BOOK REVIEW: M.N. Srinivas’ Social Change in Modern India

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Based off of his Tagore lectures presented at the Association for Asian Studies at University of California, Berkeley from 1962 to 1963, the Indian sociologist Mysore Narasimhachar Srivinas (1916-1999) published Social Change in Modern India in 1963. Srinivas examines the processes of Sanskritization and Westernization to understand religious, cultural, and social change in modern India. By systematically examining these two concepts, Srinivas challenges the following assumptions about Indian society: the static and universal structure of the four varnas of Indian caste society, the lack of mobility and ambiguity between castes, and the wholesale adoption of Western influence. Srinivas’ overall contribution to understanding caste in pre-British and colonial India is the attention to regional differences, to the unevenness of Western influences, and the agency of caste and tribal groups to change secular and ritual rank.

Srinivas begins his study by analyzing how the concept of a single pan-India hierarchy of varnas obscures the dynamic understanding of pre-British India. Srinivas continues to explain how British colonialism exacerbated the model of varna hierarchies, particularly by privileging the role of Brahmins and religion in social life. The rest of chapter one explores the process of ‘Sanskritization’—the process by which lower castes or tribal groups adopts customs, rituals, and ways of life of a higher caste. Throughout the monograph, Srinivas emphasizes that the mobility afforded through sanskritization was one of ‘positional’ change rather than total ‘structural’ change. This important difference reveals the importance of relational power and dominance and the pervasiveness of the structure of caste.

The following chapter examines how ‘westernization’—the uneven borrowing of certain western influences—upon social status and caste. Srinivas deconstructs the meaning of ‘westernization’ as the uneven blending of western influences brought by institutions and technologies. By focusing on specific diverse groups of the ‘model’ country and ‘borrowing’ country, Srinivas highlights the emergence of a new Indian elite who had direct contact with the small population of Europeans through education, bureaucracy, and trade. Emphasizing a sense of agency, Srinivas characterizes these Indian elites as creative interpreters and selectors of European values and criticisms. At the same time, Srinivas also highlights how Westernization of institutions, education, and bureaucracy gave rise to a ‘backward classes movement’ where lower castes staked a claim to these new socio-economic egalitarian opportunities. Srinivas expands upon this concept of caste mobility in the following chapter. He argues that in theory these new opportunities were ‘caste free’ and egalitarian, but in reality were more accessible to those from higher castes with a tradition of learning, governmental employment, and from urban environments.

One of the overarching contributions of this work is an analysis of socio-cultural change in light of colonial capital. Srinivas demonstrates how sanskritization and westernization was a process by which secular forms of rank (exhibited by capital, political position, and education) and ritual rank (caste, ritual, performance, relational power) came to terms with one another. Srinivas explains, “When a caste or section of a caste achieved secular power it usually also tried to acquire the traditional symbols of high status, namely the customs, ritual, ideas, beliefs, and life style of the locally highest castes. It also meant obtaining the services of a Brahmin priest at various rites de passage, performing Sanskritic calendrical festivals, visiting famous pilgrimage centers, and finally, attempting to obtain a better knowledge of the sacred literature.” (Srinivas 28) This attention to socio-cultural values of status challenges the monocausal Marxist understanding of economic value and social hierarchy.

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