The first book to analyze why India's caste system has authoritatively endured for so long, this path-breaking text provides, for the first time anywhere, an exhaustive analysis of the historical predecessor to caste: the ancient Indian varna system as it was laid out in the Vedic literature. Presenting a revisionist overview of the way the religion of the Veda is to be understood, Classifying the Universe demonstrates that social classes were systematically reduplicated in taxonomies that organized the universe as a whole. The classification of society, in which some groups were accorded rights and privileges withheld from others, could thus be represented as part of a primordial and universally applicable order of things. Social hierarchy, argues the author, was in this way subtly but powerfully justified by recourse to other realms of the cosmos that were similarly ordered, and this essentially religious understanding of varna is the key to comprehending the Vedic world-view in all its complexity, and the persistence of its power in the social realm.
"...illuminating study...Smith has managed to combine close textual analysis with a discussion of...issues...in a highly rewarding manner. There is an excellent index."--American Historical Review
"Excellent documentation and challenging to theorists on classification systems."--Whalen Lai, University of California at Davis
"Explains a complex and difficult subject in clear, simple language."--H.L. Seneviratne, University of Virginia
"A helpful addition to our understanding of the development both of caste and the Hindu mindset. Well researched and documented."--Robert K.C. Forman, Hunter College
"A creative and wide-ranging application of the idea that varna is the underlying classificatory principle of Indian society and thought."--Richard W. Lariviere, University of Texas, Austin
"Impeccable scholarship--a truly original book. Smith writes clearly and elegantly, illuminating the complex sophistication of ancient Indian taxonomies, and bringing theory into the palpable, objective universe of flora, fauna, and people, where it belongs."--Indira V. Peterson, Mount Holyoke College
Reviewed in Journal of the American Academy of Religion