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Caste in Stone? Representing the Relation between Religion and Social Structure

Panel Chair: Jakob De Roover | Friday, August 28, 1:30-3 p.m. | Venue

For centuries, the caste system in India has been represented as an instance of how religion gives shape to social structures. This representation views Hinduism and its priesthood as causal factors behind the creation of a social hierarchy that perpetuates discrimination, injustice, and poverty. However, the empirical and theoretical evidence for such a view is scanty. This panel will examine this representation of caste and religion as an indirect reflection upon the role that Christianity played in the shaping of Western social structures. We look at its different components as expressions of background ideas deriving from internal Western-Christian debates: (1) the general connection between religion and the hierarchical ordering of society; (2) the explanatory role attributed to caste and Hinduism to account for discrimination, poverty, and other social evils; and (3) the place given to the Brahmin priesthood and its relation to the role of the priest in Christianity.

Jakob De Roover

From Church to Caste: On the Religious Ordering of Social Hierarchy

European representations of caste in India have given great importance to the following question: Is caste a religious institution or merely a set of civil observances? Over the centuries, scholars proposed different answers. This paper presents the hypothesis that these actually mirrored insights into the role Christianity played in giving shape to the social hierarchy of modern Europe. Medieval European society consisted of a variety of orders, estates, and ethnic groupings, without any fixed relation to each other. From the eleventh century, however, theologians suggested these formed one hierarchically ordered community consisting of different classes. Society had to be transformed along the lines of this normative model. Eighteenth-century critiques then vehemently rejected this ‘feudal’ model and its religious foundations. In turn, these critiques generated the dominant European images of the caste system, which tell us more about the relation between Christian religion and social structure than about Indian society.

Martin Farek

Corrupt priest or noble Brahmin? European and Indian understandings of the caste system

The standard story about religion in India talks about its decay in the hands of priests: Indian history witnessed the repeated rise of 'reformation movements' against a corrupt priesthood. Shramana and Bhakti movements have been depicted as part of an on-going struggle against the rule of the Brahmins over society. The aim of this paper will be twofold: first, it will be shown how originally Christian theological questions shaped the interpretations of the British Orientalists. William Jones, H. H. Wilson, and others spread the standard understanding of Brahmins as priesthood while they searched for answers to theologically formulated questions. Second, it is necessary to look at the domestic Indian understanding of the category Brahmin. Examples of early Buddhist and Jain discussions, as well as the later Vaishnava debates will be analysed in order to bring about better understanding of caste issues.

Prakash Shah

The epistemic strength of Orientalism: The case of caste debates in the United Kingdom

In his Orientalism, Said refers time and again to the idea of the ‘strength’ of Orientalism as a way of understanding the Orient. This paper explores how the idea of a caste system exemplifies the ‘epistemic strength’ of European ideas of India. The paper draws upon the research programme Comparative Science of Cultures developed by S.N. Balagangadhara in order to understand the deeper roots of the ‘caste system’ idea in theological reflections of Indian society and culture. Secularised theological ideas about the caste system serve as an ‘explanation’ for the character of Indian society and culture: it is viewed as the cause of discrimination and poverty among Indians. The paper provides an illustration of how this occurs today in British parliamentary debates, which draw upon age-old ideas of the caste system to justify particular types of legislative action, poverty alleviation programmes, and proselytizing activity.


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