The totemic animal appears to us in many ways. The Sikhs have their lion, Singha. The Hindus have the cow, Gaumata. The Zeno cow is found wandering the streets of Delhi and has been the subject of much sociological discussion. Are they owned, are they retired cows, do they go home every evening after having eaten plastic in the city’s garbage? The continuous representation of other animals sacred to the Indians such as the peacock, the black buck, the tiger is part of how we understand the relation between nature and culture. Hindu Gods and Goddesses always have vahanas or carriers.
There is a huge divide between the rich and the poor, between upper castes and lower castes, between Hindus and Muslims. This difference runs into the manner in which they view each other’s dietary habits. The Bishnois have always communicated their adaptation to the land in which they live, and for them the black buck represents the divine spirit, which unites them. In the early 20th century, Lucien Levy Bruhl made a dramatic claim for the manner in which tribal communities represent the totemic animal, as having a symbiotic relationship with the humans who sacralised them. Since identification with the animal, bird, flora or fauna was so complete, they saw no distinction between themselves and the animal or any other symbol by which they were united.
Radcliffe Brown, the British Anthropologist, went on to argue that because an animal is useful, it becomes the symbol of the clan or lineage.
Animal classification or totemism, was thus one of the ways by which tribal communities were able to identify themselves in similarity with those who they called their own, and those who they identified as other. Anything could become a totem.
Where as for Lucien Levy Bruhl, the opposition between rational and modern humans was to be noted, and the “pre-rational” human to be described, for Radcliffe Browne, comparative Sociology allowed for the description of the symbols of kin and clan communities in North America, Africa and Australia.
Much of the Sociological and Social Anthropological preoccupation with symbols and signs drew from Emile Durkheim’s classic study, “The Elementary Forms of the Religious Life”. Durkheim showed how symbols were used not only to bring together people, but also to mark their distinctions. The symbol could be natural, or it could have its roots in language (a system of signs) or in directions of space, colours or images.
It was with Claude Levi Strauss that the designation of symbols, as in totems, being good to “think about” became the bases of a rich literature on the ‘unity of the human mind.’ Levi Struass engaged with the complex algebra of kinship in “The Elementary Structures of Kinship” and “The Savage Mind” to show that marriage alliances were like rules, which were so complex, that only those who lived in a society practicing them, could fully understand them. This balance between groups leading therefore to clan exogamy (marrying outside the group) or clan endogamy (marrying within the group) would help make sense of complex forms of exchange between these groups, distinguished by different totems, including their material wealth.
The totem thus becomes sacred. It stands in place of the group. The symbol of it’s meaning is absorbed in every aspect of clan and lineage life. The individual can understand his/her rules and obligations only if he/she immerses himself/herself in these patterns of behavior. Any harm to the totem affects the group entirely. Their identity with the totem includes their way of expressing grief and rage when the totem is harmed.
E.E. Evans Pritchard’s work on the totems of the Nuer of Sudan, showed how cattle were essential to the nomadic community in their understanding of the sacred. Yet the entire animal world, including crocodiles, came into the purview of lineage differentiation, and individual participation. It was one way of protecting the animals from being killed without reason. Through a theory of substitution, he showed how among a community, which revered it’s cattle, sacrifice of cows was not welcomed unless absolutely necessary, therefore, at times, a cucumber could take the place of the cow.
Salman Khan famously drove over pedestrians in Mumbai, with his wealthy coterie of friends, including erstwhile Nawab who were used to the hunt. They were drunk, but they returned to collect their music system from the car which they had to abandon. As for the pedestrians, they never received justice, since they were poor people forced to leave their villages, and malnutritioned and homeless, they make their bed where they can. But citizens of India have always wondered what laws these are, which allow film stars to be constantly caught for evading taxes, being on drugs, committing bigamy, killing sacred animals yet maintaining their virtue, while simultaneously hobnobbing with mafia and enjoying box office success.
(The writer is professor of sociology at Centre for the Study of Social Systems, JNU)