ISSN (Print) - 0012-9976 | ISSN (Online) - 2349-8846

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The History of Caste

Beyond Caste: Identity and Power in South Asia, Past and Present by Sumit Guha (Leiden: Brill (Brill's Indological Library)) 2013; pp xx+ 236, $127.

Three building-blocks structure this book. First, the author cites the anthropologist Morton Klass to remind us that “there is no exact equivalent of the word ‘caste’ in Indian languages” (p 19). The word signified the way the Portuguese, the Dutch and the British settlers viewed society in India from the 16th century onwards. These views were stylised, being attempts to capture the essence of Indian society on the basis of little systematic knowledge of it, and worse, a religious conception of it. Because the word carries such preconceptions, a serious discussion of the history of corporate organisations in Indian society needs to go “beyond caste”, or at least, specify what it is about caste that is of interest to the historian, of which certain features were abstracted to form the European concept.

Second, the author follows McKim Marriott in defining caste as an ethnic group, that is, a group that sets boundaries around itself by means of endogamy and hereditary membership, and that sees itself as a body of distinct people within the larger society. This flexible notion can apply to corporate groups among non-Hindus as well as Hindus, and holds equally well across the artificial caste-tribe divide, as Marriott himself claimed.

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