Let us become Shudras

Deploring the growing trends towards “neo-Brahminism”, Prasanna, the reputed theatre director and handloom activist, asks that we strive to become Shudras instead. In his book, Shudraraagona Banni (Let Us Become Shudras, 2016), he elaborates that “Brahmin” was a metaphor for a life freed of physical labour, whereas “Shudra” stood in for a life that values it.

Unlike the science fiction scenarios of the future, where the need for physical labour is often eliminated, Prasanna sees a permanent place for it. Sidestepping the baffling complexity of the global financial system or international relations, he offers passionate reflections on how a simple life that valued physical effort was crucial for averting the ecological catastrophe. They also provide tantalising glimpses into several moral traditions that value the ideals of physical work and simple living.

Prasanna notes: “Machine civilisation is a peculiar thing. It tries to turn everyone into a Brahmin. Do we need so many intellectuals, traders, artists, middlemen, and entertainers? So many singers, dancers, priests, sanyasis? Since everyone wants to be a Brahmin, agriculture and crafts suffer massively.” The book discusses how physical work had a spiritual focus and integrity for many of the devotional saints in India.

Stories from Taoism, Christianity, and Sufi traditions also shared this understanding. Even the rich in olden times, Prasanna points out, did not shirk physical effort. Manual work is not to be prized for its own sake. Physical exertion makes humans conscious of the world in a different, self-enhancing way. If the elite embrace the ideals of physical effort, the consequences will be great. And, manual work will seem less degrading too: “The rich, the Brahmins and the neo-Brahmins need to change first. They must accept Shudratva. If they change, the poor will change, the system will change. Even now, the system means us, isn’t it? Not the poor.”

In a telling metaphor, Prasanna argues, “instead of lifting up those at the bottom, the ones above should step down below.” Prasanna recalls how Ebrahim Alkazi, his teacher at the National School of Drama, New Delhi, awakened him and his classmates to the value of manual work. Alkazi would sweep the room before starting his class. The surprised students then began to do it themselves. A large poster of Lenin, which Prasanna brought back from a visit to the Soviet Union, hangs on a wall in his house in Heggodu. On it is sketched a speech balloon where Lenin admits, “I like Gandhi.”

Prasanna explained, “Lenin and Gandhi do not mention each other in their writings. I wanted them to come together.” Might the high regard for physical labour found in Gandhi’s vision of individual self-reliance spoken to Lenin? Prasanna locates his recent concerns within a long tradition of struggle – from Veerashaivas to the Tattva poets to Gandhi – to reorder the cultural values that put intellectual work above physical labour and affirm the virtues of simple living. That tradition becomes a point of entry for thinking about how to sustain ecological sanity in the world. Its ideals, Prasanna believes, can still help rebuild institutions. Don’t the metaphors of Brahmin and Shudra limit the discussion to Hindu society? “No,” Prasanna clarifies, “they can be extended to other religions.”

The scavenger of the cosmos

Written in his mid-20s, Kuvempu’s first play, Jalagara (The Scavenger, 1928), continues to hold a special significance. An early enactment of his philosophical ideal of vishvamanava, the play also reveals the poet’s creative engagement with tradition. But, first, a quick outline of Jalagara. The play opens with Mother Earth ushering in a glorious dawn. An untouchable scavenger is then seen at work in a village. His song of admiration for the splendour of the sun quickly reveals a mature, sophisticated mind. A farmer passerby asks him to accompany him to the fair being held near Shiva’s shrine. The scavenger declines to join him: the priests, he replies, wouldn’t let him come anywhere near the shrine.

Enchanted by the scavenger’s songs from afar, two learned Brahmin priests withhold their applause however after discovering that the voice belonged to a low caste man. Poets, scholars, sculptors, singers and yogis, they smugly contend, can never be born among the Shudras. In the evening, on his way back from the shrine, the farmer, who was ecstatic about the ritual pomp, has only coconuts, flowers, kumkuma and camphor to show from his visit. “Haven’t you brought back Shiva?” The scavenger is unimpressed. Later, when the scavenger beseeches Shiva to reveal himself, the Lord appears in the guise of a scavenger. “You look human but seem to be superhuman. Your eyes shine brighter than the stars. Who are you?” Noticing the scavenger’s bewilderment, Shiva says, “Don’t be afraid, brother. I’m your relative.” He continues, “I’m of your caste (jati). I’m a scavenger. A scavenger of the world. I swallow the sins of the world. Beauty flourishes in the world due to my scavenging work. The radiant moon, the roaring oceans, the clear rivers, the majestic forests, all of them are in my debt. They call me Rudra at times and Shiva at other times, but they are hesitant and afraid to call me a jalagara.”

“I had never heard this about you. Scholars and learned people describe you in other ways.”

“Their descriptions are imaginary and deceptive. My true form will terrify them. You are the only one to have worshipped me in my true form in your work. My dear brother, I’m not the Shiva found in the shastras and in poetry. I’m not the erotic Shiva who cavorts with Parvathi on a silver mountain. I’m the scavenger who climbs the heap of filth built up in the cosmos and dances on it. The true Shiva is a scavenger. I appeared unattractive to the learned scholars and priests. So they tried to change my looks. The priests don’t let me inside the shrine before placing a moon and Ganga on my head. The real Shiva is never ever inside a shrine!”

“Where else are you?”

“I reside in the hearts of the poor who keep the streets clean. I move alongside the farmers ploughing the land. I hold the hands of the crippled, the blind, the orphans and the suffering people and care for them. Come, my brother. You are my true devotee. You have become me. I have become you. You are Shiva!”

“I’m Shiva! I’m Shiva!” The village scavenger merges into Shiva’s embrace.

Kuvempu’s style of invoking the figure of Shiva in his play does several things. As with his predecessors in the folk tradition, it releases Shiva from the dominant theological imaginations and makes him intimately available to powerless people. It shakes up the moral stupor of the powerful groups too in asking them to shift out of ritual worship and imagine their relation with God in morally daring and socially sensitive ways. Further, Kuvempu is working within the reality of God. His recomposing of the world picture – in order to both make theology open its eyes to the new demands of social justice and make the pursuit of God an individual act and not parcelled along caste, religion or any other community lines – does not proceed therefore in an iconoclastic manner, from a point outside religion.

The rhythmic verse form of Jalagara appears to place faith in the capacity of humans to replace an undesirable social order. Minor characters – an idealist youth who admires the tireless work of the sweeper, two young men who boldly dismiss religion as originating from an encounter between a thief and a fool but are lacking in sympathy for a starving beggar, a few boys who are blissful in their stupidity, among others – disclose the diverse currents within the social map, keeping the course of future events open.

Excerpted with permission from Another India: Events, Memories, People, Chandan Gowda, Simon and Schuster India.