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Role Name Affiliation

National Coordinator

Subject Coordinator Prof Sujata Patel Dept. Of Sociology,

University of Hyderabad

Paper Coordinator Prof.Edward Rodrigues Centre for the study of Social


Jawaharlal Nehru University

New Delhi

Content Writer Janaki Somaiya Dept. Of Sociology

University of Mumbai

Content Reviewer Prof. Edward Rodrigues Centre for the study of Social

JNU New Delhi

Language Editor Prof. Edward Rodrigues Centre for the study of Social

JNU New Delhi

Technical Conversion

Module Structure

Indological and orientalist constructions of Introduction, The Indological approach, The

religion in India Orientalist approach, A critical analysis of
Indology and Orientalism, Conclusion.

Description of the Module

Items Description of the Module

Subject Name Sociology

Paper Name Religion and Society

Module Name/Title Indological and Orientalist constructions of

Religion in India.

Module Id Module no. 05

Pre Requisites Concepts of Eurocentricism, varna, book-view,

field-view, textual analysis, the nature of duality in
Western philosophy.

Objectives This module seeks to analyze the way in which

religion in India got described by scholars in the
colonial period, thereby also becoming a source of
colonial imperialism.

Key words Indology, Orientalism, Eurocentricism,

Brahminical view of Indian society.

Religion and Society

Module 5: Indological and Orientalist constructions of Religion in



In this module we shall understand the ways in which religion and the episteme of
tradition in India got construed within Sociology through Indological and
Orientalist perspectives. We begin by understanding the historical context in
which religion in India came to be described. In the subsequent sections we shall
understand what these perspectives mean and their relevance in the study of
religion in India, followed by a critical analysis which tries to deconstruct the
image of religion in India as the mystic East and the politics involved in such
stereotyping. It is important to note that public opinion in the West, about India
and its culture is still largely shaped by such images.

In the history of Western scholarship, the textual disciplines were bound by the
study of classical texts of ancient Greece and Rome. This trend however was
encouraged by the affinity discovered by Sir William Jones in the resemblance
between Sanskrit and European languages. The initial encouragement in studying
other cultures and societies streamed from a curiosity in the treasures of the East,
which could have been the source of Western religions and philosophies. A
number of historical accounts such as travelogues written by ancient and medieval
writers were embellished and mostly exaggerated descriptions of India. As the
explorations increased by the Portuguese, the French, the English, this image
slowly began to fade away as India then became merely a source of luxurious
items for trading purposes.

The nineteenth century was a period when British officials, travelers and
missionaries collected a considerable quantity of basic information on the
character and resources of the country they had conquered, its people, ecology,
agriculture, land revenue and much more.

The various studies that had already been taken up by various scholars, historians,
from different parts of the world, described and re-described India through their

own cultural lens. From being projected as the land of desires, India soon
became a part of the white mans burden, which then became a part of colonial
project. It was in this context that Milton Singer explained that India was not out
there waiting to be understood. It had already been discovered and rediscovered
many times in other peoples terms. India has been struggling to free herself from
these foreign terms since independence. (Singer, 1957)

A rigorous study of Indias cultures and belief systems began with the
Ethnographic Survey of India, established at the beginning of the nineteenth
century, which also led to the compilation of the district gazetteers, the Imperial
Gazetteer of India, and the many volumes on the tribes. Professional
anthropologists were the last to join the band of data-collectors who contributed to
the description of India and her traditions. We shall understand in the following
sections that there is a striking contrast between the early descriptions of India by
the early Greek and Roman writers as compared to these later descriptions during
the colonial period.

The Indological approach:

The need for administrative purposes of a knowledge of the structure of Indian

society led to a systematic study of the nature of Indian society through different
perspectives. By 1818, and the final defeat of the Marathas, the British became
acutely aware of the baffling variety of cultures and people in India. The company
then directly supported surveys to collect more systematic information about the
land and its people. This official view of Indian society was also reflected in the
anthropological theories of the period 1870-1910.

The documentation of the community social behaviour, customs and mores

became a major project for the British. Indologists built an extensive collection of
knowledge on Vedic and post-Vedic scriptures and translated ancient Indian texts
from Sanskrit into European languages. The Indologists believed that scriptures
and texts are a major source of information about the history and character of the
different schools and sects, as well as about their social life generally.

British officials relied on native informants, generally Brahmins, to codify

practices and classify castes. The Brahmins had already elaborated the varna four-
fold classification theory, but manipulated it to capitalize on new opportunities
presented by the British. The Indologists were convinced that the religious texts

were indeed accurate guides to the culture and society of the Hindus. Several of
them with the help of local Brahmins translated these texts, projecting a
Brahminical view of Indian society. Indian society was viewed as a set of
religious beliefs that the upper-caste Hindus followed. Once the British has
defined something as an Indian custom or traditional dress, or the proper form of
salutation, any deviation from it was defined as a rebellion or an act to be
punished. India was redefined by the British to be a place of rules and order; once
the British had defined to their own satisfaction what they constructed as Indian
rules and customs then the Indians had to conform to these constructions. (Cohn,

One may look at the work of Louis Dumont (1980) and his Indological
characterization of Indian society. What Dumont saw was a timeless ideology of
caste hierarchy replicated at every level of Indian society and culture. This view
was itself a result of certain practices of classification and enumeration within the
colonial perspective which portrayed Brahminical texts as representing the social
reality of India. This Indological approach seemed to be a de-contextualized
depiction of Indian society as being a Hindu society unaffected by a thousand
years of Islamic and five hundred years of European history, which
interpenetrated it. It achieved its image of 'holistic' Hindu ideology.

Research, A M Shah (1974), who has done a critical review of historical

sociology, has argued that G.S. Ghurye brought his background of Indology and
rigorous training in Sanskrit to bear on his important writings on family and Kin
in the Indo-European culture, the Indian 'sadhus', gods and men, and 'Pravara' and

In an essay on the scholarship of L.K.A Iyer, Kalpana Ram puts forward an

essential argument thus stated,

Iyers essay on Religion in the Mysore volumes effortlessly absorbs an

evolutionist schema in which Brahmanic religion retains its place on the top of the
civilization ladder. But in his version, Brahmanism is distinguished in a new way
from the religion of lower castes and tribes which henceforth become the
province of totemism, magic, sorcery, and animism. The religion of the
upper castes consists of named, organized bodies of thought. It includes the
hymns and sacrifices of the Rig Veda, the philosophy of the Upanishads,

doctrines of karma. Magic and sorcery on the other hand are considered the
province of non-elites. (Uberoi, et al., 2000)

In Indian sociology and social anthropology, apart from Ghurye, several other
scholars had contributed to the Indological studies by using textual sources for
interpretation and reconstruction of religion. Notable among them are Ketkar
(1909), Altekar (1927), Karandikar (1929), K M Kapadia (1945), and Iravati
Karve (1953, 1961). More specifically, Karve (1953; 1961) had systematically
used anthropometry and ethnographic data on family, various castes, tribes and
clans, also linguistic data on kinship terminologies, religions and cultural regions
of Maharashtra. Her work on caste is mostly embodied in Hindu Society: An
Interpretation (1961) in which she questioned Ghurye's contention that the system
of caste and varna was a product of the Indo-Aryan culture and that it diffused to
parts of the Indian subcontinent. Although Karve titled her chapter on caste as "a
historical survey", most of the references cited in this chapter are from such
textual sources as Vedas, Upanishadas, Manusmriti, Bhagvadgita, Ramayana,
Mahabharata and so on. Hence, like Ghurye's work, Karve's work also suffered
from the limitations of Indological approach if it is to be understood as use of
history in "reconstruction of caste as a form of living hierarchical system of
discrimination" (Sundar, 2005). Her references to the present day caste system
and its functioning are only token, not supported by any historical data, textual
sources or even by contemporary field data.

Karve's other well known work, Yugant (1991) is essentially an insightful re-
interpretation of the epic of Mahabharat, in which she has challenged the
commonly held norms of a Hindu family - particularly those ideas associated with
ideal womanhood. The question is whether we are to distinguish between myth
and history or not. It hardly needs to be over-emphasized that texts may at times
be necessary, but certainly not sufficient, for historical reconstruction, analysis,
reasoning and interpretation.

A kind of transposition is at work here, where some of the terms through which
the British distinguished Europe from India become reworked in order to
distinguish elite from non-elite Indians. Classical texts often change hands and go
through several interpolations by the time they are handed down to us. Hence, the
question as to whether or not an analysis based on textual interpretation, however
meticulously attempted, could be accepted as a viable substitute for rigorous use

of historical method, still remains open. It needs to be emphasized that in studying
Indian society it is quite legitimate to examine classical texts as sources of
cultural practices, behavior patterns, norms and values, and as legitimating
institutions that regulate day-to-day life of people.

Against this practice of textual analysis of scriptures within religious studies, M.N
Srinivas presented another practice, that of field work. The absence of a unity
within Hinduism due to the absence of a single church organization did not
prevent scholars from defining Hinduism as one single religion. It did not in any
way extend any justice to the diversity of rituals within each caste, village, town,
city or state. Srinivas distinguished these variations within Hinduism according to
the degree of geographical spread. Srinivas called this as the process of
Sanskritization which he concludes, occurred in two ways: by the extension of
Sanskritik deities and ritual forms to an outlaying group, as well as by the greater
Sanskritization of the rituals and beliefs of groups inside Hinduism. Through this
process the lower castes and various tribal groups were brought under the Hindu
fold. (Srinivas, 1956) But according to him, what affected the conceptualization
of Hinduism within scholarly content was the constant dependence on Sanskritik
texts and the ritual practices of the Brahmins.

The Orientalist approach:

The Indian reformers tried to initiate an Indian renaissance while being exposed to
the criticisms of Christian missionaries, as well as British liberalism of the
nineteenth century. Thus the knowledge that got constituted within India, about its
culture, belief systems, philosophy et all cannot be seen, keeping out the context
of colonial rule within which it was formed. Early studies by European scholars
were often tinted with their own cultural prejudices. These prejudices also shaped
the views of the Indian intelligentsia.

It is also important to note that there were several studies conducted by the
missionaries that arrived in India. Amongst the missionaries, there was an attempt
to condemn Hindu society for its many evils. In the view of Charles Grant, one of
the early evangelicals, the only hope for the improvement being the conversion of
Indian population to Christianity. One could here talk about the American writer,
a woman named Katherine Mayo who wrote the classic epitome of the white
mans burden in a book titled, Mother India published in 1927 in the United

States. She collected and noted in this work horrors of Indian society to haunt
anyone- child marriage, subordination of wives to husbands, low status of
widows, unsanitary and unskilled midwives, purdah, devdasi, sickness, Indian
medicine, untouchables, shameless begging, the educated unemployed, and much
more. She passed judgments of total inferiority on the Indian civilization, while
the Greeks and the Romans in her works become objects of awe and curiosity.
(Singer, 1972, pp. 20-21)

This perspective then merged with the discourse of reform that was deeply
threaded in the language of late-nineteenth century Indian sociology. Their
problem being to reconstitute Indian society to make it both modern, by
recognizing universal rights, but at the same time Indian, by preserving Hindu
traditions and law.

This tendency to move seamlessly from liberalism and rationalism to a

conservative religious understanding of Indian society is found in works of major
scholars like G.S Ghurye. Ghuryes sociology drew heavily on the traditions of
British and German Orientalism that had emerged out of eighteenth century
European debates on the nature and origin of civilization and the Wests
fascination with what were thought to be the earliest civilizations- Greece and
Egypt. According to Upadhyay (2007), the Aryan invasion theory, together with
the Orientalist construction of Hindu society, formed the discursive basis of the
various social and religious reform, revivalist, and nationalist movements that
proliferated in the second half of the nineteenth century.

This theory also underwrote Ghuryes main thesis that Indian civilisation was
formed through the slow assimilation of non-Aryan groups to Aryan or Vedic
culture. In Aborigines he criticizes the view of anthropologist Verrier Elwin and
several British administrators that the Indian tribes are culturally distinct from
caste Hindus and that their way of life should be preserved through state-enforced
isolation from Hindu society. Unlike most anthropologists, Ghurye also critiqued
the tribe/caste distinction itself and regarded tribals as imperfectly integrated
classes of Hindu society or Backward Hindus. (Ghurye, 1959)

With Ghuryes emphasis on the study of tradition, studying institutions of

family, kinship, caste and religion, (specifically Hindu in content), sociology of

reform got resonated in the works of mainstream sociologists. Ghurye was able to
pass on his orientalist approach to his students.

Another scholar who influenced the study of religion in India was Vivekananda
(18631902), the founder of the Ramakrishna Mission, an organization devoted to
the promotion of a contemporary form of Advaita Vedanta (non-dualism). He
placed particular emphasis upon the spirituality of Indian culture as a curative for
the nihilism and materialism of modern Western culture. In Vivekanandas hands,
Orientalist notions of India as other worldly and mystical were embraced and
praised as Indias special gift to humankind. Thus the very discourse that
succeeded in alienating, subordinating and controlling India was used by
Vivekananda as a religious clarion call for the Indian people to unite under the
banner of a universalistic and all-embracing Hinduism. (King, 1999)

Similarly, Benoy Kumar Sarkars scholarship has been essentially coloured with a
nationalist fervour, shaped by his membership of the Dawn Society and by his
participation in the Swadeshi movement. The influence of Shukraniti, a Sanskrit
text seems to have influenced his thought. Sarkars work tried to describe the
materialist history of India as a confrontation between ancient India and the India
of his time. History then became a way of making the past a presence in the
consciousness of colonial India, of establishing relations of commonality between
institutions described in ancient texts and those in contemporary India. (Chatterji,
2007) Sarkar spoke of India as being exclusively Hindu, while at other times
including Islam and the Muslim period as being part of the Indian civilizational
process. Sarkar was introduced to these ideas through the Dawn society which,
under the auspices of Satish Chandra Mukherjee, organized classes on subjects as
diverse as the Bhagvat Gita, the Indian village tradition of Swaraj, the philosophy
of Kant and Hegel, and so on.(Chatterji, 2007) Sarkar used sociology to oppose
orientalist representations of India that were put forward by Indologists. But this
glorification of one single religion (Hinduism) as constituting an entire
civilization was an error committed by many sociologists of that period.

A critical analysis of the Orientalist and Indological study of religion in


Colonial conquest and knowledge both enabled ways to rule and to construct was
colonialism was all about. This form of classification proved beneficial for one
indigenous group, the Brahmins, who were given a superior status. Anthropology
then moved beyond classification that assessed racial stock through
anthropometric studies was slowly replaced by the indological method.

When we look at the historical background in which these works were carried out,
the period of national struggle, one cannot help but wonder if a perspective of
tradition that was assumed as being a significant character of Indian society, was
used to constantly battle the notions of colonial superiority (modernity) and
Eurocentricism. There are innumerable problems attached to such a view. It
confined the discipline of sociology within its walls of tradition, at the same time
producing knowledge that was deeply rooted in a Brahminical view of Indian
society. It never detached itself from its colonial roots of Western education, in
creating a class of intellectuals (in this case caste Brahmins), who interpreted
Indian society for the colonial masters. It carefully adopted an evolutionary view
of Indian society placing Brahmins at the top of the civilizational order, upholding
it conservativism.

Cohn explains how the establishment of the Ethnographic Survey of India, as part
of the census (1901), played a crucial role in defining the official view of caste.
Indians increasingly started to identify themselves as part of endogamous groups
owing to the constant need for government applications in indentifying citizens by
caste. While caste distinctions among Hindus were rigorously recorded, similar
distinctions among other religious groups did not receive equal attention.

Frantz Fanon has argued that the transfer of power from the colonists to what he
calls the national bourgeoisie maintains the colonial institutions intact.

Cohn(2001) argues how the view of Indian society was derived from the textual
analysis of Indian society. A view of Indian society which was derived from the
study of texts and cooperation with pundits had several consequences. It led to a
consistent view that the Brahmins were the dominant group in the society. The
acceptance of the textual view of the society by the orientalists also led to a
picture of Indian society as being static, timeless and space-less. Max Weber was
also criticised for his flawed perception of Hinduism and Buddhism as being
other-worldly and irrational in their inner spirit and hence were incapable of
developing industrial capitalism. This perspective reconstructs the western bias
towards Asian cultures as being incapable of social progress enmeshed with the
prejudices of the Enlightenment thinkers.

As Dumont (1972: 70-103) has argued: understanding the values, belief system
and ideology underlying caste system in India is vitally important and indis-

pensable. Dumont's assertion need not be disputed. Nonetheless, while bringing
out the most fundamental distinction between "purity" and "pollution", Dumont
drew heavily on textual interpretations from P V Kane's History of
Dharmashastras. In this context, whatever has been presented by Dumont as
historical evidence and data is essentially extracted from normative classical
literature that tended to depict "ideal" rather than "real". That "ideal" was a
product of the dominant Brahmanical culture and regimented social order in
which prescriptions and proscriptions of purity and pollution were coaxed in
religious-ethical codes of the Dharmashastras and Grihyasutras - this has also
been admitted by Dumont (ibid, pp 88-112).

It is true that Ghurye and Dumont never confined themselves to the use of sacred
texts only. Both have used primary data and secondary sources produced either by
themselves or by other sociologists and anthropologists. However, Ghurye's
Indological probing and frequent excursions in anthropometry cannot be mistaken
as systematic reconstruction of history or historical analysis of structure and
change in Indian society.

The religious construction of knowledge by the British not only constructed the
predominant Western image of India, but it also contributed to a sense of self-
awareness that the Indians it went on to describe. The intelligentsia that arose in
the colonies was a creature of imperialism. Wherever imperialism went, it
particularly destroyed the old social organisation, and created a distorted society.
It created new classes and new strata. It destroyed the balance of forces that
contributed to the equilibrium of the old indigenous social order.


It is important to note that classical texts or scriptures cannot be taken at their face
value, as they go through a series of processes of editing throughout their
historical journey. They are nonetheless a rich source of information for an
anthropologist. Yet, textual interpretation must be conducted only in the context
of the culture and society in which it is found.

Earlier anthropologists by confining their study to a tribe, avoided dealing with

the central defining reality of the colonial political-economic framework.

Social anthropology was in itself was formed as a discourse rooted in a
Eurocentric view of the world. The early theories of social evolutionary theorists
like Taylor and Morgan are an evidence of this. One has to keep in mind, this
view as a backdrop while understanding the study of religions in non-Western
societies. The western educated intelligentsia was created to fulfil certain
requirements of the colonial state. The most well known statement had been
attributed to the liberal English statesman, Maculay (also the Governor General
and President of the General Committee of Public Institutions), who stated, The
aim of English education was to create a class of persons, Indian in colour and
blood, but English in taste, opinions, in morals and in intellect. To Maculay, the
political or military conquest was unimportant compared to the conquest over the
minds. Even if India were to slip out of the British Empire, what mattered was
that the Indian people continue to sing the glory of British institutions and values.
The western-educated intelligentsia though a part of the conquered population,
owed its social existence to imperialism. (Raman, 1982)

It is also of much importance to know the duality of subject-object, knower-

known, insider-outsider while understanding the context within which the
knowledge about cultures came to be constructed. Indian culture came to be
generalized as a Hindu culture, which further was presupposed and romanticized
as being mystical, as opposed to its rational Western counterpart. The
characterizations of this-worldly religious world-views as opposed to the
other-worldly world views of the East came to define the dualities of the West
and the East. It was this conception of duality that was later challenged by most
post modernist scholars. The idea of duality involved an inherent power relation
of one dominating the other. In this case that other is the mystical east and
the stereotypical conceptions such as being irrational, ascetic, subjective and
mystical etc attached to the religions in the East. This kind of othering also
involves an inherent form of subordination and exclusion. 1

In conclusion, we understand that most Orientalist works functioned to portray

Indian thoughts, institutions and practices as distortions of the normative ideal of
Western thought. It transformed entire cultures into being subjugated by a
superior form of knowledge, which was always controlled by the Western
Read Edward Saids book Orientalism for a better understanding of the term, along with its
critical reviews. Also make a note of the references to Foucaults knowledge/power debate
within Saids work.

Indological expert. All that was rational, logical became superior, while the object
of their study, was deemed inferior. This idea was essentially a feature of the post-
enlightenment thought that had a strong belief in scientific rationalism
underpinned by the ideas of social Darwinism, the progressive evolution of
society and a Eurocentric view of history. While sociology in the West evolved as
an intellectual response to the perceived challenges of modern society, sociology
in India, especially in the post-independent period was persistently for a long
period of time trapped in the study of a glorified past. It almost seemed like a
dogmatist attempt of the academia within Indian sociology to assert a distinctive
quality to the understanding of Indian society, as if to exalt the progressive
character of Hindu traditions in response to its Western critique 2. Both the
disciplines of sociology and social anthropology mark a distinct phase in the
intellectual orientation that characterized not only the colonial rulers engagement
with traditional Indian society, but also the distinctive way in which modernity
itself came to be accepted and represented by the various sections of Indian

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