Caste in India

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Caste (Oxford India Short Introductions). By SURINDER S. JODHKA. New Delhi: Oxford University Press, 2012. xvii, 201 pp. Rs 195 (paperback).

Surinder S. Jodhka’s monograph Caste provides a concise yet very informative history of the complex reality of caste in India. At the same time, the author brings together all the major literature available on the issue into a single thread and thereby taking the reader through the timeline of the changing ideas of caste. Hence, the book, while newly engaging with caste in a contemporary perspective, ‘attempts to provide a critical introduction to different perspectives on the subject.’ (P. x) The book is organized into five chapters and the organization is significant because it structurally follows the history of understanding caste. In the preface the author notes that the general sociological definition of caste refers to a ‘closed system’ of stratification where social groups, often divided on the basis of their occupation, strictly follow the code of behaviour prescribed by tradition regarding marriage and kinship alliances (P. xi). However, he himself does not stick to any particular definition, which essentially implies the author’s realization of the complexities of the system and his pursuit to look it through the lens of inequality. In my review, I will first discuss about two major aspects of caste- tradition and power before proceeding to a broad overview of the book and finally sharing some of my views. The first chapter ‘Caste as Tradition’ presents the classical views on the caste system, which Jodhka calls the ‘textbook view’ and the intellectual limitations of the same. In fact, the author illustrates how the popularly accepted idea of caste as was given to the Indians and not the other way round. The term caste, with its Spanish origin meaning race, was first used by the Portuguese seafarers. The author argues that this textbook view can be attributed to the orientalist desire to see India as the West’s other, a unique society characterized by tradition in contrast to the western modernity. Hence, in the approach of scholars like Luis Dumont, caste is a uniquely Hindu practice, in which the central principle is hierarchy. To Dumont, hierarchy is a peculiar Indian ideology that has strong cultural values and hence isolated from the material and political domain. Thus, caste is largely seen as an intrinsic part of Indian tradition. Such a view, although far from the ground reality of caste, is nonetheless influential. As Arjun Appadurai puts it, the Dumontian view employs the useful ‘shorthand’ of hierarchy that helps the west totalize India as a land of religion (P. 24). As a counterpoint to this approach, Jodhka summarizes the ethnographic works in various parts of India as a different empirical reality which he calls the ‘Field-view’ of caste. But the author argues that there was not much of a shift in the works of older social anthropologists from the colonial view of caste, since they had accepted the village as an unchanging feature of traditional social order. The only major difference they could show was the substantive regional variations of the caste hierarchy plus the changing nature of caste with time. The colonial-orientalist approach, on the other hand is a reproduction of the Brahminical Varna view of caste, translated mostly from the classical Hindu texts. It is in this context, Jodhka shifts focus to the question of power as a critique of the orientalist understanding. In the chapter ‘Caste as Power’, he asserts that caste is rather an apparatus of power, concealed as tradition. Thus he ‘questions the theoretical validity’ of the argument that in the Indian society, status hierarchy was derived from religious ideology, independent of power structures and economic domination (P. 34). While this can provoke an interesting debate in the larger sociological domain how separated is the Weberian status from the Marxian class, Jodhka offers a close...
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