Debrahminizing Education and Critical Caste Studies

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Education is vital for the betterment of humanity. Societies with oral or/and written traditions have relied on individual self-education and collective inter-generational education to preserve themselves and enrich the lives of their members over time and space. However, we need to be aware that many societies have perpetuated privileged and un-privileged forms of education, more so, ironically, in the modern period. North America and Western Europe have indulged in what W. E. B. Du Bois called “the propaganda of history” through educational institutions and practices, i.e., the dissemination of race/racism [Black Reconstruction]. Although the Africans, African Americans, and African Europeans have been the foundation of modern western societies, their sweat and blood, knowledge, traditions, inventions, global contributions, and even under deprivation and destruction under racism remain outside the pages of curricula. Likewise, the Indian society has perpetuated a system of education to favor the few self-privileging caste groups, paradoxically, in postcolonial India. It is time we begin examining how caste/casteism is at the core of the Indian education system. This is only possible when new frameworks are engaged, I argue in this essay, through Critical Caste Studies.

Sanskritists and historians show how brahmin migration has propagated their self-dehumanizing social institution called caste in India [How the Brahmins Won and Caste Control]. Caste is nothing but violent segregation of fellow humans through foisting fictitious yet birth-based claims of identity. Brahmin males were the inventors of untouchability and caste. Brahminism is the brahmin-male caste claims, caste texts, caste institutions, and caste practices, their enforcement on and emulation by others. Since the ancient period, India has cherished many classical languages, such as Tamil, that have retained caste free speaking, reading, and writing.

In contrast, Sanskrit was the exclusionary prerogative of and vehicle for caste-imposing minority brahmins—who are not even five percent of India’s population. Brahmin males had put brahmin women and non-brahmins to gruesome violence and death even when they tried to hear Sanskrit. In fact, Sanskrit and Vedic texts reveal the brahmin-male power, which brutally segregated non-brahmins, i.e., more than ninety-five percent of India’s population. On the brahminism’s segregating foundation rose brahmin males and their exclusionary language, educational and social practices, gender and caste oppression from ancient north India to spread across South Asia and beyond.

In the modern period, caste was legitimized through what I call the colonialist casteist continuum. That is, the colonialism of white Europeans, on the one hand, and the casteism of brahmins, on the other, served as adjacent and collusive elements to enforce their race-caste motives in India. For instance, Sanskrit, Vedic, and Oriental Studies have become the lens to understand India only through this colonialist casteist continuum. Charles Wilkins’s English translation of Bhagavat Gita in 1785 and William Jones’s English translation of Manusmriti in 1794 circulated in Europe via multiple other translations. These were quintessentially brahmin-male centric caste-texts. They were promoted through the British institutionalization of brahminism via the Asiatic Society (1784), French and German establishment of Sanskrit Chairs in Europe as early as 1814 in Paris and Bonn and Berlin in 1818, respectively. Although the European fascination with brahminism could be traced from the early seventeenth century, the unprecedented collusion between  European white males and brahmin males began in the mid-eighteenth century CE [The British Discovery of Hinduism]. What is significant here is that colonial and postcolonial education in and about India extended, to use Sara Ahmed’s metaphor, “a brick-wall” of brahminism that “does not move” [On Being Included]. Soon Bhagavat Gita, a prototypical text of casteism, will be mandatory in school and college education in India. How do we understand this brahminical brick wall of casteism in education?

The British colonial education sanctified brahmin-male power and subcontinentalized it like never before. English language, for instance, became the brahmin-male fiefdom only to monopolistically benefit from. The first five graduates of the first colonial university in India were all, not surprisingly, brahmin males [The Sexual Life of English]. Such English-brahmins went on to sugarcoat brahmin-male power via Anglicized “Hindu laws” and colonial state apparatuses such as caste-imposing-census, judiciary, and so on. Whatever the brahmin males codified became Hinduidentity, which was never there until then. Brahmin males became the touchstone to determine the authenticity of being a “pure Hindu”, while the othered non-brahmins were also hierarchized as privileged and underprivileged. Of course, the Indians who were crushed as untouchables were just scum in this brahmin-male scheme. They were not entitled to Sanskrit or English. They were forced to eat decayed food, drink dirty water, and live in ghettoes, even as their water, food, labor, knowledge, traditions, and land were dispossessed. The colonialists legalized caste accumulation over casteless native cultures. They also enforced the emulation of brahmin-male ideas and practices through their propaganda via Sanskrit, English, and vernacular education. In other words, the privileged-caste-accumulation, intersectional deprivation, and subordination of children, women, and men were normativized and naturalized through multiple processes of brahminization, including education. This also means that the Indians who were subjugated by brahmins and non-brahmin privileged-caste groups are entitled for reparation, as per their determination.

Spatial segregation was crucial to reinforcing India’s caste-based social, economic, gendered, and educational apartheid. Civil societal organization of brahmin deities, temples, water sources in and around the temple, prosperous agricultural lands in and around temples, brahmin residence adjacent to temple resources, the ghettoization of laboring Indians in the village-periphery, denial of education and educational institutions to the caste-oppressed, and so on were at the core of brahmin-male ideas of how life of brahmins and the native Indians they categorized as untouchables ought to be. Such production of brahminical space and culture was not only engineered by but also cruelly monitored through what Nicholas Witkowski calls “panoptic cartography” of “hegemonic spatial representation” [Untouchability and Panoptic Cartography]. The brahminical spatial caste-oppression also put in place their vigilantism, which included bodily violence and extermination of fellow humans, to make sure such brahminical walls of segregation were not resisted. Behind the romanticism of Ramrajya of the Indian village, which M. K. Gandhi famously popularized, lay the inhuman solemnization of casteism in the villages, towns, and cities in which the self-privileging caste groups always remained on top. While the Indians who produced the “upper-caste” food, cleaned “upper-caste” temples and toilets were classified as untouchables and made to live in cheris / ghettoes in which they were forced to consume the dirty water that flowed through privileged-caste streets. These brahminical maneuvers have not been, and will never be uncovered, resisted, and transformed through pedagogic theory and practice, as Sara Ahmed cautioned, “unless you come up against the wall” of brahminism, i.e., casteism.

Postcolonial India has largely failed to undo brahminical educational ideas and institutional practices. This is because the colonial brahmins have successfully turned themselves into oxymoronic postcolonial brahmins with a global reach. For instance, close to fifty departments of South Asian Studies in the US have been monopolized by the minority brahmin academics, some of who flaunt themselves as “groundbreaking postcolonialists.” But they have never cared to do any rigorous study of their own brahmin power, which has catapulted them to such, albeit highly questionable, global educational prominence. Unsurprisingly, there is no book on brahmin-male power, brahminism, and casteism. This means, like in the precolonial and colonial period, the postcolonial local Indian school and universities, as well as Global South Asian Studies, have continued to perpetuate brahminism by training, recruiting, and promoting, almost always, brahmin students and faculty, who are not interested in undercutting their own cash-cow of casteism. Here it is important to note that the white Americans and white Europeans, who are only ready and willing to sugarcoat brahmin ideas and institutions, are accommodated into such local and global educational mechanisms only to reinforce the brahminical brick-wall of casteism and brahminical panopticism. Thus Indians who have been exploited by brahmins as adivasis, untouchables, and shudras are kept out from the western academy through the brahmin-white nexus. Considering the overall failure of (Indian and Global) school and university educational systems to problematize caste as casteism, it is time we examine the potentiality of a new subfield which might begin the unequivocal interrogation of caste/casteism.


Critical Caste Studies

Critical Caste Studies has the potential to provide a multilayered critique of all forms of caste as casteism, from top to bottom. This new subfield has the scope to unravel castefree and anticaste languages, cultures, regions, religions, economies, philosophies, and histories of India and the Indian diaspora. Natural sciences as well as humanities and social sciences need to engage with critical caste perspectives to interrogate why, how, and in what ways untouchability and caste have been invented and reinvented, circulated and recirculated, and imposed and re-imposed over a long period through the three modes of caste-enforcement, i.e., civil societal, state, and the academy, which uphold caste/casteism in favour of the self-privileging groups. In fact, the critical caste methodologies and practices need to be inculcated from elementary school to university. Needless to say that this will begin with the interrogation and dismantling of the predomination of brahmins. They have been the primary beneficiaries of caste-reinforcing education through casteist-camaraderie and nepotism between brahmin students and brahmin teachers, especially from school to college that Ajantha Subramaniyan has ably shown as the perpetuation of “consolidated forms of upper-casteness” [Making Merit and The Caste of Merit]. In fact, the private elementary schools to high schools, colleges, and universities in India have been the dens of casteism. In them, the under-privileged and marginalized students have to suffer and hide their casteless and anticaste cultures and standpoints. If not, they are destined to not only suffer the bullying of casteist fellow students but also the casteism of the teachers/faculty—the brahminism-inflicted suicide rate of the caste-oppressed students is on the rise. Therefore, the debrahminization of education has to begin at the elementary school itself. Girls and boys need to be told how the color of their skin does not matter, why all genders have to be respected, what is the dignity of labor of all kinds, why common eating and sharing of foods of all kinds matter, how to clean one’s own living, working, and toilet space, why we need to share stories of each other on a level playing field and respect each other’s healthy living. Also, they need to learn that Buddhism, Christianity, Islam, and other religious traditions have shown castefree and anticaste values and practices, unlike the brahminical religious denominations and institutions. This would put the young minds on a foundation to grow beyond the fabrications of race, caste, and gender inequalities. Likewise, the Indian university education in natural sciences, as well as humanities and social sciences, has to ensure that critical caste studies courses are mandatory for any student to graduate in any discipline. This would help college and university students to build on what they picked up at school, i.e., resisting caste/casteism. Such a critical caste studies based educational system is likely to undo brahminism/casteism that has been elusive in postcolonial India.

It is vital to understand that critiquing and rejecting brahmin power and casteism is not critical caste studies’ only purpose. Engaging with India’s casteless and anticaste cultures and histories and the Indian diaspora also matters. This is to educate and learn that while caste/casteism was imposed, the Indians who were subordinated, exploited, and oppressed did not take it lightly. The resistance against caste, race, and gender inequalities begins the moment they are imposed on any human. Nonetheless, the question that has been obscured is: why and how diverse vernacular Indian cultures have resisted brahminism so long. Unravelling the written, visual, and aural archives of the oppressed that tell casteless and anticaste stories has been deferred. The positive memories and histories of the Indians, their castelessness, instead of freezing them in their caste-indignities and brokenness in India and overseas, are also yet to be engaged—the self-privileging caste groups have recently begun to re-marginalize casteless and anticaste Indians by condescendingly recognizing them as “Dalits,” i.e., “broken people.” This calls for a close understanding of the casteless everyday habits of marginalized Indians and their intergenerational linguistic, cultural, regional, agrarian and non-agrarian, discursive and non-discursive, knowledge traditions. It is time our pedagogic methods, practices, and institutions start taking critical caste perspectives seriously to centre the voices and practices of the children, women, and men who have resisted, for long, the brick wall of brahminism/casteism.

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