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Why I Think Sanskritisation Can’t Fight Caste Discrimination In Society

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By Snehashish Das:

“Sanskritisation is a process by which a ‘low’ Hindu caste, or tribal or other group, changes its customs, ritual, ideology, and way of life in the direction of a high, and frequently, a ‘twice’ born caste. It is followed by a claim to a higher position in the caste hierarchy than traditionally conceded to the claimant caste by the local community. Such claims are made over a period of time, in fact, a generation or two, before the ‘arrival’ is conceded.”
– M.N. Srinivas, 1966

Diplomatically, Srinivas had coined the term ‘Brahminisation’ as a process of unification in a diversified society. Yet, Brahminisation was criticised by many social scientists as very limited in scope and as an implicit process leading to the domination of Brahmins in society. Thus, he propounded a unique term named ‘Sanskritisation’; a long and one-way process of ‘purification’ or conversion of ‘lower’ castes (actually Varna) to ‘twice-born’ castes. Following the processes of hypergamy, teetotalism, vegetarianism, temple building and worshipping of idols, fasting, reading religious books, discarding carcasses, wearing the sacred thread, the ‘lower’ caste people can claim themselves as persons of higher castes with some conditions – it should be a mass change, and it may take several generations to get social recognition.

When the concept of Sanskritisation was introduced into sociological literature, many social thinkers debated supporting its characteristics as it brings social coherence. Many scholars and our school books have also been following the motion without questioning the structure of it. But the question that arises here is why members of a particular caste need socio-cultural mobility within the framework of caste. Doesn’t it show the supremacy of hierarchy even as we place great value on democratisation in our contemporary world? So, here my point is to prove how efficient Sanskritisation is, or not, for social change.

The concept of unification or uniformity doesn’t support the view of pluralism. As cultures are diverse in nature, they need to be treated differently. Cultural unification or purification can be achieved by cultural assimilation. Assimilation is a process by which a majority culture is imposed on other minority cultures, and the minority cultures get adjusted and follow all the cultural practices, rites, rituals and beliefs of the majority culture. Eventually, the minority cultures lose all their signifiers.

The rejection of Sanskritisation by Balasaraswati, a devadasi (prostitute) can be a perfect criticism of this process. The request from the upper caste artists for the appropriation of Sadir dance was completely rejected by Balasaraswati because she had complete faith in her own history and heritage as a devadasi dancer. She saw Sadir as perfect and requiring no modification. According to her, sanitisation (arguably Sanskritisation) of her dance form was unnecessary even though her art-form/heritage was said to be vulgar. What is considered as vulgar by upper caste women is not necessarily said to be vulgar by ‘lower’ caste women. So, according to her, Sanskritisation is a process which separates cultures as some are ‘superior’ and some are inferior.

History gives ample of proof of the manipulation of the space for women by men in the society. T.M. Krishna in his article points out how men manipulated the space for women in Karnatik music and made sure women were kept in a subordinate position. The Karnatik world that men had built denied M. S. Subbulakshmi (a devotional devadasi of Bhakti music) the musicianship that lesser men could aspire to. That condition forced her to accept hypergamy. Of course, she adopted and adjusted to the higher caste lifestyle but the main thing is that she was actually giving up what she was really capable of, perhaps after a tremendous struggle, so as to find a space in the male dominated and casteist art world. However, another scholar in her article questions how such a gendered process of adoption and adjustment can so easily be categorised as Sanskritisation.

Hypergamy can possibly promote the system of dowry. As a higher caste man accepts or adopts a ‘lower’ caste woman, they may ask for a dowry of course. Srinivas himself says, “Sanskritisation results in harshness towards women.” The sex code becomes more rigid, widow remarriage and divorce become restricted. When a ‘lower’ caste woman enters into a higher caste family, certain rules and ideas are imposed on her. Restrictions she finds are unpaid labour, restrictions to work outside. Childbirth and childcare are the only highly promoted activities, apart from a stigmatisation of roles and physical and mental oppression by a male member of the family etc., things which are often not found in a ‘lower’ caste family. Researcher Mary M. Cameron describes this point better in her article.

Condemnation of the professions of ‘lower’ caste people by naming it ‘pollution’ and advising (implicitly forcing) them to take up professions of higher caste people as it is a sign of ‘purity’ will definitely be a cause of a polluted environment. Cleaning is an essential service in society and someone has to do it. But the process of Sanskritisation asks the ‘lower’ caste people to leave their work completely and to follow the professions of higher caste people. This act is completely unacceptable and unscientific for our society, because if a profession is fundamentally stigmatised as ‘low’ in a strictly hierarchical society, where a person’s position in the hierarchy is defined by the work they do (and that in itself becomes binding through lineage), no one would want to do the work in question, because climbing the social ladder to escape oppression and increase standards of living becomes more important. Individuals cannot be identical in terms of the ability to work, knowledge, and skills. So, the freedom to choose one’s occupation should be granted to everyone. Yet, if the process of Sanskritisation in a Brahminical society becomes the end goal, this freedom, to choose one’s occupation, without fear of stigmatisation, does not remain.

I wonder about the ‘food habits pollution’ theory and the theory of ‘untouchability’ essentially created by upper caste people. During the age of the Mahabharata, cow slaughter was an important festival and was important to honour the guests. Consuming pork by Magars (Magars are one of the oldest ethnic people in Nepal; a majority are Hindu higher caste people and some also practice Buddhism) and beef by Tamangs (Tamangs are the indigenous inhabitants of Nepal, also found in WB and Sikkim of India; mostly, they practice Tibetan Buddhism) didn’t make them polluted and they aren’t below the ‘pollution’ barrier in Hindu caste hierarchy. Many times, Brahmin priests can be seen performing rituals in Dalits festivals. The interesting question is how rituals performed by Brahmin priests can be pure in a Brahmin house and impure in a Dalit house?

Brahmins from communities like Kashmiri, Bengali, and Saraswat are non-vegetarians. Works like the Mahabharata and the history of India give ample examples that the Kshatriyas and Vaishyas were/are neither completely vegetarian nor completely non-alcoholic. So, it seems illogical that to get converted to ‘twice-born’ castes, ‘lower’ caste people necessarily have to follow teetotalism and vegetarianism.

Very often it also creates genealogical conflicts. When a group of Dalits ‘Sanskritise’ themselves into a particular ‘twice-born’ caste, it creates conflicts among the original caste members and them. Obviously, it generates groups among the group. It leads to another form of stratification in a particular segment. It also influences the caste political system. The original caste members claim for themselves the right to get into the caste panchayats. As they hold most of the lands, better education, and control the pre-existing political and economic system from past generations, they try to monopolise those entire resources again. A conflicted political system generates from this. A. P. Barnabas mentions in his article that when ‘lower’ caste people try to ‘Sanskritise’, physical, economic as well as political pressure is imposed on them to prevent them from practising the customs and rituals of the higher castes. When the Chamars of Modhopur struggled to ‘Sanskritise’ themselves, the Thakurs used political, economic pressures and physical violence to keep the Chamars in their place (Cohn’s study of UP).

Restrictions upon cross-cultural adaptation can be another criticism. Only ‘lower’ caste people, tribes or other groups can convert themselves to upper castes, but upper caste people never convert themselves to ‘lower’ ones. Marriage between ‘lower’ caste men and higher caste women is strictly prohibited.

What appears strange to me is how Rukmini Devi’s effort could be termed Sanskritisation. Rukmini Devi was the first high caste woman to practice and perform Sadir (Bharatanatyam). Sadir was a ‘lower’ class dance form adopted and accepted by upper caste people for the practice of their girls. So, the question here is: who were the emulators? Obviously, higher caste people. What are the essences which are kept alive in this art form when it gets ‘purified’, ‘revived’, or ‘elevated’? Sanskritisation says only the ‘lower’ caste people can follow the cultures of higher castes. But here, the emulators are the people of higher castes. So, how was it so easily classified under Sanskritisation?

The question is not only about Sadir to Bharatanatyam. There are lots of examples like Dasiyattom, a Kerala folk dance, accepted as Mohiniyattom by higher caste people. Like that, Ottan-Thullal to Kunchan-Nambiar. Kathakali dance and Karnatik, Hindustani classical songs also have some folk elements. This shows that many classical art forms evolved by ‘sanitising’ and appropriating folk arts. So, how can all these come under Sanskritisation?

According to Srinivas, Sanskritisation creates positional upliftment only, not structural change. This point proves that the whole Sanskritisation process is an unscientific dogma. The question here is: does Sanskritisation really bring social equality? Do the ‘lower’ caste people get higher social status? By this process, the lower caste people uplift themselves towards higher castes, but the ‘lower castes’ remain ‘lower caste’. By this, I mean that the casteist discrimination doesn’t go away from our society. It just strengthens the power of the higher castes and degrades the culture, traditions, and beliefs of the ‘lower’ castes.

If multiculturalism becomes the norm, if there will be no glorification of any particular culture over another, if there isn’t any hierarchy and discrimination, and if equal treatment is given every community, there will be no need for Sanskritisation.

Featured image for representation only. Credit: Kevin Frayer/Getty Images.

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