Vast and powerful Empires are founded on a religion. This is because dominion can only be secured by victory, and victory goes to the side which shows solidarity and unity of purpose. Now men’s hearts are united and co-ordinated, with the help of God, by participation in a common religion. [Ibn Khaldun (1332-1406)]
Religions are not merely social organs meant to promote spirituality. The rituals and traditions they establish may have deep political motives; they are often meant to protect and promote the interests of a group of people at the expense of other groups. The history of the Namboothiri Brahmins in Kerala is an example from history how a group of people entered Kerala at some time long ago and established themselves as the lords of the earth with the help of their gods and scriptures.
At the outset I must say that the entire history and other details in this blog are based on P K Balakrishnan’s book, The Caste System and the History of Kerala [available only in Malayalam so far].
The Roman Empire had trade relations with Kerala during the period from BCE 1st century to 3rd century CE. Pepper was the most exported item from Kerala in those days. Pepper grew abundantly in the forests inhabited by the tribal people of Kerala. Land was not a private property in Kerala until the Namboothiris came much later and took possession, in the name of god, of all the land wherever they settled down. In the tribal culture land did not belong to any particular persons. It belonged to everybody. The tribal people’s was a food-gathering economy. They gathered food from nature wherever it was available without cultivating anything. The tribal people were not friendly in the least to outsiders. Inter-tribal wars were common affairs. Hence the Roman traders wouldn’t dare to enter the forests. They worked through certain intermediaries.
The Namboothiris must have entered Kerala through the Karnataka coast some time in the 7th or 8th century CE. They did not establish any relationships with the Tamil Brahmins or the Tulu Brahmins who also lived in certain regions of Kerala. The Namboothiris did not even follow the traditions of the other Brahmins. They made a set of rules for themselves some of which went against the grain of the Brahmin tradition itself.
For example, while the other Brahmins tied up their hair at the back of the head, the Namboothiris ruled that their hair should be tied in the front. The sacred thread of the other Brahmins had two strands, while that of the Namboothiris had only one. Being totally nude while taking bath was taboo for the other Brahmins, while the Namboothiris stipulated absolute nudity while bathing. Unlike the other Brahmins who had to recite certain mantras while bathing, the Namboothiris had to bathe themselves without letting any god enter their minds. While white dress was forbidden to all women except widows among other Brahmins, the Namboothiris insisted on all of their women to wear white dress only.
The list of such distinctions is pretty long. What the Namboothiris aimed at was to establish themselves as a distinct set of people specially chosen by the gods to occupy and control the land.
And occupy the land, they did. For about 1000 years, the Namboothiris who comprised less than one percent of the state’s population were the proprietors of most of the land in the state. They succeeded in taking possession of the land with the help of gods. Some god or the other appeared to some Namboothiri or the other with the order to take hold of some land and build a temple there. Scriptures, rituals and magic [curse, magic healing, etc, apart from astrology and other pseudo shastra] came in handy in the process. The tribals could be easily controlled with the help of these supernatural entities. Moreover, according to the Namboothiri legend, Kerala was created by Parasuram just for their sake.
There was a caste system among the indigenous people already. The Namboothiris exploited the system to the hilt. They put themselves at the top of the hierarchy. Everybody else was declared ‘untouchable.’ Even the Nairs on whom the Namboothiris depended for most of their work including the cooking of their food were untouchable. The Nair women, however, became the sexual partners of the Namboothiris who did not allow any male member except the eldest son of the family to marry. The Nairs were happy to offer their women to the Namboothiris as the latter were perceived as the earthly incarnations of the gods. The Nairs, for all practical purposes, were raising their social status by letting their otherwise untouchable women share their bodies with the Namboothiris.
The Namboothiris did not allow any other community to build proper houses. Every community existed only for one purpose: the service of the Namboothiris. It is that blatant selfishness that made them enact such rules as the one that denies them even the right to marry and love their spouse and offspring. They wanted to keep their population small so that the entire system would be under absolute control. In the process, not only did the Namboothiris go about spilling their lust wherever else they wished to, but also imposed absolute chastity on their own women.
Any system that is built up entirely on the selfish motives of a group of people cannot last for ever. No wonder, the Namboothiris became an impoverished lot [in every way – morally, materially and intellectually] by the turn of the 20th century.
The Namboothiri history is quite an exception in many ways. Yet it is a fascinating study of how religion can be misused for selfish purposes but with terrifying consequences.
Yet the Namboothiri history is not an exception entirely. Many religions were created for political as well as material purposes, spirituality being a necessary facade. I wrote earlier on the genesis of Islam and its roots in politics and commerce. [https://matheikal.wordpress.com/2011/09/07/the-tribal-mentality-in-islam/]
The growth of Christianity also has much to do with the Roman Empire. Emperor Constantine’s conversion to Christianity and the subsequent slogan that was heard loud and clear in Rome, “One god, one emperor, one empire, one church, one faith,” are eloquent proofs about the integral relationship between religion and politics.
It is pertinent that today the reformist moves made in many religions including Hinduism in India are made by political leaders rather than religious persons. It is always easy to hide human selfishness behind sacred idols.