Louis Dumont on Caste

Sociology for RAS Mains GS Paper 1

Louis Dumont was primarily concerned with the ideology of the caste system. His understanding of caste lays emphasis on attributes of caste that is why; he is put in the category of those following the attributional approach to the caste system. For him, caste is a set of relationships of economic, political and kinship systems, sustained by certain ‘values’, which are mostly religious in nature. Dumont says that caste is not a form of stratification but a special form of inequality, whose essence has to be deciphered by the sociologists. Here, Dumont identifies ‘hierarchy’s is the essential value underlying the caste system, supported by Hinduism.

Dumont starts with Bougle’s definition of caste and says that it divides the whole Indian society into a large number of hereditary groups, distinguished from one another and connected together by thee characteristics:

  • Separation on the basis of rules of the caste in matters of marriage and contact, whether direct or indirect (food);
  • Interdependent of work or div1s1on of labour, each group having, in theory or by tradition, a profession from which their members can depart only within certain limits; and
  • Finally gradation of status or hierarchy, which ranks the groups as relatively superior to inferior to one another.

Dumont views that this definition indicates the main apparent characteristics of the caste system. He describes mainly three things:

  • India is composed of many small territories and castes;
  • Every caste is limited to particular and definite geographic area; and
  • Marrying outside one’s own caste is not possible in the caste system. In fact, Dumont highlights the ‘state of mind’, which ti expressed by the emergence in various

In fact, Dumont highlights the ‘state of mind’, which ti expressed by the emergence in various situations of castes. He calls caste system as a system of ‘ideas and values’, which is a ‘formal comprehensible rational system’ His analysis is based on a single principle, i.e., the opposition of pure and impure. This opposition underlines ·hierarchy’. which means superiority of the pure and inferiority of impure. This principle also underlies ‘separation’ which means pure and the impure must be kept separate.

  • Dumont felt that the study of the caste system is useful for the knowledge of India, and it is an important task of general sociology.
  • He focused on the need to understand the ideology of caste as reflected in the classical texts, historical examples etc.
  • He advocated the use of an lndological and stucturalist approach to the study of caste system and village social structure in India. He viewed that ‘Indian sociology’ is that specialized branch which stands at the confluence of lndology and sociology and which he advocates at the right type of ‘mix’ prerequisite to the understanding of Indian sociology.
  • From this perspective, Dumont himself, in his Homo Hierarchicus, has built up a model of Indian civilization, which is based on a noncompetitive ritual hierarchical system. Dumont’s analysis of caste system is based on the classical literature, historical examples etc.

Dumont’s Concept of Pure and Impure

While considering the concept of pure and impure, Dumont had two questions in mind· Why is this distinction applied to hereditary groups? And, if it accounts for the contrast between Brahmins and untouchables, can it account equally for the division of society into a large number of groups, themselves sometimes extremely sub-divided? He did not answer these questions directly. But, the opposite has always been two extreme categories, i.e., Brahmin and untouchables.

  • The Brahmins assigned with the priestly functions, occupied the top rank in the social hierarchy and were considered ‘pure’ as compared to other castes.
  • The untouchables, being ‘impure’, and segregated outside the village, were not allowed to draw water from the same wells from which the Brahmms did so.
  • Besides this, they did not have any access to Hindu temples, and suffered from various other disabilities.
  • Dumont said that this situation was somewhat changed since the Gandhian agitation and when India attained independence. Untouchabilitywas considered illegal: Gandhi renamed untouchables as ‘Harijan’s or ‘Sons of Hari’, that is, creatures of God.

Untouchables are specialized in ‘impure’ tasks, which lead to the attribution of a massive and permanent impurity to some categories of people. Dumont highlights temporary and permanent impurity.

  • In larger areas of the world, death, birth and other such seclusion of the affected persons, for instance, the newly delivered mother was actually excluded from the church for forty days at the end of which she would present herself carrying a lighted candle and would be met at the church porch by the priest.
  • In India, persons affected by this kind of event are treated as impure for a prescribed period, and Indians themselves identify this impurity with that of the untouchables. In his work The History of Dharmashastra, P.V. Kane writes that a man’s nearest relatives and his best friends become untouchable for him for a certain time as a result of these events.

According to Harika, there are three kinds of purity:

  • Bearing of the family (Kula),
  • Objects of everyday use (Artha), and
  • The body.

For the body, the main thing is the morning attention to personal hygiene, culminating in the daily bath. Even, the objects are considered as pure and impure; silk is purer than cotton, gold than silver, than bronze, than copper. These objects are not simply polluted by the contact but by the use to which they are put and used by the person. Now-a-days, a new garment or vessel can be received from anybody. It is believed that a person’s own bed, garments, wife, child and water pot are pure for his own self and family and for others they are impure.

Dumont feels one cannot speak of the castes without mentioning the varna, to which Hindus frequently attribute the castes themselves, India has the traditional hierarchy varna, ‘colours’ or estates whereby four categories are distinguished:

  • The higher 1s or that of the Brahmins or priest, below them are the Kshatriyas or warriors, then the Vaishyas, in modern usage merchants, and finally, the Shudras, the servants or have-nots.
  • There is one more category, the untouchables, who are outside the classification system.
  • Dumont maintains that many of the lndologists confuse the Varna with caste, mainly because the classical literature is concerned almost entirely with the varnas.
  • Caste and Varna are to be understood with relationship of hierarchy and power.

By his interpretation, caste was different from other forms of social stratification through the ‘disjunction’ of ritual status and secular (political and economic) power within the same social system The subordination of the political and economic criteria of social stratification to that of ritual status in Dumont’s model, however, plays down the significance of social change in colonial and contemporary times. Did not caste lose its political significance as late in the 18th and 19th centuries? As for what has happening at the 20th century, although Dumont explicitly recognized the emergence of inter-caste competitiveness in place of a structure of independence as a departure from tradition. He regarded this as behavioural change, rather than a radical transformation of the system as a whole, at the level of values or principles. Madan presumed that Dumont’s analysis is an exercise in deductive logic.

In the last, Dumont discusses the significant changes in the casts,

  • He views that traditional interdependence of castes has been replaced by “a universe of impenetrable blocks, self-sufficient, essential, and identical and in competition in one another.” Dumont calls this the ‘substantialization of castes’.
  • An inventory of sources of change in the caste system lists judicial and political changes, social-religious reforms, westernization, and growth of modern professionals, urbanization, spatial mobility and the growth of market economy. But, despite all these factors making for change, the most ubiquitous and the general form, the change has taken in contemporary times is one of a ‘mixture’, or ‘combination’, of traditional and modern features.
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