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The verdict: Sarasvat indicted

TENSING RODRIGUES

Central to our idea of brahman is their ethnicity; not their ‘varn’ (caste), not their ‘karm’ (occupation), nor any other attribute that may be conventionally attached to that term. The ethnicity obviously has a geographical connotation. When we say that a certain group is brahman, it implies that the group derives its origin from a people who migrated into the Indian sub-continent around 2,000 BCE from the steppes of Central Asia. It is this genetic legacy that describes, defines and delimits the brahman. If members of a group have any other attributes which would conventionally let them be called as brahman, but does not carry this ancestry, then we do not consider them as brahman. Therefore, if we say that a group is not brahman, it means and only means that the group does not have a Central Asian steppe ancestry; it does not rob them of any other attribute. Because, we are interested purely in the ethnic mosaic, that constitutes the Komkni people. It is in the context of such a rigorously defined filter that we proceed to ask the question: is this a brahman group?

It would be interesting to look at how the ‘brahmanhood’ came to be defined in the last few centuries of the millennium. We have before us a text which is supposed to contain a verdict issued by a council of Shivaji’s court-pandits led by Gagabhat, the celebrated pandit from Banaras, who officiated at Shivaji’s coronation ceremony; it is titled Syenavi jati dharma nirnaya (Syenavi – jati – dharma – nirnaya = A verdict on the dharm of the senvi caste); here senvi stands for sarasvat. Though the sarasvat used the term to mean ‘learned’ or ‘teacher’ among themselves, and applied it as a honorific title to those in the professions of teaching, writing and accounting, the karhade used it as a derogatory term derived from the word syen meaning a hawk, based on a legend that the sarasvat had consumed hawk meat during a drought.

The manuscript of Nirnaya found at a local Samskrt school in Rajapur was published in 1913 by P N Patvardhan in the annual report of Bharatiya Samshodhaka Mandala at Pune. The manuscript mentions the names of two scribes: Gopala Gurjara and Vinayaka who made a copy of an earlier manuscript. The text begins with a letter addressed by a group of brahman from various places in Ratnagiri such as Rajapur, Sangameshwar, Lanje, etc, to a community of karhatak (karhade) brahman who are said to be experts in Dharmasastr. This letter is a response to a letter written by some karhade brahman asking the authors of the letter questions regarding the dharm (law) and acar (practice) of a group of people named komkne or senvi from Rajapur town. In answer, the authors of the letter from Ratnagiri quote the verdict given by the council of Shivaji’s court-pandits led by Gagabhat in 1664 [Patil, 2010: Conflict, Identity ,and Narratives – The Brahman Communities of Western India from the Seventeenth through the Nineteenth Centuries, 124].

The verdict centres on the life of a brahman during an adversity (apad). It quotes passages from Dharmsastr that prescribe the norms of behaviour for a brahman during such a situation (apaddharma). On the basis of citations from the Manusmrti, the text concludes that during times of calamity when a brahman has no other means of subsistence, or when he is not able to carry out his own dharm he is allowed to undertake the occupations of ksatriya or vaisya, subject to certain restrictions. The pandits’ decision also contains Dharmasastr injunctions regarding the diet of a brahman in adversity; it cites various Smrtis according to which a brahman may consume certain types of meat in life-threatening situations [Patil, 2010: 129].

So far so good; the verdict is only recommendatory. The indictment of the sarasvat comes in the next part where the verdict quotes a story from the last canto of Padmapuran. According to this story a sixty year famine struck the earth during which all beings perished. Several brahman died of hunger and thirst. Some relocated to the banks of the river Ganga and survived by eating vegetables; others took shelter around various lakes and rivers, and survived by drinking water or by eating fruits, lotus-stalks, wild rice and grass to protect their dharm. Some brahman took shelter near the Godavari, Reva, Kalindi, Kaveri and Sharayu rivers and protected their dharm by surviving on the medicinal herb brahmi. Those who went to the banks of the Krsna river sustained themselves on the juice of the sacred grass durva and cow milk. Some brahman ate lotus seeds. These brahman saved their own lives, and more importantly saved their dharm. But there were other brahman who did not save their dharm. They resorted to eating animals; they ate hawks (syen), chiken and other forest creatures. These brahman saved their own lives, but did not save their dharm [Patil, 2010: 131].

Before we proceed any further, let us note the two simple and obvious, but important, conclusions one draws from the Padmapuran story up to now. One, the good brahman were the karhade, and the bad brahman were the sarasvat; Nirnaya was the karhade response to Sahyadrikhand. This quid-pro-quo has to be seen in the context of what we have seen earlier: the need for texts to support the contentions of the litigating parties before the judicial authorities. Probably Nirnaya was produced expressly to counter Sahyadrikhand on such occasions. Moreover, we do not know if the verdict quoted in Nirnaya is genuine. Valaulikar has pointed out that the date of the verdict quoted in the text – year 1664 – is not consistent with Gagabhat’s presence in Shivaji’s court, as the pandits came there only in 1673. Also the context of the verdict is suspicious. It is highly improbable that Shivaji should ask his council of brahman to investigate into the dharm of the caste called senvi, as he must have been familiar with this caste much earlier. Komkanakhyan and Dasaprakarana were the sarasvat response to the Nirnaya; the second was specially structured as the sastric defense of the sarasvat.

The second conclusion that one draws from the Padmapuran story is that the karhade brahman are very much desasth; they are the brahman from the Godavari, Reva, Kalindi, Kaveri and Krsna river valleys; this corroborates Athalye’s hypothesis that karhade are desasth who migrated to Komkan. This is far more important to us in the context of establishing the identity of the karhade brahman.

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