Edward Said, Orientalism, and Caste: The Development of a Discourse and Field of Study


Below is a working paper I wrote for Professor Janaki Bakhle’s class on Caste, Culture, Religion–The Anthro-History of South Asia. I review and examine Edward Said’s seminal work Orientalism and the development of studies on caste in South Asia.

Since its publication in 1978, Edward Said’s Orientalism has developed to be the leading canonical text for cultural studies, critical post-modern and post-colonial studies, and studies of the Middle East and Islam.[1] In Orientalism, Edward Said develops a two-part argument: Since the late sixteenth century European writers, scholars, and scientists produced an idea and ‘imaginative geography’ of the ‘Orient’ (the East) as strange, exotic, dangerous and putatively opposite to the civilizational superiority of the ‘Occident’ (the West). Over time, this discourse of the ‘orient’ manifested in institutions, imagery, scholarship, and colonial styles into the formal academic discipline of Orientalism with a set of epistemologies, rational justifications, and scientific explanations that perpetuate a binary between the West and the East. Said argues that since the late eighteenth century, there has been a steady interchange between the imaginative meanings of the Orient and the academic tradition of ‘orientalism’. Examining orientalism as a discourse, Said demonstrates how Europeans have managed, produced, and invented the Orient and the Occident.

This essay examines the historiography of Indian caste through the two-part argument in Said’s Orientalism. Examining scholarship on caste from early Portuguese missionary reports to studies of colonialism and caste, I will consider both how European scholars represent, imagine, and understand Indian caste and also how this body of Oriental knowledge informed colonial understandings of caste. This essay is divided into three parts. The first part examines Edward Said’s Orientalism, the core arguments and methods, and the lasting effects on post-colonial and cultural studies. The second and main part of this essay analyzes the historiographical trends in studies of caste in the early writing of Abbé Dubois, Louis Dumont, Émile Durkheim, and Max Weber. The concluding part considers the more contemporary writing on caste and colonialism by Bernard Cohn and Nicholas Dirks. I focus on the historiographical shift in studies of India marked by Nicholas Dirks’ Castes of Mind, which called into question the implications of British colonial epistemologies on scholarship of Indian caste. Through this historiography I seek to trace the contours, continuities, and ruptures within the discourse on Indian caste.

Part I: Orientalism: The Development of a Discourse

and Discipline on the Non-West

In the Introduction to Orientalism, Said defines ‘orientalism’ in three parts: a “distribution of geopolitical awareness into aesthetic, scholarly, economic, sociological, historical, and philological texts;” an “elaboration not only of a basic geographic distinction…Orient and Occident…but also of a whole series of “interests;” and the “expression of an intention to understanding, in some cases to control, manipulate, even to incorporate, what is a manifestly different (or alternative and novel) world.”[2] Said argues that Europeans divided the world into the occident west and the orient east, or the civilized and the uncivilized. Europeans thus defined the Orient as the “other than” and antithetical to the Occident. Through this oppositional division, Europeans defined themselves as culturally and racially superior and justified colonialism through this hierarchy. Said shows how this flexible “positional superiority” of the West over the East permeated through European scientific studies, literature, and political documents on the east, perpetuating constructs and “supreme fictions” of the ‘Orient’ and the ‘Other.’ Said adds that for Europeans (especially the British and the French), the ‘Orient’ has helped to define the European or Western “contrasting image, idea, personality, experience.”[3]

Said examines a large body of mainly French, English, and American texts to understand how individual authors contributed to and were shaped by the discourse of Orientalism. Many of Said’s literary examples reveal the European belief that Islam and the Arab world stood as a “provocation to Christianity.”[4] Said opens his study with an analysis of Arthur James Balfour’s lecture at the House of Commons on “the problems” in Egypt. Balfour draws a connection between England’s colonial position of power and knowledge of Egypt: “We know the civilization of Egypt better than we know the civilization of any other country. We know it further back; we know it more intimately; we know more about it.”[5] In his close analysis of this text, Said demonstrates how English knowledge of Egypt justified and reaffirmed English colonization of Egypt. “Knowledge of the Orient, because generated out of strength, in a sense creates the Orient, the Oriental, and his world…the Oriental is contained and represented by dominating frameworks.”[6] Said continues to examine classic texts like Voltaire’s Candide, travel literature, letters, and speeches. In this first chapter, Said demonstrates the development of the imaginative and geographic division of the East and West through British and French perceptions of the Middle East, Arabs, and Islam.

In his second chapter “Orientalist Structures and Restructures,” Said studies the earliest phases of modern Orientalism as a discipline beginning in late eighteenth to early nineteenth century. Said considers how modern Orientalism derived from the naturalization, modernization, and secularization of a set of imagery and understanding from the past. This nineteenth century understanding of the Orient “kept intact the separateness of the Orient, its eccentricity, its backwardness, its silent indifference, its feminine penetrability, its supine malleability…The Orient existed as a place isolated from the mainstream of European progress in the sciences, arts, and commerce.”[7] Furthermore, Said considers how Orientalism was institutionalized as a discipline by schools, libraries, and governments. This process legitimized and centered the role of the orientalist scholar to ‘translate’ and make scientific the knowledge of the Orient. Said’s second chapter uses scientific and philological texts from the age of European imperialism in the nineteenth to twentieth century such as Cuvier’s Le Règne animal, Gobineau’s Essai sur l’inégalité des races humaines, and Robert Knox’s The Races of Man.

In chapter three “Orientalism Now,” Said elaborates upon the effect of Orientalism as a discipline. He argues that over time, an academic consensus confirmed a set of representations of the Orient in Western learning, consciousness, and later in empire.[8] Said argues that the body of knowledge or a “distillation of essential ideas” on the orient was raised to moral neutrality and objectivity as an “untouchable positivity.” Examining nineteenth century European writers such as Ernest Renan, Gustave Flaubert, Edward William Lane, and Alphonse de Lamartine, Said demonstrates how Darwinian arguments, anthropology race theory, linguistics, and history mutually reinforced categories of racial and cultural hierarchy. Said emphasizes that within Orientalism, the ‘white man’ continued to hold the role to designate, study, and categorize the Oriental. Said discusses the characteristics of interwar Islamic Orientalism, post-World War II Arab Muslim figure in American popular culture and political interests, and the consequences of centuries of orientalism on Western perceptions of the East.

While Said discusses ‘decolonizing’ area studies, his intellectual project is not to replace Orientalism with another system of thinking. Rather he poses fundamental questions such as “How does one represent other cultures? What is another culture? Is the notion of a distinct culture (or race, or religion, or civilization) a useful one, or does it always get involved in self-congratulation (when one discusses one’s own) or hostility and aggression (when one discusses the “other”)?[9] His inquiry concerns the methodological issues of representation, disciplinary canon, and the relationship between scholars and the state. Said does in fact believe in the possibility of strong research only when scholars question and push against ideas handed down within the profession or inherited through constructed categories of academic canon and geography.

As an ‘Oriental’ who grew up in the British colonies of Palestine and Egypt, Said also investigates the ways in which orientalism has been constituted within his own life. His exploration of orientalism is both academic and intellectual—Said questions the ways in which the discourse of orientalism has been produced and disseminated within the academy. Said was trained in comparative literature and taught of European and American humanities. Self-identified as a humanist, Said advocated for a humanistic approach to societies in order “to be able to use one’s mind historically and rationally for the purposes of reflective understanding and genuine disclosure.”[10] In his 2003 preface, Said emphasized the importance of ‘humanism’ especially in the post-9-11 and invasion of Iraq world of misinformation, fear, and injustices. He explained that “Humanism is centered upon the agency of human individuality and subjective intuition, rather than on received ideas and approved authority” and that humanism offers a mode of resistance to tyrants and injustice.[11] “My idea in Orientalism is to use humanistic critique to open up the fields of struggle, to introduce a longer sequence of thought and analysis to replace the short bursts of polemical thought-stopping fury that so imprison us in labels and antagonistic debate whose goal is a belligerent collective identity rather than understanding and intellectual exchange.”[12]

In his 1994 afterword, Said comments on the tremendous reception, translations, and interpretations of Orientalism within literary, area, and post-colonial studies. Two arguments ascribed to the book were that it was anti-Western and wholly supportive of Islamism or Muslim fundamentalism. Responding to both interpretations, Said argues that the intellectual project of Orientalism was to push against oppositional ways of thinking and understanding the Orient versus the Occident. Instead, scholars and activists have instrumentalized Orientalism as a weapon of identity politics, a ‘testimonial to subaltern status—the wretched of the earth talking back—rather than a multicultural critique of power using knowledge to advance itself.”[13] Said reminds readers that this interpretation of Orientalism reifies the reductive, essentialist, and combative thinking of which Orientalism sought to critique.

Part II- Studies of Indian Caste: Conversion,

Missionary Knowledge, Elementary Aspects, and Hierarchy

Said emphasizes how representations of the Orient are historically, politically, and intellectually situated and should be analyzed critically in that way. In this part I will analyze the historiographical development and political underpinnings of European epistemologies of Indian caste. Rather than a focus only on colonial knowledge formalized by the British crown colonialism in 1858 and the information, census, and documentation state of the twentieth century, I will draw attention to Indian caste as a subject within missionary studies and early European sociological and ethnographic fields of inquiry. By studying the complex historiography of European knowledge on Indian caste, I will highlight how certain assumptions of Indian caste grew to become essential truths and influenced colonial and post-colonial understandings of India.

The early knowledge on Indian caste originated from late medieval and early modern European missions and knowledge from explorers, merchants, local Catholics, and Indian interlocutors, or what Angela Barreto Xavier and Ines G. Zupanov have termed as ‘Catholic Orientalism.’[14] This knowledge circulated throughout the global networks of the Portuguese empire. With the Enlightenment processes of secularization in the modern period, Xavier and. Zupanov explain how Catholic Oriental knowledge was eschewed as subjective, overtly religious, fragmented, and too close to ‘native’ Indian points of view.[15] However these early accounts contributed to the concretization of fundamental concepts of Indian caste, ‘pagan’ Hinduism, and social hierarchy; this process of epistemological formation, or what Said terms as “distillation of essential ideas,” perpetuated into subsequent nineteenth century colonial, high Orientalist scholarship on Indian caste.

In Missionary Tropics: The Catholic Frontier in India (16th -17th Centuries), Ines Zupanov analyzes missionary narratives and their construction of a ‘tropics’—the geographical, metaphorical, and representational space of India and the Indian Ocean.[16] Zupanov focuses on letters, devotional literature, and missionary texts from the Portuguese Jesuit missionary project (such as the work of Francis Xavier) in the sixteenth century to the establishment of the East India Company in the seventeenth century. Building on the work of Victor Turner and Michel de Certeau, Zupanov demonstrates how Jesuit missions were a “laboratory of modernity”, whereby which Jesuit missionaries experimented, recorded, discovered, formulated, and made sense of their experiences in India.[17] Missionary narratives reveal how writers made value judgments of indigenous institutions and attempted to translate foreign cultural and religious practices into the epistemological frame of Catholic dogma. Zupanov explains how conversion operates as a mechanism for translation, knowledge formation, and Orientalist study: “Conversion can be defined rather as an intentionally false equation posturing as simple translation.”[18] In other words, missionaries ‘translated’ Indian social, cultural, and religious life into an imagined pre-Christian, pagan religiosity in order to evaluate potential for Indian conversion. Zupanov argues that missionary texts emphasize the “lack of meaning in indigenous institutions, equating “pagan” cultures with senseless machines, without interior centers or frames for human feeling, intention or action. Marriage customs and kinship structure were therefore conceptualized as an outgrowth of a disordered imagination, governed by carnal desires.”[19] In other words, Jesuit missionaries did not perceive Indian ‘pagan’ and ‘infidel’ behavior as purely religious, but as a social behavior.

Missionary Tropics offers two primary contributions to understanding the historiography of knowledge on Indian caste. First, Zupanov demonstrates how the early missionary projects attempted to produce systematic knowledge for the purpose of conversion. In this way, the Jesuit missions were immensely anthropological in the level of detailed categorization and studies of Indian social life. Secondly, Zupanov reveals how these early studies of India argued that caste was a major impediment to conversion. In other words, early missionary projects contributed to fundamental understanding of caste as a core aspect of social life, an obstacle to religious conversion, and overall, possible for categorization and systematic analysis.

The perception that it was possible to analyze and compare caste part by part carries through into the early ethnographic work on India. 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 manuscripts of India. Later translated and republished into Hindu Manners, Customs and Ceremonies: The Classic First-Hand Account of India in the Nineteenth Century, what came to be known shorthand as the Abbé Dubois offered detailed observations and comparisons of the “incongruities of polytheism and idolatry” of India with that of the “beauties and perfections of Christianity.”[20] Thus embedded within the structure, tone, and content of the ethnographic descriptions lie value judgments, comparisons, and remarks regarding the possibility of conversion and cultural change.

From clothing, diet, work, and physical appearance to the history and origins of various sub-castes, Dubois systematically catalogs castes 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 (“Brahmans of the Pariahs”), and Kanjois (thieves), Dubois emphasizes a sense of contentment with their status in life. In the much longer sections on Brahmanical Life and the Brahmans, Dubois examines rituals, education, relationships, morality, internal and external defilement, and concludes with a section on Brahman tolerance and Christianity. Dubois often concludes his lengthy ethnographic descriptions with certain moral judgments regarding Indian superfluous obsession with rule of behavior especially around purity and defilement.

The question of conversion permeates throughout the Abbé Dubois, and observations of Indian practices and customs are often followed by the epistemological question of “Is this aspect a culture or a religion?” The Abbé Dubois confirms that not only is caste an obstacle to conversion, but also Brahman rigidity, ‘stubbornness’ in custom, “cunning” and control of other castes undermined the efforts of the missions. Dubois describes Brahmans as “ridiculous” expert flatterers, “childish,” and “idiotic.”[21] As revealed in these lengthy comparisons of the “Hindu customs,” Dubois conflates Hinduism and Brahmanism. This understanding of caste through the unique experiences, practices, rigidity, and textual lineage of Brahmans continues to inform later European studies of Indian caste. In later European studies of India, the Brahman caste function as intermediaries and metonyms for understanding Indian caste, religiosity, and social structure. This interpretation builds upon the orthodox Vedic Brahmanism, the Laws of Manu, and classical Indian prescriptive idea of Varna caste system of Brahmans (priests and men of letters), Kshatriyas (warriors), Vaishayas (merchants and landowners), and Shudras (servants, cobblers, and sub servants).

Subsequent scholarship in new fields of sociology, ethnography, and anthropology, in the late eighteenth, nineteenth, and twentieth centuries continue to orient all studies of India around the question of caste. From Max Weber’s study of Asian religions and the development of economic capitalism to Louis Dumont’s ethnographies of religion, kinship, and hierarchy, ‘caste’ operates as an epistemological frame for European knowledge on India.[22] Originally written in the early decades of the twentieth century and published posthumously, Weber’s Religion of India: The Sociology of Hinduism and Buddhism examines caste as the fundamental institution of India and Hinduism and compares Hinduism with Jainism and Buddhism.[23] Like the previous missionary scholarship, Weber refers to ‘classical sources’ and Brahmans to understand the four Varna caste system in India.

Louis Dumont’s encyclopedic ethnography of caste and kinship, Une sous-caste de l’Inde du Sud (A South Indian Subcaste: Social Organization and Religion of the Pramalai Kallar), also argues that caste is pan-Indian.[24] Based on his fieldwork in South India in 1949 and heavy reliance on an indigenous informant, Dumont’s study consists of three parts: a local study of the Pramalai Kallar, social organization, and religion. With close attention to indigenous categories and local differences, Dumont aimed to study the microcosm of Kallar particularities in order to distill general macrocosm principles of Indian civilization. Dumont’s focus on a thieving caste (who are later criminalized as a caste in 1918 to 1947 by the colonial state) reaffirmed the pervasiveness of and local variations of caste throughout India.

Deeply influenced by French sociologists Émile Durkheim and Marcel Mauss, Louis Dumont’s ethnographic style seeks to understand underlying historical continuity, social morphologies, structures, and totalities rather than utilitarian individual components. Louis Dumont expands on several of Durkheim’s sociological approaches and theories. First, Dumont draws from Durkheim’s structuralist approach to religion as “collective representations, which express collective realities”—in other words, the ‘elementary’ aspects of religion that are irreducible and thus universal.[25] Durkheim emphasizes that studying religion will reveal the origin of human thought and fundamental aspects of society. At the conclusion of each section, Dumont also distills general principles about social behavior and mentalities. Second, Dumont expands upon Durkheim’s investigation of ‘the individual’ and ‘the social.’ Focusing on the social origin of knowledge, Durkheim argues, “there are two beings in him: : an individual being which has its foundation in the organism and the circle of whose activities is therefore strictly limited, and a social being which represents the highest reality in the intellectual and moral order that we can know by observation–I mean society.”[26] Besides the social aspects of religion, Dumont focuses on local and individual practices of religion. For example, in his discussion of ritual action and the body Dumont emphasizes how each individual has different social roles and professions connected to ritual practice and social life. And third, Dumont expands on Durkheim’s most argumentative theory of religion as the classification of things profane and sacred and the collective moral community of the Church.[27] In his discussion of religious life and different gods, Dumont compares the polluting meat-eating impure gods to the vegetarian-eating pure gods. Within these descriptions, Dumont connects the propensity to distinguish sacred and profane to the larger Indian caste structure.[28]

Drawing on this ethnographic work on the Pramalai Kallars and more recent Indological literature on caste, Dumont published in 1966 a theoretical monograph on caste and hierarchy, Homo Hierarchicus.[29] With the question of ‘caste’ again as the central problematic, Dumont demonstrates that caste is not just social stratification or class, but a system of hierarchy based on inequality. Dumont sought to ‘isolate’, study, and develop new theories on ‘hierarchy’ and at the core, concepts of the pure and impure—what he believed to be the dominant ideology of the Indian social system.[30] Dumont begins his study by framing the essential questions of the individual, society, equality, and hierarchy.

Dumont argues that hierarchy emerges from a consensus of values and ideas and is essential to social life. In this way, hierarchy reveals elementary aspects of society since “hierarchy encompasses social agents and social categories.”[31] Expanding on the concept of hierarchy, Dumont distinguishes between Western ideas of hierarchy as progressive subordination and Indian theories of hierarchy. Rather than hierarchy resting upon western ideas of linear power and authority, Dumont connects Indian hierarchy to religious values, the four Varnas, and the relationship to the whole.[32] Dumont explains how caste groups encompass society and are connected to one another through (1) separation of matters of marriage and contact, (2) division of labor, traditions, and professions, and (3) hierarchy ranking groups as relatively superior or inferior to one another. Dumont argues that this last aspect of hierarchy is the most important and is manifested in the separation between the pure and impure.

In Part II of this essay, I summarized the main assumptions and themes within European historiography of caste such as the work of the Catholic missions, the Abbé Dubois, Max Weber, and Louis Dumont. From early missionary studies in the sixteenth to eighteenth centuries to the sociological and ethnographic studies of the non-West in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, knowledge on Indian caste developed from and reified the following assumptions: first, caste encompasses all of India and Indian social life; second, caste is understood through Brahmanical structure and the stratification of the four Varnas explained in ancient texts and the laws of Manu; third, the caste system legitimizes hierarchy and domination by the ruling group, such as the Brahmans; and fourth, the caste system and hierarchy is immutable.

Over time, these assumptions produce what Said describes as ‘Orientalism,’ an epistemology of the East, or “a library or archive of information commonly and, in some of these aspects, unanimously held. What bound the archive together was a family of ideas and a unifying set of values proven in various ways to be effective.”[33] The development of Orientalism and studies of caste predicated rested upon a comparative lens and mutually defined categories of the Orient and the Occident. For example, the European texts examined above use Western social and political organizing principles to understand India. Weber describes Brahmans as a “priestly stratum and cultivating nobility,” deriving their power from knowledge and texts.[34] Furthermore, Weber analyzes caste through comparisons to guilds, tribes, trade unions, social rank, and status groups. Weber’s admiration for Calvinist guilds deeply informs his interpretation of caste, its ‘sham religiosity,’ and the excessive individualism of Brahmanical Hinduism as inhibitions to the development of economic capitalism. While Dumont explicitly states in the preface to Homo Hierarchicus that he refrained from Western, exogenous concepts of social class, measures of modernity, and egalitarianism, Dumont remains preoccupied by comparative, structural thinking. For example, Dumont argues that ‘traditional’ societies consider society as a whole, collective Man, order, and hierarchy. Meanwhile ‘modern’ societies emphasize the egalitarian individual as the “indivisible elementary man.”[35] Relying upon  Rousseau’s definition of equality, Dumont juxtaposes equality and collective thinking, and thus casts traditional societies as anti-egalitarian and anti-individual.[36] Binaries such as traditional and modern, individual and social are antithetically and mutually defined and rely upon exogenous, Western categories. Furthermore, Dumont relies upon the ‘authentic’ native interlocutor of Brahmans to extrapolate larger generalizations of all of India. In other words, these scholars attempted to ‘translate’ and analyze India through a Western lens, or what Said describes as the process of “domesticat[ing] the Orient” into a “province of European leaning.”[37]

These assumptions of caste reaffirm certain generalizations of India and the Orient as a timeless tradition, dominated by magic and social stratification. Furthermore, these early studies of India and caste either critique the lack of individualism or the concept of the individual is largely absent; in its place are orientalist theories of ‘traditional’ concepts of kinship, family, community, and hierarchy. India is thus contrasted to the ‘Occident,’ characterized by change and evolution towards modernity and ruled by individualism, egalitarianism, and capitalism.

Subsequent scholarship on caste must confront these Orientalist assumptions of caste and the unchanging nature of Indian society. For example, Indian sociologist Mysore Narasimhachar Srinivas challenges the assumption of Indian society as static and the universal structure of the four Varnas, the lack of mobility between castes, and the complete changes wrought by Western influences.[38] In Social Change in Modern India published in 1963, Srinivas advances a theory of historical change and social mobility around the uneven and regional processes of Sanskritization and Westernization. Srinivas elaborates on the process of Sanskritization—the process by which lower castes or tribal groups adopt customs, rituals, and ways of life of a higher, Brahmanic caste. Srinivas emphasizes that mobility afforded through sanskritization was one of ‘positional’ change rather than total ‘structural’ change. In this way, Srinivas suggests the importance of relational power and the significant regional differences through jatis, endogamous caste groups. His later chapter examines Westernization—the uneven borrowing of certain western influences upon social status and caste particularly among the new Indian elite who had contact with the small population of Europeans through education, bureaucracy, and trade. Overall, Srinivas begins to call attention to how centuries of scholarship on caste had privileged the role of Brahmans and the immutability and universality of the four varnas. Nevertheless, Srinivas still attributes real structural change to colonialism. It is not until the scholarship of Bernard Cohn, Nicholas Dirks, in conjunction with Edward Said’s critique of Orientalist representations that commence the complete critique and dismantling of colonial epistemologies on studies of India and caste.

Part III- Critical Reflections on Colonial Implications of Caste:

the “Floodgate of Postcolonial Criticism”

Said concludes Orientalism with a reminder that representations and knowledge are instrumentalized: “My whole point about this system is not that it is a misrepresentation of some Oriental essence—in which I do not for a moment believe—but that it operates as representations usually do, for a purpose, according to a tendency, in a specific historical, intellectual, and even economic setting. In other words, representations have purposes, they are effective much of the time, they accomplish one or many tasks.”[39] Thus far, the scholars I examined above ought to understand caste for the purposes of conversion, nostalgic comparison, and in order to uncover fundamental structures of society, religion, and the traditional ‘Orient.’ This epistemology of caste was predicated upon assumptions of hierarchy, the four varnas, and Brahmanical authority. Furthermore, knowledge on caste was often comprehended through a comparison with the Occident. For example, Louis Dumont positioned caste as part of India’s fundamental religiosity and commitment to social values and community—aspects that the modern world lost. With British influence and direct Crown rule in 1858, previous knowledge on Indian society, caste, and religion was increasingly instrumentalized in the service of British colonial rule. Scholarship produced by colonial scholar-officials such as J.H. Hutton continued to build upon earlier missionary assumptions of caste, hierarchy, and religion. For example, Hutton examined caste as the foundation of Indian social and religious life. Hutton argues that caste was an intrinsically Indian phenomenon and governed all aspects of life from food and clothing to marriage and social organization. At the same time, the increasing scholarship produced by colonial officials and census workers dedicated more attention to local variations in regional conditions. In this way, Hutton moves way from earlier interpretations that Brahmans held the final authority, but rather that Brahmans declared scripturally conducive behavior. At the same time, the mutually defined relationship of dominance between the Brahman and the untouchable continued to be evidence of the rigidity of caste in pre-colonial and colonial scholarship. Nevertheless, colonial scholarship was produced in the service of colonial efficiency and bureaucratic rule.

American anthropologist Bernard Cohn opened the door to question the manner in which categories of understanding and knowledge on India came to existence and were transformed by the colonial state.[40] His volume Colonialism and its Forms of Knowledge (1996)—a collection of four essays produced during the 1980s—centers around the documentary project of colonial knowledge making.[41] Cohn approaches colonial practices of information gathering as an ‘anthropological history;’ he studies the colonial state culturally with a critical eye towards concepts such as honor, authority, power, codes of conduct, systems of social classification, and the construction of time and space. In this way, both anthropology and history can benefit from a more integrated study that examines how people construct cultural categories. Through this problematizing inquiry, Cohn reveals how the British colonial state operated as an information gathering system—through managerial techniques to document, categorize, and count, the colonial state formalized a body of knowledge under the authority of governmental objectivity and efficiency. Cohn demonstrates how under governmental technologies such as censuses, cadastral surveys, and land tenure laws, the British colonial state cemented categories of caste. Furthermore, Cohn explains that British laws and attempts to codify caste intensified the hierarchical structures of caste.

Cohn’s contributions include new perspectives on India’s caste system, a critical study of colonial knowledge gathering, the field of historical anthropology, and his intellectual mentorship of a community of South Asia specialists including Nicholas Dirks. In his second book, Nicholas Dirks’ Castes of Mind: Colonialism and the Making of Modern India expands Bernard Cohn’s intellectual investigation of colonial categories into a critical study of colonial knowledge and categorization of modern India.[42] A tremendous feat of anthropological history, Castes of Mind argues that under British colonialism, ‘caste’ becomes systematized into an all-encompassing concept of India’s social identity, community, politics, and religiosity. Dirks argues that under British colonialism, caste is made far more pervasive, totalizing, and uniform than ever before, where Varna embodied the hierarchy of the entire Indian social system. Caste is neither an inherited, unchanging essence of Indian civilization, a reproduction of Orientalist and Indological categories, nor completely invented by the British. Rather, the governmental codification of ‘caste’ was part of the ‘modern’ cultural project of colonial control and knowledge production. Therefore, subsequent post-colonial histories and the Indian nationalist movement that rely upon such colonial-derived categories and epistemologies are implicated within British colonial knowledge.

The work is divided into three parts—parts one and two consider early orientalist and Indological studies up to the colonial archives and its representation of caste and social difference; part three studies the ethnographic state in action through practices of enumeration, classification, and the census; and part four examines the relationship between the ethnographic state, caste politics, and Indian nationalism. Castes of Mind reviews the early missionary and sociological literature on caste and emphasize how this scholarship framed India through a lens of religion, hierarchy, and the collective rather than secularism, equality, and the individual—fundamental tenets of the Western, modern nation-state. In this manner Dirks historicizes the ‘opposition between caste and the modern nation’ from the early works of Orientalist and Indological studies of India up through nationalist caste politics and reform initiatives in contemporary India. Dirks most importantly explains how British imperialism legitimized its rule through constructions of Indian caste, traditionalism, and barbarism from the 1870s. Dirks elaborates that in the late nineteenth and twentieth centuries, British imperialism extended instruments of epistemic rule, disguised as tools of bureaucracy, legibility, and documentation. For example, the archives and ethnographies were concerned with strategic, political questions of land ownership and sovereignty, as well as cultural and political questions of social relationships and caste. The archive and the census appear as “neutral” repositories of the past and thus are immensely powerful in their silent perpetuation of discourses of power and cultural difference. Dirks states, “ethnographic science ultimately achieved its apotheosis in the colonial census, both because of the massive scientific and administrative apparatus that the census represented and because of the way the census had unprecedented effects on the social realities it claimed merely to represent.”[43] Dirks draws from the ethnographic work of scholar bureaucrats and census officers such as H.H. Risley, William Crooke, J.H. Hutton, and Edgar Thurston to understand how the discourse of caste evolves to explain the impossibility of Indian self-rule and social change.

Dirks concludes his work with a brilliant treatise on the consequences of colonialism on the writing of history. He reminds the reader of the epistemological consequences of colonialism in the history of capitalism, the West, anthropological visions of the colonized world, and historiographical thought. Most importantly, Dirks dismantles the continuity thesis and Braudelian movement of history that argues that categories of knowledge and caste were passively inherited from a coherent Indian past. Dirks argues that the work of C.A. Bayly, David Washbrook, and the Cambridge school pull attention away from the discursive powers of the colonial state.[44] Rather, Dirks centers the role of colonial knowledge alongside the power of military, political power, and economic wealth in the study of colonial conquest and governance. Dirks shows how the anthropoligizing of India for colonial interests and colonial legitimacy in turn cemented social categories of difference and positioned caste as opposed to self-rule and the modern nation state. This argument reinforces Dirks’ historiographical and polemical contribution: the implication of historical and anthropological scholarship on India within colonialism. Thus, the colonial construct of caste is a specter, ‘haunting’ postcolonial studies of India by perpetuating colonial legacies of classification, exclusion, and cultural difference.

Since Edward Said’s Orientialism  in 1978, generations of scholars have challenged the construct, substance, and integrity of centuries of Orientalist scholarship. Gyan Prakash accredits Orientalism with the subversive opening of the “floodgate of postcolonial criticism that has breached the authority of Western scholarship of Other societies.” Prakash continues to explain, “The hallowed image of the Orientalist as an austere figure unconcerned with the world and immersed in the mystery of the foreign scripts and languages has acquired a dark hue as the murky business of ruling other peoples now forms the essential and enabling background of his or her scholarship.”[45] Said’s tremendous influence has been attributed to his transgression of disciplinary and geographic boundaries, “to force the recognition of Orientalism as a discipline of power.”[46] Said’s humanistic critique of Orientalist scholarship has become an inescapable polemical question, challenging centuries of knowledge on the East. At the same time, my historiography sought to narrow and historicize Said’s Orientalist critique within the historical, anthropological, and sociological body of scholarship on Indian caste. Rather than an abstract figure of a singular Orientalist, Western scholar who perpetuates essentialisms of the East, my study seeks to refrain from those binaries of which Said sought to critique. Instead, I examined how sixteenth to eighteenth century missionary studies contributed to notions of Indian religiosity, a four Varna hierarchy, and community through the lens of the Brahman interlocutor. Within these early studies, sociologists and anthropologists such as Max Weber and Louis Dumont extrapolated ‘elementary aspects’ of society and religion and reaffirmed assumptions of India as traditional, static, and collective. Concluding with the scholarship of Bernard Cohn Nicholas Dirks, I illustrate how colonial order was built upon and discursively cemented concepts of caste, cultural difference, and the impossible reconciliation of modernity with Indian caste. Thus, with a closer examination of the historiography of caste, my study demonstrates the historical changes in discursive regimes and the multiplicity of political and intellectual actors who contributed to produce an epistemology of caste.


















Works Cited


Cohn, Bernard S. Colonialism and Its Forms of Knowledge the British in India.. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1996.

Dirks, Nicholas B. Castes of Mind: Colonialism and the Making of Modern India. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2001.

Dubois, J. A., and Henry K. Beauchamp. Hindu Manners, Customs and Ceremonies. 3d ed. Delhi: Oxford University Press, 1978.

Dumont, Louis. A South Indian Subcaste: Social Organization and Religion of the Pramalai Kallar. Oxford University Press, 1986.

———. Homo Hierarchicus: The Caste System and Its Implications. Complete rev. English ed. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1980.

Durkheim, Émile. The Elementary Forms of the Religious Life. Translated by Joseph Ward Swain. New York: Free Press, 1965.

Marriott, McKim. “Interactional and Attributional Theories of Caste Ranking.” Washington, D.C., 1958.

Prakash, Gyan. “Orientalism Now.” History and Theory 34, no. 3 (October 1995): 199–212.

Said, Edward W. Orientalism. New York: Pantheon Books, 1978.

Srinivas, Mysore Narasimhachar. Social Change in Modern India. The Rabindranath Tagore Memorial Lectures 1963. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1969.

Varisco, Daniel Martin. Reading Orientalism: Said and the Unsaid. Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2012.

Weber, Max. The Religion of India: The Sociology of Hinduism and Buddhism. Glencoe, Ill: Free Press, 1958.

Xavier, Ângela Barreto, and Ines G. Županov. Catholic Orientalism. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2015.

Županov, Ines G. Missionary Tropics: The Catholic Frontier in India (16th-17th Centuries). University of Michigan Press, 2005.



[1] Edward W. Said, Orientalism (New York: Pantheon Books, 1978).

[2] Ibid. P. 12.

[3] Ibid. P. 2.

[4] Said argues that India was not a threat to Europe in a similar way that Islam was a point of entry for Orientalist knowledge. Napoleon’s invasion of Egypt in 1789 and later in Syria opened up to European orientalists a treasure trove of texts, languages, and civilizations to study and understand. Ibid. P. 74.

[5] Ibid. P. 32.

[6] Ibid. P. 40.

[7] Ibid. P. 206.

[8] Ibid. P. 203-205.

[9] Ibid. P.325.

[10] Ibid. P. Xxiii.

[11] Ibid. P. Xxix.

[12] Ibid. P. Xxii.

[13] Ibid. P. 335.

[14] Ângela Barreto Xavier and Ines G. Županov, Catholic Orientalism (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2015).

[15] Ibid. P. Xxi.

[16] Ines G. Županov, Missionary Tropics: The Catholic Frontier in India (16th-17th Centuries) (University of Michigan Press, 2005).

[17] Ibid. P. 14.

[18] Ibid. P. 27.

[19] Ibid. P. 192.

[20] The edition examined here is the English third edition published in 1906 by translator and editor Henry K. Beauchamp of the Royal Asiatic Society. J. A. Dubois and Henry K. Beauchamp, Hindu Manners, Customs and Ceremonies, 3d ed (Delhi: Oxford University Press, 1978). P. 9. The authorship of the Abbé Dubois has been disputed and scholar Sylvia Murr argues that Père Coeurdoux based Dubois’ manuscript on another manuscript in the 1760s. For the purpose of my essay I will attribute authorship to J.A. Dubois since the text I analyze is the 1978 revised and translated version by Beauchamp.

[21] Ibid. P. 168-169.

[22] Weber focuses on how economic production, professional trade, racial difference, and social rank delineate caste amongst the Brahmans, Kshatriyas, Vaishayas, and Shudras. Max Weber, The Religion of India: The Sociology of Hinduism and Buddhism (Glencoe: Free Press, 1958),

[23] Ibid. Weber P. 29.

[24] Louis Dumont, A South Indian Subcaste: Social Organization and Religion of the Pramalai Kallar (Oxford University Press, 1986).

[25] Émile Durkheim, The Elementary Forms of the Religious Life, trans. Joseph Ward Swain (New York: Free Press, 1965). P. 22.

[26] Ibid. P. 29.

[27] Ibid. Durkheim defines the idea of profane and sacred as mutually dependent in its exclusionary, pollutant properties: “The sacred thing is par excellence that which the profane should not touch, and cannot touch with impunity.” P. 55.

[28] Dumont, A South Indian Subcaste. Dumont argues that the distinction between the pure and the impure “is also religious in nature, and permeates all social life.” P. 460.

[29] Louis Dumont, Homo Hierarchicus: The Caste System and Its Implications, Complete rev. English ed (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1980).

[30] Ibid. P. Xxi.

[31] Ibid. P. 20.

[32] In this way, Dumont builds upon McKim Marriott’s interactional theories of rank. Dumont explains that hierarchy is the “principle by which the elements of a whole are ranked in relation to the whole.” P. 91. McKim Marriott, “Interactional and Attributional Theories of Caste Ranking” (American Anthropological Association, Washington, D.C., 1958).

[33] Said, Orientalism. P. 41-42.

[34] Weber, The Religion of India. Weber P. 137.

[35] Dumont, Homo Hierarchicus. P. 11.

[36] Rousseau on Equality: “The ideal of liberty and equality follows immediately from the conception of man as an individual. In effect, if the whole of humanity is deemed present in each man, then each man should be free and all men are equal. This is the foundation of the two great ideals of the modern age. By contrast, as soon as a collective end is adopted by several men, their liberty is limited and their equality brought into question.” P. 11. However, later Dumont explains how equality is a ‘superior’ idea, but essentially ‘artificial.’

[37] Said, Orientalism. P. 78.

[38] Mysore Narasimhachar Srinivas, Social Change in Modern India, (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1969).

[39] Said, Orientalism. P. 273.

[40] Cohn’s most notable works are India: The Social Anthropology of a Civilization (1971), An Anthropologist among the historians (1987), and Colonialism and its Forms of Knowledge (1996).

[41] Bernard S. Cohn, Colonialism and Its Forms of Knowledge the British in India, (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1996),

[42] Nicholas B. Dirks, Castes of Mind: Colonialism and the Making of Modern India (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2001).

[43] Ibid. P. 196.

[44] Dirks explains that these works frame the colonial state as weak, accidental, passive, and peripheral in order to rescue Indian agency and nationalism as a “tribute to the heroic Indian role of the making of the British empire.” In this way, Dirks reasserts the fundamental importance of engaging directly with colonialism and colonial production of knowledge on India. Ibid. P. 310.

[45] Gyan Prakash, “Orientalism Now,” History and Theory 34, no. 3 (October 1995): 199–212. P. 199.

[46] Daniel Martin Varisco, Reading Orientalism: Said and the Unsaid (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2012). P. 14.


3 thoughts on “Edward Said, Orientalism, and Caste: The Development of a Discourse and Field of Study”

  1. I would like to suggest some books to your attention since you tried to explain a difficult subject of ‘Caste’ in a single article & did an absolutely fabulous job of it. Here are some works which i think you have not got hold of regarding caste –

    Beyond Caste: Identity and Power in South Asia, Past and Present

    Recasting Caste: From the Sacred to the Profane

    From religious text I would like you to look about –

    Vajrasuchi Upanishad – https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Vajrasuchi_Upanishad

    Plz. add. your thoughts into this matter if you find time & read these books.

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