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Mainstream, VOL 61 No 3, January 7, 2023

Review: Thakuria on Marriott’s edited volume, India through Hindu Categories

Saturday 7 January 2023


Review by Trishna Mani Thakuria

India through Hindu Categories

by McKim Marriott (ed.)

New Delhi: Sage

1990. Xvi+209 pp. Plates, Maps, References, Errata, Index.
Rs. 450 (hardback)

This book is an ambitious attempt in the form of collective effort of academic intellectuals to understand social behaviour of people from cultural categories, splitting out from the bias of general social science which analyses social behaviour and configuration under certain fixed categories. The cultural category brought into analysis here is drawn from many dimensional context of Hindu life in India. Originating with an aim to synthesise human learning with social science learning, the contributors in the book presupposes to curve out a relational ethno-socialistic approach to study multi facets of a social life. Contextualising culture as an intermingled category with social behaviour and social life in India, the papers included in the book concisely effort to bring out multi-dimensional normative analysis of Hindu life in India. These than contest with the dogmatic structural analysis of socio-cultural configuration of Indian society provided by generalizing approach of social science, monopolized in western model of thought and practice . Here, a Hinduised analysis of Indian socio-cultural modes and structure is intentionally included as Hindu is a category, a way, a belief, offers a multi-dimensional variations to understand and analyse social life in India which is beyond the scope of any conventional social science.

The book is comprised of several scholarly essays which show a shift from western hegemonic structure in analysing Hindu social behaviour and structure to a more branched out systems or models of thought. However they do not intend to portray separateness of domains of knowledge- that is ‘western’ and ‘Indian’ by differentiating them in water-tight compartments; rather their effort is to show a multifaceted analysis of a culture which has transactional concepts of integrative value.

The opening essay in the book by Marriott is a highly remarkable and debated one. The essay highlights his ambitious attempt where he proposes to construct an Indian ethno-sociology from cognitive and perceptual category of everyday knowledge and behaviour in Hindu social life. For Marriott general social science is essentially a western intellectual import constructed in their cultural structure of thought which is alien to understand social reality and behaviour in India. So his proposal lies in understanding indigenous definitions of Indian reality vis-à-vis Hindu socio-cultural life through constructing a relational Ethno-sociology for India. He has also clarified that Indian ethno-sociology for him is an exemplary proposal as his proposal transcends beyond one single culture to constructing ethno-sociology for every culture free from western cultural bias of analysis.

In the next essay A. K. Ramanujan pledges for a context free analysis of Indian thought free from western model of intellectual analysis as he sees India having its own methodological and cultural way of knowledge which is free from an imported analysis. Dirk‟s essay asserts for annihilating Dumontian view of studying social hierarchy in fixed categories by devising other relational co-ordinates to study and analyse social hierarchy in India. For him normative of caste is not affixed to social categories hierarchical in terms of purity and pollution only, other determinants of social hierarchy such as political power also follow codes of asserting a high socio-cultural position. Here he has not negating power of caste to produce social hierarchy but narrowing it down to a categorical level where it is only one of the co-ordinates to establish social hierarchy along with other relational co-ordinates existing in Indian scenario. To lay his argument valid he has exemplified it with ethno-historical study of a South Indian kingdom where social hierarchy was established under political power. He has outlined how a thief community only because of acquisition of political power (through their protectionist role of the other subjects of the state) were the repository of respect and hierarchy after king. In his discussion he has emphasised on construction of ethno-history which makes ethno-sociology fruitful to study and understand.

In the subsequent essay Raheja is contesting the established framework to study caste hierarchy from brahmanical view of purity and pollution perspective by drawing an alternative view of caste and Hindu society that focuses on the ritual hierarchy to determine the dominancy of one caste on another. Her essay is an outcome of her fieldwork in a north Indian village called Pahansu where hierarchical configuration of caste was translated through ritual dominance of Gujjars, the dominant landowning caste. Here she is trying to portray how ritual power as a category is a characteristic of dominant caste leaving purity and pollution perspective of caste hierarchy aside.

Diane Paull Mines’s essay deals with a clear contradictory response to western philosophy of valuing ‘pure spirit’ over ‘impure flesh’ which monopolizing effect can be seen in analysing death impurities in Hindu society. Here the author has shown how this western hegemonic thought is replaced through proposing a pragmatic model of rank and relatedness with death impurity purely from organic categories where spirit has no such place.

The subsequent essays are drawn from Hindu belief of karma, sins, omen etc. over unprecedented disasters in society, ethno-psychological attempt to analyse Hindu spiritual faith and applied Hindu cosmology in material objects at Hindu home. However despite of the intellectual effort to devise a unique cultural model to fit into Indian reality in contesting western monistic hegemony over reproduction of cultural knowledge of India, the essays themselves fall into the category of devising dogmatic and narrowed down approach to study Indian reality. We cannot stick to study Indian reality through Hindu cultural structure nonetheless they generate multi-dimensional ways of understanding by forgetting other cultural realities in making India a plural site of cultural knowledge. Indian cultural pluralism cannot and should not be studied from multi-dimensional variations of one cultural philosophy and reality only that is Hindu; but multi-cultural approach to study the all-encompassing Indian culture is worth understanding. In this context Marriott comes under criticism for his parochialism in proposing for an Indian ethno-sociology where he himself contrasts with his established argument to criticise western intellectual hegemony in social science by accepting the hegemony by saying “ Since thought originating outside of Europe and America has not yet been recognized or developed as ‘social science’, the world has thus far to manage with ethnosocial sciences of only one limited, western type” (Marriott: 1990, p.1) -emphasis added. Also the living out study of the intellectuals in the book, that is to say asserting for an Indian way of thinking but living outside India (Mostly from Chicago) is somewhere falls into looking reality from outside as lived-in experiences provide a better understanding of reality as far as I think.

However the edition manages to provide a thought provoking model to study social reality which conventional social science fails to do. Replacing blind-spots in parochial outside models to study society with an inside and integrative model, the essays in the book are truly remarkable and a path-breaker in studying social life with its own established category of knowledge.

(Author: Trishna Mani Thakuria, Assistant Professor, Department of Sociology, The Assam Royal Global University, Assam, India)

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