Part of this article was published in Consumer Edge, Times of India, 2 Feb 2008.
Usually advertising tends to steer clear from controversial social realities like caste and religion. So it is refreshing to see an television ad that addresses it head-on: the now famous ‘What an idea, Sirji!’ ad of Idea cellular. It draws attention to the equalizing power of mobile technology — how by subscribing to this network everyone can have a unique identity, abandoning traditional jati based identity, that for centuries has divided communities and spread disharmony. Thanks to Idea network, we are told, the village will no longer be divided along caste lines. There will be no hierarchy, no domination, no violence. There will be peace everywhere. A truly brilliant idea, Sirji!
But then you notice something interesting. Why does Sirji — Abhishek Bachchan in a brilliant yellow turban — not have a mobile number of his own. Why not ‘What a brilliant idea, 9890050505?’ Why is he called Sir? Why the suffix —ji? Why is the man talking to him so servile? And where are the women? Here we are talking about an egalitarian society that renounces the caste hierarchy — yet the feudal and patriarchal hierarchy remains, with Sirji firmly on top of the heap.
Suddenly the ad is no longer funny. We find reflected in it the dark truth of India — our fascination with all forms of hierarchy: hierarchy based on economic status, hierarchy based on feudal authority, hierarchy based on caste, religion, gender, age, even family relationships — manifesting in rituals such as the veiling of women and falling at the feet of elders and seniors. All this creates so complex a web that we have come to accept hierarchy, and the politics of division and domination it nurtures, as perfectly normal, even beneficial.
The Rig Vedic hymn, Purusha-Sukta, equates society with an organism whose head is made of priests, arms of warriors, trunk and thighs of merchants and feet of laborers. Scholars have traced the origin of caste or jati-system to this hymn that seems to celebrate hierarchy. Since the Vedas have always been considered to be divine revelations, scholars have concluded that caste system is an integral part of Hinduism. The British rulers of India used this conclusion to their advantage as part of the divide and rule policy branding Hinduism as a religion that discriminates between people on the grounds of birth.
Embarrassed by such accusations, later scholars, some defensive, some apologetic, went out of their way to prove that the Purusha-sukta has been misinterpreted and that it should be seen in a spiritual not social context. They pointed to verses in the Mahabharata where Yudhishtira, in response to the Yaksha’s question says, “A Brahmin is not born. One becomes a Brahmin through wisdom.” They drew attention to lines in the Bhagavad Gita and the Upanishads that describe all creatures as jiva-atma, souls, equal in the eyes of param-atma, God.
But these spiritual ideas never translated into social reality. Cities and villages across India even today are divided along caste and religious lines. The soulful songs of bhakti poets like Eknath and Purandaradasa and Kabir and Guru Nanak that pleaded the equality of man have fallen on deaf ears. The efforts of the founding fathers of the Indian republic to create a society free of communal strife have not really worked. Even in the 21st century one reads in papers of parents killing their own children for falling in love with members of other castes, communities or religions. Virulent tensions over the Mandal commission, SC/ST reservation and the OBC quota continue to haunt us as do the riots of Ayodhya and Godhra.
Some scholars have argued that the notion of social equality itself is alien to India. The idea that all creatures were born equal in the eyes of God comes from the Biblical tradition where all forms of inequality is seen as the work of the Devil.
Others argue, that Purusha Sukta merely acknowledges the hierarchy that is inherent in any organization. There is hierarchy in schools between front benchers and backbenchers, in monasteries between senior and junior monks, in night clubs between the cool guys and the nerds, in cities between townies and suburbanites, in airplanes between first class and economy passengers. Attempts to rid human society of hierarchy are exercises in futility because humans enjoy domination and there can be no domination without hierarchy.
And it is this fascination with hierarchy that slips in through the backdoor in the Idea advertisement where one form of hierarchy is overturned thanks to the intervention of another form of hierarchy. The mobile network does create an egalitarian society but only through the diktat of Sirji, a turbaned feudal overlord, who no one dares oppose. And no one minds it.