Power is caste
Dumont's hierarchy theory reconsidered upon new ethnographical data
Luis Dumont is a fundamental but controversial figure in the Indian studies. His encyclopaedic and debated Homo Hierarchicus (1966) is still treated as a basic reference, either for emulation or criticism, for anyone interested in India and namely in its socio-anthropological background.
The importance of Dumont's work lies in the universality of its reasoning, which is otherwise also the object of much criticism. The French scholar starts from within the specific field of the ethnography, but then he comes out to get to a global knowledge through a set of comparative categories. According to his critics, the reason for his failure would be found precisely in his "comparative method" and in the non-historical vision of Indian civilization. According to this, Dumont is accused of "Orientalism" and reactionary and ideological inclinations. Moreover, he is sometimes considered as part of the "colonial" anthropology, though the accusations all end up as false. The French ethnologist begins his analysis and his research of a "Hindu originality" after having fully contested the entire Western literature on caste: in fact, his aim is rather to "avenge" Indian society against its Eurocentric representations.
The core of Dumontian model thus lies in the basic distinction between (hindu) "hierarchy" and (western) "economic stratification", that is between "religious authority" and "political-economic power". In the caste system, the distinction between status and power focuses on the hierarchical principle represented by the opposition between pure and impure. Such idea of purity, according to Dumont, is pervasive in both the ancient theory of varna and the modern hierarchy between jāti. The dichotomy involves an interdependence: the king (or the dominant caste) depends on the priest for legitimation while the priest needs the man of power for his subsistence. At the same time, interdependence is associated to a clear division of roles, useful to preserve the position of both.
Through a new ethnological research, this article shows how critics have largely failed in providing for consistent confutations. Dumontian theory still appears actual and valid in the understanding of both the inner logic of the caste system as well as its past and current dynamical nature. The fieldwork confirms the fundamental importance of the ideology of purity, while the opposition between status and power works for the adaptability of India's social systems, against any "rigid" interpretation.
Nevertheless, this research, largely based on the working of financial transactions at the village level, shows the fragility of Dumont's model for opposite reasons to those invoked so far. The primacy of the priest is not overestimated, as it is usually argued, but rather underestimated in its economic implication. The priest's role is accurately distinguished from that of the dominant caste, but "status" envelopes "power", not only by defining the latter's arena and the logic of its functioning, but also in determining the former's material strength. In other words, "authority" is "power". The priest tends to be the "richest man" in the logic of the caste system. The reason of his strength, in the local economic categories, does not lie in his actual ownings but on the opposite in his "status", which provides him with a decent subsistence without forcing him to get directly involved in the economic matters.