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The "Primitive" and the "Civilized"

On May 27th, 1830, a Scottish Missionary by the name of Alexander Duff reached India to complete the task Jean-Antoine Dubois, a French-Catholic missionary, could not. For Duff, Hinduism was irrational; he had to make Hindus see the irrationality and fill that spiritual vacuum with something which in his view was not irrational – Christianity. On Oct 12, 1836 Lord Macaulay wrote a letter to his father in which he mentioned the fourteen hundred boys in Hoogly who were learning English. He was sure that a Hindu who received English education would never remain faithful to his religion and some of them would embrace Christianity and if the British education plan was followed, there would not be a single idolater among the respected classes in Bengal.

Also in Macaulay’s opinion there was no point in perfecting the vernaculars, since there was nothing intelligent, but falsehood in them. In his Minute, he noted that he had no knowledge of Sanskrit or Arabic, but was convinced that a single shelf of a good European library was worth the whole native literature of India and Arabia. On the other hand, whoever learned English had access to the vast intellectual wealth of the wisest nations of the earth and the literature available in English is valuable that the literature of all languages of the world together.

India never met Macaulay’s benchmark for European progress. In fact his lack of knowledge of Sanskrit did not stand in the way of making this judgment. He never saw the deep philosophy in the Upanishads or the greatness of Panini’s grammar or the astonishing development in mathematics. He never saw value in Indian culture; all he saw was racially and culturally inferior people who had to be saved.

The book I am reading right now, Breaking the Maya Code, talks about this “smug Victorian view” when it comes to other civilizations. According to Sir Edward Tylor and Lewis Henry Morgan, all societies and cultures pass through various stages — savagery, barbarism — before being civilized. Even now there are cultures which are in “savage” and “barbaric” state and it becomes the responsibility of the civilized to bring them on the path of progress.

One man who banished this racist concept of primitive world and civilized world was the influential French  anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss,. His revolutionary idea was simple: there are no primitives. Each culture made great progress in areas which mattered to them. This would be invisible  in ethnocentric analysis or if you believe that the Innuit people are a rough draft of Adam and Eve. He observed that there was a structure in human culture, like structures in math and languages. There were social structures — based on class, profession — and cultural structures.

The accepted view held that primitive societies were intellectually unimaginative and temperamentally irrational, basing their approaches to life and religion on the satisfaction of urgent needs for food, clothing and shelter.

Mr. Lévi-Strauss rescued his subjects from this limited perspective. Beginning with the Caduveo and Bororo tribes in the Mato Grosso region of Brazil, where he did his first and primary fieldwork, he found among them a dogged quest not just to satisfy material needs but also to understand origins, a sophisticated logic that governed even the most bizarre myths, and an implicit sense of order and design, even among tribes who practiced ruthless warfare.[Claude Lévi-Strauss]

According to Lévi-Strauss, the Australians had an elaborate model of kinship, Africans had legal and philosophical system and Melanesians had a great form of art. The aborigines, considered primitive, used their imagination to create a wonderful world of myth, art and ritual. They had complex rules for marriage and their kinship can be analyzed using modern rules of mathematics.  The native Americans, for example, understood the complex relationship between man and nature.

One of his important works was “Mythologiques”

The final volume ends by suggesting that the logic of mythology is so powerful that myths almost have a life independent from the peoples who tell them. In his view, myths speak through the medium of humanity and become, in turn, the tools with which humanity comes to terms with the world’s greatest mystery: the possibility of not being, the burden of mortality.[Claude Lévi-Strauss]

Claude Lévi-Strauss died at the age of 100 on November 4th.

See Also: On Point with Tom Ashbrook

One Response to The "Primitive" and the "Civilized"

  1. Shastri JC Philip December 2, 2009 at 10:27 am #

    “One man who banished this racist concept of primitive world and civilized world was the influential French anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss,.”

    Thanks for your post. It was an eyeopener. I need to read some of the books and people you have mentioned.

    — Shastri

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