The Tyranny of Titles or Should I say Labels?


Aarambhe Shoora, a descriptive label applied colloquially to Nagars or more generally people of the Brahmin caste, it means Brave Enough to Begin. I can see this being my book title because I am all about beginnings. The catch of course is that staying the course till the end requires so much more.

When I say Brahmin, I am invoking not just the classical label used in understanding Hindu social structure, I’m also invoking the label of my adopted country, where the term Boston Brahmins, carries the connotation of “intellectual.” And let’s acknowledge right away that labels of any sort are massive generalizations, the kind of sweeping statements made at the start of so many freshman composition essays, which begin with the cosmos and the birth of humanity in a five-hundred-word essay about musical riffs of a favorite pop band. But, without labels how would we ever communicate? At this very moment, I am making a huge assumption, that you, my reader, share enough of my world context to have some general knowledge about the Hindu caste system and the perception in the US about intellectuals. Now notice I didn’t say you share my views of such groups. That way is a slippery slope.

Part of the fun is to just explore how different minds align or not within any communication.

But enough preamble. You will see that I will range freely, from using terms with the full confidence that you know what they mean, to stopping and examining terms you might never have bothered to pay attention to, to playing with those terms just for humor, and a lot more besides.

There is a story in my heritage about an event that crosses between the two great Indian epics, The Mahabharata and The Ramayana. When the great battle between the cousins was imminent, Karna, the eldest but unacknowledged son of Pandu’s wife Kunti, took the side of the opposing Kauravas. Growing up with warrior and leadership abilities but in a lower caste household as a foundling, his innate drive pushed him to pursue excellence everywhere. On one occasion, he looked for the greatest warrior of all time, the Sage Parsurama to become his student. Parasurama was a forerunner to the eventual Vishnu avatar called Ram. He had not only vowed but fulfilled his promised to rid the earth of all the warrior caste, called Kshatriyas, because of an insult he had received. The only way for Karna to approach this Sage was to dress as a Brahmin student and disciple. He won Parasurama’s trust and admiration and hoped to achieve his goal: learn of those magical divine weapons that would enable him to defeat the Pandavas. Unfortunately for Karna, one day when he was cradling his master’s sleeping head on his lap in the forest, a bee stung him on the same thigh. Not only that, the bee burrowed deep inside the thigh. Karna did not want to wake his master, his Guru, by making any gesture to dismiss the bee. He bit his lip till Parasurama awoke. As the bee was chased away, Parasurama turned on his own disciple.

You sat there for so long with that bee attacking you?
Yes, Master, I didn’t want to disturb your sleep after so long a journey.
You cannot be my disciple any longer. You are no Brahmin. You must be a Kshatriya to withstand such pain.

Karna confessed to being of even a lower caste. He was sent away. Later the Kauravas lost the great battle.

What does this have to do with Brave Enough to Begin? Human beings are so much more than any label that we use to understand them. Of course, you have to be brave enough to begin, but do you have the staying power to see the task through? Karna had that staying power; but he did not act according to the classification within which he was identified. He was versatile enough to be a scholarly intellectual (a “Brahmin” trait), a fearsome warrior and leader (“Kshatriya” traits), and also humble and obedient (traits assigned to the lower castes). His very versality was his downfall.

And what of Parsurama? He was a Sage, does that mean he was automatically a Brahmin? Early Indian tales can either be read with very strict classified interpretations or as very amazingly open narratives about the world of humanity which will never submit to complete classification.

Human beings won’t stay within their assigned labels. The more complete the human being, the less s/he will fit squarely into a set of boxes.

And yet, and yet, if we don’t use labels or some sort of summary grasp of phenomena and people, how do we make sense of who we are and what happens to us? What we feel and how we connect to others?

The razor’s edge that Maugham wrote about is exactly here. Grasping an essence is to lose it.

But without reaching for it, without attempting to grasp it, what is it?

My joy in reading and writing about Narasinh Mehta is precisely because in his works he met it, played with it, celebrated it, and most of all enjoyed it.

About meenapoetartisan

word lover, meaning maniac, bilingual with metalingual interests, sometimes potter, poet, playwright, writer, mover to music, always a pontificator.
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