The gift in India

This work is licensed under the Creative Commons | © Thomas R. Trautmann. ISSN 2049-1115 (Online). DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.14318/hau7.2.041


The gift in India

Thomas R. TRAUTMANN, University of Michigan

This article is a previously unpublished conference talk on the use made by Marcel Mauss, in his essay on the gift, of sources in Sanskrit from ancient India. As Lévi-Strauss derives his theory of marriage as a special case of Mauss’ theory of the gift, the Sanskrit sources derive their ideal of gift marriage (the gift of a maiden, by her father, to the groom) as a special case of the concept of religious gifts; but the two theories are opposed, as the first is based upon reciprocity, and the second upon non-reciprocity.

Author’s preface

Giovanni da Col asked me for an unpublished paper cited by Johnny Parry in his classic 1986 piece, “The gift, the Indian gift and the ‘Indian gift.’” The paper was not so easily found as it was written in the age of the typewriter and there was no electronic version. I had to put my hands on the paper, typed on actual paper, if it still existed. I searched in vain, but luckily Johnny Parry was able to locate, in his better-organized archive, what may be the only paper copy in the world, and he sent it to me.

I wrote the paper just after I published Dravidian kinship (1981), in which I attempted to join the existing ethnographic record of South India and Sri Lanka with the ancient sources in the classical languages—Sanskrit, Pali, Tamil—to create an historically deep account of the kinship system, in all its variations, of the Dravidian-speakers and their system of cross-cousin marriage.

This was the project in which Marcel Mauss’ great essay on the gift seized my imagination. In the first place, much as Claude Lévi-Strauss had represented his alliance theory of marriage as deriving from Mauss’ theory of the gift, the ancient Brahmin scholars of law (Dharmaśāstra) promoted marriage in the form of the [486]gift of a maiden (kanyādāna) as a special case of a more general theory of religious gifts (dāna) bearing karmic returns. In the second place, Mauss himself had studied Sanskrit and relied on Sanskrit sources in the essay on the gift, giving it a pronounced philological aspect, especially in the section on India; elsewhere in the essay philology joined with ethnography, a combination very appealing to me. But, finally, while the Maussian theory of the gift and Lévi-Straussian alliance theory of marriage are based upon reciprocity, the Dharmaśāstra view of religious gifts and gift-marriage are based upon the strict refusal of reciprocation on the part of recipients. The Indian material is not entirely helpful to Mauss, and in this central issue is its nemesis.

The nub of the matter is this: The books of law in Sanskrit draw upon a sister-discipline of the hermeneutics of the ritual (Mīmāmsā) for some of its analytic tools. One of these is used to determine whether a rule is mere worldly advice, or has a transcendent character. If a rule has an apparent or “seen” benefit, it is worldly advice and no more. But if it has no “seen” benefit, we infer an “unseen” or karmic return, and the rule is obligatory. Reciprocity is a seen benefit for a gift; to have a transcendent character, a gift must be given without expectation of return.

In Dravidian kinship, I discussed the Indian theory of gift-marriage at some length (1981: 277–93) and, within the twenty-minute limits of this conference paper, Mauss as Indianist. Thereafter I collected materials for a longer work on these themes. In the end, other projects pushed aside the book I had in mind. Anyone wishing to pursue these matters will find abundant sources. One of them, the Dānakhanda of the thirteenth-century jurist Hemādri, is a digest of texts on the gift in India in 1,056 pages of closely printed Sanskrit.

I am glad my unpublished paper contributed in some measure to Johnny Parry’s analysis of Mauss from the direction of the Indian theory of gift and gift-marriage, leading to his brilliant reinterpretation of the evolutionary scheme of the essay. And I am grateful to Giovanni and to Hau for publishing it.


Hemādri. 1985. “Dānakhanda.” In Caturvargacintāmani, vol. 1. Kāśī Samskr˳ta Granthamālā 235. Vārānasī, Bhārata: Caukhambhā Samskr˳ta Samsthāna.

Parry, Jonathan. 1986. “The gift, the Indian gift and the ‘Indian gift.’” Man 21 (3): 453–73.

Trautmann, Thomas R. 1981. Dravidian kinship. Cambridge Studies in Social Anthropology, no. 36. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

———. 1982. “The gift in India.” Paper delivered before the Eleventh Annual Conference on South Asia, University of Wisconsin, November 6.[487]

The gift (1923–24) is generally acknowledged to be Marcel Mauss’ greatest contribution to scholarship, his gift to the ages.1 Claude Lévi-Strauss (1946, 1973), E. E. Evans-Pritchard (1954), and Louis Dumont (1972) have assessed that contribution in relation to ethnology and sociology, the fields with which Mauss was professionally identified as leader of the French school of sociology in the interwar years. However, Mauss’ power to inspire others extended considerably beyond these disciplines. The study of India in its various aspects is one such area to which The gift makes a direct contribution, and has been the inspiration for others. I should like to try to assess that contribution, not so much out of a wish to pass judgment but as a way of making some return, however poor, on what we have learned from Mauss’ essay. Yet, the critique of Mauss’ Indological work is inescapably a part of specifying what its contribution has been.

I deliberately strike the note of criticism from the outset, for my long-standing relationship with Mauss’ text has not been an easy one. It began with the purchase, early in my graduate student days, of the English translation of The gift (Mauss 1954). On the first reading (of what were to be many readings of this text), I remember being simultaneously captivated and baffled. Much later, I formulated my own view on the Indian theory of exchange, both as criticism and as further extension of the India section of The gift. For many years, this formulation existed only in the form of a seminar paper given on several different occasions and in various forums as well as in notes for its expansion. Recently, the writing of a study of Dravidian kinship obliged me to publish a summary version of this formulation, as it relates to the classical doctrine of the religious gift, and the ideal of marriage as the gift of a maiden (kanyādāna) (Trautmann 1981: 277–93; “marriage and status: kanyādāna”).

I recite these personal details because I believe my experience is typical. Mauss does not provide a template that his successors can apply to other data; there is no Maussian interpretation, as there is assuredly a Freudian or a Jungian interpretation, which the members of a school might apply more or less faithfully to new bodies of fact or experience. Mauss provides nothing like a Kuhnian paradigm, a scientific revolution followed by stable, “normal science” extensions of its implications by lesser minds. One struggles to understand Mauss’ meaning, and in the struggle one finds its strengths and weaknesses in respect of the field one knows well. Having done so, one rewrites The gift in one’s own way.

What is the nature of the difficulty? What is the source of the sense of strain one feels in relation to The gift? At the outset, it is a problem of bare comprehension.

The text is highly compressed. The ideas are so briefly indicated and in a manner so light and rapid that one does not immediately see the transitions of thought; the argument appears to chop and charge in the most bewildering way. This succinct and allusive style subserves an ethnographic erudition that is nearly boundless. It was legendary among his students, who used to say, “Mauss sait tout” (“Mauss knows everything”). It is comforting to hear one of them add that not only did Mauss know everything; he spoke (and wrote, we may add) as if his hearers (readers) were familiar with everything he had read (Dumont 1972). He is difficult to follow because he [488]assumes a certain equivalence of knowledge between himself and his audience; one feels immensely stupid and flattered at the same time. He deals with an immense range of material, and does so, wherever he can, in the original languages of his subjects. These include Greek, Latin, Sanskrit, Hebrew, and Maori, in addition to languages of modern Europe. One is grateful to think one has reached the further shore of that erudition when Mauss confesses to a lack of competence in Old Norse; when he goes on to suggest an improvement in the translation he is quoting from, one suspects he knows more than he admits to (Mauss 1973: 145n3). It is all rather alarming.

If Mauss’ erudition and compactness of style are an obstacle for the reader, they have been a problem for his translator as well, who shares with the rest of humanity the failing of not knowing all the material to which Mauss refers in the course of The gift. Unfortunately, he does not seem to have taken the help of specialists in understanding these allusions aright. Readers of the pages on India who are knowledgeable about Indian matters, at any rate, will often experience a sudden bewilderment over a word or phrase that does not ring true, and they will often be correct if they suspect mistranslation. To cite the most egregious case, we read in the translation of “the rules which forbid eating with an uninvited guest.” The Indianist will not be familiar with such rules but rather with the opposite, “the rules that forbid eating without having invited a guest who appears at one’s door.” (It is all too typical of the translation that it simply ignores the latter half of the sentence: “les règles qui défendent de manger sans avoir invite l’hôte survenu: mange du poison halahalah [celui qui mange] sans participation de son ami.”) The translation fades in and out of focus, adding to the reader’s difficulties with an already difficult text.

Occasional mistranslation is not the only reason the English version is unreliable. With a candor that is nearly disarming, the translator tells us that he has departed from what he is pleased to call the “French” text, which is to say the Maussian text, in a number of ways, to “make for easier reading”—to wit, moving the “compendious notes” from the foot of the page to the back, combining several notes into one, standardizing bibliographical references, and dropping the “orthographic refinements” of Sanskrit and Amerindian words. It would have been even more candid to add that phrases and whole sentences are dropped here and there. Thus, we are given a diminished Mauss. It is a double betrayal: of the Maussian text, and of the textual or what I will call the “philological” element in Mauss’ method, for which, the translation seems to say, anthropology no longer has any place. Nor does the translation imagine that Mauss may still have something of interest to say to others who are not anthropologists—Indianists, for example.

This state of affairs is symptomatic of a reading of Mauss from the perspective of a post-Maussian ethnology, which regularly overlooks or at least underestimates the importance of the “philological” and “Indianist” side of Mauss. In order to show what I mean, I must say a few words about Mauss’ Indological career.

We are not accustomed to think of Mauss as an Indologist. Yet such he was for a brief—and one would have to admit uncharacteristic—passage in his life. Having completed his early university education in philosophy—as had his uncle and mentor émile Durkheim—he commenced advanced study, graduate work if you will, at the école pratique des hautes études. His subject was history of religions, and its orientation was strongly toward Indology and the Sanskrit language. His teachers included the leading French Indianists of the day: Sylvain Lévi, Louis Finot, Alfred [489]Faucher, and the linguist Antoine Meillet. For a short period (1900–1902), and as assistant to Faucher, he taught the history and philosophy of pre–Buddhist India. This was the sum of his career as practicing Indologist; the death of another of his teachers (Ilan Marillier) left vacant the chair in the history of religions of “noncivilized” peoples, to which he was appointed in 1901, a position that (with others) he held until his retirement (Lévy-Bruhl 1951; cf. Lukes 2008–).

I do not mean to leave the impression that but for the accident of employment opportunities Mauss would have remained an Indologist. Everything in the rather sparse record of his life suggests otherwise. One need only examine his bibliography to see that in his Indological study, Mauss did not aim at a specialist career. Almost none of his publications are properly Indological in their aims, although many make use of Indian material. The role of Indian materials in his work is illustrated by his first major publication, Sacrifice, which he wrote with Henri Hubert ([1898] 1964). This appeared nearly simultaneously with, and draws upon, the work on the theory of the sacrifice in the Brāhmanas done by his teacher Sylvain Lévi, whom Mauss describes as the man who was, after Durkheim, his most immediate master (Lévi [1899] 1966).2 In Mauss and Hubert’s work, Sanskrit and Hebrew sources are the ethnographic materials of choice; the aim is to build empirically grounded general categories of the sociological understanding. In this case, the category is sacrifice; later it will be gift, potlatch, the concept of self; even later it will be the unrealized projects of which his memorialist tells us: prayer, money, the state. In Sacrifice, Vedic literature and the Bible are chosen as exemplary cases because of the completeness of their treatment of sacrifice. The method is comparative but far from comprehensive. No survey is intended. The Greek and Roman sacrificial cults are deliberately omitted because the sources are scattered and inadequate; so, too, is the data of contemporary primitives. “Generally distorted through overhasty observation or falsified by the exactness of our languages, the facts recorded by ethnographers have value only if they are compared with more precise and more complete documents” (Mauss and Hubert [1898] 1964: 8). Only the Sanskrit and biblical sources are direct, “drawn up by the participants themselves in their own language, in the very spirit in which they enacted the rites” (Mauss and Hubert [1898] 1964: 7).

The rejection of the ethnography available at the time was also a call for a more adequate ethnology, specifically, ethnology that would be of a “philological” kind, one that had been achieved a quarter century later and made use of in The gift (1973). Compare the latter’s statement of method and one sees the continuities at once. Mauss will undertake the comparative study of cases that are exemplary (Polynesia, Melanesia, the northwest coast of North America, and the legal literature of Rome, India, and Germany). “Again, since we are concerned with words and their meanings, we choose only areas where we have access to the minds of the societies through documentation and philological research. Further, each case has a role in the overall study and is presented in its logical place. In this way we avoid that method of haphazard comparison in which institutions lose their local colour and documents their value” (Mauss 1954: 2–3).

From the perspective of what anthropology has since become, the most salient fact of Mauss’ education is not that it included Indology but that it lacked fieldwork. [490]The latter has become a matter of some embarrassment—not to say scandal—as fieldwork has taken its place as central professionalizing experience of the discipline. In this light, Mauss’ Indology must appear at worst as a transition feature properly belonging to anthropology’s prehistory, which was spent in the library, and at best as harmless eccentricity. But—and here I come at length to my point—it is constitutive of his work, and of all that is best in it. This training, I believe, not only gave him access to Indian documents as a case for sociological study but it also gave him his textual methods. The gift unfolds as a commentary upon texts and words, in which, for example, a Maori theological disquisition reduced to writing by an ethnologist is put on a plane with passages from a Norse saga and a Sanskrit epic. For Mauss, as for few others before or since, there is no essential discontinuity between ethnographic materials and the literature of the ancient civilizations. The readings he gives are philological and ethnological at once.

* * *

Let us recall the argument of The gift in general, and in particular that of the dozen pages on India. The essay opens on a search in progress for the origins of contractual obligation; that is, for Durkheim’s “noncontractual element in contract.” As the essay closes we see that Mauss’ aim has been to deprive the modern market society of its proper mythology—namely, the belief that the market economy is a natural institution—and to substitute for that mythology an account that is ethnologically sound. The conjectural-history version of the rise of the market, which was the mythic charter of the market since the eighteenth century, had taught that barter arises spontaneously from human nature and leads naturally to the invention of money, and money in turn leads to the invention of credit. Mauss argues that elements of market institutions have evolved from quite different, nonutilitarian sources. In the largest evolutionary frame, the prehistory of market societies lies not in barter but in gift, in the “system of total prestations”; these two polar stages are joined by a long transition stage, the potlatch, which is the subject of the essay.

Here a brief glossary may be wanted. We can best explain, in reference to Mauss’ final objective, the creation of an ethnology of modern market society and its ills, with a view to prescribing a cure. First, the gift itself. It is the paradoxical character of the gift as it appears in early societies that is his starting point. The gift, in appearance voluntary, free, and gratuitous, is in fact obligatory and self-interested. Gifts “are clothed almost always in the forms of the present generously offered even while the gesture which accompanies the transaction is nothing but a fiction, formalism and social deception, and even where its basis is obligation and economic interest.” The gift is a social fact that is total, meaning one in which all kinds of institutions find simultaneous expression: religious, legal, moral, and economic. Thus, the ethnology of the market society will not reveal a series of natural elaborations of an aboriginal institution given in nature (e.g., barter to money to credit) but will show the modern contract to have developed out of the archaic gift-contract by gradual diminution, a sloughing-off of its noneconomic features. The “system of total prestations” is total and antimodern (antiutilitarian) in several ways. In the first place it is not individualistic: the exchanging persons are moral persons such as classes, moieties, tribes, or families. Nor is it utilitarian goods alone that [491]are exchanged, but “above all greetings, festivals, rituals, military services, women, children, dances, feasts, fairs of which the market is but one element and where the circulation of wealth is but one of the terms of a contract much more general and much more lasting” (Mauss 1973: 151).

Finally, the potlatch. The essence of this institution from the northwest coast of North America is the “agonistic character” of its gifting. Here it is the chiefs who exchange gifts with one another; however, though this may seem a tendency toward an emerging individualism of exchange, it remains “total prestation” in the sense that the whole clan, through the intermediacy of its chiefs, make contracts involving all its members and everything it possesses. “But the agonistic character of the prestation is pronounced. Essentially usurious and extravagant, it is above all a struggle among nobles to determine their position in the hierarchy to the ultimate benefit, if they are successful, of their own clan” (Mauss 1954: 4).

This institution of the potlatch, the chief subject of The gift, is generalized in several ways. In the first place, it becomes in Mauss’ hands not just a particular kind of feasting of a certain historic culture area but also a form of exchange characterizing a kind of society; it becomes a Durkheimian social species. One of his principal theses, which will be of particular interest to us further on, is that societies of this kind enact a threefold morality: it is obligatory to give, to receive, and to make a return on a gift received. In the second place, the potlatch is generalized geographically, in that Mauss finds it, fully blown or in part, among Melanesians, Polynesians, and early Indo-Europeans, including Indians. Finally, the potlatch becomes an evolutionary stage of transition between the system of total prestations and the market society in which exchange, now concentrated in the hands of a competitive aristocracy, tends toward a ranked society in which the diffuse political power of the chiefs is finally centralized in a single instrument, that of the state, and commercial transactions are fully individualized.

* * *

Thus, the Maussian lexicon. What is the role of India in The gift? The first two chapters examine representative cases from Melanesia, Polynesia, the Andaman Islands, and the northwest coast of North America. In these societies, Mauss finds material to sustain his principal theses. These are the generality of the potlatch as social species, the three moral obligations to give, to receive, and to reciprocate gifts, and above all, the belief that the gift is an extension of the giver’s self, and as such it compels a return. The third chapter, “Survivals of these principles in ancient legal codes and ancient economies,” examines the legal literature of ancient Rome, India, and Germany. The purpose is to bring what has to this point been a study of ethnographic materials to bear upon the study and critique of modern Western institutions. The link is made by social history, by a showing that the kinds of concepts and institutions that have so far been described are also ancestral to modern European legal and economic forms. The distinction between the law of persons and the law of things, Mauss says, is fundamental to our system of property but foreign to our ancestral systems of law. Similarly, our civilizations, since those of the Semites, Greeks, and Romans, sharply distinguish obligation and involuntary prestations on the one hand, and the gift on the other hand. However, these distinctions are rather recent in the great civilizations, and are preceded by an earlier [492]stage in which they practiced those customs of gift exchange in which persons and things are fused. Analysis of Indo-European legal systems shows that they have passed through such a stage. At Rome there are vestiges of it; in (ancient) India and Germany the living law codes themselves show these institutions functioning at a relatively recent period.

Thus, India finds a place in The gift interior to a comparative study of Indo-European law. The choice of ancient Indo-European codes is motivated by the desire to link ethnographic findings to the critique of modern European law and economy via history. The method is philological in a further sense, in that it is modeled on comparative philology and has a goal of the recovery and reconstruction of a stage of Indo-European law before the distinction between personal and real law arose. In this framework, as in the pioneer studies of comparative Indo-European law by Henry Sumner Maine ([1861] 1986) and Numa Denis Fustel de Coulanges (1864) (the latter, by the way, was one of Durkheim’s teachers), Roman law takes center stage as a direct progenitor of modern European forms, while Hindu law (with German) plays the role of fossil remnant testifying better to the earlier stages of Indo-European law—a point to which I shall return.

* * *

The potlatch is not only an Indo-European institution imported into India by the Aryans; Mauss supposes it to have characterized the Tibeto-Burman and Austro-Asiatic pre-Aryan populations. The two streams, he says, reinforced one another, and in the immediate post-Vedic period, the Mahābhārata strongly develops its theory; later, “this law disappeared except in favor of the Brahmins, but we can say for certain that it was in force for six to ten centuries, between the eighth century B.C. and the second or third century A.D.” “The Mahābhārata is the story of a gigantic potlatch” (Mauss 1973: 243).

The remainder of the India section expounds the classical gift law as it appears in the thirteenth book of the Mahābhārata, the Anuśāsana Parvan. The thing given produces its return in this life and the next; it is not lost to the giver, it reproduces itself. Things given are moreover personified beings, living beings that talk and take part in the contract: land asks to be given away; food (Anna) warns that it becomes poison to one who does not share it with other beings; the Brahmin’s property becomes poison to the thief. The gift is, in fact, an extension of the giver: one gives oneself.

Thus far, the Indian materials sustain Mauss’ thesis; indeed, they are so eloquent on the personality of the gift and the gift as extension of the giver that one wonders whether the Mahābhārata may not have been the original inspiration of this part of his thesis. But beyond this point the text fails him, for contrary to the findings for the first half of the essay, the personality or spirit of the gift is not, in Indian thought, the cause of the obligation to repay. Indeed, Mauss closes the India section by noting the Brahmin’s reluctance to receive gifts from the hands of another, necessarily inferior, person. The bond the gift creates between donor and recipient, Mauss says, is too strong for both: the Brahmin may not accept and still less solicit from the king, lest he become a dependent, and lose his superiority. “The whole theory is somewhat comic: an entire caste which lives upon gifts pretends to refuse them. Then it compromises and accepts those which are offered spontaneously. [493]Then it draws up long lists of persons from whom, circumstances in which, and things which, one may accept; only to permit everything in case of famine, on condition, it is true, of light expiation” (Mauss 1973: 249).

* * *

An exposition of the Indian gift doctrine—which so deftly sketches its deep ambivalences—has much to offer. But there is something wrong, something forced and not quite in good conscience about this account. What is the problem?

Let us begin with the Mahābhārata as potlatch. One sees what Mauss is getting at: a warrior class imbued with a spirit of rivalry, in competition with one another over honors. They engage in games of dice in which they provocatively stake everything. They compete at archery or other contests for the hand of a princess. They find honor not in accumulation of wealth so much as in the magnificence of their generosity. And so forth. In short, every element of the potlatch ethos is present, except for the potlatch itself. Games of dice and the like are no doubt contests in which all may be recklessly staked and lost, but the Mahabharata heroes do not directly engage one another in gift contests, in which the object is to best the rival by giving more than he can reciprocate. Nor do we find the moral framework, which—if we understand it right—are the rules of the potlatch competition: obligatory giving, obligatory receiving, obligatory reciprocation of the gift.

Indeed, one of the striking things about the warrior ethos, the ksatra-dharma of the epic, as Minoru Hara has so nicely shown, is that kings refuse to accept, since to do so would be a sign of inferiority and dependence (Hara 1974). Only the Brahmin can be said to have an obligation to accept gifts, the second of Mauss’ triple obligation—and he must not reciprocate, whence the third obligation does not obtain. Thus the Indian material from the Anuśāsana Parvan—which is so congenial at first to Mauss’ thesis in respect of the notion of gift as extension of the giver, and as endowed with personality—fails him when he wishes to see in facts of this order the cause of the obligation to repay; for the (Brahmin) recipient of the religious gift is specifically forbidden to reciprocate.

Can Mauss, who “knows everything,” have been unaware of these problems? Scarcely. Indeed, at the outset of his treatment of the Indian doctrine he directly recognizes the principal way in which it departs from his own thesis—in a long footnote. The note is an important one, in which he sketches a theory of the evolution of the Brahmin doctrine of gift:

We must admit that, on the principal subject of our argument, the obligation to repay gifts, we have found few facts in Hindu law, except perhaps Manu 7.213. Much the clearest consists of the rule which forbids it. It seems that originally the funerary śrāddha, the feast of the dead which the Brahmins have so greatly elaborated, was an occasion to invite oneself and to invite others in return. But, it is formally forbidden so to act. Anuś. verse 4311, 4315 = XIII, ch. 90, v. 43 ff.: “He who invites only his friends to the śrāddha does not go to heaven. One must invite neither friends nor enemies, but neutrals, etc. The priestly fee offered to priests who are friends bears the name demonic” (piśāca), v. 4316. That interdiction constitutes, doubtless, a veritable revolution in respect of current customs. The jurist-poet even attributes it to a specific moment [494]and school (Vaikhānasa śruti, ibid., verse 4323 = ch. 90, verse 51). The cunning Brahmins have in effect forced the gods and ancestors to make a return on the presents which they have given them. The common run of people no doubt continued to invite their friends to the funereal feast. They continue to do so to the present day in India. The Brahmin, for his part, did not make return gifts, did not invite others and even, at bottom, did not accept. However their law codes have preserved for us sufficient documents to illustrate our case. (Mauss 1973: 243n3)

I believe that this thesis is in essentials correct. No doubt the Brahmin gift theory, in its stress on the personality of the gift, perpetuates an archaic mentality in part. But as a whole—which is to say, as we find it in our texts—the doctrine of gift is, rather, a revolutionary departure from an archaic mentality, which deliberately and explicitly turns its back on the more ancient and ever popular ethic of reciprocity. Mauss knows this, but his program, and the methods he has chosen to pursue it, oblige him to emphasize the archaic survivals in the gift doctrine, those aspects of it that best speak to his potlatch stage, the existence and generality of which he is trying to establish. But in so treating his documents, he cannot really preserve their local color, as he had intended. His ethnographic conscience bids him therefore to record in the notes the revolutionary character of the gift doctrine and its peculiar Indianness, that local coloring that is like nothing elsewhere in the world. Thus he separates the material from the Anuśāsana Parvan into two streams, some of it going into the running text, and the rest of it in the footnotes, which become so voluminous they sometimes threaten to push the text right off the page. As an approximation, we can say that the text is his contribution to the sociology of the gift, the notes, his contribution to Indology.

* * *

Where do we go from here? It seems to me that if we are to understand the Indian doctrine of gift aright, we must begin by concentrating on the aspect of it that Mauss does not seem to have understood so well: the reason why the Brahmin recipient of the religious gift must not be a friend or relative, and must not make a return gift. In brief, and in accord with the Mīmāmsā doctrines that are models for the Dharmaśāstra treatment of these matters, the religious gift is repaid, but by the impersonal karmic mechanism. If there is any visible (drsta) return on the part of the human recipient, and quid pro quo—such as must be assumed in case the recipient is a friend or a relative—the gift is thought to have reaped its own reward in this world, and to have lost its transcendent character, with its karmic, unseen (adrsta) fruit. It becomes a matter of mere worldly reciprocity, no different at bottom than buying or selling. Thus, the Brahmin gift doctrine sets out exactly where Mauss begins: the perception of the contractual, obligatory character of archaic gift exchange, and its essential identity with commercial exchange. But although they set out from the same starting point, the two theories have different directions: one is a sociology, and the other is a soteriology. It is exactly because the ordinary gift lays the recipient under obligation that the Brahmin jurists lump it with sale and purchase, like Mauss—and dismiss it.[495]


Dumont, Louis. 1972. “Une science en devenir.” L’arc no. 48: 8–21.

Evans-Pritchard, E. E. 1954. “Introduction.” In The gift, by Marcel Mauss and translated by Ian Cunnison, v–x, London: Cohen and West.

Fustel de Coulanges, Numa Denis. 1864. La cité antique.

Hara, Minoru. 1974. “A note on the Rāksasa form of marriage.” Journal of the American Oriental Society, no. 94: 296–306.

Lévi, Sylvain. (1899) 1966. La doctrine du sacrifice dans les Brāhmanas. Paris: Presses Universitaires de France.

Lévi-Strauss, Claude. 1946. “French sociology.” In Twentieth century sociology, edited by George Gurvitch and Wilbert E. Moore, 503–37. New York: Philosophical Library.

———. 1973. “Introduction à l’oeuvre de Marcel Mauss.” In Marcel Mauss, Sociologie et anthropologie, ix–lii, Paris: Presses Universitaires de France.

Lévy-Bruhl, Henri. 1951. “In memoriam: Marcel Mauss.” L’année sociologique 3 (2): 1–4.

Lukes, Steven. 2008–. “Mauss, Marcel.” In International Encyclopedia of the Social Sciences. http://www.encyclopedia.com/people/social-sciences-and-law/anthropology-biographies/marcel-mauss.

Maine, Henry Sumner. (1861) 1986. Ancient law. Reprint. Tucson: University of Arizona Press.

Mauss, Marcel. 1923–24. “Essai sur le don: Forme et raison de l’échange dans les sociétés archaïques.” L’année sociologique, n.s., 1: 30–186.

———. 1954. The gift: Forms and functions of exchange in archaic societies. Translated by Ian Cunnison. London: Cohen & West.

———. 1973. “Essai sur le don: Forme et raison de l’échange dans les sociétés archaïques.” Reprinted in Sociologie et anthropologie, 145–279. Paris: Presses Universitaires de France.

Mauss, Marcel, and Henri Hubert. 1897–98. “Essai sur la nature et la function du sacrifice.” L’année sociologique, no. 2: 29–138.

———. (1898) 1964. Sacrifice: Its nature and function. Translated by W. D. Halls. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Renou, Louis. (1899) 1966. “Preface.” In La doctrine du sacrifice dans les Brāhmanas, by Sylvain Lévi. Paris: Presses Universitaires de France.

Trautmann, Thomas R. 1981. Dravidian kinship. Cambridge Studies in Social Anthropology, no. 36. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.[496]

Le Don en Inde

Résumé : Cet article est la transcription jusqu’ici non publiée d’une conférence sur l’emploi par Mauss de sources en Sanskrit sur l’Inde ancienne dans son essai sur le don. De même que Lévi-Strauss tient sa théorie du mariage d’un cas particulier de la théorie de Mauss sur le don, les sources en Sanskrit tiennent l’idéal du mariage-don (le don de la jeune fille, par le père, au futur mari) d’un cas particulier du concept de don religieux; mais les deux théories s’opposent: la première est fondée sur la réciprocité, et la seconde sur la non-réciprocité.

Thomas R. TRAUTMANN is Emeritus Professor of History and Anthropology at the University of Michigan, with interests in the history of ancient India, kinship, and marriage, the history of anthropology, the history of Orientalist scholarship in British India, and environmental history. Among his books are Dravidian kinship (1981), Lewis Henry Morgan and the invention of kinship (1987), Aryans and British India (1997), and Elephants and kings: An environmental history (2015).

Thomas R. Trautmann
Department of Anthropology
University of Michigan
Ann Arbor, MI 48109-1003


1. References in this French essay will be to the 1973 reprinted edition. References to the English translation will be to the 1954 edition.

2. The quotation from Mauss is in the preface of Louis Renou ([1899] 1966: xi).