Vivekananda &c.

Palaniappa Palaniappa at AOL.COM
Tue Mar 24 07:42:14 UTC 1998

In a message dated 98-03-23 15:34:13 EST, vsundaresan at HOTMAIL.COM writes:

<<I hardly think this is the forum for discussing advaita philosophy in
great detail or for carrying on a caste war, but let us get off the
political horse and see what this implies.>>

I do not think anybody is being political here or engaged in a caste war. The
very fact that surezvara changed zankara�s qualifications for a student shows
that the questions I have raised are germane to the discussion of the
positions zankara has taken.

<<Suffice it to say that the basic attitude is very much like the one held
by specialists in any field. They simply don't want to spend time
talking to non-specialists. How one decides who is a specialist and who
is not, is a different issue, determined by the then accepted rules of
the game.>>

If the exclusion of zUdras is only because they lack the pre-requisites (i.e.,
Vedic study, for reasons independent of whatever the philosophers might/might
not have done) then the detailed discussion by Ramanuja holds that this is not
correct for the precepts of the advaitins.

<<And moving away from Sankara, we see that many later teachers translated
the gItA into local languages, in order to provide easier access to
those who were denied a knowledge of Sanskrit. In doing so, they
consciously went against the conservative brahmin opinion of their
times. And there were other brahmins like basava in Karnataka, who
became leaders of movements that rejected all varNASrama distinctions.>>

I have no arguments about this.

<<I'm talking about an unfashionable thing here, but to say that
brahminical society heaped cruelty and torture on lower castes, until
the Christian missionaries came along, is not an accurate picture. There
is even less point in basing all this on Sankara and advaita. >>

I do not know exactly what you mean by brahminical society. If you mean I am
just referring to the brahmins that is not correct. But if you mean the whole
system of graded inequality where everybody is guilty except perhaps the
persons at the very bottom, you are right. Take the example of Nadars of
Tamilnadu/Kerala. They were known as Shanars in the 19th century. They were
just above the scheduled castes in the caste hierarchy. The remarkable
progress of this community has been well documented in scholarly studies. An
important factor in the advancement of this community was the Christian
missionary activity.  But for the missionary help, the Shanan women would not
have been allowed to wear a cloth covering their breasts in Southern
Travancore. As for the violence inflicted upon people asserting their rights,
let me give an example. In the late 1800s, when the Shanans agitated for entry
into a temple in Sivakasi, the manager first closed the temple. That was
considered a partial victory by Shanans and their opponents. Most opposed to
Shanan mobility were the Maravans, their near neighbors in space and status. A
"clean" caste, the Maravans could enter the temple at Sivakasi. To share it
with the Shanans, a polluting caste according to the ritual definitions of
traditional society, seemed intolerable. The Maravans, with the sympathetic
support of other higher castes in the area. hoped to so punish and intimidate
the Shanans as to pre-empt further Shanan efforts to rise, through the use of
force and violence. They launched attacks on Shanan villages and sections,
burning, looting, and sometimes killing. On June 6, 1899, Maravans marched on
Sivakasi where Shanans, who had been expecting the attack, succeeded at the
cost of sixteen lives in driving them away from the town. The final police
statistics showed 23 murders, 102 robberies, many cases of arson, 1958
arrests, and 552 convictions including 7 death sentences. (Source: The
Modernity of Tradition by L. I. Rudolph and S. H. Rudolph)

I am not basing all this on zankara and advaita. As I noted in the posting,
Ramanuja also excludes zUdras. I blame all those who by their commissions or
omissions have helped to perpetuate the varNa/caste system. It so happened
that zankara�s name came up during the discussion, differentiating him from

<<And note that sureSvara, Sankara's direct disciple, disagrees with his
teacher, and affirms that kshatriyas and vaiSyas can also take to
samnyAsa. This is in his vArttika on Sankara's bhAshya to the
bRhadAraNyaka upanishad. Neither brahminical thought as a whole, nor
Sankara and his disciple lineage in particular, is as monolithic and
rigid as is commonly assumed.>>

I did not know that and I am glad surezvara was more liberal than zankara. But
I have a question. Since the time of surezvara, have the zankara mutts
followed surezvara�s recommendation or zankara�s regarding who gets inducted
into the order? In other words, what are the percentages of kshatriyas and
vaizyas in the order?

<<In my opinion, to tell a poor, low-caste man to renounce the material
world is a bigger cruelty to him than to deny him scriptural knowledge.>>

My opinion is that nobody should tell a low-caste person what to do or what
not to do. He/she can make up his/her own mind as many, like Tamil siddhas,
have done.

<<There is a time and place for everything, and in Sankara's world, the
time and place were very different from what we expect or are used to
nowadays. The usual presumption is that by following one's own
svadharma, one attains a better birth in the next life. There may be
legitimate social and political arguments about it, but to present a
truly philosophical/religious argument, which is the only one an
advaitin would be interested in, try tackling the very doctrine of
karma. You will get the contemporary SankarAcAryas and other
fundamentalist Hindu leaders to listen, if you can do this.>>

I shall discuss the time and place and prevailing worldviews in detail in
another post.  I am not interested in convincing an advaitin or zankaracAryas
or fundamentalists to listen to me. My interest is in talking to others.

<<Getting to the chAndogya story of satyakAma jAbAla, note that gautama
hAridrumata's logic is not like the following -

Perception: satyakAma spoke the truth.
Inference: therefore satyakAma is fit to be called a brahmin.

Rather, it is more like this -

Assumption: only a brahmin speaks the truth.
Perception: satyakAma spoke the truth.
Inference: therefore satyakAma must be a brahmin.

The assumption says a lot, and notwithstanding Sankara's somewhat naive
assumption about satyakAma's mother, his explanation is quite in keeping
with what the upanishad itself presumes.>>

I have come across at least two scholars S. Radhakrishnan and Umesh Chandra
Sharma  who hold that the upaniSadic tradition thought differently. Let me
just give Radhakrishnan�s view. He says, "The upaniSad seers  are not bound by
the rules of caste, but extend the law of spiritual universalism to the utmost
bounds of human existence. The story of satyakAma jAbAla, who, though unable
to give his father�s name, was yet initiated into spiritual life, shows that
the upaniSad writers appeal from the rigid ordinances of custom to those
divine and spiritual laws which are not of today or of yesterday, but live for
ever and of their origin knoweth no man. The words tat tvam asi are so
familiar that they slide off our minds without full comprehension." (The
Principal Upanisads, p. 51) What this tells me is that according to these
scholars at least, satyakAma was called a brahmin  not due to parentage but
due to his character, i.e., the word brahmin in the assumption refers to
quality and not birth.

<<Yet, rAmAnuja has a reputation for being more liberal than Sankara. He
shouted out the liberating nArAyaNa mantra from the temple top, so that
even the SUdras could hear him. And for rAmAnuja, nArAyaNa is the
highest brahman. The text says something, the behavior shows something
else. Isn't this self-contradictory too?>>

Yes, it is if this is a historic fact as opposed to just part of a mythology
built around him. But then not many are going to check this behavior against
what he has written. Of course, the followers can always come up with
ingenious explanations to reconcile the two.

<<Still, rAmAnuja is being entirely consistent according to his own terms.
These commentators simply do not use their commentaries for any purpose
other than exposition of traditional doctrine. And if part of
traditional doctrine means that some sections of society are
discriminated against, so be it. Their actions may be different, but
their texts won't compromise what they see as the integrity of the
tradition. There *is* the apaSUdrAdhikaraNa in the brahmasUtra. There
*is* the pApayoni statement in the gItA. Those who take these texts as
canonical will not directly refute them in their commentaries.>>

Fine, but in zankara�s case the canonical texts seem to be relatively more
liberal than his own creation so much so that his disciple had to make a


S. Palaniappan

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