M.N. Srinivas: Social Change in Modern India
Orient Black Swan, 200 pages, Rs. 195.
Reviewed by Utkarsh Amitabh, Young India Fellow
Reviewing a book which is an established modern classic is a learning experience, especially if one delves into the textual subconscious. A critical and objective analysis of caste and class subjectivities, it also offers an incisive overview of religious tie-ups, urbanization, group migration, horizontal bonding, and several other complex processes subsumed in the modernization of the Indian sub-continent through pre- colonial, colonial and post-colonial ventures. Bracketed with the major phases of “Sanskritization”, “Westernization” “Caste Mobilization”, and “Secularization”, it insightfully offers us an in depth study of the change in mindsets and attitudes, promoted by milestones of change: reform movements, universal adult franchise, mass media, economic, political and social restructuring etc. that India witnessed in the last 100 years. Both predominant and residual philosophies have been presented in a lucid and jargon free language.
Based upon Srinivas’ Tagore Lectures delivered at University of California, the book is divided into 5 chapters: “Sanskritization”, “Westernization”, “Some Expressions of Caste Mobility”, “Secularization” and “Some Thoughts on the Study of One’s Own Society”.
The term “Sanskritization”, made popular by Srinivas, refers to the process wherein members of low and middle Hindu castes adapt their customs, rituals and ways of life in line with those belonging to the upper castes in order to stake a higher position in the caste hierarchy. His book “Religion and Society Among the Coorgs of South India” first challenged the prevalent idea that caste was a fixed and immutable institution.
Even by simple practices such as adopting vegetarianism and teetotalism, and modeling their way of life on a dwija or “twice born”, a lower caste could potentially exalt its status. “Social Change in Modern India” presents innumerable examples of such transitions and explores sources/situations fostering social mobility. One of the critical reasons for the observed phenomena was the overall political mobility in the system. The beauty of the book lies in the way it logically connects the dots backwards and helps the reader arrive at an informed conclusion. The three step approach used by the members of the lower castes to capture political power, sanskritize their life style and thereafter lay claim to being Kshatriya is an apt illustration of the clarity of the text. Although the social mobility brought about positional changes for particular castes/sections of castes, it did not result in structural change. The Bhakti movement was the first to challenge the idea of structural inequity. Srinivas presents historical evidence in a way that seamlessly blends with the main idea and reinforces the content.
The structure and flow of the book is unlike any book on hard sciences or economics. Important points have been stressed and mentioned several times during the course of the book. For instance, the first chapter begins with a systematic comparison of Sanskritization and Westernization without defining either. “Westernization” is actually covered in the second chapter, after 48 pages. A reader unfamiliar with Sociology as an empirical, systematic and comparative discipline might have some difficulty to begin with, but the pertinent examples and notes at the back of each chapter ensure that the context is not compromised for any reader.
Through the concept of Westernization, Srinivas delineates the technological, institutional, ideological and value based changes introduced by the 150 year long British rule in India. Even the reason for using Westernization and not Modernization has been well explained. According to Daniel Lerner, modernization includes a “disquieting positivist spirit” touching both public and private institutions. Modernization and urbanization often go hand in hand, and lead to an increase in the spread of literacy and social mobility. Srinivas points out the limitations of the term Westernization by stating it is “too local a label”. However, Westernization is ethically neutral, and hence more appropriate from a Sociological point of view. It is this attention to detail that keeps the reader involved throughout.
The book takes the reader back in time and presents an objective assessment of the impact of various prevalent factors on the social ethos of the country. During this period, the “New Elite” led others in Westernization. Various changes in communication, abolition of slavery, increased spatial and social mobility, together with advancements in industrial and agricultural systems ensured that Westernization spread nationally. Srinivas points out how the political and administrative integration, which went on well into 1960s, underpinned its foundation on the above stated factors. By relating the contemporary phenomena with thorough historical and sociological perspectives, “Social Change in Modern India” serves the purpose of being not just a text book of Sociology but an interdisciplinary reference material.
After discussing Sanskritization and Westernization, the book goes on to demonstrate caste mobility and the concept of Secularization. Each new chapter of the book begins with a short recapitulation of the previous concepts and swiftly moves on without unnecessary pauses.
Because of Westernization, the opportunities in the educational, economic and political sphere became equal, in theory at least. Statistically speaking the representation of upper caste was still disproportionately high. This impelled the Backward Classes Movement, which was strongest in the peninsular region where the inequity was particularly glaring. What was interesting was the economic empowerment of some lower castes owing to new opportunities which arose out of the British rule. They followed the enhanced economic stature in society by Sanskritizing their way of life and claimed to belong to higher castes. “Sanskritization was able to resolve the inconsistency between newly acquired wealth and low ritual rank. In the Indian context, it made “passing” possible.”
The census was a clear indicator of the desire on part of the lower caste to be officially recorded as a higher caste. This tendency kept increasing proportionally as awareness about the “government-sponsored channel of caste mobility” spread, and in 1941 caste had to be removed from the census owing to this tendency becoming too pronounced.
Giving adequate context of preferential treatment of backward castes in education and employment in South India, Srinivas explains how principles of “protective discrimination” or “discrimination in reverse” became ingrained in the system, and the quota system came to being. Today, the quota system impacts the social, economic and political sphere of the country. Srinivas is also credited with coining the term “Vote Bank”, which refers to voting along caste lines, in his paper titled The Social System in a Mysore Village (10), in the year 1955. Although the book does not refer to vote banks directly, there are various examples to substantiate the phenomena. For instance, the coming together of Scheduled Castes for political purposes and the unison of leaders of the non-Brahmin movement after the Morley-Minto reforns. Risley has drawn attention to the “fissiparous nature of caste” in traditional India. Today this fission does not hold and fusion or “horizontal integration” is more prevalent. Even here the attention to detail catches the reader’s attention – Srinivas explains how “horizontal integration” was not the most accurate representation as several castes considered themselves to be superior, thus questioning the word “horizontal”, which stood for equal, in the phrase.
The chapter on caste mobility concludes explaining how the scope for individual and familial mobility has increased since Independence, but caste still continues to be a vital factor in today’s sociopolitical dynamics of India.
Westernization and modernization brought about a decline in religious beliefs and practices. This was termed as Secularization. Srinivas notes that both Sanskrization and Secularization were gaining ground around the same time in modern India. Although Sanskritization primarily affected only the Hindus, Secularization was a more general process specially marked among the urban and educated groups. Hinduism was most affected by it owing to its lack of central structure and reliance on institutions such as caste, joint family and village community, which were evolving under the forces of secularization.
The chapter on secularization illustrates, with examples, how ways of life and prevailing beliefs were affected by its advancement. Traditional ideas of purity gave way to rules on hygiene, rituals (namakarna, chaula, upakarma, kanyadana, saptapadi) were significantly shortened as per feasibility and convenience, the marriageable age for girls was increased in order to reap the benefits of higher education and new cults, built around saints, came up. The educated Hindus started believing that the purpose of monasteries was promoting education and social welfare rather than punctilious allegiance to a set of religious practices.
Overall, there was a move towards redefining Hinduism. Even the government played an important part in modernizing Hinduism through legislation and other steps. For example, divorce and inter-caste marriage became legal. Srinivas beautifully summarizes this – “Hinduism is becoming increasingly, though very slowly, dissociated from its traditional social structure of caste, kinship and village community, and is becoming associated with the state, political parties and organizations promoting Indian culture.”
Towards the end of the book, Srinivas analyzes whether being a Hindu Brahmin studying his own society is advantageous or disadvantageous from a sociological standpoint. He candidly asks, “Just how far can any sociologist understand his own society?” He acknowledges that his being a Brahmin did influence his observation and understanding of the Coorgs. He draws comparisons between Coorgs and Mysore Brahmins, and effortlessly demonstrates studying Sociology as a comparative discipline.
Srinivas’ humility in writing is reflected in his admission that he missed including the significance of Westernization while analyzing Coorgs. He underscores the rigor and the painstaking effort, coupled with empathy and cognizance of the diversity of India in order to initiate an informed sociological enquiry. His writing is a model for upcoming Sociologists and Anthropologists.
For engineering graduates like me books like these are delightfully instructive. Up till now we have been taught to marvel at the molecular structure of elements and the chemical bonding of substances. “Social Change in Modern India” is a luxurious read that blesses us with an insight into the bonding of cultures and the molecular structure of a society in flux, a society that has seen so many ups and downs and has assimilated so much against odds of all kinds.
Reference Books Used:
- M.N. Srinivas , Religion and Society Among the Coorgs of South India
- M.N. Srinivas, Social Change in Modern India
- M.N. Srinivas, The Social System in a Mysore Village
- Andre Beteille, Sociology Essays on Approach and Method