Observation and Moral Comparisons
In 1864 Abbé J.A. Dubois, a French Catholic missionary of the Missions Étrangères de Paris to India, published one of the first detailed ethnographic manuscript of India. Henry K. Beauchamp of the Royal Asiatic Society edited, republished, and translated to English this manuscript as Hindu Manners, Customs and Ceremonies: The Classic First-Hand Account of India in the Nineteenth Century in several editions. (The edition examined here is the English third edition published in 1906.) According to the preface, Dubois produced the manuscript to provide “authentic records” and observations in order to understand the “labyrinth of people and culture.” (2) Emphasizing the moral underpinnings of the work, Dubois sought to contrast the “incongruities of polytheism and idolatry” of India with that of the “beauties and perfections of Christianity.” (9) In this way, these two intertwined missions of observation and cultural-religious comparison inform the structure, tone, and content of the ethnographic descriptions.
From the selections on the Sudras and Brahmins, Dubois ethnographically describes the specific details of the Sudras and Brahmins castes. From clothing, diet, work, and physical appearance to the history and origins of various sub-castes, Dubois attempts to systematically catalog social groups and customs. Beginning with the Pariahs, Dubois is concerned with the origins of this group and how they became separated out from other castes. Throughout the descriptions of the lower groups such as Chucklers (cobblers), Vallubas (“Brahmins of the Pariahs”), and Kanjois (thieves), Dubois emphasizes a sense of contentment with their status in life. When commenting on the wandering tribes, Dubois remarks, “”Such is the kind of life which many Hindus are accustomed to, and which they bear without murmuring or complaining, and without even appearing to envy those whose lives are spent in pleasanter places.”(72)
In the much longer sections on Brahmanical Life and the Brahmins, Dubois examines rituals, education, relationships, morality, internal and external defilement, and concludes with a section on Brahmin tolerance and Christianity. Dubois often concludes the lengthy ethnographic descriptions on Brahminical life and ritual with certain moral judgments regarding the superfluous obsession with rule of behavior especially around purity and defilement. Additionally Dubois describes Brahmins as “ridiculous” expert flatterers and the recipients of the flattery as “childish” and “idiotic.” (168-169) More so than in the section on the Sudras, Dubois often analyzes the origins and compare “Hindu customs” based on observations of the Brahmins. For example, Dubois explains resemblance between Jewish and Hindu customs and draws a link between ideas about purification to before the time of the great Flood.
The section on religious tolerance and interactions with the Christians is most insightful in the context of the history of missionary activity in India. Dubois opens up this section by arguing that Hindu faith is superficial. He bases this claim on two personal observations: the unbelievably “extravagant” and “absurdity” of the history of Hindu gods and that Hindus commonly curse their gods. (296) It seems that through these claims of religious superficiality, Dubois reasserts the possibility of religious conversion. At the same time Dubois is realistic about the social and cultural challenges to religious conversion. He makes several observations on the social marginalization of converted Christians and the depth of Hindu pride in their civilization. More emphatically Dubois details the immense contrasts between European and Hindu diets, forms of behavior, and relationships—demonstrating the drastic cultural and social divide between Europeans and Indians. These first hand observations are insightful to understand how European missionaries perceived their own challenges and reception in Asia. Underneath the many moral judgments of Brahmins and Sudras, these descriptions also offer a cultural and social landscape of India through the eyes and curiosities of a European.