NEWS RELEASE, 01/13/98

India's caste system gets fresh, Freudian analysis in new book by UC Berkeley folklorist Alan Dundes

by Gretchen Kell

BERKELEY -- Caste and untouchability in India have puzzled social historians for centuries. Why are millions of Indians deemed "untouchable?" Can a person change his or her caste? Why is cleanliness so prized -- and yet cowdung used as a cleansing agent?

Prominent folklorist Alan Dundes, a professor of anthropology and folklore at the University of California at Berkeley, offers a unique Freudian analysis of caste and untouchability in his new book, "Two Tales of Sparrow and Crow" (Rowman & Littlefield, 1997).

Although there are hundreds of books on the subject, Dundes said no one has looked at it from a psychoanalytic point of view.

"There is a lot of Freud-bashing going on in our country, and a lot of resistance in other parts of the world to Freudian and Western theories," he said. "But I think I offer a plausible, coherent explanation -- certain Indian child-rearing techniques -- for the pattern that underlies caste and untouchability."

The book first reviews the caste system, a rigid hierarchical structure of social inequality in which one's rank is ascribed at birth. Castes are ranked on the basis of one's "pollution" -- work-related contact with life processes such as birth and death and life substances such as feces and blood. The greater one's purity, or lack of contact with pollution, the higher one's rank.

Contact with a person of a lower caste can negatively alter one's purity and require, in some cases, a ritual procedure -- such as bathing or changing clothes. A more serious defiling act can result in expulsion from one's caste. Intermarriage between castes is strongly discouraged.

"Many anthropologists and specialists on India have remarked on the critical importance of pollution to the caste system," said Dundes. "It has been called the 'chief principle' upon which the entire caste system depends."

In the book, he uses two Indian folktales, one about a crow who unsuccessfully tries to eat communally with a sparrow. Associated with feces and pollution and unable to wash itself clean, the crow eventually dies while doing chores to try and win acceptance from other animals.

"A crow can never be clean enough to share a meal with a sparrow," said Dundes, "any more than an untouchable can ever be clean enough to share a meal with a Brahman."

The importance of India's "pollution complex" no longer is debated, but Dundes provides a fresh look at what he calls the "unconscious underlying folk belief complex" which has led to untouchability.

Dundes's research found that caste and untouchability have roots in the human body. The top, "cleanest" caste -- the Brahmans -- supposedly were born from the head of the creator while the bottom, "dirtiest" caste -- the untouchables -- came from the feet or anus.

"It is the persistent, obsessive fear that the top, clean mouth might be contaminated or defiled from the bottom," he said, "that underlies and permeates the entire caste system. This explains why a higher caste cannot accept food from the hands of a lower caste -- for fear of contamination. Feet...are dirty because they are in contact with the outside ground where feces might lurk."

Dundes said he found other clues to the roots of the pollution complex while examining toilet training practices in India. Indian parents give their children a mixed message during their early years, he said, "that is closely related to the pollution complex."

Begun much earlier than in the West, toilet training starts in India when a child is three months old. A very lenient approach is used, where children can eliminate wherever they wish and are cleaned up by a doting mother.

However, at age five, the child's toilet training ends with a traumatic "crackdown," in which the previously pampered child is expected to respond with absolute obedience and conformity to familial and social standards.

"The trauma arising from such a marked discontinuity could well result in a cathexis or fixation on anality," said Dundes.

"I believe there is a correlation between toilet training in India and the adult behavior as expressed in various manifestations of the pollution complex," he said. "I would like to think that this insight might be of some help in encouraging reformers to take action against forms of caste prejudice and some of the evils of untouchability."

Dundes recommends changing toilet training techniques by encouraging mothers to start toilet training later than three months and to minimize the traumatic crackdown at age five.

"Ultimately," said Dundes, "this is a problem Indians are going to have to solve for themselves."

Dundes' book also includes discussions of the sacredness of the cow in India, the burning of widows and also on the caste system and pollution complex among contemporary European and American Gypsies, whose ancestral roots are in India.

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