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Mainstream, VOL LIII No 48 New Delhi, November 21, 2015

The Mission of Religion: Hierarchy, Power and Emancipation in Indian Political Thought

Saturday 21 November 2015

by Sri Ram Pandeya

With the advent of modernity, the Middle Ages were characterised as dark ages as the Church had assumed power at that time (in the Middle Ages) and it produced knowledge as a consequence of that—further it could be said to have monopolised knowledge in the sense of prohibiting any other claims on it as power had become the precondition for knowledge, leading to knowledge becoming a closely guarded secret as it could not have passed the test of verification.

On the other hand, modernity claims to be producing and dispersing knowledge in the public domain, which can be subject to verification and hence the power flowing from the same is understood as legitimate. Modernity understands the Middle Ages as dark ages as there was a principle of might is right in the rule which modernity is claimed to have overturned to right is might or knowledge producing power and not vice-versa.

Further, in the Middle Ages, the difference between theology and knowledge was not there. So, the Church was not a body only of devotedness but rationality too. The irrationality of the Church was only realised after the modern sciences came up. Rather, matters of faith could be diversified in non-settled or even in feudal communities; knowledge, the lesser important component, would flow from the Church (feudal society: based on faith; modern society: based on knowledge). So, calling the Church as irrational is committing the “mythology of pro-lepsis” or even “parochialism”. (See Skinner, 1969) Understanding science as a source of knowledge was not available then, so it (the Church) should not be judged from the perspective of the same.

The modern sciences triggered the industrial revolution, of which one component that we pick up here is print capitalism. The Bible could be translated and printed in large numbers, along with newspapers (see Anderson, 1991)—the idea of a universal religion came up in a more institutionalised form, along with the universal political authority, the state. Decentra-lised feudal lordships were as much under threat by the centralised Church as by the centralised state (see Chhibber, 2013) or what Tolstoy called as “corruption of Christianity”. (See Parel, 2009, xxxvi) Leviathan does not only hold the sword of the state, it also holds the sword of the Church.

Conversion becomes a taboo only after universalisation of religion, the emergence of a unified Christian Church. While the idea of pilgrimage was there before as well, the Roman Church at the dusk of feudalism could hold itself together (perhaps under the influence of modernity), so religion became institutionalised to the extent that the state had. The state merely theoretically aspired to push religion to a corner, which it achieved. Rights, which are awarded by the liberal state, are, in that sense, aspirations of the people rather than naturally occurring.

In the public debates, the Church figured as much as the state, which also means that the state figured as much as the Church. Religious conversion could become conversion in the sense of what it means today only at this juncture as there was another source of emancipation for the people—the market. Or else did the whole Arab ‘convert’ to Islam after the revelation of Muhammad? So, while Islam could claim its legitimacy from the blurring of distinction between the public and private, the mission of the Church was continuously challenged by the public authority, the state which had been reborn on the edifice of the market. So conversion, as it has assumed its meaning today (of taboo), has a specific context, of modernity coming as a counter-institution of emancipation. Religion and sex could not be matters of human ‘over-indulgence’ as they were ‘unproductive acti-vities’, as well understood by post-modernity.

While the Church had a mission to subsume all followers of Christianity and other similar or dissimilar variants under it and of course of other ‘uncivilised’ races, the state could be in partnership with that only as a singular identity of followers of the Bible was to be pushed into the private realm to get the public and the private divided of the majority of the (Christian) populace (Hinduism could never be pushed into the private!). Colonialism and J.S. Mill’s approval of it can bring on further similarities. Colonialism did not only bring the British rulers, but also the missionary Church into action in India.

This paper takes the above as the vantage point of the connectedness of religion and modernity as its theoretical framework and then tries to understand as to how Brahmanism and Sramanism might have assumed their modern forms.


The principle of Brahma could first be found in the Vedic age. The etymological meaning of Brahma is mind and universe both; it is in the tradition of Dharma of the philosophy of Brahmanism of antiquity. Dharma is the most universal principle but it also includes the particular within it. The primary characteristic of Brahmanism is its understanding of the supremacy of mind over body—mind in that context meaning rituals and the position of humans in such a society was determined by what contribution they make to the rituals. So, the supremacy of Brahmins and hierarchies come out to be the defining functional feature of Brahmanism. To propagate itself, Sanskritisation has been a primary strategy of Brahmanism instead of conversion because of its unusual stress on birth as the only criteria of being a Brahmin.

Neo-Brahmanism (Contemporary form)

In league with the framework in the beginning to understand the relation between modernity and religion (where they were travelling very similar paths), Brahmanism’s neo-form is produced as a result of the nexus with modernity. Brahmanism is elitism transformed to capture the most important position in the society yet again; so for neo-Brahmanism, priesthood is not a profession anymore. A society based on science and technology looks onto doctors and engineers as the most important professionals. While most of the doctors are Baniyas, most of the software engineers are Brahmins (rhetorical). The market is not able to delete the past advantages that these economic and social elites have.

The state (as discussed in the beginning, the counter-emancipatory body to religion, as it had emerged) intervenes in the domain of the market in the form of protective discrimination; so the domain in which there is protective discrimination, the market advantage (or past advantage) loses some value only to let Brahmanism enter and dominate the sphere which is without protective discrimination. How does it become successful in that? The answer is—due to its nexus with modernity. The market, which is a modern body and not the state as such (as state always existed), is able to form the nexus to produce neo-Brahmanism.

To explain this, we need to distinguish between two traditions of rights, the Burkean and the Hobbesian ones. While the mission of religion (the avowed one) was to be justice and that of market liberty, the state was balancing that; the neo-liberal state is not alone in partner-ship with the market in contemporary times, the most dominant religion of India (in the sense that most of the so-called Hindus want to assume the characteristics of Brahmanism) has also shaken hands with the market, also represented by the present government. The hierarchy of the market is combined with social relations, which still remain in hierarchy. Social relations could not be rid of caste and gender, even the social media. Women’s body still remains an arena of struggle and neo-untouchability is still practised, not by avoiding the literal touch necessarily but by a strategy to keep the Dalits out of the decision-making process.

Neo-Brahmanism is elitism that banks on the mind-body dichotomy, like liberalism (only coincidental similarity on this aspect) which was challenged by Marxism. While Brahmanism followed caste and socialised within that, neo-Brahmanism seems to be unaware of caste, yet it establishes social relations within caste. While Brahmanism was orthodox and violent, neo-Brahmanism takes a few tenets of modernity, but only to remain violent. While Brahmanism derived its power from self-imposed poverty (Vivekananda finds his Gods in the poor, can mean Brahmin), neo-Brahmanism also has economic power.


The principle of Srama could first be found in the beginning of Jainism which predates the Vedic Brahmanism by one decade or so (dates of antiquity always remain debatable). Srama means hard work and a sraman is the one that gives up her home to roam around in search of truth, doing hard work. It is based on the principle of supremacy of the body and the mind is understood as any other part of the body. She is different from a sanyasi as she is neither in search of God nor does she do any ritual in the jungles for the same purpose, rather her ascetic life is a life of srama or hard work. The mind’s importance was not denied, it was only located to be a part of the body (unlike Brahma), and so thinking was a process of human effort that can lead to Buddhi (intelligence) producing Buddha, the enlightened one.

While the efforts of mind produced rituals before Gita, the efforts of body were to produce land, wealth and other tangible objects (where can Kautilya be located?) in the post-Buddhist era when the definition of Srama was actually broadened to include physical labour. So, vaisyas and sudras became important in this tradition as they worked the most or used their body the most. It is to be noted that the spirit of hard work could also be a spirit of criticism—examination of discourses can be understood as speech acts in the sense of Austin (see Skinner 1969) can also lead to a possibility of syncretism.

Neo-Buddhism (Ambedkar and Rejuvenation of Sramanic Tradition)

For Ambedkar, Indian history is understood as a struggle between Brahmanism and Buddhism. In such a manner, the idea of tyaga (or renunciation) is understood in the context of the dominance of Brahmanism (where renunciation could help you capture social imaginary and power) and Buddhism is transformed into a religion of this world. Buddhism is seen as a philosophy enshrined with liberty, equality, fraternity. While liberty and equality could be located in the French and the Russian revolutions respectively, Ambedkar locates the source of fraternity in Buddhism. Mass conversion is preceded by individual reasoning in Ambedkar; it can be understood as liberty and equality preceding fraternity.

Buddhism is instrumental to have linked social reform with salvation... Fraternity (social reform) lies at the core of or as the basis of the modern ideas of liberty and equality—the ideals of both liberalism and Marxism respectively. Fraternity is to be derived from a religion (should see this in the framework suggested in the beginning). According to Ambedkar, the pattern of emancipation has to proceed like this: First the pillars, then the base—centrality of religion in emancipation provides the modern character to Buddhism, which might not have been absent in religion.

Further, in his characterisation of division of labourers—Ambedkar gets onto the mind-body dichotomy of Brahmanism. Following the tradition of Sramanism, the body seems to be an equally important idea. While Brahmanism (most represented by Gandhi on this issue) believed in the equality of souls (which already is), Ambedkar’s position on untouchability is an archeological one (Guru, 2013), so equality is derived from the body (in the sense that it already exists). While Brahmanism in its neo- form still gives priority to the mind, the body is the point of location of deriving power as well as emancipation for neo-Sramanism. Power is derived from segregation as any act of segre-gation is mutual segregation. Power leads to the construction of an alternative identity, which describes the bodily disposition that the Dalits have been suffering from. A slave eventually emerges to be more powerful than the master. Srama enters into the domain of power as not profane as it leads to emancipation. That is how the expansion of the mind into the body takes place (reason doesn’t remain the elite’s monopoly anymore). Brahma (the mind or the other world) loses to the reason embodied in this world (in the body that all humans are endowed with, only a few were endowed with the mind). It is in this manner that Europe merely remains a province (see Chakrabarty, 2007), for instance.

Modernity in the above sense could form some sort of partnership with Brahmanism and Sramanism both, in their own different forms (in their different understandings of the mind-body dichotomy and fusion respectively), what I have called here as the mission of religion. Right from the Catholic missionaries to the Hindutva forces of the present could interpret modernity in their own ways, at least to get institutionalised and to the extent to restore the traditional status quo. ‘Development’ is necessarily riding on the cow, nowadays.


Anderson, Benedict, Imagined Communities

Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism, London: Verso, 1991.

Chakrabarty, Dipesh, Provincialising Europe: Postcolonial Thought and Historical Difference, Princeton: PUP, 2007.

Chhibber, Vivek, Postcolonial Theory and the Specter of Capital, New Delhi: Navayana, 2013.

Guru, Gopal, “Archeology of Untouchability” in The Cracked Mirror, Gopal Guru and Sunder Sarukkai, New Delhi: OUP, 2013.

Parel, Anthony, “Introduction” in Hind Swaraj and other Writings, Gandhi, New Delhi: OUP, 2009.

Skinner, Quentin, “Meaning and Understanding in the History of Ideas”, History and Theory, 8(1): 3-53, 1969.

The author is an Assistant Professor, Department of Political Science, Ramjas College, University of Delhi. He is also a Doctoral Candidate, Centre for Political Studies (CPS), Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi. He can be contacted at e-mail: srirampandeya@yahoo.in