Hindu Anthropology in India: An Exploration

Abhijit Guha

Any consideration in the contemporary context, of the traditional Hindu method of tribal absorption is therefore, sheer madness to my mind. In the present context this is simply anachronistic.
— Niharranjan Ray (1972: 23).

Research on the history of anthropology in India unlike western countries has not yet become a formidable tradition despite the fact that courses on the growth and development of anthropology in India had been recommended at the undergraduate and postgraduate levels in the Model Curriculum Development Report of the University Grants Commission as early as 2001 (Model Curriculum Development Report in Anthropology 2001). There are of course few published works on the history and the development of anthropology in India, which included L.P. Vidyarthi’s magnum opus entitled Rise of Anthropology in India: A Social Science Orientation (Vols. I & II) published in 1978. Vidyarthi’s book contained a lot of useful data on the history of anthropology during the colonial and post-colonial periods but it did not venture into a search for Hindu anthropology in India.

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 1952, Nirmal Kumar Bose in a significant article entitled ‘Current research projects in Indian anthropology’ published in Man in India  enumerated the research projects undertaken by the Department of Anthropology, Govt. of India( the former name of the Anthropological Survey of India) and the anthropology departments at Calcutta, Madras, Lucknow, Delhi, Gauhati and Osmania universities. Bose’s investigation was exhaustive and based on written replies from the Heads of the aforementioned institutions. After reviewing the overall scenario, he concluded:

There does not seem to be any problem which Indian anthropologists have made peculiarly their own. Anthropology in our country has, on the whole, followed the tracks beaten by anthropologists in the more powerful countries of the West. What they do, we generally try to repeat on the Indian soil (Bose 1952:133). (Italics mine).

Bose however, ended with the positive note that there were exceptions to the above generalisation and if Indian anthropologists could work independently on Indian problems, there was still sign of hope.  After 10 years, N.K.Bose published another article ‘Researches in Indian anthropology’ in the same journal in which he turned the attention of the readers from applied to ‘certain fundamental problems in anthropology’ and mentioned about the researches done by the social anthropologists on the  persistence of  the caste system. Along with this Bose mentioned the anthropometric surveys(measurements on human body) carried out by the physical anthropologists at the all-India level as another type of fundamental research and he found young anthropologists at the Anthropological Survey of India as ‘first-class workers’ (Bose 1962:179).     

After Bose, his famous student Surajit Sinha in his insightful article published in the Journal of the Indian Anthropological Society in 1971 (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 (Sinha 1971: 1-14). 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 the article Sinha discussed ‘the process of naturalization of the different strands of Western anthropological traditions’ and finally unlike his teacher N.K.Bose, 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 characterize the development of Indian anthropology (Sinha 1980: 281).(Italics mine).

Sinha pursued 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 (Sinha 1974: iii). (Italics mine).

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 pessimistic and distressing. For him, there was hardly any sign of an independent, let alone nationalist Indian anthropology.

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 B.C. 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. We shall here give some facts to show that the Hindus had their Anthropometry and Ethnology from a very early period (Ghosh 1938:27). (Italics mine).

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. He 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 who acted as the 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 the then Orissa (Bose 1953).

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(Bose 2007:326).(Italics mine).

Therefore, under Bose’s scheme, 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. 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:

My more serious criticism against Bose and Srinivas is that, lacking a general sociological theory of society and social change within the framework of which empirical data are to be collected, interpreted and transcended, they end up with the transformation of the object of study into a theory that has conditioned the study itself. In other words, in their concern with the ideal sphere, they are compelled to accept the ruling ideas of the society, past and present, for providing them with the interpretation of the corresponding empirical reality studied by them. In sum, their analysis is ideological (Munshi 1979:304). (Italics mine).

Munshi, however did not deal with the inconsistencies and lack of fit between the data collected by N.K.Bose and the theoretical generalisations made by him in his Hindu method of tribal absorption paper. Since the publication of the twin ideas, Indian anthropology and sociology revolved round ‘Hindu method of Tribal absorption’ and ‘Sanskritization’ and under the strong influence of Bose and Srinivas anthropology and sociology in India became oriented towards the study of Hindu religious and higher caste superiority. For example, Tarak Chandra Das’s view on Indian anthropology and the tribal society was completely different to that of Bose and Srinivas although the former’s work did not receive due attention by the anthropologists in India (Guha 2018:105-110). Interestingly, T. C. Das’s obituary was not published in any journal of anthropology in India. Only Sociological Bulletin published the obituary of this great nationalist anthropologist (Sociological Bulletin 1964).

Quite interestingly,  Surajit Sinha despite his deepest reverence for his teacher Bose, never followed Bose’s ideas of Hindu method of tribal absorption in his famous papers like (i) “Tribe–Caste and Tribe–Peasant Continua in Central India” (1965), and (ii) “The Concept of Diku among the Tribes of Chota Nagpur” (1969) published in Man in India. Sinha viewed “tribe” and “caste” as two ideal types in a scheme of social evolution in which actual societies could be plotted on a continuum with their independent existence and without the less complex (the tribe) being absorbed into the more complex (the caste) kind of social organisation (Sinha 1965: 57–83). Sinha also found the independent ethnic identity of the tribe being played at the emic level through the use of distinctive linguistic category, namely diku used by the tribes to refer to their Hindu neighbours (Sinha et al 1969: 121–38). Not unsurprisingly, no reference of Bose’s famous paper on the Hindu method of tribal absorption was found in Sinha’s papers written in 1959, 1965, and by Sinha et. al. in 1969. Sinha made his final pronouncement on Bose’s ideas with a reasonable amount of doubt in his paper entitled “Tribal Solidarity Movements in India: A Review”:

There is an underlying assumption in Bose’s proposition that, on the whole, this process of slow integration provided the tribe with sufficient economic, social and cultural security as not to generate large scale rebellion. My own impression is that in spite of this general pattern of harmony the tribals are not without an awareness that they were looked down upon and given a low status (Sinha 1972: 413).(Italics mine).

This was the only sceptical public pronouncement of Sinha on his guru’s idea of the Hindu method of tribal absorption.

Ironically, despite being an excellent fieldworker and ethnographer, Das’s ideas did not receive due attention even from his famous students, like Surajit Sinha, B K Roy Burman, and André Béteille. In a more recent period, Béteille, however, corrected himself about his lesser known teacher Tarak Chandra Das. In his autobiographical memoir entitled “Ourselves and Others” published in the Annual Review of Anthropology, he recalled his experiences of studying anthropology at the University of Calcutta in the following manner. I quote Béteille (2013):

Things in the Department of Anthropology were organised on a small scale, and they moved at a slow pace. The teachers were easily accessible to their students. One of those who taught us about society and culture, T C Das, was meticulous and conscientious, and had a vast store of detailed ethnographic knowledge. (Italics mine).

The path set by the doyens left little scope for a secular and materialist Indian anthropology (Guha 2018:105-110). The search for the counter movements against Hinduisation and ethnographies 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 the Chairman of the Indian National Confederation and Academy of Anthropologists (INCAA) claimed in JIAS a professional journals of the subject in 2017:

One of the earliest Smritis: Manava Dharmasharstra (literally, The Sacred Science of Man), dates approximately 1350B.C….. 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(384-322B.C.) (Danda 2017:. 6).(Italics mine).

 Strangely, nowhere in his article entitled ‘Anthropology in Contemporary India’ could Danda discern a secular and nationalist stream of thought in the history of Indian Anthropology. He had only seen anthropology as an ‘academic discipline’ (the westernized tradition) and a ‘body of knowledge’ (the ancient Hindu tradition) and thus failed to appreciate the secular, materialist and nationalist tradition of anthropological thought in India. Suffice it to say that in his ‘body of knowledge’ type of anthropology, there was hardly any place for the adivasis, the dalits and the lokayata traditions of materialist philosophy. I  give an example.  The findings of the monumental work entitled Lokayata: A Study of Ancient Indian Materialism (1959) written by the famous Marxist philosopher Debiprasad Chattopadhyaya did not find a mention in Danda’s long text on Indian philosophy. Danda,  however, unlike his predecessor Jogendra Chandra Ghosh, did not use the term ‘Hindu Anthropology’ but his intention was clear, which  was to push an upper caste and Sanskritic tradition of thought in the academia under the wrap of Anthropology as a ‘body of knowledge’(Guha 2019).

I would conclude with the following statements. The dominant discourse in Indian anthropology was saturated with a higher caste Hindu ideology by the idea of the Hindu method of tribal absorption proposed by Bose in the 1940s in such a way that nobody questioned the nature of the data collected by Bose himself, which by any standard stood on methodologically unsound foundations. The caustic scepticism expressed by the noted social historian, Niharranjan Ray on the theory of Hindu method of tribal absorption, which I quoted as the epigraph of this article could not make any inroad among the anthropologists in India. The then ethnographic discourse generated by Das that recorded the counter processes of de-Hinduisation and maintenance of ethnic identity by the economically and socially subjugated and marginalised tribals, was largely put into oblivion and overlooked by anthropologists in India. 

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Jun 1, 2020

Abhijit Guha

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