A Bahujan Critique of Brahminism: Reviewing Ilaiah’s Why I am Not a Hindu

Sparsha Barman

All About Ambedkar: A Journal on Theory and Praxis, Volume 1, Number 1, March 2020

Kancha Ilaiah, who calls himself Kancha Ilaiah Shepherd, is an Indian witer in English and Telugu, a political theorist and a former professor of Political Science at Osmania University, Hyderabad. A majority of his literary and social works are concerned with the rights of the Dalits and the alleviation of their suffering. His book Why I am Not a Hindu: A Sudra Critique of Hindutva Philosophy, Culture and Political Economy was published in 1996 as a systemic critique of Hindutva hegemony and Brahminical practices inherent in the Indian society, which made the “Dalitbahujans” easy victims of social oppression. In the preface of the book, the author narrates the story behind the creation of the book where he states that his “constant interaction with the Dalits in Dalit and civil rights movements” (vii) has helped him to build a discourse comparing their economic, cultural, political and societal orientation with that of the Hindus, or the Brahminical Indians per se. Ilaiah condemns the several ‘traditional’ (read hegemonic) practices that constitute the Indian social fabric and tries to bring down the tall tower of Brahminical imperialism.

In the Introduction, the author explains how the Dalitbahujans have constantly been otherised by society since ancient days, mostly by Hindutva politics. He boldly remarks that “the very sight of its saffron-tilak culture is harassment to us” (ix) and argues that the Sudras and the Ati-Sudras own an original religious, economic, political, social and cultural philosophy of their own, which differs vastly from the Hindu philosophies. Thus, they need not be incorporated or absorbed into the body of Hinduism and Hindutva at all. He derecognizes the word ‘Hindu’ and puts emphasis on the Dalitbahujan traditions, and at the end, proposes that time has come when the flag-bearers of brahminism “must learn to listen and to read what we have to say” (xii).

In the first chapter of the book, Ilaiah tries to justify the title of the book, i.e., why he is not a Hindu. The chapter opens with a simple assertion – “I was not born a Hindu for the simple reason that my parents did not know they were Hindus” (1). People only identify with a certain religion when they see others worshiping the same God, going to the same temples and practicing similar idioms and rituals. The author’s family, living in a small South Indian village carried only the identity of their caste – a ‘lower’ caste – Kurumaa; and that was all they could identify themselves with. None of the organized or dogmatic religions was relevant to them as none of them reflected on their life and consciousness. We read glimpses of how the sense of superiority and inferiority of castes is disseminated right from his childhood days. However, there is also an evidence of some sort of gender equality when he talks about caste training of teen boys and girls. Since education was kept out of the equation, the equality of both the sexes involved the domains of physical labour – agricultural and domestic – that would keep the wheel of their life rolling.

(In pic: Kancha Ilaiah at Kerala Literature Festival, Kozhikode in 2018.

Image Courtesy: Wikimedia Commons. Photographer: Sreejith Koiloth.)

The Dalitbahujan community, for Ilaiah, views sexuality as a natural phenomenon and approaches, in an open-minded way, the problems pertaining to family and relationships. Children are introduced to these aspects in the familial space since their culture tends to judge younger ones mostly as it judges the adults, and according to the author, this gives a kind of parity in their cumulative consciousness. He observes that their sense of morality and immorality was not divinely derived, but rather was constructed, much logically, ‘in terms of the harmony of the family’ (Ilaiah 5).

Ilaiah goes on to speak about the language of the Dalitbahujans and its inter-relationship with their occupation, defining it as ‘production-based communication’ (6). Dalitbahujan divinity is also described as based on their occupational identities, not on natural forces or Brahminical legends. He calls the Hindu divinity ‘patriarchal’ as also the Hindu households – “A Hindu family is hierarchical. Girls must obey boys, children must obey elders. Sex and age are two determining and measuring rods of the status of the family” (9). Carrying forward this same disdain, Ilaiah argues that the traditional educational system is a slave to ‘Hindutva’ politics, wherein the Mahabharata and the Ramayana remain a constant, and no Dalitbahujan myths and legends ever find any mention in the textbooks. He argues that ‘the textbook morality was different from our living morality’ (17), as those in the textbook basically pertain to Brahminical consciousness. He opines that the ‘sanskritized’ culture never let the Dalitbahujan consciousness grow and that ‘there was the conspiracy to suppress the formation of our consciousness’ (14). He highlights the kind of exclusion that the Dalitbahujan community has suffered at every level, at all times, and in all aspects of life, caused by the traditional Brahminical norms of society. The Dalitbahujan, however, was required to identify themselves as an independent unit in the national fabric.

Ilaiah then analyzes the various social aspects of the Dalitbahujan livelihood, beginning with marriage. He observes that marriage in their culture is a ‘human and worldly affair’ designated to perform the ‘human functions of production and procreation’ (20). Juxtaposed to this is the Hindu understanding of the institution of marriage as a divinely solicited union, ‘divorced from productive activity’ (20). Ilaiah criticizes the omnipotence of Hindu gods and calls the idea of Hindu God a ‘stud-bull’ in a quiet dismissive sense. The Hindu ideology, that associates every aspect of life with divine grace and providence, is completely nonsense for him. For a Dalitbahujan, daily chores, like cooking, is an absolutely mundane activity, just for the purpose of feeding the members of the family, having nothing to do with Gods, unlike the Hindu households where the food cooked is also accredited to the grace of God.

Ilaiah’s critique of Hinduism continues as he quotes from the Gita – “You have the right to work but not to the fruits”. He argues that such a statement puts all the fruits at the hands of the Brahminical supremacists, with the working Dalitbahujan class left with nothing, except blood and toil. The kind of caste-based discrimination that has been preached in Hindu scriptures consciously disempowers the ‘lower’ Sudra castes and accumulates social, economic, and political powers in the hands of the Brahminical aristocracy. Same is the case with the Baniyas who are extremely exploitative – a character which originates from their stronghold over economic exchange and the resulting deposition of huge wealth. This excessive control over the macrocosmic economy by the Baniyas, attributed to their affiliation with Brahminism, has in turn caused the practice of caste-based discrimination of the Dalitbahujans. This clearly shows that, in Indian society, wealth has always been the deciding factor of power and politics. The Baniyas in their space, and the Hindus in the nation, practiced the same manoeuvres to preserve their social seat of power, as well as to ensure that the Dalitbahujans do not organize and rise up uniformly to claim socio-political and economic equality.

Continuing in the same vein, in the following chapter, Ilaiah discusses the “Emergence of the Neo-Kshatriyas and the Reorganization of Power Relations”. In this chapter, he explores how the very idea of a caste system creates the divide in the minds of people and how it inherently carries the character of internal power struggle. As the name suggests, he tries to find these power relations with reference to the new section of people whom he calls the Neo-Kshatriyas. He tries to locate the binary between the Neo-Kshatriyas and Dalitbahujans in the greater socio-political context. By Neo-Kshatriyas, Ilaiah refers to the ‘Sudra upper-caste’ people who have recently started to emerge as a replacement for the now mostly dormant Kshatriya or warrior class, "by establishing hegemony in all structures in which power operates” (37). Ilaiah names certain castes like Reddies, Velammas in South India, and, Marathas, Patels, Rajputs in North India, whom he identifies as members of this Neo-Kshatriya class. This class has failed to stabilize any political scenario and the author is of the opinion that these ‘Sudra upper-caste’ individuals, having agricultural and non-brahmin roots, often dwindle between democracy and dictatorship. They are even worse than the Kshatriyas as they lack even a distant sense of ideals. This directly conflicts with the fact that every relationship in a Dalitbahujan community is personal, social and political at the same time. This same multi-layered relationship contributes to the spirit of unity among the Dalitbahujans. To quote him, "There is nothing like mine. Everything is ours.” (41) However, Hindu ideology upholds the notion of private property which is used by the ‘upper caste combine’ to assert and exert political power, which roots from ‘casteized patriarchal authoritarianism’ (43). Ilaiah writes that if the Dalitbahujan community had received the uncorrupted revolutionary theory of Marxism, India would have undergone a Dalitbahujan socialist revolution. But the theory reached only the ‘Brahmins, Baniyas and Neo-Kshatriya’, the wielders of the sceptre themselves. The Dalitbahujans were again left out in the dark. However, the only successful movement was the Ambedkarite anti-caste movement, which dealt a heavy blow to Hinduism and Brahminical hegemony, during and after the Independence. The struggle is still on.

Ilaiah then offers an overview of the postcolonial changes in the relation between the Dalits and the Hindus. There was no considerable change in the treatment of the castes in the education system. He admits though that on entering college, he was introduced to the European education system, and found it much less oppressive for the lower classes of people than the conventional Brahminical system. However, the Dalitabahujans were still assessed to be the ‘other’ of the society, and such surnames as Ilaiah, Yellaiah, Malliah were still looked down upon as they were beginning to receive higher education. Afterwards, as he entered the urban life, he found that, instead of a 'decasteized' urban space, everywhere a Brahminical consciousness pervaded. The entire ‘urban civil’ society had already turned into a piece of machinery to "otherise" the Dalitbahujan community just as the case had been in their village and/or colonial setting. The postcolonial political parties, which he broadly classifies into two schools – liberal democrats and communists, also failed the Dalitbahujans. The Congress, from the liberal democratic wing, had risen to blundering political power in the initial postcolonial era, and as Ilaiah finds, ‘was systematically moulded into being a bhadralok party’ (58). To describe the intra-party relationship between a Dalitbahujan and an ‘upper-caste,’ the author alludes to the relationship between Hanuman and Rama, which makes the real hierarchy as clear as it can be. The party claimed to be fighting for the welfare of the Dalitbahujans, and under the hood of such claims, was shrewdly accumulating state resources and powers in the hands of the upper-caste Hindus of the party. On the other hand, the Indian Communists remained (or perhaps deliberately kept themselves) alienated from the Dalitbahujan community. He points out three aspects of this alienation – i. the Communist leadership belonged to ‘upper caste’, ii. They continued their Hindu lifestyle, despite being Communists, iii. The masses remained poor, while leaders came from relatively wealthy backgrounds. Furthering his disdain for Indian Communists for having compromised with Hindu Brahminism, he argues that the Indian Communist literature never critiqued the Hindu gods; by upholding a double-face, the communists themselves broke away from the counter culture which they posited against the Hindu ideologies. He vehemently attacks the spinelessness of Indian politicians for not rising against the oppression of the Dalitbahujans. He observes that mere ‘sanskritization’ of the Dalitbahujans could not and did not solve casteist humiliation, exploitation, and discrimination. The character of Brahminical political power in India has always been exclusionist and separatist; the scattered revolutions across the nation over the years have just acted as the short tea-breaks.

Ilaiah moves on to explore the relation of the Hindu Gods to Dalitbahujan community and attempts to demystify the Hindu divinity by gradually exposing the socially unacceptable practices sanctioned by such a divinity. The author also explains how the Dalitbahujan community has been pacified systemically as the corpus of this community has been absorbed into the body of Hinduism while at the same time the community has been allocated a low position in the religion itself. Ilaiah points out that several Hindu institutions helped sustain the hegemony of the Brahminical forces either by creating a consent system for the ‘lower’ castes and on failure, taking recourse to violence. He argues that violence has been the chief mechanism of control for Hinduism, which he substantiates by the fact that ‘many of the Hindu Gods were weapon-wielders’ (72) as opposed to the gods of other religions. Besides, the Hindu divinity is perhaps the only form of divinity who uses both consent and violence to compel the masses to submission, and this evidently makes it a fascist religious system. Ilaiah brilliantly demonstrates the logical fallacies of patriarchy and Brahminism inherent in Hindu mythology, and how the association of such evils with the divinity has been made to keep the power-pyramid intact. He points out how Hindu mythology has been silent about Dalitbahujan women or demonized them while upholding the Kshatriya women in all of its ancient literature. Besides this, he mentions the gender equality practised by the Dalitbahujan community, where the widows are respected and not socially isolated or stared at, unlike Hindu communities. No communal riots, he argues, have taken place over Pochamma (a Dalitbahujan goddess) temple, but around temples dedicated to Hindu deities. He provides brief accounts of the major Dalitbahujan deities, their history and inter-relationship with the masses. He writes that there is almost no distance between the Dalitbahujan gods and masses; there is a bi-directional flow of consciousness between the divinity and humanity and that is what upholds the religious equilibrium. That is why the incorporation of the community into the Hindu dominion is destined to be fatal, according to Ilaiah.

Ilaiah’s insightful and provocative analysis takes an interesting turn in the penultimate chapter of the book where he engages in a comparative study of death in both Hindu and Dalit communities. He argues that though birth is accidental and death inevitable, ‘it is also a fact that such death can be moulded into a death according to our own ideas and beliefs’ (103). According to him, the Brahmin ideal, i.e., to live is to die, makes it compulsory for a life to be filled with a contemplation of death, and thereby, psychologically crippling the masses and making them desperate to secure a heavenly afterlife, possible only by the dictates of the Brahmins. The Hindu prayers being a monopoly and a weapon of the Brahmins, they easily establish their hold over the multitude. Ilaiah mentions here the several rituals centred on the Brahmins after the death of a Hindu, which makes the mourning family, unknowingly, resign to the grace of the former. On the other hand, a Dalitbahujan death marks the loss of labour and productive work. He, howeber, criticizes the Dalitbahujan practice of cremation, which he sees as a derivation of the Hindu practice. Ilaiah expresses his wish that the Dalitbahujan should have opted for some other method of funeral because cremation is a practice cleverly utilised by the state agencies ‘to destroy the evidence of torture and murder’ (112).

In the final chapter of the book, Ilaiah puts forward his innovative agenda of ‘Dalitization, Not Hinduization’. By this, he basically means, that the entire Indian society should learn from the Dalitwaadas (Scheduled Caste localities) about their ways of life and inter-relationships, including their political and religious orientations. He specifically points out the spirit of unity maintained by Dalitbahujans and the idea of collective property which prevents their society to degrade into a capitalist structure. Also, on the question of property and inheritance, he raises the question of the relation between life and property, where he sternly attacks the emphasis, put by Hinduism, on the notion of patriarchal inheritance, where women are carefully sidelined from property rights. He describes the Dalitbahujans as ‘collective beings [and]…secular social beings’ (116). He strongly encourages the organization of more Dalit movements to end the plight of the Dalitbahujans in the present Indian society. Ilaiah sums up his findings and makes the following concluding remark - ‘Hinduism is solely responsible for the tragedy of this country’ (127).

Why I am Not A Hindu has been carefully crafted by Ilaiah in an attempt to remind the Hindus (read Indians) of the implicit and explicit forms of Brahminism practiced on a daily basis and how on social and political levels such a practice inevitably marginalizes the Dalitbahujan community. One finds finds a conscious appeal running throughout the book to 'dereligionise' the term ‘Brahminism’ from its Hindu paraphernalia and to portray it as the character of every powerful social class. For Ilaiah, the term refers to the manipulative practices of the socially influential people in India to hold their reins over the weaker sections. The political, social, economic and religious aspects of both the Dalitbahujan and Hindu ways of life have been minutely observed by the author. Having a Dalitbahujan background, he is able to provide first-hand testimony to the contrasts these two communities have historically put forward. It may be argued that, sometimes, Ilaiah sounds quite partial towards the Scheduled Castes while critiquing the Dalitbahujan and Hindu systems side by side. However, apart from that, his critique of various aspects of Hindutva ideology has almost no logical fallacies and the facts he highlights are veritably worrying for all well-wishers of India. Living in the twenty-first century when the country is almost entirely saffornized, the book Why I am Not A Hindu can be a real eye-opener, pushing one to read the Indian polity between the lines, and to try and change it.


Ilaiah, Kancha. Why I am Not a Hindu: A Sudra Critique of Hindutva Philosophy, Culture and Political Economy. Samya, 1996.

Author Information

Sparsha Barman studies English literature at Presidency University, Kolkata. He is a website developer. He has so far developed two commercial websites and has been majorly responsible for developing the website All About Ambedkar (https://www.allaboutambedkaronline.com/). His research interests include classical mythology, Biblical Studies, and Renaissance art and literature. He is a music, photography, art and chess enthusiast. He was involved in a project documenting the history of Murshidabad through folklores and local legends.

For submissions and feedback, write to ambedkarintouch@gmail.com.

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