Hinduism – Brahminic and Shramanic Traditions


There are lots of confusions about Hinduism as a religion, its relationship with Brahmanism and Shramanism. Also, the term Hindutva has come up presenting newer politics in the language of religion, adding to the confusion.

As such word Hindu came up from the eighth century only. It came up as a geographical category, to begin with. This term was coined by Arabs-Persians who came to this part of sub continent. As they crossed river Sindhu, they used this river as a marker for the land on the east of this river. They pronounced it as Hindu. As such the people of this land till that time had many religious traditions. Aryans who came here in the waves of migrations were nomads and later a pastoral society, not a ‘nation state’ as being asserted today. These pastorals’ life and norms are reflected in the Vedas and Smritis.

The picture of the social organization of that time got articulated in Manusmriti. The hierarchical Varna and later caste system was the core of the social system. The dominance of Brahmans as the caste was undisputed and the social inequality was the central pillar of the society. The dominated castes, Dalits, were regarded as untouchables; they had to serve the upper caste. While other Varnas had also their privileges marked out. The upper caste had rights and the dominated castes had duties to perform. A very clear cut ‘division of labor’!

It was in this context that Buddhism had come up with the message of equality and it started appealing to large sections of society, who opted for the values of social equality and embraced this religion. The advent of Buddhism; has been called as revolution by Ambedkar. This changed the social equation and caste hierarchy got a serious challenge. Apart from Brahmanism, there were other religious traditions which prevailed here. Buddhism’s challenge to caste system forced Brahmanism to come up with a new phase in due course of time. During this phase, the cultic practices were broadened and public ceremonies and rituals were devised by Brahmanism to influence the broad masses to wean them away from Buddhism. The term Hinduism started being used for religions prevalent here. With the spread of Buddhism, the hold of Brahmin-landlord on low caste got weakened. Shankaracharya led the movement which opposed Buddhism at the ideological level. Ambedkar calls this as a counter revolution. This assault on Buddhism came was duly supported by the rulers, many kings Pushyamitra Shung and Shashank being major examples.

Buddhism was wiped out from this land in the process and all the other religious traditions, from animism to atheism, came to be lumped under the umbrella of Hinduism. Hinduism as such has neither a single prophet nor a single Holy Scripture. The broad Hindu identity took shape with Brahmanism in command and other traditions on margins; subjugated to Brahmanism. From this time on the Hinduism as a religion got an initial identity. The two major streams within this umbrella of Hinduism, Brahmanism, and Shramanism had contradictory beliefs, values and practices.

So here we see the social process in which two diverse types of values, caste and gender hierarchy based Brahmanism; dominated and lorded over other traditions, which can be called as Shramanism. These are traditions like Nath, Tantra, Siddha, Shaiva, Siddhanta and Bhakti tradition had values which were more inclusive. These traditions were close to the poorer sections of society and had practices away from Brahmanical norms, especially caste hierarchy. As such since Buddhism and Jainism are also away from the caste hierarchy, they are also Shramanic traditions but not a part of Hinduism as they have their own prophet, and the boundaries from Hinduism are well demarcated.

Romila Thapar (Syncicated Moksha, Seminar 1987) sums up the process as “The Hindu religion as it is described today is said to have its roots in the Vedas. In any case, whatever we call the religion of these nomadic clans, it was not the religion that is today known as Hinduism. This (Hinduism in its current version) began to be formulated only in the period of Maghadha-Mauryan State…”

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This process of the hegemony of Brahmanism over other traditions’ was further stepped up from the 19th century onwards. As the British colonialists were not much interested in grappling multiple local traditions and as they did not understand the local diversity; they resorted to the guidance of Brahmins and recognized Brahmanism as the Hinduism. Their major advisors in matters of religion were Brahmins, who were employed by them. The Brahminic texts were projected to be having the key to understand the local religion and these texts formed the basis of British understanding of the religion of this country. This Brahminical core got the veneer of Hinduism in a stronger way. Here the religion; Hinduism, is constructed by bringing together diverse tradition with contrary values under the single label of Hinduism. In this construct Brahminic value system dominated. This is what led Ambedkar to say that Hinduism is Brahminic theology. This formulation precisely defines Hinduism.

With the changes in the social system under British rule, with the rise of new social groups of industrialists and modern educated classes, the landlords and earlier rulers, the allies of Brahmins at social level, started feeling marginalized due to the new power equations, due to the potential of change towards democratic society, society with equality. This process also witnesses the rise of the national movement, the rise of Dalit-Bahujans as a nascent movement along with ideologies of liberation put forth by Jotirao Phule and later consolidated by Ambedkar. This Dalit Bahujan ferment posed a serious challenge to the hegemony of Brahmanism. Buddha’s preaching’s and work was a threat to rulers-Brahmins, to the system prevalent at that time.  Now with the Dalit Bahujan ideology picking up on the social base of industrialization-modern education; again the threat to the hegemony of Brahmin-landlord became real.

At this point, the landlord-Brahmin combine throws up the word Hindutva. First, they shouted that education for Dalit Bahujan is against ‘our’ religion and later they formed political organizations in the name of Religion to protect their social-political interests. And with this comes in the ideology of Hindu nationalism: Hindutva. This is a repacked Brahminism in the political arena. So in earlier times, Brahmanism undermined Dalit Bahujans by adorning the label Hindu and still later the label adopted is Hindutva. In the newer definition of Hindu as per them has all non-Muslim; non-Christian traditions like Buddhism, Jainism and Sikhism also incorporated in Hindu. This is the political construction of Hinduism, not a theological one.

Starting from Buddha to the medieval saint tradition to the movement led by Phule Ambedkar Dalit-Bahujan has kept opposing the caste-Varna system. Today with the ascendance to power of BJP-RSS, the Hindutva is again trying to camouflage its basic opposition to the interests of dominated castes. In the genesis of Dalit Bahujan ideology, one can see three major stages and also their major opponents. Buddhism opposed by Shakracharya-rulers, medieval saints opposed by the ideology of Brahmin clergy (supported by rulers) and finally the Phule-Ambedkar ideology of liberation opposed by the political Brahmanism (Hinduism): the Hindutva.

While recalling non-Brahminic traditions one also needs to recall the traditions of dominated castes, Dalits and Bahujans. These are traditions of rebellion and resistance in the language which keeps changing as per the context. The present phase is the one where the ideology of domination has adorned the name of Hindutva and is trying to undermine the interests of Dalit-Bahujan in multiple ways.

Author – Ram Puniyani

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