Ritual Transgression, Historical Intervention, Ontological Exit

On June 30, 2015 by admin



Soumyabrata Choudhury




Even as I write this we are being sermonized from the Mount. We are being told to clean up: Swachh B. It has been a rather rapid climb upto the top from the banks of a great river in the last one year.. It all began with the wrenching reminder that the River was overflowing – with impurities. Rotting lifeless flesh, immortal lifeless metal, crystal and poison float and sink, mix and refuse to mix with the waters – surely, taken together they deserve the generic name of ‘impurity’? They would, fluently and felicitously, if it could be clarified what is that pure thing or element which each of these agents ‘impurifies’.  Which pure vital life and which pure philosophical mercury does each parasite and impurity refer to? Surely that source and paragon of purity referred to is the River itself.

The above vulgate needs to be examined: If the River stands for its own absolute purity, then it can’t be subject to the laws of bodies, of organic and non-organic life. The River cant be what a river is – the regular but continuously and imperceptibly changing flows of a kind of ‘mixed’ water.  Water is water and water is also always a ‘mixture’ of bodies that are swept up by it. A river can be analysed into its ‘good’ mixtures and its ‘bad’ mixtures, its alluvium and its noxium; the River on the other hand, is changeless and waterless, immemorial and pure fiat, nothing else but the Name-of- the-River. So it is logical that such a Name should be commanded from a mount in a rather unchristlike sermon.  But what does such an act imply? At least two things: First that the prototype of the immemorial pure entity that belongs to itself in an absolute consistency is the sacred entity. Its domain is traditionally religious and its mode of existence consecrational and ritualistic. But then it is no mystery that the contemporary sermon borrows its brute resonance from sacred hectoring, in the impressive tradition of religious propagandists. It is the second implication that is more interesting, more ‘mixed’ – and that much more insidious.

Which is that given the absolute raising of stakes of the ‘practical’ operation of “cleaning up” to the restoration of a sacred consistency of the River, the consistency of the Name-of-the-River, it is ensured that we will never clean up this River, nay, this drain…this ‘drain-River’. We will not be able to clean the River because the latter is always pre-given as spotless, incapable of being impurified. It is this ‘axiom’ that the anonymous pilgrim enunciated as a fervent entreaty when she says, “…for all the repulsed sensoriums swimming against its current, don’t call the river polluted! She will not survive this assault, she will die from the hurt, don’t do it.” The anonymous pilgrim adds “we can be killers but we can’t be pollutants and transgressors even if we wanted to. Because the River is not a law, it is a truth and doesn’t even need to be capitalised…”

But the Government-on-the-Mount will have none of this axiomatic pathos. It needs transgressors to the point of prescribing them. So the logic of the command/sermon is the following: “As transgressors, our punishment is to enter the drain. We will clean up and never cease cleaning up because in proportion to the degree of our profanation, the sacred Law-of-the-River is demonstrated by contrast. And not only by contrast! By the logic of ritual invocation our profane acts of ‘cleaning’ the drains becomes acts of ‘cleansing’ ourselves so as to prepare to become Citizens-of-the River.  While that sublime future awaits us, let us obsess ourselves, as transgressors and penitents, with the task of becoming ritual citizens under this G – O – M & B ( Government-on-the-Mount & Bank).

In my view notwithstanding the practical urgency of the “Swachh B” project, its essential rationality is to create a form of obedience on a global-national scale through a ritual structure of mutual presupposition between transgression and purification. Every act of transgression demands punishment of the transgressor and purification of the violated consistency; at the same time the setting up of the greater ‘theatre’ of consecrated purity provokes the further transgressive flourish. Strangely, it is the spiralling possibility of transgression that rationalises the endless extension of the ritual field and its efficacy. That is the essential point here: while the ‘acts’ of transgression and purification are encoded through ‘actors’ of the ritual – the pollutant and the priest, the two subjects-of-the-River – the efficacy of the ritual itself is constituted by a generalised obedience that I call “citizenship”. It is a tribute to the strategic acuity of the G-O-M&B that it foresees ritual to be effective in producing obedience on an ever greater scale – and across greatly heterogenous spaces including the political, the economic, the hygienic etc – and not limit ritual action to a formalism. Or, rather the invention of ongoing government is a ritual formalism, or mechanism, to unleash the real force of global-national obedience, paradoxically composed out of complicity between transgression and purification.

Still the question must be posed that how does such an invention fabricate its machine of sermon and government, theatre and efficacy, subject and citizen… rivers and the River? What is its historical ground and cipher, the secret of its encodings? My thesis is that a caste-secret is playing upon the surface of our present and its archival lineaments are available for us to decipher. The purpose of this exercise is not only a critique of the present but also to shatter its secret such that we are freed from the vacillation between sacred hygiene and secular cleanliness, freed towards the possibility of a greater profane health.


An Archival Context: The Ambedkar-Gandhi Debate

In 1936, upon the publication of Babasaheb Ambedkar’s Annihilation of Caste when Gandhi wrote his “vindication of caste”, Ambedkar vehemently – and methodically – shot back with the schematization that the Mahatma’s method was one of something like “consecration” while his own was “thought”.[1] One part of the meaning of such a contrast is that Gandhi deals with society as a double articulation: At one level society exists in the image of physical ‘substances’, clean and unclean, to be promoted and to be ‘drained’; at another level, society is the consecrated result of a ritual transubstantiation whereupon the ‘clean’ becomes ‘pure’  and the ‘unclean’ becomes ‘impure’ so as to be further intensified as an object of purification, hence also destined to become pure. Society is the consecrated and immaculate result of a kind of ritual militancy starting from the axiom that everything can be purified, ending with the injunction that everything must be purified.

Ambedkar recognises, better than most, that Gandhian militancy includes purification by transgression. The evil of Untouchability with its abhorrent interdictions must be violated, the caste-law here must be transgressed. Yet it is only a historico-ritual transgression because like in ritual efficacy, what Gandhian transgression accomplishes, is the purified maintenance of the structure which is society itself. What is produced as a consecrated and purified result is what society always was – immemorial, immaculate, the speculate object of real militant hearts. For Ambedkar, on the other hand, the object of a ‘thinking’ and not of a ‘consecration’ is the very nature of ‘relations’ that make society a logical transcendence but not an ontological one. Society doesn’t exist – except in those vectors we call “social relations” Good and bad substances don’t exist – relations do, some of them are “wrong relations”[2] Caste is one such “wrong relation” which appears within the ritual actor’s divided ‘substance’ as the agent as well as the object of purification.

Separated by almost twenty years, during which period a vibrant and polyphonic dalit critical discourse has emerged, D. R. Nagraj in the 1990’s and Arundhuti Roy recently, have extracted from the archives of the Ambedkar-Gandhi debate, the historicity of events underlying them, a philosophy of history as theatre[3]. What such an extraction has salutorily accomplished is a historical equalization with both protagonists seen sharing the same stage of history. Also, an ‘imago-sensate’ equalization because by sheer manifestation of a kind of ‘stage-presence’ the two diffract an equal ‘sensation’ upon the historical publics of Indian Society. I will call this the salutary formal equalization of Ambedkar and Gandhi by Nagraj’s and Roy’s vivifications. Yet the later-day writers are partisans in their own right and they are not partisans of the same thing or in the same way. Still it is clear that D. R. Nagraj and Arundhuti Roy are also performing a critical rectification of the historical discourse that placed Mahatma Gandhi at the solid – and solitary – centre. I don’t think it can be doubted that this rectification is also an act of discursive justice for a people contra the People consecrated by history. Yet there is something ironic here that I will point out hence forth, with some possible historical and ontological consequences. The brute statement of irony is that while the partisans of discursive justice present Ambedkar as the transgressor of the immemorial caste-laws of Hindu society and Gandhi as their – generous at best, scheming, at worst – guardian, we have just seen how the method of the Mahatma’s conservation was a militant and transgressive one in the sense of transgressive purification. Now I would like to show, in what follows, how Ambedkar placed a greater premium, on militant affirmation and historical intervention instead of ritual transgression and spent the passion of thought on the way of ontological exiting the theatre(s) hitherto known to (Indian) history.[4]


Ritual Transgression

In 1927, during the Mahad Satyagraha, Ambedkar, startlingly, declared that defying the proscription of the upper caste(s) and drinking water from the Chavadar Tank at Mahad was not, in itself, going to make the Untouchables “immortal”. It seems to me that instead of reading Ambedkar’s declaration rhetorically – which it surely is! – we might pose the literal question, as a general ‘test of transgression’: Does transgression, ritual transgression, in particular, with its elaborate machinery and codes of efficacy, effectuate a superior immortality? Is there anything like a ‘ritual immortality’?

But tied to that is the question whether “ritual transgression” is itself a univocal and clear concept. It could mean that a type of transgressive act or speech is prescribed by the ritual itself – like the carnival or the saturnalia – or it could mean that an act/speech transgresses the space of ritual prohibition (like the drinking of water from Chavadar Tank). Or, it could also mean the re-appropriation by ritual or re-ritualisation of a contingent transgression as part of extended ritual apparatus and its efficacy. So the historical violation of a ‘sacred’ proscription such as drinking water from a forbidden public tank can potentially become part of a new regime of allowances and proscriptions, inclusions and exclusions, the sacred and the profane – in other words, a new regime of consecration. This logical potentiality extends to the much-contested issue of Temple Entry for the Untouchables in these decades (upto at least Guruvayur in 1936): Does the right to Temple Entry simply correspond to another structural amplitude of ritual control?[5] Surely this was Ambedkar’s worry and uncertainty. Because, again potentially, such an extension of ritual control, which includes proscription, interdiction and further inclusive transfiguration of the proscribed, can carry on unto the “last things” of space, time, life and the body. The sheer paradigm of “last things”, that is, death can itself be transfigured by ritual into such permanent, immutable form as Martyrdom, Eternal Bliss… from which are born such immortals as Church and the State.[6] Indeed, in this sense, there is only ritual immortality.

In my view Ambedkar resists the simple option of ritual obedience and contingent profanation that is involved in transgressive action. Apart from the critical recognition of ritual-mechanisms of potentially global appropriation, Ambedkar’s refusal of the Mahad event’s specific transgressive property bespeaks a refusal to give up on the thought of the event as an instantaneous immortal. But if the event is not to be personified in terms of sacred action borne by ritual actors – the priest, the pollutant, the Sinner, the Confessor, the transfigured immortal… , if it cannot be absorbed into the ‘theatre of history’ which actually is a ritual palimpsest, and if its existence is nothing but an intense historicity, through and through, then the event must be an historical intervention into the ritual efficacy of history itself. If Gandhi is at the epochal origin of a tremendously efficacious ‘ritual history’ that we boisterously inhabit in our times, Ambedkar raises the possibility of an historical intervention with no stakes in belonging to the efficacy. Not not belonging to any history – but to that one which separates its own sacred and, cleansed sphere of value. If “profane” is the quality of disinterest in such a sphere of either sacred or historical separation, then, indeed Ambedkar’s intervention – and illumination – were, nay, are profane.


Historical Intervention

And yet doesn’t Ambedkar use Gandhi’s epochal word “satyagraha” for Mahad in 1927? Isn’t Gandhi’s satyagraha the epic embrace between ritual efficacy and subjective truth? How can Ambedkar cut this essential knot and retain the thought of satyagraha?

I will attempt a resolution of the above problem in the last part of this essay but before that a historical paranthesis: While on one register the paradoxical schema unravels that Gandhi’s transgressive purification of untouchability from Hindu society corresponds to an interest in that speculative totality we call “Hinduism” and Ambedkar is an ‘immortal’ instant of disinterest in that totality, on another register Ambedkar has no option but to take interest in Gandhi’s interest. That is the register of politics, whose strategy, militancy and eventness were all encompassed by Gandhi’s own efficacy in Indian history. In 1927, Ambedkar could declare, in the name of satyagraha, a militant disinterest in the mere ritual transgressions of Hindu-Manuvadi Law, he could accept a caste-Hindu’s (Sahsrabudhhe’s) proposal to burn the Manusmriti publicly as consistent with such militant disinterest. But in the period, 1932-1936, Ambedkar had to compete, negotiate and campaign with Gandhi for the true intensification of Gandhian militancy vis-a-vis that part of Hindu society which practised untouchability – which was all of society – to the end of annihilating the latter. Gandhian politics of transgression and purification was refused to Ambedkar’s cause of social revolution – while Ambedkar’s politics of ‘representative disinterest’ was refused representation in Gandhi’s ‘heart’..[7], which meant, in India’s moral, political and electoral universe.

One might frame this ‘encounter’ between Ambedkar and Gandhi as taking place between the 1927 Mahad declaration and the 1936 publication of Annihilation of Caste. That is to say, the encounter takes place between the declaration at Mahad that the Untouchable was “equal” to anyone else by a true “norm of equality”[8] and the decision expressed in 1936 that whoever is equal to all others in being will not anymore accept a relation of unequal existence with anyone else.[9] Now the point to remember is that these ontological upsurges testify, through and through, to the profane purity of contingent and true instants of historicity. However these historicities are peculiarly outside the efficacy of history supported by Gandhi’s superb ritual strategies. They are interventions from outside ‘Indian history’ but that ‘outside’ is not another space either more sacred or more scandalous than the ones hitherto known to history. One name of that ‘outside’ is indeed “ontology”, a new “equal-being”, an immortal truth … But we see it, as one among other names, released by an intense historicity, one among others, thrashing, praying, thinking as to how does one exit the laws of history and their ostentatious transgressions.


Ontological Exit

Clearly, the name Ambedkar will give to this ontological exit at another instant of immortality, the last one before his death, in 1956 is “conversion”. Ah, I hear the immediate objection: “But isn’t Ambedkar’s conversion an entry into a new sacred space, a new cycle of transgression, purification, re-ritualisation – entry into a kind of ritual (Buddhist) republic?” It is not my interest here to either refute or confirm this suggestion but I do think one must distinguish between the collective and existential ‘use’ of a religious name from its consecration. That apart, my point is the following: Ambedkar’s decision in 1956 comes in the wake of a simultaneous exit from what he considered the ‘psuedo-being’ of Hinduism and becoming of a true ontological principle of equality that he had declared in 1927 into a new collective body.[10] One might formalize this further and say that the 1936 conjuncture of deciding to abandon Hinduism was a transgressive act from the limit-point of caste-hierarchy where the outcaste was positioned. It is this transgression that the reformist Arya-samaj organisation Jat-Pat-Todak Mandal couldn’t tolerate as part of Ambedkar’s speech they were supposed to host, subsequently published as Annihilation of Caste. It seems to me that the determining factor of this reaction was that Ambedkar’s transgression promised as existential and ‘excedent’ chance that was hitherto foreclosed by the structure of ritual transgression/purification supporting Hinduism, in its dogmatic as well as reformist versions. In this sense, Ambedkar’s decision in 1927 – a decision of egalitarian thought -, in 1936 – a decision of transgressive exit -, in 1956 – a decision of naming the becoming-body of thought “Buddhist” – compose an ontological tryptich against the immemorial monotony of hierarchical caste – (pseudo) being of Hindu (anti) society.

So, what is this quizzical transgression that exceeds and exits in the same move the law or norm of a totality – to not disappear into the night of history but be manifest as a new and ‘execedent’ body?[11] A transgression that, in the lightning flash of its taking-place, forgets the Law it transgresses? Like love that in its manifestation to the world always transgresses the laws and boundaries of the world’s constitution, its families and communities, its castes and nations but isn’t in the least interested in the pleasure of transgression because love  is absolutely immersed in the joys of its exits and excesses? There is something to be said about the joys of the dalits able to exit caste-imprisonment, joys at a par with those of impossible love. That is because both prescribe the following conditions for ‘true conversion’: Prescription (P1): “Seize the chance of declaring a fundamental, inconvertible principle of egalitarian being and do not shrink from the fact that the thought of this principle is utterly contingent, just chance!”

Prescription 2 (P2): “Seize the collective name of this thought that you pronounce after painstaking research into the possible historical names and convert to it while not shrinking from the fact that there is no adequation or symbiosis between the name and the thought!” Prescription 3 (P3): Do not cease converting the name into multiple and collectively new dispositions and entwinements that bring new joys and disquiets as don’t  lovers, and do not shrink from the fact that some of these modes of conversion will be risky and ‘forced’!”[12]

Prescription 4 (P4): “In view of these critical prescriptions, the million transgressions that you will perform on the way will naturally excite the priests and lawgivers.

It is possible that new rites of purification and cleansing will follow. Even new laws and decrees will be passed. One might be subjected to sweet brutal sermons, immemorial obligations of duty, abhorrent images of profanation. One might even become the target of a convoluted double-game such that the G-O-M&B sponsors a Great Transgression to extract a Martyr from the Act, which absorbs henceforth all transgressions, all profanation, all metal, all body, all stench, all death – and all life. Such that one is inserted once and for all, into the final equation: Absolute Transgression = Absolute Obedience.

For you, the infinite and immortal subject of conversion, while these ponderous moves are utterly negligible and you concentrate your being on becoming-true, becoming the ecstasy of truth as a real disposition of the body, the prescription is that do not shrink in this process, if it comes to that, from one more transgression, however distracted or forgetful!”


“फिर भी मैल

फिर भी मैल”


From Gajanan Madhav Muktibodh’s poem “Brahmarakshas”


[1] See Dr. Babasaheb Ambedkar. “Annihilation of Caste” in Writings and Speeches Vol. 1, ed. Vasant Moon (Bombay: Education Department, Government of Maharashtra), p. 95


[2] Ibid, p. 89


[3] See D.R. Nagraj, “Self-Purification vs Self-Respect: On the Roots of the Dalit Movement” in The flaming Feet and Other Essays, ed. Prithvi Datta Chandra Sobhi (Ranikhet : Permanent Black, 2010), pp. 21-60, and Arundhati Roy, “The Doctor and the Saint” in Annihilation of Caste: The Annotated Critical Edition,  B. R. Ambedkar, ed. S Anand (New Delhi : Navayana, 2013), pp. 15 179


4 See in this connection my review of the recent annotated edition of B. R. Ambedkar’s Annihilation of Caste with Arundhuti Roy’s “book-length” introduction. Soumyabrata Choudhury “ A light and Militant Reading” in Biblio Vol XIX Nos. 5 & 6, pp. 10-11


[5]   See extract from Ambedkar’s speech at Mahad in 1927 cited in G. Aloysius, Ambedkar on Nation and Nationalism (New Delhi : Critical Quest, 2009). P. 64


[6] See Ernst  Kantorowicz  The Kings’ Two Bodies: A Study in Medieval Political Theology (Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1985)


[7]  If “disinterest” is the active  withdrawal of stakes from the speculative conservation of Hindu Society and the being of the nation doesn’t coincide with either the corporate or speculative object called “Hinduism” then the new society of ‘disinterested’ militants demands representation in the new nation-to-come. How the nation-to-come coincides, at every moment of its historical formation, with Gandhi’s ‘heart’ is a fascinating – and frustrating – study reserved for another occasion.


[8] See G. Aloysius, op.cit, p.64


[9] See the essay “Away from the Hindus in Dr. Babasaheb Ambedkar, Writings and Speeches  Vol % complied by Vasant Moon (Bombay: Education Department, Government of Maharashtra, 1989), pp. 403-421


[10] The book of Ambedkarite Buddhism The Buddha and his Dhamma  has been dominantly understood as a kind of politico-theological document of a future republic of equals. It has been seen as a re-instatement and  re-invention of the ancient Buddhist revolution of India. Without discounting any of these possibilities, I also see the Book as the Becoming of  a  new truth – the truth of equality – by a  new people – the dalits. The book is then not a monument, a fetish or a Sacred Thing. It is the body of a collective becoming in the form of a new literacy.

[11]  I borrow the term from the Italian thinkers Antonio Negri and Paolo Virno who use it for the new global potentiality of labour as an excess over and an exodus from their immediate instrumentality within capitalist relations of production. See Paolo Virno, “ Virtuosity and Revolution: The political Theory of Exodus” in Radical Thought in Italy: A Potential Politics ed. Paolo Virno and Michael Hardt (Minnesota : Theory out of Bounds, University of Minnesota, 1996)

[12]  Insofar as conversion is the decisive and unknown step once one has reached the bedrock of being – equal-being for Ambedkar – and there is nothing left to convert to, it is decision without rational ‘decidability’. Love, thought, song, drink, disappearance of a recurrent nightmare for no reason, appearance of a fortune for no reason… are all ‘forces’ of conversion and decisions of the ‘other’. Which force and what decision will be consistent with equal-being is a wager performed before and beholden to the exorbitant Other, who for its part prescribes to the Subject the words of the Poet: “Restrain yourself!”



Soumyabrata Choudhury is Associate Professor, School of Arts and Aesthetics, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi.

The title picture is by Pavel Chakraborty, from his Kashi series.

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