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Dumont Revisited

Caste, Hierarchy and Individualism: Indian Critiques of Louis Dumont

Dumont Revisited

Caste, Hierarchy and Individualism: Indian Critiques of Louis Dumont’s Contributions

edited by R S Khare; Oxford University Press, New Delhi, 2006; pp xviii + 262, Rs 575.


ouis Dumont (1911-1998), a French social anthropologist, was directeur d’etudes at the Ecole Pratique des Hautes Etudes en sciences Sociales in Paris. This book is a collection of previously published papers by Indian scholars concerned with Louis Dumont’s Homo Hierarchicus: the Caste System and Its Implications (first published in French in 1966, then in English in 1970) and some of his subsequent works, brought together for the benefit of today’s students. I delayed tackling this reader until I had rattled my memory to make a list of “what students should glean” from Homo Hierarchicus (hereafter, HH). Here is the list. (1) In India, castes at the local level are ranked, forming a hierarchy.

  • (2) A higher caste person is polluted or made impure by a lower caste person if the higher takes food or water from the lower, or has other intimate physical relations (including sex and marriage) with him or her. So persons of higher caste keep their distance from lower caste; thus, customary rules of purityimpurity form boundaries between castes.
  • (3) According to Dumont, those, like Fred Bailey and some other social anthropologists who have interpreted local Indian caste-ranking as based upon differences in political power and wealth, are mistaken; it is based rather on differences in degrees of purity-impurity, a religious phenomenon.
  • (4) The brahman is at the apex of the caste hierarchy, with the king second in rank. Other castes absorb impurity, so that the brahman priest can be in a pure state when he transacts with the gods. In the village,the dominant caste plays the role of the king, subordinate to the brahman priest. So the religious encompasses the politicoeconomic in Hindu India, and, according to certain ancient Sanskrit texts, has long done so.
  • (5) In the west (France, the US), in contrast to India, the politico-economic encompasses the religious.
  • (6) In India, it is not just the caste system
  • Economic and Political Weekly December 2, 2006 that involves hierarchy or rank, but also marriage (there are secondary marriages, for example).

  • (7) Different peoples have different ideologies. The essence of Hindu ideology is hierarchy, while that of the west is equality. Homo Hierarchicus contrasts with Homo Aequalis (HA). This difference is seen in the collectivity-orientation or holism of India in contrast to the individualism of the west.
  • (8) Equality in the shape of the renouncer (or sectarian holy man) balances the hierarchical caste system in Hindu India, while hierarchy in the form of racism exists in a “shame-faced way” in the egalitarian west.
  • (9) In modern conditions in India, blocks of castes might form to compete for political power.
  • After making the list above, I re-read HH. In the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s. I had devoted many hours to Dumont’s work, reviewing five of his books and writing two long papers on HH. I wanted to see how I would evaluate HH now. Here are my fresh observations and criticisms.

    Dumont’s Inspirations

    First, I was reminded that HH is a structuralist study. Dumont cited Levi-Strauss as his inspiration. Structuralism is concerned with systems of relations rather than systems of elements (HH, p 39) Dumont said, “…the essential problem for contemporary thought is to discover the meaning of wholes or systems” (HH, p 41). Typical of Levi-Straussian structural analyses, binary oppositions are detailed in HH: purity-impurity, the politico-economic versus the religious, and holism versus individualism. About three-quarters of the book is devoted to these binary oppositions. The last quarter is concerned with comparisons between the Hindu caste system and other social systems.

    Dumont claimed that it was time for a new comparison between India and the west(HH, p 31), perhaps because of the post-second world war studies of Indian villages by social anthropologists and sociologists (HH, p 153). In HH, Dumont does an excellent review of these and other 20th century observers’ work on Indian caste that should be helpful to today’s students.

    Although I remain impressed with Dumont’s comprehensive scholarship and bibliography, some of his assertions now strike me as exaggerated, debatable, even wrong. He insisted that westerners, referring to the individualistic French and to the even more individualistic Americans, were unable to understand hierarchy; they even “deny” hierarchy, (HH, p 234). This is because both peoples put so much emphasis on equality. (In HH, he did not deal with Homo Aequalis. However, his later book, published in 1977, From Mandeville to Marx was entitled in the French edition, Homo Aequalis. In both HH and HA, he wrote about western individualism, rather than western equality.) In HH, Dumont also asserted that Hindu purity-impurity was completely different from western ideas of hygiene (HH, pp 4760). In purity-impurity, he said, “We have

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    Economic and Political Weekly December 2, 2006

    isolated a predominant idea which is absolutely different from our own” (HH, p 60). Both of these assertions about the west strike me as exaggerated.

    Dumont defined three criteria for defining a caste system; the distribution among the castes of degrees of purity-impurity, the separation of the religious from the politico-economic with the encompassment of the latter by the former (HH, pp 70-72), and the inclusion of everyone in the system (HH, p 215). By one or more of these criteria, none of the following systems of social stratification can be called a caste system: the lingayats of Karnataka, the Christians of India, the Muslims of India, the Pathans of Pakistan, or the social systems of Ceylon, Indonesia and Indo-China, or the eta of Japan (HH, pp 20616). As for the American division between blacks and whites, he said, “It is hard to imagine a greater misinterpretation”, than to call it a caste system (HH, p 214). About social stratification in his native France, Dumont said nothing, even though he told us at the beginning that HH was written for a French audience (HH, p xi). Dumont emphasising the second of the three criteria, concluded: “…the supremacy of the priest is an Indian fact that has remained unexportable. India has exported quasi-caste rather than caste proper” (HH, p 216).


    Overall, I would say that HH can give a student a fairly good understanding of the Indian caste system as it was operating in the mid-20th century, since it combines the earlier concern with purity-impurity to be found in the works of Bougle, Blunt, H N C Stevenson and others with the emphasis on the dominant caste found in post-war village studies. What HH is not is an adequate comparison of India and the west. Dumont avoided real comparison by ignoring the distinction he himself emphasised: between ideology and behaviour. He treated only western ideology. Because westerners deny hierarchy; if they do, it does not mean that social ranking does not exist in their societies. Certainly, by the 1960s, study of social classes and caste in the US was well-advanced; there were plenty of texts for comparison. But Dumont declared India and the west to be “apparently incommensurable social types” (HH, p 234) Surely, the new generation of social scientists making societal comparisons can do better than that.

    Now let me turn to the reader under review. After R S Khare’s fine lengthy introduction, the 20 articles are in four sections: four in the first, ‘Overview and Reviews’, eight in the second, ‘Different Evaluations’, and four in the third, ‘Postcolonial Commentaries’. In part four, ‘In His Own Words’ are two writings by Dumont and the transcript of two interviews with Dumont, one by Christian Delacompagne in 1981, the other by Jean-Claude Galey in 1979. This review will centre on the criticisms of HH, but will make some mention of other of Dumont’s works. It will not treat part four of the volume.

    Eleven of the 12 critics were born and grew up in India. The 12th Patricia Uberoi, an Australian, has made her career in Delhi

    – as have seven of the other contributors. Of the remaining four, three have made their careers in the US, and one in England. Some have summarised HH in their contributions – T N Madan (pp 41-47), Das andUberoi (pp 74-75), M N Srinivas (pp 93-97), Dipankar Gupta (pp 122-24) and Arun Bose (pp 138-40).

    The 16 critical papers make a rich intellectual feast. This review can only give small samples of the items on that menu. Following the memory list above – with respect to (1) (on castes at the local level) there are challenges to the description of a local caste system as hierarchical. Veena Das and J P S Uberoi, in ‘Elementary Structure of Caste’ (first published 1971), claim that service relations between middle ranking Hindu castes in a village are not hierarchical, but are rather reciprocal and equal. A local caste system is not just about hierarchy, but also equality. They say, “There is no gain of scientific precision by the wholesale classification of societies as either predominantly hierarchical or egalitarian” (p 72).

    Dipankar Gupta, in ‘Continuous Hierarchies and Discrete Castes’ (first published 2000), disputes the idea that in a village there is only one caste hierarchy based on a single cultural variable. There may be several hierarchies, because there are many castes and a number of cultural variables. There may be “multiple ideologies sharing some principles in common but articulated at variance with, and even in opposition to, one another” (p 127).

    With respect to (2) Das and Uberoi find the dimension of purity-impurity inextact and inadequate to ethnographic accounts; rather “…the pure and impure are…sub-domains of the sacred over and against the non-sacred. They are neither wholly contrasted nor completely separated” (p 73).

    With respect to point 3 above T N Madan in Louis Dumont and the Study of Society in India (first published 1999), deems that “if Bailey fails to make full allowance for status”, Dumont does not do any better with respect to power (p 50). Partha Chatterjee (p 175), M N Srinivas (p 108) and Dipankar Gupta (pp 127-28) all argue against Dumont’s theory that the caste system operates through a religious consensus and the latter two argue for its operation through force. M N Srinivas, for example, observes that an untouchable cannot refuse to do his duty, such as dragging away a dead animal. “Otherwise, the dominant castes will beat him up, and probably also the members of his family” (p 108).

    With respect to (4), Madan observes, “the brahman-kshatriya relationship is in fact, one of the most crucial structural elements of Dumont’s model of the caste system” (p 49). Srinivas, in Some Reflections on the Nature of Caste Hierarchy (first published 1979), reminds us that the apical position of the brahman and the secondary status of the kshatriya comes from the ‘varna’ scheme presented in the Rig Veda. This, Dumont combined with the existing system of localised castes or ‘jatis’ (HH, p 72); Srinivas rejects the homology between varna and jati systems, pointing out that Dumont presented no evidence of “the coming together of the brahman and the kshatriya dominant caste” in the jati system, and “…it seems as though the alliance between the brahmin and the dominant caste follows from the assumption [by Dumont, my italics] of homology between varna and jati” (p 97). This seriously undermines Dumont’s claim that the religious encompasses the politicoeconomic in the Hindu caste system. In his introduction, Khare quotes Robert Parkin’s assessment that: “This devaluation of the kshatriya’s allotted place in Hindu thought has caused Dumont more problem than anything else” (p 20).

    Issues raised in number 6 is represented by Patricial Uberoi’s short essay, Hierarchy and Marriage Alliance in Indian Kinship (first published 1993). Numbers 5, 7 and 8 on the memory list above all have to do with Dumont’s comparison between India and the west. With respect to 7 – as noted above, Das and Uberoi reject labelling whole national ideologies by a single classification. “The task of sociological analysis, monographic and comparative, is to locate precisely the place of such principles within

    Economic and Political Weekly December 2, 2006 a given society, define their respective sphere of operation and explain their dialectical interrelation” (p 72).

    Madan cites Gerald Berreman’s claim that Dumont is against cross-cultural comparison of caste organisation, (p 49). Andre Beteille says that in comparing societal ideologies, Dumont found only contrast, no similarities (p 118).

    As for number 8, Srinivas does not see why a single principle precludes the presence of another principle. “Why could not have hierarchy allotted a place to power…?” (p 99).

    Going from the memory list to my “fresh” remarks, there is first the issue of structuralism. Dipankar Gupta finds that Dumont’s structuralism is significantly different from Levi-Strauss’ (p 131). Beteille is acerbic concerning binary oppositions. “For all that he may have written in fine print, Dumont does not like to miss an opportunity to indulge his taste for symmetry. Homo Hierarchicus, Homo Aequalis, holism versus individualism, hierarchy versus equality, India as against the west, others as opposed to ourselves. Take a system, stand it on its head, and you get another system. Take a model, turn it around on itself, and you get another model. This craving for symmetry is far more than Dumont’s personal weakness; it is a disease of a whole intellectual climate” (p 111). Beteille seems to refer in his final sentence to the 1970s rage for structuralism among both Euro-American and Indian scholars.

    Madan explains in the first of his two chapters that Dumont’s aim is to build a model, an ideal type, and that he is “concerned only secondarily with ascertaining the fit between it and contemporary social reality” (p 42). Nevertheless, seemingly in contradiction to himself, Madan raises the question: When did Dumont’s ideal type caste system really exist? He says: “It is not clear, however, at what time Dumont believes the crucial structural elements of the caste system, as presented by him, to have crystallised. The best guess I can make is that this happened before the arrival of the Muslim king on the scene…More importantly, it seems that once the crystallisation took place, all further change was ruled out” (p 51).

    Other papers relate less to either my list or my remarks. Arun Bose, who, unlike the other authors, is a political economist rather than a sociologist or social anthropologist, finds in Indo-Hierarchy Theory (first published 1989) that in From Mandeville to Marx (1977), Dumont grasped Marxist theory and understood the issues around the Hindu caste system better than Marx. He seems content that Dumont found the Hindu caste system to be completely unique. He makes intriguing remarks about the relationships between Hinduism and Islam in Indian history. In his brief review of Dumont’s Essays on Individualism (1986), Bose notes that Dumont found Marx to be an individualist.

    With Indo-Centric Theories in the Marxist Framework(first published 1990), Sudipta Kaviraj changes the tenor of the reader from criticism of Dumont’s work to movement beyond Dumont. He suggests that Marxist theorists might take the questions Dumont raised about the Hindu caste system and find different answers.

    Partha Chatterjee, in An Immanent Critique of Caste (first published 1993), advises us to turn back to the people living in the caste system to get their ideas about that system. Their oppositional statements will not form a coherent unity, he predicts; it is up to the subaltern theorists to unify them (p 75).

    Arjun Appadurai’sIs Homo Hierarchicus (first published 1986) reviews three new ethnographies set in India, all of which go beyond Dumont in significant ways. He pronounces that HH is “likely to have been the last major work to make caste the central problematic of Indian society” (p 177). Appadurai’s deconstruction of the anthropological concept of holism is worth the price of the whole book (pp 188-91).

    Veena Das, in The Anthropological Discourse on India (first published 1995), asks first, how an Indian anthropologist is supposed to respond to a critique of his or her own culture (p 197), such as HH, and second, “How does one write the culture of a people that has already been written by its native spokesmen?” (p 201). The “native spokesmen” are, presumably, the brahmans who wrote the ancient texts. The new generation of Indian social scientists, she concludes, should be aware of the outsider’s view and the insider’s view of Indian culture, but should avoid any temptation to feel certainty about any past interpretation.. (p 205).

    R S Khare contributes two essays. An early one (first published 1971) compared Dumont’s view of purity-impurity within caste transactions with McKim Marriott’s theory, in the latter’s favour. HisDumontian Sociology and Since (first published in 1996) is the last critique.

    Unfortunately, there is no summary of the arguments presented by the dozen critics. Perhaps that should be the final exam question for the students who take a course based on HH, Dumont’s other writings and this reader. From the latter, students should certainly learn a good deal about critical thinking. Guiding the class discussion should be the question: what in Dumont’s HH is left standing after these Indian critics have had their say?


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    Economic and Political Weekly December 2, 2006

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