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Sanskrit and Sanskritization


J. F. Staal
The Journal of Asian Studies / Volume 22 / Issue 03 / May 1963, pp 261 - 275
DOI: 10.2307/2050186, Published online: 23 March 2011

Link to this article: http://journals.cambridge.org/abstract_S0021911800106722


How to cite this article:
J. F. Staal (1963). Sanskrit and Sanskritization. The Journal of Asian Studies, 22, pp
261-275 doi:10.2307/2050186
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Sanskrit and Sanskritization


J. F. STAAL
Introduction

ANGUAGE, culture, and society can be studied from various points of view.
Classical Indology and Indian anthropology have different points of departure,
but deal sometimes with the same material; the difference in background has generally prevented close collaboration. Classical Indologists tend to look upon Indian
anthropologists as mainly interested in almost inaccessible hill tribes, in village superstition, and sometimes in contemporary affairs; moreover a synchronistic bias in
methodology has often limited the potential richness of their studies. Anthropologists
who study India, on the other hand, are often inclined to view classical Indologists as
busy with case endings and etymological derivations, or as discussing obscure and
long-forgotten doctrines. Yet neither field has been able to dispense with concepts
traditionally handled by the other; for instance, anthropologists talk about language,
and classical Indologists about culture. A recent example is the concept of Sanskritization, introduced by anthropologists with obvious reference to Sanskrit, the language
to which the main attention of classical Indologists has always been directed. As a
student of Sanskrit and classical Indology, I offer some reflections on Sanskritization
with the hope that I am not altogether blind to the problems occupying anthropologists.1
i. Sanskritization in Anthropology
"Sanskritization" was introduced in 1952 by M. N. Srinivas in his book Religion
and Society among the Coorgs of South India (Oxford, 1952). The term is not defined but is used to mean a process by which a lower caste attempts to raise its status
and to rise to a higher position in the caste hierarchy. Sanskritization may take place
through the adoption of vegetarianism, of teetotalism, of the worship of "Sanskritic
deities," or by engaging the service of Brahmans for ritual purposes. Sanskritization
can apply to ritual and custom, to ideas and beliefs, or to the pantheon. Its essential
ingredient is the imitation of behavior and beliefs associated with ritually high status
groups. Apart from Sanskritic deities, these imitated elements of "Sanskritic Hinduism" cover classical ideas and beliefs expressed for example in the Upanisads, the
philosophical schools (especially the Vedanta), the Bhagavad Gita, and the bhakti
The author, formerly Lecturer in Sanskrit at the School of Oriental and African Studies, University
of London, and Visiting Lecturer in Indian Philosophy at the University of Pennsylvania, is Professor of
General and Comparative Philosophy at the University of Amsterdam.
1
This paper was written for the Conference on South Asian Religion sponsored by the Committee
on South Asia of the Association for Asian Studies, and the Center for South Asia Studies, Institute of
International Relations, University of California, Berkeley. I am grateful both to these and to the Social
Science Fund for enabling me to participate in this conference. I am also grateful to Professors Edward
Harper (Washington), Dorodiy M. Spencer (Pennsylvania), Dr. H. M. J. Oldewelt (Amsterdam), Dr.
Milton Singer (Chicago), and to my wife, Saraswathy, for valuable comments and suggestions.

261

262

J. F. STAAL

movement. The material to which Sanskritization is applied consists of "nonSanskritic deities" and non-Sanskritic ritual and belieffor example, die worship
of village deities, ancestors, trees, rivers and mountains, and local cults in general.
Sanskritization takes place "at the expense of" these non-Sanskritic elements. In
relation to Hinduism, it possesses two aspects: on the one hand, there is Sanskritization of groups which are outside Hinduism; on the other hand, there is increasing
Sanskritization within Hinduism. Srinivas discards the term "Brahmanization" as
a substitute for Sanskritization, since some of the Vedic rites are the privilege of the
Brahmans and other twice-born castes and therefore cannot be imitated by others.
In a paper of 1955, "The Social System of a Mysore Village,"2 Srinivas adds two
elements to this analysis: an economic factor, which helps to determine who attempts
Sanskritization, and a discussion of its efficacy. Sanskritization is attempted especially
by members of a lower caste who own land. On the other hand, Sanskritization need
not always result in an actual rise of status. The smiths in Mysore and Madras States
have adopted Sanskritization, but this has only earned them "the combined hostility
of most of the other castes." Sanskritization is the main topic in an article of 1956
entitled "A Note on Sanskritization and Westernization." 3 Here the term is used
not only for lower castes in relation to higher castes, but the higher castes themselves
are called more "Sanskritized" than the lower castes. It is not entirely clear whether
this presupposes a reference to the pasti.e., whether the higher castes are called
Sanskritized because of former Sanskritization, or by definition.4 Sanskritization is
said to be facilitated by former Sanskritization, which has taken place "throughout
Indian history." It "is a two-way process, though the local cultures seem to have
received more than they have given." This use of the term seems to imply that
Sanskritization covers two opposite processes: (1) the influence of Sanskritic Hinduism on regional cultures; (2) the influence of regional cultures on Sanskritic Hinduism. This use seems paradoxical and questionable, as the latter process could for example consist in "Dravidianization."
A correlation is made between Sanskritization and ritual, economic, and political
power. "Occasionally" ritual and economic power do not coincide. A distinction is
made between Sanskritic and Vedic: the reaction against animal sacrifice (for example, its replacement by a sacrifice of fruit and flowers) is "Sanskritic, though
post-Vedic." In certain contexts, the term Brahmanization is preferred to Sanskritization, though the idea seems to be that both have identical denotations: non-Brahmanical castes adopt Brahmanical institutions and values, e.g., "virginity in brides,
chastity in wives, and continence in widows," as well as emphasis on the patrilineage and ancestor cult. It becomes increasingly clear that in many cases Brahmanization can hardly be distinguished from Sanskritization, even though certain Brahmanical values and practices may be excluded from the process; if the dominating
caste consists of Brahmans, "Sanskritization will probably be quicker and Brahmanical
values will spread, whereas if the dominating caste is a local Kshatriya or Vaishya
caste, Sanskritization will be slower, and the values will not be Brahmanical."
2

In: Village India. Studies in the Little Community, ed. McKim Marriott (Chicago, 1955), pp. 1-35.
By M. N. Srinivas in The Far Eastern Quarterly, XV (1955-56), 481-496.
* In a later paper, Sanskritization is also applied to Brahmans: "The Problem of Indian Unity,"
The Economic Weekly, 26 April, 1958, pp. 571-577; reprinted in Introduction to the Civilization of
India: Developing India, ed. M. Weiner (Chicago, 1961), p. 52.
3

SANSKRIT AND SANSKRITIZATION

26?

Some anthropologists who have used Srinivas' concepts have expressed criticisms,
but the way for adoption was paved by a tentative distinction between "little tradition" and "great tradition," introduced by Robert Redfield, who identified the great
tradition in India with the Sanskritic tradition, and predicted in 1955 the fruitful,
application of the concepts of great and little tradition to India.5 Redfield also adopted;
Milton Singer's distinction between textual and contextual: while the classical Indologist's approach is textual in that he studies the texts, art, and architecture of the
great tradition, the anthropologist's approach is contextual in that he relates the great
tradition to little traditions. Singer identified the great tradition with Srinivas' Sanskritic Hinduism, defined as "the generalized pattern of Brahman practices and
beliefs which have an all-India spread."6 The local forms of Hinduism can be considered little traditions, and Sanskritization becomes the process by which the great
tradition spreads to little traditions and absorbs them.
These ideas were further developed in Village India: Studies in the Little Community1 and Traditional India: Structure and Change? In the former, B. S. Cohn
described the Sanskritization of a depressed caste, die Camars, who attempted to
raise their status by adherence to a Sanskritic movement, die Siva Narayan sect.9
In the same volume, McKim Marriott reported on deities and festivals in a village
in one of the oldest areas of traditional Sanskritic Hinduism that "if we consider
this same combination of great-and-little traditional rites as representing the extent
of the spread of Sanskritic rites, and the increasing Sanskritization of non-Sanskritic
rites (Srinivas, 1952, p. 208), then we must conclude that spread and Sanskritization
in Kishan Garhi have scarcely begun, despite their having continued there for some
three thousand years." Marriott also observed that Sanskritization did not take place
"at the expense of" the little traditions, as Srinivas had suggested, but that it merely
resulted in the addition of Sanskritic elements to non-Sanskritic elements Lasdy it
became apparent that the agents of Sanskritization were not necessarily the higher
castes, but Sanskritic elements were obtained instead "from itinerant teachers of
exotic cults, from urban-centered associations of recent growth, from new state
schools, or from the market place." Marriott considered the identification of a local
deity widi some more universal deity of die great tradition "the premier technique"
of Sanskritization. In Milton Singer's preface to Traditional India, the tentative distinction between great and little tradition is virtually discarded: "The real structure of
tradition, in any civilization or part thereof, is an immensely intricate system of
relationships between die levels or components of tradition, which we enormously
oversimplify by referring to as 'high' and 'low' or as 'great' and 'litde.'" The distinction between textual and contextual re-appears: "Folklorists and linguists have generally concentrated on textual and diematic analyses. . . . Cultural anthropologists
and ethnologists . . . have tended to describe . . . in die contexts of a functioning
B
"The Social Organization of Tradition," The Far Eastern Quarterly, XV (195556), 1321. In 1956
he modified this distinction in the light of complexities revealed by research in India, China, and Islam:
R. Redfield, Peasant Society and Culture, Ch. Ill, "The Social Organization of Tradition."
6
"The Cultural Pattern of Indian Civilization," The Far Eastern Quarterly, XV, (195556), 2336.
7
See above, note 2.
8
Ed. M. Singer (Philadelphia, 1959).
9
"The Changing Status of a Depressed Caste," Village India, pp. 53-77; cf. "Changing Traditions of
a Low Caste," Traditional India, pp. 207215.

264

J. F. STAAL

society and culture." Singer speaks not only of Sanskritization, but also of de-Sanskritization, and he goes a significant step further: "both involve . . . essential reference to . . . cultural norms or values, which take us beyond the temporal dimension."
A more critical attitude may be seen in numerous other publications. In the same
issue of the journal in which Srinivas' paper on Sanskritization and Westernization
appeared, V. Raghavan published an article entitled "Variety and Integration in the
Pattern of Indian Culture." 10 Here the composite character of the great tradition is
illustrated by numerous examples of the incorporation of local and regional elements
into "Sanskritic Hinduism." This article established beyond doubt that Sanskritization was not only a historical process but that it accounted for many elements of the
great tradition itself. This had been indicated already by Srinivas, but Raghavan's
study gave much more content to the terms Sanskritic Hinduism and great tradition.
In 1959 E. B. Harper, in an article entitled "A Hindu Village Pantheon," 11 studied
certain village deities in Mysore and the distinction between Sanskritic and nonSanskritic gods. According to him, the distinction could be functional rather than
historical. In the same year, L. Dumont and D. Pocock, in a critical study of Srinivas'
book and Marriott's paper,12 interpreted Sanskritization "not as the imposition of
a different system upon an old one," but as "the acceptance of a more distinguished
or prestigious way of saying the same things." This resembles Marriott's criticism
of "Sanskritization at the expense of" and goes back to the aspect of Srinivas' Sanskritization, which Marriott stressed as identification. In 1959 and i960, F. G. Bailey
described the changes taking place in two distiller castes in Orissa when they acquired land and raised their status.13 Srinivas, referring in 1957 to Bailey's field work,
used the term Sanskritization.14 Though Bailey does not make much use of the term,
he defines it roughly15 as "social climbing by conforming to an all-Indian standard
of respectable behaviour," or, for the Konds, as "social climbing by following standard Oriya behaviour."16

2. The Term Sanskritization


It is clear that the term Sanskritization is used to cover a sufficiently large number
of phenomena to justify Bailey's defining die process in a very general way, referring
to an all-India standard without explicit reference to either "Sanskritic" or "Brahmanic." For the Konds, a reference to "Oriya behaviour" seems to be sufficient. This
use of the term recalls Srinivas' observation that in Mysore not only Brahmans, but
also Lingayats are agents of Sanskritization. The consistent use of the term Sanskritic is of paramount importance, since the definition of the great tradition in India
as Sanskritic Hinduism depends on it. Yet in usage it is even more ambiguous than
"Brahmanical." To die naive observer, the term Sanskritization seems to suggest a
process either due to an increasing influence of Sanskrit or resulting in an increasing
amount of Sanskrit material. Nevertheless the connection between Sanskritization
10

The Far Eastern Quarterly, XV (1955-56), 497-505.


Southwestern Journal of Anthropology, XV (1959), 227-234.
12
Contributions to Indian Sociology, III (1959), 40-45.
13
Caste and the Economic Frontier (Manchester, 1959); Tribe, Caste, and Nation (Manchester, i960).
14
"Caste in Modern India," The Journal of Asian Studies, XVI (1956-57) 531.
"Bailey (i960), p. 188, n. 1.
16
Bailey also says, with reference to Sanskritization: "No-one seems to like this term."
11

SANSKRIT AND SANSKRITIZATION

165

and Sanskrit is sometimes not very close. In some instances Sanskritization actually
amounts to a decrease of Sanskrit material and a decreasing influence of Sanskrit.
Two such examples occur in Srinivas' and one in Cohn's articles. The last one is the
most striking. According to Cohn, the Camars underwent Sanskritization through
adherence to the Siva Narayan sect. He informs us that the roots of this sect go back
to the time of Ramananda.17 Half a page further we read: "The influential sects
which sprang from among Ramananda's followers emphasized the use of vernaculars
rather than Sanskrit for religious purposes." The same occurs in Srinivas' attribution
of a Sanskritizing influence to the Lingayats18 and to Harikatha. 19 Though Lingayat ritual is "Sanskritic (though not Vedic)" according to Srinivas, an important
characteristic of the sect is that the writings attributed to the founder Basava are
in Kannada. Similarly, though Harikatha helps, according to Srinivas, "in spreading
Sanskrit stories and ideas," the language used is always a modern language and not
Sanskrit. The use of the term Sanskritization in these contexts seems inconsistent.
If Sanskritization is used to refer to Sanskrit culture rather than to the language,
it could be made to incorporate the literatures of the Siva Narayan sect, of the Lingayats, the contents of Harikatha performances, and similar phenomena all over
India. Sanskrit culture may be defined, for example, as the culture expressed on the
literary side by means of Sanskrit, or by means of any Indian language the material
content of which is based upon a Sanskrit source. However, this would result in
problems more serious than the ones we are trying to contend with. Both the Hindi
and the Tamil Ramayana are based upon the Sanskrit Ramayana, but both contain
numerous new elements. Do these belong to Sanskrit culture? What about further
transformations of the Ramayana, e.g., in Kathakali? The Alvars composed Tamil
hymns which are in many respects similar to Sanskrit devotional literature, but are
they based upon it? The Sanskrit sources in other cases are based upon vernacular
sources, while serving themselves again as a source for vernacular literature: Buddhism offers examples of this. Is Buddhism to be called part of Sanskrit culture only
where a Sanskrit intermediary has been found? An attempt at analysis of the expression "material content" would encounter similar difficulties. We can accept the
term Sanskritization only if it is made clear that its relation to the term Sanskrit is
extremely complex. In the following, the term is used to denote the process illustrated,
but not defined, in the previous section.
3. The Concept of Sanskritization
Two points are especially relevant here: Singer's distinction between textual and
contextual, and Harper's distinction between functional and historical. Both are
related to the fundamental distinction between synchronic and diachronic. These
two concepts are complementary in most contexts. However a major trend in modern
anthropologyas in modern linguisticsaims specifically at synchronic analysis and
description. Such a procedure arrives at the study of relations, functions, and struc17
Village India, p. 59. According to Cohn, Ramananda became a member of the "South Indian
Ramanuja sect which worshipped Ram, hero of the Ramayana." Ramanuja is the founder of the
Visistadvaita school of Vedanta, which has no special connection with Rama or the Ramayana apart
from being a vaisnava movement.
18
Religion and Society among the Coorgs of South India, p. 225.
19
"A Note on Sanskritization and Westernization," The Far Eastern Qtutrterly, XV (1955-56), 486.

266

J. F. STAAL

tures by abstracting from the historical background. Unsolvable difficulties appear


in dealing with problems such as "cultural change" from an exclusively synchronic
point of view. It should be clear that the concept of Sanskritization describes a process and is a concept of change. It is not a concept at which synchronic analysis could
ever arrive. However, it may be arrived at in order to explain material obtained by
synchronic analysis. Sanskritization is a meta-concept in this sense, and all historical
concepts are meta-concepts in that they are based upon concepts of synchronic analysis. Hoenigswald, who deals with the same problem in studying language change,
states this clearly: "Any historical statement contains, avowedly or otherwise, at least
two synchronic statementsone for each of two or more stagesalready."20
Harper's distinction between Sanskritic and non-Sanskritic as functional rather
than historical means that this distinction should be made only in interpreting material obtained by purely synchronic analysis. The latter analysis itself would no
more easily lead to the concepts of Sanskritic and non-Sanskritic than, for example,
to the interpretation of all goddesses as mother goddesses. A purely structural analysis abstains from such labels. This has been well expressed by Dumont, 21 and he
lias given an example in his study of Aiyanar, where he says that Aiyanar performs
in certain contexts a function similar to that of Siva.22 To say that Aiyanar is "Sanskritized" would go beyond the structural analysis into a higher level. This could
be done most profitably on the basis of material obtained by synchronic analysis. The
mere occurrence of Sanskrit names, for example, may point in a certain direction but
need not indicate the same things as a contextual analysis of the functions of various
deities, which may be later grouped together and interpreted in terms of Sanskritization. For instance, Marriott's statistical analysis of "Sanskritic deities" among different
castes in Kishan Garhi 23 may not imply anything about Sanskritization: a deity with
a "non-Sanskritic name" may well be "more Sanskritized" than a deity with a "Sanskritic name." This holds a fortiori for the list of deities with Sanskritic names provided by Srinivas: "Bhagavati (Powedi), Chamundi, Chaundi, Kali, Shasta or
Ayyappa, and Kshetrapala. . . "2i Actually here even the names are only partly
Sanskrit.
If Sanskritization is not a synchronic but a diachronic concept, each Sanskritized
form implies Sanskritization, and it is unavoidable that the anthropological analysis
will give way to a historical analysis. Srinivas suggested that the local cultures seem
to have received more than they have given. It seems in this context that almost all
giving is based upon previous taking. Receiving from Sanskritic Hinduism or from
the great tradition is not receiving from a static entity, but from a dynamic reality.
Raghavan has shown that this reality has a composite structure, and Singer has
stressed the simplification inherent in the terminology of great and little tradition.
It seems that one could specify Singer's general description considerably by going
much further than Raghavan did. The oldest and apparently most pivotal forms of
20

H. M. Hoenigswald, Language Change and Linguistic Reconstruction (Chicago, i960), p. 3, n. 5.


L. Dumont, Une sous-caste de I'lnde du sud: Organisation sociale et religion des Pramalai Kallar
(La Haye, 1957). P- 3'522
"Definition structural d'un dieu populaire tamoul: Aiyanar, le Maltre," Journal Asiatique, CCXLI
(i953). 261-262; Contributions to Indian Sociology, III (1959), 80.
23
Village India, p. 209.
24
Coorgs, p. 208.
21

SANSKRIT AND SANSKRITIZATION

267

the great tradition are often of a type which many anthropologists would tend to
describe as "non-Sanskritic," and which are in fact based upon little traditions. The
origins of the great tradition lie in numerous little traditions, widespread throughout
Indian history and geography. To say that Sanskritization is a process by which
little traditions are assimilated to the great tradition is like saying that a book becomes
a library book by adding it to a library. The library's first book might well have
been an insignificant pamphlet, which was soon lost. The bulk of the library is formed
by addition.
Anthropologists commonly regard possession as a non-Sanskritic form par excellence. Harper, for example, studied possession among a high sudra caste in Mysore
as a typical manifestation of "non-Sanskritic religion" or "popular Hinduism as opposed to the epic and philosophic Sanskritic tradition.25 A characteristic of possession
is a trembling of the body of the possessed person. Harper did not find this in his
favourite shaman, but mentions that in Mysore "some familiar spirits cause certain
mannerisms in the shamans they possess, such as a trembling of the whole body... ." 28
Dumont, studying the Kallar in Madras State, describes cases of possession where
the person is "secoue d'un leger tremblement nerveux,"27 though he wisely abstains
from labelling this phenomenon as "non-Sanskritic," "non-Aryan," "Dravidian," or
"regional." Among the Nayars of Kerala, according to Kathleen Gough, young men
may be possessed by ghosts, certainly part of a "non-Sanskritic cult"; this is manifested
by a frenzied dance. Such possession is "prevalent among rural Nayars" and is "still
more common among the lower castes."28
But possession and trembling are in fact part of the Sanskritic great tradition. In
the language of the Rgveda, the verbal root vip- denotes "trembling, quivering."29
This root is etymologically related to the English word "vibration." Heaven and
Earth are said to "tremble out of fear." The Maruts "cause the trembling of the
mountains." Indra's lips tremble when he drinks the soma. Agni and Soma "tremble
in their thought." The root vip- is also used to describe the mystical intoxication of
the Vedic poets, who have been inspired by the gods. An important noun derived
from this root is vipra, literally "the quivering one." This denotes the inspired poets,
and comes to denote in general diose with insight and wisdom. Later vipra becomes
a common term to denote a Brahman. This is widespread in classical Sanskrit and
occurs also in modern Indian languages. In Manusmrti, the terms vipra and Brahman are related as follows: "by birth he is known as brdhmana; on account of the
sacraments he is called twice-born; through knowledge he becomes vipra; on account
of all three he is called srotriya."30 The word vipra continues to suggest that the
Brahman is the trembling Vedic seer who is possessed by inspiring gods. Accordingly
this hero of Sanskritization may be part of a picture in no way essentially different
from that presented by later phenomena of possession classified by anthropologists
as "non-Sanskritic."
25

"Shamanism in South India," Southwestern Journal of Anthropology, XIII (1957), 267-287.


"Shamanism . . . ," p. 270.
27
Une sous-caste . . . , p. 351.
28
Traditional India, pp. 241-243.
28
For this and the following see: L. Renou, ttudes sur le vocabttlaire du Rgveda, I (Pondichery,
1958), 29-31; cf. H. Grassmann, Worterbuch zum Rig-Veda (Wiesbaden, 1955), pp. 1282-1283. Other
similar examples are likely to be found in the Atharvaveda.
s V. S. Apte, Sanscrit-English Dictionary, II (Poona, 1958), 1177.
26

268

J. F. STAAL

Throughout the great tradition, there are references to the final state of emancipation or samadhi. This concept may denote a reality which is, from a philosophical
point of view, quite different from the possession of a shaman by a local spirit, but
from an anthropological point of view these phenomena are all related. Numerous
descriptions of the state of samadhi could illustrate this. In one late example (1885)
Sri Ramakrsna, the Brahman ascetic and mystic, describes his own experience:
There are five kinds of samadhi. First, he feels the Mahavayu (the great nerve current
whose rising is felt in the spinal column) rise like an ant crawling up. Second, he feels
It rise like a fish swimming in the water. Third, he feels It rise like a snake wriggling
along. Fourth, he feels It rise like a bird flyingflying from one branch to another. Fifth,
he feels It rise like a monkey making a big jump; the Mahavayu reaches the head with
one jump, as it were, and samadhi follows.31
The state of samadhi is the goal of the Yoga system in particular. M. Eliade 82
has suggested that this system is of non-Aryan or even pre-Aryan origin. Even the
well known Mohenjo-Daro seal representing a cross-legged deity has been referred
to in this context. This would amount to an important Sanskritization of widespread
little traditions. Actually this thesis is difficult to maintain. Filliozat has shown 33
that the origins of the Yoga system lie at least partly in the learned traditions of
Indian medicine and are in some respects the natural outcome of the idea that one
entity, the prana, is the cause of both the functions of the body and the operations
of the mind. This would assign a mixed great and little traditional origin to an important aspect of the great tradition. Whatever tradition one studies in the classical
Sanskrit sources, almost always there are indications of popular cults, local usages,
and little traditions. The extensive Brahmana literature abounds in popular magical
elements, and the Vedic sacrifices themselves are rich in material a modern anthropologist would regard as "non-Sanskritic." It is well known that this holds widi
regard to animal sacrifice and the drinking of soma. But it is equally manifest in
hair-cutting rites, ritual games, ritual identifications, etc.
What holds for the sacrifices of the hauta<u\t holds also for the domestic ritual
of the grhya-cuk. In the funeral ritual, for example, special rites, often referred to as
preta-barman, are performed for the preta or deceased soul. Kathleen Gough, apparently unaware of this, considers the Nayar cult of ghosts as non-Sanskritic. According to her, "Most Nayars use the word pretam to refer to the ghost or the soul
in all contexts. This is a Sanskrit word {preta) for a malevolent ghost, but it is used
by Nambudiri Brahmans only for alien malevolent ghosts."84 Actually all Brahmans,
including the Nambudiris, may refer to any deceased's soul by the term preta?5 If
this is to be considered non-Sanskritic, it is a non-Sanskritic element within the great
tradition.
Philosophical literature is not exempt from similarly non-Sanskritic material. W.
81

The Gospel of Sri Ramahrishna (Madras, 1947), p . 677; cf. p. 174.


he Yoga. Immortalrti et Uberte (Paris, 1954).
33
"Les origines d'unc technique mystique indienne," Revue Philosophique CXXXVI (1946), 208-

82

220.
34

Traditional India, p. 256.


See the handbooks (e.g., A. Hillebrandt, Rituallitteratur [Strassburg, 1897], p . 90; L. Renou-J.
Filliozat, L'lnde classique I [Paris, 1947], 367); also C. von Fiirer-Haimendorf, "The After-life in Indian
Tribal Belief," Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute, LXXXIII (1953), 45.
35

SANSKRIT AND SANSKRITIZATION

269

Ruben discovered*8 in one of the oldest and most venerable Upanisads, the Brhad
Aranyaka (4.3.11-13), the "primitive" doctrine that the soul leaves the body and
wanders about during dreams. Similar popular elements account for much material
in the Samkhya system, in Buddhism and in Jainism. H. Zimmer accordingly con'
sidered these systems as Dravidian.37 It is well known that the original Buddhist
and Jain scriptures are available only in Middle Indian vernaculars. In centuries of
controversy with Hindu systems, Sanskrit was increasingly adopted38probably the
most impressive case of large scale Sanskritization in Indian history. The great schools^
of the Vedanta originated in the Dravidian south, though their literature was in thebeginning entirely in Sanskrit. In Visistadvaita, one school stresses the use of Sanskrit (Vadagalai), the other the use of Tamil (Tengalai). Much material is agairo
of popular origin, for example, in the bha\ti cult which is in the background of much
in Visistadvaita and Dvaita as well as in later Advaita. The non-Sanskritic back-ground of philosophical culture, finding its expression in Sanskrit, has in many cases
exerted a civilizing influence. In Dharmasastra, there is a gradual introduction of
numerous elements of dcara "custom."39 Among contemporary Brahmans the Nambudiris, rightly famous for their orthodoxy and maintenance of Vedic rites, continue
to observe as many as sixty-four andcdrams (non-traditional customs), among them
the well-known marriage customs. Renou, trying to enumerate ways in which Hinduism differs from the Vedic religion and in which it has incorporated possibly
non-Aryan material, says: "It would have been quicker to enumerate those elements
that are demonstrably Aryan: they would consist of perhaps a few functional gods
(as it is the fashion to describe them), the soma cult and the rudiments of a social
system: little enough, in all conscience."40 Even Sanskrit drama has its roots in
"magico-religious" customs and rites, and is connected with popular dramas, festivals,
and plays.41 The vidusa\a, the jester who is always a Brahman, is connected with
the clown-like figures and thick-bellied dwarfs which are common at vegetation
festivals.
There is much evidence to show that the origins of the great tradition in India
lie often in little traditions, and that these origins generally remain visible in the later
stages. The new does not replace the old, but the old continues to exist side by side
with the new.42 This may be related to the relativization of novelty in the theories
of change evolved by Indian philosophers, who tend to stress continuity. Marriott
and Dumont noticed this in contemporary India, as is manifest in their criticism of
Srinivas' "Sanskritization at the expense of."
The great tradition is often characterized by the expression "all-India spread."
But any non-Sanskritic element incorporated in the great tradition must have been
incorporated in a given region to start with. The great tradition is considered an all86

"Schamanismas im alten Indien," Ada Orientalia, XVIII (1940), 191-194.


Philosophies of India (London, 1951), p. 649 s.v. "Dravidian factor."
38
This resulted in what Edgerton has called Buddhist Hybrid Sanskrit.
89
P. V. Kane, History of Dharmasastra, III (Poona, 1946), 825-973.
40
L. Renou, Religions of Ancient India (London, 1953), pp. 47-48.
41
J. Gonda, "Zur Frage nach dem Ursprung und Wesen des indischen Dramas," Ada Orientalia, XIX
(1943), 329-45342
See: J. F. Staal, "Notes on Some Brahmin Communities of South India," Art and Letters. Journal
of the Royal India, Pakistan and Ceylon Society XXXII (1958), 1-7; "Uber die Idee der Toleranz im
Hinduismus," Kairos, Zeitschrift fur Religionswissenschaft und Theologie, I (1959), 215-218.
37

270

J. F. STAAL

India phenomenon because of lack of familiarity with what the great tradition really
consists of and because of the lack of geographical specifications in many works on
classical Indology. It is obvious that the oldest Vedic literature originated in the
northwest, the Rgveda among relatively few families in a limited number of clans.
The gotra and pravara names give substantial evidence in this respect. The Vedic
schools ($a\ha) have in general a limited geographical spread. One of the two surviving schools of the Rgveda, Sarikhayana, is now available only in the southwest.
The White Yajurveda originated in the north and seems never to have been strong
in the south. The Taittiriya school of the Black Yajurveda and the important sutra
of Apastamba have been typically southern phenomena for many centuries. The
Jaiminiya school of the Samaveda originated in the south and is preserved only
there. The Atharvaveda, one school of which is known from Kashmir, seems never
to have entered the Dekkan. 43
The above data regarding Vedic material, which form only part of what is actually known, can be supplemented by numerous and more specific instances from
classical Sanskrit sources. The epic has many geographical affiliations, the Mahabharata with the northwest, die Ramayana with the soudiward spread of Hinduism.
Advaita, probably born in Kerala, seems to have penetrated again into the country
of its origin only during the nineteenth century. Sarnkhya was never popular in the
south, Visistadvaita and Dvaita never in die north, with rare exceptions (e.g., Brindavan, and of course Banaras, where everything can now be found). The Bhagavad
Gita, the classical Hindu scripture par excellence, has only recently become popular
in Bengal and in Kerala. Modern logic on the other hand developed mainly in Bengal.
Also in Dharmasastra many law schools were prevalent in specific regions. Not only
the origins of die elements constituting the great tradition are regional, but also its
development. For example, the Vedic tradition developed unique forms in Kerala.44
The Lingayats, so frequently mentioned as agents of Sanskritization and hence, presumably, as members of the great tradition, rarely spread beyond the boundaries of
Mysore and Andhra Pradesh. The Gita Govinda led to entirely dissimilar forms in
Bengal and in Kerala. This holds even for scientific Sanskrit culture. In grammar,
Panini and Patafijali discussed certain regional varieties. The most widespread commentary on Panini in the North, the Kasika (a name derived from the place of its
origin, KasI, or Banaras) was never used in Kerala, where a different commentary
prevailed (die Prakriyasarvasva). The report of die Sanskrit Commission of the
Government of India (1956-57) gives a detailed account of the present distribution
of Sanskrit learning and of various forms of Sanskrit culture in different parts of
the subcontinent. On the other hand, many so-called non-Sanskritic forms (e.g., die
cult of modier goddesses) have an all-India spread.
Even if the concept of Sanskritization can cover only a particular type of change,
its implied reference to Sanskrit points at something relatively permanent in the subcontinent. It may be possible to evolve new conceptual tools to effect a more ordered
description of the many processes at work alongside Sanskritization. The study of
Indian languages may lead to results which can be generalized because the linguistic
processes, though complex, are nevertheless more similar in structure than the exceedingly complicated processes operating in India's cultural and religious history.
43
Cf. J. F. Staal, Nambudiri Veda Recitation, VGravenhage, 1961.
** See previous note.

SANSKRIT AND SANSKRITIZATION

271

4. Sansfy-itization in the Study of Indian Languages**


A. Sanscrit
The oldest form of Sanskrit or Old Indo-Aryan is the language of the Rgveda.
From a dialect of this language classical Sanskrit developed. Already the language
of the Rgveda contains non-Indo-European elementsinnovations possibly due to
influences of other languages spoken in India at the time of the Aryan invasion, i.e.,
in particular (Pre-)Dravidian and (Pre-)Munda. The continued existence of a Dravidian language, Brahul, in Balucistan, and of two Dravidian islands, Kurukh and
Malto, in north India, may be significant in this connexion. While a few Dravidian
words have been found in the Rgveda, the main Dravidian influence on the vocabulary seems to have taken place between the late Vedic period and the formation of
classical Sanskrit. A more limited number of words in the Rgveda and in later Sanskrit are probably of Munda origin. Many proper names, including names of rsis and
of deities, are probably non-Indo-European. In the eighth book of the Rgveda, which
is particularly rich in "non-Sanskritic" names, a Dasa chief who patronized a Brahman
(referred to as vipra) is mentioned by name: Balbutha Taruksa. 48 This may be the
oldest mention of an indigenous non-Aryan Indian who had "Sanskritized" his ways.
In later Vedic all such influences increase. In the Jaiminlya Samaveda, the Dravidian
sound 1 occurs, which remains a characteristic mark confined to this school.47
In classical Sanskrit, alien influences are more apparent. The non-Brahmanical
levels of society contribute to the vocabulary, which results in Middle Indo-Aryan
forms. For instance, the well-known name for Krsna, Govinda, is a Middle IndoAryan form adopted in Sanskrit, where the equivalent form is Gopendra. Many
originally Middle Indo-Aryan words were Sanskritized, i.e., transformed into Sanskrit in accordance with known phonetic correlations.48 The Dravidian element continues to increase. The philosopher Kumarila (eighth century) sanctions such borrowings, provided a Sanskrit termination is added. Not only are words incorporated
from Dravidian, but also syntactic structures, for example in the late grhya-sutra of
the Vaikhanasa (? fourth century A.D.), a Vedic school which developed into a
South Indian sect, as well as in the South Indian Advaita philosopher Sankarananda
(fourteenth century). The Sanskrit grammarians discussed not only regional usage
but also popular usage. Panini, Patafijali, and numerous later grammarians give a
wealth of detail. With Panini, grammatical research turns to the analysis of the
spoken language (bhdsd),M and the rules of grammar are based upon common usage
o

45
For the following see: J. Wackernagel, Altindischc Grammatik I: Introduction generale par L.
Renou (Gottingen, 1957); L. Renou, Histoire de la langue sanskfite (Paris, 1956); T. Burrow, The
Sanskrit Language (London, n.d.).
46
Rksarnhita 8.46.32, referred to in A. L. Basham, The Wonder That Was India (New York, 1954),
P- 3247
Cf. Staal, Nambudiri Veda Recitation, pp. 70, 78-83.
48
"transform^ en Sanskrit sur la base des correlations phone'tiques connues": Wackernagel-Renou,
p. 30.
49
Cf. L. Renou, La Durghataurtti de iaranadeva I, 1 (Paris, 1940), 8; L. Renou, Terminohgie
grammatical du Sanskrit (Paris, 1957), s.v. bhasa; V. S. Agrawala, India as Known to Panini (Lucknow,
1953). PP- 348-350, passim.
60
Cf. J. F. Staal, "The Theory of Definition in Indian Logic," Journal of the American Oriental
Society, LXXXI (1961), 122-126.

272

J. F. STAAL
B. Modern Indo-Aryan51

The modern Indo-Aryan languages begin to take shape roughly around the end
of the first millenium A.D. Yet Sanskrit remained the most important language of
the literate tradition, and this explains the occurrence of at least three types of words
in the vocabulary of every modern Indo-Aryan language: (i) Words which have
developed from Sanskrit via Middle Indo-Aryan into Modern Indo-Aryan, e.g., Hindi
hath "hand" from Sanskrit hasta "hand," are called tadbhava. (2) Words which are
borrowed directly from Sanskrit, e.g., Hindi hast denoting "hand, autograph," are
called tatsama. A tatsama word which was introduced into the language at an early
stage and underwent a similar change as the tadbhava words is sometimes called a
semi-tatsama. Chatterji gives the following examples from Bengali: the Sanskrit word
fraddha yields, apart from a tatsama pronounced sroddha, a semi-tatsama word
chedda and a tadbhava word sddh. (3) Words of Indian but non-Indo-Aryan origin
are called de'sl. The de'sl words are sometimes of Dravidian or Munda origin. Another
class of words of foreign (i.e., non-Indian) origin is called vide'sl (e.g., Persian, English, etc.) The mutual influences of the modern Indo-Aryan languages have also
been important, for instance, the Panjabi influence on Hindi and the Hindi influence
on Bengali, Gujarati, Marathi, and Nepali. According to Chatterji, roughly fifty per
cent of the words of a Modern Indo-Aryan language are borrowed from Sanskrit,
either as tatsama or as semi-tatsama. The influence of Sanskrit vocabulary seems to
have been gradually increasing.
C. Dravidian52
Although the Dravidian languages (part of what will be stated here applies also
to the Munda languages) are not Indo-European, the terms tatsama and tadbhava
are used to denote respectively unmodified and modified Sanskrit words introduced
into Dravidian and corresponding to the tatsama and semi-tatsama words mentioned
above. The earliest Dravidian, the Tamil of the Sahgam period, shows the influence
of Sanskrit. According to S. A. Pillai, there are fifty-four Sanskrit words in the
Tolkappiyam, composed in the early Christian era. Tamil is the least Sanskritized of
the Dravidian languages. The other main languages, Telugu, Kannada, and Malayajam, contain in their literary form an exceedingly large percentage of Sanskrit
words or words of Sanskrit origin, possibly well over fifty per cent. As we have seen
that there is a considerable Dravidian element in Sanskrit itself, it becomes possible
for a Sanskrit word of Dravidian origin to be adopted into Dravidian again. According to Collins, the word pujd provides an example of this kind of migration.53 The
Dravidian languages have also influenced each other. Malayalam can actually be
considered an offshoot of Tamil. There are in addition mutual influences between
Dravidian and Modern Indo-Aryan, especially in cases where the languages are
51

For the following see: J. Bloch, La formation de la langue marathe (Paris, 1915); J. Bloch, L'lndoAryan du Veda aux temps modernes (Paris, 1934); S. K. Chatterji, The Origin and Development of the
Bengali Language I (Calcutta, 1926), especially 189-223; S. K. Chatterji, Indo-Aryan and Hindi (Calcutta, i960). I am grateful to Dr. E. Bender for valuable comments on an earlier draft of this section.
62
For the following see: S. A. Pillai, The Sanskritic 'Element in the Vocabularies of the Dravidian
Languages (Madras, 1919); and cf. S. Levi, J. Przyluski, and J. Bloch, Pre-Aryan and Pre-Dravidian in
India (Calcutta, 1929).
53
See however, P. Thieme in Zeitschrijt der deutschen morgenldndischen Gesellschaft, XCIII (1939).

SANSKRIT A N D SANSKRITIZATION

273

spoken in adjacent areas, such as in the cases of Oriya-Telugu and of MarathiKannada. Bloch discusses cases where Marathi has common features with Dravidian
which are absent in the other modern Indo-Aryan languages, e.g., the pronunciation
of initial e- and o- as ye- and wo- respectively. The relationships between the three
independent groups (Indo-European, Dravidian, and Munda) have ever since the
Vedic period been so close that one can speak of the existence of an "Indian type of
language." 54 Some of their common features are: the retroflex or cerebral consonants;
postpositions; absence of affixes for the degrees of comparison; the gerund or conjunctive participle; verbal composition; nominalization; and echo words. It follows
from the above that these similarities are not necessarily due to "linguistic" Sanskritization.
5. Language and Culture
The preceding section has shown that in the development of the languages of
India various processes have been at work, of which only tatsama borrowing can be
considered Sanskritization. The term can be used in this field as a conceptual tool only
for a first approximation, and covers only part of the material. The same holds for processes operating in Indian cultural history. While Sanskritization is undoubtedly a
useful heuristic concept, other more specific processes are at work. It is easy to give to
Sanskritization a definite meaning with reference to language, but very difficult to
attach to it an unambiguous cultural significance. Cultural processes are inherently
more complex than processes of language change, yet the above-mentioned structures
may be generalized and applied to the material which the concept of Sanskritization
was intended to analyze. The role played by Sanskrit in the analysis of language
can be assigned to Hinduism in an anthropological and historical analysis, provided
it is realized that Hinduism has a more complex structure than Sanskrit, and that its
various aspects have even less of an all-India spread than those of Sanskrit.
The analysis with reference to Hinduism applies in a different way in two contexts: phenomena inside Hinduism and phenomena outside Hinduism. Srinivas
makes a somewhat less unambiguous distinction:
All-India Hinduism . . . spreads in two ways: by the extension of Sanskritic deities
and ritual forms to an outlying group, as well as by the greater Sanskritization of the
ritual and beliefs of groups inside Hinduism. Both these processes are at work, and the
first results in Sanskritic deities' assuming different forms in their travels all over India
while the second results in local deities' assuming Sanskritic labels and forms. The Vedic
deity Kshetrapala becomes Ketrappa in Coorg, while the local cobra-deity becomes identified with Subrahmanya, the warrior-son of Shiva.55
Here is a parallel to the distinction between tadbhava and tatsama. Numerous examples could illustrate the same process. Many pre-Vedic divinities, mentioned in the
Rgveda, underwent various transformations so that a contemporary form can be considered a tadbhava development of the original or originals. The modern Visnu, for
example, is a tadbhava form of the deity Visnu who played a subordinate role in the
Rgveda.56 At the same time a great deity like Visnu incorporated alien or desi eleB
*See: Chatterji, Origin and Development of Bengali, pp. 170-178 and L. Renou-J. Filliozat, L'lnde
classique I (Paris, 1947), 119.
B5
Srinivas, Coorgs, p. 214.
66
See for instance: J. Gonda, Aspects of Early Visnuism (Utrecht, 1954).

274

J. F. STAAL

ments, as Sanskrit did in the course of its development, and the final result was
generally syncretistic. Similarly, in another context, a modern Brahman marriage
ritual is a tadbhava form of the Vedic marriage: new Vedic elements have been
added (e.g., Vedic chanting takes place on the third day during an orthodox Telugu
Brahman marriage), but desi elements have also been incorporated (e.g., tying of
the tali). The ritual by means of which a child is introduced to writing is a tatsama
form in a similar sense, whereas the naming ceremony and the rites connected widi
the first feeding with solid food, are tadbhava forms.
A semi-tatsama is a form introduced into Hinduism at an early stage and developed from then onward. The concept of bhafyi provides an example, as it makes
its appearance in the later classical Upanisads. Various distinctions can be applied.
The domestic ritual of the higher castes is predominantly a tadbhava development
from the material dealt with in the grhyasiltras, though it has incorporated desi
elements as well. The temple ritual consists predominantly of tatsama forms and desi
forms, though there are a few tadbhava elements.57 The Vedic sacrifices, at present
performed only rarely, are semi-tatsama forms; they survive from the Vedic period,
but changes have crept in. Migration forms are not uncommon. Examples can be
found in the cults of the mother goddess. Such elements were originally incorporated
into Hinduism from outside, but they served in turn as forms (e.g. Devi, Kali) with
which a local goddess could subsequently be identified.
The application to anthropological and historical data of these concepts which refer
to language poses several problems. It seems as if only the use of a precise terminology can show how extremely complicated the structures concerned are. While
forms of language are relatively transparent, at least in principle, a certain lack of
precision is apparently inherent in these cultural structures. There is more agreement
on the use of certain concepts and conventions in the study of a language than in
anthropology or history, and students of language seem to have reached a more concrete level of analysis than most anthropologists and historians.68 An apparent confusion may show this. The same form can be considered a tadbhava, a tatsama, or a
desi form according to the point of view adopted. The deity Visnu, as worshipped at
present, is a tadbhava development from the Vedic Visnu, a de'si borrowing from
regional deities such as Krsna, with whom he is identified, and a tatsama form insofar
as certain aspects of the Vedic god (e.g., the performance of three steps) are still
retained. These apparent inconsistencies apply, however, to a word in a modern
Indian language as well, provided it is studied from equally many different points of
view. The Hindi word hath, for example, is a tadbhava form of Sanskrit hasta, a
tatsama form in that it preserves certain phonemes and also continues to denote the
same part of the human body, a desi form in that it results from die phonetic processes which caused in a certain region the transformation from hasta to hath, and
even a videli form in diat one of its meanings is "autograph." In the study of lan57
See e.g. C. G. Diehl, Instrument and Purpose. Studies on Rites and Rituals in South India (Lund,
1956), p . 97.
58
Cf. C. F . Hockett, "Chinese versus English: an Exploration of the Whorfian Theses," Language in
Culture ed. H . Hoijer (Chicago, 1954), p . n o : "Of all the sister fields, named or nameless, which lie
close compacted within ethnography, linguistics has without doubt attained, to date, the clearest methods
and the most reliable results . . . if linguistics has progressed further, the chief reason is the relative
simplicity of its subject-matter. . . . Language is complex enough, but its complexity is as nothing in
comparison with that of the whole fabric of life of a community . . . this state of affairs suggests that
linguistics may have methodological lessons for other phases of ethnography."

SANSKRIT AND SANSKRITIZATION

275

guage, this confusion is avoided by the adoption of a number of conventions, including


the recognition that the root or stem is more important than a suffix and that grammar is more important than vocabulary. This becomes apparent when the terminology
is applied to entire languages. Malayalam, for example, is considered a Dravidian
language because its grammatical structure is Dravidian, even though its vocabulary
is predominantly Sanskrit. This means that Malayalam is a de'si language from the
point of view of grammar, even though it can be considered a tatsama or semi-tatsama
language from the point of view of vocabulary.
A ritual or a great deity cannot be compared to a word, but should be compared
to an entire language or at least to a grammatical structure. If language students had
as powerful concepts for the description of grammatical change as they have for the
description of change in vocabulary, anthropology and history might be able to adopt
such concepts profitably. At present it seems that the linguistic distinctions mentioned
can fruitfully be applied to structures in anthropology or history only if such structures
can be analyzed on the analogy of the linguistic analysis of a sentence into words or
of a word into sounds. This would consist in new distinctions and the clarification
of traditional concepts. It is left to anthropologists to decide whether this would be
useful and whether structural anthropology is perhaps the first step on the road which
might eventually lead to formal anthropology. The first required distinction would be
between form and function. This would enable us to say, for example, that the "form"
of Visnu is a tadbhava development, while the "function" of Visnu is a de'si borrowing. Similarly, the "form" of a Brahman marriage could be called a combined result
of tadbhava and de'si elements, while the "function" could be called a tatsama or
semi-tatsama element. We might arrive at a definition of form and function useful
in this context on the basis of Singer's distinction between text and context. Of course,
further distinctions would have to be made. I have merely suggested that conceptual
refinements like those used in the study of language may be useful in the study of
culture.
Sanskritization as used by Srinivas and other anthropologists is a complex concept
or class of concepts. The term itself seems to be misleading, since its relationship to
the term Sanskrit is extremely complicated. Sanskritization covers cases where the
influence of Sanskrit and the amount of Sanskrit material decrease. The concept of
Sanskrit culture, in terms of which we could attempt to clarify the terms Sanskritization and Sanskritic, is not free from ambiguities. Despite these inherent complexities,
the concept of Sanskritization is used heuristically, as related to some of the processes
at work in Indian culture. In the study of Indian languages, Sanskritization is a
well-defined concept denoting one of the processes of language change in India. Although these processes can be defined relatively precisely, we cannot transfer such
concepts to anthropology and history unless we make additional distinctions. Though
we cannot adopt Srinivas' concept of Sanskritization in its original forms, we should
not forget that Srinivas himself was the first to modify it and to stress that it should
be discarded "quickly and without regret" if a better concept or concepts could be
found.69 His concept has been fruitful in paving the way for the description and
analysis of numerous phenomena, inspiring others and giving rise to an extensive
literature.
58
Srinivas, "Sanskritization and Westernization," p. 495; also quoted in Bailey, Tribe, Caste and
Nation, p. 188, n. 1.

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