Alan Dundes, Two Tales of Crow and Sparrow. A Freudian Folkloristic Essay on Caste and Untouchability. Lanham, Boulder, New York, Oxford: Rowman & Littlefield, 1997. 164 pp.

Alan Dundes is probably one of the most widely read folklorists in the world. His early works such as The Morphology of North American Indian Folktales (1964) and The Study of Folklore (1965) are classics still in use, and his seminal theoretical articles over four decades dot bibliographies and reading lists near and far. In recent years, however, his readership may have grown thinner, or more silent at least, because of his strong predilection for Freudian theorising to which relatively few folklorists subscribe. Such a strong theory seems difficult to integrate into other forms of folkloristic thinking. The long essay to be reviewed here belongs to this genre of monolithic explanatory power.

The book carries an all too modest main title with a more informative subtitle. Alan Dundes has chosen to stand on a small mound of two animal tales and look from there at the Himalayan-size problem complex of caste and untouchability in India. The analysis is based solely on scholarly literature with no hint at the author’s own field experience in the Indian subcontinent which he has visited several times. Instead, we are introduced to an extensive library of folkloristic, ethnographic, anthropological, psychological and Indological literature of old and more recent date. A certain criticism is observable in the author’s statement that caste and untouchability have been hitherto mainly described, not analysed or explained. He promises to cast new light on these phenomena from an untried angle of folktale analysis.

Although one of the present reviewers is a member of a caste, we do not regard ourselves as experts on caste research and even less on psychoanalysis. We do not view the latter as a medical theory (applied most suitably on relatively healthy, relatively young and relatively affluent patients) but rather as a theory on cultural formation. The key problem, which we do not intend to solve, is its cross-culturality and range of modification: can or should it be applied everywhere outside the Euroamerican cultural sphere, where it was developed, and if yes, at what cost of compromise and “variation”? We could ask, of course, whether the theory is valid in Euroamerica either, and what its main contributions have been to folkloristic analyses in recent years.

Our point of departure is, however, more modest. We ventured to read the book from the angle of our field experience of South Indian (Tulu) oral poetry and its social background. Together we represent an inside and outside view on Indic culture. After commenting on Dundes’s problematisation of folktale, caste and untouchability we will briefly look at the applicability of his results to our own field materials.

Castes – ideal and real

We need not add much to Dundes’s characterisation of the Varna and Jaati caste systems. The Brahmins at the top of the social ladder and the casteless Untouchables (Harijans) at the bottom mark the ramifications of the system, yet in real life the caste concepts represent neither lucid hierarchies nor unified categories. The Varna system is based on scriptures and ideals, whereas the Jaati system represents everyday reality. A web of dozens of local castes and subcastes affects the social configurations and interaction in rural villages and, to a lesser degree, in urban centres. Yet it is a mistake to regard any caste system as immovable and unchangeable. Another thing is that most castes have internal subcastes. There are Brahmin subcastes which do not dine with each other and, as an expert on Harijans points out, “among those lowest scavenging sections which remove nightsoil there is still a distinction: those who serve in private houses consider themselves higher than those who clean public latrines” (p. 4).

The salient features of caste, according to Dundes (p. 9), are vertical hierarchy, ascribed (not achieved) membership, endogamy, association with a traditional occupation, relative rank expressed through pollution, avoidance of physical contact with or food touched by a member of a lower caste and rituals of purification for the elimination of defilement. Beyond these seven criteria we could list a number of others constituting the basis for Jaatis: lineage, heredity, locality, language, even colour. Dundes is of the opinion that the phenomenon is originally Indic: no other culture presents a system which fulfils all the seven criteria. On the other hand, cultural variation must be considerable: we are looking at well over a billion people of diverse historical, linguistic and social background in the Indian subcontinent, Southeast Asia and elsewhere. To give the impression that these people obey the same rules and share the same traditions regardless of time, place and social stratum, is nonsense. Yet the author is not very keen on differences or local cultural systems. Instead, he seems to construct an ideal picture of caste and untouchability by piling up fragmentary evidence from different times and places, mainly through quotations.

Source – critical problems

We are slightly worried about the selection of quotations. They are generally short and without much context. Sometimes they seem to excel in cultural oddity and curiosity rather than representativity. The competence of observers is practically never questioned. There is, however, a difference between a competent sociologist such as Irawati Karve (writing in the 1950s and 1960s) and Abbé Dubois, whose Hindu Manners, Customs and Ceremonies (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1906) is frequently quoted (and occasionally as the main source) without notifying the reader that J. A. Dubois fled from the turmoils of the French Revolution to India in 1792 and completed his voluminous work in French and English in the early 1820s just before returning to France, where he died in 1848 as the Directeur des Missions Étrangères in Paris. His book depicts South India in purely Eurocentric terms; the author is full of missionary zeal and loves to shock his readers with eccentric, “primitive” customs. To let him speak so often is tantamount to opening the door to orientalism of the earliest possible vintage.

In our own work, we included Karve but excluded Dubois. Recently, we asked a colleague, Prof. emer. C. N. Ramachandran of Mangalore University, for his opinion of Abbé Dubois. His verdict was: “prejudiced and unreliable”, “he has eyes only for the dung heap”. If quotations are taken from Dubois, they should be framed with source-critical remarks. There are other source-critical problems: Gandhi and Tagore are used as pre-Freudian witnesses (pp. 86-87), although both men received a European education, visited England and could have learned about depth psychology. The difference between pure ethnographers and psychoanalytic writers could have been dealt with in some context: the evidence from the former need not be preconditioned by depth psychology, whereas the latter are apt to view phenomena through a Freudian filter. Interpretation is part of field observation.

The question is: does a phenomenological comparison of fragmentary data without contextual penetration allow a cultural picture to emerge which the people themselves would recognise? The author has exposed himself to books of the most varied kinds. What about exposing oneself to one or two representatives of Indic culture and discussing with them the problems of caste and untouchability on the basis of their everyday experience? Selective hunting for evidence does not leave room for a description of how a caste system works in a particular cultural setting not only as a tool of discrimination and suppression of the lowest, but also as a system of coordination and interaction between social groups.

The persistence of caste systems

Ethically, there can be no question that, as Gandhi expressed it, “caste must go and the sin of untouchability [too]”. The official policy of India toward the caste system during the 50 years of independence has been clearly abolitionist but largely unsuccessful. Some progress has been made, however, especially in the urban areas and in the allocation of jobs in the public sector. Low-caste or casteless persons appear as highest executives, at least as tokens of the new order to be achieved. However, there is some reaction from the higher castes, who are becoming more critical about the “privileges” of scheduled castes.

This persistence requires some explanation. However unwanted, the “positive” functions of the caste system should be explored in order to balance out the entirely negative picture of caste inequality, suppression and even terror. The caste system has created a sense of multiculturality in India and made people aware of the need for social improvement. Alan Dundes contributes in the next to last chapter of his essay to the history of persistence of the caste systems by analysing the purity rules and beliefs of Gypsies and concluding that they are clearly Indic as to their origin and have developed on their own for at least a thousand years. He admits that such deep-rooted systems may be hard to abolish. The best way to abolition would be, according to him, a change in toilet training. We believe, in turn, that expanding university education will undermine the caste system in due course. More and more Brahmins are experiencing modernisation in their academic training.

The caste ideology (Laws of Manu, etc.) stems from the Brahmin community. They were the religious experts, teachers and rule-makers. Classes doing manual labour were doomed to be socially inferior. If Dundes means that the caste system is a Brahminic oicotype, then he is right, but if he wants to apply the concept to all other strata of Indic culture, he is wrong. The impact on other castes, Sudra etc., is in this sense of secondary origin. Today, modern educated Brahmins in India do not follow untouchability at all. Dundes’s generalisation of caste over all India today is misleading.

The testimony of two Indic tale oicotypes

The strictly folkloristic part of the book focuses on two tales, AT 2030B (Crow Must Wash His Bill In Order To Eat With Other Birds) and a second tale of crow and sparrow, a cognate of AT 123 (The Wolf and The Kids). The cornerstone of analysis is, in this case, the concept of oicotype (pp. 46-47). Since AT 2030B has been found only in India, “we can,” says the author, “legitimately argue that whatever the tale means, it may well refer to Indic culture”. At first glance, it may seem futile to apply oicotype analysis to a tale so clearly Indic, but closer scrutiny discloses that we are dealing with a structural oicotype. AT 2030B is a cumulative formula tale and thus has plenty of structural cognates in other cultures. These normally involve

chains of inter-related actions of “members,” the tension is built up by piling up “lacks” upon one another. A needs B, but can’t obtain B unless he first obtains C. He cannot obtain C unless or until he first obtains D, etc. The tension is released when – and only when – a final lack is liquidated which sets in motion a whole series of intervening lacks being liquidated so that the original lack can be liquidated as well. (47)

A happy end of sorts, then. Interestingly, AT 2030B does not have a happy end:

A sparrow and a crow are cooking a dish. When the crow wants his share, the sparrow says: “No, you are dirty, go and wash your beak in the tank yonder, and after that, sit down to dinner” (25). The crow goes to the tank for water, but the tank sends him to the deer, which sends him to the buffalo, which sends him to the grass, which sends him to blacksmith. The crow says: “You are Mr Blacksmith, I am Mr Crow. You give me a spade, and I will dig the grass, that I may give it to the buffalo to eat, and take her milk, and give it the deer to drink, and break his horn, and dig the hole, and take out water, and wash my beak, and eat my khijrî. See the bird’s playfulness. I am a clean crow.” “With pleasure,” said the blacksmith, “if you will light the fire and blow the bellows.” So the crow began to light the fire and blow the bellows, and in so doing fell in the middle of the fire and was burnt. So that was the end of him, and the sparrow ate all the khijrî.(27)

Untypically for a cumulative tale, the Indian structural oicotype thus refrains from using the roll-back technique and ends abruptly, making the crow a tragic figure unless one feels that it got what it deserved. What is the message of this harshness?

Alan Dundes suggests that the tale is “an allegory or parable about the caste system and untouchability” (32). In other words, the crow represents dirt, defilement and untouchability. Occasionally, however, the roles of crow and sparrow are reversed, and it is the sparrow who is punished. There is material which indicates that the end varied depending upon the make-up of the audience. Yet there is evidence for Dundes’s hypothesis, too. A tale variant from Maharashtra makes it clear that the contrast is between the clean sparrow Brahmin and the dirty crow Mahar (an untouchable caste) (32-33). We can corroborate the author’s interpretation with a game from Karnataka: there is a children’s game known as Crow and Parrot among the speakers of Kannada and Tulu. In it children must spit through a ring they form with their thumb and forefinger. If the spit touches the hand, they are called Crow, and if not, they are called Parrot. The one who has become Crow must touch the other children, who then also become Crow, i.e. polluted by untouchability. Thus another genre supports the tale analysis by Dundes.

In the second tale a crow seeks shelter with a sparrow after a rainstorm has destroyed its abode. After several excuses the sparrow finally admits the crow to her home, but the crow repays the sparrow’s kindness either by eating the sparrow’s food supply or by eating the sparrow’s young ones. The latter form comes close to the Chinese, Japanese and Korean versions of AT 123, The Wolf and the Kids, which is the same as AT 333, The Glutton (Red Riding Hood). In India the crow is punished by being burned alive or by having its buttocks burned. The crime of the crow is that after emptying the food sack it defecates in it, causing the sparrow’s children to touch feces when they seek for food. For Dundes, this is the key of interpretation: mixing food and feces as well as mouth and anus. He quotes A. K. Ramanujan, who felt that this very popular tale among children in India may have been “part of our toilet training”. By comparison, Viveka Rai remembers the tale from his childhood told without filthy humour. The tale’s moral was lenience toward the small, in this case, the sparrow. Be as it may, Dundes walks on thin ice when he tries to supplement the classic myth about the origin of the four castes from body parts with the birth of a “fifth” group (untouchables) from the anus.

The crow is problematic. Undeniably, it seems to represent uncleanliness and low status. But as so often in folklore, one explanation does not exhaust the tradition. The crow plays a conspicuous role in death ceremonies: food must be offered to it, and the guests at the funeral cannot start eating, unless the crows have eaten first. In earlier days, such an offering was made even before ordinary meals, Viveka Rai’s father told us. Dundes briefly mentions the custom but does not explain it. We would like to refer to two things: giving away the first bite is an almost universal rite of “firstlings”, in this case, untouched food is sacred and needs to be desacralised by letting the first touch and bite go to the divine sphere. Secondly, the crows represent the souls of the dead ancestors invited to the funeral. By eating first, they accept the ceremony and lend their support to the living kin. The same custom is common in Finnish-Karelian death ceremonies, – with the difference that it need not be crows but any birds who visit the funeral and touch the food spread out on the grave, sometimes together with the humans standing round the grave. In India, the crow’s special role may reflect a “sanctity reversal”, i.e. in the special situation the dirty bird in fact becomes a purifier of food by desacralising the untouched food. This explanation would link the negative crow with the positive one.

Before leaving the birds we should note the hazards of generalisation in the case of the hen. Dundes includes the bird among the dirty ones because it eats leftovers (comparable to excrement). Yet chicken is widely eaten in India. The fact is that the swine and crow may be put in the category of unclean but the chicken not, although it uses its beak in dirt and digs into mud.

From toilet training to leftovers

In its latter parts the book focuses on toilet training, which is long and lenient in India and short and strict in the West. Yet the Western child survives seemingly better than the Indian one. Dundes points out two factors, first, the training begins much earlier, at three months, in India, and second, at the age of five there is a sudden “crackdown”: the tolerant and lenient mother suddenly distances herself from the young and leaves it alone to deal with its daily needs. The theory is central (for Dundes) but its argumentation leaks. The reader waits in vain for ethnographic, i.e. independent evidence for the existence of the postulated phenomenon but all he gets is thin and somewhat conflicting theorising by psychiatrists, psychoanalysts and other source-critically doubtful writers.

It would have been better to concentrate more on tale analysis and leave some “Indic paradoxes” untouched. A case in point is the cow. As Spratt states: “… cowdung and cow’s urine are used every day by millions for domestic purposes, and are even taken internally” (p. 78). To save excrements as arch-pollutants the cow must be anomalised by Dundes. The argument becomes difficult to follow. “Adults treat cows in a way consonant with how mothers treat infants. Mothers allow toddlers to defecate outside where and when they please; adults allow cows to defecate outside where and when they please. Religious devotees obliged to follow a cow everywhere is analogous to infants following a mother everywhere.” (p. 102) In these equations one may substitute as long as one wishes: mother = cow, and child = cow (?). If a central cultural feature must be explained away as an anomaly, there is something odd in the analytic perspective.

Another confrontation concerns “the deplorable custom of sati (suttee) or widow burning” (p. 113). Widows are simply leftovers, comparable to excrement, and hated because of the maternal betrayal in the toilet-training crackdown at the age of five. “They are like toothbrushes, eating utensils, and latrines”; it is male semen which has rendered them “used” and defiled. “Fire is a standard conventional means in India of getting rid of a defiling substance or object.” (p. 116) Simple enough, but perhaps too simple. Dundes does not deal with women’s position in India in general, where there is much need for improvement, as the President of India stated in his Republic Day speech in January 2000. The problem is of the same if not greater magnitude than caste discrimination, but the dwindling sati is not at its core, whereas female marital suicides are.

Eurocentric attitudes create an odd neo-colonialist atmosphere. Western culture is depicted easily as a model to be strived after by India, because it is rationalistic, hygienic and ethically sound. What kind of cultural anthropology can thrive on such premises? Westerners look down upon Indian toilet cleaning habits and Indians in turn abhor the Western use of toilet paper, so what is the point? Objective cleanliness hardly exists, “pure” is only culturally, not chemically defined. The factual difference between Indic and European concepts of toilet cleanliness is deeply embedded and not likely to change in any foreseeable time despite the rapid computerisation and other West-oriented modernisation in India.

It is a matter of the discourse chosen, of course. It is imaginable that a similar description of Western everyday habits could state: “The Americans (or Finns) have an obsession to defecate and take a shower early in the morning, both even in the same room.” Any trivial habit can be turned into an oddity by the foreign eye, and the jungle of horrendous behavioural rules is only a few conclusions away, once a suitable bias has been found.

The testimony of the Siri epic

We promised to look at our own work from the Dundesian viewpoint. We are obviously untrained in psychoanalysis, because we cannot find many features in the Siri epic (FFC 264-266, 1998), for example, which could be linked with his findings. Caste discrimination and untouchability do not play a noticeable role, although low-caste communities such as Washermen are mentioned. As to the crow, the worst possible insult is thrown at a Brahmin by Sonne: “… you, Brahmin begging in four houses, beseeching for alms in three houses, eating crow’s orts…” (ll. 13478-79). Eating crow’s excrement is undoubtedly the filthiest act. The servant maid Daaru is instructed by the master of the house, old Ajjeru, in the following manner: “… with your pure hand a handful of alms, in Satyanapura palace, give, do give, dear! With your impure hand driving away crows, birds, in Satyanapura palace, be there, dear Daaru!” (ll. 322-25). The left hand is not specified as the impure hand, but it may well be that.

Among bodily emissions menstruation blood – strangely omitted by Dundes! – is the most often mentioned. For example, a long description (ll. 7512-54) tells how “Saamu herself sat her monthlies, she was sitting, far from the mansion, near the front yard, thus she sat”. For her purification Saamu in vain tries to find water until a spell by Siri is dissolved and Saamu can bathe. A moment later, Siri is the victim of a similar spell by Saamu. Female purification concerns menstruation in the Siri epic, but it is in no way a negative phenomenon, because it signals maturity and ability to give birth, the prime goal of an Indian wife.

As to the theory of leftovers, we have a description of a festive meal in the epic, a multiform which repeats itself a dozen or more times. The description always ends with the remark that they “swept the leftovers”, by no means a work for low-caste servants. For example, when Ajjeru arranges the ritual meal for pregnant Sonne meant to “remove the fire of the child’s mouth, of the belly-children” [‘hungry’ fetus, here twins], the description runs thus: “Ajjeru made her have a grand meal. He made her get up from the stool. He made Sonne sweep, clean the leftovers in Urkitoota palace, Ajjeru, Durgalla Pergade Ajjeru of Kaanebottu. After the sweeping of leftovers he made Sonne sit in the swinging cot…” (ll. 11689-95). The leftovers are conspicuously mentioned. In a Finnish-Karelian epic song about a festive meal such a motif would be unthinkable. Does this not indicate that the leftovers are filthy pollutants in India in the sense of Freudian theory? Not necessarily. If one knows the Indian traditional ways of eating food spread on banana-leaves on the floor, more dirt is produced than at tables, and cleaning is a must before the next batch of guests can eat or any other action can continue after the meal. Cleaning is one of the main functions at a feast: eating and cleaning. Sweeping leftovers is as communal an act as eating itself. We do not find any indication of pollution or low-caste job here, just practical hygiene.

There is no point in becoming a Germanic philologist, if one cannot bear the German language and if one despises German culture. In this sense, a prerequisite for productive humanistic research is love for one’s research objects. Certainly, love is a wrong word to describe Dundes’s attitude toward Indic culture (with the possible exception of certain tale oicotypes). Where, then, lies his love? A sentence on p. 121 gives a clue: “And it was also Carstairs to his eternal credit who was the first after Berkeley-Hill’s 1921 essay to see the possible connection between feces and caste.” Such warmth is rare indeed when e.g. ethnographers or folklorists are discussed. A good Freudian is what matters.

Lauri Honko
University of Turku
B. A. Viveka Rai
University of Mangalore

(FFN 20, November 2000: 22-28 )

Pin It on Pinterest

Share This