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.

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