Sanskritization or Sanskritisation is a particular form of social change found in India. It denotes the process by which castes placed lower in the caste hierarchy seek upward mobility by emulating the rituals and practices of the upper or dominant castes. It is a process similar to passing in sociological terms. This term was made popular by Indian sociologist M. N. Srinivas in the 1950s, although earlier references to this process can be found in Castes in India: Their Mechanism, Genesis and Development by Dr. B. R. Ambedkar. The earliest references to this process of "descent of imitation from the top to the bottom of social ladder", in another context, can be found in The Laws of Imitation by Gabriel Tarde.
Srinivas defined sanskritization as a process by which "a low or middle Hindu caste, or tribal or other group, changes its customs, ritual ideology, and way of life in the direction of a high and frequently twice-born caste. Generally such changes are followed by a claim to a higher position in the caste hierarchy than that traditionally conceded to the claimant class by the local community ... ."
One clear example of sanskritization is the adoption, in emulation of the practice of twice-born castes, of vegetarianism by people belonging to the so-called "low castes" who are traditionally not averse to non-vegetarian food.
According to M.N. Srinivas, Sanskritization is not just the adoption of new customs and habits, but also includes exposure to new ideas and values appearing in Sanskrit literature. He says the words Karma, dharma, paap, maya, samsara and moksha are the most common Sanskritic theological ideas which become common in the talk of people who are sanskritized.
Srinivas first propounded this theory in his D.Phil. thesis at Oxford University. The thesis was later brought out as a book titled Religion and Society Among the Coorgs of South India. Published in 1952, the book was an ethnographical study of the Kodava community of Karnataka. Srinivas writes in the book:
"The caste system is far from a rigid system in which the position of each component caste is fixed for all time. Movement has always been possible, and especially in the middle regions of the hierarchy. 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 Sanskritizing its ritual and pantheon. In short, it took over, as far as possible, the customs, rites, and beliefs of the Brahmins, and adoption of the Brahminic way of life by a low caste seems to have been frequent, though theoretically forbidden. This process has been called 'Sanskritization' in this book, in preference to 'Brahminization', as certain Vedic rites are confined to the Brahmins and the two other 'twice-born' castes."
The book challenged the then prevalent idea that caste was a rigid and unchanging institution. The concept of sanskritization addressed the actual complexity and fluidity of caste relations. It brought into academic focus the dynamics of the renegotiation of status by various castes and communities in India.
Prof. Yogendra Singh, in his book titled "Modernization of Indian Tradition - A Systematic Study of Social Change", page no. 11 (Jaipur: Rawat Publications) says "... Sansritization fails to account for many aspects of cultural changes in the past and contemporary India as it neglects non-sanskritic traditions. It may be noted that often a non-sanskrtic element of culture may be a localized form of sanskritic tradition. ... Sanskritic rites are often added to non-sanskrtic rites without replacing them"
See also 
- Charsley, S. (1998) "Sanskritization: The Career of an Anthropological Theory" Contributions to Indian Sociology 32(2): p. 527 citing Srinivas, M.N. (1952) Religion and Society Amongst the Coorgs of South India Clarendon Press, Oxford. See also, Srinivas, M. N.; Shah, A. M.; Baviskar, B. S.; and Ramaswamy, E. A. (1996) Theory and method: Evaluation of the work of M.N. Srinivas Sage, New Delhi, ISBN 81-7036-494-9
- Jaffrelot (2005), pp. 33, notes that "Ambedkar advanced the basis of one of the most heuristic of concepts in modern Indian Studies—the Sanskritization process—that M. N. Srinivas was to introduce 40 years later."
- Tarde 1899, p. 65
- N. Jayapalan (2001). Indian society and social institutions. Atlantic Publishers & Distri. p. 428. ISBN 978-81-7156-925-0. Retrieved 17 January 2013.
- Srinivas, Mysore Narasimhachar (1962) Caste in Modern India: And other essays Asia Publishing House, Bombay, page 48, OCLC 5206379
- Guneratne, Arjun (2002). Many tongues, one people: the making of Tharu identity in Nepal. Ithaca, New York: Cornell University Press. Retrieved April 11, 2011.
- Srinivas, M.N. (1952) Religion and Society Amongst the Coorgs of South India Clarendon Press, Oxford, page 32, OCLC 15999474
- Singh, Yogendra. 1994. Modernization of Indian Tradition (A Systematic Study of Social Change). Jaipur: Rawat Publications.
- Encyclopædia Britannica s.v. "Hinduism", The history of Hinduism » Sources of Hinduism » Non-Indo-European sources » The process of “Sanskritization”
- Religion and Society among the Coorgs of South India by MN Srinivas, (Oxford, 1952)
- Caste in Modern India; And other essays: Page 48. (Media Promoters & Publishers Pvt. Ltd, Bombay; First Published: 1962, 11th Reprint: 1994)
- Fatalism and Development; Dor Bahadur Bista, First published:1999, Oxford India press
- Jaffrelot, Christophe (2005). Dr Ambedkar and untouchability: analysing and fighting caste. London: C. Hurst & Co. Publishers. ISBN 978-1-85065-449-0.
- Tarde, Gabriel (1899). Social Laws: An Outline of Sociology. New York, The Macmillan company; London, Macmillan & co., ltd.