The Brahmin double: the Brahminical construction of anti-Brahminism and anti-caste sentiment in the religious cultures of precolonial Maharashtra

The Brahmin double: the Brahminical construction of anti-Brahminism and anti-caste sentiment in the religious cultures of precolonial Maharashtra
South Asian History and Culture
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South Asian History and Culture

Vol. 2, No. 2, April 2011, 232–252

The Brahmin double: the Brahminical construction

of anti-Brahminism and anti-caste sentiment in the religious cultures

of precolonial Maharashtra

Christian Lee Novetzke*

South Asia Studies, Comparative Religion, and International Studies Programs, Henry M. Jackson

School of International Studies, University of Washington, Seattle, WA, USA

Critiques of caste and ‘Brahminism’ featured prominently in the social, political and

intellectual life of colonial India. It is often assumed that Brahmins took the lead in

developing such critiques as a consequence of the ideological influences of liberalism

and nationalism. But how do we account for such critiques, articulated by Brahmins

themselves, in India’s precolonial centuries? My essay will explore ‘religious’ materials

from the thirteenth to the eighteenth centuries in which Brahmins appear to be

agents in the creation of anti-caste and in particular anti-Brahmin sentiment. I situate

this Brahminical anti-caste and anti-Brahmin discourse within a largely performative

public sphere, where Brahmins balanced their role as ‘knowledge specialists’ in heterogeneous

social, religious and cultural contexts where they were a significant minority.

Here, Brahmin advocates of anti-Brahmin and anti-caste sentiment offered a ‘double’, a

discursively constructed ‘Brahmin’, thus deflecting or diffusing criticism, and enabling

the Brahmin performer or composer to maintain a position of importance as a Brahmin

in the world of bhakti and the larger premodern public sphere.

Keywords: Brahmanism; anti-Brahmanism; caste; religious cultures; public sphere;


The theatre of caste politics

There is a long history of caste critique in Maharashtra1 enunciated by Brahmin intellectuals

and public figures. Opposition to caste has been most famously expressed by low-caste

figures like Jotirao Phule (1827–1890) and Bhimrao Ambedkar (1891–1956), often in a

revolutionary idiom. Throughout the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, however, numerous

public and political individuals from Brahman backgrounds offered strident, although

ultimately restricted critiques of caste that were posed with a ’reformist’ rather than a radical

sensibility. Such figures would include social activist and author Gopal Hari Deshmukh

(1823–1892); social reformer Gopal Ganesh Agarkar (1856–1895); two founding members

of the Indian National Congress, M.G. Ranade (1842–1901) and Gopal Krishna Gokhale

(1866–1915); and Gandhian Vinoba Bhave (1895–1982). On the other side of this political

spectrum, a critique of caste was equally important for Brahmin founding figures of the

Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS, ‘National Volunteer Organization’) and the Hindu

Mahasabha, such as V.D. Savarkar (1883–1966), K.B. Hedgewar (1889–1940) and M.S.

Golwalkar (1906–1973). Often these critiques conjured a stereotypical Brahmin antagonist,


ISSN 1947-2498 print/ISSN 1947-2501 online

© 2011 Taylor & Francis

DOI: 10.1080/19472498.2011.553494

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South Asian History and Culture 233

portrayed as bigoted, backward and unsophisticated. Thus this public discourse, located

within a kind of Brahmin public sphere nestled in a larger colonial-nationalist public and

political sphere, appeared to speak directly to a Brahminical constituency, in a chastising

sort of way while at the same time displaying itself to a much larger public sphere, dominated

by middle- and low-caste observers and non-Hindus.2 These public figures seemed

therefore to offer both an internal and an external critique of caste, the latter suggesting to

non-Brahmins that not all Brahmins shared the same point of view: some were on ‘their

side’, so to speak.

Critiques of caste from a ‘high-caste’ perspective shared in common an interest in reinscribing

Dalit3 or low-caste identity as ‘Hindu’, within the fold as it were, rather than as

‘outcaste’. Ambedkar, of course, knew this well, and was deeply suspicious of Gandhi and

other high-caste leaders.4 In this essay, I want to suggest that these modern machinations

over caste identity in public and political arenas have a genealogy connecting them to precolonial

negotiations of Brahmin identity in non-Brahmin contexts. There is no denying the

intense effect of colonial order on Indian society, but I believe that colonialism, in this case,

did not so much invent these orders as magnify pre-existing structures. Furthermore, I want

to orient my perspective away from environments where Brahminical dominance was often

apparent, areas such as ritual specialization, literary technologies, historiography, political

discourse, scholastic traditions and so on. Instead I want to look towards generalized public

contexts, especially environments of live performance, where Brahminical dominance

was not a given and where, consequently, Brahmins required new techniques to assert their

relevance and importance. It is this genealogy of Brahminical critiques of caste in public

contexts, often in an idiom of anti-Brahminism, which I want to address in this essay.

This history reaches deeply into the precolonial period but is nevertheless foundational, I

believe, to modern political debates about caste.

What do we make of Brahminical support for a community that often espoused anti-

Brahminical views? What can we say about the Brahmin/non-Brahmin dialectic in the

period before what Nicholas Dirks has called the ‘ethnographic state’, the state of postcolonial

schedules and reservations?5 In what context, in general, is high caste a liability

rather than an advantage?

I will reflect on these questions by looking at critiques of caste, often with anti-

Brahminical overtones, attributed to Brahmin figures in the premodern and precolonial

periods in Maharashtra, periods no less marked than now by inter-caste rivalries and

violence, as well as by sometimes surprising inter-caste alliances. In this context, can

we identify a longer discursive forerunner to the modern critique of caste developed by

caste elites in Maharashtra, which shows the same anxieties over a minority position for

Brahmins in Maharashtrian society?

In this essay, I situate my argument within three periods of historical memory. The

first is the founding moment of ‘the vernacular’, of Marathi as a major medium of public

discourse, state record, archival significance and religious expression. I situate this period

around the thirteenth century, although Marathi is written much before this time. I propose

the location of the ‘vernacular turn’ in the thirteenth century, rather than at the time of

its first iterations in literary record. This is because it is not until the thirteenth century

that the use of Marathi in public and state contexts reaches the form of a full discursive

field of language, with various idioms, conventions of script and usage (especially

in archival contexts) and literary aesthetics. In this period, I will discuss the historical

memory of several figures, including Hemadri or Hemadpant, the Brahmin minister of the

Yadavas; the Brahmin Swami Chakradhar, reputed founder of the Mahanubhav religious

community; and the Brahmin Jnandev or Jnaneshwar, the first sant of the Marathi Varkari

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234 C.L. Novetzke

devotionalist tradition. The dates of life of these figures are attributed to the late thirteenth

century. The second period is around the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries,

when Brahminical literary technocrats were integrated into the Deccan Sultanate states and

Brahmin public figures flourished in Deccani culture.6 In this context, I will focus on the

Brahmin Marathi Varkari sant Eknath (c. 1533–1599), as well as on hagiographies written

by Brahmin figures within the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. The third period is the

late eighteenth century, when the Maratha Empire began to disintegrate due, in large part,

to internal dynastic and caste battles, made the more fissiparous by the pressure of a burgeoning

British regime. Here I will highlight the career of the Brahmin public performer

and composer Ram Joshi (1796–1818).

What unites the Brahminical critiques of caste in all three eras is the public context in

which they were presented. This was the literary-performative field of bhakti devotionalism.

I say ‘literary-performative’ because, particularly in the premodern period, what we

now call ‘bhakti literature’ was experienced largely as bhakti performance, existing in an

oral public cultural context dominated by performers in various forms, most of whom were

probably not Brahmins. I will highlight the two dominant forms of public performance in

the precolonial era. The first is kirtan, a kind of melodramatic performance formed around

the songs of the Marathi Varkari sants and other figures. Although kirtan is practised in

many forms throughout South Asia, it has taken on a particular form in Marathi contexts,

at least from the sixteenth century. This form emphasizes a narrative, hermeneutic and

didactic public performance art woven around one or two central compositions and a primary

theme. This theme is often political, although it may also be religious, theological

or comic in nature. In other words, the kirtan form in Marathi is public theatre, usually

performed by one central performer, accompanied by musicians and aimed at addressing a

social, moral, political or theological problem.

The second is tamasha. Like kirtan, tamasha takes many forms, especially in Gujarat,

North India and Karnataka, and has a particular practice and history in Marathi contexts.

Its origins are not clear, but it appears in references from the sixteenth century. Much

of its structure and many of its terms suggest a connection with Islamic and Persianate

public art forms, which would have been common in the Sultanate contexts of the Marathi

Deccan in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. In sixteenth century references, and in

at least one attributed to Eknath, tamasha appears to be a kind of secular version of kirtan,

with a simple structure organized around entertaining song, dance and comical sketches.

However, by the eighteenth century, tamasha had become a central feature of Maratha

public culture, as a melodramatic performance art undertaken by a theatrical troupe using

song, dance, theatrical sketches (often about caste, domestic issues and class conflicts) and

engaging the secular, erotic, religious, political – a broad spectrum of human experience.7

The Marathi tamasha was usually organized around the performance of lavani, a poetic

song-form, sometimes associated with dance, that takes love, and usually erotic yearning or

fulfilment, as its central motif – in short, tamasha in the late eighteenth century is an early

incarnation of the Bollywood filmic form.8 I will not trace the history of tamasha here, but

will focus on tamasha as a performance art in the late eighteenth century associated with

the Peshwa court and Ram Joshi specifically.

The materials I will discuss in the premodern period are expressed in performance arts

within a public cultural milieu that was highly heterogeneous but also, importantly, primarily

oral. Although I may work, today, from texts, these materials were adjunct creations of

the oral-performative context, presented and largely sustained within an oral public sphere

of performance, to which the dusty archival shelves that now hold their remnants give little

clue. Too often in our studies of the past through textual records we read into that past a

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South Asian History and Culture 235

predominant literary preoccupation or context of dissemination. If we are to understand the

social forces underlying caste (meaning, here, both jati and varna), to uncover its mechanisms

of ritual and power, or the influences of colonial ethnology and governance, we have

to understand the management of caste identity in the more socially immediate context of

public interaction and performance.9 Some of this work has been done recently, for example,

in the environment of the railways and in the context of performance arts, especially

Bharat Natyam dance.10 There has also been excellent work on caste and academic fields,

especially history, and on colonial missionary work and its intersection with colonial state

policy.11 My aim is to locate the function of caste in the field of public performance before

the modern period. In so doing, I question the equation commonly made between literacy

and Brahmins on one hand, and the oral sphere and ‘low’ castes on the other. Brahmins

are regularly key figures in oral performative cultures (not to mention orality as a feature

of the transmission of certain sacred Sanskrit texts), and some non-Brahmins (and

low castes in general) have long been masters of literary forms. Many of these literary

forms are emblemized in bhakti literary-performative spheres, where, in the Marathi case

for example, most poetic forms of expression have a ‘low caste’ origin ascribed to them

such as the abhang as the invention of the low-caste sant Namdev (c. fourteenth century)

and mastered by the seventeenth-century sant Tukaram.12 We have not sufficiently appreciated

how far Brahmins have sought power in non-literary contexts of performance. But

how did Brahmins, traditionally associated with the production and maintenance of knowledge

in elite literary contexts, transfer their authority into public contexts of performance

where their audiences were largely non-Brahmin? The vast audience for popular Indian

performance arts probably has always been an audience dominated by the middle and the

lower ranks of the varna order.13 Academic discussions of Brahmins as actors in historical

contexts have often overemphasized their agency, suggesting that a kind of Foucualdian

biopower resides in their hands through the ability of caste to regulate, at a distance, the

flow and interaction of society. My essay aims to show that this may be more an effect

of the literary sources through which we study them (Sanskritic texts, vernacular genealogies,

court records and so on) and their internal textual rhetoric of Brahminical superiority.

For in the context of public performance, one of the many places where the Brahmin and

the non-Brahmin or Dalit meet in person, different strategies of survival and influence are

required. These strategies are, in turn, part of what conditions the nature of caste in such

public cultural contexts.

The caste critique I will trace I identify by the phrase ‘the Brahmin double’. I define

the Brahmin double as a rhetorical strategy deployed by Brahmin performers in public

contexts. This ‘double’ is a result of a very specific context where a Brahmin performer

or public figure (real or imagined) performs for an audience, the majority of which are

likely not Brahmins. The Brahmin double consists of the character of a ‘bad Brahmin’,

who is portrayed as foolish, greedy, pedantic or casteist, and who serves as a ‘double’

for a ‘good’ Brahmin. This ‘bad Brahmin’ is thus a ‘body double’, receiving abuse and

deflecting polemical attack from the performer, giving legitimacy to a Brahmin performer

standing before a largely non-Brahmin audience. Alternatively, this ‘double’ may display

publically a self-conscious critical evaluation emerging from within Brahmin contexts, the

presentation of two kinds of Brahmins, good and bad, as it were. It may also serve, more

insidiously perhaps, as a comic foil that lures the sympathies of a non-Brahmin audience,

acting, in a sense, as a ‘double agent’. It is in any case the Brahmin double that provides

one important way to separate Brahminism and Brahmins discursively in public culture.

This discursive separation is important, I argue, in the context of a public arena of

performance where the symbolic capital of high-caste birth or privileged access to literary

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236 C.L. Novetzke

materials, technologies and rituals loses much of its value. In other words, it gets at the

heart of the power associated with the term ‘Brahmin’ over millennia in India, which is

the power to mediate, and to some degree control, the production of knowledge in various

contexts. These contexts include ritual power, historical documentation, philosophy and

grammar, mythic production and both the theory and bureaucracy of statecraft. Thus, the

symbolic capital of Brahminism is discursive power, whether it is literary or performative,

it is the power to use language to shape society, politics and culture, which is different from

other forms of power such as the force of numbers (a feature often of a ‘dominant’ caste)

or the force of arms.

The Brahmin double has a performative precursor in the long-established figure of the

vidushak or ‘fool’ common in Sanskrit plays and the theatre and literary arts of other languages

and regions in India. It is the vidushak that is often also a ‘bad’ Brahmin, and a

figure who has remained a mainstay in Marathi tamasha for the last 200 years at least. The

Brahmin double is related structurally and diagetically (i.e. positioned within a narrative

and functioning within the confines of that narrative) to the vidushak in the sense that both

provide comical stereotypes of a ‘bad’ Brahmin. But although any performer of any caste

might use the trope of the ‘bad’ Brahmin – and there is a long history of anti-Brahminism

by non-Brahmins in Marathi and many examples of Brahmin ‘fools’ portrayed throughout

South Asian literary and performative traditions – the Brahmin double invokes the social

and cultural context of performance or presentation. The Brahmin double exists in relation

to the content of the narrative and the remembered caste identity of the figure said

to create some particular image of a ‘bad’ Brahmin. Importantly, therefore, the Brahmin

double is an effect of two contexts – a diagetical, narrative context where the bad Brahmin

appears and an ‘authorial’ or agentive context where a purported author or performer is

also, in part, represented by his or her caste as a Brahmin. So, for example, the authors

of Sanskrit plays who used the figure of the vidhushak were almost always high caste in

origin, although not usually Brahmin.14 To identify and analyse the Brahmin double we

must pair narrative content with social context; the Brahmin double is always attributed to

a Brahmin agent/author. Thus, the Brahmin double is more than simply a fictional ‘bad

Brahmin’ lampooned to produce a critique of caste. It is rather a device used by Brahmin

communities to speak both outside and inside their fold, to criticize their caste superiority

while suggesting a way to maintain status within public discursive networks, especially

those of bhakti performance.

Caste, cultural power and the vernacular turn

In the Marathi-speaking Deccan, the vernacular millennium was born simultaneously in

the spheres of political power and of religious power. Furthermore, the emergence of a

fully formed vernacular (Marathi) set of idioms (literatures, rhetorical conventions, poetic

and prosaic forms) historical memory ascribes to Brahmin figures. However, historical

memory also recalls that key Brahmin figures opposed the shift of public and professional

discourse to a new vernacular form. The Brahmin double, I will argue, constantly

rehearses this formative historical rupture, presenting a bifurcating or doubling of the figure

of the ‘Brahmin’ in the history of vernacularization. This becomes a model for other

moments (perhaps even other ‘vernacular turns’) in the sixteenth–seventeenth centuries,

and in the late eighteenth century.15 Fragments of Marathi appear in political engravings

in the early part of the Yadava dynasty, around the tenth century CE, and even earlier.

However, to locate the routinization and normalization of Marathi as a literary currency,

we must look at Ramchandra, last of the Yadava rulers, who reigned from 1271 to 1309

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South Asian History and Culture 237

CE.16 The Yadava dynasty was a political formation organized around networks of caste

alliances that we now usually refer to as Maratha and this is the beginning of the political

imagination of what later became ‘Maharashtra’, as a social, cultural and linguistic unit. In

this period, Marathi is said to have first come into wide use under the intellectual force of

Ramachandra’s chief political advisor, the Brahmin Hemadri or Hemadpant, who served

from 1259–1274. Hemadri is said to have begun the practice of noting matters of state in

Marathi. To him is often attributed the invention of the Marathi modi script that became

the scribal medium for generations of Brahmin kulkarnis or accountants and other literaryarchivist

elites, including kayasthas and others.17 Yet Hemadri chose Sanskrit, not Marathi,

for his magnum opus, the Chaturvarga Chintamani, a treatise on the correct behaviour of

castes, with a significant preference for the high status of Brahmins in society. Clearly for

Hemadri, vernacularization had its place and he seemed to know its dangers: that it should

not infiltrate the worlds of dharma variously construed.

Around the same time, Marathi emerged within a developing field of bhakti discursive

contexts in the vernacular, and in some contestation with the political position

represented by Hemadri. These contexts were also literary, but were clearly emerging

from an oral performative source where ‘literary’ convention had been formalized in

non-written (that is performative) contexts – it is no wonder that the ‘song’ form is the

core of the ‘literary’ form of most primary Marathi bhakti materials (and most bhakti

materials throughout India). Swami Chakradhar, a Deshastha Brahmin, is reputed to have

founded his Mahanubhava community in nearby Paithan, in 1267.18 He imagined a new

religious and social order articulated in Marathi rather than Sanskrit, and free of caste and

Brahminical superiority. This was a laudable vision only slightly dulled by the fact that his

adherents were almost exclusively Brahmins. Still, the rhetoric was real – an end to caste

and Brahmin social-ritual power and this in the context of the ascendancy of many of his

caste comrades, such as Hemadri, within the ranks of the Maratha Yadava state machinery.

Indeed, Hemadri apparently did not like this idea and popular memory recalls that he

had Chakradhar murdered.19 Clearly, in Mahanubhav collective memory, Hemadri is the

‘bad’ Brahmin double to the ‘good’ Brahmin Chakradhar. Whether historical fact or foggy

memory, the pairing of these two Brahmin figures, and their conflict, as agents of two different

concepts of vernacularization, ties religion to politics at the moment when Marathi

emerges as a major language of literary public interaction. The pairing also suggests that

there were two conceptual types of vernacularization, a political-secular-literary one and a

bhakti and dharmic or ethical vernacular turn.

Let me pause to say that with this terminology – bhakti vernacular turn – I am hedging

against suggesting that a bhakti movement or protest or any kind of ideological cohesion

is in evidence here. Actually, bhakti groups in this period reserved their greatest vitriol

for each other, rather than for what we might call cosmopolitan Sanskritic Hinduism –

the establishment, as it were. Moreover, the role of bhakti texts in the history of vernacularization

is a fraught question. Sheldon Pollock has argued that vernacularization

was not the result of a bhakti movement or a kind of grassroots popular religious opposition

to Sanskritic Hinduism, but rather was a secular process by which political elites

sought to maintain their authority in local languages in India.20 The fact that Brahmins

are usually seen as the agents of vernacularization in both secular and religious contexts

in Maharashtra aligns with Pollock’s point here, and I am largely in agreement with him.

However, I will argue that those same political elites, Brahmins primarily, who sought to

retain authority in localized discursive political contexts also sought to retain authority in

discursive public contexts of performance, arenas that overlapped with the public field of

bhakti. Pollock’s highly persuasive arguments about vernacularization are not challenged

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238 C.L. Novetzke

here, but rather resituated in two arenas largely absent from his work and the work he has

inspired, particularly through his brilliant study of vernacularization, The Language of the

Gods in the World of Men.21 These are the realms of bhakti and that of the non-literate,

where literacy and performance meet in public contexts, in the kirtan or the tamasha for

instance. I seek to address this lacuna because it seems clear that vernacularization created

new discursive realms of which the literary, while the most durable in terms of historical

archive, was the smallest in terms of public attention. Vernacularization in public culture,

in performance outside elite literary networks or state scribal systems, was a going concern

that we have only begun to historically analyse and recall.

To return to the thirteenth century, subsequent to Chakradhar, another figure is remembered

to have mounted a similar critique in the voice of the bhakti sant and created what is

generally considered the first masterpiece of the new vernacular idiom of literary Marathi.

This was Jnaneshwar or Jnandev, also remembered to have been a Deshastha Brahmin, said

to have been born and lived in Alandi near Pune from 1275–1296. He is chiefly associated

with a masterful paraphrase and commentary on the Bhagavad Gita in simple Marathi

verse – often cited as the first translation of the Gita into any language. This text was titled

the Bhavarthadipika but is popularly called the Jnaneshwari.

It was good luck that Jnaneshwar was born the year after Hemadri’s death in 1274, as

the great Yadava minister may not have taken kindly to the Sanskrit Gita being so plebianized.

Still, Jnaneshwar was remembered to have met equally strong, if less murderous,

kinds of resistance from his own caste members. Jnaneshwar’s father had transgressed

caste rules by renouncing social life while still a husband and a father of young children.

To remove the stain of their father’s varnashrama transgression, Jnaneshwar and his siblings

appeared before the highest dharmic tribunal of Deshastha Brahmins in the holiest

Brahmin city west of Benares, which was Paithan. In Paithan, not only were Jnaneshwar’s

parents ordered to commit ritual suicide by the Brahmin judiciary, little Jnaneshwar, then

just a boy, was mercilessly scrutinized by the judiciary. One of the most famous scenes of

Marathi hagiography, reconstructed in films, songs, plays and popular culture, depicts this

moment when Jnaneshwar was tested by the dharmasabha of Paithan. Jnaneshwar insists

that all living things are sacred and have a soul (not just ’untouchables’ but all animals and

other living things), and so the Brahmin council demands that he demonstrate the truth of

his position. A nearby farmer is seen walking his buffalo, with whom Jnaneshwar shares the

same name. The buffalo is summoned and the judiciary demands that Jnaneshwar cause

this buffalo to express his sacred nature by reciting the Vedas. As Jnaneshwar enters a

state of contemplation, the buffalo begins to recite the Rg Veda, to the astonishment of the


The precocious children are subsequently returned to Brahmin status by the amazed, yet

unflappably conservative, Brahmin dharmasabha. Here, then, the Brahmin ‘double’ takes

the form of the Brahmin council judging little Jnaneshwar. Jnaneshwar, it is remembered,

would go on to compose the Jnaneshwari in direct opposition to the kind of ritual control

the Paithan council, and figures like Hemadri, represented, and the exclusionary practices

of the Sanskrit literary world. Yet, the Jnaneshwari introduces complicated nuances around

the question of the Brahmin double. On one level, the text argues, through its form and

content, for making available the gems of Sanskrit in a language accessible to the ‘common

person’. The idiom of Marathi used in the Jnaneshwari is the poetic ovi form. Most

Marathi scholars agree that around the thirteenth century, this form was in use by women

to add rhythm to synchronized work, implying that the Jnaneshwari was composed in the

simplest and most widely understood mode of Marathi oral poetics.23 Yet, on another level,

the primacy of Sanskrit knowledge and high-caste status endures around the Jnaneshwari.

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South Asian History and Culture 239

The human agent who enacts this translation from Sanskrit verse to Marathi work song is

remembered to have been a Brahmin interlocutor, Jnaneshwar in this case. In his stead over

eight centuries, the performance tradition of pravacana in Marathi, where the Jnaneshwari

is recited and explained to an audience, is almost always carried out by a Brahmin performer.

As the Jnaneshwari and Jnaneshwar’s biography speak in multiple ways of a

critique of Brahminical and textual elitism, its performative and textual continuities from

the past to the present therefore rest almost entirely in the hands of Brahmins.

But what Chakradhar and Jnaneshwar both clearly illustrate is that in the historical

era of vernacularization in Marathi-speaking regions, the Brahmin ‘double’ emerges in

the figures of Brahmins composing in Marathi who mounted critiques of Brahminism in

particular and caste in general. This is important to note because in this setting, vernacularization

always comes coupled with a critique of caste, which is a near-universal feature

of the rhetoric of bhakti. Could it be that language and caste critique are inseparable, that

among Brahmins the vernacular transition meant a natural critique of caste when a critique

of language was enacted? Perhaps the Brahmin double in this era of a crystallizing vernacular

literary field is an effect of a split in the discursive sphere of power? Could the

Brahmin double be the result of a riven Brahmin public at the moment of vernacularization,

displaying a politics of language and society that is the natural end of a linguistic

sea-change, or perhaps even its pre-existing cause?24

The conservative radical

In the sixteenth century, Paithan is, again, the story of Brahminical caste conflict over the

issue of low-caste inclusion. According to the hagiographies of Eknath, by the 1500s, the

legacies of Jnaneshwar’s text had become diffused, expanding into multiple ‘corrupted’

versions of the original text. Even the physical markers of Jnaneshwar’s memory – such

as his samadhi or burial place in Alandi – had been forgotten and abandoned. Meanwhile,

the vaunted social critique of the Mahanubhavs had settled into a small, secretive religious

community of Brahmins. Yet Brahminical stature was high within Deccani culture,

as Brahmins both served the Sultanate as valued court advisors and archivists, and Paithan,

connected through professional and filial networks with the Brahmin centres of Benares,

remained a centre and emblem of Brahminical discursive power.25

A figure disrupts this equilibrium by returning the Brahmin double to public culture

in the sixteenth century. This is Eknath, whose traditional dates of life are from

1533–1599. He is remembered to have been a Deshastha Brahmin kulkarni of Paithan,

fluent in Sanskrit, Persian, Marathi and several other vernaculars, all necessary for his

work. Assessing the historicity of Eknath is easier than with much earlier figures, like

Jnaneshwar, or his low-caste comrade, Namdev. Although we have little verifiable material

from his reputed lifespan, by the early seventeenth century, perhaps 50 years after his

usual date of death, we do have his songs represented in manuscripts (around 1636), which

were also maintained in and around Paithan, and nearby Dhule (about 200 km away), and

as far away as Pandharpur. At the same time, we have references to Eknath in hagiography

and the work of other authors.26 But my argument here, about a literary-performative

trope used within a strategic public context of caste, is aimed at the historical memory

of Eknath, rather than his life itself. Nonetheless, the proximity of historical sources to his

remembered hagiography situate this story in more or less the same context, place and time.

In the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries, Paithan was under the control

of the Ahmadnagar Sultanate, and its capital was approximately 50 miles from Paithan.

It was an area of relative stability, and the utility of maintaining a ‘soft power’ centre

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240 C.L. Novetzke

of Brahminical influence was no doubt apparent to the succession of Nizam Shahi rulers

until the end of the Ahmadnagar Sultanate, when it was annexed to the Mughal Empire

in 1636 under Aurangzeb.27 The Sultanate appeared to have fostered a fairly pluralistic

environment, with an efflorescence of Sufi and Hindu practice that created the contexts in

which figures like Sheikh Muhammad (1560–1650), the Varkari’s first non-Hindu sant, is

remembered to have arisen.28 Eknath is recalled to have come from an illustrious family –

his great grandfather, Bhanudas, is said to have led a team to the kingdom of Vijaynagar

that repatriated the looted, or perhaps rescued, image of Vitthal removed from Pandharpur

by Krishnadevaraya in 1521.29 But Eknath seemed to choose another path. He is said to

have had some sympathy with the Mahanubhavas, and it is also remembered that his guru,

Janardan, was a member of a Sufi order.30 Such a multifaceted religious environment would

not have been uncommon in the public culture of the Deccan Sultanates, and this is the

context in which Eknath’s historical memory is situated.

Given the cultural heterogeneity surrounding the heart of Deshastha Brahminical orthodoxy

in Paithan, the legend – or indeed the reality – of a Brahmin with a progressive social

agenda is very likely to have found a highly receptive local audience. Eknath was not portrayed

as existing on the fringes of Brahminical society in Paithan, but sufficiently near its

centre to be in constant conflict, at least in hagiographical accounts as we will see, with the

Brahminical elites of Paithan and Benares. Critiques of Brahminical practice attributed to

Eknath are therefore significant. Eknath’s memory seems to make the most of his position

by creating ample exemplars of the Brahmin double in his work and in his hagiography. He

is shown to undertake radical caste transgression in an effort to reform his fellow castemembers,

yet he always manages to step back, to retreat from critique just enough to avoid

significant trouble.

In Eknath’s attributed materials, the Brahmin double appears in many places, but most

commonly in one innovative genre. Eknath is famous for perhaps inventing but certainly

epitomizing the bharud. This is a theatrically oriented poem-song in which the depiction

of an everyday character or object also bears an ethnical or philosophical message.

It comes to be one major feature of an idiosyncratic form of kirtan often called Eknathi

kirtan.31 So one might have a bharud in the voice of a Muslim qazi or fakir, an acrobat,

astrologer, prostitute, snake charmer and so on. Among 300-plus bharuds attributed to

Eknath, the single character that received the greatest number of bharuds was the figure of

the ‘untouchable’ or Mahar, the largest of the Dalit castes (jati) of Maharashtra, who make

up in postcolonial Maharashtra about 6% of the population, and whose numbers may have

been higher in Eknath’s time.32 Such songs were called ‘joharabhangs, in reference to

the loud call Mahars would make in order to alert caste Hindus to their presence. The most

common form of these bharuds would be a dialogue between a Brahmin and his low-caste

interlocutor. Let me give some examples.

In one well-known bharud (Bharud 3866), a dialogue takes place between a Mahar

character and a Brahmin interrogator. The Mahar states to the Brahmin:

I sweep the four Vedas,

I haul the six Shastras,

I scoop up all the Puranas,

And bring this garbage to the street of the sants.33

This small song is evocative of the menial, degrading work of a Mahar. It also suggests

that the literary production associated with Brahminism was consumed by low castes and

outcastes, second hand as it were, mediated through the compositions of the bhakti sants.

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South Asian History and Culture 241

This is of course exactly what Jnaneshwar is said to have done, and what Eknath also does

– mediates literacy, class and caste.34

In another famous bharud (3862), Eknath stages a confrontation between a pugilistic

Brahmin and a docile Mahar. The Brahmin exclaims, ‘Hey you stupidMahar! Do you think

I’m afraid of your father?’ TheMahar character, through a series of exchanges, responds in

measured, respectful ways, never retaliating, but gently directing the Brahmin to ‘the feet

of the sants’.

In another song, Eknath’s Mahar says, ‘They say that they are Brahmins, but they don’t

bathe, pray to the sun, or read the Vedas. They do harm with their chanting, trying to kill

and bind, to fascinate and subjugate’ (Bharud 3891). In one of the most startling bharuds,

Eknath uses a dog as a metaphor for Dalits in general, perhaps playing off theManu idea of

untouchables as ‘dog eaters’. Eknath stages a conversation between a dog and a Brahmin,

itself a theatrical event likely to have been quite humorous to the right audience. In this

bharud, a Brahmin tries to feed a dog, even though the Brahmin is afraid of being ‘polluted’

by the dog. However, the dog refuses the food out of fear of being polluted by the Brahmin.

Eknath’s bharuds also involved interreligious critique. The most famous is his ‘Hindu-

Turk Samvad’ or dialogue. The two figures, a Hindu Brahmin and Muslim fakir and qazi

(this persona alternates in the song), pull no punches, but the critique of the Brahmin in the

voice of the ‘Turk’ is scathing. TheMuslim throws such zingers at his Brahmin interlocutor

as: ‘You leap in water like ducks!’ and ‘Your Brahma laid his own daughter’ and ‘You

are about as clever as an ass!’ and ‘You’ll sleep with a girl then not eat in her house? –

you’ll have the daughter but not the food?’. Recall that these bharuds are said to have

been performed publicly by Eknath, in Paithan and elsewhere – the historical memory of

their performance importantly recalls this controversial context. Whether he is speaking in

character or not, he is still Eknath, a Brahmin of consequence, pretending to be a Mahar or

a qazi or a dog poking fun at Brahmins in the midst of a Brahmin-dominated sociopolitical

environment. Creating a Brahmin double, it seems, may have taken some courage.

Eknath is remembered for making trouble in more academic ways too. He is said

to have received censure for critically editing the Jnaneshwari in the middle of the sixteenth

century – a text that was probably quite unpopular in Paithan given the stories of

Jnaneshwar’s tribunal there. But Eknath’s greatest literary affront to Brahminical orthodoxy

was his translation and commentary on the 11th skanda of the Bhagavata Purana.

Some stories in popular Varkari memory recall that Eknath had to face the wrath of fellow

Brahmins in Benares in 1573 for this work, and accepted several forms of penance to

‘purify’ himself from the act, though his hagiographers do not record this requirement of


Within a half century after his death, Eknath’s hagiographies begin to appear attributed

to Brahmin authors. The oldest is attributed to a Brahmin kulkarni of Paithan, Krishnadas

Jagadananda, in his Pratishthanacharitra or ‘The Story of Pratishthan/Paithan’ probably

composed in the middle to late seventeenth century in Paithan.36 By the eighteenth

century, two key figures composed hagiographies of Eknath. They are Keshavswami, probably

writing in the eighteenth century and Mahipati (1715–1790), a Deshastha kulkarni of

Taharabad.37 Mahipati appears to draw on the work of both figures in his various hagiographies

of sants.38 These hagiographies are filled with the figure of the Brahmin double, but

here in two distinct layers. The first is in the form of the persecution Eknath is described

as having suffered at the hands of other Brahmins. The second is in the figure of Eknath

himself, who plays both sides as we will see, who transgresses caste boundaries and then

atones for his transgression – a man portrayed as torn between form and reform, as it were.

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242 C.L. Novetzke

Two examples from Eknath’s hagiography reiterated in late eighteenth century hagiographies

should illustrate this, though there are many more. I have selected these two because

they involve dining, so often a site of contention about caste and religious difference and

a theme that runs through many iterations of bhakti in Marathi materials. These stories

also form the core of many modern retellings of Eknath’s life, such as in the 1935 film


One day three Brahmins wander into Paithan in search of food.39 They are turned away

from every door because torrential rains have made it impossible to find wood for cooking.

But when the Brahmins arrive at Eknath’s house, he begins breaking down furniture to

light a fire. Before their meal, the Brahmins go off to bathe, and in the meantime, three

fakirs, who are of course Brahma, Vishnu and Shiva in disguise, arrive asking for food.

Eknath feeds them first, and as they are leaving, letting out contented belches, the Brahmins

come back, and are shocked. They refuse to dine where Muslims have dined, and ridicule

Eknath at the very idea of suggesting they do so. The Brahmins sarcastically suggest that

perhaps Eknath’s famous great grandfather will return from the dead to dine in their stead.

Naturally, Bhanudas does return, in a shimmering ethereal form. The Brahmins find this

acceptable, and dine with Bhanudas. But we should note that they are now dining with

fellow Brahmins, and not with Muslims.

This story is a kind of tale type for Eknath, and so we see it repeated. In another episode,

a Mahar named Ranya, who is a big fan of Eknath’s kirtans, invites Eknath to dine at his

house.40 Eknath accepts the invitation and quotes a verse (7.9.10) from the Bhagavata

Purana (which is a text from which he has translated two portions into Marathi (Book 2,

Chapter 9 and Book/Skandha 11)). The quotation, in sum, states that ‘a dog-eating outcaste

who has made an offering to God [with his life, is still better than a Brahmin who]

has turned away from the feet of God’. When the Brahmins of Paithan hear of this, they

are outraged, in part because they have mistakenly assumed the quotation is from the Rg

Veda – which of course is also meant to show that they do not know their Veda. They

condemn Eknath for sharing the secrets of Sanskrit verse with a Mahar, for, as they put it,

‘smearing sandalwood on an ass’. The Brahmins demand that Eknath undergo a purification

penance, even that he be excommunicated. Eknath chooses penance, which he does,

publicly, and also before the eyes of Ranya. Though Ranya is heartbroken at the sight of this

apparent capitulation, he still retains some faith that Eknath will yet come to dinner at his


Eknath is now in a dilemma – he, a Brahmin, cannot eat at a Mahar’s house, but he

cannot disappoint poor Ranya. So God, or rather Vitthal, steps in, as he invariably seems

to do. He takes the form of Eknath and dines, in his place, at the home of the Mahar.

Interestingly, in the 1935 film Dharmatma, where this moment becomes a centrepiece for

the film’s narrative, it is the real Eknath who goes to the house of the Mahar, not Vitthal

in disguise; the Vitthal Eknath-double stays in Eknath’s home in Eknath’s form. In the

eighteenth-century version the Brahmins rush back and forth from the Mahar’s house to

Eknath’s house, and in both houses there is the image of Eknath, his ‘doppelganger’ happily

dining with the Mahar family whereas in reality he sits at prayer at home.

The critique of Brahminical practice here is multivalent. It both condemns practices

and skirts the consequences of those caste violations. In other words, the Brahmin double

offers a reformist critique, not a radical one – a mode of critique that several generations

of Brahmin public intellectuals who opposed caste in the colonial and postcolonial periods

would adopt. Eknath publically conforms to Brahminical orthodoxy by dining at home, but

also presents caste critique by appearing to dine at the home of a Mahar; his caste critique

is in theory, or one might say, in faith. But the miraculous doubling of Eknath is also a

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South Asian History and Culture 243

metaphor for the very paradox of the Brahmin double: How does one separate being born

a Brahmin from being Brahminical? How can these two social selves be divided?

Similarly, the bharuds displace Eknath as the narrating character of the songs, and so

diagetically the critique attributed to Eknath is second-hand. It is delivered by the voice of

aMahar or aMuslim, and so on – not by Eknath directly. Like Vitthal taking Eknath’s form

to dine with Ranya, Eknath’s bharuds allow him to fill another form as well. This makes

Eknath’s rebellion a conservative one, although in a radical voice. The Brahmin double,

in the figure of Eknath in biographical sources, is used to critique Brahminical practice,

although at the same time maintains the rules of Brahminical culture, which are portrayed

as important to Eknath. Criticism and protection, in a sense, are simultaneous in the use

of the Brahmin double associated with Eknath. Likewise, the bharuds allow the figure of

Eknath to maintain a rhetorical distance from his own criticisms – they displace his own

‘authorial’ voice, so to speak, through fictionalized characters. Eknath, as he is represented

in his bharuds, thus seeks some shelter behind the personas of his characters. But his

public memory, through films and stories, recalls that he performed these songs himself.

He could not escape his own corporeal authorship even in hagiography – in other words,

it is important to remember that Eknath (in historical memory in any case) was a Brahmin

who opposed, to a great degree, Brahminical practices around caste, and he enacted this

opposition through things he did and the songs he composed.

The doubling of Eknath to avoid the ramifications of dining with Muslims or Mahars

hints at another sense of ‘performance’, of playing the part of one’s caste status in public

while harbouring another, more subversive or transformative, politics. One can read the

stories of Vitthal taking Eknath’s form – stories that are central to the modern deployment

of Eknath as a high-caste critic of untouchability in late colonialism – as a suggestion that

caste is inherent not in the body or in ideology. It is found rather in the play of public life, in

the display of status through the marks of that status, such as public commensality, cleanliness

and public personal interaction. Vitthal can ‘double’ Eknath – allowing him to remain

at home and so conform to conservative caste rules of commensality while also allowing

him to dine with a Mahar family or with Muslim holy men – because Eknath is already in

some sense a double figure. He is a critic of caste and someone who reinforces the importance

of maintaining some caste rules; he opposes dharma in its socially regressive modes

but supports Brahminical dharmic rules of social interaction. Here, as elsewhere, it is clear

to see why late colonial high-caste Gandhians and others would later make profitable use

of the memory of Eknath.

So Eknath as portrayed in his biography both offers critique and maintains the status

quo. As a Brahmin double himself, Eknath is almost a double agent in much of his hagiography,

allowing both sides to believe they are at an advantage. This biographical portrayal

of Eknath would endure throughout the eighteenth century, and would return to its more

strident criticism of caste only in Marathi cinema and plays based on Eknath produced

in the last decades before independence. One reason why hagiographers of the eighteenth

century might have situated Eknath as a kind of Brahmin double agent was to patronize

the prevailing power of Brahmins in the Maratha Empire from the mid-eighteenth century

onwards in the context of a divided, but confederate, Maratha Empire.

Love, caste and culture at the end of empire

In contrast to Paithan in the sixteenth century, Pune in the eighteenth century saw an

alliance between Brahminical influence in socio-religious contexts and in the overall field

of political power.41 Although theMaratha Empire had been founded by theMaratha leader

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244 C.L. Novetzke

Shivaji (1627–1680), by the time of Shivaji’s grandson Shahu’s rule in 1720, the control

of the empire had shifted to the prime minister or Peshwa, which became a hereditary

post within a single Chitpavan Brahmin family seated in Pune. And many lesser functions

of the state throughout the Maratha realms also passed under the control of Brahmins.

Throughout the ascendancy and decline of the Maratha Empire under the Peshwa – and the

break-up of the Empire into five confederate regions – Pune remained a political capital

and the centre from which the dharmic values of the Peshwa’s government were protected.

Popular historiography, as well as historical fiction in plays, novels and films, tends to

ascribe the downfall of the Maratha Empire to incompetence at the hands of Brahmins.

Brahmin historians like V.K. Rajwade or G.S. Sardesai have created Brahmin doubles in

the historiography of the Maratha period. So, on the one hand, we might find the ‘good’

Brahmins of this period, like the Peshwa Baji Rao I (who ruled from 1720–1740) or his

son Balaji Baji Rao (who ruled from 1740–1761), who brought the empire to its zenith.

On the other hand, we have their double in the figure of the last Peshwa, Bajirao II (ruled

1796–1818), who married into the Peshwa lineage and is described as a drunk, indifferent,

sex-crazed incompetent ruler whose vices infected the Maratha metropole and sapped

the martial might of the Marathas. This idea is echoed in popular cultural forms as well,

from films to novels and plays by Brahmins. One such was the highly controversial play

Ghashiram Kotwal by the playwright Vijay Tendulkar, written in 1972, which viciously

lampooned Pune Brahmins at the end of the Peshwai. Even in everyday life in Pune of

the present day, one hears this kind of critique. When Marathi Brahmins want to poke

fun at a son-in-law living off the beneficence of his in-laws, they will invoke the name of

Bajirao in reference to the commonMarathi sweet, referring to their son-in-law as a ‘Ladoo

Bajirao’.42 Indeed, the Maratha period typifies a long history of intra-caste rivalry, among

Brahmins, and between Brahmins and high-caste claimants, such as kayasthas and other

literary administrative communities from the sixteenth to eighteenth centuries.43

In the time of ‘Ladoo Bajirao’, as the Maratha Confederacy began to disintegrate, the

Brahmin double had ample representation in popular culture. One of the most common

public performance art forms in Pune during the eighteenth century was the performance

of tamasha by shahirs, composers who would create erotic songs called lavani and heroic

ballads called povada for audiences in Pune and throughout the Marathi Deccan’s urban

and rural social spaces. Shahirs came from all castes – Mahars, Kolhatis, Malis, Kumbis,

Marathas, Kayasthas and Brahmins – and from among Muslims and other religions.

However, tamasha as an art form is said to have originated in primarily low-caste semirural

contexts, and the dancers, often prostitutes, who danced to the lavani songs were

traditionally from Dalit and other low castes.44 So, perhaps ironically, the most popular

forms of public entertainment in the Brahmin Peshwa period were arts created and often

displayed by low castes and Dalits. Indeed, most of the audiences for tamasha or lavani

performances were not Brahmin, but from within the Maratha, shudra and Dalit castes that

have always comprised the vast majority of Marathi speakers. There were usually free performances,

in a field or a darbar open to the public. The patrons of such performances were

motivated by a desire to entertain their constituencies, often their labourers, land tenants

and other subalterns. Although few records exist of non-state sponsored performances –

which must have made up the lion’s share of performances – the Peshwa daftar or archive

records the patronage of many shahirs of all castes and religions and the commissioning of

their performances before the Brahmin court in the centre of Pune. A low-caste art at the

heart of a Brahmin-dominated political and social order is another likely place to find the

figure of the Brahmin double.

One of the most important figures in this public performance context at the end of

the eighteenth century was Ram Joshi, a Deshastha Brahmin of Sholapur who relocated to

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South Asian History and Culture 245

Pune to pursue his profession. As popularly remembered, Ram Joshi came from a family of

erudite Sanskrit scholars, but he rejected the family business in order to pursue what would

have been the modern-day equivalent of a career in rock and roll. Predictably, perhaps, Ram

Joshi is described as having descended into the world of prostitutes, alcohol and bhang but

was rescued by the love of a low-caste courtesan named Bayabai.

Ram Joshi’s love affair with Bayabai, apparently defying caste conventions, led him

to add bhakti- and kirtan-inflected performances to his lavani and tamasha, adding to his

repertoire of patriotic songs (povada), love songs and songs of social or political critique.

Indeed, his textual legacy suggests a career with a steady production of both secular, saucy

lavani and tamasha and sacred kirtan, which, as I have argued elsewhere, was the lot of

any public performer of Ram Joshi’s ilk who wanted to make a living.45 Yet both his kirtans

and his tamasha lavanis retained critiques of Brahminical culture. He not only criticized

his co-Brahmins’ worldly vices but also criticized their otherworldly pretentions.

Let me offer two illustrative lavanis, which are two of the most popular songs attributed

to Ram Joshi. The first lavani was reimagined in the Marathi film Lokshahir Ram Joshi,

made in 1947 by V. Shantaram.46 The lavani is sung in the film during the performance

of a tamasha at the entry to a Brahman matha or monastery, whose Brahman head is Ram

Joshi’s nemesis, just as the Mahant is Eknath’s nemesis in Dharmatma – V. Shantaram used

the Brahmin double to great effect in many of his films. As we enter the scene, the comedic

performer in the lavani troupe is donning a false beard and impersonating the matha’s chief

Brahmin leader. He is enacting the role of the vidushak here. As the vidushak, he enters

the stage of the tamasha and encounters the troupe, especially Ram Joshi. The Brahmin is

offended by the presence of shudras and claims that his ‘sacrifice’ (yajna) will be spoiled.

Joshi asks about the sacrifice, and the vidushak, whose disguise includes a long beard,

explains that he will sacrifice to God a ‘long-bearded goat’. At this point, the real Brahmin

leader of the matha, who also has a long beard, becomes enraged at Ram Joshi as he detects

the implications.

Joshi’s attention then moves from the diagetic encounter in the play to the leader of the

matha. He sings to him this lavani.

Letting your hair grow matted and dying your robes saffron

Will all this holy bother ever get you to heaven?

Whether you’re in the forest or in public, your mind must be firm:

Hari’s name is what lets you experience and learn.

Around your neck why do you wear the wooden beads of the tulsi?

Would it work just the same to get to heaven for a monkey?

Outwardly you arrogantly strut around, but inside you’re hostile to Hari.

How can you call yourself a wise [Brahmin] when this is the style of your bhakti?

You’d rather drink milk than the ambrosia of God.47

The second lavani was not included in V. Shantaram’s film but it is a song that has consistently

appeared in compendia of Ram Joshi’s compositions, and it expresses some of the

same anti-Brahminical sentiments as in the lavani above.

The lowly have their own kind of religion.

The idea of empty ritual is boring to them.

Veda, Shastra – that all belongs to Brahmins

So why would they bother to ask of things so alien?

Brahmins are obsessed with empty intellectualizing

And their vacuous rituals have brought them nothing

They’ve lost touch as real enlightened preachers

They’ve just stayed students – never teachers

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246 C.L. Novetzke

But the lowly castes have become practical

And some have become masters of learning.

The Shudra has no use for empty actions

That’s the job of the Brahmins.

Brahmins will soon have to face this

And the world will turn away from their practice

Their false pride will dissipate

Into utter foolishness.48

Ram Joshi’s prediction for the fate of his fellow Brahmins is powerful, but it has some of

the air of the double agent, as in hagiographical portrayals of Eknath. For example, Ram

Joshi is also famous for composing povada or ballads that praised the might of Brahmin

rule, as in this famous couplet that begins a long ballad in praise of the Peshwa (Brahmani

Rajya Jordar):

Hail the mighty Brahmin Empire

Whose fierce soldiers sat upon their mounts.

That vast army faced their enemies

And wiped them all out.49

So Ram Joshi played both sides, but he had to: he was no saint – God never solved his

problems. He was a public performer who had to mediate popular tastes largely prescribed

by a non-Brahmin public, while appeasing the hubris of the Brahmin Peshwa court. Ram

Joshi’s world was perhaps more precarious and complex for a Brahmin who wished to

entertain a vast non-Brahmin audience who had lived under Brahmin rule for almost a

century and who were watching that rule crumble before them. Under the Peshwas, as

their daftar records indicate, lavish gifts of money and land, bountiful feasts and weeklong

celebrations were regularly given to Brahmins for the performance of rituals for the

Peshwa.50 But on the eve of British control in 1818, such practices came to an abrupt

conclusion. The age of Brahmin political power in Maharashtra ended, although Brahmins

would remain disproportionately represented in arts, literature, academia, colonial service

and business. The memory of that time of Brahminical strength during the reign of the

Peshwas – sweet to some and sour to others – would bedevil Marathi politics from 1818 to

the present.

The play of caste in public culture

The ‘Brahmin double’, like the one portrayed here by Ram Joshi, emerged from a context in

precolonial Maharashtra when Brahmins dominated ritualistic environments and vernacular

political literacy and record keeping, and, in some cases, the field of politics as well. Yet

they did not dominate the public sphere of interaction that existed amid oral performance,

where writing was secondary to orality, and where bhakti and public entertainment displaced

ritual power and the reified world of literary technologies. I consider this the sphere

of premodern popular culture, in which performance art forms, both secular and religious,

held centre stage in the context of what I have called the literary-performative sphere. This

is an area of cultural history that is hard to research, falling between the cracks of collective

memory and the traces of its passing in the written archive. Yet I think this area of social

life contains, perhaps inchoate, the seeds of India’s unique political modernity.

I want to imply, although I can in no way prove, that the precursor to the postcolonial

field of political theatre is to be found in the premodern fields of public performance I

have discussed, where caste, as well as class, gender, region, language and so on had to

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South Asian History and Culture 247

be managed socially and performatively by public figures. This is a world where caste

status and political power are intimately connected, but often inversely so: the lower or

more ‘middle’ one’s caste the great one’s political power. The field of precolonial public

performance, in which caste identity played a crucial role, is structurally far more similar

to the modern field or ‘theatre’ of politics than other precursors to modern politics, such as

precolonial dynastic or feudalist statecraft, texts of classical Sanskrit political theory such

as the Arthashastra or Brahminical technocracy within precolonial polities or the colonial

state.51 Thus, I understand the Brahmin double to be a figure that presages forms of modern

political action by high-caste actors invested in issues of caste equity. The Brahmin double

then is a literary figure embedded in a public and political performative context as a mode

of caste critique. But it is also a means of protection for a group that held high intellectual

and political capital, but who held less public capital in the larger context of precolonial

Marathi society.

The way in which Indian public culture of the colonial era traced the precolonial theatre

of caste politics into the colonial sphere is clear from the film Dharmatma (1935, Dir.

V. Shantaram). The film was made in the context of vociferous public debates around the

Communal Award Act of 1932 and the Poona Pact of that year. This time period saw an epic

and public battle of wills between Ambedkar, who wanted a separate electorate for Dalits,

and Gandhi, who believed separate electorates would divide Hindu culture irrevocably. This

was widely read as a caste cleavage, with the desires of Dalits pitted against upper caste

interest in not bifurcating a future imagined Hindu electorate, which they sought to control.

This film was made in the midst of these debates and recalls similar issues surrounding the

Brahmin double contained in Eknath’s historical memory. This film, which describes the

poet as ‘Mahatma Eknath’, is a classic critique of caste from a Brahminical perspective,

encouraging caste Hindus to repent of their attachment to the practice of untouchability,

and Untouchables themselves to adopt, as Gandhi put it, ‘clean’ lifestyles. The British

were quite correct in thinking, at that time, that this film was a thinly veiled endorsement

of Gandhi and his efforts to unite India by purging caste Hindus of the ‘sin’ of ‘untouchability’.

Yet it is my position that the film, rather than an endorsement of Gandhi, is a revival

of Eknath, a moment to suggest that Maharashtra had its ‘own’ Gandhi or rather had a

Brahmin double that expressed the sentiments of a centuries-old politics. The film could

suggest that the ‘problem’ of ‘untouchability’ was one internal to Hinduism, a problem

of varna and its relations of status improperly exercised upon a collection of jatis understood

to be ‘untouchable.’ This indeed was the position of a broad spectrum of the Hindu

intelligentsia, from Gandhi to Savarkar.

The way this dual mode of critique and protection operates taps a deep structure in

Indian society, the structure of caste consciousness. It is hard not to recognize the way

in which caste consciousness pervades Indian society, among all religions and economic

classes. To adapt a Marxist term, caste consciousness is a primary formative force in the

superstructural forms of politics, public culture, religion, popular culture, urban social

geography, literature, language and so on. The difficulty is explaining, in any given context,

how caste consciousness is accessed, publically and strategically engaged and reified

to create new forms.

My argument has placed the Brahmin double within the context of caste consciousness

situated in three distinct eras of ‘vernacularization’: the first wave of vernacularization in

the thirteenth century; a second wave in the hybrid cultures of the Deccani Sultanate; and

a third wave on the eve of colonial modernity. In all three cases what accounts for the

Brahmin double is a social reorganization of caste status to align with political power exercised

by a dominant non-Brahmin caste conglomeration. However, I have not emphasized

the technologies of writing that are crucial to other studies of the displacement of the old

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248 C.L. Novetzke

cosmopolitan languages – whether Latin or Sanskrit – but rather sought to situate attention

on oral public performance in the context of popular culture. The ability to control literary

production, while not a simple feat, still situated discourse within a technology that limits

access and the means to participation. The sphere of oral performative public culture, however,

is much harder to control. The Brahmin double exists in this oral performative context

as a by-product of the asymmetry of Brahminical participation in a popular cultural milieu

that is primarily not Brahmin. This is not a story of Brahminical ‘appropriation’ of a caste

critique, or a social-radical position – no voice is ‘Sanskritized’ here. The critique of caste

status is not the sole possession of any language of South Asia. Instead, this is a story of

the historical memory of the fraught place of caste in the politics of public culture at any

time, past or present.


This essay has benefitted from the advice and criticism of several colleagues, especially Sumit Guha,

Jack Hawley, Jon Keune, Anupama Rao, Prachi Deshpande, Anne Feldhaus, Adheesh Sathaye, Andy

Rotman, Anne Monius, Frank Clooney, Paul Courtright, Joyce Flueckiger, Gyan Pandey, Ruby Lal,

Laurie Patton Sunila S. Kale and Shobha Kale. I am especially grateful to Polly O’Hanlon, who

provided excellent editorial and intellectual feedback at all stages. I am thankful to the organizers

and participants of the Early Modern South Asia Workshop at Oxford University, the South

Asia Seminar at Emory University and the Hindu Studies Colloquium at Harvard University for

generously engaging the ideas of this essay.


1. I use the term ‘Maharashtra’ to refer to the general region where Marathi has been spoken, and

is spoken, in its greatest concentration, which is roughly coterminous with the modern Indian

state of Maharashtra. Although it may be anachronistic to call this region ‘Maharashtra’ before

1960, it saves the reader from enduring many qualifications for the designation of this region

over the long period I study in this essay.

2. I use the term ‘public’ in part following the work of Michael Warner who provides seven

succinct aspects of what constitutes a public. In summary, they are as follows: (1) a public is

self-organized (2) and is a relation among strangers; (3) the address of public speech is both

personal and impersonal; (4) a public is constituted through mere attention; (5) a public is

the social space created by the reflexive circulation of discourse; (6) publics act historically

according to the temporality of their circulation; (7) a public is poetic world making (Warner,

Publics, 67–118). I differ from Warner in that I understand publics to exist in all historical

periods and places, not limited to Western modernity. In this sense then I use terms such as

‘public culture’ and ‘public sphere’ with many of the implications of scholars who have used

these terms in modern contexts (such as Jurgen Habermas, Donald Horne, Carol Breckenridge

and Arjun Appadurai), but I use these ideas to express similar social forms in non-modern or

precolonial contexts.

3. I have used the word ‘dalit’ or ‘downtrodden’ here, a term adopted by some former ‘untouchable’

communities in India, but certainly not all. I have also used, in quotation marks, the term

‘untouchable’ at times, and have also used other terms as they seemed appropriate. I mean no

disrespect or insult by use of any of these terms.

4. See Anupama Rao, The Caste Question.

5. Dirks, Castes of Mind.

6. Guha, ‘Transitions and Translations’, 23–31.

7. See Sawant, Tamasha; and Kumar, ‘Tamasha Folk Theatre of Maharashtra’.

8. For one of the few studies of lavani in English, see Rao, ‘The Lavani of Maharashtra’.

9. For some studies of caste in public contexts, see Novetzke, ‘Divining an Author,’ and Novetzke,

Religion and Public Memory; Dumont, Homo Hierarchicus; Dirks, Castes of Mind and Rao,

The Caste Question.

10. Bear, Lines of the Nation; and Soneji, Unfinished Gestures.

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South Asian History and Culture 249

11. Deshpande, Creative Pasts; and Viswanath, ‘Spiritual Slavery’.

12. See Tulpule, Classical Marathi Literature, 336.

13. The earliest reliable figure for caste demographics is the 1931 Census. See also the National

Sample Survey of 1999–2000. Of course the reader must judge whether these modern numbers

reflect premodern realities.

14. Famous figures such as Kalidasa and Shudraka are remembered to have been kshatriya; other

famous playwrights such as Ashvaghosha were Buddhist.Whatever the truth of the biographies

of these figures, they were not, in any case, remembered to be of the shudra or atishudra

(‘untouchable’) castes.

15. I do not want to overemphasize a connection between Brahmins/Brahminism and Sanskrit. Of

course, much (maybe most) Vedantic literature, drama, epic, hagiographical and mythological

literature in Sanskrit are not attributed to Brahmins, and Brahmins have been attributed many

works in precolonial contexts that are not in Sanskrit. The ‘vernacular turn’ was not a Brahmin

event, as it were. See Pollock, Literary Cultures, 70–4. However, I do wish to point out that, at

least in the context of Marathi, Brahmins are often the agents of vernacularization as well as

its opponents.

16. See Tulpule, Classical Marathi Literature, 312–15.

17. Historically speaking, this is probably an apocryphal attribution, however.

18. See Feldhaus in Zelliot and Berntsen, Experience of Hinduism.

19. See Sardesai, New History of the Marathas, 23.

20. Pollock, The Language of the Gods.

21. See Ibid., especially 423–36, for his refutation of bhakti as central to vernacularization.

22. This story is first related in hagiographies attributed to Namdev (c. fourteenth century) and

repeated by hagiographers, crystallizing in the work of Mahipati in the Bhaktavijaya. For

Namdev, see Novetzke, Religion and Public Memory, 42.

23. Tulpule, Classical Marathi Literature, 451–2.

24. Cf. Pollock, The Language of the Gods, 428.

25. For example, see Guha, ‘Transitions and Translations’; O’Hanlon and Minkowski, ‘What

Makes People Who They are?’, O’Hanlon, ‘Letters Home’, and O’Hanlon, ‘Speaking from

Siva’s Temple’, in this volume.

26. Novetzke, Religion and Public Memory, 139–44.

27. A report by Garcia de Orta from the 1530s, for example, recounts the high positions of

Brahmins at the Ahmednagar court. See de Orta, Colloquies, 291. See also Eaton, Sufis of

Bijapur, 198, and Fukazawa, The Medieval Deccan, chap. 1.

28. See Asher and Talbot, India Before Europe, 46–7.

29. Davis, ‘Indian Art Objects as Loot’, 22–48.

30. This idea may be apocryphal, but was widespread by the eighteenth century. Mahipati in the

Bhaktavijaya composed in 1762 appears to reference the idea that Janardan was part of a Sufi

order or took instruction from a fakir. In that text, Mahipati recalls that a fakir who met with

Eknath’s guru Janardan was revealed to actually be the deity Dattatreya in disguise (part II,

chap. XLV, verses 83–129 [pp. 161–5]. Neither Mahipati nor his characters supply any theological

or moral rationale for this charade, however. The Bhaktalilamrta (1774) also recalls this

story: see the story in Abbott (trans.), Bhaktavijay, 18–22.

31. I thank Jon Keune for this definition of a bharud.

32. For the current statistics on population in India from the 2001 Census, see http://censusindia. (accessed June 10, 2010).

33. From Avathe, Sakala Santa Gatha. Translations here and elsewhere in the essay are mine unless

otherwise noted. See Zelliot, ‘Chokhamela and Eknath’; and, ‘A Medieval Encounter between

Hindu and Muslim’; and ‘Eknath’s Barude’.

34. This mediation can take on many forms. Notice, for example, in the colonial period the

statement of Vishnushastri Chiplunkar on the role of Brahmins in modern colonial society:

‘However unjust or wicked brahmins may be, one fact is incontestable: that they retain possession

of the keys to the storehouse of knowledge. And there simply are not avenues for the other

jatis to have access to education/knowledge [dnyan] without their help.’ Nibandhmala, no. 48,

December, 1877: 24, cited in Naregal, Language Politics, Elites, and the Public Sphere, 258.

35. My source for this reference is personal conversation with Varkaris.

36. We have little information on Jagadananda’s life, but historical memory recalls that he composed

his biography in the mid- to late seventeenth century and, in some cases, suggests that

he was the great-great-grandson of Eknath. I thank Jon Keune for this information.

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250 C.L. Novetzke

37. Mahipati’s Bhaktalilamrta of 1774 appears to contain Keshavsvami’s text, and in this essay I

reference on Mahipati’s two key hagiographies that talk about Eknath, the Bhaktavijay of 1762

and the Bhaktalilamrta, which contains many more stories about Eknath, presumably supplied

in part by Mahipati’s discovery of Keshavsvami’s text. For English versions of Mahipati’s work,

see Abbott, Stories of the Indian Saints; and Abbott, Eknath.

38. Mahipati did not use Keshavsvami’s text in his sections on Eknath in the Bhaktavijay (1762),

but did use it when he wrote about Eknath in the Bhaktalilamrta (1774), which would explain

the much more copious treatment of Eknath in the Bhaktalilamrta. John Keune, personal


39. For this story, see Mahipati, Bhaktalilamrta (chap. 17, verses 55–111 [pp. 85–91]). In the

Bhaktavijay, this story is told by replacing the fakirs with ‘untouchables’ (part II, chap. XLVI,

verses 45–107 [pp. 176–81]).

40. This story is told by Mahipati in the Bhaktalilamrta (chap. 19, verses 153–240 [pp. 141–9]).

This story is not told in the Bhaktavijay: presumably it is a story first told by Keshavsvami.

41. See Deshpande, Creative Pasts, for a study of the historiography of Brahminical power in the

Maratha period. For one recent perspective on Brahminical power in the Maratha period, see

Eaton, A Social History, chap. 8. For Pune in this period, see Gokhale, Poona.

42. I thank Prachi Deshpande for this reference.

43. For a rich examination of Brahminical caste culture of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries

in Marathi contexts, see O’Hanlon, ‘Speaking from Siva’s Temple’, and ‘The Social Worth of

Scribes’; and O’Hanlon and Minkowski, ‘What Makes People Who They are?’.

44. See Rege, ‘The Hegemonic Appropriation of Sexuality’ and ‘Conceptualising Popular


45. Novetzke, Religion and Public Memory.

46. V. Shantaram was one of the founders of the famous Prabhat Studios in Pune, and who also

made Dharmatma in 1935, as well as other films about famous lavani figures of the Peshwa

period, such as Amar Bhoopali (1951), which was nominated for the Grand Prize at Cannes,

about the Maratha-gavali composer, Honaji, as well as other famous Marathi films, such as

Shejari (1941). For more on V. Shantaram, see Jaikumar, Cinema, 221–6.

47. Kulkarni and Moraje, Ramjoshikrita Lavanya, 109.

48. Varde, Marathi Kaviteca Ushahakala kimva Marathi Shahir, 25.

49. Kulkarni and Moraje, Ramjoshikrita Lavanya, 130.

50. See Joshi, Bajirao II, 268–88. See also Parasnis, Poona in Bygone Days, 112–36.

51. For parallel points, see the excellent study in Naregal, Language Politics, Elites, and the Public

Sphere, and for South India, Bate, Tamil Oratory.


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