The term Sanskritization was first coined by the Indian sociologist Mysore Narasimhachar Srinivas (1916–1999) in his Oxford University PhD thesis, which was eventually published as Religion and Society among the Coorgs of South India (1952). His research demonstrated that, contrary to the British colonial view, the caste system was not static and pan-Indian, but local, dynamic, and fluid. He captured the dynamics of this stratification system in his theory of Sanskritization. Sanskrit is the canonical language of the Hindu scriptures, including principally the Upanishads, and thus Sanskritization is the process by which lower castes attempt to emulate the culture of higher castes. More precisely, this social process involves the adoption by a “low” caste or other group of the customs, rituals, and beliefs of a “high” or “twice-born” caste. One specific example is the adoption of a vegetarian diet, which is not typical of low-caste practice. These social changes are normally followed by a claim to a more elevated position within the hierarchy of castes.
The theory is in fact more complex, because of the difficulties of translation of the notion of “caste,” which corresponds to what is locally known as jati or kulam. Whereas varna refers to the four main castes (Brahmin, Kshatriya, Vaisya, and Sudra), jati refers to the many smaller groups or subcastes by which the Indian system is internally and locally divided. A caste is characterized by endogamy, hereditary membership, and a specific lifestyle. Although social classes are open, caste in principle is not. Whereas social mobility in class society involves the movement of individuals, in a caste system it is an entire community (typically a jati ) that moves up or down the system.
This social dynamic is also associated with a contrast between what anthropologists have called the “great” and “little traditions” of peasant society. In his Peasant Society and Culture (1956) Robert Redfield argued that a “great tradition” is a culture closely associated with religion that is spread over a large territory and embedded in a literary tradition defended by a stratum of intellectuals such as priests. A “little tradition,” by contrast, is localized, limited, and oral. Little traditions can be absorbed into great traditions and become universalized, or there may be a reverse process whereby great traditions may become parochial. Sanskritization can be seen therefore as the process by which a local community immersed in the “little tradition” makes a claim for membership in the “great tradition” by acquiring elements of Sanskrit learning and ritual practice. The whole history of Hinduism can be interpreted as the constant interaction between the Brahmins (as priests and teachers) and the religious customs of other social groups.
The principal ambiguity of Srinivas’s theory is whether Sanskritization is a radical or conservative process. One can interpret the social mobility of jati as a social “safety valve” in which able and educated but low-status groups move up the hierarchy of caste to claim their place in society, thereby leaving the existing structure in place. Srinivas, however, saw the process as a progressive feature of a society that was becoming more open and democratic. Although Srinivas did not believe that the caste system would simply collapse under the pressure of modernization, he did argue that it would continue to adapt, especially under the impact of electoral politics at the village level. The increased provision of education, urbanization, and industrialization have had an impact on traditional relations between castes, but approximately one-seventh of the Indian population still bear the stigma of untouchability, despite affirmative action programs introduced by the Indian Constitution of November 26, 1949, rejecting untouchability as an infringement of fundamental rights. The Constitution’s principal legal architect was Bhimrao Ramji Ambedkar (1891–1956), who, although himself an untouchable, had been invited by the Congress-led government of newly independent India to serve as the nation’s first law minister. Ambedkar advocated the expansion of educational provision for the untouchables as an affirmative action program. These legal measures in the Constitution have been continuously reaffirmed in subsequent legislation such as the Untouchability (Offences) Act of 1955. However, given the resilience of untouchability in Indian society, it is evident that sanskritization is not a radical solution for social inequality.
Dumont, Louis. 1998. Homo Hierarchicus: The Caste System and Its Implications. Rev. ed. New Delhi: Vedams Books.
Redfield, Robert. 1956. Peasant Society and Culture: An Anthropological Approach to Civilization. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Searle-Chatterjee, Mary, and Ursula Sharma. 1994. Contextualising Caste: Post-Dumontian Approaches. Oxford: Blackwell.
Srinivas, Mysore Narasimhachar. 1952. Religion and Society among the Coorgs of South India. Oxford: Clarendon Press.
Bryan S. Turner
All major modern Indian languages (both Indo-Aryan and Dravidian) have a Sanskritized register, used in religious and secular contexts. Indian English, especially when concerned with Hindu religion and philosophy, also freely uses Sanskrit terms, and Indian literature in English makes use of such conventions from Sanskrit as repetition of main themes in paragraphs and an abundance of compounds and embedded clauses. Sanskrit words appear in English texts in two forms: fully Anglicized, as with the variants pundit and pandit (through Hindi pandit); or, in scholarly writings, with various diacritics, following the conventions for transliterating Sanskrit into the Roman alphabet, as with pandita. A representative scholarly text using full transliterations is:
In the Brhad-āranyaka Upanisad (3.9.1) we are told that, when Sākalya asked the sage Yājñavalkya what was the number of the gods, the sage gave a cryptic answer (
Alain Daniélou, Hindu Polytheism, 1964).
Differences in meaning and use often match the different styles: for example, pandita means a learned brahmin (or brahman, or brāhmana); pandit may have the same meaning and is used as a title for such a person, as in Pandit Nehru; pundit may have the same meaning and use, but is more fully integrated into English, in which it commonly refers to an expert; as in political pundits. Comparably, the term guru may refer to a Hindu teacher, a venerable spiritual leader, or any expert, as in the phrases management guru and usage guru. The extended non-Hindu senses of pundit and guru are often used to suggest that there is something suspect about the persons so described, whereas such terms as Gandhi's ahimsa and satyagraha have positive implications. See BORROWING, CLASSICAL LANGUAGE, INDIAN ENGLISH, INDO-EUROPEAN LANGUAGES.
San·skrit / ˈsanˌskrit/ • n. an ancient Indic language of India, in which the Hindu scriptures and classical Indian epic poems are written and from which many northern Indian languages are derived. • adj. of or relating to this language. DERIVATIVES: San·skrit·ic / sanˈskritik/ adj. San·skrit·ist / ˈsanˌskritist/ n.
Sanskrit was spoken in India roughly 1200–400 bc, and continues in use as a language of religion and scholarship. It is written from left to right in the Devanagari script.