Anthropology of India Research Paper

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 “Sources” are always “texts,” it has been increasingly realized, and no text is “innocent.” It always embodies power relations and contains implicit principles or strategies of construction and deployment. (Sarkar, 1989, p. 4)

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For over 2,000 years, Westerners have been traveling to India and returning with incredible tales of a mysterious and exotic land. Many of the early descriptions came from adventurers who were also splendid storytellers, fond of weaving fascinating and fantasyfilled accounts of their exploits and experiences. Since that time, a rich and varied fabric of narratives and interpretations has been stitched together to form the legacy of Indian studies. One of the most formidable tasks for one seeking to understand an academic survey of Indian history, culture, and religion is the investigation and comprehension of the various threads that constitute this creation, so that they may be more accurately used in any contemporary study of the land and her people. In this context, the path resembles that of the ancient Indian sages who filled their days seeking to discriminate the real from the unreal.

It must be remembered that the concept of objective recording and analysis by dispassionate observers, foundational in an academic study, is a relatively recent phenomenon, itself possessing a decidedly subjective quality. A serious reflection on both the process of humanities research and the psychological nature of humankind, however, makes it apparent that objectivity is an exceedingly relative concept, existing more as an orientation than as an absolute. We all bring into our data collection, record keeping, and research not only our knowledge and understanding but also our preconceptions, preferences, and prejudices. These all play important roles in the processes of observation, information gathering, analysis, and interpretation. This is as true for the native informant as it is for the academic and the historian. Thus, the more we, as researchers, are able to understand the general predispositions that have led to what we accept as sources, the more clearly we can utilize them in our own work. In reflecting on his years of field research in India, Harold Gould notes that the observer is inevitably a “biased mechanism” whose perception is conditioned by personal and intellectual biases (Gould, 1974, p. 66).

Early Studies

India has an ancient and indigenous intellectual tradition, dating back to Vedic times. The earliest recorded accounts of the religious and social life in India come primarily from Brahmin and Buddhist scholars, each group having proffered a vast corpus of material covering a wide range of religious and secular topics. With the development of sectarian writings like the Puranas, the sectarian Upanishads, and the literature of the Tantric and the devotional schools, many additional viewpoints found their way into the corpus of sacred literature. The composers of all these early works had distinct agendas that motivated their perspectives and guided their writings.

In addition to the indigenous material, a variety of accounts from foreign travelers and traders from the West and the East provide insight into and help create the groundwork on which anthropological research in India finds footing. Beginning in the centuries just prior to the first millennium CE, Greek and then Roman traders made their way to India and began to reflect in writing about the land and its people. The earliest of these may have been the Greek Megasthenes, who was an ambassador to Chandragupta Maurya in the early 3rd century BCE. Although only fragments of his book, Indika, survive, they reveal details about prevalent customs, beliefs, mythology, and even geography (Rowe, 1965). In the fifth century CE, Chinese Buddhist scholar Fa-Hien traveled to India and spent close to 15 years studying Buddhism and the other cultural and religious traditions. His writings provide insight into monastic lives during that time period. Two centuries later, the Buddhist monk Hiuen Tsiang also visited and spent nearly a decade and a half traveling in the subcontinent studying the people and their traditions. The writings of these travelers added to the corpus of early works of anthropological value.

In 1017, the Persian scholar and scientist Abu Rayhan Biruni (Al-Biruni) arrived in India with the conqueror Mahmud of Ghazni. Al-Biruni remained for more than a decade conducting ethnographic fieldwork. He was a prolific writer and has been called the first anthropologist because of the way he conducted his research. He learned several Indian languages, studied cultural and religious traditions, conducted participant observation of religious and ethnic groups, and recorded his findings and experiences in what he sought to be as unbiased a way as he could. His two books on India, especially Ta’rikh al-Hind, are considered important anthropological works that provide valuable insight into the social, religious, and political life of medieval India.

The year 1498 brought the arrival of Vasco da Gama in the southwestern coastal town of Calicut (Kozhikode). Within a few years, the Portuguese had established trade in India. Although Portuguese knowledge of the indigenous people’s religion and culture was almost nonexistent, their feelings of animosity toward the Muslims in India were great, fueled by past interactions in Africa and the Mediterranean. This led to violent confrontations and the need for military support for Portuguese adventurism in India. Missionaries began to accompany the seafaring traders to convert Asian subjects, and the presence of the military helped make possible aggressive efforts at proselytizing as well. Thus, by the early part of the 16th century, Christianity, commerce, and colonial expansionism had become closely bound together in the European encounter with Asia (David, 1988). While European traders were successful in securing a great deal of Indian goods for the West, the early missionaries were not as prosperous. Francis Xavier, a Spanish Jesuit, arrived in the 1540s to assist in the conversion efforts of the Portuguese. The church calls him the apostle of the Indies for his apparent leadership in establishing Christianity in India, yet he actually seems to have detested the land and her people. His stay there was relatively short because of the “un-Christian” ways of the Portuguese there and the Hindus’ lack of interest in his religious wares. In a letter to Ignatius Loyola in 1548, he demeaned Indians as “very barbarous, vicious, and without inclination to virtue, no constancy of character, no frankness” (as quoted in Wolpert, 1979, p. 138). He left for Japan the following year, leaving the “heathens” to the efforts of others.

In 1583, a merchant named Ralph Fitch was one of the first Englishmen to make his way to India, and he wrote of his experiences in letters sent home. His descriptions were lively and interesting, and they helped stimulate British interest in the land. Unlike Xavier, Fitch found India possessing both goods and goodness, with a nonviolent but strange people who worshiped the cow and had hospitals for lame animals (Wolpert, 1979). Although he wrote as an outsider lacking insight into the existing culture, his views of the people and their ways nevertheless are far less clouded by the kinds of preconceptions and prejudices that distinguish other English writings of the colonial period.

During the next two centuries, additional European missionaries made their way to India. The Portuguese spread Catholicism, while Dutch missionaries brought Calvinism. Abraham Roger, one of the early Dutch missionaries, wrote reflections and observations of his time spent in India. His description of the caste system is presented from the traditional orthodox perspective; his informant was a Brahmin, a member of the priestly caste (Jackson, 1907). Many subsequent missionaries and ethnographers tell of encountering Brahmins anxious to give their perspective and interpretation of whatever the foreigners observed or sought to understand. When the narrow religious orientation and objectives of the missionaries were coupled with the narrow version of orthodox Hinduism to which the missionaries were exposed by these informants, an extremely limited view and understanding of prevalent beliefs and practices resulted. English-language writings by the British during the period depict Indian religious traditions as having no truth or viability. At best, they were seen as but forms of superstition and paganism. Many of these early writings focused on caste and its inequities, presenting Christianity and the missionaries as saviors of the impoverished and the low caste. At the same time, the racial prejudices of the authors are often blatant. These early works set the tenor for much of the subsequent literature that would be produced about India by westerners.

British East India Company

As religious, economic, and political interests in and designs for the subcontinent grew, so did the corpus of literature. Simple reflections in the form of memoirs, written by travelers, British East India Company (“the Company”) workers, and missionaries gave way to more elaborate accounts, usually composed by scholars who served as administrators for the Company. These writings became additional sources for use in subsequent sociological and anthropological research that has occurred. The establishment of British suzerainty in India after 1757 generated an increasing administrative need for a better understanding of Indian social and religious structures. In the period from 1768 to 1771, Alexander Dow, an officer in the Company’s army, published a three-volume translation of Tarikh-i-Firishta, an early-17th-century Persian account of the history of Muslim India by Muhammad Kasim Hindu Shah, Firishta. In the introduction, Dow acknowledges the obvious prejudices against Hinduism in the original, yet his translation and commentary help perpetuate these very prejudices. He prefaces his work with two essays, in which he refers to the native as inclined “to insolence and ease; and he thinks the evils of despotism less severe than the labour of being free. . . . His happiness consists in a mere absence of misery” (Dow, 1772, p. vii).

There was already a developing interest in Sanskrit in England. In 1776, N. B. Halhed published a translation of the Manusmriti, an orthodox Hindu law book. His introduction expresses the belief that has come to handicap most subsequent writings on Hinduism, namely, that such Brahmanic texts provide an accurate picture of the religious customs, beliefs, and practices of the Indian people. Several years later, in 1784, a British linguist and lawyer, William Jones, started the Asiatic Society in Calcutta with the goal of promoting both greater research and greater understanding of Asian peoples, societies, and cultures. He was keenly interested in Sanskrit and comparative linguistics, and his efforts led to an increase in the number of Hindu texts being translated. At the same time, the British government, through the Company, was in control of the Bengal region of eastern India, and there was a conscious effort to collect both historical and ethnographic data on the newly conquered land. Henry Verelst, then governor of Bengal and Bihar, stressed the importance and need of gathering such information, especially with respect to leading families and their customs. British officials and missionaries were used for much of this work (Srinivas & Panini, 1973). In 1815, the Company began publishing a series of gazetteers that contained information on the various aspects of India and her people, including culture, agriculture, religious beliefs, castes, economics, and politics. The first one looked at the Bengal region and eastern India, while subsequent texts in the series focused on the various provinces and districts in the colony as well. The series was valuable to both the Company and the subsequent colonial government and was periodically expanded and updated over the next century or so. The last publication during British rule was a 25-volume work completed in 1933.

During the 18th and 19th centuries, the political and economic elite in the countries of Europe saw their right to rule their colonies as axiomatic. In this vein, Charles Grant, a director of the East India Company in the late 1700s and early 1800s, was a staunch supporter of the notion that India belonged to the British, who were justified in keeping it under their control at almost any cost. Like others after him, especially missionaries, he justified this attitude by promoting the idea that the British could surely “govern our Asiatic subjects more happily for them than they can be governed by themselves” (Embree, 1962, p. 143). The writings of Grant, an evangelical Christian, were instrumental in shaping the British attitude toward and involvement in India. In a report on Company affairs, for example, he inserted his evaluation of the people of India:

Upon the whole, then, we cannot avoid recognizing in the people of Hindostan, a race of men lamentably degenerate and base, retaining but a feeble sense of moral obligation, yet obstinate in their disregard of what they know to be right, governed by malevolent and licentious passions, strongly exemplifying the effects produced on society by great and general corruption of manners, and sunk in history by their vices. (Singer & Cohn, 1968, p. 8)1

The more ignorant and decrepit the portrayal of Indians, the more Company and British authorities could justify the extension of their dominion over India’s land, people, and goods. Much of the ethnographic data collection of the time was done to further this goal. In the process, Indians were characterized as not only incompetent to meet their own needs, but even incapable of satisfactorily articulating them. Bernard Cohn divides the writings of the day into three general categories: the orientalist, the administrator, and the missionary.2 As for their epistemological stance, he writes, “Each had a characteristic view, tied to the kinds of roles which foreign observers played in India and the assumptions which underlay their views of India” (Singer & Cohn, 1968, p. 6). Because of Grant and other Christians in the Company, it had been helpful to missionaries who had traveled to India, most of whom were armed with a strong social and religious revolutionary zeal but little formal education. Then, toward the end of the 18th century, British administrators came to be wary of missionary activities, since they seemed to be generating a resistance by Hindus toward Christianity and British government activities as well. Lord Minto, governor-general of India (1807–1813), had strong objections to the evangelists, noting that the written material they generated and used was filled with anti-Hindu rhetoric that condemned all Hindus to ignorance and damnation.

The 19th century was a pivotal time period in the development of anthropology as an academic discipline, which occurred in the environment and context of imperialism. Many of the early ethnographers in India functioned to further the hegemonic designs of both politicians and missionaries with their assumptions of superiority over the natives. The amassing of ethnographic material on customs, beliefs, and habits of the tribes and castes required patience for detail but little in the way of scholarly insight, insider perspective, or respect for the people being studied. The phenomenological approach that came to be seen as integral in many subsequent anthropological studies was nonexistent here. Because so many of the scholars who visited and wrote about India were employed by the Company, this affected not only what data they collected but how it was interpreted. Most found the rituals and beliefs of the Hindu too alien to their own JudeoChristian viewpoints and cultural conceptions to be seen as having any merit. The intended purposes of these observations and investigations were, after all, the forging of economic, political, and religious inroads, with the ultimate goal of establishing control. Empathetic understanding was hardly a consideration. European intellectuals of the time were being strongly influenced by the ideas of early 19th-century French social thinkers like Henri de SaintSimon and Auguste Comte. Comte asserted that the evolution of human thinking and belief can be seen in theological conceptualizations, the lowest being animism, followed by polytheism and then monotheism, the highest. This provided the missionaries in India an intellectual rationalization to go along with their ideological rejection of indigenous beliefs. They found easy justification in setting about degrading such beliefs verbally and in writing without stopping to consider their context or the positive role they might play in the lives of the people.

Due to the efforts of Grant and other evangelicals, a clause in the passage of the Charter Act of 1813 gave missionaries even freer rein to proselytize in India. Information for the bulk of their early writings was gathered from converts, high-caste intellectuals, and urban Indians who had business or political connections with the foreigners. Data collectors seldom possessed any real knowledge of local languages, religion, or culture, and their information was almost entirely dependent upon the whim and agendas of their few English-speaking informants. By the latter part of the 1800s, the theories of Charles Darwin and Herbert Spencer on human and cultural evolution were becoming popular, and many of the ethnographers at the time saw themselves as observers of the behaviors of inferior primitive peoples. Although this general attitude was ameliorated to some extent by the end of the century, these earlier writings continued to be utilized as sources by many historians and anthropologists. Limited understanding of what was heard and observed contributed to conflicting interpretations and conclusions.

Interest in and travel to India by Europeans swelled throughout the 19th century. This was especially true of the British, who were drawn by their government’s growing economic and political control of the subcontinent. The collection of writings and memoirs of India continued to grow as well, and in 1823, the Royal Asiatic Society of Great Britain and Ireland was founded by Henry Thomas Colebrooke as a British counterpart to the society started by Jones.

Colebrooke had worked for the Company for 32 years and had also served for 9 years as president of the Asiatic Society. The British counterpart soon began its annual Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society (JRAS). It was initially devoted to publishing ethnographic and historical studies of all of Asia, although research on India tended to dominate in its pages. While several members of Asian royalty were made honorary members, only with rare exception did the work of any Asians appear in the journal’s pages. This is because they were not generally seen as having the scholarly acumen or even the intellectual ability to add any meaningful insight to their own history or cultural traditions.

As the number of literate Indians who dealt with the English grew, many came to realize that, like the Muslims before them, the British wanted to acquire control not only of their economic and political life, but of their religious life as well. This caused an increasing number of Indians to look upon the British with the same disdain, resistance, and resentment they had long felt for their Muslim rulers. It led many to resist further attempts by the British to expand their data collection, and it also inspired a group of educated Indians in Bengal to begin to counter the British depiction of India with their own version. Ram Mohun Roy (1774–1833) was one of the early figures in this movement. He was an active writer, starting several newspapers and journals in Calcutta, and he inspired Bengali intellectuals to discuss and promote philosophy and theology to help counter British depictions of them and their traditions. In 1828, he founded the Brahmo Sabha, which in time became the Brahmo Samaj. The goals of the organization were the reformation of what Roy saw as degraded religious ritualism and the rekindling of pride in Hinduism among the young intelligentsia. Bengal had been the center of British intellectual activity in India, and it soon became the center of indigenous intellectualism, giving birth to the vast majority of Indian English language writers and scholars during the 19th and early part of the 20th centuries.

The Sepoy Mutiny of 1857 turned out to be a blessing in disguise for the missionaries and their efforts in India. During the preceding decades, the Company had generally sought impartiality with respect to religion, being more concerned with business. At the same time, however, the evangelical influence on the British government had been growing, and there was once again a move to send more missionaries to Christianize India. As a result of the 1857 conflict, the government stripped the Company of its control in India and took it over in the name of Queen Victoria. In her proclamation in 1858, she stated that, as good Christians, the British had “the right and desire to impose our convictions on any of our subjects” (David, 1988, p. 88).

Early Academic Studies

In 1871, the Royal Anthropological Institute of Great Britain and Ireland was formed, and it began publishing Indian Antiquary (IA) the following year. The aim of this journal was slightly different from that of JRAS; it concentrated more on customs, rites, festivals, and other dimensions of religion and culture. Occasional text translations appeared as well, as did writings by some Indians. Nevertheless, both the JRAS and IA were European in sensibility and outlook, for even the infrequent indigenous author had usually been trained by western scholars and looked at India through westernized eyes. Throughout most of the 1800s, field research remained essentially in the form of ethnographic work on tribes, undertaken primarily by missionaries, travelers, and government officials, including military officers. Work not relevant to church or government had a more difficult time procuring sponsorship, and thus it was less likely to be undertaken.

Friedrich Max Muller, the famous German philologist and orientalist, began his Sacred Books of the East series in 1876, and this marked the first time there was a concerted effort to make Asian scriptures accessible to the English-speaking world. Muller drew on the groundwork laid by the earlier Western Sanskritists, bringing together some of their students and other translators to work on his series. Most of the translation efforts were focused on classical Brahmanic texts, and little or no attention was paid to the contemporary Hindu tradition. The translators were based primarily in Europe, and their understanding of the concepts of Hinduism came solely from what they found in the way of classical literature. The ethnographers in India, on the other hand, were largely unaware of India’s literary heritage. While the translators found a storehouse of ancient literary and cultural achievements, the ethnographers continued to perceive a strange amalgamation of primitive peoples and superstitious idol worshippers.

Access to translated accounts of early Hindu life and society did, nevertheless, stimulate and influence the development of sociological studies of India. One of the first attempts to look at the accumulating knowledge about India and its social institutions from a comparative and theoretical perspective came in the late 19th century. Although Karl Marx made use of some of the available Indian material in his 1853 work, On Colonialism, it is Sir Henry Maine’s Village Communities in the East and West (1871) that stands out as one of the original comparative works, approaching the subject using a sociological methodology. It was not until the 20th century that this approach became an integral part of Indian studies.

The establishment of textual studies resulted in the addition of an assortment of new perspectives with which to view the religions and cultures of India. This approach generally presented a more positive side of India to the Western world and had an influence in both India and the West. It gave those studying India, especially sociologists, access to material in which to search for the origins and history of Indian social institutions. Translated texts also found their way into the hands of European and American philosophers and writers, from Madame Blavatsky (1831–1891), founder of the Theosophical Society, to Ralph Waldo Emerson (1802–1882) and Walt Whitman (1819–1892). They were drawn by what was perceived to be deep metaphysical truths hidden in ancient Hindu literature. Although much of the work that resulted may not generally be considered academic, nevertheless it has had a profound influence on Western perceptions of India, and it has long inspired many who have subsequently done extensive scholarly work on the land and its religious and cultural beliefs and practices.


Hinduism started to have a new face for the West, but it was, for the most part, the orthodox Hinduism of classical Sanskrit texts, not the popular religion of the rural and contemporary people. This changing view of Hinduism in the West encouraged many educated upper-caste Indians to become involved in Sanskrit studies as well and to help promote the view of India and Hinduism as presented by these texts. Writing on these developments, the wellknown Indian sociologist M. N. Srinivas suggests that the “discovery of India’s past, and the antiquity, richness and versatility of its heritage, gave self-confidence to the elite and the material necessary for national myth-making” (Srinivas & Panini, 1973, p. 184). He further notes that the missionaries’ criticism of Hinduism and their conversion of the poor fed the nationalist sentiments of the upper-caste Hindu elite and encouraged efforts to counter British writings about their traditions.

Nearly all of the 19th-century writings by Hindus about their own society and culture were authored by Bengali Brahmin philosophers and Sanskritists, not by academic scholars. The purpose of their work was, for the most part, to present the Hindu tradition in a favorable light and to counter some of the earlier one-sided presentations by European missionaries and officials. During the late 1800s, Indians also began to add to the treasure chest of ethnographic and other academic writings on India. Their work started to appear in European journals and occasionally in book form. Ramachandra Ghosha’s History of Hindu Civilization: As Illustrated in the Vedas and Their Appendages (1889) was one of the first of a long list of indigenously written academic texts on India. It combines scholarship with an orthodox Brahmanic perspective to depict an idealized version of the history of Indian society and religion. Several years later, Pramatha Nath Bose published the first volume of his four-volume A History of Hindu Civilization During the British Rule. In it, he includes data on contemporary aspects of caste, culture, religion, economics, and education. For the next three decades, the authors of nearly all such writings continued to be predominately Bengali Brahmins, although the works of some Brahmins from Western India and the South emerged as well.

During the latter part of the 19th century, the writings of British thinkers such as E. B. Tylor, James George Frazer, Charles Darwin, and Herbert Spencer were influencing the approach to ethnography and the development of anthropology in India. Their views were far more theoretical than empirical, and this approach was often used. Early ethnographers believed that if they spoke with representatives of the high caste and the orthodox, they would get an accurate picture of the culture. They also functioned under the assumption that scientific observation is sufficient to reveal the vital dimensions of another’s culture. After all, the observers believed themselves to be of superior intellect and culture and thus capable of thoroughly understanding primitive peoples, as Indians were clearly believed to be. In the process, the ethnographers tended to ignore those whom Edwin Ardener calls the “muted” voices (Ardener, 1975).

In 1886, the first anthropological society in India was founded by Edward Tyrrel Leith in Bombay, boasting such members as D. Ibbetson, Sir Herbert Risley, William Crooke, and R. E. Enthoven. The approach of these field researchers extended beyond data collection and began to bring some aspects of phenomenology into their work. Although prejudices continued to color much of their view of the contemporary situation, these same writers were generally impressed with what they found in the Sanskrit texts. Compared with the missionaries, most of them were better educated, often in classical European languages, and from upper-class families in England. Coming from a hierarchical society in which they often resided near the top, they could relate to the social structure as depicted in the classical texts, seeing it as beneficial for maintaining stability. Their appreciation of these texts facilitated their acceptance of the Brahmanic version of the ideal society as valid. With the help of Brahmin pundits, they came to believe that the difference between the prevalent state of Hindu society and the idealized version in the texts was due to the degradation of the society, exacerbated by 1,000 years of foreign domination. In the process, these Indologists helped promote Brahmanic law as the law of the land, thinking that a return to this system would be more readily accepted by Indians and would also improve the society, making it more secure, smoothly functional, and easier to control.

20th-Century Studies

The 20th century brought an increase in the number of indigenous scholars making substantial contributions to Indian studies. They started their own professional associations with the aim of furthering indigenous scholarship and ethnographic work. In 1902, Satish Chandra Mukherjee founded the Dawn Society in Calcutta, which encouraged and published the work of young Bengali scholars. Four years later, the Bangiya Sahitya Parishad (Bengali Literary Association) was started by the National Council of Education with the purpose of furthering ethnographic studies. Indian universities in Calcutta, Lucknow, and Bombay became centers of indigenous anthropological research and writings. The work of scholars such as G. S. Ghurye, R. K. Mukherjee, D. P. Mukherjee, and D. N. Majumdar stood out and became accepted as genuine and valid representations of insider perspectives. However, since they were all from urban high-caste backgrounds and were almost all Bengali, the picture of Hindu society they constructed continued to be dominated by Bengali and high-caste urban points of view. Indian academic journals adopted the basic format of their European counterparts, with the exception that contributors and perspective were urban high caste Hindu rather than European.

The University of Calcutta opened the first department of anthropology in the country in 1921. Three years later, B. S. Guha earned a doctorate in anthropology from Harvard University; he was the first Indian to obtain such a degree. Among the more significant archaeological discoveries in India is that of Harappa in the mid-1800s by Charles Masson and Alexander Burnes. However, the efforts of Rakhaldas Bandyopadhyay (aka Rakhaldas Banerjee), superintending archaeologist for the Archaeological Survey of India, led to the unearthing of Mohenjodaro in 1922, and this discovery not only allowed for a far greater understanding of ancient India and culture but also brought more attention to indigenous archaeology.

As mentioned earlier, the legacy of intellectualism and scholarship in India is quite old. Indian philosophers and scholars have traditionally come from the urban high caste, and their own orthodox religious and cultural values and viewpoints have nearly always set the parameters of such learning. With the introduction of Western-style academic scholarship to India, it too became another vehicle with which some perpetuated, in academic discourse, the orthodox view of India and Hinduism, especially with respect to history, religion, and the caste system. This is not to suggest that Brahmins have not been able to look at their own culture and tradition dispassionately, or that none has produced quality and insightful scholarship, for this is far from the case. Clearly, some of the foremost academic work on India has been done, and continues to be done, by Brahmin scholars. However, acknowledgment of their social and economic background and influences is important. The Subaltern Studies Series is a recent example of writings by Indian scholars with the intention of being “self-consciously and systematically critical of elitism in the field of South Asian studies” (Guha, 1984, p. vii). The various articles in the series raise some fundamental questions about the nature of much of the writing and history making in South Asia. Significantly, the majority of the series’ contributors are Bengali Brahmins, although some work of non-Bengali Brahmins, othercaste Hindus, Muslims, and Western scholars can also be found in the series.

Because caste consciousness has been such an integral part of Indian society, it is deeply seated in the Hindu psyche. Its justification and defense have been fundamental parts of the cultural and religious indoctrination of most upper-caste Hindus, even many of those with a secular upbringing. As a consequence, their writings on the topic of caste have traditionally been closer to a form of orthodox apologetics than to objectively oriented research into and critique of the system. For an upper-caste scholar who maintains reverence for his religious and cultural traditions yet seeks to undertake scholarly research, a conflict inevitably arises that pits his socioreligious belief system against his academic training. This, no doubt, has the potential to circumscribe research perspectives and subsequent analyses. Thus, while much of the indigenous work done on caste prior to Indian independence was by Brahmins, it tended to be less fieldwork dependent and more textual in nature, relying heavily on the early Sanskrit writings to produce theories on the origin and historical development of caste that were consistent with the prevalent views of the social and religious elite. Little attention was given to direct empirical investigations, which would run the risk of putting high-caste scholars in close and direct contact with those considered low caste or untouchable (also known as Harijan, Scheduled Caste, or simply SC).

In the 1930s, the perspective of the low caste began to be revealed in written form. With the help of British laws and patronage, some Shudra (lowest of the “touchable” castes) and Harijan (the name used for bottom caste members by Mahatma Gandhi in place of “untouchable”) became educated and found employment privately or in government service. Dr. B. R. Ambedkar, the most renowned SC of the time, began writing his critique of Hindu society and religion, continuing to do so until his death in 1956. An intriguing and charismatic figure who fought caste inequities all his life, he converted to Buddhism just before his death. His writings are extremely critical of the Indian government, orthodox Hinduism, and especially of Mahatma Gandhi, whom he felt had a misguided approach to helping those of the lowest caste that did them more harm than good. Ambedkar’s writings present a dimension of Hindu society that most high-caste Hindus were, and continue to be, incapable of understanding or accepting (see The Annihilation of Caste, 1990, by Bhimrao Ambedkar).

By the 1940s, the interest of social anthropologists working in India grew to incorporate village studies in addition to their traditional work on tribes. The belief was that one could extrapolate from village studies theories that would shed light on ancient social and religious life. Sociological studies on caste were mostly historical and still undertaken, whether by foreigners or Brahmins, from a predominantly high-caste perspective. However, secularized Hindus from other castes were beginning to take part in academic studies and added to the compendium of indigenous literature about India and Hindu life. The Anthropological Survey of India (ANSI) was founded in 1945. Its vision statement (ANSI, n.d.b) set as one of its primary goals “mapping the bio-cultural profile of Indian populations.” During its first several decades, ANSI supported and promoted research that tended to focus on tribal issues, especially beliefs, practices, and health-related issues (ANSI, n.d.a). By the 1960s, caste and clan studies, as well as genetics and archaeology, received increased attention from the organization. Since that time, research trends have changed somewhat, due in part to a variety of contemporary ethnic and political influences. Tribal and genetic studies have continued to be important to ANSI members, as is reflected in their publications.

Shortly after the founding of ANSI, the Department of Anthropology was established at the University of Delhi. Lucknow University followed suit within a few years. The latter department was begun by Majumdar with an emphasis on a scientific approach to research and intensive fieldwork-based ethnography and archaeology. Indigenous anthropology in India was gaining attention and status, and there were several notable scholars in the field. The department took its inspiration from them (Khare, 2008). Still, most anthropologists working on India were trained or influenced by the work of British and American anthropologists such as Bronislaw Malinowski, A. R. Radcliffe-Brown, E. E. Evans-Pritchard, Franz Boas, and Robert Redfield. All these figures had studied “others” and never used the tools to look at their own cultures and peoples, so the work of Indian anthropologists in India brought a new dynamic to the process. The postIndependence period saw the Indian government increase funding for indigenous research scholars, but at the same time it sought to influence the types of research done. This functioned to add another set of agendas to the construction of Indian studies and the reconstructing of Indian history. Whenever a government funds research by its own nationals, it can go a long way toward determining what topics are to be studied. In Independent India, this has often been the case (Barnes, 1982).

In 1951, Ghurye, who was head of the Department of Sociology at the University of Bombay, founded the Indian Sociological Society. It functioned to promote indigenous research within India. In much of the work in Indology done since Independence, authors have continued to depict the orthodox religion and its value system as the primary, if not sole, religious paradigm within Hinduism. One often wonders if some such researchers are even aware of the myriad sets of values, beliefs, and practices that are prevalent. India is a land of diverse value systems and religious traditions; each subcaste, ethnic group, religious sect, and region has its own unique formulation that mixes panHindu, regional, ethnic, and caste elements.

In his discussion of the social dynamics of “center and periphery,” Edward Shils (1975) asserts that the majority of the population in most premodern societies has existed outside the domain of direct influence of the orthodox value systems dominating their respective societies. Most people have maintained and functioned within their own sets of values, understood as the “periphery” by those in the “center.” Periodically and in certain situations, however, these popular sets of values may be expressed within the parameters of the central value system to give the values, or their espousers, a veneer of orthodox legitimacy. For the most part, however, a sharp distinction remains on the functional level.

This theory can be correctly applied to India, both historically and in modern times, and it makes clear the limitations of depending on the orthodox view of culture and society as an accurate interpretation of the lives of the masses. Because of the social and religious separation between themselves and the low castes, urban high-caste Hindus generally have a limited understanding of the complex and nuanced value systems that motivate most other Indians, namely the rural low caste and tribals. Instead, they tend to assume that most of the beliefs and behaviors of the rural majority are being generated from and are simply modifications of high-caste values. While it is apparent that some high-caste scholars have been successful in their efforts to bracket out their own “casteness” while performing field research, others have not, and some do not even attempt to do so. As in the case of the writings of 18th- and 19th-century Europeans, such biases do not negate the work done, but they do demand contextualization to put the studies into proper perspective. As has been observed, the social position of observers determines what they are likely to see (Vidich, 1970).

In a social hierarchy like that in India, the determinants are often very clear. Srinivas’s own work reveals a great deal of caste-influenced myopia. He reluctantly acknowledges in The Remembered Village (1976) that his friends and informants were all upper-caste Hindus. Even then, he suggests that the views on the religious beliefs and practices about which he writes were likely shared by Harijans with whom he had admittedly never talked or even interacted (Srinivas, 1976). Unfortunately, this approach was more the rule than the exception. Louis Dumont, a wellknown French social anthropologist who was also considered an authority on Indian society, wrote of the importance of learning from the people themselves which modes of thinking are appropriate for scholars to use in researching them (Dumont, 1970). The difficulty here is that the people from whom Dumont apparently gained his understanding seem to have all been members of the urban religious and secular elite. There is an ease with such an approach for those who seek validation of traditional preconceptions and those who find such views convenient when constructing orderly academic theories about Hinduism. Other scholars have rightly questioned this often-used methodology. The well-respected sociologist Triloki Nath Madan suggests that intellectuals must cultivate a “skeptical attitude” when attempting to utilize “simple-minded” dichotomies and other theories to explain complex societies (Madan, 1982).


Since the mid-20th century, research on India has become a regular part of many anthropology programs in the West. Departments and programs focusing on Indian studies and South Asian studies have also been established, and anthropological research has played a fundamental role. Anthropology has become a prevalent academic topic in most larger Indian universities as well. Bachelors and masters of science courses and degrees are offered throughout the country. The various subfields in the discipline include prehistoric archaeology, physical anthropology, social anthropology, linguistics, and applied anthropology. Increasingly, Indian universities are holding conferences focusing on the various subfields, as well as on issues such as poverty, human rights, tribal studies, and caste studies.

Although teaching is one of the career paths for graduates, it is not a highly emphasized career in the country, and graduates instead tend to seek out employment in other fields. These include the government sector, both locally and nationally, in the areas of urban planning, tourism, cultural resource management, community development, public service programs, and rural and tribal development. Other less prevalent but occasionally available career options include museum work, documentary film making, or jobs with nongovernmental organizations working in underdeveloped areas of the country. Indian anthropologists have also found employment with international organizations like UNESCO, UNICEF, and WHO. Because both government and private sector organizations view assistance and development of target groups as their goals, training in applied anthropology reflects this approach. Government sponsorship is done with the expectation that ideas and approaches will be instituted to further government efforts in those directions.

Using the concept of applied anthropology, an increasing number of academics in the field now see themselves as social advocates and activists rather than simply observers. Although this has had positive results in many situations, it has also become the justification for some to take a less than objective approach to information gathering and presentation. Good scholarship is hampered when researchers use a “the ends justify the means” argument to overlook truth and accuracy in using academic writing to promote a favored cause, even when that cause is a positive and worthwhile one. Nevertheless, the research and writings that have been produced have contributed immensely to the ongoing examination of Indian society and culture. While the promotion of the Brahmanic perspective has generally died away, it has often been replaced at larger Indian universities by a Marxist orientation that tends to be highly critical of not only the orthodox religious perspective but also the increasingly capitalist direction of India. This reflects the kind of orientation that has become prevalent in various Western university departments.

Coupled with the writings of orientalists, missionaries, and Indologists over the last several centuries, the aggregate of literary works that have been produced provides an abundance of perspectives and viewpoints from which to examine India and Indian studies. A fundamental portion of these writings is a direct product of ethnographic and anthropological research. The work of both Indian and Western scholars has increasingly shown an awareness of the need to use multiple techniques and perspectives in everything from the development of theoretical considerations to the collection, interpretation, analysis, and presentation of data. While such an approach is understood, it is still missing in much of what ultimately gets produced. Studies based on limited research and narrow perspectives and agendas, be they academic, religious, or political, have proven to be too myopic to grasp and express the diversity and subtleties that are inevitably existent in any people’s social and religious belief systems, especially in a land as culturally and religiously varied as India. Nevertheless, if adequately contextualized, much of this work can have scholarly value and yield revealing insights. As Western scholars are able to set aside many of the traditional Western and academic preconceptions of India and Hinduism, and as Indians are able to set aside indigenous biases, these scholarly works will inevitably lead to a more genuine understanding of the land, her complexities and diversities, and her wonders.


  1. This was originally an extract from Report on East India Company Affairs #14, General Appendix I (1833).
  2. The category orientalist becomes subsumed in the 20th century under the term


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