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3 - Western ‘orientalists’ and the colonial perception of caste

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  28 March 2008

Susan Bayly
University of Cambridge
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This chapter examines the understandings of caste propounded by Western orientalists from the late seventeenth to the early twentieth century. It is important to explore these because so-called Western ‘constructions’ of caste had a considerable effect on Indian life, especially where such views were shaped by contributions from Indians themselves. Some at least of these ideas became embodied in the practices of government both during and after colonial rule, as well as being embraced, disputed and reflected on by Indian politicians, literati and social reformers.

Often, though not invariably, so-called orientalists saw Hindus as the prisoners of an inflexibly hierarchical and Brahman-centred value system. Their insistence on this point played a significant part in the making of a more caste-conscious social order. Yet this could happen only in the context of broader political and social changes which were in progress well before the onset of colonial rule, as was seen in the preceding chapters. Furthermore, the continuing movement towards the castelike ways of life to be described in the book's final chapters could not have occurred in so many areas without the active participation of Indians.

So while much of the subcontinent did become more pervasively caste-conscious under British rule, this is not to say that caste was in any simplistic sense a creation of colonial scholar-officials, or a misperception on the part of fantasising Western commentators. Nor is it to say that the ‘modernisation’ of India would somehow have taken a casteless or caste-denying form under a different kind of political order.


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