Caste, Culture, Religion: The Anthro-History of South Asia

History 280F

Fall 2015
Day & Time: 
Th 2-4p

How did Western scholars/missionaries/anthropologists/colonial officials understand the strange world of India they found themselves in from the 17th to the 20th centuries?  What was encountered as a “religion” was unrecognizable to them by the terms of a Western understanding: it was not congregational, confessional or pastoral; it did and did not require belief in a deity; it was and was not scriptural and there was no one revealed book; it did not have prophets and the place and nature of “belief” was alien.  Yet, this religion, such as it was, inspired deep devoutness and faith, which led (or so they thought) to a culture that was deeply hierarchical.  The hierarchy was implemented and maintained in the name of a distinction between peoples that was called caste, it was of putatively ancient origin yet had changed and grown over the millennia with wide regional variations and implementations.  The basis for the so-called caste system was both scriptural and not.   Furthermore, religion and caste contributed centrally to the understanding of “culture” a term invoked interchangeably with “tradition.” 

The divide between caste, religion, and culture, at the same time the difficulty of disaggregating caste, religion, and culture baffled Western scholars and missionaries of the late medieval period, but also later (19th century) colonial officials and anthropologists.  For our purpose, it is vital to recognize that knowledge about India was produced by these various gatherers and compilers of information which was turned into knowledge.  In this course we begin with a 17th century priest and an account of his activities, and will work our way through a selection of writings on the subject of Indian caste, religion, and culture by a mix of political theorists, sociologists, anthropologists, and historians (Max Weber, Emile Durkheim, Louis Dumont,  McKim Merriott, Milton Singer, Bernard Cohn, Nicholas Dirks, Diane Mines, Gloria Raheja, Anand Pandian and others) in order to arrive at an understanding of the interdisciplinary and anthropological history of India.

Requirements:  A good deal of reading, weekly response papers, one presentation in class, and one research paper