Sanskritisation: Concepts and linkages with a reference to Nepal
This essay is intended to articulate the concept of Sanskritisation, trace back its origin, its contemporary development, criticisms and the conceptual linkages to various related terms, which otherwise would be confusing to a naïve reader to encounter at first. The literatures available were very limited and old (before 1980s), so the updated version of the concepts on Sanskritization is not reflected in this paper.
What is Sanskritisation?
Sanskritisation has no any of its etymological origin as such but nevertheless it has gained some, if not sufficient scholarly attention in explaining social process of change. The concept was originally modeled to study the change of religion, culture and languages of Indian villages during 1950s. The classical definition of Sanskritisation as given by Srinivas in 1952 refers to the ‘positional change of a low Hindu caste or tribal or other group (including customs, ritual, ideology and way of life etc) in the direction of high’ (as cited in Srivastava 1969, p.695). The ‘high’ caste or group in the definition refers to ‘political and economical’ power (Caroll, 1977, p.350). Scholar (Jones, 1976) have listed examples of different lower caste in different villages of India who have been successful at some level upgrade their social status as the result of sanskritisation. The Noniyas of Uttar Pradesh were untouchables at first and later ranked among the top ten within 25 castes in Senapur village. Similarly the Holeru caste ‘untouchable’ in a village in Mysore attempted to raise their status by imitating the eating habits similar to that of higher caste (p.63).
The definition of Sanskritization as proposed by Srinivas has been linked with Robert Redfeld’s notion of ‘Great tradition’ and ‘little tradition’ of India (Stall, 1963, p.263). As per that, Sanskritization is the process of spread of great tradition (Brahminical tradition of All Indian Sanskritic Hinduism) to little tradition (low or subordinate caste). Stall further clarifies that such understanding has its root in Milton Singer’s distinction between textual and contextual approach. Textual studies are focused on texts, art and architecture while contextual studies focus on culture and practices of certain local communities or tribal group. Like here, Sanskritic Hinduism of India had theoretical analogy with great tradition. Stall writes –
The local forms of Hinduism can be considered little traditions, and Sanskritization becomes the process by which the great tradition spreads to little traditions and absorbs them (p.263).
Sarukkai (1995) simplifies the process of sanskritisation occurring in the social life of people. He states that in such upward mobile process, lower caste people who perceive themselves ‘inferior’ to higher caste take initiatives to construct an image for themselves. Such image though ‘not exactly equal’ will be leveled as similar to those of dominant higher caste people. (p.3357). Sarukkai has used sanskritisation as a metaphor to explain the ‘different’ kind of change occurring in humanities discourses, which he coined– ‘mathematisation’. By mathematisation, he refers to use of charts, graphs and prediction methods to draw the knowledge about the ‘truth’ in the discourses (p.3357).
Sanskritic and Non-Sanskritic elements/materials
There are certain elements to be considered so as to have broader understanding of the term Sanskritisation. It has very less to do with ‘Sanskrit’ – the orthodox language of Hindu Brahmin and most of the times refer to contrary process. In an attempt to clarify the dilemma Stall (1963) writes- ‘In some instances Sanskritisation actually amounts to a decrease of Sanskritic material and a decreased influence of Sanskrit’ (p.265). By Sanskritic material, it originally referred to (Srivastava, 1969) Brahminic values, ideology, beliefs systems, sacred rituals, higher economic status, relatively better sanitary and cleanliness concerns etc (p.695). These values might include vegetarianism, teetotalism and acceptance of Sanskritic deities. As Stall (1963) reminds that these elements are dominantly expressed in Hindu based literatures including Upanishad, the Vedanta, the Bhagvad Gita etc (p.262).
Aforementioned definitions hint that Sanskritisation is used in the literature to explain the process of change in the society. This process as per Caroll (1977) refers to the first- ‘social, cultural and ritual emulation of Brahmins’. In other words, the so called high caste Brahmin influence the low caste group in the society and set path for them to upgrade themselves by imitating the Sanskritic elements- lifestyles, rituals, customs, ideologies, beliefs etc. In this context, Caroll suggests the term ‘Brahminization’ instead of Sanskritisation to denote the upward mobility of low caste group in the social hierarchy. This leads to the downfall of non-Sanskritic or non-Brahminic elements as being flowed by low caste group. Secondly, Sanskritization finds its relevance in explaining the upward social/cultural change to the value of ‘Great tradition of ALL India Sanskritic Hindu’ (p.358).
Modifications on definitions
Later considering the limitations of the dominant caste model, Srinivas modified his own definition of Sanskritisation as the process referring to – ‘a two-way process though the local cultures seem to have received more than they have given’ or ‘influence of Sanskritic Hinduism upon the local culture and vice-versa’(as cited in Caroll, 1977, p.358). Srinivas also confessed that one should discard his concept of Sanskritisation ‘quickly and without regret’ if a better model or concept is found (as cited in Stall, 1963, p.275)
It is to be noted that M.N Srinivas, an Indian anthropologist conceptualize the term ‘Sanskritisation’ in his ethnographic research entitled ‘Religion and Society among Coorgs of South India’ in 1952. The term partly got popular later when Indian Dalit leader Ambedker followed the process of sanskritisation and asked his Dalit Indian citizen to discard their traditions and imitate that of higher castes (BK, 2008, p.2).
Later, Srinivas’s explanation for theorizing the social change in the life of Coorgs of south India has received criticisms (Srivastava 1969, Stall 1963 et al). Some has criticized the original concept as ‘ethnocentric’ view while others as ‘arbitrary and untenable’ (Srivastava 1969, p. 698). For example Srivastava proposed ‘progressive family model’ to study the social mobility of the people of Asalpur and Barrigaon, two villages of India lying 1000 km apart instead of ‘dominant caste model’ as theorized by Srinivas in 1952. That means people tend to imitate the ‘progressive families’ existing in the society rather than ‘dominant caste group’ as proposed by Srinivas in 1952.
Though Stall (1963) acknowledges the model of Sanskritisation as a useful ‘heuristic’ concept but comes embedded with some misleading explanations. First the conceptual relation to Sanskrit is complex and not clearly explained and secondly it was used in the context of cultural change where the Sankritic language or any Sanskritic elements has very less to do with (p.275). In addition, the model doesn’t provide details for explaining the social change of society where dominant Brahmins are absent or where people are directly upgrading to western and modern lifestyle without being sanskritized or adopting any sanskritized elements.
Srivastava (1969) argues through his ethnographic findings that lower caste or any tribal group in the society are influenced by the modern and innovatory aspect of life style rather than sanskritic elements as explained by Srinivas (p.698). Similarly Singer (1992) points out that the old model of Sanskritisation ignored the linguistic and literary aspect of the process of change of people’s life and simultaneously its popularity seems to decline at the backdrop of popularity of secularization (p.149). To note, today scholar rarely take sanskritisation as a method or research tool to study the social change in its original form.
According to Caroll (1977), Sanskritization model of Srinivas has following three weaknesses-
1) the factor of dominant caste
2) too much emphasize on Brahminical model
3) led to coining of sect or caste specific terms like ‘rajputaization’ and ‘tribalization’ (p.358).
But conceptual distinction can be found between Sanskritization and Brahmanization. The adoption of Brahminical values which are privilege of Brahmin only like engaging in ritual activity by any other non-Brahminical group was referred to Brahminization while Sanskritization might occur among any other group of Kshetriyes or Vaisha caste, no matter the speed of change might be slow (Stall, 1963, p.262).
Sanskritisation in Nepal
There is almost no or very less literature regarding the study of the change of social life of Nepalese people. There were only three relevant studies (Jones 1976; Russell 2004; B.K 2008) conducted to examine the influence of Sanskritization in Eastern Nepal and Dalits while there are literatures talking about the other related concepts including Nepalisation, Hinduization, Gorkhaisation and so on. Jones (1976) had applied the sanskritisation process occurring in India to explain the social interaction between diverse ethnic groups in Nepal. In his study he calls the process of interaction between Limbu, the original inhabitant of Eastern Nepal with immigrants ‘high caste’ Hindu Brahmin and Chhetris as the form of sanskritisation(p.63).
Similary, A Nepalese Anthropologist (B.K, 2008) through his ethnographic study argues that the sanskritisation has facilitated the Dalits of Nepal to imitate the different elements of their higher caste counterparts. Such imitations are Teetotalism, vegetarianism, temple building and its worship, fasting, reading religious books, discarding carcass, wearing sacred thread etc by Dalits (p.1). Taking out the historical evidences of old hindu society when cow slaughtering a common traditions, Amar Bahadur BK (2008) argues that both the traditions of Dalits and Brahmins should be considered sanskritic and hence ‘equal ‘because according to him, except ‘wearing sacred thread and reading Veda text’ by Brahmin there are no other significant factor to tag Dalit traditions as non-sanskritic and Brahmin traditions as sanskritic (p.5)
B.K (2008) argues that the changes that are occurring in the social status and the living standards of Dalits of Nepal should not be understood as sanskritisation but instead these changes exist due to their caste opposition acts, rejection of polluting practices like pig raising, alcoholism, and adoption of modern and western values (p.7). B.K categorized the process of change among Dalits through “reformation and assertion”.
The concept of Sanskritization which was founded by Srinivas in 1952 has already gone through series of changes in its definition and applications. The literatures on Sanskritization are relatively not much and the concept is often found being replaced and understood by the other terms like westernization and modernization but its significance lies in its treatment as the root of most of the burgeoning issues of the contemporary world including hinduization, inclusion, ethnicization and so on. This leaves a vast space for interested social science researcher to ponder upon the changing face of this classic concept at intellectual level. To add, it would be injustice to draw any kind of conclusion over the future prospects of this classic concept without applying to other societies other than Indian villages and Nepal.
Note: The above text was submitted to Dr Uddhab Pyakurel of Kathmandu University, School of Arts as a part of the assignment of Subject entitled Social mobilization, inclusion and gender development.
B.K, Amar Bahadur. (2008). Sanskritization and Caste Opposition: A Shift from Ritual to Politico-economic Power. Himalayan Journal of Sociology and Anthropology, Vol.III, 1-10
Carroll, L. (1977). “Sanskritization,” “Westernization,” and “Social Mobility”: A Reappraisal of the Relevance of. Journal of Anthropological Research , 33 (4), 355-371.
Hutt, M. (1986). Diversity and Change in the Languages of Highland Nepal. Contributions to Nepalese Studies (CNAS) , 14 (1), 1-24.
Jaffrelot, C. (2000). Sanskritization vs. Ethnicization in India: Changing Indentities and Caste Politics before. Asian Survey , 40 (5), 756-766.
Jones, R.L. 1976. Sanskritization in Eastern Nepal. Ethnology 15, 63-75.
Russell, A. J. (2004) ‘Traditions in transition : Sanskritization and Yakkhafication in East Nepal.’, History and anthropology., 15 (3). pp. 251-261
Sarukkai, S. (1995). Mathematisation of Human Sciences: Epistemological Sanskritisation? Economic and Political Weekly , 30 (52), 3357-3360.
Singer, M. (1992). The Cohesive Role of Sanskritization and Other Essays by M. N. Srinivas. Journal of the American Oriental Society , 112 (1), 149-150.
Srivastava, S. L. (1969). The Concept of Sanskritisation: A Re-evaluation. Economic and Political Weekly , 4 (16), 695, 697-698.
 Later Ambedkar himself discarded the idea of imitating and he himself campaign against hinduisation.
 By progressive families, we mean those families which are considered by other members of the village community as comparatively more advanced culturally, morally and materially than other family of same caste (Srivastava, 1969, p.695)
 These two studies were 1) Jones, R.L. 1976. Sanskritization in Eastern Nepal. Ethnology and 2) Russell, A. J. (2004) ‘Traditions in transition : Sanskritization and Yakkhafication in East Nepal.’, History and anthropology. But the researcher had no access to the document, so couldn’t elaborate what they contained.
 The paper has been prepared the researcher on the basis of a field work in four Dalit settlements in Pokhara for four months.
 These phenomenon referred to adoption of certain practices which belonged to the higher castes earlier such as fasting, daily worship, performing Bratabandha, acting as astrologer etc and rejection of the practices which they thought were non-Sanskritic. Temple entrance and worship, writing thar as surname, wearing janai etc are also common practice among Nepalese Dalits according to B.K.