Submitted by tolkienfan2759 t3_10m58td in books

Warning: this is a long read. There was a lot to say.

Bottom line: this was the most thought-provoking, frustrating book I ever read. Now I have read the protestant bible several times cover to cover, including in different study editions, so I have some experience with critical thinking about thought-provoking, frustrating texts.

It wasn't clear, at any point in the main body of the text, what the book was intended to be. History? Sociology? Anthropology? She waited until the last chapter to clear this up, where it says she thinks anthropologists should be listening to historians, about caste, and vice versa, and hopes to get that process started.

Unfortunately, that still doesn't tell you how much of it is fantasy. A lifelong drunk who hadn't cracked a book since high school once asked me how I know what's in a book is true. That's the big question, isn't it. I'm sure some of it is true. Halfway through the first chapter the second time, I began to believe she's a not very skilled fantasist. (Frank Herbert and Lois McMaster Bujold, by comparison, are skilled fantasists. She doesn't write that well.) There are enough weasel words and careful locutions that I'm sure she knows it isn't all true. "Until relatively recently," for example, is a phrase that recurs again and again, and one that seems to stretch for meaning over a multitude of gaps in the record - time gaps, location gaps, situational gaps. She apparently read a good deal about the history and understanding of caste in India and elsewhere at various times and decided to put what she thought it all added up to on paper, and the Cambridge University Press agreed to publish it, is where we're really at. She wasn't trying to write a summary, she says, but an interpretive synthesis. I think she should have used my phrase instead. It would have been clearer, and more straightforward.

The issue of caste in India is the issue of racism. And they have not one kind of racism but two: an upper racism that they're all comfortable with, that prescribes marriage within the caste (of which they have thousands, and not exclusively Hindu but including Muslims, Jains, Sikhs and others in the same castes; in fact the newest army chief of Pakistan, although Muslim and obviously not an Indian, is a Jat caste member), and a lower, deeply painful racism, the racism of untouchability. This second form of racism splits India into two kinds of Indians; caste Hindus (or caste members, since they're not all Hindus) and untouchables.

Untouchables are people you hire, if you are a so called "caste Hindu," to clean your kitchen with cattle dung to remove impurity. To remain clean, the purest caste Hindus cannot allow the shadow of an untouchable to fall on them, or the steps of an untouchable to fall in the streets they live on.

Well, people are insane, it's well known; you and I as well. Nothing to see here; let's move along. In certain areas of India, so called caste wars have pitted untouchables against caste Hindus in battles in which many lives have been lost. Mostly untouchable lives, of course. So: two kinds of racism; two kinds of Indians.

I take my life in my hands by mentioning racism, I know. You can lose your job, here in the US, for calling someone a monkey, even if no harm was meant and the person is not present. People will get angry enough to start a movement, if you allow the June decoration of your company calendar to feature a cotton field. There are a million different definitions of racism. Every time a sociologist writes a book on the topic she comes up with a new one and metaphorically tosses it on the pile, to join its fellows in deserved obscurity. It's quite common, even for sociologists, to speak of racism without the first idea what you're really talking about.

So let me just clear that up to start: racism is about marriage. If there is a marriage barrier between one people and another (assuming geographic contiguity), whether organized from the ground up, by popular demand, or imposed from the top down, by the "authorities," or something else, something more complex, then there is racism. Because that's how "races" of human beings are created: by failing, for whatever reason, to intermarry. Here in the US, so called white guys have been having sex with so called black women since slavery began, and the "races" still are separate. So: it's about marriage.

(That's my own insight, not shared by anthropologists or sociologists. In fact I've been working hard to get sociologists to talk to me about it and they won't. And this is odd because normally, my emails to university professors get results. For some reason - maybe because racism IS a dangerous issue, and one over which you can very easily lose your job - this is not a topic they wish to address with me.)

But anyway. The last book I read about caste in India was Alexander Lee's From Hierarchy to Ethnicity, and in my review here I noted that caste was racism, and also that caste is: "...a kind of informal, community enforced, extremely broad based aristocracy, based ... on cleanliness..." I still think that sums it up pretty well. The key words with regard to caste are: racism, aristocracy, and cleanliness.

Bayly's book is described pretty well by the blurb inside the front cover, which says the author "interprets caste not as the essence of Indian culture and civilisation, but rather as a contingent and variable response to the enormous changes that occurred in the subcontinent's political landscape both before and after colonial conquest." I don't know whether she wrote the blurb or not, but such cogency is not typical of her. I would just add: not just political changes affected caste, but economic and physical ones too, apparently, and she talks a great deal about these as well. Deforestation and sedentarisation of wild tribes cannot really be called political changes. But taken as corrected, that statement tells you what is best about the book.

There is a good deal of material in the Introduction that I'm not qualified in any sense to evaluate. She discusses anthropological theories in words high schoolers ought to be able to use, without really making clear what the discussion is about. That's fine; physicists have been trying to make clear to the public how astonishing quantum mechanics is since it was invented, and have not yet succeeded. I'm sure every field has its terms of art and its discussions that outsiders really can't enter into.

After the Introduction, the book is laid out in the manner of the opera Eugene Onegin: a series of lyrical scenes, in which occasionally people kill, die, lose hope or resign themselves, sadly and with wonderful singing, to great wealth and status. In the book, of course, the people are supposedly real; as real, anyway, as it gets. First she turns to this period, then to that; here she looks at daily life, there she looks at politics.

The first chapter may be the most frustrating of all. She seems to be writing for people who don't care whether what she's saying is true or not. Or as though she got the information direct from God and there is no possibility of error. She makes one sweeping statement after another, and footnotes none of them. The rise of caste in India was a two stage process. In the first stage these things happened; in the second, those did. To someone who is used to critical thinking, it's an appalling procedure. In order to figure out whether something she said is true or not, assuming I have doubts which may or may not be justifiable, I apparently have to read her entire bibliography. That is unacceptable. And it is not scholarly. The book has every aroma of scholarliness, without the thing itself.

And another thing - her book is meant to cover 350 years. Now in just the last 100 years here in the US, due largely to geopolitical issues, perceptions of race and racism have changed enormously. But mysteries about it abound. Why is it so dangerous, both to perceived perpetrators and to victims? Why do we seem to be able to control it so much - and at the same time so little? Why does it seem to grab hold of us when we're 7 or 8 and never let us go, not even when we're much older and (presumably) wiser? (And what is the secret of this ineradicable education, and can we apply it to physics or calculus? lol) Is race one thing, or many things? If one, how can we change one dimension and not change others (as seems to have happened)? If many, can we identify and differentiate its independent active forms? How many are there? How independent are they? Is there a taxonomy of racisms? Why does individual perception of one's own race sometimes differ so markedly from others' perception of it? I could go on and on. Mysteries, as I say, abound. Racism is complex and not understood. Could caste be less complex or better understood, including as it does (and as noted above) not just two different kinds of racism but an aristocracy as well, the whole based on a kind of common law of cleanliness? I want to reassure scholars of the common law: I use the term exactly. It's just that bad, if not worse.

On top of all this, what we might call American-style racism, racism based on an ancestral origin in slavery, is also (apparently) present in areas of the subcontinent. Haris Gazdar, in a "Letter from South Asia" column entitled "Class, Caste or Race: Veils over Social Oppression in Pakistan," published 1/13/2007 in the Mumbai-based journal Economic and Political Weekly, says "In some areas, notably Makran in southern Balochistan [Pakistan] with a history of African slave trade, race was expected to be an important dimension of social marginalisation." Think of it - three kinds of racism, in one place! Mmph.

But the mysteries and the complexities of caste are not questions Bayly approaches, much less deals with. The closest she gets to an acknowledgment that such questions might exist is some vague and inconclusive talk about the diversity of understandings of caste: historical, geographical and situational (the last term includes politics, economics etc). She hopes an appeal to this notion - to call it an idea would be overselling it - will help resolve discrepancies between different anthropological theoretical approaches. Hah! As if. The more discrepancies you resolve, sister, the closer you get to sheer fantasy.

And - I've said it before - could she just learn to write? The lucidity is low, in her text. Incoherence is, well, not high exactly, but distinctly noticeable. She's not William S. Burroughs-level, not William Faulkner-level - they were gods, weren't they? - but ah, she makes you work for her meaning. So often, she seems to think she's clearing up the water when she's actually stirring up the mud. If she could write well it would make all the fantasy more enjoyable and easier to take. It would all go so much better with beer.

Or you know what: if she could color-code her sentences. Red: certain. Orange: pretty sure. Yellow: eh, who knows. Green: might be true, maybe maybe. Black: just filling in the gaps between hypotheses. And the back and forth in time... in one paragraph she discusses the colonial era, the Mughals, and their successors, and not in any intelligible order. On pages 45-46 one single paragraph moves from 1590 to 1918 (if you include the associated note). It's head-spinning. I needed someone to tell me what she intended to say, how she knew it and what she thought it was going to prove. Maybe anthropologists don't do that; or maybe she knows it's not a very rational account. Maybe a rational account isn't possible, and this is the best we could do at the time. Who knows. She doesn't address these issues.

And in general she avoids motive like Kryptonite, and quite properly, since bad mindreading and the resulting Just So stories are the bane of social science everywhere. Nevertheless even those who cannot read minds occasionally have insight into motive; this she does not display. And I must say, for someone with little or no real understanding of people to become, not just an anthropologist, but an eminent anthropologist (otherwise how would the series editors have turned to her to write this book?), speaks unfortunate volumes about the apparent state of anthropology today. But perhaps I overreach. Maybe her earlier work, Saints, Goddesses and Kings: Muslims and Christians in South Indian Society, 1700-1900, shows more insight.

Bottom line: I don't think you'll find it an educational book. I spent an awful lot of time with it and I don't think I learned much that was true about the history or anthropology of caste in India.



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lanadelrage t1_j62hc8x wrote

I’m not surprised University professors aren’t answering your emails.


sisharil t1_j62jtap wrote

I was intrigued by where you're going with all this, including your unique take on defining racism, until this:

>(That's my own insight, not shared by anthropologists or sociologists. In fact I've been working hard to get sociologists to talk to me about it and they won't. And this is odd because normally, my emails to university professors get results. For some reason - maybe because racism IS a dangerous issue, and one over which you can very easily lose your job - this is not a topic they wish to address with me.)

Dude what the actual fuck. I don't. Why would anyone think this is an appropriate and non-ridiculous way to behave.


Vmax06 t1_j66y4hk wrote

Tell me how you didn't understand anything about caste system without telling me you didn't understand anything about caste system.

That professor is saving themselves of a headache by not responding.

P.S. before you come at me, I'm a Hindu, from India. I live this reality.


VVest_VVind t1_j68r63u wrote

Not from India myself, but I symphatize. This is easily the worst take I read since the glory days of tumblr when some enlightened Americans would talk about whether Hindus criticizing the caste system was internalized racism. Much like with this post, I couldn't tell if they were that stupid or just trolling.


rodvilla17 t1_j69kxu7 wrote

hey bro you’re dumb 😁👍


julien_et_mathilde t1_j68errh wrote

>Here in the US, so called white guys have been having sex with so called black women since slavery began, and the "races" still are separate. So: it's about marriage.

In the US, black/white intermarriage used to be almost non-existent and continues to be rare. Racism is certainly the biggest reason for this.

However, wouldn't you also acknowledge that it is the norm for people to heavily weight criteria other than race when selecting marriage partners, the most obvious criteria being those related to money?

Wouldn't you also acknowledge that money can vary wildly from generation to generation within a single family? That a great-grandfather might have been immensely rich, but by the time the great-grandkids are born the wealth can easily disappear? Because of the fluidity of wealth that often exists between generations and even within an individual's own lifetime, wouldn't you agree that wealth and the marriages resulting from considerations of wealth are not likely to result in something as static as a race?


therealdannyking t1_j69g57b wrote

Interracial marriages account for almost 20% as of 2019. That's not rare.


julien_et_mathilde t1_j6a0vcf wrote

I only mentioned black/white marriages.

According to this 2015 data, 17% of new marriages in the US were interracial and only 11% of those were between a black person and a white person. So less than two percent of new marriages were between a black person and a white person. That is rare.

The black population, which is mostly made up of people whose ancestors have been here for centuries, was shown to be intermarrying at a significantly lower rate than asian and hispanic people, most of whose ancestors would have immigrated much more recently. There is still very obviously a big racial divide.


L1zar9 t1_j68x88l wrote

Racism probably plays some part but there’re also like more than 5 times as many white people as there are black people in the US so it’s not like it’ll ever even be physically possible for intermarriage rates to reach close to the same levels as others. Also other aspects would have an impact, like how different ethnic groups tend to form more insular communities and probably at least a few others that aren’t coming to my mind atm


julien_et_mathilde t1_j690hhn wrote

Of course you wouldn't expect an equal number of mixed race marriages as intraracial ones. You would, however, expect a high percentage of the minority group to eventually be married to partners outside of their group. We see this with Jews in the West, who marry non-Jews at high rates now that religious rigor is relaxing and anti-Jewish sentiment is less normal.

Insularity is common among immigrants, but it normally does not last more than a few generations due to assimilation. The exceptions seem to happen when the group is legally made into a racial underclass or when insularity is a tenet of the group's religion.


the_ill_buck_fifty t1_j613tch wrote

I don't know if I'd call a bible thought-provoking and frustrating; it's just nonsense.

That said you have a lot of accusations of sloppiness and no counter evidence, not to mention whatever the hell this is:

> I take my life in my hands by mentioning racism, I know.


Cars3onBluRay t1_j66z375 wrote

Really? I don’t think the foundational text of the western world and its philosophy, history, literature, etc. is “just nonsense”. The Bible seems like nonsense in isolate and from the viewpoints of extremists, but as a whole it well encapsulates the world views of various schools of thought in Hebrew society. Even if you’re a hardcore atheist, the Bible does portray a cohesive view into the peoples of this time, and is largely consistent to its own logic system. Saying the Bible is just nonsense is like saying The Odyssey, Beowulf, and the Veda are worthless drivel just because their worldview seems silly


[deleted] t1_j672yv0 wrote



Lixlace t1_j67pke0 wrote

I'm an atheist, and I have to say the Bible is super cool as a literary work. It deals with big-ticket philosophical ideas that we still grapple with today, and it's done them powerfully enough to influence almost all of the West's philosophy.

Job, for instance, is a superior piece when viewed through the lens of existential works. Despite being supremely pious, Job suffers dearly from God's divine argument of vanity with Satan, and he doesn't even know why. Worse yet, if he did know why, it would likely make him even worse off. Job grapples with the near-disdain the universe has for him despite being morally righteous, and he is essentially punished for being just.

The book of Job nailed this theme so well-- as head-scratching as it still is for many-- that it has subsisted in the canon for millennia, and has for just as long influenced the West's philosophy.


jimmy_the_turtle_ t1_j67rnb7 wrote

There's a reason that text is still popular at funerals, even secular ones without any church service. It's just very human.