It’s time to do away with belittling Tam-Brahms

A response to Ms. Sharanya Mannivannan’s article in the Indian Express titled It’s Time to Do Away With ‘Tam-Brahm’”.

In the Indian Express article titled “It’s Time to Do Away With ‘Tam-Brahm”, the author Ms. Sharanya Manivannan, rants about an incident from her mid-twenties when an inebriated person in a night-club asked her if she was a “Tam-Brahm”. She uses this incident to launch into a tirade about the audacity of Tamil Brahmins to refer to themselves as “Tam-Brahm”. In short she asks, how dare Tamil Brahmins use a term that reminds people that we have not been stamped out of existence? Especially, when people in Tamilnadu have worked so hard to do just that?

It is important to note that when this inebriated woman asked the author if she was Tam-Brahm, she did not follow it up with any words that implied that she was disappointed that the author was not Tam-Brahm. There is no indication that this question rose because the woman thought Tamil Brahmins are “upper-caste” or superior in any way.

Now let us imagine a similar scenario. An intoxicated Christian asks someone with a name like “Akila” if she is a Christian. Before Akila responds, someone else says, “No, her name is Akila Malik, Christians do not use names like Malik”. Such an incident would have been forgotten and never thought of again. Akila would not be outraged and would not construe the innocent question to be “a subtle act of aggression”. That’s because admitting that you belong to a group whose identity is Christian is alright and you are even allowed to be proud of it. But God forbid someone admits to an identity of being Brahmin! So many people believe that Brahmins do not even have that right. We Brahmins are secondary citizens because of the sins of our fathers. Our ancestors did bad things and so we should quietly subject to being belittled, degraded and ripped of our identity for all eternity.

As a Tam-Brahm, I and many like me have been treated with this contemptuous attitude all of our lives. We have been ridiculed and bullied all through our lives because we were born in a Brahmin family. Like the author mentions, I did nothing to earn being called a Brahmin, just like she did nothing to earn her surname. Yet, it is fine for her to use her surname to identify herself, but she self-righteously condemns my use of my identity as a Tam-Brahm.

She says that she was struck that “a young person in a casual, urban social setting, that too in a state of intoxication, had maintained such a sound grip on how to peg people quickly”. I think the key word here is “intoxication” and the implication is that Brahmins shouldn’t even admit to their identity in a state of intoxication. Can you imagine the outrage if the person wasn’t intoxicated?

Personally, I have noticed that many of the young people (in urban social settings) who riot that Brahmins should be eternally ashamed of their heritage are those who did not grow up in Tamilnadu during the last 50 years. They were raised abroad and are lucky to have been brought up “caste-oblivious”. Brahmins like me who grew up in Tamilnadu in the last 50 years never had that luxury. We were constantly reminded that we belonged to the caste-that-should-not-be-named; the caste that is constantly picked-on; the caste that is freely made fun of in movies, songs, and dramas. This is because we are the caste that doesn’t retaliate and, we are the caste that does not have the right to retaliate. We were forced to grow up feeling ashamed of our heritage and downright scared to reveal our identity as a Brahmin. I grew up hating my first name because it revealed that I am a Brahmin, as if just being born a Brahmin was an unforgivable sin. It took me years to become comfortable in my identity as a Brahmin and stop worrying about my name. I wrote a blog post about that more than a year ago.

Tam-Brahms are derogatorily called “thayir sadam, namam, pattai, parpan, pappathi, mamis” and so on. If we were ever to use such word for a person based on their caste, we could face criminal procedures. I recall an incident from my early teen years where a stranger threatened to report my father to the police for calling him “lower-caste” when all my father did was to tell him not to touch me. So, I would like to know who really keeps casteism alive?

The author says that it is not incidental that “the artsy, alternative, more affluent circles” that she moves in is dominated by Brahmins. She does not know how many Brahmins are poor because she has not moved in those circles. It is also not incidental that she moves in circles dominated by Brahmins if she grew up abroad. That’s because most of us have been chased out of our homeland to earn a living just because we are Brahmins. I have heard it said that only those who have sinned have to leave their homeland and seek a living in other lands. So, this is another way by which we continue to pay for the sins of our ancestors. But, when does this debt end? Never, apparently. Most of us that leave the blessed shores of Tamilnadu for other countries end up staying abroad. Why? because in other countries we are not constantly judged by our names or our caste or our diet or our dialect or our other day-to-day practices and religious beliefs.

So, the next time you hear the term “Tam-Brahm”, please realize that we do not use it to subtly aggravate or make history more palatable. We do not use it to clarify our rank in a hierarchy of your imagination or to defend the caste system. We certainly do not say it to negate centuries of bigotry or embrace the same. Instead, we use it to feel solidarity in our oppression. We ask about it to find out if we can feel comfortable and safe in a group. We use to tell each other that we understand and to know that we have some things in common. We even use it to make fun ourselves. (Please feel free to peruse some of the Tam-Brahm communities on Facebook. You will find that the predominant theme is making fun of ourselves.) So, please stop attributing malice where there is none. We all use terms like Indians, Tamils, Chennaites and many such other names to identify ourselves in various circumstances and Tam-Brahm is just one other way.

We are so much more than what our ancestors did to others. That is exactly why it’s time to stop deriding us. Usually, all we ask is to live and let live. But this time, instead of choosing to remain invisible, I shall step up and say no. I am done paying the debt of my ancestors. I refuse to be stomped on for sins that I did not commit. I am Tam-Brahm and I am proud of it, because what the term means to me is not what it meant to my ancestors. So, start getting used to it; we Tam-Brahms are here to stay.

-Ambuja Bharadwaj

PS: Those who know me know that I am not one to air my personal views on controversial topics in public. But I did so this time, because the original article in the Indian Express upset me greatly. Thanks for all your support, friends.








The “B” word

I am a Brahmin. There, I said it.

For those of you who are not Indians, Brahmins are one of the so-called upper castes in the Hindu caste system. In fact, many people almost exclusively refer to Brahmins when they use the term upper caste, although there are other communities that are also considered to be upper caste.
Traditionally, Brahmins were highly educated folk, known for being religious and orthodox. They learned Sanskrit, studied the Vedas, and were responsible for taking care of temples. Brahmins are vegetarian and most of them have never tasted meat in their lives. The men are initiated into the study of Vedas when they “came of age” in a bar mitzvah-like ceremony called Upanayam. They wear a sacred white thread around their bodies and a namam or pattai (a mark like the Hindu dot) on their forehead. Married Brahmin women dressed in the traditional Madisar fashioned from a single piece of 9-yard fabric.
Wikipedia defines Brahmin (also called Brahmana) as a varna in Vedic Hinduism and also a caste of people who are members of it. But the word “Brahmin” has power a certain power attached to it and for a long time, I considered it a bad word.

“The sins of the father are to be laid upon the children.” ― William Shakespeare, The Merchant of Venice
In older times, Brahmins have been known to discriminate against other castes, especially the so-called lower castes. People talk about them practicing ‘untouchability’ and withholding education from others. These acts of injustice have led Brahmins to be one of the most hated communities, especially in South India.
I realized my identity as a Brahmin only in my early teens. Until then I did not know that I belonged to one of the minority communities in Chennai. I went to a school that had a large Brahmin population and non-Brahmins were more the exception than the rule. When I first learned of the history of my caste I felt an overwhelming sense of shame. Shame that my ancestors were these terrible bigots who rode roughshod over so many people. I would never admit to anyone that I was born a Brahmin.
When I started college, I experienced somewhat of a culture-shock in terms of my caste. I was only one of 2 Brahmins in my class. All of a sudden, I was really in the minority. That’s when my shame turned to fear. The fact is, Brahmins of today experience a sort of reverse-discrimination in the hands of  society. Reservation programs (akin to Affirmative action in the US) in colleges and jobs tend to discriminate against Brahmins. We are quite simply blamed for the actions of our ancestors and categorically judged as supremacists.
Every Brahmin will probably relate an incident from their lives when their non-Brahmin friends made fun of their vegetarianism. They would have either been hounded to give it up or repeatedly asked explain their religious reasons for it (we believe that eating meat is against ahimsa/non-violence and also that it upsets the purity of our body and soul). Then there is the cruelest trick of fooling a Brahmin into believing that he/she has just consumed meat by accident. There are many derogatory terms used to depict Brahmins from the more hurtful “pappan/pappathi” to the somewhat less offensive “namam/pattai” and the almost-forgivable, more innocent “thayir sadam”. Besides our dietary preferences, our dialect is also used to ridicule us, especially in movies. A Brahmin would never volunteer information or even mention on his caste, lest he be arrested and sued for caste discrimination. They know that if that happened, public opinion will largely side with the non-Brahmins.

And so in college, I actively distanced myself from my Brahmin identity. I would ensure that I talked like the non-Brahmins. Occasionally, I would slip up and use a term that was uniquely Brahmin and my non-Brahmins would immediately jump on it to make fun of me. I also faced another challenge in hiding my identity –  my name. My first/given name is an old-fashioned and exclusively Brahmin name. Strangers only needed to hear my name to realize that I am a Brahmin and I would have to face the judgment that came with it. I distinctly remember arguing with my mother for having burdened me with such an obviously-Brahmin name.

I don’t think I am alone in having experienced this sense of shame and fear. Many Brahmins carry with them a sense of “Brahmin-shame” and you often find many popular Brahmin actors deriding their own heritage on the stage and in movies. Most Brahmins work to keep their caste identity secret and do much to ensure that they do not stand out.
The government reservation policies started a mass migration of Brahmins to the United States and other countries in the 1970s, as they sought educational opportunities that did not discriminate against them. Eventually, my brother and I joined these migrants. A few weeks after moving to the US, my brother remarked that for once in his life he felt comfortable going out in public wearing his namam. During my years in the USA, I slowly outgrew my hatred for my name. It didn’t single me out anymore. It was just another hard-to-pronounce Indian name. My background as a Brahmin ceased to matter. More so when I married an American Christian. Although I remained a vegetarian and a Hindu, I never gave my Brahmin heritage much thought. This changed when I became a parent. I felt a powerful need to pass on my culture to my children and it served as a turning point in my attitude towards my caste.

After 12 years away, I moved back to India in 2012. I had missed India so much and I was thrilled to be back. I soaked up everything Indian and rejoiced in immersing myself in my culture, language and religion. For the first time in my life, I wanted to learn everything about my Brahmin background. I understood the meanings behind routine “Brahmin” rituals and developed a new appreciated for them. I realized how wrong I was to feel shame for something that I never did. The fact is most Brahmins are gentle, timid folk who do not like confrontations. Even in the past, not all Brahmins were bigots. There were many great, kind, and compassionate people who were Brahmins.

The Tamil poet Subramania Bharathi wrote,
“Jathigal elai adi papa. Kulam thazhthi uyarthi solal pavam”
(Translation: There are no castes, little one. It is a sin to discriminate against a person based on his clan/family)
… and he was a Brahmin.
I realize that the change is not just within me. The society is also slowly changing. I find that the Brahmin youth of today embrace their heritage more openly. They do not hide from it. Even though some discrimination remains (on both sides, in isolated pockets), today’s Brahmins are more assertive. They neither possess the arrogance of Brahmins of a bygone era, nor do they suffer from the Brahmin-shame of my generation. The very fact that people openly refer to themselves as TamBram (Tamil Brahmin) speaks of this change.
So yes, I am a Brahmin, a TamBram and proud of it. I now use my gotra (Brahmin clan) name “Bharadwaj” as a pseudonym when I write. It indicates that I am a descendent of Rishi Bhardwaja, a great Hindu sage.
Today, I am only a Brahmin by birth. But every day, I try to become a real Brahmin as described by Lord Krishna. He said that “the Brahmanas would eschew wealth and arms and focus only on the The Brahman (the Great, or the Absolute). They would see Him or That in everything and would therefore never harm themselves or others and be above the duality of like and dislike”.
-A. Bharadwaj