How not to sell the Vedas

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‘Pride is the fuel,’ says Amish Tripathi, ‘that will help us build our nation’ (Vedic learning is no one’s preserve, everyone’s pride, Times of India, 21 Sept 2014). And what does any right-thinking status-quo-ist do when such is the assumption and a nation is given? He looks for an object of pride and hard-sells it. Tripathi sells the Vedas, asserting that all Indians must take pride in them. Why exactly should we do that? He cannot possibly say ‘because we have to build our nation’ – the object of pride must have independent validity – so he goes on to argue that it’s because ‘all groups in the subcontinent today have descended from the ancient Vedic people.’

What exactly do the geneticists say? In a 2013 study titled Genetic Evidence for Recent Population Mixture in India, published in the American Journal of Human Genetics, Priya Moorjani et. al. argue that most Indian groups descend from a mixture of so-called Ancestral North Indians and Ancestral South Indians (ANI and ASI, which Tripathi mentions). Notably, the authors describe these groups as ‘genetically divergent populations’. The first group is ‘related to Central Asians, Middle Easterners, Caucasians and Europeans’ and the second is ‘not closely related to groups outside the subcontinent.’ In other words, there is no walking away from the possibility of the Ancestral South Indians having played hosts to the Ancestral North Indians before intermingling began (from 1,900 to 4,200 years ago according to the same paper).

Tripathi must not have seen much nation-building fuel in mentioning this genetic divergence. He goes on only to say that ‘these groups have inhabited the subcontinent for at least 6,000 years, if not more, heavily intermingling in the ancient past’ (I don’t even want to get into the usual blaming of Germans and Britishers for divide-and-rule). Well, inhabit they could have, but as one group? No. Groups that intermingle ‘heavily’ or otherwise must have been isolated from one another before the intermingling began: it’s commonsense. Moorjani suspects – yes, that word – that ‘the two groups lived side-by-side for centuries without intermarrying’ prior to 4,200 years ago. Tripathi doesn’t want us to read all this in history – glossing over any sort of plurality is the way to go.

Also, Tripathi should be more worried about the shift away from any sort of mingling in the last 1,900 years. According to Moorjani, mixture ‘even between closely related groups became rare because of a shift to endogamy’ – i.e., the caste-system arose – which the Vedic heritage we all must take pride in didn’t do much to discourage. This finds no mention in his article quite possibly because it isn’t good enough fuel, the pontification in the beginning paragraph of his essay notwithstanding.

Even less nation-building fuel there is in seeking the reasons for India’s linguistic diversity. While the novelist can cast his characters such that his prejudice ‘holds true across religions, languages, castes and even national boundaries’, the fact remains that Indo-Aryan and Dravidian languages are quite distinct from each other. The Europeans didn’t invent them; they discovered them. This crucial fact, too, finds no mention in Tripathi’s article.

I haven’t seen a study directly linking this North-South linguistic difference with the genetic difference between ANI and ASI, but commonsense suggests that a link must exist. What sort of commonsense? Just this: that the ancestors of people who speak unrelated languages today must not have intermingled – at least not significantly. No such commonsense is visible in Tripathi’s article. In fact, linguistics, where differences are crystal clear, is very bad nation-building fuel for BJP/RSS types in general. It fuels a completely different kind of nation – one which they hate to imagine. So let’s ensure that objective guides research and findings.

Even if, for argument’s sake, one could successfully trace every Indian to some sort of Rashtriya Adam and Eve – one just needs sufficient pride – it doesn’t follow that we must consider everything the couple did with pride. Some of the greatest sons of India have rebelled against the Vedas. The Buddha in the North and Basavanna in the South are but two examples. No number of opinion pieces convinced them to take pride in the Vedas, let alone those that could have stemmed from political agendas. In fact, this whole idea that we ought to respect that which has been handed down to us from history is irrational and an affront to India’s overall spiritual heritage, though certainly part of Vedic heritage. There, you begin and end with pride – at least of late.

All said and done, there is no doubt in my mind that the Upanishads – which are considered part of the Vedas – are the greatest treasure trove of spiritual wisdom in the world, surpassing that of all other religions. Those who wish to sell them need only to place them before the reader in his or her own language; they cannot but attract the spiritually inclined. One doesn’t need to prove, hopelessly, that the Jilebi was a delicacy eaten by ancient Indians everywhere eons ago in order to attract people who might eat it today. Bring a hot, fresh and tasty one if you have what it takes to prepare it, and mouths will water. What a hopeless exercise it is to bring one’s political biases to the argument that we should study the Vedas! The more the Vedas and Upanishads are considered nation-building fuel, the more shall they become the objects of hate, for the very nature of nation-building is to impose one worldview and cut off other shades of opinion.

First Published: IBNLIVE, 23-09-2014

Hindi as Putonghua

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It is often difficult to separate out jealousy and enmity. While Narendra Modi‘s attack on China for its ‘expansionism’ is widely understood not to increase friendship between India and China, that’s not the full story. There is jealousy in it, too.

The Government of India has always secretly craved for Chinese-style control on the diverse peoples of India – and that’s internal ‘expansionism’. Not surprisingly, it forms the foundation of the Indian elite’s Idea of India. How nice it would have been if, for the outer world, the Government of India could openly claim complete racial, linguistic, and ethnic homogeneity within India! How nice it would have been if the Many voices of the Many Indias could be made to disappear and instead, the One voice of One India could assert itself on the global stage! Wouldn’t that be the roar of the Indian Lion no force on earth can stand up to? Narendra Modi is a puppet trying its best to turn this necrophilic dream into reality.

Of course, there is no democracy in China; India scores a big positive on that front. But there is no dearth of Indians who think democracy is India’s bane. And there is no dearth of people who think of democracy as a means to an end, not an end in itself. Why, even the founding fathers of independent India considered democracy as the best means to achieve, among other things, the homogeneity that China has achieved – but nonviolently. Why raise an arm where words suffice? Why use sticks when strategically placed carrots suffice? It is in the means that China differs most from India. The end is the same: homogeneity.

The Chinese have been getting rid of diversity, which always opposes the State’s supreme wisdom, from as early as 221 BC when the Qin dynasty came to power. But India hasn’t done anything comparable before 1947 AD – or, I must say, before the freedom struggle came of age. While the Chinese have effectively destroyed the various languages of China using violent means – books have been burnt, scholars buried alive, a single script imposed on one and all at gunpoint – India hasn’t tried anything of the sort. Instead, we are all set to destroy all Indian languages but Hindi nonviolently. No books will be burnt, no scholars will be buried alive, but they will all voluntarily submit their souls to the Centre, propelled simply by monetary, career, and sexual incentives (the last is the territory of Bollywood). That’s the belief, at least.

Take, for example, the upcoming State-sponsored celebration of Hindi beginning next week. That’s like a festival to celebrate the imposition of Beijunghua (the language of Beijing) on the diverse Chinese and calling it Putonghua (common language). Only, the Chinese never had to resort to such cheap tricks: they caught hold of all other languages and sent them to the guillotine after turning the lights off centuries ago, and nobody came to know.

Chinese writers who are allowed pen and paper by the Party, such as Zhang Weiwei, now claim that China is a ‘civilizational state’ – implying an organic homogeneity in one sixth of the world’s population. But in reality, China is a ‘state civilization’ – a whole mass of humanity forcefully subjected to an arbitrary state’s mindless craving for uniformity. The Indian elite working in tandem with the Government of India, jealous that our kings didn’t achieve this in the quietude of history, are now trying their best to achieve it today. Needless to say, they will fail, and the failure will be demonstrated, to an extent, in the next couple of weeks.

First Published: IBNLIVE, 12-09-2014

Culture and the Ellara Kannada movement

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For those who aren’t aware, we in Karnataka are witnessing a youth movement to modernize Kannada writing and make it accessible to, and contributable by, people from all castes and religions.

Science and technology is an important area where we’re experimenting with using Kannada in a way, and to an extent, unheard of until now. This involves the creation of a new corpus by and for the common people, not Sanskrit pundits real or fake.

However, I want to focus on an aspect of this movement which is often misunderstood: culture and intercultural interactions.

We believe in taking what we want from all cultures and languages and leaving the rest. Till now, there was no moderation in using Sanskrit words and works and no path to Kannada standing on its own legs in all its native majesty. That’s what we’re bringing.

Specifically, we have no hatred for Aryans or Aryan culture or Sanskrit. Just like even honey, if consumed without moderation is bad for the body, and just like if it is consumed with moderation it is good for the body, all cultures and languages are welcome, but with moderation. A balanced approach is the hallmark of this movement. We often make mistakes in achieving this moderation, but there is an overall agreement that moderation is necessary.

Who decides what’s moderate and what isn’t? Every one for himself or herself. Every person decides what to take from which culture for himself or herself, not individuals at the forefront of the movement today.

For example, we will not take movement-wide stances such as ‘all religion is evil’, ‘there is no God’, ‘Brahmins have to be kicked out’, etc. We believe this is where our Tamil friends under Periyar Ramaswamy made a mistake. We will not repeat those mistakes. All views and biases are welcome on all aspects, except one: that Kannada is inferior to any other language and cannot stand on its own.

‘The artificial language of a learned mediocrity’

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Rabindranath Tagore has been a great source of inspiration to me. It all began close to fifteen years ago, with one night of reading the Gitanjali from beginning to end as if it were the Bhagavad Gita, and rejoicing in every line. But, to put it briefly, there it did not end.

I don’t always agree with him, but if there is one well-known Indian figure who understood India from the ground up, I think it’s him. What struck me most about him very early was that, though quite evidently a member of the Indian elite of his time, he never distanced himself from the realities of life around him.

Indians today have a lot to learn from the balanced approach he took to nearly everything he touched. He could simultaneously immerse himself in the philosophy of the Upanishads, yet rebel against the caste system. He could simultaneously make the Brahman of the Upanishads his Ideal on the one hand, and on the other criticize the casteism of the brahmanas. I used to adopt the same approach towards Hinduism even before I discovered Tagore. But once I did, his writings gave me the strength to speak and write openly about these two extremes myself.

I can safely say that it is Tagore who brought any clarity I can now claim to possess about politics and economics. In The Pyramid of Corruption, I adopt his definition of a nation as an organization of politics and commerce, though, I must warn you, I don’t agree with his way of dealing with nationalism.

Anyway, as I delved deeper and deeper into Tagore’s writings, I felt many of my own thoughts expressed in them – and it has often been a hair-raising experience in the literal sense. Such was the experience when I encountered the following passage by him. I read it after I had discovered the Kannada linguistics genius, D. N. Shankara Bhat, in fact, after I had spent nine years learning directly from him about my mother tongue Kannada, its relationship with Sanskrit, and the road ahead. Writes Tagore in a 1918 essay titled Vernaculars for the M.A. Degree:

[The] direct influence which the Calcutta University wields over our language [Bengali] is not strengthening and vitalizing, but pedantic and narrow. It tries to perpetuate the anachronism of preserving the Pundit-made Bengali swathed in grammar-wrappings borrowed from a dead language. It is every day becoming a more formidable obstacle in the way of our boys’ acquiring that mastery of their mother tongue which is of life and literature. The artificial language of a learned mediocrity, inert and formal, ponderous and didactic, devoid of the least breath of creative vitality, is forced upon our boys at the most receptive period of their life…

Just take a moment to sink it in. Here was a Bengali poet – Bengali being a descendant of the ‘dead language’, i.e., Sanskrit –  and perhaps one of the greatest authorities on the Upanishads in his time, criticizing the unnecessary Sanskritization of Bengali. Here was a brahmana calling Sanskrit a ‘dead language’ – something quite unpalatable to Hindutvavadis (no wonder they don’t even so much as mention his name). Here was an Aryan criticizing the unnecessary infiltration into Bengali of that great language of the Aryans – Sanskrit – and pointing out the problems due to the infiltration.

Today, there are people who think Kannada has descended from Sanskrit; others lament the fact that it hasn’t; and yet others fake an Aryanized tongue. The formal Kannada alphabet continues to carry several useless aksharas required only to write Sanskrit words as they’re written in Sanskrit, and there is hardly any capacity that Kannadigas have retained of coining new words without relying on Sanskrit. And what kind of Sanskrit words do they coin? Such as can neither be pronounced nor understood by the vast majority of Kannadigas. Even Kannada grammar, before it was taken up for serious revision by D. N. Shankara Bhat, was considered as a corruption of Sanskrit grammar, and we Kannadigas have been happy with that for ages.

The fact is, Kannada is a Dravidian language capable of standing on its own. How much more weakening and devitalizing it must be, how much more pedantic and narrow it must be, for Kannadigas to allow Sanskritists to define what ‘good Kannada’ is! How much more nonsensical it is to allow to perpetuate ‘the anachronism of preserving the Pundit-made’ Kannada ‘swathed in grammar-wrappings borrowed from a dead language’! How much more is over-Sanskritization a ‘formidable obstacle’ which is preventing Kannadigas from ‘acquiring that mastery of their mother tongue which is of life and literature’! How much more artificial Kannada is turning and losing its creative vitality, if Tagore had to complain all this about Bengali!

On the Government vs Business Debate

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The West is obsessed with the government vs business debate (or the public vs private debate, as some term it), which is summarized by one single question: how much control should the government have over business? Whether we like it or not, we Indians are constantly being asked to disclose our position in this debate, and made to feel as if this is the most important ideological question in front of us. But before we even agree to consider the question, the stage must be set for making it meaningful: we should know who runs the government or the business in question. Do we run the government? Do we run the business? And finally, who are we?

Let me explain why these three questions matter, beginning with the first two. If foreigners run both the government and the business, it matters little what our take on the matter is. However you vote, you end up strengthening a foreign power which simply goes against our own self-interest. If foreigners run the government and we run the business, it’s trivial to see that we must side with the business. If foreigners run the business and we run the government, it’s again trivial to see that we must side with the government, not the business. It is only when we run both the government and the business that the question becomes non-trivial.

Now, on to the third and the trickiest question: who are we? Before we try to answer the question, let us ask ourselves: how does it matter? It matters because, if we don’t know who we are, we can’t tell us from them and we can’t tell whether the government or business is run by us or not. If we can’t do that, we are back to the situation where we’re asked to vote in the dark: we have no clue whether it is we who run the government or the business, and we have no clue which to side with. This is the situation most Indian intellectuals are in. And how do they vote? Based on which school they went to: a place that convinced them that they (the we in question) belong to it (that school) more than anything else.

This discussion of who we are reminds me of what Yâgñavalkya told Maitreyî in the Brihadaranyaka Upanishad:

Verily, everything is not dear, that you may love everything; but that you may love the Self, therefore everything is dear. Verily, the Self is to be seen, to be heard, to be perceived, to be marked, O Maitreyî! When the Self has been seen, heard, perceived, and known, then all this is known.

Of course, the great sage meant the Soul when he used the word Self (actually, the Sanskrit word atma), not the body, but his advice seems to apply equally well to the Self in question in the government vs business debate: the materialistic self. Business or government aren’t dear that we may love business or government, but that we may love us. It follows, therefore, that we need to know who we are. Of course, when Yâgñavalkya said ‘all this is known’, he meant the entire Universe, not our take on the government vs business question. But the advice applies quite well to our limited context.

I know, you must be thinking: ‘Okay, let’s assume we run both the government and the business. Can you now disclose your bias?’ It is tempting to answer this question, but I will resist it because it is theoretical. We haven’t even established who we are. The question of government vs business, more than any other, is most practical. I will, therefore, instead of falling prey to the temptation, try to answer the question who we are.

Now, this, I must again emphasize, is not a theoretical question to which the answer can be, too. Yâgñavalkya’s answer, which is that the Self is the Soul, does not help us answer the materialistic question in front of us. In the spiritual realm, the realm of the Soul, the distinction between us and them, government and business, and even Soul and non-Soul are invisible. Even the distinction between the visible and the invisible is invisible. Or visible. This is not the direction to go, therefore, to answer the question as to who we are in the limited context of politics and economics. We must leave Yâgñavalkya alone here and take our own path. Yes, when we do so we err and proceed on a path that takes us away from Moksha, but the government vs business question did not intend to take us towards it, did it?

So, then, who are we? Unfortunately, despite all the build-up until now in this article, there is no universally accepted answer to this question; there cannot be. It is not a question which can have a mathematically correct answer, but one which we may answer based on our biases. But whatever our biases are, they must help us distinguish between us and them. It is easiest to narrow down the definition of we to an individual, making it an I clearly distinguishable from everyone else, but that has its own problems: individuals don’t run governments, even if they do businesses. So, we has to be a group of people.

If it has to be a group of people, what sort of group? How big must the group be? What should be the relationship between its members? What should be the differentiating factor or factors between one group and another? These are all, again, very difficult questions to answer. In any case, all of humanity cannot be the definition of the group we’re after, because that would be equivalent to throwing away the idea of a group. If it’s all one group, then there are no groups. If everyone is us, nobody is, because there is no them. Therefore, all we can conclude regarding size is that it can neither be individual-sized nor everyone-sized. It has to be something in between.

To define our group more clearly, we must realize that we are seeking a definition in order to answer the government vs business question. We are not seeking it in a vacuum. In other words, we want to define groups such that we can answer the government vs business question in some optimal way. Which optimal way? I propose that it should be a way in which each group, so defined, derives the maximum benefit from the way it is defined. If some groups are advantaged and some not, or rather, if the distribution of advantages is clearly and blatantly iniquitous, I wouldn’t like to call it an optimal way of defining groups.

For one individual in a group to derive a benefit from another, there must exist, first and foremost, a sense of commonality that binds them. That is, the feeling ‘we are one’ must exist and be easily recognized by everyone in it. They must share something. Of course, extreme individualism, another Western product, teaches us that no such thing is necessary, and that individuals can act all by themselves. But this cannot be the route we take because we are out to define groups; we gave up the definition of we as an individual above. Returning to our question then, what must individuals share in order that they can derive benefit from one another? Clearly we’re not talking about the family bond, although it may seem like a good answer to the question. Families don’t run governments – at least democratic governments – even though they might run businesses.

To cut a long story short, I propose that our group must be linguistic – one whose members share a common language. A common language brings its speakers on a common platform on which they have the opportunity to benefit from one another. Without a common language and the opportunities for communication and cooperation it provides, it is next to impossible for people to benefit from each other. As they benefit from each other, the language itself grows in complexity and utility, and so does the sense of unity that binds everyone in the group. In this sense, the common thread of language is a minimal requirement for a group. Also, language makes it possible to clearly distinguish between one group and another. It is easily possible to say who we are and who they are – even for the unlettered. And to be able to make this distinction, you will recall, is necessary to even address the government vs business question. Language is also a secular commons – you not only use but also contribute to the language irrespective of your religion – and this means it is a more potent tool for curing society of religious bigotry of all shades. With very few exceptions, language also ensures that the group so created is located in a geographically contiguous region, making it easy for it to associate itself with a piece of earth it can call its own.

Is this sort of grouping optimal in the sense I set out to make it? That is, is linguistic grouping the one that distributes advantages equally to all groups? This is certainly so in most cases of real languages such as Kannada or Tamil or Bengali or what have you, although it is possible that some languages are more equipped than others to carry science and technology which are crucial to the group’s success. Linguistic grouping also makes it possible, nay a requirement, for each group to work on its own language and develop it. Yes, every group will have work to do – to bring its language up to speed – but every speaker of that language, irrespective of religion or caste can, at least theoretically, contribute to it. When everyone contributes to something, or has the opportunity to contribute, then, and only then, does the feeling emerge that it is common to one and all. Language is such a thing.

The Kannadigas, in this sense, are a group – a we in their own right. So are the Tamils, the Malayalis, the Telugus, the Bengalis, the Assamese, and so on, and so forth. It is these linguistic groups that need to have, internally, the government vs business debate. And, as discussed above, it is only when both the government and the business are run by the group in question that the debate becomes meaningful. The debate is settled before it is begun should either the government or the business be under the control of a group other than the one debating.

It might appear to some that I have forgotten something very important: India! But that is an illusion created by the current idea of India in which the groups I just mentioned, and their languages, are of no importance whatsoever. In fact, by talking about these groups, I have covered almost all of India – a big, very big, nation. What I have left out is not India but migrants who cross linguistic borders. They are, first of all, a trivial minority compared to the population of Indians that does not cross linguistic borders, and therefore, the question as to which group they belong to is not the most important one in India. But yes, they must belong, by default, to the host group in order to be treated as part of its we.

Of course, Indians belonging to all linguistic groups together make a macro group of their own – a we in their own right, for reasons such as our common history of oppression under the British followed by independence, and, of course, the diverse and rich spiritual traditions of the sages. We have derived a great political benefit from these commons: independence. That is, we have used these commons to deal with external powers for the benefit of every Indian. But these commons have little utility when it comes to settling questions such as that of government vs business within India.

Besides, all it takes to preserve independence and prevent civil wars is to make sure that the central government, and only the central government, has control over defense and external affairs. All other powers can be safely entrusted to the linguistic states (there must be only one linguistic state per major language, for reasons difficult to explain in this short essay) and Indians in every state allowed to deal with all other matters internally – including the question of government vs business. If external affairs is held by the centre, shouldn’t the centre take decisions on government vs business when both Indian and foreign ones are involved? Yes, it should, but only when they are involved. These, and other details, such as the requirement that every state must have the same stakes in the centre, have to be worked out meticulously for the solution I’m proposing to work.

‘How about now,’ I hear you ask, ‘can you disclose your bias now that you have settled the question of who we are and also proposed a restructuring of the Indian polity?’ My answer to that is: it has to be worked out by the different groups, i.e., states, differently. There is no one answer that applies to all. As far as my group is concerned – the Kannadiga group – there’s no point answering this question since we Kannadigas control neither our government, in the ultimate analysis, nor the businesses that operate in Karnataka.

On Sanskrit, Kannada, Purity, and SL Bhyrappa

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I have high regard for Sanskrit. I learnt the language quite a bit out of my own interest with some help from course material published by Aksharam in Bengaluru, but mostly by reading Kannada translations of Sanskrit texts. I read, recite, and greatly benefit from the Bhagavad Gita and a few important Upanishads. Not a day passes without my remembering and being guided by shlokas and mantras from these great texts.

But none of this requires me to speak and act as if Kannada, my mother tongue, is pure to whatever extent it is because of Sanskrit’s influence. A language doesn’t get ‘purified’ when good spiritual literature enters it; its authors and readers do if they do their job well. Nor is the entry of Sanskrit words into Kannada in itself a purification process.

Unfortunately, people like SL Bhyrappa, perhaps unknown to themselves, and despite their immense scholarship, continue to perpetuate such untruths by repeatedly making statements like ‘Only Sanskrit can save the purity of regional languages’. This is such a false statement that, I’m sure, if Mr. Bhyrappa considers it with an open mind, he can see it himself.

If he had said ‘Only Sanskrit can fill Indian languages with the greatest spiritual literature of India’s bygone sages’, I would be very close to agreeing with him, except for the fact that some other languages – also Aryan ones – like Pali would also fit the bill. After all, Buddha was a great Indian saint, too. Sure, some important Buddhist texts have Sanskrit versions available, but Pali is still the language to go to for the most ancient Buddhist texts.

In fact, this filling of Indian languages – not regional ones as he puts it, that’s demeaning – with the spiritual wisdom contained in Sanskrit works is a superb and very important exercise from the point of view of spreading the message of the great sages. But it requires a level of linguistic expertise in the living languages of India that is missing for the precise reason that we tend to think there isn’t any inherent purity to them. If all of Kannada’s purity comes from its brush with Sanskrit, a foreign language, why would anyone even consider a career in Kannada linguistics? In fact, there’s virtually no one doing that – at least no one who wouldn’t dump it for a call-centre job that drains their life.

Instead of considering Sanskrit as pure and Kannada impure without it, it’s time to move on to the narrative that Kannada is as pure as any other language, if at all the word purity can be applied to languages. Its being a Dravidian tongue does place it close to the bottom of The Pyramid of Corruption, allowing for narratives of the type used by SL Bhyrappa and others, but this Pyramid must be destroyed. It is in nobody’s interest to maintain its rule. Not even in SL Bhyrappa’s if, giving him the benefit of doubt, it were true that the attainment of spiritual wisdom by the Kannadiga people is truly a matter close to his heart.

On distance, caste, and language

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Distance is a fundamental and natural regulator of social relations, for men and women all over the world tend to interact with people who are close-by. This is for two commonsensical reasons: first, distance requires the additional hassle of transport and communication, which may or may not be available or affordable; second, proximity creates the feeling of kindred which is both necessary for, and is facilitated by, social interactions.

Language is a fundamental and natural tool for and outcome of social interactions, and distance, therefore, has a fundamental impact on it: the speakers of any given language tend to cluster geographically, and it is possible to draw very accurate geographical boundaries between any two linguistic peoples and earmark well-defined linguistic areas. To put it in another way, people who live together and who are isolated from other people either geographically or otherwise, develop their own language. For all practical purposes, language is equivalent to distance in regulating social interactions. Marriage is a fundamental and natural social institution, and distance has a fundamental impact on it, too: marriages also tend to form geographical clusters, as men and women tend to choose their spouses from nearby. But most marriages happen within the same linguistic area, because communication and cooperation, which are facilitated by a common language, are essential ingredients of successful marriages.

Therefore, matrimonial and linguistic clusters have significant overlaps worldwide. Even with the coming of modern means of transport and electronic communication, the importance of distance as a regulator of social relations has not reduced by any significant degree. Fast cars, ships, airplanes, mobile telephony and the internet have had negligible impact on the geographical clustering of languages and marriages. On the contrary, the existing geographical clustering of languages and marriages has had a significant impact on the patterns of social relations that have emerged on these new technological platforms.

In the Indian subcontinent, caste is an additional regulator of social relations. But it is neither a fundamental nor a natural regulator in the sense that distance and language are; it is an artificial one which has come to be due to the mishandling of racial diversity. Caste, however, impacts both marriage and language. That caste impacts marital relations—even appears to be its fundamental purpose—is a well known fact. But it is perhaps less known that caste also impacts language, creating different caste-based dialects and usage patterns within the same language.

Despite these impacts, caste as a regulator of social relations is weaker than distance, and one must concede that it is therefore not as fundamental a regulator as distance. The artificial regulations imposed by the caste-system on marriage and language fail to supersede the fundamental regulations imposed on them by distance: we find the people of almost all castes finding their spouses within tens of kilometers and living within well-defined linguistic areas. That is, it is very rare to find people crossing the barrier of distance to marry within the caste. Therefore, by and large, both languages and marriages are primarily distance-limited, and only secondarily caste-limited. I say ‘by and large’ because languages like English and marriages of the higher castes such as the brahmanas tend to go beyond geographical limits, but these are trivial exceptions from a percentage occurrence perspective.

Caste as a regulator of social relations is weaker than language, too, and therefore less fundamental than it. Different castes, because of their geographical co-location, have no choice but to communicate with each other, albeit while maintaining the social restrictions imposed by the caste-system. This communication cannot happen without a common language, even though there may be dialect and usage differences due to the isolation between castes. Essentially, therefore, castes are contained within well-defined linguistic areas. Once again, it is only the numerically trivial upper castes that provide an exception to this rule.

(Excerpted from The Pyramid of Corruption)

Perry Anderson’s ‘Indian Ideology’ – a review

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‘Who is Perry Anderson?’ I asked my good friend who told me about a book written by the man. He replied that the author is a famous historian and that this particular book is a ‘good critique of the popular idea of India’. Since the book in question was titled Indian Ideology, I decided to take a look. A quick online search led me to the three essays that make up Anderson’s book. Such is their power that I found it impossible to put them down. For two days, without a break, I got drenched in completely new insights into the minds of the so-called makers of modern India.

I think it wouldn’t be an exaggeration to say that I haven’t read anything as stormy, revealing, concise and loaded with information about India as these three essays. Every line is a Axe – as Kafka would’ve put it – for the frozen sea within the Indian mind, an expression I don’t usually approve of in a nation so diverse.

His brutal criticism of highly respected Indian leaders, complete with who was in whose bed, is overconfident at times but never without irony. For those who don’t expect the icons of Indian nationalism to be perfect diamonds to begin with, or understand that perfect diamonds don’t necessarily lead to immaculate politics, Anderson’s revelations are reconfirming details. For the multitudes who do, however, they’re fatal blows that turn the diamonds to dust. That is, if they can manage to rise above Indian indoctrination which includes, first of all, the teaching that they should stay away from foreigners’ accounts of Mera Bharat Mahaan. But Anderson’s insights are not not limited to these individuals; they extend to the overall system in which they operated. He must be read. Very, very, carefully.


Should M.K.Gandhi the individual be blamed for the creation of a separate Muslim state because of his Hindu revivalist agenda? It is one thing to point the finger at him for what happened but quite another to understand why it happened and whether anyone needs to be blamed at all. It isn’t as if someone other than Gandhi could have made a better choice than to let the Muslims fight under a separate banner. The Muslims had to organize and unite against the Raj, and the quickest and the most effective way of doing so was under their own banner. Ditto for the Hindus. Before blaming Gandhi for this, one must recognize that the corrupting influence of the British forced Indians to politically organize themselves as quickly as possible, under whichever banners seemed expedient at the time. Surely, one cannot blame him or the Congress for decentralizing the ‘legitimacy in the struggle for independence’ at least inasmuch as religion was concerned, especially given that the Muslim regions were large contiguous pieces of land in both the west and the east.

It is all nice to argue from the comfort of a university nearly a century afterwards that India deserved leaders who, and a freedom movement which, discarded religion while organizing against the British. But it’s not a requirement for freedom struggles. Again, it’s one thing to sit and analyze India’s freedom struggle from a different continent and another to face the heat of colonial oppression and do whatever it takes to build up opposition. Are there examples in the world of hundreds of millions organizing themselves for any reason, let alone that of achieving freedom from a colonial power, without employing religion? For those who have learnt to criticize religion every time and everywhere, it may appear incorrect for people to use it to organize, but incorrect it does not become for that reason. Indeed, why call partition ‘the calamity of… division’ unless one is obliged to follow the motto ‘what Empire has joined, let no man put asunder’? The idea of India as one political unit being ‘a European not a local invention,’ as Anderson acknowledges, why shed a tear at the inability of the Congress to keep the entire Empire under one postcolonial unit?

The manner in which the partition was achieved, however, deserves Anderson’s criticism well. The ‘political cupidity’ and the ‘territorial greed’ of the Congress are certainly not virtues, and partition could have been achieved, perhaps, in a more thought out manner, with cross-border migrations spread over a longer period of time and the mass violence avoided with utmost care. The ‘deep culture of the subcontinent’ cannot, indeed, be said to have foreordained the manner of the partition. But that foreordaining was done by the Indian imprint of the deep culture of cupidity, greed, and violence of the British and passed on to the Congress in a country that had confined itself largely to spirituality on the one hand and the relative nonviolence of the caste-system on the other.


Anderson’s analysis of the caste-system and its effect on the freedom struggle and independent India is excellent but incomplete. In a couple of superb paragraphs, he argues that the caste-system is the reason why India’s poor outvote the rich even though they receive little more than confetti in return. While the rich have a greater capacity for collective action due to their smaller numbers, greater resources and intelligence, says Anderson with Gandhi’s Congress in mind, the poor are ‘organizationally outflanked’ by them not only due to their greater number, dispersed population, and poverty both economic and cultural, but more importantly due to the caste-system. Anderson goes on to declare, quite boldly, that caste is the ‘ultimate secret of Indian democracy’ and also the reason for Congress supremacy during the freedom struggle and after. This is because, he reasons, the caste-system has forever fixed in hierarchical position and divided from one another every disadvantaged group and legitimated every misery in this life as a penalty for moral transgression in a previous incarnation. This analysis is perfect inasmuch as the context is limited, as he rightly limits it, to the boundaries of any given linguistic community. It is in crossing the boundaries that it falters.

India is not ‘divided into some thirty major linguistic groups’ (italics added). It is defined by them. To think of India’s poor – he’s not talking about the rich here – as divided by language is to imagine them to be originally undivided by it. Who said this is true? Even when Karl Marx called out to the (poor) workers of the world to unite, it must have been clear to him that they aren’t united in the first place. Nor did they, can they, or need they, unite so as to erase all linguistic diversity in order to counterbalance the rich who do. This applies to the limited context of India, too, and it is a mistake to believe that collective action by the poor of India must necessarily happen at the all-India level crossing all linguistic borders. Everything which unites the poor must be factored in, not discarded, if at all the poor have to unite. If this means a plurality of unions of the poor, one per major language, it is realistic; not a global or India-wide solidarity of ‘the proletariat’. Here again does Anderson’s analysis fall prey to ‘what Empire has joined, let no man put asunder.’

Anderson’s analysis falls short in another place where he confronts language. While he correctly lauds the Indian nation for creating linguistic states, he fails to extend his understanding of Hindu society to linguistics. The languages of India aren’t equally poor. As I point out in my book, The Pyramid of Corruption, they aren’t independent of the stratification we see in Hindu society, viz., the caste-system. They, too, are arranged in the form of a Pyramid with the language of the Gods, Sanskrit, at the apex, and every other below it at a distance proportional to its poverty of Sanskrit influence. This Pyramid lends stability to the Indian nation in no small degree today because, just like castes languages, too, are fixed in hierarchical position and made to curse themselves for not being pure enough. This self-deprecation ensures stability via Aryan domination, not merely ‘the luck of the cultural draw’ because of which Hindi, with ‘some 40 per cent of the population, had just the right weight to act as a ballast in the political system, without risk of too provocatively lording over it.’ In fact, the ballast is not the Hindi that Anderson imagines but Sanskritized Khariboli, a.k.a. Standard Hindi, of which the speakers are far fewer. Also, just as the plural poor are ‘organizationally outflanked’ by the singular rich, the plural linguistic communities of India are, too: by the most Sanskritized within each community, invariably litterateurs and members of the upper castes, the culturally ‘rich’ who easily combine and maintain the stability of the Pyramid.


Linguistic reorganization of states appears as ‘a real achievement’ to Perry Anderson, and rightly so. However, a true votary for federalism in India wouldn’t be persuaded to describe India as ‘a creative flexible federation, in which state governments… enjoy a considerable degree of autonomy’. Sure, Anderson adds the qualifier ‘as long as they did not offer opportunities for intervention by internal disputes or cross too boldly the political will of the centre,’ but that doesn’t do justice to the imbalance of powers between the centre and the states. The political will of the centre includes the will to keep the states without any real autonomy, as evident from the state, central, and concurrent ‘lists’ which separate powers. Anything that can be called a real power continues to remain with the centre and the states are really no more than glorified municipalities. In Pyramid rule, this illusory separation of powers suffices to keep the political class loyal to the system.

One must never forget that India’s central government is essentially an Aryan government with non-Aryan add-ons. The centralization of power in New Delhi is not merely numerical; it is markedly cultural. It would be incorrect, therefore, to compare federalism in India and the US. Not that Anderson explicitly does this, but Western writers cannot, in general, be expected to get a hang of how diverse India really is; they don’t have the first hand experience. Marxist writers in particular have a tendency to support strong governments. Indians need to be extra careful about this tendency because the most important question in India is not who should be stronger, government or business. It is who should be in either government or business: we or they. As things stand, for most of India, it’s they who are in power in New Delhi, not we. And the stronger you make them, the less democratic India becomes. Anderson does not get into these important issues.

He does not have anything to say, for e.g., about national population control schemes which, in effect, threaten to depopulate South India and continue the age-old southward migration of the Aryans. This gets so easily mixed up in the popular rhetoric of development and Indianness that diversity takes a dive; Anderson does not bring this up. Or, take Anderson’s criticism of India’s electoral system. Anderson makes a big deal of the First Past The Post system, but the real problem – the one that touches upon linguistic diversity – is rep-by-pop (representation by population). This system of representation basically ensures that linguistic communities with lower populations are less represented in the Government of India than those with higher ones. This is not a problem in a country such as the US which is a graveyard of languages, or a country such as Germany or France, where there aren’t really any significant linguistic communities that are different from the mainstream. But it is a huge problem in India. It is essentially the institutionalization of Aryan domination over non-Aryans: with 74% seats in Parliament reserved for the Aryans, the non-Aryans are simply afterthoughts who might as well not send any representatives there. The ones they do send essentially bring Aryan rule closer to the non-Aryans.

Last but not least, Hindi Imposition would have done well to form a part of Anderson’s essays. One of the features of Pyramid rule, this is the open and legal call for the speakers of every language other than Hindi to submit to second-class citizen status in India, and it hasn’t reduced after the linguistic reorganization of states. In fact, the states now don’t need to be purely created on the basis of language. The recent bifurcation of Andhra Pradesh is a case in point: the centre now finds it much easier to continue Pyramid rule, complete with Hindi imposition, with the Telugus fighting with each other over ‘confetti’ thrown at them by New Delhi — all together with the claim that India is becoming increasingly federal.


Overall, I’d give four out of five stars to Indian Ideology. It’s a true masterpiece. One word of caution, perhaps, is that Indian readers must carefully ensure that Anderson’s wit and eloquence don’t unfairly influence their reading. We’re no strangers to such influence; one shloka in Sanskrit routinely does to us what Anderson’s English prose might.

Links to Perry Anderson’s essays: [1], [2], [3]

3 Aug: Bengaluru Meet-Up

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I’m happy to announce that we’ve finally been able to organize a book tour event in Bengaluru.

Date: Sunday 3 Aug.

Time: 11:00 am onwards

Venue: B M Sri Kala Bhavana, N.R.Colony (map).

Agenda: Diversity, the idea of India, and coffee!

Please confirm your attendance by clicking here. I’d love to meet you — Kiran.

Why corruption?

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By the time I completed writing The Pyramid of Corruption, the Jan Lokpal protests led by Anna Hazare had nearly come to a halt and the UPA government had begun to take the matter seriously. There were claims that the protesters had ‘won’. The so-called Aam Aadmi Party, whose stated objective is to eliminate corruption in India, had not yet been formed.

Fast-forwarding to today, Anna Hazare is out of the game and the public hysteria over the Lokpal Bill is gone; and a subset of the protesters have formed the Aam Aadmi Party. The latest news is that this party has already managed to get into its own alleged corruption scandal. One can hear arguments that this new ‘party with a difference’ is no different, after all.

Of course it’s too early to say whether or not the corruption charges on AAP are genuine. Even if they are, since there are much bigger and dirtier fish in the game, the new tiny fish in the pond is certainly one of the cleaner ones. Since AAP has carved out a niche for itself by opposing the corruption in parties such as the Congress and the BJP, it may be reasonable to expect, perhaps, that it will fare better, if not a lot better, at what is known as being clean.

But the problem with this whole approach to ‘cleanliness’ in politics is it recognizes only what can be described as operational corruption. This is the corruption in the functioning of existing systems of politics and economics, not in their definition or construction. Put differently, this approach assumes that the nation by itself is infinitely incorruptible; that everything that has transpired in the process of its establishment is free from corruption, even divine; and that the only thing wrong with the nation is the character of the people running it today.

But this is far from true. As I show in the book, the very foundation of the Indian nation is steeped in corruption which fits the popular definition of the term, ‘abuse of public power for private gain’. This can be called the nation’s primitive corruption, to distinguish it from operational corruption.

The Aam Aadmi Party, whose motto is to ‘clean up the system’, cannot be said to have an all-India ideology or philosophy of its own. All it proposes to do is bring execution excellence to, or remove the painful friction from the working of, the Indian nation. AAP’s declared focus, therefore, is not on where India should be going but how to take it there effectively and efficiently!

India’s primitive corruption has ‘contributions’ from people from the very first pages of India’s history, the British, as well as the original Indian National Congress which, of course, played a crucial role in the independence movement. This primitive corruption is not even recognized by AAP or other parties, or in fact, anybody currently seeking to ‘clean up’ India.

Cleaning up, as understood today, can at best result in the creation of one hundred percent clean Congresses, BJPs and public offices of all descriptions. Contrary to popular belief, this would be a disaster because, then, there would be no impediments thwarting the career of the primitive corruption embedded in the foundation of the nation – one that threatens to consume hundreds of millions of people, all amidst the vulgar songs of patriotism.