Thursday, July 27, 2023

What is the central thesis of Dumont’s theory of caste?

What is the central thesis of Dumont’s theory of caste? Does this theory capture the dynamics of caste hierarchy and inter-caste relations in contemporary Nepali Society? How?

Ans: Louis Dumont was a French sociologist, anthropologist, and famous explores of the Hindu caste system. Through intensive and in-depth studies about the Hindu caste system, he authored several books Hierarchy and Marriage Alliance in South Indian Kinship (1954). Homo Hierarchicus (1970). Religion, Politics, and History in India (1970). Essays on Individualism (1986); and "L". Ideologie Allemande (1994) (in French language). Out of these, Home Hierarchicus is considered one of the most renowned and popular texts by him.

Dumont propounded distinguished theory on caste in his book Home Hierarchicus, initially published in French in 1966 and translated into English in 1970. He presented his analysis of the caste system by relating theoretical aspects to real-life situations and behavioral studies of Hindu society. His theory of caste hierarchy is based on the concept of pure and impure, and he argues that this system of pure and impure has been explicitly created from specific from of inequality in Hindu society.

Based on Levi Strauss's prior studies and theoretical concepts, Dumont developed the caste system instead of being pure and impure in the Hindu context. According to Dumont, the division of labor in the caste system is not economy-based but rather on culture. He views and interprets caste from an ideological perspective. He analyzes the caste system not in terms of behavioral or practical reality; instead, he interprets the caste system with an emphasis on both ideological and structural perspectives.

According to Dumont, the caste system plays an integrative role in Hindu society, and it is the unique feature of Hinduism-dominant societies. He views the caste system of Nepal and India as ideas and values. That is, according to Dumont, the caste system is an ideology. The caste system of Hindu society is just the opposite of the Western caste perspective. The Hindu caste system is relatively traditional than that of modern Western ideology. Western caste perspective is based on holistic, but Hindu caste ideology is based on individualistic one.


According to Dumont's theory of caste, hierarchy or superiority/inferiority of several castes is an essential feature of the Hindu caste system. He argues that the hierarchy of caste, ie., superiority or inferiority of caste, implies the superiority or inferiority of prestige, independent of power or ability. Thus, caste hierarchy and classification of pure vs. impure highly influences all social lives of Hindu society. According to Dumont's caste theory, daily life activities of Hindu people, marriage, food provisions, rituals, traditions are all determined in terms of caste hierarchy.

The significant themes or central theses of Dumont's caste theory are as follows:

i. Caste is holistic and hierarchical.

According to Dumont's caste theory, the nature of caste is holistic. Caste system represents a whole highest level or superior system. Both castes are pure and impure in such a system, but each caste maintains its distinguished identity. Caste has a definite name and residential area.

ii. The caste system is inimical to individualism.

According to Dumont's caste theory, whereas the caste system incorporates hierarchy, it also violates individualism. Caste fully controls over all its members. Marriage, food provisions, and several rituals come under caste. No person has individuality because he/she could not marry, select an occupation, and perform rituals beyond the regulations of the caste system.

iii. There are two models of caste.

Commenting on features of the caste system as mentioned by Dumont, some sociologists hypothesize that there are two models of the Hindu caste system. First, varna, and the second, caste. Varna system is a classification of the ancient Vedic age. According to the varna system, each of four varna's castes must follow different occupations. On the other hand, caste is based on endogamy or the assumption that holdsmarriage takes place in own caste.

iv. Attributes of varna and caste

Dumont's caste system pointed to two features of varna. First, prestige, and the second, power. The meaning of prestige is associated with religion and power with ability. Brahmins' prestige is their religion and, Chhetri's and vaishyas' ability are their power. Ideology prevails in religion, and the rest of other falls under the category of ability. According to Dumont, the varna system is not hierarchical. Varna's system does not reflect stratification. All varnas are different, in which brahmins perform their predetermined occupation and vaishya are also involved in their separate works. There is no dependency between varnas. The caste system is different from that of varna. Dumont separates caste and varna, which has three characteristics as follows:




v. Theory of hierarchy: Pure and impure

The theory of hierarchy is an essential theme of Dumont's caste thesis. It is also referred to as the theory of opposition to pure and impure. Before Dumont, the world-renowned French sociologist Emile Durkheim (1912) put sacred and profane ideas to define religion. According to Durkheim, things viewed from honor/respect are considered sacred. Such as God, earth, heaven, and tree. On the other hand, things viewed from utility/use are considered profane-for example, shoes, plows, and clothes. Based on the above ideas on sacred and profane, Dumont analyzes caste hierarchy in pure and impure (or purity and pollution). According to him, works, such as worship, priest, and teaching, are considered sacred. On the other hand, metal works, clothes sewing, and cleaning work are considered profane. Pure is always higher than impure, and impure is lower. It means impure must stay separate from pure.

vi. The accurate comparison is of ideology.

The fundamental unit in comparing either Western or Eastern, caste and an individual, and religion or school is an ideology. To analyzing Dumont's theory on the caste system, it is essential to understand the ideology behind that unit. Here, ideology means a system of values. Values may reflect oppositions and counterarguments. The caste system's hierarchy is also based on the ideology of pure and impure, which is described in classical Hindu texts.

From the above discussion and considerations, it may be concluded that Dumont's theory and theses on the caste system are partially relevant to analyze the nature of caste in Nepal because this theory was developed by Dumont around 50 years ago. During this period. Nepal's social, cultural, educational, economic, and other sectors are changed. Nowadays, the concept of pure and impure is diminished, and occupational barriers in terms of caste seem negligible. Dumont's work on Homo Hierarchicus has been widely acclaimed as the most critical contribution to studying the Hindu caste system. However, his theory has also been one of the most controversial pieces of work. He has been criticized on various grounds. Therefore, I argue that Dumont's theory on the caste system in Nepal's present changing and developing society does not seem relevant to analyzing the nature of caste.

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