Homo Hierarchicus: The Caste System and Its Implications
Before we get into Dumont’s analysis, let us briefly summarize the general features of the caste system. Basically, the system is based on the division of labor and hierarchy among different groups of people in India. These groups are hierarchically organized in a way where one group is placed superior to another group. This system prevails in India within the Hindu religion.
Homo Hierarchicus: Caste System and its Implications is referred to as a treatise on the Indian caste system, written by Louis Dumont, who was a French sociologist and anthropologist. Along with M.N. Srinivas, Andre Bateille, Rajni Kothari, Myron Weiner, Louis Dumont’s name has to be remembered in order to gain a different perspective on caste.
The original French text of Homo Hierarchicus first appeared in 1966. In this book, Louis Dumont had explained in great details how the caste system operate within the ambit of Indian society. He provided a detailed analysis of the very prevalence of the caste system in India. According to him, the Caste System, as it evolved in India, is not only based on social stratification but it is a system of hierarchy based on inequality. In other words, the caste system resembles a system of hierarchy based on inequality and, in fact, this very system of Caste constitutes the central problem of Indian society and it has gotten deeply ingrained in the Hindu society.
The book is known to have contributed to Indian studies, by means of attempting to accommodate a number of classical and contemporary works into a consistent scheme. In this book, Dumont highlights a clear, logical and convincing understanding of the caste system of India and the principles on which it is organized. Dumont also compares societies on the basis of their underlying ideologies. He bases his work on ethnographic data and also deducts from the hierarchical ideology as found in ancient religious texts which were offered governance to the contemporary caste structure. He believed that the concept of pure and impure constitute the primary ideological side of the Indian society.
Dumont identified the caste system of India as “a system of ideas and values, a formal comprehensible, rational system, a system in the intellectual sense of term”. With this tilt of ideation, he confronted the Indological conception of Hindu ideology with the field monographs of Anglo-American trained social anthropologists. In Dumont’s understanding, caste is a system of hierarchy based on inequality instead of social stratification. In order to comprehend caste as a social factor, he tried to descend from the western idea of social class, which is exogenous in nature.
Homo Hierarchicus is considered to be an endeavor to understand contemporary empirical field studies by social anthropologists, who were primarily trained in Britain and America in terms of a model of Hindu ideology. Dumont himself had indulged in both the schools, as he was a follower of Bouglé and Hocart, and he had also studied extensively on sub-caste in South India and had been a part of other field projects.
Dumont highlights that, as an empirical system, the caste system is basically a series of local sets of interdependent castes, which rest on common principles. These empirical analyses revolve around certain aspects of the caste system. One of the aspects of the caste system is the Hindu jajmāni system. This is a system involving the exchange of services and craft products for items of food, clothing, and other necessities, involving a group of specialist castes within a particular village or locality. Another aspect would be pollution upheld by means of hypothetical or actual exchange among castes. Then comes the systems of hypergamy or endogamy in marriage among castes. Next, the system of the ruling of an Indian village by a dominant caste.
The introductory chapter of the book shows how Dumont adopted a comparative approach which he carried out throughout the book. Dumont’s approach was quite significant. He studied social relations and hierarchies for making theoretical comparisons and arriving at conclusions in this way, instead of basing his work on the historical study of Indian caste.
Dumont says that modern societies stress the significance of the individual as an ‘indivisible elementary man’, unlike traditional societies which see the society as a whole. This conception of the individual is integral to Dumont’s study on equality and hierarchy. In his understanding, the hierarchy has its origin from a unanimous point of convergence of values and ideas and is considered to be significant to social life. Hierarchy encompasses social agents and social categories. Thus, one can say that hierarchy reveals the basic features of society.
Dumont identified the caste system as a pan-Indian embodiment – consisting of ideas, values, a system of rationality. He listed and explained how different caste groups are different from or similar to one another and in a broader sense, how they are distinguished or connected. Dumont stated that the aspect of “hierarchy ranking groups as relatively superior or inferior to one another” is the most significant un the separation between pure and impure in the caste system.
While he tried to widen the horizons of the concept of hierarchy, he opines that the western conception of hierarchy is progressive subordination. Indian theory of hierarchy is connected to the values of Hinduism, its 4 varnas, and the relationship with the whole. He elaborated on this point when he dealt with the jajmāni system. He labeled this system as a hereditary system consisting of labor and relationships and so on and so forth.
Dumont did not discard the concepts of power and politics. According to Dumont, religious authority belongs to the Brahmans while temporal authority is exercised by kings, judges, and so on. The villages, he further mentions, give place to intricate, plural forms of authority.
Towards the end of the book, Dumont talks about the possibility of comparing and exporting the concept of caste to other societies. He associated caste with the Hindu ideas of pure and impure. He upholds that the idea of caste is linked with the connection between status and power.
One criticism of Homo Hierarchicus would be that there remains an unresolved difference between North and South India. While Dumont says that the south is more traditional than the north – the South Indians follow the principle of purity-impurity religiously, while the north Indians follow it as an etiquette – the south lacks the Kahatriya caste which is why it does not fit into the varna system.
Dumont saw India in the light of ordering and weighing of religion, politics and economy and this formulation is identified to give rise to numerous problems relating to the middle ranges of the hierarchy. Dumont states that no classical author observed the differences between hierarchy and power as they only commented on the varnas and “it is we who distinguish a hierarchy of purity as a distinct social principle”. (Dumont 1966: 78). On this statement, there arises a question – is the argument that the pure-impure principle the underlying form of the caste system an outsider’s imposition?
Dumont highlighted the word ‘ideology’. In his understanding, though ideology is supremely important in India, social reality extends beyond it. The non-ideological aspects include politics, economics etc. which is why, he says, one will not be able to reach facts if they look for the dynamics of caste in politics and economics. Dumont fails to identify ideology in the conscious verbal statements of contemporary Indians, whose views he doesn’t consider to be of worth. Further, he writes that locality and territory only “intervenes at the level of the concrete manifestations of the caste system”.
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He writes that India was condemned to political instability because of the devaluation of the relation of artha with dharma and of the ruler with the Brahman priest.
This book is an attempt of dialectical confrontation between the homo hierarchicus and homo aequalis of the traditional and modern society, respectively. He learnt this by applying the values of caste into the western man’s language. He states the importance of hierarchy and injustices like discrimination, totalitarianism, racism etc. rise when the distinction based on hierarchy is made illegitimate.
According to the author, caste in pan-Indian units comprise of a system of ideas and values as well as a formal, comprehensible, rational system and expanding the very concept of hierarchy as progressive subordination, and Indian perspective as religious values, for instance, the 4 varnas.
The very issue of caste is very ethno-sociology as it prevails in society.
This book continues to be of relevance till today and so are Dumont’s opinions. For a social science student, this book is doubly important. It is a very well-researched book containing various details o purity and impurity, temporary purity or permanent, and so on and so forth. No great work is without controversy and the same is true for this one but this cannot undermine the continuing significance of this work.
Review on Homo Hierarchicus: An essay on the Caste System by S.J. Tambiah, King’s College, Cambridge University
Homo Hierarchicus : Caste System and its Implications. 1971.