Autumn Number 2019

Towards An Alternative Discourse

Colonial Legacy and Hindu Anthropology

Abhijit Guha

There is a standard critique of Indian anthropology advanced by some of the Indian anthropologists. The critics say that Indian anthropology is the product of a colonial tradition and the Indian anthropologists for various reasons followed their colonial masters in one way or the other.

As early as 1971 the famous Indian anthropologist Surajit Sinha in his insightful article published in the Journal of the Indian Anthropological Society (hereafter JIAS) observed that despite considerable growth in research publications and professional human power in social and cultural anthropology during the last 100 years, the Indian anthropologists largely remained dependent on western and colonial traditions. In continuation of his pertinent examination of the colonial dependence of Indian anthropology, Sinha contributed a full chapter entitled 'India: A Western Apprentice' in a book, Anthropology: Ancestors and Heirs, edited by the Marxist anthropologist Stanley Diamond in 1980 published by Mouton. In that article Sinha discussed 'the process of naturalisation of the different strands of 'Western anthropological traditions' and finally ended with a pessimistic note.

For some time, the proliferation of trained manpower, random efforts at catching up with the latest developments in the West and a general increase in the number of publications will characterise the development of Indian anthropology.

The borrowed ideas and concepts, when accepted uncritically, obscure the major issues involved in planned social change and stand in the way of posing the right kind of questions in the study of social change.

Sinha pursued with this critique of Indian social science by converging his attack on Indian Anthropology in the subsequent articles.

Taking note of his earlier article in the JIAS, Sinha in his 'Foreword' of the precious book Bibliographies of Eminent Indian Anthropologists (1974) written by Shyamal Kumar Ray, made a remark :
….there was a general reluctance among Indian scholars to take due note of the research publications of Indian pioneers and contemporaries. As a result, research endeavours of Indian scholars tend to be derivative, leaving the responsibilities of breaking new grounds exclusively to western scholars.

Although Sinha praised N K Bose and T C Das at the individual levels for their insight and ethnography respectively the critiques advanced by Sinha in his 1967, 1971 and 1980 articles on the overall achievement of Indian anthropology was quite negative and distressing. For him there was hardly any sign of an independent, let alone nationalist Indian anthropology. In his article entitled 'Urgent Problems for Research in Social and Cultural Anthropology in India: Perspectives and Suggestions' published in Sociological Bulletin in 1968 Sinha identified three distinct social anthropological 'vantage points' to approach the urgent problems in India, which were: (i) study of 'Primitive Groups' of tribes, (ii) study of human groups for the theoretical understanding of Indian society and (iii) anthropological study of problems urgently needed for national reconstruction and development. But quite interestingly Sinha left the third area untouched for the purpose of the paper. It was not clear why he had done so and what purpose prevented him to undertake discussion on this vital area. More interestingly, few years later Sinha wrote in the Foreword of a book entitled Bibliographies of eminent Indian Anthropologists.

Next to Sinha came the critique of Amitabha Basu and Suhas Biswas who held professorial positions at the prestigious Indian Statistical Institute at Kolkata. In their article, 'Is Indian Anthropology Dead/Dying' published in the Journal of the Indian Anthropological Society, they raised the question of social relevance of Indian anthropology squarely and concluded that the subject was either dead or dying in the post-colonial period (Basu and Biswas, 1980 : 1-4). More interestingly, some commentators (e.g. V Balakrishnan, P P Majumder and D Piplai, 1980, pp. 4-5, 9-10 & 11-12) on the paper disagreed with Basu and Biswas and argued that Anthropology in India was very much useful for the ruling and privileged classes and might not be useful for the masses!

Celebrated Social Anthropologist and Sociologist André Béteille in one of his articles published in the Sociological Bulletin in 1997 wrote :
In India, each generation of sociologists seems eager to start its work on a clean slate, with little or no attention to the work done before. This amnesia about the work of their predecessors is no less distinctive of Indian sociologists than their failure to innovate (Béteille 1997:98).
Béteille's observation on Indian sociologists however, was not novel. About twenty five years before his pronouncement, Surajit Sinha critiqued Indian anthropologists almost in the same manner.

After about two decades of Sinha, another anthropologist, Biswanath Debnath in his article published in the Economic and Political Weekly, castigated Indian anthropologists for failing to evolve their own tradition and blindly following the footsteps of the colonial masters by studying small, isolated and marginal tribal communities and their process of integration in the mainstream Indian civilisation. Almost the same kind of shrill voice on the purported neo-colonial bias in Indian anthropology was heard in the writings of J J Roy-Burman in 2011.

In a recent article published in Economic and Political Weekly Vivek Kumar, a professor of Sociology at Jawaharlal Nehru University in his article 'How Egalitarian Is Indian Sociology?' observed a higher caste bias in Indian sociology and social anthropology.

For one thing, none of these critiques were forwarded by any western anthropologist or sociologist and all the critiques were put forward by professionals who earned or are earning their livelihood by practising Sociology and/or Anthropology in India.

While criticising Indian anthropology or sociology the critiques mostly ignored the studies done by the pioneers of the disciplines which were socially relevant and directed to the welfare and betterment of the underprivileged sections of the country and these studies for the betterment of the underdog were often conducted by anthropologists and sociologists who belonged to higher castes occupying elite positions in the society.

On the reverse side of the critiques there also existed a view that an Indian form of Anthropology could be discerned in many ancient Indian texts and scriptures before the advent of a colonial anthropology introduced by the European scholars, administrators and missionaries in the Indian subcontinent. As early as 1938 Jogendra Chandra Ghosh in his interesting article Hindu Anthropology published in the Anthropological Papers (New series) no. 5 of the University of Calcutta tried to show that before 6th Century BC, the Hindus innovated various measurements on human body and its parts, which in European terms may be called Anthropometry, an important branch of Physical Anthropology. Ghosh began his article by saying—
Anthropology is one of the modern progressive Sciences. Anthropometry and Ethnology are the two important branches of this Science. One shall here give some facts to show that the Hindus had their Anthropometry and Ethnology from a very early period.

Mr Ghosh further pointed out that the earliest record of those anthropometric measurements was found in Susruta-Samhita, a medical treatise written by the ancient Hindus. Ghosh also held that the ancient Hindus had their own notion of Ethnology and its first expression was found in Rgveda in which 'races' were classified on the basis of their skin colour. Suffice it to say that Ghosh was hinting at the fact that 'racial theory' became a major theme in later day western anthropology.

Another later proponent of Hindu Anthropology was the famous anthropologist Nirmal Kumar Bose (1901-1972) who was a onetime secretary of Mahatma Gandhi and himself a committed nationalist. Bose in his earliest textbook entitled Cultural Anthropology published in 1929 made a novel attempt to show that the ancient Hindus in their scriptures classified the desires or needs of human beings into artha (economic), kama(sexual) and moksha (spiritual) almost in the fashion of later day functional anthropologists of the West. Bose probably held that the Hindus like the western anthropologists had their own scheme of understanding human nature and behaviour which existed since long. Bose later proposed a theory in Indian anthropology entitled 'Hindu Method of Tribal Absorption' which helped to induce the tenets of Hindu Anthropology more effectively among the successive generation of anthropologists in India. The idea was first proposed in a paper in the Indian Science Congress in 1941. Bose's proposal was based on his short field trips among the Juang tribal community of the Pal Lahara region of Orissa.

The essence of the theory was the tribals who had come into contact with their powerful caste Hindu neighbours gradually lost their own tribal identity and were given a low caste status within the Hindu fold. This idea became very popular and acceptable among the mainstream Indian anthropologists and Bose's paper turned into a compulsory text in the curriculum of Indian Anthropology. There was hardly any question or restudy in the Juang area to recheck Bose's proposition and the idea took deep roots in the minds of Indian anthropologists for generations. The university and college students of India who studied anthropology were taught the theory of 'Hindu Method of Tribal Absorption' as an established sociological fact. Bose's nationalist ideas, therefore was based on his anthropological views of vertical integration of society in which the Brahaminical ideals were at the topmost position. Sociologist Pradip Bose neatly summarised the essence of Nirmal Kumar Bose's Hindu nationalism in a brilliant manner—
….Bose's depiction of Hinduism describes a process which vertically integrates various groups into a social structure administered and guided by Brahaminical ideals and values. The same vision of the absorptive power of Hinduism explains his argument that tribals were successfully assimilated into the Hindu fold. In a way, Bose like early Orientalist writers, projected Indian social history as essentially the history of Hinduism, or of the assimilation of non-Hindu groups into Hindu society.

Hinduisation of the tribals was accepted as an obvious and inevitable process which also helped to overlook any possibility of protest by the tribals against the Brahaminical imposition in any form. It also helped to hide the exploitation and subjugation of the tribals by the Hindus landlords. Later, another theory proposed by M N Srinivas, one of the doyens of Indian Sociology and Social Anthropology reinforced the superiority of the Brahmins by showing that the lower castes always tried to imitate and emulate the life-style of the twice-born castes. This theory came to be known as 'Sanskritization' and also became an essential part of the college and university curriculum in Indian Anthropology and Sociology. A lone Indian sociologist Surendra Munshi criticised both N.K.Bose and M N Srinivas in his brilliant article 'Tribal absorption and Sanskritisation in Hindu society' published in the prestigious journal Contributions to Indian Sociology in unequivocal terms.

The search for the counter movements against Hinduisation and ethno-graphies of anti-acculturative processes in Indian anthropology and sociology was marginalised to a large extent.

The Western scholars who came to India in the post-Independence period too mainly studied caste and village level dynamics as well as Indian civilisation under the framework of a high caste Hindu order which again added force to the models generated by Bose and Srinivas. The growth of a secular and national anthropology in India was nipped in the bud. Indian anthropology became Hinduised, religious and at the same time westernised. Indian anthropologists forgot that the development of a national Anthropology also required a secular and indigenous approach to the problems of nation building.

The tenets of Hindu Anthropology are still haunting some of the Indian anthropologists. Thus Ajit Kumar Danda, former Director of the Anthropological Survey of India and currently the Chairman of the Indian National Confederation and Academy of Anthropologists (INCAA) claimed in one of the professional journals of the subject, Journal of the Indian Anthropological Society in 2017.

One of the earliest Smritis: Manava Dharmasharstra (literally, The Sacred Science of Man), dates approximately 1350 BC... is perhaps the most ancient text in Anthropology ever produced anywhere on the earth. It is claimed to be more than 1000 years older than the first application of the word Anthropology as such, which is believed to have been used for the first time by Aristotle (384-322 BC).

The colonial critique of Indian anthropology (Sinha, Basu and Béteille) and the proponents of Hindu Anthropology (Ghosh, Bose and Danda) ignored the materialistic, socially committed, secular and nationalist trends of Indian anthropology which was growing in the hands of some remarkable anthropologists before and after independence of the country. The critics have only followed the smart way to criticise the pioneers instead of studying the socially committed works of the later and this was one of the reasons that Indian anthropologists failed to honour their nationalist predecessors and depended more on the wisdom of the Western scholars. Surajit Sinha, for example, held a critical view on the growth of Indian anthropology in the post-independence period which was largely pessimistic. Sinha viewed Indian anthropology as 'Western apprentice' and in the process he never made any attempt to search for the nationalist trends in Indian anthropology although he found some of his teachers, for example N.K.Bose and T.C.Das, had independent ideas. But Sinha never attempted to make any comprehensive and overall review of Indian anthropology from a historical perspective. Had he done so, he would have found remarkable scholars of the early Indian anthropology who though worked during the colonial period tried to build up a nationalist tradition of anthropology. Sinha sensed their existence but missed them badly. The new discourse in search of a nationalist trend in Indian anthropology, therefore, is urgently needed in the historio-graphy of the discipline.

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Autumn Number 2019
Vol. 52, No. 13 - 16, Sep 29 - October 26, 2019