Abbe Jean-Antoine Dubois

Abbe Jean-Antoine Dubois was a French-Catholic missionary with the Missions Etrangeres de Paris sent to India in the early seventeen-nineties whose mission-work continued until the early eighteen-twenties. During this time Dubois authored a number of important detailed accounts of the Hindu faith and culture, which were valued by many for their ethnographic knowledge. Once such contemporary proponent of the Abbe Dubois’ work was Lord Bentwick. As discussed in the articleCastes of Mind, Nicholas B. Dirks quotes Bentwick, writing that, “in a political point of view, the information which the work of the Abbe Dubois has to impart might be of the greatest benefit in aiding the servants of the Government in conducting themselves more in unison with the customs and prejudices of the natives.” (see Dirks  65).

Little information is known about the Abbe’s life before his ordination an subsequent missionary work in India, where he was first stationed with the Pondicherry mission in the south of India. Following this the Abbe worked in Mysore aiding the reorganization efforts of the Christian community in the area, (see Dubois 1823:1-2). To better coalesce with the natives, Abbe Jean-Antoine Dubois adopted the diet and clothing tendencies of his Hindu contemporaries, effectively renouncing the Euorpean lifestyle of the time. During his time in India many small agricultural communities were said to have been founded by the Abbe Dubois, as well as the introduction of vaccinations as a method of disease prevention, (See Dubois and Beauchamp 1897:19). By eighteen-twenty-three Dubois left India and returned to Paris, where he later became the director of the Missions Etrangeres de Paris (see Dubois and Beauchamp 1897:xxviii).

Of the works authored by Abbe Jean-Antoine Dubois, the most influential of which is Hindu Manners, Customs, and Ceremonies, which is divided into three distinct parts, each of which discusses at length a different pillar of both Hindu culture and religion. The first and second sections discuss respectively the ‘General View of Society in India, and Especially of the Caste System’ and ‘The Four States of Brahmanical Life’, having a primary focus on cultural and societal implications of the Hindu tradition. While the third section aptly titled ‘Religion’ is concerned with the actual spiritual beliefs of practitioners of the Hindu tradition. Each of the three larger sections is further divided into chapters concerned with specific topics falling within the overarching theme of the section.

The first five chapters of the first section discuss at length the caste system found at the epicentre of  Hindu culture. The Abbe suggests that the ubiquity of the caste system in Hindu culture is the sole reason the Hindus did not regress into total barbarism which had been observed by other cultures occupying the ‘torrid region’ (Dubois  and Beauchamp 1897:29). Dubois further illustrates the importance of the caste system by observing what  became of social ‘pariahs’ a demographic of Hindu society with which he had become very familiar with. Stating that a population composed of such individuals quickly devolves into something altogether worse than the cannibalistic hordes observed in the African continent (see Dubois and Beauchamp 1897:29).

The second section takes an in-depth look at the Brahmin caste of Hindu society, covering a vast array of religious practices and expectations. It discusses at length all stages of brahmanical life starting with upanayana a ceremony in which young brahmin males are bestowed with a sacred cord, signalling their entrance into brahmic life. From this point until the age of matrimony they are acknowledged as residing in the condition of brahmacari. If the young male does not marry for any particular reason in the prescribed time period is no longer viewed as brahmacari andthe name of grhasthais not given to him. However, the six privileges afforded to the caste are still available to him. The six privileges being ‘to read, and get to read the Vedas, to make and to cause to me made, the sacrifice of the yajna, and lastly to receive alms and to give presents to the Brahmins,(Dubois 1816:101-102).

The second stage of brahmanical life  is that of grhastha, a title afforded to Brahmin males who have married and had produced children. The Abbe highlights myriad of different observances this state of Brahmins is required to maintain, a significant portion of which focus on ritual purity and auspiciousness. Not the least of these practices is ritual bathing in water that is deemed sacred, like that of the Indus or Ganges rivers. While in the water, it is of utmost importance that the man to keep his thoughts transfixed on Visnu and Brahma, the ritual bath is finished “by three times taking up handfuls of water, and with their faces turned toward the sun pouring it out in libations to that luminary”, (Dubois 1816:149). After exiting the water the grhastha brahmin dresses himself in a particular fashion that does not affect his purity or auspiciousness. This practice is conducted three times over the course of a day.

Dubois also discusses at great length the assortment of different prayers devout members of the Brahman caste observe and provides an exhaustive example highlighting the specific mechanics of the sandhya or ‘triple-prayer’ (see Dubois 1816:154-157).

The third and final section of Hindu Manners, Customs, and Ceremonies focuses more attentively on religious beliefs at the core of Hindu tradition. The first chapter of this section begins to draw a parallel between the Roman and Hindu primary deities, comparing Jupiter, Neptune, and Pluto to Brahma, Visnu, and Siva (see Dubois 1816:370). The Abbe continues by explaining the origins of each member of the trimurti (the aforementioned Hindu gods) and begins to highlight the henotheistic nature of the Hindu faith. Following this the Abbe gives a more in-depth description of each member of the trimutr, as well as other prominent figures like Krsna or Indra.  Discussing in detail the role each member plays in the Hindu religion. Special attention and detail is given in the discussion of Visnu, as Visnu is said to take up to ten different forms or avatara, each of these forms and the situation(s) they correspond to are briefly illustrated.

In his Letters on the State of Christianity in India in which the Conversion of Hindoos is Considered Impracticable, a work composed of a collection of correspondences written by the Abbe Jean-Antoine Dubois which were sent to his superiors in Paris, the Abbe gives a detailed account of the state in which the Christian, and especially the Roman-Catholic faith(s) were in India. The opinion held by Abbe Dubois was that because the caste system was so deeply entrenched in the Hindu tradition, the conversion of natives proved to be a task of immense difficulty. Abbe Dubois writes that “during a period of twenty-five years that I have familiarly conversed with them, lived among them as their religious teacher and spiritual guide, I would hardly dare to affirm that I have anywhere met a sincere and undisguised christian,” (see Dubois 1823:63). Dubois continues to describe the degree to which this effect was observed, noting that one of the greatest points of contention for Hindu converts is the christian belief of total equality between people of varied societal position in the eyes of God, that a Brahmin of high standing should be treated as equal to a ‘pariah’. Continuing this sentiment, the Abbe suggests that even a totalitarian or despotic rule could be imposed upon the Hindu people with greater ease than it would be to dismantle the caste system; thus highlighting the vast emphasis placed upon the caste system in the Hindu tradition.

The writings of Abbe Jean-Antoine Dubois offered a valuable insight into the complexity of the Hindu culture and the religion as a whole. The thirty years of experience working and residing among the Hindu people, adopting many of their customs and practices, allowed the Abbe to accrue a wide and intimate knowledge of the manners and customs of the Hindu tradition. Henry K. Beauchamp writes that “any account given by such a man of the manners and customs of the people amongst whom he lived must in any case be instructive,” (see Dubois and Beachamp 1897: xxii).

Works Cited and Bibliograhy:

Dubois, Abbe Jean-Antoine (1816), Description of the Character, Manners, and Customs, of the People of India; and of Their Institutions Both Religious and Civil. London: Longman, Hurst, Rees, Orme and Brown, (1816)

Dubois, Abbe Jean-Antoine (1816), Beauchamp, Henry K (1897), Hindu Manners, Customs, and Ceremonies. Oxford: Clarendon Press (1905)

Dubois, Abbe Jean-Antoine (1823), Letters on the State of Christianity in India in Which the conversion of Hindoos is Considered Impracticable. To which is added a vindication of the Hindus, male and female, in answer to a severe attack made upon both by the Reverend ****.

London: Longman, Hurst, Rees, Orme, Brown and Green (1823), Reprinted by Asian Educational Services

Dirks Nicholas B. (1992) “Castes of Mind.” Representations, No. 37, Special Issue: Imperial Fantasies and Postcolonial Histories (Winter 1992): 56-78

Related Topics:

  • Sadhya
  • Protestant missionary work taking place at the same time
  • Lord Bentwick

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Article Written By: Brendan Spiess (February 2020) who is solely responsible for its content.