Critical Essay On Sanskritization Timeline

The term “Sanskritisation” was introduced into Indian Sociology by Prof. M.N. Srinivas. The term refers to a process whereby people of lower castes collectively try to adopt upper caste practices and beliefs, as a preliminary step to acquire higher status.

Thus it indicates a process of cultural mobility that is taking place in the traditional social system of India.

M.N. Srinivas in his study of the Coorg in Karnataka found that lower castes, in order to raise their position in the caste hierarchy, adopted some customs and practices of the Brahmins, and gave up some of their own which were considered to be “impure” by the higher castes.

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For example, they gave up meat-eating, drinking liquor and animal sacrifice to their deities. They imitated Brahmins in matters of dress, food and rituals. By doing this, within a generation or so they could claim higher positions in the hierarchy of castes.

In the beginning, M.N. Srinivas used the term “Brahminisation” (in his book “Religion and Society among the Coorgs”— 1971) to denote this process. Later on, he replaced it by “Sanskritisation”. Definition of Sanskritisation

M.N. Srinivas, in fact, has been broadening his definition of the term ‘Sanskritisation’ from time to time. Initially, he described it as—” the process of mobility of lower castes by adopting vegetarianism and teetotalism to move in the caste hierarchy in a generation or two” — (1962).

Later on, he redefines it as “a process by which a low caste or a tribe or other group changes its customs, rituals, ideology, and way of life in the direction of a high and frequently, twice-born caste”— (M.N. Srinivas in his “Social Change in Modern India – 1971). The second definition is much broader for it includes ideologies also (which include ideas such as ‘Karma’ ‘dharma’, ‘papa’ (sin), ‘punya’ ‘moksha’ etc.).

Sanskritisation and Brahminisation:

Sanskritisation is a much broader concept than Brahminisation. M.N. Srinivas preferred it to Brahminisation for some reasons:

(i) Sanskritisation is a broader term and it can subsume in itself the narrower process of Brahminisation. For instance, today, though by and large, Brahmins are vegetarians and teetotalers, some of them such as Kashmiris, Bengalis and saraswath Brahmins eat non-vegetarian food. Had the term ‘Brahminisation’ been used, it would have become necessary to specify which particular Brah­min group was meant.

(ii) Further, the reference groups of Sanskritisation are not always Brahmins. The process of imitation need not necessarily take place on the model of Brahmins. Srinivas himself has given the example of the low castes of Mysore who adopted the way of life of Lingayats, who are not Brahmins but who claim equality with Brahmins.

Similarly, the smiths (one of the lower castes) of Mysore call themselves Vishwakarma Brahmins and wear sacred threads and have sanskritised some of their rituals. (Still, some of them eat meat and drink liquor. For the very same reason, many castes, including some untouchable castes do not accept food or water from their hands).

The lower castes imitated not only Brahmins but also Kshatriyas, Vaishyas, Jats, Shudras, etc. in different parts of the country. Hence the term Brahminisation does not completely explain this process. M.N. Srinivas himself acknowledged this fact and wrote: “I now realise that, I emphasised unduly the Brahminical model of Sanskritisation and ignored the other models Kshatriya, Vaishya and Shudra…”

An Analysis of the Process of Sanskritisation:

An Analysis of the process of ‘Sanskritisation’ would reveal to us the following facts:

1. ‘Sanskritisation’ denotes the process in which the lower castes try to imitate the life-styles of upper castes in their attempt to raise their social status. The process seems to be associated with the role of local “dominant caste”. Though for some time, the lower castes imitated Brahmins they soon shifted it towards the local dominant caste which in most cases a non-Brahmin dominant caste.

2. Sanskritisation denotes the process of upward mobility. In this process, a caste is trying to increase its position in the caste hierarchy not at once, but over a period of time. It would take, sometimes, a period of one or two generations.

3. Mobility that is involved in the process of Sanskritisation results only in “positional changes” for particular castes or sections of castes, and need not necessarily lead to a “structural change”. It means, while individual castes move up or down, the structure as such remains the same.

4. Sanskritisation is not a new phenomenon as such. M.N. Srinivas writes: “Sanskritisation has been a major process of cultural change in Indian history, and it has occurred in every part of the Indian sub-continent. It may have been more active at some periods than at others, and some parts of India are more sanskritised than others; but there is no doubt that the process has been universal”

5. The castes which enjoyed higher economic and political power but rated relatively low in ritual ranking went after Sanskritisation for they felt that their claim to a higher position was not fully effective.

The three main aspects of power in the caste system are the ritual, the economic and the political ones. The possession of power in any one sphere usually leads to the acquisition of power in the other two. But Srinivas opines that inconsistencies do occur.

6. “Economic betterment is not a necessary pre-condition to Sanskritisation, nor must economic development necessarily lead to Sanskritisation. However, sometimes a group (caste, tribe) may start by acquiring, political power and this may lead to economic development and Sanskritisation.

Economic betterment, the acquisition of political power, education, leadership, and a desire to move up in the hierarchy, are all relevant factors in Sanskritisation, and each case of Sanskritisation may show all or some of these factors mixed up in different measures”

7. Sanskritisation is not necessarily confined to the castes within the Hindu community, it is found in tribal communities also. Example. The Bhils of Western India, the Gonds and Oraons of Middle India, and the Pahadiyas of Himalayan region have come under the influence of Sanskritisation.

These tribal communities are now claiming themselves to be Hindus for their communities represent some caste groups within the fold of Hinduism. (It should be noted that in the traditional system, a group could be called ‘Hindu’ only if it was regarded as a caste group).

8. The process of Sanskritisation serves as a “reference group”. It is through this process, a caste group tries to orient its beliefs, practices, values, attitudes and “life-styles” in terms of another superior or dominant group, so that it can also get some recognition. Since this term was made applicable by M.N. Srinivas even to Kshatriya, Vaishya and Shudra models (in addition to Brahmana model), it has greater relevance to function as a “reference group’.

9. Sanskritisation does not take place in the same manner in all the places. Studies have revealed that in most of the cases the lower castes tend to imitate the upper castes particularly the Kshatriya and Brahmin castes.

There are instances of upper castes imitating some of the practices of lower castes, and sometimes of even tribal groups. For example, a Brahmin may make a blood- sacrifice to one of the local deities through the medium of a non-Brahmin friend.

The Muslim cultural ways have imposed some limitations in the imitation process of some upper and lower castes. This is very much in evidence in Punjab. Thus, it can be generalised that Sankritisation is not a one-way process; it is a two-way process. Not always one caste “takes” from the higher caste; sometimes it also ‘gives’ in return.

10. The British rule in India provided a favourable atmosphere for Sanksritisation to take place. Political independence has weakened the trend towards this change. Now the emphasis is on vertical social mobility and not on the horizontal mobility. In this process of mobility the basic unit remains the group only and not the individual or family.

11. The process of Sanskritisation does not automatically result in the achievement of a higher status for the group. People will have to wait for a period of a generation or two before their claim can be accepted. Further, it may so happen that a claim which may not succeed in. a particular area or period of time may succeed in another.

12. Significant developments in the realm of material culture have accelerated the process of Sanskritisation, Industrialsation, occupational mobility, mass media of communication, spread of literacy, advent of Western technology, improvement in the transportation system, etc., have speeded up the process of Sanskritisation. Introduction of parliamentary system of democracy and universal suffrage have also contributed to the increased Sanskritisation.

13. As M.N. Srinivas has pointed out, Sanskritisation serves to reduce or remove the gap between the ritual and secular making. It is, indeed, one of its main functions. For example, if caste, or its segment gains secular, that is, political power, it immediately starts imitating the so called “status-symbols “of the customs, rituals, ideals, beliefs, values, life-styles, etc. of the upper caste communities. The lower caste group which successfully gets into the seat of secular power also tries to avail of the services of Brahmins especially at the time of observing some rituals, worshipping and offering things to the God in the Centres of pilgrimage, celebrating important Hindu festivals, fixing “muhurtam” (auspicious time for doing good works or starting ventures) for some important occasions and programmes, and so on.

14. Sanskritisation has often been construed as a kind of protest against the traditional caste system. Sanskritisation is a type of protest against the caste system in which the status is ascribed or predetermined. Lower castes which are disillusioned with their predetermined statuses and impressed by the higher statuses accorded to the upper castes, naturally desire to go up in the status hierarchy, this desire is virtually against the traditional hierarchical principle of the caste system. Making an attempt through Sanskritisation to move up in the status hierarchy setting aside the hierarchical principle of caste amounts to a protest against the caste system itself.

15. Sankritisation, as M.N. Srinivas himself has said, does not denote a basic change in the structure of the Hindu society. It should not be construed that through this process any kind of social change can be brought about in the caste-ridden society. Since caste is a ‘closed’ society in which the membership is based on the unchangeable factor of birth, no one can become a member of the “reference group” as such (Reference group in this context may be an upper caste Brahmin or non- Brahmin caste group which is locally dominant and influential).

However, an individual or a group may improve his or its social position within the range of one’s own Varna group. Srinivas further observes that the process of Sanskritisation can only support the existing system but can never remove it. Hence the changes that are effected through Sanskritisation though cannot be neglected, have only limited significance.

Sanskritisation: Some Comments:

Though the concept ‘Sanskritisation’ introduced by Prof. M.N. Srinivas has been regarded as a significant contribution to the sociological literature, it is not free from criticisms. Number of com­ments have been made about the term by the scholars. Some of them may be cited here:

1. According to J.F. Stall, “Sanskritisation as used by Srinivas and other anthropologists is a complex concept or a class of concepts. The term itself seems to be misleading, since its relationship to the term Sanskrit is extremely complicated”.

2. Yogendra Singh comments : Though “Sanskritisation and Westernisation, in logical sense, are “Truth asserting” concepts…They “fail to lead to a consistent theory of cultural change, such consistency is far from realisation…”. The concepts “contain no hypotheses”, and in Zetterbergs words, “Cannot be true or false. They can be clumsy or elegant, appropriate or inappropriate, effective or worthless but never true or false”.

3. Yogendra Singh also opines that”Sanskritisation fails to account for many aspects of cultural change in past and contemprorary India as it neglects the non-Sankritic traditions”. Mckim Marriol has observed that truism of Yogendra Singh’s comments in one of his studies, in a village. M. Marriot observes, we cannot establish that the process of Sanskritisation always takes place by replacing or removing the non-Sanskritic rituals.”Sankritic rites are often added on to non-Sanskritic rites without replacing them” Mckim Marriot.

4. It is also commented that much against the assumption of M.N. Srinivas, the “Sanskritic influence has not been universal to all parts of country, In most of northern India, especially in Punjab, it was the Islamic tradition which provided a basis for cultural imitation”. In Punjab, writes Chanana, “Culturally Sankritic influence has been but one of the trends, and at times, it could not have been the main trend. For a few centuries, until the third quarter of the 19th century Persian influence had been the dominating one in this area.”

5. “As suggested by Harold A. Gould, often the motive force behind Sanskritisation is not of cultural imitation per se but an expression of challenge and revolt against the socio-economic dep­rivations”. Yogendra Singh writes ; “Sankritisation is thus a cultural camouflage for latent interclass and intercaste competition for economic and social power, typical of a tradition bound society where traditionally the privileged upper castes hold monopoly to power and social status. When the impact of the external forces like political democratisation, land reforms and other social reforms break, this monopoly of the upper castes, the cultural camouflage of Sankritisation is thrown away, in favour of an open conflict with the privileged classes based on nativistic solidarity”

6. Dr. D.N. Majumdar comments that it is wrong to assume the process of Sankritisation as universal process to be observed throughout India. In his study of Mohan village in Uttar Pradesh he observed a strong exception to this assumption. In this village, as he observed, the lower caste people do not have any urge or inclination to imitate the ‘life-styles’ of Brahmins or any other dominant higher caste of that region. If a cobbler wears tilak, (or Vibhuti) dhoti and the sacred thread and follows some of the customs of higher castes, nobody recognises him as an upper caste man “If Sankritisation is really a universal process, where exactly it stops and why? …” Dr. Majumdar questions.

7. M.N. Srinivas has been changing the definition of the term “Sankritisation “from time to time and this adds to the problem of understanding its meaning and range of operations in clear terms. First, Dr. Srinivas used the term to mean Brahminisation. Later on, he extended its meaning. He used it to mean a process in which a lower caste, a tribal group or any other group attempts to imitate the ‘life-styles’ of a locally dominant upper caste, mostly a twice-born’ caste. As per his recent interpretation, the process includes the imitation of ideas, values and ideologies. Here also it becomes difficult to ascertain the real meaning of the term “ideology”.

8. When we try to interpret certain changes that have taken place in the field of social mobility in the light of Sanksritisation, we face certain paradoxes. According to Dr. Srinivas, political and economic forces are normally favourable for Sankritisation. But the ‘policy of reservation’ a politico- constitutional attempt to elevate the status of lower caste, and class people, presents here a different picture.

Theoretically, the policy of reservation must be supportive of Sankritisation. But paradoxi­cally it goes against it. Those who avail of the ‘reservation’ benefits have developed a vested interest in calling themselves ‘dalits’ or Scheduled Caste people. They want to be called ‘dalits’ or people of Scheduled Caste category so that they can permanently avail of the benefits of reservation.

Finally, it can be said that the twin concepts of Sankritisation and Westernisation introduced by M.N. Srinivas in explaining the cultural changes that are taking place in India, do have their own importance. But the basic question in this: Do these twin concepts explain cultural change with all its ramifications? Are they inclusive and universal enough to provide a satisfactory explanation to all the major cultural changes that have taken place throughout the country? According to Yogendra Singh, the concept of “Modernisation” can only provide a satisfactory answer to these questions.

Sanskritization may also refer to introduction of Sanskrit vocabulary in another language or dialect (such as in Hindi).

Sanskritisation (Indian English) or Sanskritization (American English, Oxford spelling) is a particular form of social change found in India. It denotes the process by which caste or tribes 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.[1] According to Christophe Jaffrelot a similar heuristic is described in Castes in India: Their Mechanism, Genesis and Development by B. R. Ambedkar.[2] Jaffrelot goes on to say, "While the term was coined by Srinivas, the process itself had been described by colonial administrators such as E. T. Atkinson in his Himalayan Gazetteer and Alfred Lyall, in whose works Ambedkar might well have encountered it."


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 ... ."[4]

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.[5]

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.[6]

This phenomenon has also been observed in Nepal among Khas, Magar, Newar and Tharu people.[7]


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."[8]

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."[9]

See also[edit]



  • 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. 

External links[edit]

  1. ^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
  2. ^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."
  3. ^N. Jayapalan (2001). Indian society and social institutions. Atlantic Publishers & Distri. p. 428. ISBN 978-81-7156-925-0. Retrieved 17 January 2013. 
  4. ^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. 
  5. ^Srinivas, Mysore Narasimhachar (1962) Caste in Modern India: And other essays Asia Publishing House, Bombay, page 48, OCLC 5206379
  6. ^Guneratne, Arjun (2002). Many tongues, one people: the making of Tharu identity in Nepal. Ithaca, New York: Cornell University Press. Retrieved April 11, 2011. 
  7. ^Srinivas, M.N. (1952) Religion and Society Amongst the Coorgs of South India Clarendon Press, Oxford, page 32, OCLC 15999474
  8. ^Singh, Yogendra. (1994). Modernization of Indian Tradition (A Systematic Study of Social Change), Jaipur, Rawat Publications, p.11.


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