About five decades ago, Louis Dumont (1911-1998) a French scholar of international repute, set the tone and tenor of the academic discourse in anthropology and sociology about the nature of Indian society. Dumont was a ‘pupil’ of Marcel Mauss; and he learnt Sanskrit when he was imprisoned in Hamburg during the Second World War. After the War, he went on to learn Tamil and Hindi. Thereafter he spent two years, 1949 and 1950, in Tamil Nadu. Later, he came back to India in 1957-58 to do field work in Uttar Pradesh. Beginning from the fifties and thereafter for the next few decades, his ideas have formed the backdrop of the debate and discourse about whether Indian society is similar or different from the western world. By mid-sixties, the French version of his now classic work Homo Hierarchicus was published; and the English version came out in 1970. Not surprisingly, the institution of caste and its features form the backdrop of this debate. Is it unique to India? Are there other societies with similar features and traits? These questions have been asked in the past and continue to do so even now. For Dumont, India was a contrast to the West. At the core of his theoretical formulations about India was that India and Indians are socially represented by caste, which is opposed to the ‘individual’ in the West. This allowed India to be conceptualized as one. Secondly, India and Indians were characterized by a ‘synchronic’ (ahistorical) tradition as opposed to a diachronic or historical ‘modern’ West. Lastly, there was an encompassing ritual status over all dimensions of disparities—be they social, economic or power—as in contrast to the triumph of ‘economic’ man in the West.
June 2007, volume 31, No 6