ISSN (Print) - 0012-9976 | ISSN (Online) - 2349-8846

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The ‘Ideal’ Brahmin

Renunciation and Untouchability in India: The Notional and the Empirical in the Caste Order by Srinivasa Ramanujam, New Delhi: Routledge, 2019; pp xiii + 172, 995.

Srinivasa Ramanujam provides a completely fresh insight into the phenomenon of untouchability and the ordering of castes in India. The book under review effortlessly brings together historico–sociological concerns with psychological–philosophical ones and raises ontological questions, hitherto unexplored in the social science discourse on caste. Based on the readings of ancient and medieval texts, the book’s novelty lies in moving away from the understandings of caste based on object-centred discourses of purity–pollution, to a subject-centred ethic of touch-un-ability. Herein, untouchability—deeply located within the problematique of touch itself, and sensitive to the ambivalent predicaments of the renouncer—defines the notional Brahmin, who is the “source” in the caste order, and jatis are created and sects (both Brahmin and non-Brahmin) formed, through the redefinition and appropriation of the source’s touch-un-ability.

The ontological and ethical locale of untouchability thus shifts from the other to the self. This leads to a series of nuanced arguments about, for instance, tensions within Brahminism and the innate, hidden relations between renunciation and untouchability in India. So, renunciation, generally considered as outside of the system, is intrinsically woven with the deep phenomenology of an essential, systemic principle of hierarchy.

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Updated On : 28th Jul, 2020

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