Brah­mins who re­jected Ram

Mid Day - - OPINION -

ONE of the codes for fem­i­nism in In­dia is to de­cry Ram, hero of the Ra­mayana, for aban­don­ing his preg­nant wife in the for­est. Like­wise, one of the codes for athe­ism, sec­u­lar­ism and lib­er­al­ism is to de­cry the same Ram for be­head­ing Sham­buka, the ‘low’ caste her­mit for aban­don­ing his caste du­ties. But, did you know that at one time you could prove that you are a ‘prin­ci­pled’ brah­min by re­ject­ing Ram?

In the epic, Ram kills Ra­vana, who is son of a brah­min named Vaishrava, of the Paulat­sya clan, descend­ing from Brahma him­self. This makes Ra­vana a brah­min; and so killing Ra­vana was brahma-hatya, the brah­min­mur­der, a ter­ri­ble crime, as bad as go­hatya, or killing of cows, in sa­cred code books known as dharma-shas­tras.

Ram had to do penance to wash away the stigma of brahma-hatya­paap be­fore he sat on the throne of Ay­o­d­hya. Many pil­grim spots in In­dia, such as Ramesh­waram in the south and Rishikesh in the north, are associated with the penance of Ram.

This did not sat­isfy many brah­mins of Ay­o­d­hya who chose to leave Ay­o­d­hya and live across the river Sarayu. Th­ese are the Sarayu­paa­reen brah­mins, or ‘the brah­mins who chose to live on the other side of the Sarayu river’.

An op­po­site ver­sion of this tale ex­ists. Many brah­mins in Ay­o­d­hya re­fused to per­form the rit­u­als that would cleanse Ram of brahma-hatya­paap. Those brah­mins who did agree to do the cleans­ing ritual were ex­com­mu­ni­cated and it is they who be­came the Sarayu­pa­reen brah­mins.

We can never be sure which ver­sion is ac­cu­rate, or older. Ei­ther way, this caste lore (jati-pu­ran), re­veals a split in the brah­min com­mu­nity in the mat­ter of Ram’s brahma-hatya­paap. It re­veals the deep caste rules in In­dia.

What is amaz­ing in Hindu mythol­ogy is that de­spite grant­ing brah­mins all man­ner of pro­tec­tion, God re­peat­edly kills brah­mins: Ram kills Ra­vana, Kr­ishna over­sees the killing of Drona, Shiva be­heads Dak­sha and Brahma. This seems counter-in­tu­itive un­til we ap­pre­ci­ate the dif­fer­ence be­tween the idea of ‘brah­man’ in Vedas, and the brah­min caste that pre­vails so­ci­ety. Brah­mins are sup­posed to spread knowl­edge of the Vedic idea of brah­man. This role grants them many priv­i­leges, in­clud­ing pro­tec­tion from harm, es­pe­cially since in so­ci­eties that pre­ferred oral to writ­ten tra­di­tion, brah­mins were walk­ing li­braries and killing them was equal to burn­ing a li­brary.

Killing of brah­mins by God takes place when­ever the brah­min takes ad­van­tage of his birth but does not dis­play the wis­dom ex­pected of one with the priv­i­lege of Vedic knowl­edge. Shiva is cleansed of brahma­hatya-paap in Kashi, which is why Kashi is such a pop­u­lar pil­grim spot, but he re­mains a defiant god, choos­ing cre­ma­to­ri­ums to the sac­ri­fi­cial halls of brah­mins.

While the Vedic scrip­tures be­came more about rit­u­als and priests, the post-Vedic Pu­ranic and Agamic and bhakti lit­er­a­ture, went out of their way to draw at­ten­tion to the real se­cret of the Veda: the form­less soul lo­cated within all forms, that is com­mon to all. Yes, na­ture is di­verse, and cul­ture hi­er­ar­chi­cal, but we must not for­get that they are myr­iad man­i­fes­ta­tions of the same di­vine seed, the ‘brah­man’, also known as atma. Brah­mins who nei­ther trans­mit this knowl­edge nor dis­play this wis­dom have no claim over dharma priv­i­leges.

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