Significance from the margins

The Conditions of Listening
August 29, 1997

An American by birth, Richard Burghart came to the School of Oriental and African Studies in London in 1969 and completed a PhD nine years later. There followed a year of teaching anthropology at the London School of Economics, nine years as a lecturer in Asian anthropology back at SOAS, and finally the position of professor of ethnology at the University of Heidelberg, which he occupied from 1988 until he died in 1994 at the age of 49.

Burghart's appointment to the Heidelberg post reflected the reputation he had already earned for what the editors of this volume describe as his "distinctive intellectual style". However, no monograph yet bore his name and his work was scattered through a variety of journals. At the time of his death, several major works were in preparation and it is to be hoped that more will appear. For the time being, C. J. Fuller and J. Spencer deserve thanks and congratulations for assembling this material and making it available to the wider readership it so richly deserves. When research priorities are so often dictated by the exigencies of successive research assessment exercises, it is gratifying to see that projects of such unselfishness remain an option for some.

The book contains 14 essays, four of them previously unpublished. The ten reprinted articles, selected from Burghart's total of 58 published items listed in a bibliography, are drawn from journals such as Man, Contributions to Indian Sociology, History of Religions and Modern Asian Studies, and from three different edited volumes. Fuller and Spencer provide a 30-page introduction that reviews and assesses Burghart' s work in detail, and indeed it is difficult to do justice to his legacy in a review of much shorter length. They order the essays into three sections: "Society and religion", "Political culture" and "Complex agency", and the essays appear in approximate chronological order: the first, "Hierarchical models of the Hindu social system" first appeared in 1978, while the last, "A quarrel in the language family" was published in 1993.

Because of the order in which the articles are presented here, it is possible to trace the development of Burghart's increasingly sophisticated theoretical stance, the broadening of his interests, the growing fluency, confidence and wit of his prose. As a young specialist in South Asian anthropology in the late 1970s, he had first to establish where he stood in relation to the great structural cathedral of Dumont's Homo Hierarchicus.

This he did by incorporating new insights gleaned from three years of fieldwork among Ramanandi Hindu renouncers in the Tarai region of southern Nepal. His argument, set out in a series of early articles, was that the Hindu social system could not be reduced to a single caste hierarchy with the Brahmin at its apex, but was instead a much more complex tripartite structure led by the king, the ascetic and the Brahmin, each of whom claimed supreme rank while absorbing elements of the others' codes into his own through a process of "intracultural translation".

Having earned his structuralist spurs, Burghart developed other themes. His work on the concept of the nation state, of great import for Nepal specialists, resonates far beyond the confines of its specific reference to Nepal. The same may be said of his discussion of the definitions of "language", "dialect" and "speech community", of his reflections upon the role of the anthropologist and of his compassionate, incisive forays into medical anthropology. Many of these essays begin with a detailed and discursive description of a particular circumstance or series of events, whose analysis gradually flowers into an elegant argument with very broad implications. To give an example: in "His Lordship at the cobblers' well", Burghart (His Lordship) describes the impact of his own questioning presence upon the attitude of a community of low-caste cobblers to their communal well.

In a sense, Burghart's is a voice from a periphery that has serious things to say to the centre. In Nepal, foreign anthropologists are so numerous that they almost register in Nepal's decennial censuses, but most of their fieldwork has been conducted in the more heroic Himalayan locations, and the hot lowlands of the Tarai have been left by and large to the locals. Burghart's work on Nepal therefore emanates from a linguistic and cultural region that is on the edge of vision as far as Nepali cultural essentialists are concerned.

Similarly, Nepal is not the sort of place on the greater map of South Asian Hinduism that most would expect to provide a platform for new ways of talking or thinking about Hindu society in the round. Burghart's essays encourage us to think differently about nationhood, about hierarchy, about marginalised systems of knowledge, and above all about the way in which anthropological texts are written.

Michael Hutt is senior lecturer in Nepali, School of Oriental and African Studies, London.

The Conditions of Listening: Essays on Religion, History and Politics in South Asia

Author - Richard Burghart
Editor - C.J. Fuller and J. Spencer
ISBN - 0 19 563807 7
Publisher - Oxford University Press
Price - £25.00
Pages - 429

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