Academic journal article The Journal of the American Oriental Society

India without Hindu Concepts?

Academic journal article The Journal of the American Oriental Society

India without Hindu Concepts?

Article excerpt

Can India's caste society be better understood without reference to Hindu concepts? Social anthropologist Declan Quigley declares that it can, and tries to prove his claim by critical reviews of some previous understandings and a glimpse of his own field studies in Nepal. He sees exaggerations of India's uniqueness as having driven analysts of caste toward Hindu ideology, putting them on "the slippery road to relativism" (p. 115). If scholars instead take Quigley's positivistic sociological view, he believes they will see that castes are simply sets of intermarrying lineages concerned about their status, and thus comparable with the institutions of other agrarian countries.

"Ideology" in analyzing caste is not defined in any abstract general terms by Quigley, but is exemplified and denounced by him on half the pages of the present book through one example: Louis Dumont's Homo hierarchicus.(1) Quigley is appalled by Dumont's assumption that brahmans are categorically priests, and are therefore of top rank, and that caste is therefore a religious institution - all false assertions shared by many other writers on caste, both scholarly and popular. Quigley also thinks Dumont wrong to claim as peculiarly Hindu and determinative of caste a concern with purity and impurity, or hierarchy, or an ambiguous relation of power to authority - features which Quigley believes must occur in all human societies.

In justification of his campaign against what he sees as Dumont's Hinduistic explanations, Quigley ruefully estimates that Homo hierarchicus has been "the single most influential contribution to the study of caste" (p. 21) since World War II; he notes that other scholars think the book a disaster, but does not mention that their complaints are sometimes opposite to his. Positive responses to Dumont have come largely from non-South Asianists and from Europeans, for whom the book both confirms romantic stereotypes and metaphorically displaces onto India several issues that remain contested in Europe - individual liberty vs. social demands, idealism vs. materialism, the Church hierarchy vs. the state, etc. Although ensconced in an abstruse discourse on method and references to earlier ethnography, the main argument of Homo hierarchicus slights both field findings and Indology in favor of recycled popular preachings by Rene Guenon, a French guru whom Dumont had found inspirational during the 1930s.(2) While the book's consequent misrepresentations of caste make it one that the public loves and many South Asianists love to hate, its paucity of Hindu ideas make it also a dubious target for Quigley's complaint that it uses such ideas excessively.

Since he misperceives Dumont's bias as authentically Hindu, Quigley may seem self-defeating in accepting the "pure vs. impure" labels for caste rank that are key terms of Dumont's model. Quigley vows, however, to empty these words of what he imagines to be the Hindu (actually Christian, dichotomized "spirit vs. flesh") contents with which Dumont fills them. In this resolve Quigley, too, conforms with European structuralist thought, which requires binary categories with sharp boundaries,(3) as well as with his British sociology, which insists on clear separations. But later, apparently influenced by the Hindu ethnosociology which he opposes on principle, Quigley makes "impurity" a transferable property whose contents might be translated as "lowness." Neither Dumont nor Quigley is interested in distinguishing any of the many other Indian concepts (cool-hot, unmixed-mixed, detached-attached, whole-broken, vegetarian-carnivorous, essential-residual, clean-dirty, transcendent-immanent, etc.) that they gloss together under "pure and impure" a protean word-pair which in English carries still different meanings.

Quigley picks at Dumont on other, lesser points, but both scholars declare their distaste for the fleshly reifications they find in theorizing about India. Given Hindu insistence, however, both inevitably accept such substantialism in their models, although in different ways. …

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