Holi, Brahmin cultural hegemony and Bahujan narratives

Sumeet Samos, TwoCircles.Net

Mar 12. 2020. Every year around the time of Holi and Durga Puja we encounter a discontent emanating from a Bahujan activists about the popularized narratives around these festivals. These activists state that Holika was a Bahujan woman and Mahisasur was a Bahujan man and the celebration of their deaths is a glorification of the conquest of Brahmin invaders over the original inhabitants of this land. 

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There are multiple such Bahujan narratives, coming from several different communities from Jharkhand to Karnataka to Madhya Pradesh. Some of these are outlined on platforms such as Forward Press, Equality Labs, Round Table India and also in a small book named “Mahisasur a people’s hero”. Various Ambedkarite student organizations and small media portals across the country assert similar claims through videos and leaflets they release every year at this time. 

This issue recently came to national limelight after a controversy erupted at JNU in 2013-14 when All India Backwards student’s forum (AIBSF) called for an event observing ‘Mahisasur martyrdom day’ in the campus. Brahmin-savarna led Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad (ABVP) dismissed the event using their usual talking point of terming it as ‘left propaganda’. Outside campus, the publication Forward Press’s office was raided by law enforcement by claiming it was a platform being ‘funded by Christian evangelical groups’.  All this was done in order to subsume the face-off between Bahujan and Brahmin narratives, a dissonance which has been in existence centuries before the formation of left parties or the advent of Christian evangelicals in India. These were also not just to be found in Brahmanical texts like the Narada Purana and Jamini Mimansa but significantly, also in the other side where a counter-narrative was orally passed intergenerationally within Asura communities. 

There are claims to subvert the popular narrative around Holi by celebrating environmentally friendly Holi, Holi for the advent of spring, queer Holi, so on but without challenging the very essence of the popularized myth of burning Holika. This stream of ‘reclamation’ celebrations falls under the reformist tradition that thoroughly misses the magnitude of Brahmin cultural hegemony and its role in reinforcing the glorification of one class using myth after myth.

Another such narrative that has explicit mentions in the writings of anti-caste icon Jotiba Phule, is that of Bamana treacherously stamping on the head of the Shudra king, Bali Raja, plunging him to the lowest earth.  All of these three events have been popularized and are celebrated as victory of good over evil through a narrative pushed by the proponents of Sanatan Dharma mainly the Brahmins. 

The claiming to be progressive and secular crowd celebrates this as communal harmony and as the diversity of India and they even circulate images of Hindus and Muslims celebrating them together. What is disheartening is that events like this have also reached protest spaces like Shaheen Bagh led by Muslim women. And even with the conduct of an actual havan. Ironically, the same havan is used to forcefully to reconvert the Dalits and lower castes from Christianity and Islam back to Hinduism in the name of ghar wapsi.  

One can understand the burden of secularism on the Muslim protestors in a crisis time like this, but it is another thing for the privileged left-liberal and secular crowd to mindlessly promote the same. In this façade behind the harmony project of Hindu-Muslims, the cultural hegemony of the Brahmins is shielded without any fingers pointed towards it. This conceptualization of diversity and communal harmony subdues the hierarchies and antagonistic cultural narratives coming from Dalits, Adivasis and lower castes of this country.  If the caste system is based on diversity of castes and harmony of the order, then the diversity is one of the graded hierarchy while the harmony is one of forceful subjugation with the door closed for any mobility in the social ladder. Celebration of diversity and harmony is positive when the relation between communities is horizontal and they are placed equally. Otherwise, it amounts to covering power imbalance resulting in the perpetuation of hegemony of one over the other both socially and culturally.

 There is also a section of intellectuals who brush it off as mere myths with no historical evidence or accuracy. They place myths in opposition to historical truth. However recurring myths of a similar pattern where only certain communities are glorified while the others are demonized and subdued, points towards a certain trajectory of history and truth which might not have historical veracity as real events but express itself in a prevailing medium of those times. Spanish literary tradition has an entire genre named Mester de juglaría gaining prominence around and after 1000 AD where popular poems as reflective of the times used to be performed by Juglares or entertainers to the crowd. Poets and writers like Jose Marti, Eduardo Galeano and Gabriel Garcia Marquez spoke about the then Latin American society and history using imageries, metaphors and magical realism to convey the truth. History is full of such narrations and mediums of truth. Decades down the line, when someone would watch the movie Gully boy, with what amount of historical accuracy would they identify the characters of Divine and Naezy will always be contingent upon the corresponding scrutiny of historical records about these two individuals, but the plot of the movie would definitely be resonated as a broad thematic of the Mumbai gully hip-hop scene. When I watched the movie La Amistad, I was not concerned about the historical accuracy of place or events, what was of prime importance was the story of slaves being transported through ships and the heart-wrenching voyage they had to endure in the sea which is reflective of the history of slavery of the times.

There are dozens of Brahmanical myths where a set of people are referred to as Daityas, Asuras, Danavas, Rakshas as embodiments of evilness. They are subjugated, brutalized and conquered by the Devatas who have been historically revered and worshipped by the Brahmins. Be it about the churning of the Amrit where Vishnu taking the form of Mohini betrays the Asuras while serving the amrit, the killing of Shambhuk in the Ram Rajya or the conquest of Dasyus, this particular theme keeps recurring. The parallels in continuity can be seen in the conquest and infiltration of Brahmin-Baniya class in the region of Dandakaranya around Jharkhand, Chhattisgarh and south Odisha whereby terming the Adivasis as uncivilized and barbaric not only have they occupied lands, plundered resources through state administration and corporate companies but also brutalized and subjugated them through operations such as Salwa judum and operation green hunt in the name of security threat. It would be naive not to see through the myths of centuries, the political and cultural processes undertaken by the Brahmin-Baniya class. It is interesting to know how in the local narratives regarding the untouchable community of Dom, the etymology of the word Dom many refer to is Duma which also means devil. Untouchable caste names such as Chandal, Ghasi, Bhangi, Hadi, Pariah etc. do evoke similar derogatory connotations of disgust and repulse in the eyes of devatas glorifying Brahmin-savarnas.

When I hear about the news of a young Dalit boy’s hand chopped off for wanting to drink water, I go back to the myth of Ekalavya’s finger being cut off due to Dronacharya. When I see the labour of Bahujan people being exploited by Brahmin-Savarnas to finally betray them, I go back to the myth, where Asuras are used by the devatas to churn the amrit along with the devatas but only to finally betray them by not serving the amrit. 

The Brahmin world has a meta-narrative of myths which runs parallel to their domination in history, and these myths are not out of thin air but a reflection of their power over the Bahujan communities all throughout. To counter their cultural hegemony, there is a need for strategic use of narratives that can also be reflective of the continuity of antagonism the Brahmin world imposes on the Bahujans in the name of Hindu religion in everyday life, in policymaking, and in dehumanizing them. 

The Brahmin-Savarna traditions since the times of Pushyamitra Sunga and Sankaracharya till the present times of RSS magazines have historically indulged in manipulating and subsuming egalitarian anti-caste traditions and indigenous faith systems through myths and fabrications. They have made Buddha an avatar of Vishnu and have painted Babasaheb Ambedkar in saffron and place him among Hindu gods to be brought into the fold of Sanatan Dharma and Vedic authority to realize their dream of Hindu rashtra. Their myths and fabrications through the instrument of state power and cultural institutions act as social conditioning resulting into collective commonsense of the masses, and thus there is a need of engagement with an alternative history as much as it is recorded in the Bahujan historiography. Popular Bahujan myths should be taken into account which resonate the truth of the times without always having to be historical events with the veracity of dates, events and places.