IYENGAR: SOME BACKGROUND

by ppartha

India is a splintered land. Maps are misleading. It is roughly half the size of the U.S. with about three times the population. Before Indian independence in 1947, the subcontinent was a land of 565 official princely states. They came together to buck off British imperialism, but the fault lines still exist. Hindi is the official language of India, but the lower third of the country doesn’t speak it. Indians are divided by caste, creed, language, and color. In the churning sea of chaos that is India, categorization is a life raft to cling to. It provides community, security, a belief system, and a sense that there is a cosmic order when the constant barrage of color, noise and smell might make you think otherwise.

I am a Brahmin, a member of a privileged caste. Brahmins are the learned. In the olden days, Brahmins were the only ones with access to education. Brahmins advised kings and imparted knowledge. They continue to be the bridge between the ancient world and the modern, having brought with them the ancient language Sanskrit from which many Indian languages are derived.

Moreover, I am a Tamil Brahmin. Tamil Brahmins are sub-divided into Iyers and Iyengars. I belong to the latter, much smaller branch. It is said that the original Iyengars were once Aryans who immigrated to Tamil Nadu millennia ago. Our coloring and features are different and our Tamil is scrubbed and Sanskrit-ized. I could trace my lineage back centuries using my gauthram, a hereditary chart that keeps track of my ancestry. My gauthram would be consulted if my parents were to arrange a marriage for me, to ensure that I didn’t marry a blood relative. Legend says that four sages fathered the Iyengar subsect. We are Vaishnavites, which means that we acknowledge Vishnu to be the monotheistic ruler of the universe. Every other god mentioned in subsequent posts will be an incarnation of Vishnu (even his wife, Laxmi; bear with me, it’s confusing for me too (think Greek mythology)).

I don’t fully understand my place or designation in the hierarchy I have left, and I am fairly certain that the line will end with me. That is the biggest reason why I have come to South India now. I’m trying to preserve every action, emotion, belief, and blessing that has facilitated my existence. I know that I will lose track of these things as my life progresses. This feels like the right time for me to open my mind and my heart to a culture that I have disdained and prided in equal measure. I’ve lived my life feeling fragmented in a way, a half a world away from my roots. Ironically, India is the only place that could possibly make me feel whole.

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