A1 Perspectives on the Study of Indian Society

Table of contents

Topics of interest for CSE:

  1. Indology (G S Ghurye)
  2. Structural functionalism (M N Srinivas)
  3. Marxist sociology

UPSC Sociology Previous Year Questions from this topic

  1. Elaborate A. R. Desai's perspective to the study of Indian society. (UPSC 2020, 10 marks)
  2. Elaborate Srinivas's views on religion and society among the Coorgs. (UPSC 2019, 10 marks)
  3. Give an account of Ranajit Guha's approach in studying 'subaltern class'. (UPSC 2019, 10 marks)
  4. Write a note on G.S. Ghurye's Indological perspective of understanding Indian society . (UPSC 2018, 10 marks)
  5. Analyze A.R. Desai's views on India's path of development. (UPSC 2018, 20 marks)
  6. Write a critique of the structural and functional perspective used by M. N. Srinivas in the understanding of Indian society. (UPSC 2017, 10 marks)
  7. Write short notes with a sociological perspective: Salient Features of A.R. Desai’s Marxist Sociology. (UPSC 2016, 10 marks)
  8. Discuss Marxist approach to the analysis of Indian nationalism. (UPSC 2015, 20 marks)
  9. Write short notes with a sociological perspective on the following in 150 words: G.S. Ghurye's Indological approach to understand society in India. (UPSC 2014, 10 marks)
  10. Write short note with a sociological perspective: M.N. Srinivas's concept of westernisation. (UPSC 2013, 10 marks)


Indology is a perspective of studying Indian society which holds that the nature of Indian thought and psychological make-up (characterised by holism, and collectivism) is essentially different from that of the west (primacy of individual, freedom, liberty), so in order to better understand it, it must be understood in terms of Indian thinking, traditions, and philosophy.
According to MN Srinivas, Indology can be called the textual view of Indian society. It has nothing to do with the conditions on the ground, rather it deals with the ideas of Indian society as mentioned in classical religious texts like the Vedas, Upanishads, Dharma Shastra, Manusmriti, Mahabharata, Ramayana etc.
The orientalist/Indologist view of India offers a picture of the society as static, timeless, and spaceless. These scholars emphasize the role of traditions and groups as the basis of social relations rather than individuals. They also consider religion, ethics, and philosophy as the basis of the social organisation rather than interpersonal or group dynamics.
The British, borrowing from their own traditions to understand Indian tradition through texts (from the known to the unknown), made a fundamental error in over-emphasizing the elements of discreteness of Indian social entities and neglecting the linkages between them which bound these entities into an organic whole. The rigidness that became one of the defining attributes of the caste system in the British era was in part caused by the British system of administration and jurisprudence.


Focus points: caste, tribes, culture, and national unity. Govind Sadashiv Ghurye stressed that Indian tradition is Hindu tradition and felt that to understand Indian society one must understand Hindu traditions. BK Nagla says he created a kind of Hindu sociology.

On Caste

Ghurye studied caste from a historical, comparative and integrative perspective. He identified six basic features of caste system:

  1. Segmental division.
  2. Lack of choice of occupations for each segment.
  3. Purity and pollution associated with the occupation.
  4. Hierarchy of these divisions based on purity and pollution.
  5. Commensal and conjugal relations. (Civil/religious disabilities/privileges of sections)
  6. Restrictions on marriage. (Caste endogamy and Gotra/Pinda exogamy)
    Ghurye laid emphasis on endogamy as the most important feature of the caste system. The rules of endogamy and commensality marked off castes from each other. These rules acted as integrative instruments which organised segmented castes into a totality or collectivity.

On Tribes

Ghurye believed that the tribes had been Hinduised after a long period of contact and acculturation. He felt that it was futile to look for a different identity for tribes, rather they should be treated as backward caste Hindus. He felt that this backwardness was a result of their imperfect integration into the Hindu society and that could only be improved by their acculturation. Ghurye debated with Verrier Elwin about the issue of tribals. Elwin held that tribals should be left to their own devices while Ghurye was a strong proponent of acculturation. Finally, Nehru's view of assimilation prevailed.

On Culture & Civilization

According to Ghurye culture constitutes the central element for understanding society and its evolution. For him the challenging task of a sociologist in India was to analyse the complex acculturation process in India, he refers to how the caste system was developed by Brahmins and how it spread to other sections of the society. He identified five foundations of culture which cut across problems of civilisation growth:

  1. Religious consciousness.
  2. Conscience.
  3. Justice.
  4. Pursuit of knowledge and free expression.
  5. Toleration.

Ghurye felt that religion is at the center of the total cultural heritage of man, it moulds and directs behaviour of man in society. He recognised the importance of the concept of reincarnation and the changing concept of godhead in Indian society.

On National Unity

As a sociologist, he was interested in the concept of integration and the process of national unity in India. Ghurye held that while groups play an integrational role in society that is true only up to a certain extent. He felt that in modern Indian society there were five sources of danger to national (basically Hindu) unity due to their excessive attachment to their groups:

  1. Scheduled castes.
  2. Scheduled tribes.
  3. Backward classes.
  4. Muslims and minority groups.
  5. Linguistic minorities. (Greatest source of danger according to Ghurye)

Ghurye majorly viewed the brahminical endeavour as the cause of national unity in India and thus while he calls it the process of acculturation, it is basically a one-way flow in which brahminical ideas and institutions gained prevalence among non-Brahmins.
Ghurye’s concept of cultural unity is not secular in nature. He is concerned with the India of Hindu culture and uses Indian and Hindu culture interchangeably. He viewed regional language as having a symbolic integration value for the region i.e. dysfunctional for the whole.


  • He contributed to building sociology that was completely Indian in orientation and with his deep knowledge of Hinduism he contributed greatly in many spheres.

Critique of Ghurye's Indological Perspective

  • The biggest limitation of his understanding of India was that he never acknowledged the contribution of Christianity and Islam to the cultural pluralism of India.
  • Ghurye failed to recognise that a qualitative change has occurred in the dynamics of Indian unity in modern India. His knowledge of India’s past instead of helping him stood in his way of gaining a better understanding of contemporary Indian society.
  • SC Dube says that his approach is mostly criticised as culture-bound, myopic, textual, and Brahmanic view of India but since most other approaches developed as reflexive critiques of Ghurye's writings his impact on Indian sociology cannot be discounted.
  • His view that the development of a regional language could lead to disunity is also claimed to be an oversimplification. Ex. Eco Survey 2016-17 noted that language was not a barrier to trade within India.
  • He also failed to appreciate that the political involvement of caste as an outcome of the collective mobilization process in modern India.


Structural functionalism originated as a tradition in British Anthropology. It came to the fore with Radcliffe-Brown’s critique of Malinowski’s functionalism. It assumes that society is made up of interconnected and interdependent parts, which make up a unified whole (structure). These parts serve the needs of the society, and are thereby functional (organismic analogy). (Three postulates: unified whole, universal functionalism, indispensable parts)


Srinivas didn’t go for a strictly SF approach, he changed approaches as per the requirements. It is retrospectively that his followers and critics labeled him as a structural-functionalist. He believed that both Indologists and Marxists before him had been very ambitious in trying to understand Indian society at a macro level despite its huge population and numerous variations. He advocated an approach that was both logical and acceptable to study Indian society. Srinivas is credited with initiating the tradition of macro generalisations based on micro anthropological insights (village studies) in Indian sociology.

On Caste

He used the Structural Functionalist approach to study caste. Srinivas held that due to a large number of castes in India (more than 20,000) it was impossible to empirically study all of them in their innumerable variations. He advocated that to better understand the caste system, it would be better to look into the structure of caste itself.
Srinivas identified two distinct hierarchies of caste: a ritual and a secular hierarchy. The position of a caste in the ritual hierarchy is defined by commensal relations, ritual status, values, deities one prayed to, and speech. Secular criteria were defined by wealth, power, access to education and jobs, etc. Using these he formulated the theories of Sanskritization, Westernisation (as avenues for social mobility), and Dominant Caste.

Theory of Sanskritization by M N Srinivas:

Sanskritization is a process of mobility in the ritual hierarchy, usually preceded by upward mobility in the secular hierarchy. The group undergoing Sanskritization changes their ritual patterns (commensal relations, teetotalism, vegetarianism, etc.) to reflect those of the target group (dvija caste) over time in order to improve their ritual status. He also observed that mobility had always been possible especially in the middle of the caste hierarchy. He called this process Sanskritization instead of brahmanisation as some places also exhibited the tendency to move towards other dvija castes too (thus a broader outlook than simply brahmanisation). Ex movement of Marathas towards claiming a status of Kshatriyas similar to Rajputs. This concept was developed by Srinivas in his study of Coorgs (Religion and Society Among the Coorgs). He cited examples of how the Kayasthas of Bengal had taken up administrative functions during the Mughal rule and thus improved their ritual hierarchy greatly through advances in the secular hierarchy.

Theory of Westernization by M N Srinivas:

Westernization, similarly, was the process by which either an upper caste or the lowest castes (places with limited mobility in the traditional structure) adopted western habits, traditions, education, etc. to gain mobility in status. Other castes too used this method but it must be noted that the uppermost and lowest castes could only use this as other means of mobility were blocked for them.Westernisation happened at three levels:

  1. Primary - interacted with the western culture directly
  2. Secondary - interacted with the primary beneficiaries
  3. Tertiary - indirect contact with western customs.

Y. Singh says that westernisation led to:

  1. Growth of a universal legal system
  2. Expansion of education
  3. Urbanisation and industrialisation
  4. Increased network communication

Theory of Dominant caste

Dominant caste is an important concept to understand the rural social life in any part of India according to Srinivas. Typical features of a dominant caste in a village are:

  • Numerical strength,
  • Economic and political power, and
  • Western education and occupations.

Dominant castes dominate the secular hierarchy but not necessarily the ritual hierarchy. When a caste enjoys all of the above at the same time, it can be said to enjoy decisive dominance. However, decisive dominance is rare, with the different elements being dispersed among various groups. A caste that is dominant in a number of villages in an area may be said to have regional dominance. This concept was developed in his study of Rampura village titled the Remembered Village.
Srinivas considers caste as a stratification system, and caste positions and relations as dynamic in nature. So, he concludes that this understanding of caste can be applied to both micro and macro levels.

M N Srinivas on Indian Villages

Srinivas’ understanding of Indian villages is neither textual nor cultural. He dismisses Louis Dumont’s mono-causal approach to understand Indian society in terms of purity and pollution and instead argues that every Indian carries multiple identities. People from a single caste are divided on the basis of family and kinship; people from a single village are divided on the basis of caste, and villagers stand united forgetting all divisions against the outside world. Basically like the Bedouin proverb: me against my brother; I and my brother against my cousin; I, my brother, and my cousin against the world.
Thus, he concludes that while caste provides horizontal solidarity to groups, villages provide vertical solidarity. He adds that Jajmani relations further bolstered the vertical solidarity as do power/rivalry factions. In doing so he opposes the views of Dumont who holds that there is no solidarity outside of the caste group.

He advocated village studies in order to understand:

  1. The social structure of village communities,
  2. Specific structural characters of a given village.

Srinivas never said that the village is a representation of Indian society in general. Rather he held that by studying villages located in various parts of the country we can gather enough information about the continuity and change in village traditions and norms. By doing so, we would be able to understand the continuity and change experienced by the Indian society as a whole. Thus, his views liberated Indian sociology from the determinism of Indology and Marxist approaches and introduced the traditions of empirical studies and intensive fieldwork in the realm of Indian sociology. He can be credited with leading a shift from the book view to the field view perspective.

On New Avatar of Caste

In his analysis of Indian unity, he writes that despite the people of India being divided on the basis of religion, language, and caste; common cultural consciousness and emotive consciousness promote unity among them. He coined the term AJGaR (Ahir, Jat, Gujjar, and Rajput) to indicate how prosperous agricultural communities were forgetting caste differences to claim political power in states. This position took him closer to the Marxist view of how caste is evolving into class in India.
Srinivas noted that in contemporary India, the conflict between upper and lower castes was missing. Rather the conflict was between OBCs (Yadavs) and Dalits (BSP) who in the case of UP had thrown out Brahmins and Rajputs from the power structure. Thus, castes with similar class interests were fighting against each other. Similar is the case of AJGaR, Ahirs and Jats are engaged in rivalry at the village level but come together as backward castes to gain reservation. He also talked about vote-bank politics and the transformation of caste system into casteism. Thus, he tried to disprove the Marxist notion of caste evolving into a class due to the numerous internal frictions.

Critique of M N Srinivas's Structural Functionalism

  • As the founder of modern sociology in India, he was not committed to any particular approach or theory, rather he adapted his approach as he went along. He began as an Indologist and moved on to structural functionalism and used various other approaches in his vast array of works.
  • Yogendra Singh considers MNS’ sociology as a form of objective idealism, i.e. undergoing both continuity and change. Objective because he used empirical methods and idealists 'cause he believed that India can never go for absolute change or modernity.
  • Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak holds that it is because of Srinivas that Indian society was studied from a caste perspective till the 80s. The subaltern perspective is important.
  • Dalit scholars consider that Srinivas was a Brahmanic sociologist much like Ghurye. While Ghurye celebrated Hindu culture, Srinivas celebrated Sanskritization.
  • His concept of Sanskritization is no longer valid in today’s society. Middle and lower castes have begun opting for westernisation and political representation by mass mobilisation instead to gain social mobility.
  • Dominant caste too is no longer a valid concept in rural areas. OBCs and lower castes have successfully displaced the traditional upper castes like Brahmins and Rajputs from the power structure of the states. Also since the Jajmani relations have broken down, the traditional patronage system no longer works to maintain the dominance of the land-owning castes.
  • Srinivas' approach has been termed as brahminical by his critics. When he speaks of Sanskritization and speaks against reservation it can be said that the Brahmin in Srinivas supersedes the sociologist in Srinivas.


There is not one rather many Marxist approaches to study Indian society. While Marxists and Indologists share the dialectical approach, the Marxists criticise the Indologists’ sociological position while explaining Indian society.

EMS Namboodirapad:

  1. Building of India on modern democratic and secular lines requires a struggle against the caste-based Hindu society and its culture.
  2. Socialist secular democracy cannot exist unless the division of society into a hierarchy of castes is broken.
  3. The struggle for radical democracy and socialism cannot be separated from the struggle against caste society.

The first Marxist analysis of Indian society was done by S.A. Dange, the father of the CPI.

  • He held that the rituals performed by the Brahmins were not initially a cultural act, rather it was a ritual to increase production in agriculture, increase soil fertility, etc.
  • Thus, rituals were instrumental for the gratification of the materialistic needs of the people.
  • Hence, respect for Brahmins was neither because of their command of scriptural knowledge nor because of their divine origin (Purushasukta).
  • This implies that the existence of structured inequality between Brahmins and the rest is driven by material conditions. Therefore, Dange considers Brahmins as a class and not as a caste. From Vedic to contemporary times, Indian society has passed through various forms of class divisions. In contemporary India, he felt that workers and labourers should come together to initiate the revolutions of the proletariat.

D.D. Kosambi was a historian. He collected data from historical texts and applied contemporary context to these sources.

  • In Rigveda, there is a mention of dasyus or slaves.
  • These slaves were not born as slaves and were most likely a different ethnic group living in the subcontinent.
  • Due to the loss of sovereignty to the Aryans, they were pushed out of the Varna system and forced to take up menial occupations.
  • Vedic society was not egalitarian but exploitative, hierarchy-based, and had a class character. Therefore, the history of Indian society is a history of class formation, consolidation, and struggle for liberation from class-based inequality. (Adi-Dravida/dharma/Hindu movements based on this idea)DALITS in Punjab call themselves Dravidians in the North. Raavan Sena and names like Danav and Lankesh!

R.K. Mukherjee indicated that:

  • Hindu cultural values were created by the Brahmins and transmitted by them as teachers and preachers.
  • It was forced into the subconscious of the masses, who now conform to the Hindu values not because they need them but rather because without them the existence of society will be at stake.
  • The unity of Indian society is a product of brahminical class consciousness that gave Kshatriyas the right to rule, Vaishyas the right to make wealth, and Shudras to gratify others. Structural inequality in India is a product of coercive values created and transmitted by Brahmins who wanted to institutionalise and consolidate their domination throughout the history of Indian society.


Desai considers that the Marxist approach offers an alternative to the Indological approach to understanding Indian society. He says that Marxist understanding of India is an attempt to develop a Historical Materialist interpretation of the history of India.
He says that Indian history (Marxist perspective) can be divided into three stages:

  1. Pre-colonial.
  2. Colonial.
  3. Post-colonial.

Pre-colonial Mode of production - It is defined by Marx as the Asiatic mode of production.

It is characterised by:

  • communal ownership of property,
  • presence of political inequality,
  • absence of markets,
  • subsistence production, and
  • mutual exchange of service and skills (jajmani relations).

Thus, elements of equality are absent in the Asiatic MoP. A long list of Indian rulers and conquerors came and went and had little impact on the village life in India. The only thing that changed for the village was the person who collected taxes. Till the Mughals, no direct attempt had been made to change this setup. Indian feudal structure can be called corporate feudalism as against the manorial feudalism of Europe.
Colonial MoP(British slowly introduced new FoP, changed old RoP, and thereby transformed the Indian superstructure leading to the birth of a new MC which led the nationalist movement)
Seen as beginning with the advent of European traders in India. Initially, they carried goods manufactured in industries back home to be sold in the Indian market. Desai says that they enjoyed two major advantages:

  • Industrial technology was used for cheaper mass production of goods,
  • The industry is used for the production of advanced warheads.

Initially, these traders only catered to the dominant classes (replacing the artisans in the towns) but slowly proliferated their trade to include the masses (therefore also affecting the rural artisans and the autarchy of the villages). With cheap goods flooding the market, traditional artisans, cottage industries, and domestic manufacturing units soon collapsed. With the extra workforce flooding agriculture, land became a burdened resource. With the absence of improvement in farm technology combined with natural calamities, agricultural production fell and created conditions of mass poverty in India.
After the British seized state power through techniques such as divide and rule and subsidiary alliance, they introduced agrarian, industrial, and revenue policies in order to maximize profit.

  • Change in economic structures (landholding patterns). The land became individually owned, sellable, mortgageable, and thus, alienable. Earlier it used to be communally owned and thus not alienable.
  • Change in forms of production. This system also increased the tax liability of the peasants. Thus, the failure of agriculture to raise production and increased tax liability led to pauperisation. Earlier the production had been of subsistence type with tax being paid as a % of produce during that year. Shift to fixed monetary tax irrespective of production changed the nature of agriculture from subsistence to commercial.
  • Change in social structures. Colonial rulers introduced intermediaries between them and the peasants in the form of the zamindars. These zamindars further appointed sub-zamindars and sub-sub-zamindars to collect revenue. Dependents on land increased while production remained the same. Zamindars were also created as a class of land owners dependent on the British for their power. Earlier the taxmen collected tax from village heads.
  • Change in trade structures. Further trade acts and policies of the British created a situation whereby even everyday use items such as sugar and salt were imported from Britain. The autonomy of the villages was completely broken down and traders in towns also lost out due to the import push.
    According to A R Desai, the freedom struggle was a product of the proletariat who reacted to the coercive policies of the state and colonial government. With time a new middle class emerged which was western educated and held western occupations and values. This middle class was initially favoured by the British to act as interlocutors between them and the illiterate masses, but over time the interlocutors thought of applying western ideals to themselves too. They wanted liberty, equality, and freedom from colonial rule to establish a nationalist government.

He admits the role of the press and education in the development of Indian nationalism and also points to the religious reform movements as an expression of national democratic awakening. Ultimately, nationalism was expressed in the phase of mass struggle with a middle-class leadership and they received ardent support from the hungry and exploited masses.
For Desai, the economic history of India is a shift from feudalism to exploitative capitalism.
Post-Colonial MoPCharacterised by the plans of the newly independent bourgeois government to follow a socialist development policy. The initial discourse was dominated by land reforms, education for all, equal pay for equal work, the factories act, community development program, poverty alleviation measures, etc.
Desai noted that by 1976, 80% of agricultural land was owned by 10% of the people. The benefits of GR and agricultural subsidies had been cornered by the rich farmers, and more than 40% of Indian people were BPL. He concludes that in independent India, capitalist development is gathering a greater momentum than socialist development. He starkly remarks that external colonialism has been replaced by internal colonialism.
New farm laws which enable greater capitalist intervention in agriculture show the significance of Marxist theory to understand changing modes of production in India.


  • Desai and Marxism offered a new perspective on Indian sociology, so far dominated by structural functionalism.
  • Andre Beteille says that Marxists are too committed to economic determinism and are so unable to realise that reality is vast, unorganised, dichotomous, and chaotic.
  • SC Dube: Marxists drag facts to fit a theory rather than make a theory to explain facts.
  • TK Oommen says that Indian sociology has been plagued by deterministic approaches (cultural determinism of Indology and economic determinism of Marxism) and needs to be liberated from this bondage.
  • Despite the regular critiques of Marxist sociology, it remains a dynamic paradigm to understand the various dialectical relationships present in Indian society to explain the change.

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