Some books have a way of finding their own launch dates. And they seem destined to trigger rich and useful discussions as happened at the launch of Dorothy Figueira’s Aryans, Jews, Brahmins: Theorizing Authority through Myths of Identity held on Friday the 13th of March 2015.
Tanika Sarkar, feminist historian and retired professor from JNU, responded to the book’s methodology by praising its use of textual sources saying that in the age of the ‘informed ethnographer’ that the Hindu reformists were writing in, no claims could be pushed through without authoritative citations from religious texts. Religious underpinnings as citations of Aryan superiority had, by the heyday of colonialism, given way to biological and scientific ‘proof’ instead. Which is to say that Modi’s pride for the scientifically thrifty ancient Indians is also just a derivative from the same rehashing of this racist myth whose ‘founding fathers’ are ironically European.
Prof Sarkar made a provocative claim in saying that in the Hindu appropriation of the Aryan myth, the Muslim is the Semitic other and not the lower-caste Hindu. This may be true as far as sticking to the correct definition of the ‘Semitic’—belonging to the Semitic language group—goes. However, what the book tries to highlight is the challenge to the myth of the Aryan from within through primarily literary constructions, something that the studied neglect of caste in India has prevented. This approach also becomes significant because challenges to brahminism—like the immense popularity of Buddhism, for example—predates the advent of Islam.
Braj Ranjan Mani, independent interdisciplinary scholar and the author of Debrahminising History, called the transmutability of the myth Figueira works with “the allied politics of identity”. He said, “The slimy politics of hermeneutics and knowledge construction is what rises out of the myth. In Europe it may have lost its legitimacy of voice, but the mystification of history itself in India has allowed the caste elites to obscure the past.” Mani did not mince words when he wondered how the ‘foolish’ ideas of the likes of Tilak or Dayananda were taken—and continue to be taken—seriously. He commended Figueira for being unique among non-dalitbahujan scholars to embrace the ideas of Ambedkar and Phule as early as in 2002. Figueira’s critique of the brahminical proponents of Aryanism was grounded in the anti-caste tradition, said Mani.
On her part, Dorothy Figueira persuasively argued how analyzing and comparing the literariness of this fictive text is the best way to understand it. How were these texts manipulated, how translations were sometimes abusive and what literary criticism has done to them is what makes clear the different needs for such fictions at different historical moments. Even in the German Indologists’ search for affinity, they chose to seek clues in Kalidasa. And, just before the rise of Hitler and Nazism, many German intellectuals came to believe that Manu’s (Aryan) genius was even greater than Kalidasa’s. The Veda, she said, “is the absent text whose wisdom is always evoked but not cited. Such evocation is what makes the literary aspect central.”
Recalling how taken in a lot of Americans were by India in the 1960s and 70s, she began to think of what it took to allow yourself such “intellectual tourism”. She said:
The luxury to go off on a round-trip ticket is one that leads to the fabrication of an elsewhere for people. I realized that an ‘elsewhere’ existed for the Indian too—caste was it. Earlier you could learn about any Indian minority religion or language in universities in the US, now it is confined to the Indian English novel. The private benefactors demand a certain India is taught in colleges—Brahmin, Hindu, Sanskrit-ized.
In such a context, Figueira found kinship in Ambedkar and his lucid, no-nonsense thinking. She called him ‘my hero’, and said her experiential response was grounded in her identity as a Hispanic ‘minority’ person, the ‘affirmative action’ scholar in racist United States. She said she felt compelled to draw upon Ambedkar and Phule to unmask the fictions of the Aryan and other modes of writing fictive authority. For when it comes to assuming any identity, everything becomes a self-reflexive Rorschach test.
An animated discussion ensued with as many as fifteen stimulating questions from the seventy-odd persons in the audience. Before the event began, guests who lingered at the Navayana bookstall took a good look at graphic image of The Great Indian Bovinity, the pink-uddered silly cow that sported not just a Swastika amidst tattooed saffron lotuses but also a janeu-twine stuck across its much-marked torso, for it is, after all, deemed a holy. But it looked more like a cow that had participated in the recent Holi—its eyes seemed dizzied, as if it had had too much grass. Well, some gullible buyers chewed up the tempting one-time offer Navayana’s cash-cow was making. Some had fun making fun of the cow that made fun of itself.