An average Brahmin?

BY Aloke Thakore| IN Opinion | 25/09/2007
The average Brahmin whom Outlook contacted intrigues me. Does he exist, or is it an easy, lazy way in which the idea of public opinion is used,

Hammer and Tongs



Public opinion is a strange thing. Apart from the etymological problems associated with the word "public", its mighty elusive behaviour, its steadfast recalcitrance in making itself amenable to metrical modes of reckoning long after statistics has anointed itself as the presiding deity of instrumental governmentality, it is always the fig leaf behind which everything has to be presented for our scrutiny and approval.


What else can explain the following sentence: Interestingly, the average Brahmin Outlook contacted is not as affronted by Karunanidhi’s remarks as his brethren in the rest of the country. For him, his own ritualistic worship of Rama and the DMK’s atheist approach have coexisted – for decades together (Quirky Compass, Outlook, October 1, 2007). This is the concluding paragraph in a piece on views about Rama in Tamil Nadu, and forms one among the many stories devoted to the cover story, "How an epic hero became a controversial icon. Hey Ram!". The paragraph’s intent seems to be that Brahmins in Tamil Nadu are not taking as much umbrage over the DMK leader’s remarks as those in other parts of the country possibly because the DMK’s position is well known and has been accepted along with a continuing personal belief in Rama.


There is, however, a presupposition in the conclusion: Brahmins in rest of the country are affronted by Mr Karunananidhi’s remarks. Is there any proof or evidence in the piece or in the agitations against Mr Karunanidhi’s remarks that Brahmins consider themselves more egregiously offended as opposed to say Kshatriyas or Vaishyas? Is belief in Rama an exclusive Brahmin preserve? Are those leading the agitation only Brahmins and is it being articulated as a Brahmin issue rather than a Hindu one? Is Brahminism or Brahminical Aryan culture (whatever that may be) as a mode of thought and being only of Brahmins? The larger question is whether there is any reason for the Brahmin to be more agitated than anyone else about Mr Karunanidhi’s statement assuming both the Brahmin and non-Brahmin have an equal belief in Rama, which ceteris parabus is a more common reality (i.e. people of different castes have an equal faith in Rama) than anything else. The insertion of the Brahmin in such this piece is gratuitous. If at all it does anything, it does violence to the finely textured nature of castes and of caste oppression by what are often called intermediary castes. Also, in the context of Tamil Nadu it ignores the "historical" fluidity of castes as at least one scholar has suggested.


Be that as it may. There may be a reason for Brahmins to be agitated and in the rest of the country they are all in a lather and fulminating and I have been not watching television. Removed from reality, I do not have any measure of public opinion among Brahmins. So I better believe Outlook. 


But then the average Brahmin whom Outlook contacted intrigues me. The irritable researcher in me wants to know the n. But then there is the singular number that Outlook uses. The sentence reads, the "average Brahmin that Outlook contacted" and not the "average Brahmins". Now that is surely cover material. There is out there an average Brahmin, and in this case, an average Tamil Brahmin. Apart from the simple possibility of asking whether it is an Iyer or an Iyengar, a Thengalai or Vadagalai, there is the umbrage that many Tamil Brahmins might take at the very idea of an average Brahmin! And that heartburn would be more than for any samudram or myth or history you may conjure. Dim’it, it’s simply a figure of speech, a synecdoche. An average Brahmin. But how did Outlook contact them. And that as a reader I sure want to know. Or this is one of those things like obscenity, which as US Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart said one knows it when one sees it.


May be there is something proprietary in the method that Outlook used and it does not want to reveal how it contacted the average Brahmin. But what about gender? Were all the Brahmins males? "His bretheren", "for him" and "his own ritualistic practice" are the three references to the Outlook average Brahmin. Tut, tut! Here was one chance for Outlook to redeem itself. May be the Brahmin women may have had a different view. May be that would have been a nice contrast to the male Brahmin view. Or is this is a good case for illustrating, what feminist scholars have pointed out, that public opinion has always been a male opinion. After all the word "public" is etymologically linked to "pubes", meaning adult men and hence implying the masculine. Or may be there should be an additional gloss that Outlook fails to provide. Brahminism is such a masculine ideology that has interpellated the consciousness of Brahmin women that the average Brahmin is a male Brahmin whatever be the sex.


Whatever be the case the interesting possibilities that this peroration throws up are many. The least of which is that we, and I mean journalists here, have found an easy, and dare one add lazy, way in which the idea of public opinion (since this paragraph is merely an illustration and what one has discussed for Brahmin could well have been any other ascriptive category) is used. Fair it would be to note that, in most reportage and journalistic analysis, public opinion is always a metonym. It is a synechdochic move made more by the journalists of their views and that of their social network than it is a distilling of ideas and views that through the crucible of political process is articulated and then reported by the journalists.


Aloke Thakore is a media consultant, journalist, and teacher. He can be reached at 

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