McKim Marriott Insists on Understanding India on its Own Terms

McKim Marriott Insists on Understanding India on its Own Terms

By Sunthar Visuvalingam in Chicago

World-renowned anthropologist of Indian society Professor McKim Marriott, who originally went to India as a signals analyst during WWII, developed his basic intuitions of the radical difference posed by its society, people, and collective psyche, before his subsequent training as an Indologist. After persistent attempts to straitjacket its civilization within Western disciplines, Kim published a series of seminal essays insisting that alien cultures ought to be understood in their own terms. AK Ramanujan’s question “Is there an Indian way of thinking?” had a profound catalyzing effect and, together with Ronald Inden, they constituted the “Chicago school” of Indian anthropology that aimed at total understanding.

Kim is still sketching his dynamic cube-diagrams to “mathematize” the three qualities (guna) and five elements (bhuta) that encapsulate every facet of social transactions and facilitate “toying” with the invisible presuppositions that underlie Indian constructions of self. Kim would assign caste-statuses and occupations in his famous “Samsara” game, which reproduces Hindu cosmology so that players recreate and participate in a replica of traditional society. Students and colleagues fondly recalled the fun they had stepping into the shoes of their Indian subjects.

University of Chicago (UC) felicitated Professor McKim Marriott a few years ago at the UC Smart Museum on his 90th birthday. Colleagues from various disciplines, former students who are now professors themselves, family members, and well-wishers attended the dinner to reminisce on Kim’s determining influence on their life, work, and research. In addition to all their speeches, the illustrated booklet distributed beforehand comprised tributes from scholars all over the world who regretted their absence.

Emcee was Marriot’s first UC PhD (1962) student, Ralph Nicholas, Professor Emeritus of Anthropology and of Social Sciences and Chair of the Board of Trustees of the American Institute of Indian Studies, whose tribute was titled “80 year-old Student Thanks 90 year-old Professor”!

Van Dusenbery (Professor of Anthropology and Chair of the Global Studies Department at Hamline University), who has long taught Marriott's critique of the Eurocentrism of western social science, recalled Kim's advice that “rather than continue to endure the absurdities that come from applying just their own tribal paradigms to other peoples who do not share them, researchers might well seek to investigate, before they attempt to interpret behaviour in another culture, the ontology of that culture” (1992). He concluded by adding, “When I read some of the current hype about the ‘ontological turn’ [in anthropology], I keep thinking that Kim turned the attention of many of us in that direction decades ago!”

After noting how fellow-speaker Wendy Doniger had “recently proved to the world that globalization has made blasphemy profitable,” Richard Shweder, Professor at UC Dept. of Comparative Human Development, in his tribute titled “More Native than the Native,” exclaimed, “The affront in Marriott’s approach, the transgression which has not gone unnoticed in India, is that he is an outsider who seems more appreciative of the indigenous perspective than are many so-called insiders who are members of the Westernized elite and are thus somewhat distanced from the cultural realities that Kim has tried to understand much as a linguist tries to explicate the implicit grammar of a native speaker. Thank you for so meticulously, persistently and effectively carrying forward the pluralistic tradition in American cultural anthropology and applying it to the details of customary life in South Asian communities…embodying and hence reminding us of our academic ideals.”

Tributes poured in also from Desis such as Prof. E. Valentine Daniel (Director of Southern Asian Institute at Columbia University), Prof. Ravindra Khare (Center for Critical Human Survival Issues at University of Virginia), and psychiatrist Prakash Desai. Dr. Nita Kumar from Claremont McKenna College (California) declared, “After sitting at Kim’s feet, I learnt to understand myself, my body, my practices, my surroundings, and the trembling, dialectical, multi-shaded thing that was called India that I had grown up in.” Prof. Usha Menon at the Culture and Communication Dept. of Drextel University (Philadelphia) ended by confessing, “Kim re-introduced me to my own cultural traditions. When I met him I was a fairly typical product of Westernized, urbanized, post-Independence India. It was Kim, with his profound knowledge of Hindu cultural meanings, his cube and the three-dimensional graphing that it allows, who taught me what it means to be a Hindu. His work explicated beliefs and customs that had either been opaque to me or that I had unthinkingly taken for granted.”

Hindu public intellectual Rajiv Malhotra’s bestselling Being Different: An Indian Challenge to Western Universalism (2011) draws inspiration from Kim’s oeuvre claiming to further its overall project. There was an immediate rapport and talk of collaboration when the two finally met face-to-face at Kim’s home in November 2012.

Caption: Speakers and well-wishers at Prof McKim Marriott’s felicitation ceremony at the University of Chicago Smart Museum (L to R): Dr George Rosen, Dr Sylvia Vatuk, Dr Elizabeth Chalier-Visuvalingam, Prof Usha Menon, Dr Nita Kumar, Prof Richard Shweder, Dr Alfred Collins, and Prof Joseph Alter.

Students remain grateful for Kim’s individualized attention, unrelenting interrogations coupled with generous encouragement, evidenced by the comments in red that filled the margins of returned assignments. They recalled the silent reserve and enigmatic smile that nurtured self-confidence by patiently awaiting their best effort. “Always straight-faced and serious, Kim got further and further into the hilarious account of his experience of Holi in a North Indian village. There were others in the class who started laughing before I dared to, but in the end there was no one in the room who was not convulsed. Ethnography never seemed more interesting,” recalled Nicholas about the “Feast of Love” (1966) that recounted how the over-inquisitive anthropologist was transformed into the Holi Fool! The global and contemporary implications of this seminal essay dating from Kim’s initial fieldwork are receiving renewed attention worldwide after its general discussion at the “Bakhtin in India” conference (Gandhinagar, August 2013).

Sunthar Visuvalingam in conversation with McKim Marriot. Originally published in Desi Talk

Why did understanding Indian society become your abiding passion?

American investigators had long been denied visas to British India as possible trouble-makers, but as a college student trained to translate decoded Japanese radio messages, I was admitted there by military necessity. After WWII, I was urged by my anthropology teachers to return to India to study its caste hierarchy. I settled for 18 months in a remote, otherwise average, village of 24 castes, making myself useful with first aid and transport in my jeep. I did not find caste occupations generally regarded as oppressive, nor were caste distinctions thought to be merely those of wealth or style like those among American classes. Instead Hindu villagers of U.P. and later townsmen of Maharashtra told me that castes were differently specialized, biological kinship groups among whom public feeding relations were worked out somewhat differently in each locality. I was eager to bring these findings to other American social scientists.

Hindu kinship, too, was felt to be entirely biological and therefore natural—not really alterable by the human codes called the “laws” of marriage and descent in America, so my students Ralph Nicholas and Ronald Inden reported from Bengal in the 1970s. This was big news for Western social thought which had been trying to separate culture from nature since the 1600s.

What do you consider your most promising insight into Indian identity?

Ordinary Indians told my students, eventually numbering more than 50, who lived amidst them investigating other corners of the Hindu world, that no institutions could be maintained without employing nature’s five material elements—ether, air, fire, water, and earth—ideas deriving from the ancient philosophy called Samkhya that filled their daily speech (including the humoral terms or dosha of Aayurveda, Hindu astrology, as well as poetry). When combined in various proportions these five elements produce entities always having three natural aspects (guna), what Americans caught up in the abstract Greek geometric tradition call “3-dimensionality” and think of as static and uniform. For them, I decided to graph all complex Hindu phenomena as cubes, an experiment that has succeeded in illustrating some further valid meanings of the resulting diagonals.

The “strands” (guna) of “nature” (prakriti) in the Hindu understanding vary across multiple axes and are mutually determining. One guna called sattva varies between high and low (like water, gravity, morality, or other virtues). The intersecting rajas (“passion”) varies between warm and cool (as do fire, mixture, human food, activity, vision, or affect), and tamas (literally “darkness”) varies from near to far (like self to other, calm to windy, front to back, socially responsible to selfish, or neat to messy). Space or ether (akasha) allows abstracting and generalizing, while “earth” affords reifying and localizing, thereby generating endless differences and multiplicity.

How could traditional India contribute to American self-knowledge today?

The 20th century Hindu world we found was a natural one of phenomena (political assemblies, households, dramas, etc.), portraying flexible people and groups who might be open or closed, fluid and highly variable. On returning to America, I found it made up of laws and standard measurements, of “individuals” cultivating their fixed and bounded personalities. The contrasts were extreme. Thus older Hindus migrating to the U.S. often found that they could do better economically by declaring themselves independent of the families that were perhaps their only though variable securities in India. Such were the findings of my former students: Sarah Lamb’s book, Aging and the Indian Diaspora (2009), contrasts utterly with the family-centered morality reported by Usha Menon in Women, Well-Being and the Ethics of Domesticity (2013).

Are new avenues available for mutual, not just scholarly, understanding?
Can these two worlds coexist and learn from each other? I think they could if their peoples understand their profound cultural differences. Investigators moving in the opposite direction should expect profoundly different, irregular categories and logics, and for this task my anthropological students, such as Gloria Raheja, E. Valentine Daniel, Lamb and Menon are ready to help with shelves full of their insightful writings on the Hindu world.

(Link to the felicitation: Courtesy  Sunthar Visuvalingam