Ritual purity as evoked culture

Jonathan Fast’s novel Golden Fire is set during the height of the Gupta Empire at the end of the 4th century A.D. The novel revolves around the origins and rise of Chandragupta II. But what remains with me after all these years is the depiction of social relations in an India where elite Hinduism as we understand it today is starting to take shape, and Buddhism is abating. Fast depicts a caste society, though not nearly as endogamous as exists today (this is probably correct from what the genetics tell us).

At one point, a former advisor to the king, a Buddhist monk, arrives at court. The current ascendant counselor is a Brahmin. When the monk, his old rival, arrives to address the king, the counselor turns around and faces away from the monk. Not only will he not speak to him, but he will not look at him. He explicitly contends that the rationale for this behavior is to minimize the ritual pollution that entails contact with a Buddhist who lacks caste.

This attitude persists in some ways in India. And South Asia more generally. Even after conversion, many Muslims continued to maintain habits of caste. My father’s mother’s family were converted to Islam from Hinduism in the early 20th century. They had been Bengali Brahmins and continued to maintain habits which reflected their origins without reflecting on or acknowledging their origins. They maintained separate dishes for guests, and would not drink out of other peoples’ cups. My father’s father was an ulem, a religious teacher. So he instructed all his children on the details of Hanafi shariah. But, the children were raised by his wife, and so all maintained the habit into adulthood of never drinking out of other peoples’ cups. Perhaps one way to describe her would be Muslim beliefs, Hindu customs.

I know the details of the origin of these practices (I also internalized my paternal grandmother’s habits in this area, to be honest) because one of my mother’s brothers converted to a reformist and fundamentalist variety of Islam, and he was conscious of the Hindu practices that Bengali Muslims maintained. He was ostentatious about drinking out of other peoples’ cups and eating off their plates because to him that was an important refutation of the separation between classes and castes which Hinduism fostered.

But of course, it’s not just Hinduism. Schools of Islamic law vary, but there are different rules as to the nature of interaction allowable with unbelievers. Muslim men may marry women who are Christian or Jewish, but not pagans. Muslims may establish friendly relationships with non-Muslims, but only in the interests of conversion (dawah). The psychology of pollution and contagion is widespread across human societies. The emergence of an outcaste population in Japan was due to ideas introduced by Buddhism, whose original Indian origin is reflected in attitudes toward killing and consumption of animals (they entail pollution). As in South Asia, individuals who engage in activities such as butchering or tanning animals were considered polluted by their activities and became a caste apart.

Ancient hunter-gatherer bands likely did not have an endogamous caste which engaged in “unclean” activities. Pleistocene humans were generalists for reasons of lifestyle. And, the number of cooperative humans on a day to day level was in the range of 10-100, too small to produce a distinct caste. The emergence of outcastes and stratification along lines of pollution is probably a cultural artifact of complex societies, with specialized groups segmenting across society. And, it seems a feature of most societies, where some groups are seen as “polluting” in a moral and metaphysical sense (e.g., Jews in medieval Europe). The Buddhist monk whom the Brahmin found polluting in the novel above was not dirty physically. Though pollution is often associated with dirty professions in a hygienic sense (e.g., sanitation), it is just as likely that low-status groups who were seen as polluting gravitated toward those professions because their ritual pollution was already so high that such occupations did not impact their position in the hierarchy.

The idea of ritual pollution of outgroups, lower-status groups, is a human universal because there were preexistent mental reflexes and intuitions developed during the time we were hunter-gatherers which were leveraged in dense, stratified societies. In other words, ideologies of moral and metaphysical contagion from lower-status outgroups is a natural part of an evoked culture that will emerge given particular social parameters. In plainer language, the cognitive muscles were already there, the task just had to be relevant. Making someone an outcaste, or expelling them for violations of norms, or reducing their status within a group, are all straightforward things that might happen in a “small-scale society.” They are functionally important in a group which has to cooperate to survive on the Malthusian margin. Troublemakers had to be expelled for norm violation, as norms were what bound bands together.

As humans began to agglomerate into large clusters, and develop sophisticated cultural tools to organize polities and even civilizations, they naturally drew upon their preexistent intuitions and folk beliefs and extended and elaborated upon them. The ritual pollution embedded within Hinduism is not just historically contingent, an invention of the South Asian milieu, but is an instantiation of a spectrum of ideas which bubbled up in all complex societies and drew upon a universal human nature.

Ritual pollution is often associated with religion because of the importance of religion in human societies over the past few thousand years. But as organized religion declines in the developed world, one should not necessarily see a decline in ideas of pollution and contagion. In fact, organized religion in Japan has been relatively weak over its history in relation to the Muslim world or the West, and one of the canonical examples of an outcaste population is from Japan itself, whose native animism has no problem with the idea of pollution.

In the film The Fellowship of the Ring* there is a scene where they utter the “Black Speech” of Mordor, to very negative consequences. J. R. R. Tolkien had some strange ideas about language, and its power (though in the pre-modern context he would not be thought of as a crank). But clearly, the “Black Speech” was polluting. This likely has its analog to modern discussions and political tribalism. The very act of speaking and engaging with people with very different views is polluting. One must not give “platform” to “wrongthink.” “Error has no rights.” The very act of a disreputable person agreeing with a viewpoint you hold results in a level of pollution that makes one reflect on the validity of one’s own views.

This has always been with us. But new technologies seem to be amplifying the dynamic, to the point where it’s an accelerant in social polarization.

Of course, Jon Haidt has said this in a different language for a long time. Scared passions are still with us because they were with us in the beginning. The metaphysical religions of the Axial Age refashioned intuitions which were part of our nature, to the point where enthusiasms and prejudices driven by these passions became associated with those religions. But limpieza de sangre wasn’t really an innovation. Just a reinvention. The fading of the old religions will not mean the fading of the old passions. They are just rebranded.

* I read the book so long ago I don’t recall if this scene is faithful to the novel.

10 thoughts on “Ritual purity as evoked culture

  1. The emergence of an outcaste population in Japan was due to ideas introduced by Buddhism, whose original Indian origin is reflected in attitudes toward killing and consumption of animals (they entail pollution). As in South Asia, individuals who engage in activities such as butchering or tanning animals were considered polluted by their activities and became a caste apart.

    Tanning, even today, is exceptionally unclean. It requires and produces toxic chemicals. There aren’t many large-scale tanneries left in the U.S. and Europe due to environmental regulations, and much of that work is outsourced to India. I think Horween in Chicago is about it in the U.S. today.

  2. In a previous millennium, I knew Jonathan Fast. He is a professor of social work and his wife is a Unitarian minister.

    His father was Howard Fast, famous for writing the novel Spartacus which was made into a hit 1960 movie staring Cory Booker. Howard was communist in his early life, but by the time I meet him, he had gone full Hollywood.

    Jonathan’s first wife was feminist Novelist Erica Jong (“Fear of Flying”). Their daughter Molly Jong-Fast is also a writer. She wrote an article at Salon: “Being a prude in a family of libertines: My mother is famous for writing about women and sex. Why did I choose a life so different from hers?”

    What any of this has to do with antique India is a puzzle to me.

  3. I appreciate that the caste system mobilized emotions that are basic to humanity. Nonetheless it is very hard for an outsider to grasp why it was so embedded and so stable for so long.

    Looking at the social orders of Europe, I see far less stability and a lot more looseness and side doors (church, cities, armies). Not only that but events (e.g. Black Death , Protestant Reformation) conspired to over turn those systems at intervals that were long, but not usually more than 10 generations.

    What is the difference between India and Europe, that made, the Indian system so stable?

  4. What is the difference between India and Europe, that made, the Indian system so stable?

    The philosophies of reincarnation/metempsychosis and karma?

  5. “Jonathan Fast’s novel Golden Fire”

    I really appreciate the reference. It is one thing to read generalizations in history and art history books, it is another to have someone knowledgable put it all together in context as a living breathing thing so you can really get what this all meant at the time. I’ve been looking for historical fiction in this place and time period and had come up empty or didn’t have the means to evaluate what was or was not worth reading.

  6. Out of curiosity, have you ever looked into the people known as Cagots / Agotes / Gahets / Cahets / and by other names, who formerly lived in the west of France and northern Spain, especially in the Basque Country? The Wikipedia article (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cagot ) makes them sound like a classic example of a polluting and polluted outcaste. No one seems to know why they were so classed; they were physically indistinguishable from others in the region. Various explanations and reasons have been given for their status, but they all strike me as remarkably unpersuasive. I’ve noticed that the areas in which Cagots could be found seem to overlap with the areas of the Atlantic megalithic culture, and the fact that their outcaste status survived longest in the Basque Country is also interesting. It makes me wonder if these outcastes could represent a surviving feature of the pre-Indo-European social system.

  7. Buddha in Lalitavistara – “Bodhisattva can only be born in a Brahman or kshatriya family”

    So much for a casteless buddhism. Most of buddhas students were upper caste, majority of them brahmins.

    So, most of this seems like fiction to me.


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