The ‘Janeu’ – Why Do Woke Brahmins Flaunt a Symbol of Oppression?

In Class 9, poring over my History book, I was taken by the firm eloquence of the French Revolution’s ‘Liberty, Equality, Fraternity’ slogan. I wrongly assumed that campaigns, political or otherwise, are movements which command a lot of thought and respect.

Witnessing the Bharatiya Janta Party wave wash over an ailing India, I find nothing eloquent about basing an entire political identity on ‘Jai Shree Ram’.

The very crux of Narendra Modi’s beloved Hindutva is rooted in racist and casteist politics – a true taste of what the British used to bleed India dry.

At the very root of this lies the seemingly harmless janeu, the sacred thread worn primarily by Brahmins. It signifies the rite of passage from boy to man, and more importantly, the dvija or ‘twice born’. Being the highest caste, said to have originated from the mouth of Brahma, the janeu is a mark of superiority of the chosen one. In one sweep, it labels every other caste as inferior.

Casteist millennials

Today, we may have addressed the issue of untouchability – albeit partially – in the urban spheres, but I have some questions for the millennials flaunting the white thread around their body. How is a history of oppression fashionable? How does it not lie heavy on your shoulders? How are you so blissfully unaware or cunningly accepting of separatist politics in your daily life?

A lot of my ‘woke’ friends and a decent number of relatives wear the thread. They discuss Game of Thrones with overtones of the Indian political climate, they are liberal in judging one’s character, and will give one almost no reason to believe that they harbour separatism in their blood. But they do.

Be it a flippant joke, a layered WhatsApp forward, or a problematic life decision; the sense of Aryan superiority rears its ugly head every now and then.

In a thread hosted by Tamil Brahmins – an online forum for Tamil Brahmins from across the globe, a member talks about the duplicity of being a secular Brahmin.

Also read: Caste Isn’t Just Confined to Rural India, It’s Also an Urban Reality

“I claim to be a secular brahmin. I have no faith in religious rituals practised nor I have a thread…Yet internally I have a feeling of superiority as I belong to this class due to birth in a brahmin family. When any of my extended family children marry out of caste or religion, I may not hotly oppose but I would not encourage either…Internally I would thank my stars that my children did not do the same.” he writes.

In response, another member writes, “I know I am sharper in a given situation when compared to my friend who has the same background of education and lifestyle as I happen to be a brahmin.”

Some may argue that a piece of thread is utterly harmless.

The thread doesn’t make them slaughter the Dalits, or force them to avoid stepping on the shadows of the lower castes. However, it symbolically carries connotations which are much larger than those interpreted by a single individual.

Is it truly harmless if it has historically made large groups of people envious of the safety it awards you?

History of the sacred thread

In his book, Religion and Society Among the Coorgs of South India, Professor M.N Srinivas introduced the concept of ‘Sanskritisation’ to describe the longing of the lower castes for cultural mobility.

“In his [Srinivas] study of the coorgs of Mysore, he came to know that the lower castes were trying to raise their status in their caste hierarchy by adopting some cultural ideals of the Brahmins. As a result they left some of their ideals which are considered to be impure by the Brahmins.” The changes involved “wearing of sacred thread, denying the use of meat and liquor, observing endogamy, prohibition of widow remarriage, observing the restriction in caste system”, etc.

Also read: Growing up in a Hindu Bubble

Some say that the janeu is of great religious significance, and that they do not wear it as a mark of superiority but to honour the supreme lord. The three threads intertwined stand for the creator, organiser, and destroyer – Brahma, Vishnu and Mahesh.

Therein lie the deepest issues.

Why are Brahmins considered the only true passage to God? Why is the heritage occupation of the communicator, the priesthood, passed down as the exclusive domain of the Brahmin long after work-based caste division has become history?

Brahminism in Indian politics

The attack against Brahminism is not necessarily one against the Brahmin community unless they partake in perpetuating their myth of superiority. It feeds toxic politics and has manifested separatist sentiments in the BJP-led India.

Early this year, Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey landed into trouble for holding up a poster that read: “Smash Brahminical Patriarchy”. Dorsey and his team had to apologise when millions called the message Hinduphobic.

In September 2018, Congress spokesperson Randeep Surjewala retaliated to the BJP’s “non-Hindu” jibe against Rahul Gandhi by saying that Congress has brahmin DNA.

Isn’t the 21st century a time when we should be celebrating accomplishments that are more concrete and valuable than our genes?

Also read: How to Live in Modi’s India

As Uttar Pradesh’s Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath targets Muslims and Union minister for Women and Child Development Maneka Gandhi threatens to scorch the employment of Muslims, the illusion of a secular state seems farther away from realisation.

In such dangerous times, can the woke millennial carry the token of division, the sacred thread, without being responsible for the massacre it causes?

Silence makes us complicit in the crimes committed in our name. I don’t generally disclose my prescribed religious identity because I refuse to let the government use it to justify the unfair treatment it metes out to those it considers different.

As darkness gradually consumes everything moral and right in this country, we must be very careful to keep from becoming the patron saint of the what destroyed humanity – religious competition.

Meghalee Mitra is a littérateur and hopes to change the world, one word at a time. 

Featured image credit: Reuters