How Muktibodh, a staunch critic of classism, glossed over casteism

Muktibodh was a leading Marxist poet and critic. He has vehemently attacked class-based society and literature, but an awareness of caste differentiation is completely missing in his perspective. At times, he even appears to be supporting it. Kanwal Bharti analyses Muktibodh’s critical judgment

Evaluation of Muktibodh’s works of criticism from a Bahujan perspective

To me, Gajanan Madhav “Muktibodh” is more complex as a poet than as a critic. His poetry has such complexity of expression and is so incomprehensible that it makes no sense to me. Once, when I shared this issue with Pranay Krishna he told me that once he had explained his poetry to me I would be able to appreciate him. He was right because he taught Muktibodh and had command over his subject. But, what is the point of poetry that needs to be read under the guidance of an expert?

I have read Muktibodh’s three works of criticism: first, Nayi Kavita ka Atmasangharsh (which I read long after reading Namwar Singh’s Kavita ke Naye Pratiman); second, Bharat: Itihas aur Sanskriti, which he wrote as a textbook. He wrote in the preface to the second book that “this is not a history book”, “it is not an original book” and that the material had been borrowed from different sources. We can treat this as a book he edited. Third, Kamayani: Ek Punarvichar, which is regarded as the best progressive work of criticism even today. If we exclude the history book the remaining two books are matchless works of criticism. Unfortunately he was not bestowed with a long life and died prematurely at 47 years of age. Had he been alive today he would surely have reviewed many of his thoughts.

Kamayani: Ek Punarvichar

I begin with Kamayani: Ek Punarvichar. In its last chapter, Muktibodh declares in Swami Vivekananda’s style: “Today the leadership of culture is in the hands of upper classes, which includes the upper middle class, too. But this situation may not necessarily last forever. It may change. And, when it does, it will happen so fast as to take everyone by surprise.”[1] Further, he has commented on the decline of the influence of the low-caste saints of the Middle Ages – that revolution has to eventually lose out to the old order, though he also prophesises that a time will come soon when revolution will witness revival. In other words,

‘Kamayani: Ek Punarvichar’

“Because defeat to the creators, leaders of the old culture is inevitable. I’m referring to those who have entered that class from the class of Nirgunvadis [those of worship a formless God] like Kabir. It was a revolt of the lower-category people within society that had established itself on the socio-religious plane. Subsequently, sagunvaad (worship of god in physical form) and Vedantic religion triumphed over nirgunvaad (worship of formless god), and in the field of culture the lower-castes and lower-category people had to retreat. It is not necessary that in the future these lower-category people will remain subdued. Perhaps, the time is coming soon when they themselves will take over the cultural leadership, and the present leadership will decline and disintegrate. Those who perpetrate exploitation in society and also those who support this group should fear a counter-revolution. We need not fear any revolution because we are the downtrodden, and the indestructible; we can survive under any condition. I state this keeping the poor, distressed and exploited middle class in mind.”[2]

But the triumph of Sagun and mythical religion Muktibodh talks about, in reality, is the counter-revolution of Brahmanism. When he observes that “entire Kamayani does not have a chapter on the rise of the new civilization”[3] and progress of science he is actually viewing from the perspective of counter-revolution. But he is unable to state openly that Kamayani’s creator Jaishankar Prasad was a counter-revolutionary poet. However, Muktibodh agrees with Prasad that “basically class differentiation, class struggle and arrogance were responsible for disintegration” of society.[4] But what he regarded as the process of disintegration was actually a process of transformation, which had begun in the entire country in the 20th century. Prasad was opposed to this transformation.

Kamayani was published in 1937 – it was probably written earlier. Prasad had witnessed the failure of the Mutiny of 1857, in which the Brahmins and the feudal elements had opposed India’s social reforms carried out by the East India Company in favour of the women and the lower-caste. He had also observed how Christianity and Islam were giving rise to a new awakening. He was witness to the movement against the caste system: Dr Ambedkar’s movement and the Swami Achootanand-led movement in the Hindi belt. All of this disturbed him. That is why Kamayani is a work of the Hindu resurrection. Muktibodh observed the opposition to the class struggle in Kamayani, but not the opposition to the caste struggle. Perhaps, as it was the case with the contemporary brahmanical socialists, caste-related issues did not exist for Muktibodh. But he was certain that a time would come soon when the leadership of the new culture would be at the hands of the lower class. That time has certainly come but the leadership is with the lower castes, not the lower class. Today, the leadership of politics and social renaissance is in the hands of the lower castes.

Although these castes are protectors of Brahmanism and capitalism, not their destroyers, yet this is an era of caste struggle, not class struggle. Nonetheless, Muktibodh’s observation holds good even today that the old-order Sagun and mythological religion has always been active to absorb the revolution (meaning counter-revolution), which can be seen by the leadership dominated by brahmanical elements.


Muktibodh’s Kamayani is deeply influenced by his class perspective, which prevents him from discerning machinations of Brahmanism. By discussing capitalism, imperialism, Vaiwad, Adwaitwad, mysticism and many other isms he has turned his criticism complex and incomprehensible much like his poetry. His erudition is evident but he hasn’t done justice as a critic of society from an Indian perspective. For instance, Muktibodh writes,

“Credit has to be given to Prasad for pointing out that when a society is on the decline, when social structure stagnates, it latches on to religion or mysticism or some kind of idealism. Its main attraction is towards religion or mysticism only. The capitalism which, during its rise, liberated the minds of people from the strong clutches of religion, necessarily latches on to religion or mysticism in order to save its disintegrating structure.”[5]

Capitalism exists in the foundation of the Hindu caste system. Therefore, there is no question of its weakening. The caste system is another name for Brahmanism, and Brahmanism will always support capitalism. It will not only support capitalism but also develop and expand it. This is the Nehruvian model of mixed economy. Why does Muktibodh talk of mysticism again and again? And what is this idealism, which Prasad is latching on to? Is it not Varnadharma, which Muktibodh, for unknown reasons, could not muster enough courage to acknowledge? He comes very close when he observes: “Classless society requires that interest of one person does not clash with others, one party does not quarrel with other, each one in society lives in harmony with other. Classless society is an ideal. It strives for a society where there is no discrimination.”[6]

Is it possible to have a classless society with caste system in tow? Nobody can answer in the affirmative. But class-consciousness of Muktibodh could not accept this reality. On classless society, he merely says: “But it offers no remedy for the destruction of class differentiation and exploitative social ills. It offers as a remedy the principle of harmony, which at best is a psychological state. This can’t change the social structure.”[7]

Here, Muktibodh treats the caste system as a social evil and moves on. It is obvious that he did not belong to the “exploited” class, rather he was a member of “elite” society. That is why he views the soul of Hindu religion, that religious system, which enjoys the status of Hindu law, and which is the staunchest supporter of private capital, merely as a social evil. If it is merely a social evil, then like many other social evils, like crossing the seas, it should have died out with the passage of time. Why didn’t the caste system come to an end? Why untouchability continues to survive even today? It is understandable that Kamayani’s author Prasad is worried about the rise of the Dalit and backward castes due to the Christian, Islamic and British reforms in the 20th century. He was also worried because they were discarding their traditional jobs, which the Hindu society had prescribed. But what was Muktibodh’s limitation? His limitation was that like his contemporary brahmanical socialists he was negating the varna issue as casteism.”

Yet, Muktibodh has the courage to accept that Prasad’s reverence for imaginary society, which is the principle of harmony, is a psychological state. The principle of social harmony of the RSS, the Hindu nationalist organization, is also a psychological state, the sweet pill of which dulls the senses of those exploited by the brahmanical and capitalist system. That is why Muktibodh’s logic that “principle of harmony can be brought into existence only when the social structure is altered and capitalist culture is completely destroyed” is correct. But he should also have added that without eliminating Brahmanism neither the social structure would change nor would the capitalist culture be destroyed.

Nayi Kavita ka Atmsangharsh

Leaving aside Kamayani now, I will discuss the most hotly debated book of Muktibodh, Nayi Kavita ka Sangharsh. All the essays compiled in this book may have been written five to ten years before his death (1964). During that time, the Naya Kavita phase had begun. It was the biggest spectacle in Hindi poetry. Before this, Hindi poetry had witnessed similar spectacle with Chhayawad, mysticism, experimentalism, and progressive writing. This farce unfolded because no poet has emerged from the grass roots. All of them have emerged from the background of Brahmanism and Hindutva. Therefore, their sensibilities were shaped by this culture. Their language, phrases, emotional expressions, everything were religious. They were sensitive to nature, mother Ganges, mountain, garden, sky, cloud, rain, flowers, trees and waterfalls, and regarded expression of emotions from gross (sthool) to subtle (sookshma) and vice-versa as poetry. They also had Bhakti consciousness of the Middle Ages, which is why they regarded even eulogy of religion and hymns as poetry. As they themselves wrote poetry and were their own critics, some of them found Chhayawad, some discovered mysticism, while others, who were influenced by humanism of the West, even found progressive element in poetry. The poets who experimented with language, came to be regarded as experimentalist. Interestingly, the poetry had everything – Chhayawad, mysticism and experimentalism – except the human being. That human being who was being tormented and killed by Brahmans and Hindus in cities and villages, was treated worse than animals and even his shadow (chhaya) could defile others. There was no compassion for this human being even in progressive poetry, which shed crocodile tears for the impoverished.[8] I wish to state that despite the circus, the Hindi poetry of 19th and 20th century was inferior to Kabir’s poetry of the 15th century.

‘Nayi Kavita ka Sangharsh’

This was followed by spectacle of the Naya Kavita. It meant that Hindi poetry had emerged from the old movements to a new environment, which had, obviously at its centre, the new man. But, who was this new man? It would be interesting to know where he lived, what he did, what he ate and what his concerns were? According to Muktibodh, this was a man who aspired to new values. What were they? Muktibodh observes that “new values are born out of the universalization of new situations”.[9] True, but what were these new situations? He says: “India’s total historical condition is such that the poor are becoming poorer and rich are getting richer. There is a yawning gap between well-to-do middle class and its poorer section, which is widening by the day. This poor section is coming to realize that its total emancipation is possible along with that of the poor class, not in separation from them.”[10]

All the Naya Kavita poetry, and that included Muktibodh’s too, had at its core this economically impoverished man. It was really a novel thought, as it was a revolt against the established Hindu thought, according to which wealth and poverty were the result of a previous life or a matter of destiny. If standing for the poor was not an outcome of the Western thought, then it was a novel concept. But it was not so, because it was influenced by class consciousness of the communist movements. The biggest drawback of the class consciousness is that it glosses over caste consciousness, which is embedded in India’s psyche. This is why the doctrine of class consciousness did not meet with success. The creators and supporters of the Naya Kavita could never be casteless. They lived a dual life – as a new man in poetry and as man riddled with caste-consciousness in society.

Muktibodh himself admits that “among the families of the poor section, feudal influence and the new generation’s demands for individual freedom and old generation’s reluctance to give in to those demands, lock them in a unhappy situation making the struggle of new values more complex”. But nowhere does he admit that struggle between the new and the old becomes complex due to the culture of caste.[11] He didn’t want to understand the sociology of caste, which is why he couldn’t accept the role of caste in individual’s struggle. Consider his observation: “By the time he turns 25, when fresh aspiration and new ardour is needed, he turns old. The struggle for livelihood crushes his spirit. Hunger for affection suppresses him. Though enthused by the hunger for knowledge, he lacks the means to acquire it. That is why his lasting emotions are anger, hatred, distrust and dejection. Simultaneously, the need to meet the obligation of the loved ones, eagerness to turn individual struggle into a social struggle – and the related curiosity. From being emotional he now turns into an intellectual.”[12]

The circumstances Muktibodh has mentioned as those in which the youth turn into intellectuals, are laughable. Had the dejected youth turned into intellectuals this way, then this nation would have witnessed many revolutions. Frustrated youth commit suicide, or to make a living they will take up jobs they are overqualified for or take up jobs with low wages. Muktibodh has portrayed the struggle of a common youth. But he had not appreciated the experience of the struggle of Dalit youth. That is why he could not empathize with the Dalit boy facing innumerable insults from school to college to earn respect and the agony he is put through to secure a job. Then which new human being was he talking about? Was this new human being of the Naya Kavita poet sensitive to the Untouchables of the nation?

Actually, Muktibodh was not clear in his ideas. At one place, he states, “New art, new poetry has become an international commodity. But, assimilation in one’s own country will lead to pantheism, otherwise not.”[13]

Which country – that of the Vedas, Puranas, or Shankar’s, Kabir’s, Tulsi’s? Or by being assimilated into the culture in the Varna system? When by assimilation in one’s traditions and culture it is not possible to achieve egalitarianism, then how is it possible to achieve pantheism? In another article “Hindi Kavya ki Nayi Dhara”, which during the phase of “Tarsaptak” and “Doosra Tarsaptak” was being liberated from Chhayawad, he rightly observes: “Until we portray the entire self of the tortured humanity of the age, his real joy and sorrow, note his struggles and aspirations and pave the way for his future and responsibilities, the responsibility of Naya Kavita is incomplete. If we don’t complete this job somebody else will come and do it. Such historical necessities do not wait for anyone.”[14]

Dalit poets filled the void in Hindi poetry. And, needless to say, Dalit poetry played the role of new poetry in Hindi. But all the supporters and established poets of Naya Kavita opposed Dalit poetry, the reason being Dalit poetry had turned their poetry irrelevant, and had exposed their new man. This Dalit poetry did not belong to the 1980s, but it was being composed during the Naya Kavita phase.

Bharat: Itihas aur Sanskriti

‘Bharat: Itihas aur Sanskriti’

Now, a brief discussion on Muktibodh’s “Bharat: Itihas aur Sanskriti”. As I mentioned earlier, he admitted that this book is not original. It is interesting that when a litterateur attempts to write history, he become bereft of reason. Generally, Hindi litterateurs are ignorant of history, and historians are unfamiliar with Hindi literature. Thus, naturally, factual and objective errors occur. Many Hindi litterateurs have written history without possessing a sense of history, and committed blunders. (Historians writing literature have made such blunders to lesser extent.) Take Kabir’s “sakhi” for example:

Meetha khan madhukari, bhanti-bhanti ko naaj                                      

Dawa kiska hi ka nahi, bin bilait bad raj[15]

All litterateurs have got the meaning of “bilait” wrong. Babu Shyamsundar Das has written in the preface of Kabir Granthavali, “Christianity had not come to India in his time, but the word ‘bilait’ has been mentioned – ‘bin bilait bad raj’. It can’t be stated with certainty whether he meant some European country or just a foreign country.”[16] Shyamsundar Das made this mistake because he was ignorant of history. He would have found its meaning had he studied medieval history. Professor Omprakash Gupta, in his book Kabir aur Samkaleen Itihas, has given the correct interpretation of this “sakhi”. He explains that “bilait” was the commonly used local form of the Persian “bilayat”, which meant a geographical region or region of influence of Sufi saints. Understood this way, Kabir is saying that beggars are not confined to a territory, but roam around the entire country to beg.”[17]

Muktibodh made mistakes of similar nature in Bharat: Itihas aur Sanskriti (1962), which led the Madhya Pradesh government to ban the book. A case was filed against him and the court also found it objectionable. He had lifted parts from the books of historians Suniti Kumar Chatterjee, K.M. Pannikar, Radhakumund Mukerji, B.G. Gokhale and B.N. Luniya without applying his mind – because he was purely a student of literature. That is why the unscientific references to mixing of blood, vratya, varnasankar and so on did not even cause him to consider whether castes were really formed by illegitimate relations, about which Manu was so convinced. It is surprising that in his defence Muktibodh justified his unscientific thought. In his letter to the Madhya Pradesh governor, he wrote, “I have borrowed the terms “mixing of bloods”, vratya and varnasankar from historians, who have used them unhesitatingly in many places. They have been used even in Manusmriti, which proves that they do not have immoral and inflammatory connotations, but had come to acquire definitional meaning. Historians have used these words to convey their definitional meanings.”[18] Varnasankar is an indecent word in itself, which means harami (bastard) in local parlance. Brahmins have used varnasankar to demean lower castes.  

It is surprising that Muktibodh believed in the myth that the vanquished people of the Indus Valley were called Shudra, and the “holy Brahmins” cohabited with the daughters of these Shudras and varnasankar castes were born, who were called Vratya. And Mahavir was a product of Vratya.[19] What kind of glorification is this that the Brahmins who established illegitimate relations with others’ daughters were regarded as holy? It did not occur to him that castes regarded as varnasankar were the civilized tribes of the country. Instead, he clarified to the governor that “varnasankar was a social reality”.

Shunahshesh, Vishwamitra’s son, was born to Ugra, daughter of non-Aryan king Shambar. Could this Aryan farmer forget the humiliation that his dark-skinned mother Ugra had to commit suicide? Could Vedvyas, who created vedic sanhitas, forget that his mother Satyawati was a dark skinned non-Aryan daughter of an oarsman?[20] Agreed, varnasanka is a fact, but it is not a rule to explain the birth of castes. Had Muktibodh examined the castes sociologically, he wouldn’t have been enamoured by the myths, getting entangled in their cobweb, and having understood the difference between mixing of blood and varnasankar he would have also been revising history.

(Translation: Parmanand Baiga; copy-editing: Anil)

[1] Kamayani: Ek Punarvichar, 2010, Rajkamal Prakashan, New Delhi, p 160.

[2] ibid

[3] ibid, p 176

[4] ibid

[5] ibid, p 143

[6] ibid, p 144

[7] ibid

[8] Gandhivadi poetry, which was political, and supported Gandhiji’s Harijan movement; some sympathy towards the Untouchable is discernible

[9] Nai Kavita ka Sangarsh, Nai Kavita: Ek Dayitva, 2009, p 109

[10] ibid, p 110

[11] ibid

[12] ibid, p 111-12

[13] ibid, ‘Nai Kavita aur Adhunik Bhavbodh’, p 122

[14] ] ibid, ‘Hindi Kavya ki Nai Dhara’, p 133

[15] Kabir Granthawali, Shyamsundar Das, 2041, Vikrami, ‘Besaas ko Ang’, p 46.

[16] ibid, Preface, p 39

[17] Kabir aur Samkaeen Itihas, 2011, p 18

[18] Bharat: Itihas aur Sanskriti, p 258

[19] ibid, p 237

[20] ibid, p 259

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