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Kinship in Bengali Culture

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Kinship in Bengali Culture
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Item Code: NAG008
Author: Ronald B. Inden and Ralph W. Nicholas
Publisher: Chronicle Books, New Delhi
Language: English
Edition: 2005
ISBN: 9788180280184
Pages: 160
Cover: Hardcover
Other Details: 8.5 inch X 5.5 inch
weight of the book: 356 gms
About the Book

Kinship has been a central concern of anthropology for more than a century. As a key element in the organization of every human society, kinship is also a major source of the principles that guide people in the other spheres of life. Ronald B. Inden, a historian of India, and Ralph W Nicholas, an anthropologist who has studied contemporary Bengali culture and society, have joined complementary skills to analyze the kinship system of a major human society that possesses an ancient, literate civilization and a tradition of analytical thought. The re-publication of this book is intended as a contribution to the dialogue of cultures that has developed in the twenty-first century.

Kinship in this book is approached through the categories and meanings provided by Bengali culture. The authors identify a single coherent pattern of cultural premises that lie behind the kinship categories of Bengal, and other regions of India as well. They interpret the samskara rites, including the marriage ceremony, and show how the terms used to address and describe relatives are related to the kinship categories and how these categories are transformed by marriage.

Based on years of field research in Bengal as well as Sanskrit and Bengali texts, Kinship in Bengali Culture provides a culturally sensitive approach to the study of kinship and of symbolic systems.

About the Author Ronald B. Inden is Professor of History and of South Asian Languages and Civilizations, and an Associate Member of the Anthropology Department at the University of Chicago. He is also a Professorial Research Associate of the Centre of South Asian Studies, School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London. Among other works, he is the author of Imagining India. He is currently investigating the rise of electronic media in Asia, examining their relationship to world ruling classes and national or ethnic identities in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. He is interested in people's efforts to construct paradises or utopias on earth, practices that range from rituals to media and especially in India the world of cinema.

Ralph W Nicholas is the William Rainey Harper Professor Emeritus of Anthropology and the Social Sciences at the University of Chicago, where he held several administrative positions. He is currently President of the American Institute of Indian Studies. He began field research in rural Bengal in 1960, and the rituals and narrative traditions of the Bengal countryside remain his foremost research interest. He is now working on a study of the rites of spring, called "Gajan," in Bengal. A collection of his essays on religion in rural Bengal, titled The Fruits of Worship, was published by Chronicle Books in 2003.

Preface to the Indian Edition We did the research and thinking for this book in a different intellectual era. The discipline of anthropology was in its heyday. People in area studies, history, history of religions, and literary criticism looked to anthropology for guidance. Some in anthropology were moving away from the study of social systems to the study of cultural systems. Crucial here was the work of David Schneider (1918-1995), with whom both of us worked at Chicago. Schneider himself had worked with the American sociologist, Talcott Parsons (1902-1979) and we all participated in a seminar he gave in Chicago.

A significant step forward that Schneider took, and that we also took, was to abandon the long-standing view of kinship as 1) a system or set of biologically determined roles, that is, of positions and behaviors determined by birth and marriage, themselves seen as biological events, and 2) as a domain of solidarity radically different from other domains (such as the economic and political) where instrumentality or even hostility prevailed in human relations. By looking at kinship as a system of symbols or, as we might say now, a language, idiom, or discourse for talking about, constructing, and ordering relations of solidarity, Schneider and we were able to work around this difficulty. One of the directions in which this approach pointed was the problem of how such large solidary entities as nations, religions, and ethnicities are constructed. Schneider discusses this point (and many others) in his second edition of American Kinship (1980, pp. 118-37).

We did not pay enough attention to variations or discontinuities of class, caste, and religion. The study could have been better situated historically and geographically. No doubt the biases of the authors' experiences, concentrated in south western Bengal (Kolkata and East Medinipur), will also be apparent.

Many anthropologists have stepped back from the idea of system that Schneider and we used. Indeed, we ourselves depart from it with our idea that the kin categories in Bengal consist of overlapping classes.

Today we are no longer convinced that there is a single key to understanding a society or culture, whether it is a "primitive" one or a "civilization" or complex society, such as that of the US or South Asia. Nevertheless, kinship and family relationships have been and continue to be of obvious importance for both Bengali Hindus and Muslims. Indeed, it is safe to say, marriage and family remain as important as ever for most people in South Asia, whether they are modern, middle-class and urban or traditional, peasant, and rural. As just one instance of how important kinship continues to be among even Western-educated Bengalis, let us point to the opening of a short story recently published in The New Yorker. The author is a Bengali, Jhumpa Lahiri. Born in London in 1967, she won the Pulitzer Prize for her collection of stories, Interpreter of Maladies (New York: Mariner Books/Houghton Miffiin Company, 2000). Her story begins thus:

Pranab Chakraborty wasn't technically my father's younger brother. He was a fellow-Bengali from Calcutta. But I had no real uncles in America, and so I was taught to call him Pranab Kaku. Accordingly, he called my father Shymal Da, always addressing him in the polite form, and he called my mother Boudi, which is how Bengalis are supposed to address an older brother's wife.

Introduction Bengal is a cultural and linguistic region on the eastern extremity of the South Asian subcontinent, with the hills of Burma on its south eastern border. The region is defined by its predominant language, Bengali, which belongs to the Indo-European family and is descended from Sanskrit. A distinctive Bengali literary tradition can be traced to about the fourteenth century. The cultural region of Bengal includes both the independent nation of Bangladesh and the state of West Bengal in India. Together these two territories have a population of more than 125 million persons, the great majority of whom consider themselves Bengalis.

Although the region is relatively compact and much of it is characterized by a uniform deltaic terrain, there are notable subregional differences of dialect, settlement pattern, customary social practices, and so forth. Moreover, the Bengalis themselves perceive great differences of society and culture between the metropolis of Calcutta or' the Bangladesh capital, Dacca, on the one hand, and the "rustic" countryside on the other. Despite this diversity, however, Bengalis commonly speak of a single "Bengali society" (Vanger samaja) and "Bengali culture" (Variger samserti). In undertaking this study of kinship in Bengali culture we have accepted the Bengali idea that there is, at some level of generality, a Bengali culture.

The most obvious division in Bengali society and culture arises from the difference between Muslims and Hindus, between Islam as a religion and what has come to be called "the Hindu religion" (Hindu dharma). Hindus constitute a majority of the population in West Bengal; Muslims are a majority in Bangladesh and among all Bengalis. The research that each of us has done over the past fifteen years or so has made us more familiar with Bengali Hindu culture than with that of Bengali Muslims. Therefore, most of what we say here about Bengali culture should be understood to apply to Bengali Hindu culture. There is much in common between Hindu and Muslim culture in Bengal, but many of the relationships and activities we discuss, for example, the samseara ("life cycle") rites, are distinctively Hindu. (Some of these distinctions are discussed in Appendix 2.) In a similar way, much of what we here speak of as "Bengali kinship" appears to be shared with other regions of South Asia. Our preliminary comparisons with other anthropological accounts of kinship in India have shown that categories of kinship in North India, if not also in the South, 'ire structured in much the same way as the Bengali categories. That this is so is also confirmed by data derived from textual accounts of Indian kinship. Much of what we say about kinship in Bengali Hindu culture is derived from ancient and medieval Sanskrit texts; Bengali Hindus share these with Hindus throughout South Asia, implying the existence of an all-Indian "culture of kinship." It is somewhat surprising, however, to find little discrepancy between the categories and symbols of kinship in the literary tradition of Hinduism and those of the regional traditions represented in anthropological accounts.

At a superficial level there is much variation, even within Bengal, in the specific content of relations among "kinsmen" according to their caste, locality, and religious orientation. Moreover, there are distinctions between urban and rural Bengalis that often correlate closely with the differences between educated and uneducated persons. Yet we are convinced that a single coherent pattern of symbols, which we have abstracted from very diverse materials, underlies most of the specific variant forms. This is not to say that "the Bengali kinship system" has not changed or is not changing, but rather that this pattern comprehends most of what we have learned from "modern" Bengalis (some of whom profess not to be pracricing Hindus) as well as what we have learned from "ordinary" villagers and from "ancient" literary sources. The problems of variation and change are authentic but will have to wait for later work.

CULTURE AND SYMBOLISM The approach we have taken to the category of "kinship" in Bengali culture is derived primarily from that of David M. Schneider in his analysis, American Kinship (1968). With Schneider, we regard a "kinship system" as a cultural system. By a cultural system we mean a system 0/ symbols or, to be more precise, a system of meanings of symbols. We do not say very much about social relations among "kinsmen" in Bengali society; rather, we examine the symbols of Bengali culture that have meanings connected with social solidarity, whether in the form of "duties" (kartavya) or in one of the many differentiated forms of "love" (prema). We seek to understand how these symbols are connected and how Bengalis use them to define relationships. It may appear that such a culturally specific approach makes comparisons with kinship systems in other cultures impossible-that we have adopted an extreme position of cultural relativism. This is not the case: symbols and their use can be compared across cultural boundaries as precisely as can, for example, frequencies of family types, lineage composition, or birthrates. We hope to demonstrate this with some comparative remarks in the course of this analysis.

We use the term "symbol" in its most general sense to refer, in Schneider's words (1968, p. 1), to "something which stands for something else, or some things else, where there is no necessary or intrinsic relationship between the symbol and that which it symbolizes." The symbols-or meanings-that belong to any cultural domain may be said to constitute a system only insofar as the persons who share those meanings connect them to one another. Thus, if there is a Bengali "kinship system," it .includes only those symbols defined by Bengali culture as belonging to the domain of "kinship," and it includes all such symbols.

Fundamental to Schneider's approach is the theoretical distinction between the cultural system of a society and the total social system to which it is connected . A cultural system, according to Schneider (1968, p. 1), is "a system of units (or parts) which are defined in certain ways and which are differentiated according to certain criteria. These units define the world or the universe, the way things in it relate to each other, and what these things should be and do." Schneider defines and differentiates the units or parts of the American cultural system by reference to their "distinctive" or "defining features," a concept borrowed from linguistics. He found that two symbolic features, operating either singly or in combination, define the domain of kinship in American cultureshared "blood," an inherited natural substance, and "love," a particular moral code for conduct. Shared or inherited "substance" (dhdtu) and "code for conduct" (dharma) prove also to be the two features by which kinship is defined in Bengali culture. However, there is a fundamental difference between the ways in which Americans and Bengalis connect these two features. Kinship, for Bengali Hindus, is premised upon the cultural assumption that all beings are organized into jati, genera (see Marriott and Inden 1974, pp. 983-84). The termjati is often properly translated as "caste," but in Bengali it is used to refer to a number of smaller genera as well. A person is thought to be born into a particular clan (kula), family (parivara), and sex tstri-jdt], "female genus," or puruja-jati, "male genus"). Each genus is defined by its particular substance and code, which are thought to be inseparable from one another. Thus the code for conduct of a particular clan, family, or sex is thought to be imbedded in the bodily substance shared by the persons of each genus and to be inherited by birth. As a consequence of this cultural premise, no distinction is made, as in American culture, between an order of "nature" defined by shared biogenetic substance, and an order of"law,"defined by code for conduct. Similarly, no distinction is made between a "material" or "secular" order and a "spiritual" or "sacred" order. Thus, in Bengali culture there is a single order of beings, an order that in Western terms is both natural and moral, both material and spiritual.

Parallel to the inseparable relationship of code and substance in Bengali culture is a conception of the relationship between "symbol" and "referent." The concept of "symbol" is primarily employed by the analyst. However, in Euro-American societies such concepts as "symbol" and "metaphor" may be used in ordinary discourse. Thus, persons usually think of a wedding ring as an arbitrary symbol of marriage and of the expression "one flesh" as a "material" metaphor for the "spiritual" unity of husband and wife. Comparable symbols in Bengali Hindu culture are not commonly perceived to have "arbitrary" or "conventional" relations to their referents. For instance, the streak of red color worn in the parting of the hair of a Bengali Hindu married woman whose husband is alive is said to be homologous with her uterine blood, her contribution to the procreation of a child. Similarly, when a man speaks of his wife as his "half-body' he is not saying that she is "like" his halfbody but rather that she is his half-body, made into his substance by marriage.

Symbols are often thought of as "things" whether words, laws, persons, flags, emblems, totems, or whatever. However, the concept of symbol we use in this book also includes actions. The persons who share a cultural system do not regard all symbolic things as equally important: a house in a particular neighborhood may be a "status symbol," valued by 'many, but it is not of the same importance or centrality to all as a cross or a national flag. So, too, some symbolic actions are more central than others to particular cultural systems. Such central symbolic acts are typically laden with a greater than usual variety of meanings-they are "multivocal" or "polysernic" (see Turner 1967, pp. 27-32; 1969, pp. 8-14)-and they constitute paradigms for other kinds of symbolic action.

Here we are concerned with three classes of central symbolic actions. First, there are symbolic acts that create the solidary units of a society in their totality. In our own culture, marriage is such a symbolic act, one that creates a new family. Blood covenants and sacrifices are examples of symbolic acts said to create communities of believers. Social compacts and constitutions are examples of "secular" symbolic acts that are thought to create nations or bodies politic. Second, new "members" are "incorporated" into these solidary units through symbolic acts of initiation such as baptism or christening, first communion, oaths of allegiance, ordination, coronation, and naturalization. A third kind of symbolic act of concern to us is that which recreates, restores, reiterates, or reinvigorates a set of solidary relationships. Often tied to a calendar, such actions include the eucharist, the daily pledge to a flag, the recitation of a creed, the family meal, "making love," and quadrennial elections.

While the relationship between a symbolic thing and its referents may be considered "arbitrary" by the persons of a given society, the relationship between the type of symbolic action and referent enumerated above is rarely treated as such. People frequently regard the relationship between these central symbolic acts and their referents to be one of cause and effect. For example, in Christianity, baptism is sometimes spoken of as an "efficient symbol" because it not only signifies the removal from a child of its original sin but also accomplishes that cleansing. The central symbolic actions in Bengali culture are thought of, in very much the same way, as both symbolizing and, if properly done, achieving their objectives.


List of Illustrationsviii
Preface to the Indian Editionix
1Atmiya-svajana: One's own People3
2Samskaras: The Generation and Transformation of the Body35
3Bengali Kinship Terminology67
Appendixes 1. An Indigenous Account of Kinship94
2Bengali Muslim Kinship99
3Periods of Death and Birth Impurity102

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