Conflict, identity and narratives : the Brahman communities of western India from the seventeenth through the nineteenth centuries
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Popular perception and analyses of Hinduism and Indian society tend to focus on a largely monolithic image of the Brahmans. They emphasize the supremacy of Brahmans over other classes in social and religious domains, and attribute this supremacy mainly to their superior ritual status as members of the priestly class, as well as to their traditional access to learning and literacy. This dominant image has received most attention in scholarly approaches to Hindu-Indian society and religion. Scholars of religious studies have offered various theories to explain the ritual supremacy of Brahmans, while struggles of lower castes against Brahmans have been a persistent theme in historical studies. By stressing the dominance of Brahmans in the hierarchy of power, the theoretical and historical studies have adopted a generalized and hackneyed view of Brahmans. While doing so, they have largely ignored the power struggles within the larger Brahman class. History notes the emergence of various Brahman communities in different regions at different times; it also indicates the dynamism and fluidity inherent in the formation of these communities through continually evolving affiliations with distinct factors such as region, language, sects, occupation, rituals, and ritual texts. Despite the transformations and complexities taking place within this class, the perception of their supremacist identity has persisted. How did multiple Brahman communities that shared space and prominence within a particular region engage one another? Were there any disputes among them as they shared claims to the highest social ranking in the societies of which they were a part? If any such conflicts indeed occurred, did the disputing communities create any hierarchy among themselves just as they have been positing a hierarchy between themselves and other classes? Finally, how did they define their identities as a response to these conflicts and hierarchies, and how do these identities relate to the monolithic and essentialist identity attributed to the Brahman class as such? These questions – despite their critical significance – have surprisingly escaped the scholarly gaze of the specialists in religious studies and historians. This dissertation explores this largely uncharted area by focusing on the interrelationship and identities of the four Brahman groups situated in what we know today as states of Maharashtra and Goa, in the time period from the seventeenth century through the nineteenth century. During this period the four communities – the Chitpavans, the Karhadas, the Sarasvats, and the Deshasthas – engaged in intense mutual rivalry centered on gaining greater prominence in social, political and religious domains. This rivalry was largely due to contemporary political conditions under the Marathas in the early-modern/pre-colonial period, and later under the British in the colonial period. This dissertation examines five narratives composed during this period that reflect the responses of these four communities to their mutual conflicts. The Sahyadrikhanda, the Sataprasnakalpalatika, the Syenavijatidharmanirnaya, the Konkanakhyana, and the Dasaprakarana contain portrayals by a particular group of itself and its rivaling groups. This dissertation analyzes the discursive and the historical aspects of these narratives to understand the identities of these communities; it identifies the key notions that were integral to their identities and the socio-political circumstances under which they were articulated. Within the discursive aspect, I compare the narratives using the principle of intertextuality and explore how they relate to one another, the common themes they invoke and their textual modes that had a crucial bearing upon the ways in which they affected the identities of the four Brahman groups. Within the historical aspect I study the general and specific contexts within which the Brahmans produced and used the narratives to define their identities in the early modern and colonial eras. This dissertation is divided in two parts; the first deals with the early modern period and the second part focuses on the colonial period. The early modern period was an exceptional period for the Brahmans in western India as they experienced unprecedented social and occupational mobility under the regional polities, in particular under the Maratha rulers. The Marathas offered great opportunities of patronage and employment to regional Brahmans, as well as encouraged them to take precedence in social, political, and religious realms as a way to consolidate their claims to Hindu kingship. As the Brahman class rose to prominence, various Brahman groups, in particular these four prominent Brahman groups, competed against one another to obtain a greater share in patronage and employment. Asserting their own superior Brahmanical status while simultaneously denigrating the status of others was the prime means through which each of these groups staked claims to a greater social standing. These intra-Brahmanical rivalries and the attempts of these groups to project a hierarchy of ideal Brahmanhood found expression in the Sahyadrikhanda, the Sataprasnakalpalatika, the Syenavijatidharmanirnaya, and the Konkanakhyana. These narratives are essentially historical inasmuch as they contain accounts of origins and the pasts of these communities. This suggests that history was the chief site upon which these intra-Brahmanical rivalries were articulated. My analysis indicates that within this overarching scheme of history, the narratives invoked certain key themes in their accounts, which they used to project a superior status of the community that they endorsed and an inferior status of the community they wished to denigrate. These themes include diet, modes of occupation, right to sannyasa, regional affiliation, right to the Satkarma, and a patron deity or an emblematic figure. I argue that these themes define a distinct set of criteria for ideal Brahmanhood such as a vegetarian diet, religious modes of occupation, entitlement to sannyasa and to Satkarma, affiliation to a sacred region, and validation of status by an authoritative figure. These criteria define a frame of reference within which the Brahman communities projected a hierarchy of ideal Brahmanhood among themselves. I demonstrate that these criteria had a strong correlation with actual practices (diet, occupation) and associations (regions, deities) of the Brahman communities, and were embedded within distinct socio-political conditions. This suggests that unlike the monolithic, static, and ahistorical notion of Brahmanhood projected in the ideological world of classical texts and ‘Orientalist’ studies, the Brahmanhood to which a Brahman in early-modern Maharashtra subscribed was a pluralistic and fluid notion embedded within a distinctly regional and temporal context. This dissertation also illustrates that far from being restricted to the discursive domain, this notion (and the narratives that constructed it) asserted its relevance and influence in the practical realities of the early modern era in various ways. In other words, the narrative discourse of Brahmanhood had a tangible impact on the identities of the Brahmans in question. The second part of the dissertation examines the colonial period during which this pluralistic, fluid, and distinctly regional notion of Brahmanhood continued be invoked and redefined in debates among the Brahman communities. Triggered by contemporary social and political transformations, these debates mark the continuation of certain elements from the previous era, as well as the introduction of new elements drawn from the changing social and political order. In particular, the ways in which the narratives from the previous era were called upon and redefined in these debates reflect some of the crucial modalities in which a unique synthesis of the new and the old elements was constructed and adapted to these new disputes. By drawing attention to the discursive and the practical fluidities of Brahmanical rivalries and identities through its focus on the narratives, this dissertation calls for more nuanced attention to Brahman communities than they have received thus far.