Social Scientist. v 25, no. 288-289 (May-June 1997) p. 1.


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Editorial Note

Louis Dumont's idealistic tract on the caste system where he saw the Homo Hierarchicus as constituting a contrast to the Western Homo Aequalis has been an influential one. Suvira JaiswaPs paper in the current number of Social Scientist, while exploring certain aspects of the social history of ancient India, revives the materialist problematic on the question of caste and also provides specifically a critique of Dumont.

Dumont's emphasis was on the separation of "hierarchical status" from "secular power"; he saw the subordination of the latter to the former as being unique to the Hindu caste-system which made caste a "state of mind" based on a religious principle. Jaiswal however argues that this ideology, far from being specific to his Homo Hierarchicns, has parallels elsewhere in the world as well and derives from the material context of the ecology of cattle keeping societies. Likewise the idea of what is "pure" and what is "polluting" has not remained constant through time but has itself undergone significant changes, in which material factors have played a crucial role. Indeed caste system itself has kept adjusting to the changing context. In recent times, those aspects of it which are in conflict with emerging industrial capitalism have weakened, as Marx had predicted, while endogamy which involves the "gifting" of the bride and is in keeping with capitalist notions of property remains entrenched. To insist in this context that the overall framework of the caste system, as distinct from its "politico-economic" aspects, remains unchanged, as Dumont does,, is to subscribe precisely to a reified "Brahmanical view of caste" the point rather should be to press for those elements of social change, e.g. the unrestrained participation of women in social production on an equal footing with men, which would undermine the foundations of this system.

The astrological texts of Varahamihira contain an impressive body of data on the contemporary towns. These, and in particular his dire predictions about the future of such towns, are used by Vijay Kumar Thakur, to throw light on the pattern and causes of urban decay in early India. A majority of towns in northern India between Western U.P. and Rajasthan become desolate in the third century A.D. The second phase of decline, affecting towns in the middle Gangetic valley, occurs during the Gupta period. But this very period witnesses a trend towards urbanisation in the peripheral areas, such as the lower Gangetic valley, Orissa, Assam, Gujarat and Madhya Pradesh. This differentiated picture, as distinct from a generalised urban decline, is explained by Thakur in terms of an ecological crisis affecting



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