Posted on 1-July-2008
[In the second half of the nineteenth century and in the early years of the twentieth there sprung up in India many jati --I prefer the Hindi/Sanskrit word to the English word caste-- organisations and solidarity groups, such as Kayastha Sabha, Bhumihar Brahman Sabha and so forth. The character and objectives of such groups have varied with place and time. Over the years, they have proliferated too, with the result that different and numerous solidarity groups, based on jati, religion or language, dotting the political landscape, have become a familiar feature of contemporary India.
Bhumihars, the more literate among whom now prefer to call themselves Bhumihar Brahmans, are a jati spread over large tracts in the eastern districts of Uttar Pradesh and in Bihar. The largest numbers among them have traditionally been peasant farmers. There is a brief discussion of Bhumihars and of jati also in the chapter entitled Myself in The Waste Sad Time.
In April this year a Bhumihar solidarity group asked me if I would write an article for the first issue of a magazine called Parashurama that they were going to start publishing. I wrote this piece for them after cautioning them that my writing might not be to their liking. Happening subsequently to read an essay on Sahajanand by the American historian, Walter Hauser, who is among a few who have made an academic historian's study of Sahajanand's work, I slightly modified my original piece by adding a few words to further emphasise Sahajanand's differences with the Indian National Congress.]
I cannot remember when I first heard the name of Sahajanand Saraswati but it was probably fifty years ago—I was still a teenager—and it certainly was in family circles. I later heard from bhumihar friends of the family that Sahajanand Saraswati had, in his book Brahmarshi Vansh Vistar, definitively “proved” that bhumihars were brahmans like any other brahmans. I noticed then and later that among bhumihars his name was rarely mentioned without the honorific, even reverential, prefix, Swami, and always only in discussions about the brahmanhood of bhumihars. In the ensuing decades, as my studies and work for my livelihood took me far out of the world of Bihar, I heard very little and thought even less about those community and caste matters that occupied the minds of bhumihars and of Biharis. At some stage later, through my habitually promiscuous readings, I became vaguely aware of Kisan Sabhas during India’s freedom movement and of Sahajanand’s role in them.
Beyond possessing these stray pieces of information, I stayed quite uncurious about Sahajanand Saraswati till about four years ago, when my daughter, a historian who was starting to work on various aspects of caste and identity in colonial Bihar, thought she could usefully look at some of his writings. We tried unsuccessfully to look for them in Hindi bookstores in Delhi or for their English translations in other bookstores there; none of them had heard of him. We asked two other people, both bhumihars from Bihar, both very resourceful, both with feet firmly grounded in the soil of Bihar, to help us find Sahajanand’s written works. I did not hear from them. We were still looking for these when about two years ago a cousin of mine, in a casual conversation, told me that he had just acquired the collected works of Sahajanand Saraswati and sold me his copy in January last year. That is how I acquired some knowledge of Sahajanand’s work, reading Brahmarshi Vansh Vistar, the autobiographical Mera Jeevan Sangharsh and a few of his shorter essays. In what follows I shall describe what I think of him, based on what I have read of his written, published work.
Sahajanand attended the Bhumihar Brahman Sabha for the first time in 1914 in Balia in eastern Uttar Pradesh, and walked out of the last one in Munger in Bihar in 1929 disgusted at the underhand political manipulations by nationalist bhumihar politicians of the Indian National Congress in Bihar such as Srikrishna Sinha, Ramcharitra Sinha and others for making the pro-government Ganeshdutt Singh the president of the sabha. In Balia, he says, the bhumihar participants were surprised when he told them that they were brahmans and that they should start behaving like them. He also started taking interest in encouraging Sanskrit learning among bhumihars. At the urgings of some bhumihar acquaintances he wrote in 1915, Bhumihar Brahman Parichaya which eleven years later he expanded into Brahmarshi Vansh Vistar. In this last mentioned book he first of all says, on the basis of vedic and puranic texts that from the beginning there had been two kinds of brahmans: trikarma i.e. those who performed yajnas, studied and gave away gifts in charity (dana) and shadkarma i.e. those who both performed yajnas and officiated as priests at them, studied as well as taught and gave away gifts as well accepted gifts. Bhumihars he says are brahmans of the former kind. Then he describes the basis on which it can be said that bhumihars were originally kanyakubja brahmans who were forced out of an area near Kannauj when, in the middle of the sixteenth century, they were defeated in battle by a Muslim (Mughal? Pathan?) army. They moved to the eastern districts of modern Uttar Pradesh settling down among brahmans already established there or starting their own village settlements. In another part of his argument he cites the opinions of a number of administrators and judges (mostly British but a few Indians) saying that bhumihars were brahmans and denying that they were lower caste people. Finally he cites actual examples of marital relationships between bhumihars and kanyakubjas, bhumihars and saryuparis, bhumihars and maithils* and bhumihars and tyagis. This very briefly is Sahajanand’s “proof” that bhumihars are brahmans.
Years before he broke his relations with the Bhumihar Brahman Sabhas, Sahajanand had thrown himself fully into the freedom movement and from 1925 onwards he started giving most of his time and energy to organizing Kisan Sabhas (literally meetings of farmers) first of all at the provincial level in Bihar and later at the national level. In 1927 he settled down at Sitaram Ashram near Bihta in Bihar which became the base of his activities for the next twenty years or so. During this period he worked indefatigably, travelling to some of the remotest parts of Bihar, learning about the problems of peasants, mobilising them to articulate their demands, voicing their concerns in Bihar and at the national level, within the forums of the Indian National Congress and outside. As he immersed himself into Kisan Sabha activities he developed differences with almost all the important leaders of the Indian National Congress. Yet, in spite of his growing disillusionment with the Congress because of what he perceived as its indifference towards the lot of the peasantry, he maintained his wholehearted commitment to the freedom movement, leaving the Indian National Congress only after the independence of India. In his Kisan Sabha activities, he took progressively stronger positions against landed interests, including important bhumihar landed interests. He and his colleague Yadunanandan Sharma spent months preparing a report on the condition of peasants and extortions from them in the villages within the area of the bhumihar zemindar of Amawan. He was often in conflict with the bhumihar zemindars of Dharahara and he spent months among the poor peasants and the landless agitating for their rights against the bhumihar landowners of Barhaiya. In the Kisan Sabhas one of Sahajanand’s constant demands was for the abolition of the zemindari system without any compensation for the zemindars. When after independence zemindari was abolished but with compensation for the zemindars he could be said to have achieved partial success. In 1937 he agitated energetically against the Congress Government of Bihar adopting a law about bakasht lands which would have been completely prejudicial to the interests of peasants and he succeeded. The least that can be said about the success of his Kisan Sabha activities was that the interests of poor peasants were voiced at all important national forums during the little more than two decades before the departure of the British. Even after independence, Sahajanand continued to speak about the problems of the peasantry, taking, during the remaining three years or so of his life, positions on economic, social, constitutional and political questions which were far too socialist and far too left wing for the political leadership of the newly independent India.
Perhaps the aspect of Sahajanand’s life which is the most attractive, the most instructive and the most worthy of respect is his intellectual transformation. Born, probably in 1889, into an ordinary, unprosperous, jujhautiya brahman family, who through family ties were fully integrated into the neighbouring bhumihar community, in a village near Ghazipur, he could have been like any other member of his community, uneducated or partially educated, living in a farming family, performing the usual farming chores, observing some religious and caste rituals, conservative, backward and uninterested in anything other than the routine of daily life. Yet, mainly through happenstance, he became interested early in his life in Hindu religious texts, Hindu philosophy and metaphysics and asceticism. He was married early but his wife died not long afterwards. He was sent to schools in Ghazipur where he was a reasonably good student but by the time he reached the ninth grade, he heard of preparations in his family for a second marriage for him. Being more interested in his religious and philosophical studies he left home secretly and lived in a math (i.e. a monastic residence) in Varanasi for some time and studied religion and philosophy but soon left on a long journey in search of a true yogi and concluded, after encounters with some, that there were in fact none. A long journey to Kedarnath and Badrinath followed during which he was exposed to many aspects of religious and ordinary life---some of them negative. For example he says at one point in his account of these journeys that he did not understand distinctions people made between “Hindu” roti (i.e. bread) and “Muslim” roti. In any event he returned to Varanasi, to his old math where he pursued studies of Sanskrit grammar, Vedanta, Nyaya, Vaisheshika and Mimamsa in the pursuit of which last learning he went to a teacher in Darbhanga. In the mean time he also became initiated as a “dandi” sadhu in the Saraswati order. He spent the next few years giving discourses on religion and philosophy, living the life of an ascetic, following the rules of his order, which he continued doing till the end.
As Sahajanand says in his autobiography, by the time he attended the Bhumihar Brahman Sabha of Balia he had been wondering about doing some social service. It is this desire for social service which took him to the freedom movement and eventually to the Kisan Sabhas. His interest in the problems of the peasantry led him to wider reading and to relearning English from which he had turned away after leaving school. In course of time he became a convinced Marxist and religion mattered less and less to him except in his personal life of an initiated sadhu. In one of his later essays entitled “Mera Bhagwan” (My God), he asks: If the deity established in a temple is all powerful why can he not take care of himself, his food, his offerings without the help of people? Why can his temple not be repaired without people? Where would the holiness of a god or goddess or Ganga be without the devotion of people? He goes on to say that his God were the peasants without whose toil there would be no gods and goddesses, no society, and that he hoped one day to make proper rich offerings in the form of adequate food and clothing to this God. This is just a brief outline of the intellectual transformation of the man, a transformation which would not have been possible in someone of smaller intellect, less grounded in reason, logic and actual experience of life, less capable of seeing things with open eyes, unclouded by superstition, less ready to ask questions and to discard false beliefs. It is impossible not to respect such a personality.
Sahajanand’s contributions to the freedom movement of India and to raising the consciousness of peasants during the last quarter century of British rule in India are today unknown except among a small number of historians and social scientists, many of whom happen not to be Indian or happen to be outside India. In official or semi-official accounts of India’s freedom movement he is often relegated to the margin if he is mentioned at all—not surprising, given his ever increasing ideological incompatibility with the Indian National Congress. Bhumihars who “own” him now do so because they remember him for the least important and the least relevant of his work: having “proved” that bhumihars were brahmans was largely irrelevant because no matter what the bhumihars say about their position in the varna hierarchy, large numbers of non-bhumihars including large numbers of brahmans even now do not accept them as brahmans. If bhumihars in their definition of their identity as a community were more self-confident, they would not bother about “proving” that they were brahmans and thus would be able to appreciate the real worth of Sahajanand. To reduce Swami Sahajanand Saraswati to the status of an icon of their community, which is what bhumihars tend most often to do, is to diminish his much more important role in the national life of India and to do disservice to the memory of this remarkable man.
*Kanyakubjas, Saryuparis and Maithils are different sects of Brahmans.