18 Pages

7A Caste: social relations, cultural formations

In Part I, we have looked critically at deity, texts, myth, ritual and worship, and teachers and founders, often considered to be key ‘features’ of a (world) religion. We have discovered how these categories often group together very diverse phenomena. This prompted us to develop other ways of thinking about religion and religious traditions in South Asia and beyond. In this chapter we look at a topic that at first sight does not appear to fit with this approach: caste. Unlike the other categories, which are held to be common across religious traditions, caste is often seen to be quintessentially Indian, if not the grounding principle of Hinduism (Dumont 1980). In Chapter 7B, which will start Part II of this book, we shall explore how this view of Hinduism as caste-based developed in the modern period, although, as always, with older roots. Here in Chapter 7A,* to conclude Part I, we explore the diversity of social relations and cultural formations that are covered by the umbrella term ‘caste’. In doing so, we shall look at both historical and ethnographic approaches and ideological systems. This will help us to contextualize how the umbrella term came to be used, as well as to realize that the diverse phenomena that it covers were and are historically and socially produced, just like other social formations across the world.1 This will help us to be open to a much more flexible way of understanding such social phenomena, and the many ways in which they are related to the equally complex term, ‘religion’.