24 October 2008

What the Abbe thought of us

I just completed a book by Abbe J.A. Dubois, a french priest who has recorded all what he observed and perceived about "Hindu manners, customs and ceremonies" during his stay in India from 1792 to 1823. This thick book reflects the state of our social system in southern India. The most remarkable aspect of this book is a complete record of the Abbe's observation, much like a student of anthropology. No detail seems to be trivial. The descriptions are usually followed by an analysis clouded as it would expected by the Abbe's religious and european beliefs. The Abbe honestly lays out the culture of the land in those years remarking about the ritualistic nature of our worship as well as the caste system. He echoes what is true even today - our emphasis on idol worship and cleansing of sins without understanding hindu philosophy. The chanting of mantrams being far more important than actually assimilating their meaning into our lives. 
The bulk of the book catalogues all the rituals and ceremonies mostly followed by the Brahmins. Indeed if one were to follow all the rituals set out for this caste in today's day and age it would be impossible to have a day job! The most interesting piece I read concerned Brahmin women. Now, according to tradition only the man who has been invested with the triple cord (jannivara) becomes the twice-born Brahmin. Women are not invested with the jannivara and by default therefore, remain Sudras. Thus when Brahmin men marry, they are doing so with a Sudra woman with Brahmin ancestry. I suppose the counter argument is that caste is inherited so having the jannivara is not a prerequisite to be a "Brahmin" woman. But if one were to follow the scriptures and the thread ceremony is what separates the Sudras from the Brahmins then I would have to buy the argument that all so called Brahmin women are Sudras. I just find this vastly amusing and know that any Brahmin woman who believes her caste to be her badge of honour would refuse an intellectual discussion. 
Certain sections were certainly incorrect or incomplete. For e.g., he only captures two thirds of the gayatri mantram starting at "Tatsavi turvaranayam..." and suggests that Buddhism predates Hinduism. Certain extrapolations are intriguing, like hindu scriptures contain references to the Flood and that the seven penitents who are credited with starting the Brahmin race can be traced back to Noah's children. His conjecture that Indians have deified the cow because of its indispensable nature to our lives (milk, milk products, tiller of fields) might be right. He has only briefly referred to hindu philosophy  and offers a very short summary of the various branches. He blatantly refutes the authority of the vedas as a superior text - a text we don't even know how to read and follow to the tee simply on the directions of another. 
I came away with mixed feelings while reading this book. Certainly the way people are subjugated under the caste system is very apparent and boosts the affirmative action laws we have embraced after independence. The abuse of this action is a subject for another day. From an anthropological viewpoint its a great read but from a scientific point its more fiction because the author doesn't refer to the sources of his information. I don't know how much he has observed vs how much he simply heard off vs how much he wrote in based on perception rather than actual investigation. On the whole though, I would certainly recommend this book to anyone who is interested in learning a bit of peninsular customs and how they were perceived by a European.  

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