professor M.N. Vijayan, writer N. Prabhakaran and edited by Taha Madayi. The book romanticized Pokkudan’s life as a Mangrove farmer and sanitizes his caste consciousness. Madayi, Asked about this presentation of Pokkudan, replied “why should there be politics in a book meant for housewives and children”.

Kallen Pokkudan 'Ente Jeevitham'

Pokkudan’s second autobiography, “My life” (Ente Jeevitam) is more forthright about his lived experiences that include the inhuman caste related humiliations. This autobiography also detailed the disappointments with the Communist government led land reforms that made tall promises and delivered little. 

The school that Pokkudan attended, Thankappan writes, was meant for ‘Harijans’, a term that remained in vogue for long in Kerala until recent adoption of the word ‘Dalit’. Caste determined even the underwear worn by children. Nair and Tiyya children could wear underwear made of loin cloth, “chuvanna konakam” whereas the Dalit children had to wear underwear made of tender palm leaves (‘koombila’).

In his preface to the second autobiography Pokkudan is blunt that many do not like the son of a “lower caste mother” does not deserve to write and instead “prefer a subservient Pokkudan”.

Tamil Dalit Histories

In recent years Tamil publishing world has seen an efflorescence of histories connected to Dalit intellectual leadership that challenges the prevailing hagiographic narratives of E.V. Ramaswamy as the sole messiah of all non-Brahmins. The Dalit trio of Iyothee Thass, Rao Bahadur Rettaimalai Srinivasan and M.C. Rajah have seen a literal resurrection in the writings of Stalin Rajangam, Gowthama Sanna and V. Alex. 

Gowthama Sanna’s richly documented archival material of writings by Rettamalai Srinivasan, published by Sanna himself, shows Dalit intellectual leadership hitherto unknown to larger public. The fact that Sanna published it himself also underscores the arrival of Dalits on the scene of publishing in their own right. Dalit film maker Pa. Ranjith led “Neelam Panpattu Maiyyam” has created another publishing house. 

Can Others Write Dalit History? 

It is my firm view that anyone should be able to write on any subject if they choose to do so. If we subscribe to the view that only a Dalit can write legitimately write about a Dalit then we are on a slippery slope that ascribes one’s birth determines what subject one can choose to write on? Then can we fault a Brahmin for being blind to Dalit history? And does Dalit writing become legitimate merely by the fact that a Dalit wrote it?

Whether it is a Dalit writing on Bhagavad Gita or a Brahmin writing on a Dalit topic the author should serve the reader with integrity and unimpeachable scholarship. Brahmin writers have done justice to Dalit topics. 

History writing dictated by caste preferences is not only evident amongst the exclusionary practices of those that are referred as upper castes but even amongst Dalits themselves too. Alexandra de Heering’s essay, “Dalits writing, Dalit speaking”, points out how Cakkiliyars, “third largest Dalit group in Tamil Nadu, after the Pallars and Parariyars”, have been given the short shrift in Dalit studies. There’s a “lack of interest in documenting Cakkiliyars’ lives and traditions as compared to the significant number of studies published in Eng;ish about other Dalit communities”.

A pernicious trend amongst all communities into label any questioning of historical evidence or conclusions as being “anti” to that community. To be sure there are those, driven by prejudices, who’d use questioning to undermine a claim merely to discredit. However, if all questioning is tarred with that brush then history suffers and future generations are left the poorer for it. 


  1. Jan 1928 Issue of Journal of Oriental Research Madras 
  2. Journal of Oriental Research circa 1958-1959 
  4. William Inge 
  6. Age of Mancikavasagar & Manickavasagar and the Early Christians of Malabar - K.G. Sesha Iyer and T. Ponnambalam Pillai 
  7. Rev. John Lazarus 
  8. Bhai Jaita 
  9. Dalit Literatures in India: Edited by Joshil K. Abraham and Judith Misrahi-Barak