LASSnet 2010: Book Discussion: Subalternity and Religion: The Prehistory of Dalit Empowerment in South Asia by Milind Wakankar
Comments on Milind Wakankar's Subalternity and Religion
I want to thank the organizers of Lassnet, and Lawrence Liang in particular, for inviting me to respond to Milind's remarkable book. The invitation, or at least that is my sense of it from Lawrence's inclination in inviting me, is to explore some of the affinities and antagonisms that arise in our respective efforts to chart a vocabulary of comparative religion, which is also a way of thinking about religion and politics, which in turn requires, as Milind puts it, an 'undoing of the distinction between the religion and the secular', which is not to say that all differences are dissolved. What we have, rather, as Milind's book richly demonstrates, are different forms of transcendence, abstract and concrete, ways of living and aspiring and dying and fighting and living together. My own efforts to map this conceptual terrain are some steps away from reaching the relatively finished form of a first book, which I hope to finish, if all goes well, by the next LassNet, with the title Gods and Grains: On the Political Theologies of Popular Hinduism. I mention my own work primarily to signal a shared terrain of 'political theologies', which I'll turn to occasionally inasmuch as it might sharpen a difference or a resonance on this shared terrain. For the most part though I want to concentrate on what I take to be some of the key lines and thoughts of Milind's book, which I should say at the outset that I read with a great sense of excitement.
He could not have expressed my own desires better when he declares roughly midway through the book that it is no point simply 'lamenting that we no longer have the "right" to read religious or pre-modern texts'. Rather this right must be earned, possibly by retracing one's steps, and those of one's predecessors, as Milind does in demonstrating the high stakes in the contending interpretations with Hazariprasad Dwivedi's Romantic rebel Kabir, as against Dharamvir's claim on Kabir as a Dalit icon. Amidst this retracing, it would be a mistake to think of this book as only or even primarily a work of intellectual 'history'. Despite its seemingly self-explanatory title, this book (and here is a contention that may be more or less contentious) goes some ways away from, or beyond the territory that social scientists and scholars of South Asia have come to associate with the word 'subaltern'.
To say that something goes beyond is not to say that it supersedes or negates what lay before it. Neither does it necessarily derive from it, since in this case a new set of questions and impulses come into play, somewhat different from the task of history. Different in what way? This book, we might notice, is suffused with the spirit of philo-sophia, love of wisdom. And what we might ask is its picture of wisdom? Here we would have to attend to the concepts of the book, hearsay, the co-presence of miracle and violence, the place of allegory as a way of moving between the abstract and the concrete, the radical reinterpretation of Kabir, particularly in relation to the question of skepticism and the somewhat unusual concept of the political that emerges in these pages, unusual inasmuch as it stresses the contestation of dominance in ways that does not preclude the possibility of generosity.
I'll try to retrace some of Milind's steps beginning with a simple question. We see in this text invocations of the ancient (as in the phrase 'ancient form of generosity'), and recurring invocations of the primordial and the 'pre-political'. Are these words 'ahistorical' or 'essentialist'? This book, as I am suggesting, departs from the terrain of history into a different modality of time, returning to some of the oldest questions of philosophy that I will mark in shorthand as a) the question of Being, and b) the threat and possibility of skepticism. To say that these questions depart from the terrain of history is not to say that they are timeless, but rather that the mode in which they might be dated and tracked is somewhat different than say what we might learn from a historical analysis of the transition from feudalism to capitalism. In understanding these transitions, are we in the realm of so called Western or 'Eurocentric' thought? This, I would say is one of the most remarkable achievements of this book, namely its overcoming of a false western/non-Western dichotomy. There is an impulse common to the world religions and to philosophy, whether Vedantic or European or Dalit thought if we are to take Kabir as an expression of the latter. That impulse, as Milind tells us early on (on p.19), is a speculation on or preparation for death. This redrawing of the battle lines, or chains of thought, away from Western/non-Western dichotomies, or hostile invocations of European rationality, is central to Milind's recasting of the religion/secularism problematic. As a signpost for further discussion I should add that in redrawing the terrain as such, Milind's text is quite different from even the most recent, let us say the more adventurous expressions of 'subaltern' thought, say Dipesh Chakrabarty's Provincializing Europe, which if you remember, ends at an impasse, an aporia between 'rational' thought vs. so called 'subaltern pasts', or the 'time of history' as distinct from the 'time of Gods', as Chakrabarty calls it. Rather than accept such an aporia or an impasse, Milind recasts the distinction between the modern and the pre-modern. Modern democracy, Milind tells us (on p.144) creates its own drives for deification. The example he picks is that of elected representatives, to which we might add the presence of masculine and feminine idols and icons, which capitalist economies and cultures seem to thrive on.
As crucially, Milind turns away from commonsensical ideas of religion as a form of 'belief' versus skeptical doubt and questioning as an expression of 'rationality', arguing instead for an ongoing, internal relation between religion and skepticism, in the process shifting our idea of speculation. Let me pause on this a moment since it is critical to Milind's dramatic reinterpretation of Kabir, as I see it, and also because the word 'skepticism' might itself be unfamiliar to those not invested in the history of philosophy. To start with its positive valence, skepticism may be a spur to thought, a form of questioning, the kind we are taught, or at least hope to be taught, in schools. At what point does questioning stop, or turn into a doubt about reality itself? In its more intense forms, skepticism can become a life-negating threat, as philosophers have often discovered. The advent of modern skepticism is often dated, at least in European thought to Descartes. His famous proposition 'I think therefore I am' was an answer to a life-negating doubt, namely, how do I know, or how do I prove that I actually exist, and am not just living in someone else's dream. Most philosophers in subsequent generations found Descartes' answer to be inadequate, in what Kant called a 'scandal of philosophy' that it could not offer a definitive answer to the skeptical threat. Over the last few years, the anthropologist Veena Das, has argued, in particular in her recent book Life and Words that skepticism is not only a philosophical problem but may arise as much in everyday life, for instance in conditions of heightened violence, or even in more ordinary situations, as one comes to doubt the grounds of one's existence, say a relation to a neighbor or a loved one, or one's place in a way of life.
Milind tells us that Kabir's philosophical plentitude might be read not so much as a turn against so-called superstition or ignorance as we are taught in school textbooks, but somewhat more profoundly as a response to the pervasive presence of skepticism. 'Maran Jivan ki Sanka Nasi', a line of Kabir's dear to Milind. 'Sanka' or doubt is not an occasional lack of certitude. It is rather 'a tenor of life as a whole' (p.152). Kabir's uniqueness, according to Milind, is his doubtful habitation, a turn towards and away from the Indic philosophical tradition complicit with caste hierarchies. Indic thought, Milind tells us in a striking formulation, might be read as a history of skepticism. Within this tradition and breaking from it, Kabir's thought moves as a speculative turning, or 'palatna' (p.26). A signature form of this turn, perhaps the central theme in Kabir's corpus is an ontology of death, a living habitation of death, Jivan Maran, or more specifically, the 'suspension of an imminent death', to use Milind's phrase that illuminates so many of Kabir's most memorable lines. 'Udajayega Hans Akela', a spirit or my spirit will soar alone, a characteristic living death speculation of Kabir's signaling the loneliness of death but also a dispersal, that is to say a certain continuation. What does the spirit fly into? A crucial qualification is in order here that will take us to the next concept of this book, that of hearsay.
'Jivan Maran ki Sanka Nasi', the sanka (doubt) is 'nas', destroyed or castaway or kept at bay, as Milind argues. In what way is this achieved? It is not, as Milind tells us, through ecstatic communion, or the achievement of well defined 'good' death. It is rather, through the living embrace of an Abstract Ram. We must add a few qualifications here to re-translate this insight. The abstract is not the opposite of concrete. Rather, allegory (p.133) enables movements between the abstract the concrete. Is the abstract ahistorical or unchanging? You can tell that my answer is going to be no. Here I'd like to add one other term to the mix, distinct from but closely related to the longstanding philosophical problems of Being (that element of life which is constant and animates us) and Becoming (that which is permanently in flux and signals our impermanence). My spiritual preceptor in matters of temporality is the French philosopher Gilles Deleuze, who following Bergson in turn, conceptualizes two orders of time, the actual, that which we live and the virtual, which we also live, but only sense a fraction of. Taken together the virtual is the sum total of all that has existed in different layers of time, Aham Bhramasmi, the cosmos, of which we inhabit a patch, immersed in others thresholds, of which we remain non-conscious.
Kabir has a peculiar relation to the virtual, which cannot be described either as mystic or as scholastic, although it draws on and contributes to both modes of engagement. The virtual may be envisioned as a formless Nirgun whole, or expressed in masculine/feminine Sagun instantiations. Kabir's achievement, Milind tells us, is to break out of the sagun/nirgun traditions, again contributing to both. The turn away from the Sagun in Kabir, is not a form of iconoclasm (p.126), or an abhorrence of icons and idols per se. Nor does Milind entirely agree with Dharmvir's understanding of Kabir as expressing a Dalit Nirgun Ram. What then is Kabir's mode of inhabiting the virtual, in the form of words to be sung? Udajayega, my spirit that is to say, my words will fly, Kabir says. And what is the virtual medium of this flight? Here we encounter the remarkable concept of 'hearsay' central to Milind's book. Philosophy has long differentiated between 'doxa' (opinion) and Sophia (wisdom), and defined itself as a struggle away from doxa towards sophia. Again, this is not only a Western idea. As central to Vedantic thought, as it is to Plato's simile of the cave, Milind argues (on p.139), is a conception of everyday life as grounded in some form of shadow, Maya, erroneous perception. Does philosophy necessarily then have to turn against the everyday, call it the ordinary or the popular? Milind introduces the concept of hearsay (p.25), as a virtual threshold, a medium of communication distinct from, prior to doxa and Sophia, from which both emerge. We live and inhabit and overhear different regions of hearsay. At this threshold, Kabir and the Sant poets live on and enrich our regions of hearsay in different ways. Kabir might be claimed, and legitimately so, Milind argues, as expressing a region of the virtual that may be named as Dalit hearsay, that partakes of divinity and of violence, attuned to the idea of a 'living death' in its experience of everyday violence and domination.
Having found our footing in some of the key philosophical concepts of this book, we may now turn to a more delicate question. What is the concept (or concepts) of the political that we might say emerge here? Is it, as with Carl Schmitt's classic concept, a distinction between friend and enemy? The Dalit is our friend and the Brahmin is our enemy? What should we understand by the fact that so many South Asian scholars today so vociferously declare their sympathies for the subaltern or the Dalit in ways that would have been inconceivable for earlier generations? Are we more moral today? Or is it a craving for a moral center, a locus of redemption which disappoints us when we find it to be implicated in its own forms of political and everyday violence and desires for power. I don't think that Milind's text expresses such redemptive hopes or moral disappointments. He defines the subaltern (on p.5) as a 'lack of access to mobility', even as he describes the Dalit present, at least in its intellectual and electoral political forms, as a 'political will on the make' (on p.6). How then do we understand the place of philosophy here, and its relations to the invocations of generosity, we might even call it nobility? Clearly, as with Kabir so with Milind, their political philosophy does not take the form of a revolutionary manifesto. If anything it subsists more as a companion to or a reflection on everyday life. Which is not to say that it cannot negate or attack on occasion, for instance with the Hindu Right, which is as Milind tells us on p.16, relentlessly and unimaginatively 'historical' in its rendering of Hinduism, that is to say precisely not philosophical. So then is philosophy a cure for political violence or inequality? Clearly, Kabir (as we read on p.133) will not be the fountainhead of a peasant or a tribal revolt. Rather he signals a 'style of life' or a 'way of thinking'. And what nourishes this style or way of life? Here we might notice a cluster of quotations throughout the text, Kabir's 'abstract' or 'virtual', is a form of 'beatific anonymity' (p.131), 'above social strife' (p.156). How might we understand this form of transcendence above conflict?
I contend that a powerful text of political philosophy that might be read fruitfully alongside this question is Rousseau's Discourse on the Origin of Inequality, where Rousseau famously or infamously posited the figure of the 'noble' savage. What exactly was noble about the savage in Rousseau's terms? It would take too long to prove this rigorously (and for those who are interested I have written a paper on this theme which I could share with you), but in short Rousseau's argument turns on the primitive human having a deeper immersion in an abstract or virtual threshold of life. Why would this be 'noble' or a compelling idea for political philosophy? For Rousseau the origin of inequality lies in human interaction itself, which cannot be imagined without comparison and contestation of some sort. Such contests may degenerate, dog eat dog, thereby necessitating a sovereign authority to oversee the proceedings. This is, in short, a common understanding of the Hobbesian position. The noble savage then, immersed in the virtual, invokes a point prior to human contestation, 'pre-political' as Milind calls it, prior to social conflict or cooperation. Milind may or may not want to accept this resonance, since to be linked to Rousseau, while it may be praiseworthy, is more likely a source of vulnerability amidst contemporary academic sensibilities, keen to cast off any aspersions of 'Romanticism'. Am I then saying that Milind is a 'Romantic'?
I wish I had time to offer a more complex answer here, but in short the answer is yes and no. Yes inasmuch as we all inherit elements of romanticism. I mean 'we all' in as global a sense as we might understand by the term 'Enlightenment'. Much of what post-colonial critics of so called European rationality crave or affirm as 'non-Western' alternatives – a wider perception of temporality, a more sympathetic relation to nature, an idea of emotion or affect as internal to thought, all of these are central elements of Romanticism. I leave it for us to wonder how the word Romantic came to be placed in quotes, demoted to a doubtful synonym for naïve or wishful. Whatever its source, we now bear the burden of these doubts and quotation marks. To return to the text at hand, should we consider Milind's invocation of Kabir's 'beatific' abstract as inheriting the threats and burdens of Romanticism?
There are some burdens we are conscious of and can thereby attempt to cast off. 'It is with some regret that we bid farewell to the Romantic, beatnik Kabir', as Milind tells us, on p.156. A crucial part of Milind's argument, we might notice is that the abstract, the virtual, the threshold of hearsay, is not only beatific, it also holds the possibility of violence, the co-presence of miracle and violence, a theme central to this text as a whole. In this sense Milind is not 'Romantic' at least in its debased sense, as a synonym for naïve. And yet, he is not entirely disconnected from the Romantic trajectory, that is, as the philosopher Stanley Cavell has argued, also a response to the threat of skepticism that Milind so acutely senses in Kabir. Given these global resonances, we might pose a different equally political question: is this a form of 'wisdom bequeathed only to Dalit's', as Milind puts it (on p.8)?
Here I would mention not so much the mobility of these concepts as the instability of the term Dalit, at least as I experienced it in my own work as an anthropologist. My book on political theologies draws on a year and a half of fieldwork in Shahbad, a tehsil of 236 villages in Rajasthan on its South eastern border with Madhya Pradesh. My primary focus was on the Sahariyas, former bonded laborers, arguably the lowest status group in Shahbad, classified socially as a Jaati and governmentally as a 'Primitive Tribe'. In comparison the SC Chamars, who would be called Dalits, except that this term was not particularly common here, were relatively well off, having given up their former profession as leatherworkers two generations back, turning instead to small scale agriculture, now on par with most middle castes in the area. Their rivalries for the most part were with the neighboring Kiraad and Ahir middle castes, classified as OBCs. The Sahariyas in turn were deeply suspicious of the Bhils, relatively recent immigrants into Shahbad, with whom they often competed for labor. My closest friend in Shahbad was Kailash and his family, from the SC Chamar or Bherua caste. Over the course of a year and a half, Kailash and numerous others shared some of their deepest anxieties and aspirations with me, say over shortages of water, or their experiments with vegetarianism, or possession by the spirits of neighboring castes and tribes, and deities that moved across social groups, as well as genres of speech and song, including (and how could they not?) the words of Kabir that still express many of the thoughts and emotions that Milind draws out. These expressions, as I felt it, moved across this shared weave of life, high and low. Shared is not to say 'peaceful', since this milieu, as others, had its share of longstanding and recent rifts and antagonisms. At what point does a rift begin to count as separateness? What kinds of separateness does our voice intensify as it is added to the hearsay?
I am not necessarily disagreeing with Milind here, but rather returning to a conflict he poses in the reception of Kabir, between the literary giant Hazariprasad Dwivedi (a Brahmin, as his name suggests) who describes a Romantic wanderer 'phakkad' Kabir, at the cusp of different identities, as against Dharamvir, the Dalit intellectual, who claims Kabir as a Dalit messiah, arguing against the so-called 'identity-less' appropriation of Kabir to high Hinduism. I cannot offer proof but I hazard that most people I knew in Shahbad, of high and low status would have been more attracted to Dwivedi's interpretation than Dharamvir's. Milind himself is attracted to 'Dwivedi's ecstasies' as he calls it but then turns to affirm Dharamvir. Dos this affirmation stem from mere political correctness? Not exactly. It is rather, Milind's contribution to a conflict that may also revitalize a figure such as Kabir by raising the stakes of his reception. It is said that when Kabir died Hindus and Muslims quarreled over his remains and that this quarrel only added to his honor. It is perhaps reason to be glad that however belatedly, and maybe it is not yet that late, for another party to join this contest. Amidst these contestations, in terms of an intellectual political project, it is to Milind's credit, I think, to try and create a possibility of nobility or generosity specific to the emerging framework of Dalit thought. This impulse to nobility or generosity is, as I suggest, as much a source of strength as it is of vulnerability, in how Milind's book might be received.
It is probably clear that my own reception of this book has been positive to say the least. In this light, by now I have earned the right, I hope, to state my misgivings as honestly as I can. My misgivings lie primarily with Milind's understanding of the 'pre-historical' past prior to the Puranic and Bhakti worlds, say the transition from the Vedic to the Vedantic, or the worlds to which caste and asceticism may have arisen as an alternative. Students of the Vedic and pre-Vedic world describe a warrior morality of conquest between neighboring tribes, consecrated by ritual sacrifice. In my own work I take the turn away from this morality to be a question of political theology faced perhaps by all religious and secular moralities. The question, how will potentially hostile neighboring tribes live together? We can see that this question, we might call it the political theology of the neighbor, remains alive and troubling today in many parts of the world. What is different is how this question is received morally, now or earlier.
So called pre-modern moralities, not only in South Asia, but also in Greek, Roman and Indo-European religions often exalted and affirmed a theology of war and conquest. Nietzsche describes this epoch is his classic text Genealogy of Morals. According to Nietzsche, two major global, world religious alternatives emerged to the 'aristocratic-tribal' morality of war, The first was an impulse towards 'taming' shared by the rise of ascetic ideals in Hinduism, Buddhism and Christianity, the second was an impulse towards 'breeding' as Nietzsche describes the morality of caste. Both moral impulses were 'thoroughly immoral', as Nietzsche puts it. In my ethnographic fieldwork, I encountered innumerable fragments in songs and mythology and ritual and moral genealogies that turn on the contest between warrior and ascetic ideals, and record actual or imagined conflicts between Gonds and Marathas and Bhil and Rajput tribal chiefs and Jat and Gujjar neighbors, and Afghans and Rajputs, and Mughals and Afghans and so on. Milind senses strains of this warrior ethos in his chapter on Rajwade's grammar (Chap 6) but characterizes it as 'Dalits vs. Brahmins' (p.114), which to my mind, obfuscates the entire history of war and the warrior ethos in South Asia, in which various castes and tribes and religions participate. This is not only a pedantic historical clarification but a critical question of who fought with whom and why, and what the mechanisms were for living together.
In terms of living together, a distinct but not unrelated misgiving for me arises in Milind's occasional asides about 'high Hindu gods', say in the transfiguration of the pastoral hero deity Vitthala into Krishna, in the final chapters of the book. I should clarify here that I am sympathetic to Milind's basic impulse to understand how the pastoral-folk is preserved and not entirely assimilated. What I am taking issue with is the assumption of Krishna as a stable, 'high' figure. Historians of religion such as Charlotte Vaudeville have traced the rise of Krishna from a pastoral Ahir caste 'hero' into a higher divinity over the course of centuries. In a chapter of my book on the 'Promotion and Demotion of Gods in Indian Religions' I track the rise of the Jat pastoral oral epic hero divinity Tejaji among the Sahariyas and other low caste groups in Shahbad. I follow Tejaji's myth and moral genealogy further back, and find that it leads to longer term theological transformations that include the rise of Krishna that hinged, in an earlier epoch on the demotion of the Vedic warrior divinity Indra, that signals a turn away from Vedic warrior morality, a shift that is among the central tasks of the epic Mahabharata, namely to set out an alternative both to Vedic morality as well as the antagonist trajectory of ascetic Buddhism.
In short the rise and fall of Gods has been a longstanding mode of moral thought and transformation and a form of spiritual transaction between neighboring groups. To stabilize one set of movements, say the rise of Krishna, as 'high', is not wrong, since many would claim it as such, but it does obscure the transactions and movements at stake even now, in how, many of those who would be called subalterns would conceive of spiritual aspiration. I am gesturing to movements of aspiration that are neither wholly 'upwardly directed', as in MN Srinivas' famous argument of Sanskritization, nor wholly a form of bottom-up assertiveness, as in the subaltern historian David Hardiman's reading of the advent of the Devi among tribes in Western India. Some may call any invocation of a shared ethos, even an agonistically shared one, 'assimilationist'. Others will recognize it as a response to the question of the political theology of the neighbor that I raised above, which remains relevant now as earlier and in the future: how will potentially hostile neighboring groups live together? We are cannot wholly legislate this in advance, but our words do add to the hearsay, to use Milind's term.
I have taken issue with Milind's understanding of the more distant past. In the widened definition of temporality that I hope he and I share, the more distant may also become nearer, actually or virtually. A step further back than Vedic or Indo-European morality (and again I don't mean 'back' in a Hegelian sense of dialectical successions, since what is far may become near or subsist or be transfigured anew), I begin to appreciate Milind's reading of time again, in the breathtaking formulation with which his book ends. Sri, the light, precedes Krishna, says Milind, turning a step further back from the Sagun-Nirgun distinction. Light, he further reminds us, is composed of different colors. This may seem abstract but it also utterly concrete, a striking way of thinking about the different moods that color our perception of the world. In this sense 'quality of life' may not be defined wholly by one's social station, and the poorest man or woman may momentarily become richer and happier by singing a few lines of Kabir. Employment guarantees are critical, we know, as are minimum wages. And yet, consider that employment guarantees and wages notwithstanding, the task remains the same, say digging a trench or a road. A few lines of Kabir, the hearsay hummed, may color this task differently Consider that this formulation is as true to life as it is Romantic. I have tried to formulate these comments in an exultant mood, in which many of Milind's passages are written. What do we have to be exultant about? The world remains unredeemed. For now I am satisfied with these more modest, glad tidings that we have a new philosophical voice in our midst. And we can't wait to hear more.
dog eat dog
high Hindu God
stye of life
time of Gods
way of thinking