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LOUIS DUMONT’S VIEW ON CASTE

Updated on November 5, 2016

He was also an indologist. He has also tried to understand caste system in terms of ideology associated with caste system.

Why does he choose ideology?

Basically Louis Dumont was a French sociologist. He is a disciple of Claude Levi Strauss. Levi Strauss developed a new approach to study social phenomenon particularly in context of simple small scale societies. Levi Strauss approach is called structuralist approach. The structuralist approach of Strauss was influence by Vienna School of Linguistic and Emile Durkheim.

Durkheim in his study of religion pointed out that there is a correspondence between thought categories and social experience. Thought categories are a product of social experiences. Duality of social experiences gives rise to dualistic expression of sacred and profane. He goes on to say that we can understand social reality by analyzing structure of ideas in terms of binary opposition.

In terms of these binary oppositions we can develop models in terms of which, empirically observable regularities can be explained. For example: - Food: Raw— Cooked -- Binary opposites

Dumont’s view on Caste

Louis Dumont trained under Strauss, wherein he looked at ideology as basis of understanding sociology. This would be analyzed in terms of binary oppositions. In context of Indian society, Dumont says we should look at the distinctive ideology that exists in Hindu caste system. He doesn’t look at caste, but looks at caste as a system.

In his book ‘Homo Hierarchies’, he developed his theory of caste system in terms of structuralist approach. His approach is also indological because he uses scriptures. Applying that, he says, what is unique about caste system is the ideological principle of purity and pollution and they constitute binary opposites. What is pure in repelled by impure and vice versa. This is the underlying principle of hierarchy. Here he refers to work of Celestin Bougle on caste system.

Bougle had identified three fundamental characters of Caste System.

(a)Separation: - In matters of marriage, exchange of food, physical contact.

(b)Hierarchy: - Ranking of groups as superior or inferior to each other.

(c) Interdependence: - In terms of occupational division of labor. This is popularly known as Jajmani relations.


Dumont says that all the three characters described by Bougle are actually reducible to one fundamental proposition of pure and impure.

He said that in Hindus every aspect of life is divided or classified on the basis of purity and pollution. Those castes who have more purer traits are on the top of the hierarchy whereas the most polluted on the bottom. There are two types of purities and pollution (i.e. both have Permanent and Temporary aspect).

In Vedas, there are three types of qualities (Gunas) mentioned:

i) Satva – Wisdom, austerity, truth etc.

ii) Rajas – Bravery, luxury, etc.

iii) Tamas – Darkhess, illiteracy, laziness, etc.

On the basis of these Gunas, the hierarchy is constructed i.e. Brahmin has Satva qualities, Kshatriya possess Satva and Rajas, Vaishya has Rajas and Tamas qualities and Sudras contains lowest quality of Tamas.

Among Hindus, everything of life is divided into purity and pollution. For example, Gold is purest, Silver is purer, other polluted; Silk is purest others are polluted. In diet, Vegetarian (Purest), Non-vegetarian (who feed on fresh meat) are Purer and Non-vegetarian (who feed on dead meat) are least Purer. For direction, North and East facing is the Purest but Southward is Polluted; for occupation, Teaching is purest, Warfare of army is purer and service is polluted.

Those castes who had more purer traits than others are put on the top of hierarchy whereas those who were having more polluted traits were put down on the hierarchy of the caste.

Dumont further elaborates the Hindu notions of purity and pollution. According to him, menstruating women don’t enter kitchen/are not allowed inside temples, because as long as blood is inside the body, it is pure, but as blood comes out it becomes impure. So, it is believed that women become impure during menstruation and thus not allowed. Same is the case with bathing. For a Hindu, bathing is a purification ritual and death is most impure thing. So, people who bury dead bodies are considered to be impure. A Brahmin is considered to be pure because he is associated with those things which don’t make him impure. But a barber has to cut hair and separate nails. Hair and Nails when separated from body are considered polluting. So, a barber belongs to low caste. So, social superiority of hierarchy is based on relative purity or impurity levels.

Caste System is a result of notions of purity and impurity. Dumont also says that, unlike western societies, there is distinction between status and power in Indian society. In western society, status is based on political and economic power. In India, Kshatriya is politically powerful, Vysya is economically powerful, but still, they are inferior to Brahmin. Here, power is subordinated to status based on purity.



Mutual opposition of pure and impure becomes primary condition. A number of structures can be built. For example: - (a) Savarna (b) Avarna

Savarnas are the 4 Varnas. Avarnas are panchamas (Dalit). There is mutual repulsion and segmentation which forms their basis of untouchability.

Within Savarna also there are binary opposition. For example: - Dwija Vs Non-Dwija. Even among Dwijas: Brahmin Vs Kshatriya etc.

Dumont also says that India is a special example where power came to be secularized rather early. In west and even in Africa (pharaohs), King had power over both state and religion. They used to say that king is Divine. But in India, religious authority was the monopoly of Brahmins. And political power of kings was temporary due to this variation. So, politics and religion were separate and thus political authority was secular.

Dumont believed that Caste System is completely based on the ideology of ‘purity and pollution’ and hence it is a cultural particularistic phenomenon.

Criticism

- This is a cultural view based on ancient text. M.N. Srinivas called these views as textual and rejected it.

- G.S. Ghurye criticized Louis Dumont interpreting Indian text for hidden colonial agenda. According to him, Dumont tried to say that Indian has always been a non-egalitarian and unequal community, whereas westerns equal and egalitarian.

- T.N. Madan believed that merely pollution and purity is not the basis of hierarchy in Caste System because except few Brahmins (Nambudari, Saryupari, Kanyikubj) all the Brahmins are non-vegetarian whereas many Vaishya Castes are vegetarians still Brahmins are ranked top and Vaishyas down the order.

- Dumont ignored the political perspective which largely determines the hierarchy of the caste system. For example, those caste who are politically powerful (dominant castes) are better ranked at one place but where they are not powerful they are ranked lower down the order.

Conclusion

Louis Dumont view of Caste System is known as ‘cultural particularistic’ view. He tried to identify the uniqueness of Caste System (on basis purity and pollution) and believed that it is found nowhere. Though he has ignored other aspects of the emergence and prevalence of Caste System but the way he identified and explained it, it is considered as one of the most authentic view on Caste System. Edmund Leach in his comment in ‘South Asian Review’ wrote that it is the most authentic view on Caste System.

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