Posted by T. Lalita
Growing up in a conservative Telugu Brahmin household, I have constantly battled with myself, my family members, and my community for the problematic views that the community I belong to holds. I realised early on that I was leading dual lives; one at home, according to the staunch Brahmin rules, and one outside, among the “liberal” (albeit savarna) circles of Mumbai’s most elite colleges.
The characteristic trait of a Brahmin – even those who consider themselves progressive – is the air of superiority. It is evident in the way people from my community speak to those who do their daily chores like domestic helps, drivers and other such people belonging to the marginalized castes.
Brahmanism is the oldest and most well-oiled vehicle of patriarchy as Brahmin men and women explain our problematic opinions through mythological characters and through religious texts which supposedly lay out roles – not just for different castes but for different genders as well. This casteist mentality is also reflected in our double standards towards the ideas of equality, justice and social welfare as the upper castes are the loudest critics of reservation. Our education and our degrees are absolutely pointless as they only add to our superiority complex which is displayed in our interactions with those who are lower on the caste and class hierarchy in private and in public spaces.
The characteristic trait of a Brahmin – even those who consider themselves progressive – is the air of superiority.
Brahmanism places great emphasis on how a woman should conduct herself in public and what she is expected to do at home and outside to uphold the honour and dignity of the caste. The most important tool of this patriarchal-Brahmanical society is that of “purity”, that a Brahmin woman is expected to adhere to. Purity applies to a woman’s chastity, to marriage and to her interactions with members of the ‘lower’ castes or ‘sudrawallu’ – a casteist slur used to refer to the Dalit and Bahujan communities.
During childhood, a Brahmin girl’s parents and other family members continually feed into our heads the rules of interaction with the male gender. Knowingly or unknowingly, young girls start recognising who belongs to which caste, and generally our friendships are formed with Brahmins only. If friendships are cultivated with non-Brahmins, they happen with full awareness that the friend, usually female, are not Brahmins. Hence, eating or drinking water at their house is discouraged, since non-Brahmins consume meat.
Another strict rule that girls in Telugu Brahmin households learn is that of maintenance of purity while eating. Food can be cooked or consumed only if one bathes and while eating plates cannot touch the vessels with food in them. Antu and engili are two Telugu words that are drilled into every Brahmin, as one cannot use the same hand to eat and serve food. If one defies these rules, one is reprimanded. It is worse if one is a girl, as a girl is expected to fulfil her duty as a devout Brahmin wife later in life.
A Brahmin girl is also expected to be religious, praying to the Hindu deities every day, and following the orders of the priests at any religious occasion. The concept of purity is applied here as well. No one can touch the mandir (temple) without taking a bath. Older women are expected to cook food for God wearing wet clothes or madi clothes. These madi clothes cannot be worn as regular clothes.
The most important tool of this patriarchal-Brahmanical society is that of “purity”, that a Brahmin woman is expected to adhere to.
The most stringent application of purity among Brahmin women, and amongst most other castes is during menstruation. A woman is considered “impure” during menstruation. A pubescent girl in a Brahmin household is expected to sit separately for three whole days, without touching the cupboard, sleeping on the bed, entering the kitchen or touching other members of the family. If the girl is rich, she has the privilege of sleeping in another room altogether. She cannot mix her plate or the clothes she wears, with the clothes of other family members during these three days.
The rationale is that the woman is impure and hence, needs to “relax”. The menstruating girl is handed everything she needs from a distance, and everyone makes sure they don’t touch her. Going to the temple, or even standing in the vicinity of the mandir in the house is forbidden. The household chores, when a woman is menstruating, are done by either the non-menstruating women in the house, or the men. Women are supposed to be kept away for those three days.
The women in the community frown upon the women who “mix” everything in the house while they’re menstruating, thereby “destroying the culture” slowly. Even the women who dare to mix everything, would not dare to enter temples, as that would incur the wrath of the gods themselves. This practise of isolation of the women during her periods is regressive and it is utterly unfair as periods do not interfere with a woman’s daily life nor do they make her impure. No one should stop her from exercising her right to move freely, go to any place of worship or touch anything in the house.
Also Read: The “Tradition” Behind Menstrual Taboos
The internalised misogyny is so entrenched in the minds of adolescent girls, and young unmarried women that we adhere to these rules that the family sets. The central authority that administers these rules is obviously the older women who keep these women under control. Girls are expected to dress modestly, to wear bindis on their forehead, to not stay out late, to not associate with boys romantically, to not be loud and outspoken. Women who rebel against these norms are labelled by the women in particular and the entire community in general for going against the Brahmin rules as ‘loose and immoral’ because they chose to live life on their own terms. Consequently, women are caged in these roles they are expected to play, because a woman who acts independently is not the ideal daughter or a suitable bride. This misogyny is perpetuated by slut-shaming women who rebel against these norms, thus keeping women in check to avoid being labelled similarly.
As women in Brahmin households are expected to mingle only among the community’s circles through sabhas and organisations within the same caste or sub-caste, interactions with other castes are impersonal at best. Generally, one doesn’t visit the houses of meat-eating friends, and food consumed at restaurants is a carefully chosen pure-veg eateries only.
The closest interaction with a non-dominant caste person that a Brahmin woman has on a daily basis is with women who work as domestic workers at their houses. They wash the dishes in an outhouse because they are not allowed to wash dishes in the kitchen, as that would ‘pollute’ it. Domestic workers are served food and water in separate utensils and they are never touched or allowed to sit on the beds or chairs in the house. Brahmin girls are taught early on to maintain the superiority in their interactions with the helps. So, if a woman they know is a non-Brahmin, it does not matter if she is well-educated or financially better off than them, the fact that she is not a Brahmin will always be a criterion for judgement for Brahmin women. Many women justify their casteist behaviour by mentioning hygiene, which is a poor excuse to treat a human being as inferior to them.
As women in Brahmin households are expected to mingle only among the community’s circles, interactions with other castes are impersonal at best.
Purity however, is most deeply embedded in the Brahmin way of life through our marriage practices. Marriage however, liberal the family may be, must occur within the caste and the sub-caste because good human beings are only found within the community. The rationale of the family members is that the lifestyle and specifically the eating habits of non-Brahmins will cause conflict in a marriage. Hence, pre-marital heterosexual relationships will find acceptance only if they are with Brahmin boys and only if the jyotishudu or astrologer says that the horoscopes have matched.
Marriages are made in gotra heaven and that too only if the family accepts the boy, who must belong to the community. The women who choose to fall in love outside the caste, which is rare, find no acceptance in the community as an inter-caste marriage is the greatest sin a woman can commit. This fear is instilled and often a woman has less to no say in choosing her life partner as the elders in the family know what is best. So the only thing a woman is expected to do is maintain a conventionally beautiful appearance and finish her degree so she can be married off hopefully without a dowry, because times have apparently changed.
An inter-caste marriage is the greatest sin a brahmin woman can commit.
The misogyny and casteism in Brahmanical circles is toxic and has no place in the lives of progressive feminist women. Brahmin people grow, eat, marry and die only amongst each other and even their activism is often in their own privileged spaces, which is why it fails to represent all those marginalised communities and the women who belong to these communities.
It is a mammoth task to stand up to these forces that continually seek to control our lives, but if we cower in front of the countless men and women who tell us to not have inter-caste and inter-faith marriages, who tell us to be less opinionated, we will be collectively letting down all the women who fought for our rights. We will be letting down all the progressive voices that fought for women’s rights and the rights of the marginalised sections in our society. We must call out the casteism and the misogyny and we must continuously check our privilege, even if it means clashing head on with our loved ones. Our lives cannot be controlled by these regressive rules and it is high time we lead our lives on our own terms.
Lalita is an “anti-national” feminist who likes to ask questions that make people uncomfortable. She also likes to have conversations about caste privilege, global warming, existentialism and regressive Telugu cinema over a plate of curd rice. She can be reached at email@example.com.
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So so so true.
As a woman born into an Iyer household, while circumstances prevented my mother from following all the madi-vizhippu customs fanatically, the bias is present.
The author attributes everything about her miserable life to her caste. Sad. Wish you were more inquisitive and read deeper!
I know her personally, she is.
Leave her. What about one bharathi surendran above in the comments section?? Brahmin womenfolk are themselves disilluaioned about the brahmin culture. That is the true purpose of this article. Making people hate their own culture.
This article seems to veer towards the extreme! The author should not have generalized her own experiences and make statements that are not true of then entire community. I belong to a Kannada Brahmin family and was raised in Andhra Pradesh. IMy grandmother followed the ‘madi’ ritual but never forced any of us to follow it. On the contrary, all girls in the family were encouraged to study and take up jobs. I have visited homes of many meat-eating friends. We were not told to isolate ourselves during the menstrual cycle. Garlic and onion were part of daily diet. Times have changed and so have many Brahmin families. It is wrong to say that “The characteristic of a Brahmin…is an air of superiority”. This is not true. There may be isolated cases, but it is not a generalized characteristic. Perhaps, the author could have mentioned that the article is based on her own experiences and is not applicable to the entire community.
I’m a guy and I agree with all the author has put forward. Maybe you are just lucky.
How can you agree if you’re a guy??? Periyarist alert??
Please pardon the typos : “…not true of the entire community”; “My grandmother…”.
Okay, now how about experience of a burka girl who wants to explore the world and feel comfortable in her own skin? Let me grab coffee and some popcorn.
This view is too extreme, and most of the things aren’t true in many of the brahmin families I know, especially interactions with non-brahmins part. I think this tragedy can be duly attributed some clique of brahmin people around this author.
This article would have resonated if it was written 100 years back. Today everything is different. Brahmins are at the helm when it comes to educating their girls, allowing them to work, travel alone etc. They are encouraging and supportive to an extent that cannot be seen in other communities. The reason you were forthright to write this article and express your views also shows that the community is open to criticism and self reflection. Girls from other communities are so repressed that they are not in touch with their feelings let alone express them openly. I was just like the author having negative views about brahmins, but when you out into the world, you see how regressive other communities are. Introspection, self reflection, questioning are all virtues, it makes one improve. Every caste and creed needs to look deep into themselves and reevaluate where they stand and allow the younger generation freedom of expression, freedom to choose and freedom to be themselves.
The Brahmin girls are the most the most enslaved humans on this planet.
I measure the degree of a community by the degree it’s women have achieved – Dr B.R Ambedkar.
About the author: likes to talk about caste over a plate of curd rice…right!!!
This girl was brought up in the worst kind of family value system and hence has portrayed her experience as the ultimate Brahmin patriarchy. I totally disagree. Any extreme religious sect and their practices are always harmful. I can only feel sorry for her. But let’s not generalize this personal story of hers as the ultimate Brahmin family system to exist. This was prelevant probably 100-150 years ago during my grandmother’s era. Lol. Get outta your head, sis.
Feeling very sorry for the author!!! This is so extreme that even a century ago, this would not have been the case!!
I am a Tam-Bram and in my entire 48 years I have not come across some of the practices that she talks about. My non-brahmin, non- communtiy friends were welcomed, considered to be part of the family and my parents have gone and stayed in their homes, attended weddings and shared in the sorrows.
There was no menstrual isolation, there was no diktat for how to dress.
We chose our destinies, our work, professions and our partners.
As for the blanket statement “Air of superiority” that is a reflection of her experience, certainly not ours or the broader community.
Get a life, go out and see some other brahmin families!!!
“This would not have been the case” WOW. You seem to know a lot about caste discrimination and regressive customs that have been prevalent till now. Just because you can’t relate to the author’s narrative, does it make her opinion false? Why don’t you start looking beyond your house and your experiences and read about people’s lived realities. Blatantly shunning people’s opinions is not really the best way to engage, y’know. Additionally, neither is she speaking for the entire “community” and nor do you need to do that. People still follow such customs, which is why she brought them up.
Get a life and see some other brahmin families!!!
OMG, I am unable to digest the way the author has generalized everything based solely on what she has seen. Coming from a Telugu Brahmin family like the author, I can say thattmost of them aren’t true for many Brahminical homes including mine. And, where does misogyny come into picture w.r.t beliefs? I think people should hire more responsible and aware
The brahmin fragility is so utterly obvious in the comments section above. If you brhamins can’t accept criticism by someone inside your own community then i can’t ever imagine you people ever actually listening to the rest of us “lower castes” who are subject to personal and institutionalised oppression because of savarna brahminism.
Now please don’t give your “reasons” as to how this is 21st century and hence it doesn’t exists. LOL. It does! Don’t listen to other brahmin people about opression, ask the rest of us or at least actual sociologists and anthropologist who are experts.
These elites need some time off to go reflect on history, privilege and educate themselves on caste discrimination in India.
Just goes to prove that money and college degrees don’t equal actual education and progress.
Kudos to the writer! You seem like a true ally!
Fight for equality shall always be!
Look here ma’am. Caste is an unavoidable identity. That’s it. It doesn’t say anything about you or your talent or capacity or anything like that. Some Brahmins (like our author), who do not have any other significant identity other than being a brahmin, and who are weak, are often indirectly made by social pressure to take a kind of self destructive stance. This is wrong. To begin with, the author is factually wrong. She intends to bloat on this brahmin-ness and feeling of superiority in a negative way. This itself is wrong. Your criticism should actually be directed at her. Chill.
Our great great ancestors were early mans who didn’t belong to any caste or religion therefore they ate meat and everything to survive hence we all are born from human! As we evolved we humans started dividing ourselves mentioning them as superior and inferior uppercaste and lowercaste!! Everyone should stop thinking that they are upper and lower caste as we all are humans only born to womens only..we are not living in kings rule or ancient times most of us are educated now act like one! We all breathe the same air n drink same water we live on same earth..not everyone of them are not as good and pure or impure and bad as they think! As we depend on nature everytime everyday,nature is our living god! Nowadays we have seen virus and disease also doesn’t see if you are uppercaste or lowercaste everyone gets infected whether they are uppercaste or lowercaste pure or impure! We humans are stupid and doesn’t stop until everything gets extinct around us!
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