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DUMONTS THEORY OF CASTE

READING #17: DUMONTS THEORY OF CASTE


Louis Dumonts contribution HomoHierarchicus to the study of caste is very influential.
The reading describes the theory and later, provides a critical analysis of the same.
In the beginning of HomoHeirarchus, Dumont distinguishes between traditional and modern
society. He takes India as an example of traditional society and raises an important question.
Can one society validly make sense of the other society? Can anyone of one particular
societycompletely delineate himself from within the cultural and conceptual framework that
he understands and legitimately study another entirely different society?This introduction
given to his work has been viewed in two ways either as a way to establish intellectual
supremacy like Rousseau, Durkheim etc. or Irrelevant and long introduction which has
nothing to do with the main topic of caste in India.
Dumonts theory starts with the proposition that traditional society is holistic, whereas
modern society is individualistic. Traditional societies accord the highest moral value to the
idea of society whereas modern societies place the greatest moral value to the individual.
In modern societies, individualistic values make them place high regard for concepts of
equality of power, status etc. (What is hierarchy? It is the attribution of rank to each element
in relation to the whole.) Modern societies view hierarchy in terms of inequality. Thus,
anyhierarchy/inequality is perceived as exploitation, discrimination etc.
Most of the time, traditional societies such as India (and caste system) has been analysed
through these modern notions of equality. This is inappropriate and unfair because caste
ideology has to be viewed as a whole and not individually. He argues that traditional societies
like India do not assign great moral value to 'equality' but perceive hierarchy in terms of
holism. The main virtue of such societies is the preservation of the society itself. Thus, to
traditional societies hierarchy is a virtue.
Thus, Dumonts criticism is that modern society cannot impose their value system of
individualism while studying traditional societies. He further argues that the modern mind
is being closed-minded as it is caught within its own system of values, even while studying
another completely different society. It is necessary to escape this medium of thought to study
it effectively. There is a barrier in understanding holistic society and that is our individualistic
values. Firstly, there must be an isolation of the ideology which will lead to an intellectual
transition i.e. isolation of individualistic ideology will somehow help the thinkers transcend it

DUMONTS THEORY OF CASTE


and embrace holistic vision.(This is concisely summed up in points (a), (b), (c) and (d) on pg.
141)
The Distinctiveness of Caste:((e) and (f) on page 142)Foundation of hierarchy of the caste
system/status is the principle of OPPOSITION OF PURE& IMPURE. (Here the
wordopposition is used in the sense of dichotomy/contrast/separation NOT in the sense of
disapproval/conflict...)
There are 3 characteristics of caste system. 1) Separation in matters of marriage and
contact. 2) Interdependence members of each group have a distinct profession. 3) Hierarchy
ranks of groups which make them relatively superior or inferior.
All of this is reducible to a single principle, i.e., the dichotomy of the pure & the impure. This
is what governs separation. Caste system is rationalized, internalized and shaped by peoples
understanding of relative purity and impurity. It is the very basis for caste distinctions.
Certain castes perform pure functions while others deal with the impure.
(For better understanding refer pg. 142)
Fundamental Characteristic of Caste System is the disjunction between power and
status: This is an important and much debated issue of Dumonts theory. According to this
issue, in the Hindu society there is a separation of ritual status and secular power. While the
Brahmans held the spiritual authority, the kings (or the politically dominant caste) held the
temporal authority. In the theory of varnas, status and power are differentiated.
In traditional societies, power had a political and magico-religious character. However, in
India Brahmins had a monopoly over moral and spiritual values whereas the kings held
secular political power.
So question arises, why do the kings allow Brahmins to hold power with regard to the
religious domain? To answer this, Dumont proposes a contract theory. He says the Aryan
kings made a contract with the priestly Brahmins. The contract was that the Brahmins would
assume exclusive control over the domain of magico-religious and in return the Brahmins
would: 1) Guarantee spiritual welfare of the political masters (kings) 2) Serve as personal
priests (purohits) 3) Perform sacrifices on behalf of their political patrons. As per the
contract, they (Brahmins and Kings) would conjointly stand together above the rest of the
society. Thus, the priestly ultimately rely on these political masters for material support and

DUMONTS THEORY OF CASTE


their patrons stand second in the hierarchy. The rest of the society is not an undivided mass,
but is again divided hierarchically on the basis of purity and impurity. Impurity is based on
the organic aspects of human life. Therefore, those who deal with natural impure substances
such as faeces, dead bodies etc. are designated low positions. They are the untouchables. The
rest who neither deal with purity nor are concerned with impurity are ranked in between the
Brahmans and the Untouchables.
According to Dumont, most of the politically and economically superior do not necessarily
hold the highest status, whereas the ones who do hold the highest status have no politicaleconomic power. Thus, in a caste society, status is superior to and encompasses power.
In all societies, there are certain basic shared value systems a collective conscience which is
all encompassing.In modern societies, that is individualism, which encompasses all. This
obsession with individualism leads to obsession with equality of status, economic and
political power. Thus, relative evaluation of individuals is unacceptable. In traditional society
however, the concern is not towards maintaining equality but maintaining itself. The
encompassing framework for the system here is the opposition pure and impure. The whole
is founded on the necessary and hierarchical co-existence of the two opposites
Structuralist interpretation of caste.
The last aspect of Dumonts study deals with the methodology to investigate caste system in
India. He answers it by saying; one must look at caste in structuralist terms, i.e. understand
the relationship between them and the logic behind those relations rather than substantialize
the nature of the elements themselves.
In other words, Dumont believes that caste cannot be defined or studied in isolation (cannot
substantialize nature of elements). It is difficult to establish boundaries of a caste and study
them as a real group. Instead, the study of caste should be relational in nature, i.e., one
should study the system as a whole, the way it is structured. It is a fallacy to consider caste
groups as discrete and concrete groups. We tend to seek bounded units because of our modern
principles of empiricism. We need to look for is structure not substance. (Basically, instead of
defining what a particular caste group is, what are its characteristics etc, the focus of any
study should be the interdependence/relation between that caste and other castes)

DUMONTS THEORY OF CASTE


However, the criticism to this is that Dumont himself does not abstain from from
substantializing castes. In the rest of the theory, Dumont shows a tendency to substantialize
caste and sub-castes that actually weakens his structuralist interpretation.
Dumonts View of Empiricism
Many people criticise over-emphasis on caste studies as it is has nothing to do with the real
forces that shape the societypower and economics. They want power to be accommodated
within the theory of caste. He argues against this by referring to the disjunction between
power and status. They are entirely different. Brahmans, for instance, although superior in
terms of status are often materially dependent. F.G. Bailey believes that there is a general
correspondence between wealth/political power and caste ranking. Dumont refutes this by
stating that the essential feature of caste is ideology rather than manifestations of power.
Caste can change depending on territory. In one particular locality, several castes of different
statuses may interact. In other localities there may be different groups with different statuses.
Certain groups may have same ritual functions but different names. They may speak different
languages and have a different style of performing the same ritual and refuse to acknowledge
each other as equals. They may have different styles of dressing, jewellery and architecture.
Thus, for caste, territory and local affiliations are extremely important.
Dumont acknowledges the significance of the variations of social organizations in accordance
to territory. However, he cautions that caste cannot be studied at any particular local
hierarchy. Caste should be studied through the idea of hierarchy as a whole, which is the
fundamental theme. This structuring and hierarchy is based on the opposition of purity and
impurity as discussed earlier.
Dumonts Critique of Critics: Although Dumonts theory has received many-many
criticisms, it can be said that Dumont has never changed his stance. He has made great efforts
to make his theory more clear and clarify misunderstandings but not once has he altered his
perspective. He has always stood his ground. Dumont says that most of his critics only half
understand his theory. Also the other alternative theories of caste are not comprehensive.
Dumont says that his theory has two advantages over rival theories. Firstly, that it is
consistent. Secondly, its explanatory power. If some facts appear to contradict his theory it is
merely because his theorys underlying principle has not been properly understood.