[INDOLOGY] Religious Literature with Political Purposes

Lubin, Tim LubinT at wlu.edu
Tue Jul 7 19:03:38 UTC 2015

Prof. Hart,

The spirit of your point is commendable, but I would like to urge some caution on the specifics.  First, the example you cite in the first paragraph are not quite analogous.  The "n-word” and “untouchable” are labels exclusively used to denigrate and enforce hierarchical subordination.  In the case of the word “tribal” (and of course “tribe”), it really much more depends on context.  In anthropological and social historical scholarly discourse it is usually intended as a value-neutral descriptor for a sort of social and political organization, and many of the cultural factors that tend to accompany tribal organization.  In other contexts, especially in popular usage, it can take a pejorative tone, but even there, no necessarily, I think.  And of course I don’t mean to overlook the fact that earlier (esp. colonial-era) scholarship betrayed some “unscientific,” prejudiced attitudes or assumptions about such groups.  But we know that they were apt to betray such attitudes about other Indian groups as well.  For that matter, Brahmins often got tarred as obscurantist, superstitious, etc.

To my mind, the bigger problem with the category of “tribal” is that it over-homogenizes.  But I don’t think “indigenous” solves that problem, and may get us into further murkiness if it is understood as “aboriginal” or “ādivāsī,” since that raises often unanswerable questions about who got here first, who has prior claim, etc., not to mention the politics of Indo-Aryan or Dravidian nationalism.  But there are certainly times when one needs some word to use when observing common (if not universal) features of such groups.

As for “Sanskritization,” this concept still has a lot of utility in my view, and the usual objections raised against it, including those offered here, seem to miss the point.  Sanskritization need not imply the presence of a fully homogeneous culture, the presence of a large or increasing number of Brahmins, or the actual adoption of Sanskrit language.  If refers either:

(1) to a "bottom-up” process in which a particular social group publicly begins to adopt certain practices or norms otherwise associated with putatively “higher” castes, which usually includes the adoption of ritual or dietary practices advocated in Sanskrit texts (though direct appeal to Sanskrit texts is not necessarily involved — the whole process may be mediated through vernacular sources, though part of the process tends to be an increasing use of “Sanskritic” terms and registers of the vernacular.  (This was what Srinivas was talking about.)

or (2) to a more “top-down” process in which political or other social elites adopt a policy of fostering ritual, dietary, etc., norms derived from Sanskrit discourses or the usage of Brahmins and other already-more-Sanskritized groups.  (See Eschmann & Kulke et al.’s Orissa Research Project publications, but many many others.  I would mention Sontheimer on the worship of Khaṇḍobā as well, and the whole sthalapurāṇa phenomenon.)

Both types of process may be involved simultaneously, of course.  Now discomfort with the word “Sanskrit” has led to some people preferring to speak of Hinduization (which may be appropriate where markedly un-Sanskritic cultural features are adopted by groups such as the ones habitually called tribes in India, but in practice it seems to me usually to amount to the same thing as Sanskritization.   One sometimes sees “Brahmanized,” which is all right if one is speaking of the spread of loosely “Brahmanical” ideas or practices, but it is more misleading insofar as it seems to imply that Brahmins are the direct model of emulation, rather than certain habits (e.g., vegetarianism, patronage of Brahmin priests, use of Sanskrit mantras, wearing of the thread) that can be observed in use more widely.

Other directions of emulation certainly exist. Kulke, speaking of Brahmin zamindars emulating Kṣatriyas, wrote of “Kṣatriya-ization.”

Anyway, the fact that Brahmins are such a small minority in most places, and Śūdras and other groups so numerous in comparison is no argument against the existence of Sanskritization as a social phenomenon or political policy in particular times and places.  It has taken many different forms, ensuring that India remains a diverse patchwork of cultural cells.  It is just one of the factors in the perpetual negotiations of identity and status in the Indian cultural sphere.  Indeed, the fact that it has been one of the features of that sphere for three millennia despite the small number of actual Brahmins and their changing fortunes over time makes the phenomenon worthy of our attention.  It should not be ignored or denied simply out of a sentiment of “let's leave off talking about Brahmins and Sanskrit already!” or “let’s give group X its due, finally.”


Timothy Lubin
Professor of Religion and Adjunct Professor of Law
Washington and Lee University
Lexington, Virginia 24450



From: INDOLOGY <indology-bounces at list.indology.info<mailto:indology-bounces at list.indology.info>> on behalf of George Hart <glhart at berkeley.edu<mailto:glhart at berkeley.edu>>
Date: Tuesday, July 7, 2015 at 1:46 PM
To: Indology List <indology at list.indology.info<mailto:indology at list.indology.info>>
Subject: Re: [INDOLOGY] Religious Literature with Political Purposes

Might I gently suggest that words like “tribal” and “tribal cults” should be avoided. Like “untouchable” and the n-word, these words have long been used to marginalize, demean, and patronize various ethnic groups—and they are so nebulous that they have no real meaning (for me, at least). “Indigenous” might be a good substitute. Words like “tribal” and “tribal cult” in my opinion serve to obscure the fact that the groups they are applied to are comprised of human beings whose cultures are quite as complex and sophisticated as the Brahmanical culture to which they are contrasted.

I am also bothered by the use of the term “Sanskritization,” It is, in my opinion, a simplification of a very complex series of processes and interactions and is, in the end, quite misleading. In most areas, India has a cellular culture. Many different groups with varied identities, histories, practices, social views, etc. exist side by side, interacting with each other in complex ways. People may get status by eating more meat, less meat, or no meat at all, and the same goes for many other practices, beliefs and customs. It is perhaps useful to point out that in a place like Tamil Nadu, about 25% of the people are Dalits (3% are Brahmins). They have their own social hierarchies, no doubt, but they are not driven by “Sanskritization.” Nor, for the most part, are the great majority of the rest of the people, all of whom are considered “Sudras” by the Brahmins. George Hart

On Jul 7, 2015, at 5:38 AM, Artur Karp <karp at UW.EDU.PL<mailto:karp at UW.EDU.PL>> wrote:

> two poles: one "sanskritisation", the other "tribalisation".

The question is: who functions in the role of priests at Kamakhya Devi?

Priests of local tribal cults?

If not, I would rather see there not "tribalization", but rather "controlled Sanskritization" of tribal cultural elements, undertaken not by the tribals, but by the local representatives of Sanskritic culture. Motivated, as you have noticed, by the political need to communicate on one hand with the local population, on the other - with the broader network of sub-continental cult/pilgrimage centers.

Artur K.

2015-07-07 12:20 GMT+02:00 Paolo Eugenio Rosati <paoloe.rosati at gmail.com<mailto:paoloe.rosati at gmail.com>>:
I complitely agree.
But why "we" talk about "sanskritisation" phenomena if a goddess and her devotional cult are dominated by tribal elements? I would like to describe this goddesses as "tribalised", maybe because they represent a manipulation of the "mainstream" Hindu Devi, to whom are overimposed tribal elements.

If the sanskritisation (or brahmanisation) process can be described as a vertical axis where are different degrees of sanskritisation; maybe we could describe this axis with two poles: one "sanskritisation", the other "tribalisation"... obviously the dialectic between cultures bring to hybrid phenomenon, but in my opinion the Hindu-Assamese culture is widely dominated by tribal traditions, and this probably depend by ancient politic needs.


P.S.: Maybe someone has a pdf copy of Kunal Chakrabarti "Religious Processes: The Puranas and the Making of a Regional Tradition" (2001).

On 7 July 2015 at 11:25, Artur Karp <karp at uw.edu.pl<mailto:karp at uw.edu.pl>> wrote:
Dear Paolo,

> So that are we sure that Kamahya is a sanskritised goddess? Or should we consider the reverse process? Doesn't seem that were the Hindus to emulate the tribal-men incorporating tribal worship elements?

To my mind, both.

A perfect example of a dialogic situation, whatever the motivation behind the move to set up a new, structurally enriched place of worship and a newly conceived object of veneration.



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Paolo E. Rosati
Oriental Archaeologist
PhD candidate in Civilisations of Asia & Africa
Section: South Asian Studies
Dep. Italian Institute of Oriental Studies (ISO)
'Sapienza' University of Rome
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