Colonial Consciousness: M.N. Srinivas and Sanskritization

1. M. N. Srinivas (MNS) claims that “a caste was able, in a generation or two, to rise to a higher position in the hierarchy by adopting vegetarianism and teetotalism and by changing its rituals and deities.” The first basic problem here is how one can establish the position of a jati in the supposed hierarchy and measure it in such detail that one can see over two generations that the jati has attained a higher position. Which standard does one use to establish the position of jati x? What members of jati x say about its position relative to other jatis? What members of other jatis say about the position of x relative to their own jatis? As our fieldwork in Karnataka has already shown, it is impossible to infer any hierarchy from such empirical data, because all one gets is a series of inconsistent statements with regard to the relative positions of jatis. This basic problem becomes even more intractable when we take into account the history of assigning positions to jatis in the so-called “caste hierarchy”. When the British had their caste census in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, many jatis classified as shudras or untouchables sent in petitions arguing that they held higher positions; they were kshatriyas, they said. Today, the same jatis insist that they are really shudras or untouchables and should be classified as OBCs or SCs. When jatis can radically revise their ‘position in the hierarchy’ according to the status or benefits they win by doing so, what could one ever conclude about their position and how it changes over generations?

Should one calculate the average socio-economic level of jati x and compare it to the average level of other jatis? Apart from difficulties in calculating this socio-economic level, one faces an even more difficult problem: how does one circumscribe jati x? Are two groups with the same name both sub-divisions of jati x? What if they claim they are different jatis? What geographical or social unit should one begin with to establish the (socio-economic) position of jati x in the hierarchy? Let us say one takes the village as the relevant unit. How does the socio-economic level that jati x enjoys in some village tell us anything about its position in the hierarchy? If the socio-economic welfare of jati x increases markedly over two generations in this village, does this mean it has attained a higher position? What if the same jati in the surrounding villages has declined? In terms of empirical data, then, it becomes impossible to say (a) what the position is of a jati in the supposed hierarchy and (b) when it has attained a higher position. In other words, MNS can never have inferred his conclusions about Sanskritization and castes rising to higher positions from his ‘fieldwork data’.

2. Of course, some jati may adopt practices from another jati. Let us even admit that some jatis regularly adopted practices from certain groups of Brahmins. What does this show? It certainly does not show that ‘a low caste’ “took over, as far as possible, the customs, rites, and beliefs of the Brahmins” and adopted “the Brahminic way of life.” By observing all the different groups of Brahmins and their different customs and rites or by collecting the beliefs of Brahmin individuals, one cannot through some process of induction come to “the Brahminic way of life” or “the customs, rites and beliefs of the Brahmins” (unless one means the set of all customs, rites and beliefs ever held or engaged in by all Brahmins who ever lived). So it does not make sense to claim that low castes took over the Brahminic way of life. Maximally, some practices of some Brahmin jatis were adopted by some other jatis. Does this demonstrate that these other jatis attributed a higher position to the Brahmin jatis in question? One may suggest that this is self-evident or at least very plausible, but this is a kind of half-baked social psychology that does not result from theorizing or research.

Take a few instances from European history. In nineteenth-century Western Europe, it was very common for the up and coming bourgeoisie (industrialists, entrepreneurs) to imitate the nobility. For instance, they began to imitate eating with cutlery and cutting one’s bread with a knife. (There is a story that the nobility in France one day decided collectively to start breaking the bread with one’s hands instead of cutting it, so as to humiliate the bourgeoisie and show that it could never become like the nobility.) Did this practice of imitating the nobility show that the bourgeoisie attributed a higher position to the nobility? In one sense, the bourgeoisie did so: culturally, the nobility was considered ‘noble’; in another sense, they did not: the bourgeoisie often were more affluent and socio-economically more important. Another instance comes from medieval Europe: when Christian monasteries flourished in the middle ages, lay groups began to imitate the monks, adopt all kinds of practices from them and live ascetically like them. Did this show that the monks were given a higher position in ‘the hierarchy’? Not really. The churchly hierarchy of priests and bishops held more power; many knights looked down upon the monks; some laymen admired them and thought that the monks were working for the collective salvation of the Christian ecclesia. From such examples and from social psychology in general, we cannot infer some general law that “if one social group adopts practices from another social group or imitates it, this shows that the latter has a higher position than the former.”

So MNS cannot have inferred his account about Sanskritization and castes rising to higher positions from social psychology or the general laws of social psychology across cultures and societies.


3. If neither empirical data nor social-scientific theorizing could ever bring one to the story about Sanskritization, how then can we explain that MNS found it cogent and many Indians and westerners until this day find it extremely plausible? One part of the story is that he presupposed the existence of the caste hierarchy with Brahmins at the top and untouchables at the bottom and a flexible range of “middle regions of the hierarchy.” This is not to say that he started out with a well-formulated hypothesis about the caste hierarchy and tried to test it empirically, but that he presupposed the fairly vague classical account on the caste hierarchy as the background framework that structured every description of the ‘facts’ he encountered in his fieldwork. This is clear from his statement that “adoption of the Brahminic way of life by a low caste” is “theoretically forbidden.” Which theory is MNS referring to here? The theory of the caste system as it was and is held by different jatis in India or by the Brahmins or the so-called “upper castes”? There is no such theory to be found. Such a “theory” was developed by European scholars reflecting on their experience of Indian society: they linked some fragments of texts like the Manusmriti to certain descriptions of practices and groups in Indian society and constructed the “theory” of the caste system, which projects a hierarchy with certain ‘rules’.

It is only when one presupposes this caste hierarchy that it becomes self-evident that castes could climb on the hierarchical ladder by adopting the “Brahminic way of life” and “Sanskritizing” themselves. In fact, Srinivas’ story about Sanskritization merely inverts the old Orientalist story about the way in which Brahmanism spread and the ‘Aryan people’ subjugated the aboriginal inhabitants of the subcontinent. This nineteenth-century story claims that the ‘Aryan’ or ‘Brahmanical people’ used the caste system to absorb all aboriginal and Dravidian peoples into the basic structure of Brahmanism, while allowing these groups to retain their old beliefs. Thus, the ‘Aryan Brahmins’ established their authority and superiority in Indian society. In this process, the aboriginal and Dravidian groups are supposed to have adopted the basic beliefs of Brahmanism and thus accepted the lower positions in the caste system. It would take us too far to go into the development and background assumptions of this European story about India, but it does raise some questions about MNS’ often-lauded creativity in developing the notion of Sanskritization. His creativity consisted of inverting an old Orientalist story and selecting and interpreting his empirical data in such a way that they seemed to provide foundations for this story.

  • Ambedkar explicitly mentions Gabriel Tarde’s ‘Law of imitation’ which assumes that ‘inferiors’ imitate their superiors though his use of Tarde cuts against his own (or rather Ayothi Dasan’s) thesis.
    Srinivas is a bit of a mystery. Was he pulling our leg all along? There’s an amusing report by a bunch of North Eastern Anthropology students who recently did a field trip to Srinivas’s famous village. The funniest part of it is the one which reflects the consternation of the young (mainly Christian) students from the North East when confronted with the elderly South Indian Brahmin’s love for public defecation- ‘communing with nature’ as we call it. My theory is that we admire the insouciance of our sacred cows in this respect and, by Tarde’s law, seek to emulate them.
    One point I don’t understand. Why blame Orientalism for everything? Punditry, Western or Eastern, is only about defecating on the public thoroughfare and all are equal in this respect. Quod licet bovi, non licet Jovi. Mooo-ind it kindly.

  • Parag Waknis

    Interesting post! If I understand your claims right, because at different points in time different jatis would claim differential status depending on economic gains in doing so, MNS could not posited ‘sanskritization’ based on field work. Also, adopting behavior of certain castes, namely the brahmins, cannot be thought of as evidence for hierarchy. You cite numerous counter examples to support your points. However, one could cite numerous examples to counter your argument and support MNS claims and neither of this would be theorizing.

    To actually think of counter examples, the castes of saraswats, goud saraswats and chandra seni kayastha prabhu tried to use their royal connections with Peshwas of Maharashtra to change their status to brahmin equivalent. This case could be thought of as an evidence for hierarchy- why would you change otherwise? A Marxian response would be that being brahmin equivalent meant economic gains and hence cannot be thought of as evidence for hierarchy. Even if that were true, which I am not sure of, why did the rents for being a brahmin were higher in the first place? If one tries to answer that question, then the relative socio-economic value placed on different castes could constitute as evidence of hierarchy.

    Also, you decide to pay, or change lifestyle in the light of contemporary ideas constituting the status you want to upgrade to. You do not have to embody all that can be ever counted as a symbol of the status you are trying to upgrade yourself. What I am trying to say is you have to think of society as a dynamic being- what it means to be a noble or a brahmin has never been constant- you approximate your life style to suit your understanding of what it means to be nobility or upper caste. For example, the Vanderbilts and Astors building palatial houses to imitate the nobility from Western Europe. Why did they not choose to do anything else with their money? In language of math you have to be in the epsilon neighborhood of what you think is ideal. How small or large is the epsilon in order to admit equality would then depend on lot of socio-economic-cultural factors.

  • Dharmesh

    An extraordinary piece by Balagangadhara. A great tragedy of the last five hundred years has been the collapse of non-semitic belief systems not merely under the threat of the sword of Euro-America, but equally through the incorporation of the language of Semitic systems into our own arguments, e.g., of the Indian system. What Balu shows is how deep this rot is and how much we must strive at the level of the intellect to reverse the tide. Great article!