Sanskritisation (Indian English) or Sanskritization (American English, Pakistani English, Oxford spelling) 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. Dr. B. R. Ambedkar in his work "Castes in India: Their Mechanism, Genesis and Development" observed:
"...the whole process of caste formation in India is a process of imitation of the higher by the lower."
A very near idea of the same was conveyed by Nripendra Kumar Dutt in his book titled "The Aryanisation of India". Dutt (1925), while explaining the process of acculturation between the Aryans and the others in ancient India, observed:
"Two courses were open to the Indo-Aryan conquerors, either to exterminate the natives wholesale, or to Aryanise them but with a careful eye to prevent themselves being barbarised in the course of their work. They adopted the latter policy and solved their difficulty by evolving the caste system."
Based on documents available in the public domain, it appears that eminent linguist Prof. Suniti Kumar Chatterji coined the term 'Sanskritization' in his book titled "Kirāta-Jana-Kṛti The Indo-Mongoloids: Their Contribution to the History and Culture of India". Chatterji (1951) observed:
“The subsequent history of civilization in India is the expansion and elaboration of this Sanskrit culture and its slow but inevitable acceptance by all the various peoples of India. And this went on hand in hand with the spread of Sanskrit or Indian culture in lands outside India (Ceylon ; Afghanistan and Eastern Iran ; Central Asia or Serindia ; Tibet, Mongolia ; Indo-China including Burma, Siam, Cambodia and Cochin China ; Malaya and Indonesia, which were lands of a Greater India ; as well as China and its cultural dependencies Korea, Japan and Viet-nam). The progressive Sanskritisation of the various pre-Aryan or non-Aryan peoples in their culture, their outlook and their ways of life, forms the keynote of India through the ages. And in the course of this ‘Sanskritisation’ the affected peoples also brought their own spiritual and material milieus to bear upon the Sanskrit and Sanskritic culture which they were adopting, and thus helped to modify and to enrich it in their own circles. This ‘Sanskritisation’ would appear to have been opposed by the advent of a militant Islam and an aggressive Christianity in some parts of India. But in spite of an occasional set-back, the leaven has never been inactive.”
Etymologically, the concept of Sanskritisation ought to owe its origins to the ancient Indian text, Manu Smriti ascribed to the sage Manu. In Chapter X, Verses 127-128 of the Manu Smriti, it is written:
dharmepsavastu dharmajñāḥ satāṃ vṛttamanuṣṭhitāḥ | mantravarjyaṃ na duṣyanti praśaṃsāṃ prāpnuvanti ca || (127)
yathā yathā hi sadvṛttamātiṣṭhatyanasūyakaḥ | tathā tathemaṃ cāmuṃ ca lokaṃ prāpnotyaninditaḥ || (128)
The above lines mean: (Sûdras) who are desirous to gain merit, and know (their) duty, commit no sin, but gain praise, if they imitate the practice of virtuous men without reciting sacred texts. (127) The more a (Sûdra), keeping himself free from envy, imitates the behaviour of the virtuous, the more he gains, without being censured, (exaltation in) this world and the next. (127)
M.N. Srinivas defined sanskritisation 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 sanskritisation 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.
Vishwakarma Caste claim to Brahmin status is not generally accepted outside the community, despite their assumption of some high-caste traits, such as wearing the sacred thread, and the Brahminisation of their rituals. For example, the sociologist M. N. Srinivas, who developed the concept of sanskritisation, juxtaposed the success of the Lingayat caste in achieving advancement within Karnataka society by such means with the failure of the Vishwakarma to achieve the same. Their position as a left-hand caste has not aided their ambition.
According to M.N. Srinivas, Sanskritisation 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 sanskritised.
M.N. 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 (Coorgs) community of Karnataka. M.N. 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 Sanskritising 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 'Sanskritisation' in this book, in preference to 'Brahminisation', 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 sanskritisation 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.
Yogendra Singh has critiqued the theory as follows:
"... Sanskritisation 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-sanskritic element of culture may be a localised form of sanskritic tradition. ... Sanskritic rites are often added to non-sanskritic rites without replacing them."
- History of India
- History of Hinduism
- Caste system in India
- Kshatriyas and would-be Kshatriyas
- Vishwakarma Caste
- 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."
- Ambedkar, B. R. (1916). Castes in India: Their Mechanism, Genesis and Development. Jullundur: Bheem Patrika Publications. (Page 28)
- Dutt, N. K. (1925). The Aryanisation of India. Calcutta: Nripendra Kumar Dutt. (Page 90)
- Chatterji, S. K. (1951). Kirāta-Jana-Kṛti The Indo-Mongoloids: Their Contribution to the History and Culture of India. Calcutta: Royal Asiatic Society of Bengal. (Page 3)
- Bühler, G. (1886). The Laws of Manu Translated With Extracts From Seven Commentaries. Oxford: Clarendon Press. (Page 429)
- N. Jayapalan (2001). Indian society and social institutions. Atlantic Publishers & Distri. p. 428. ISBN 978-81-7156-925-0. Retrieved 17 January 2013.
- Ikegame, Aya (2013). "Karnataka: Caste, dominance and social change in the 'Indian village'". In Berger, Peter; Heidemann, Frank. The Modern Anthropology of India: Ethnography, Themes and Theory. Routledge. p. 128. ISBN 9781134061112.
- 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, p.11.
- 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.