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Reviewed by:
  • Castes of Mind: Colonialism and the Making of Modern India
  • Meena Khandelwal
Castes of Mind: Colonialism and the Making of Modern India. By Nicholas B. Dirks. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2001.

In Castes of Mind, Nicholas Dirks presents a meticulous analysis of the historicity of caste in order to counter the pervasive acceptance in social science research of caste (1) as a sign of India’s essential religiosity, (2) as proof of its profound incompatibility with modernity, and (3) as generally fundamental to Indian civilization, culture, and tradition.

Part I argues for the modernity of caste. It is not that caste was invented by the British but that “it was under the British that ‘caste’ became a single term capable of expressing, organizing, and above all ‘systematizing’ India’s diverse forms of social identity, community, and organization” (5). During the second half of the nineteenth century, the colonial state increasingly took caste as the primary basis for social classification through various institutions and forms of knowledge, such as the census. Dirks argues that Hegel, Marx, Weber, Dumont, Marriott and others writing on India have largely reproduced a colonial sociology which is ultimately both Indological and Orientalist and which underestimates the influence of Islam and British colonialism.

Part II presents Dirks’ own research on medieval kingdoms of southern India to outline the political and economic context in which the British decided to learn more about the social structure of rural India. Dirks asserts that anthropological views of both “caste” and “village India” ignored how these entities were shaped by larger political systems. Here the author argues against a single theory of caste, suggesting that caste has always been a contingent social phenomenon, while claiming that the colonial archive naturalized the usefulness of caste for understanding Indian social relations.

Part III argues for conceptualizing British rule as “an ethnographic state” which, for example, understood the 1857 Mutiny as an anthropological failure (since the uprising was purportedly about caste and the fanatical fear of pollution) rather than as a political or economic event. Not to homogenize “the British” completely, Dirks notes conflicting views: Max Muller’s sympathetic Orientalism, missionaries’ scathing critique of Brahmans and of caste, and Queen Victoria’s declaration of noninterference in religion and custom (which of course necessitated defining the categories of “religion” and “tradition”). Still, anthropological knowledge was used by the British to explain the Mutiny and to help define autonomous domains of religion and custom. Through a detailed analysis of hookswinging (its history is similar to that of Sati under colonialism), Dirks shows that “Sanskiritization” as elaborated by Srinivas was not just a natural social process by which socially mobile groups emulated Brahmanic customs, but “was in fact officially legislated over and over again in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries” (170). In further explaining the ability of the trope of caste to serve British interests, the caste system could explain both how Indian society could be orderly in the absence of political authority and why its people would be unlikely to unite for the cause of national self-determination. The author details the involvement of both the army and police in defining entire castes as “martial,” “loyal” or “criminal.” “[E]thnographic 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” (196).

Part IV addresses head on the relationship between the ethnographic state, caste politics and nationalism, bringing Dirks’ genealogy of caste into dialogue with contemporary politics in independent India. The author discusses the rise of caste politics and reiterates that Sanskritization—both its historical reality during late colonial rule and its conceptual celebration as the force of Brahmanic hegemony—is an idea that is inseparable from colonial history; it became a means of social mobility as the result of the elevation of Brahmanic values in relation to colonial rule as well as nationalist resistance (253). In this, Dirks offers a deeply historical perspective on more recent violence around the use of caste as a basis for reservations in India.

Dirks concludes by situating this...