No society, however, remains static. The term ‘social mobility’ is used to refer to the movement from one stratum of society to another. Societies where the rate of social mobility is high are sometimes referred to as ‘open societies’, as opposed to ‘closed societies’, where such rate is quite low. The Indian society is generally regarded as falling in the ‘closed’ category, as the rate of mobility is quite low. However, one interesting avenue of upper mobility in India is what is referred to as ‘sanskritization’.
The word ‘sanskritization’ was coined by the late Prof. Mysore Narasimhachar Srinivas in his Ph. D. thesis submitted to the Oxford University – which was later published under the title, “Religion and Society amongst the Coorgs of South India”. Prof. Srinivas used this term to denote a process whereby people of lower castes collectively try to adopt and imitate the practices, rituals and beliefs followed by those belonging to the upper castes or the ‘twice-born’, in order to acquire a higher status in society. It is thus a process of cultural mobility that is taking place in the traditional social system of India.
Prof. Srinivas, who made a detailed study of the Coorgs in Karnataka, found that persons belonging to lower castes collectively adopted some of the customs, practices – and even the dress codes – of the Brahmins and gave up some of their own, in order to raise their position in the caste hierarchy.
For instance, they gave up eating meat, drinking liquor and sacrificing animals to their deities, and imitated the Brahmins in matters of food, dress and rituals. By doing so, they could stake a claim for a higher position in the caste hierarchy. Typically, this is a slow process which takes a long time; it could be decades or one full generation, or sometimes, even a few centuries.
Yogendra Singh has taken the view that sanskritization is an important component of the process of socialisation. The emulation by the lower class of the ways of life of the higher class leads to significant changes in the social behaviour of the lower castes. For them, it is a process of learning, where they unlearn some of their own previous social habits and learn new modes of social behaviour from the higher caste groups, regarded as their reference model.
Although the reference group followed by such persons is usually the Brahmins, it may sometimes be some other dominant caste of the locality. Thus, if the dominating case of a particular region is Kshtriya, then the Kshtriya model is emulated. Some tribal groups have been found to emulate the Shudras in order to become part of the Hindu society.
Sanskritization is, however, not confined to Hindu castes; it exists amongst non-Hindu tribal and semi-tribal groups also. It is a form of social change observed not only in India, but also in other countries like Nepal.
The process of sanskritization is not confined to particular individuals; rather it takes place at a group level. It explains changes in the status of a specific group over a period of time – sometimes, over two or more centuries.
Sanskritization thus leads to the upward mobility of the caste which is undergoing the process. However, such mobility may take place even without sanskritization, as sanskritization is only one of the modes of this mobility. Conversely, sanskritization may not always result in upward social mobility.
It may also be noted that sanskritization leads only to positional changes; but it does not lead to any structural change. In other words, it does not change the caste system as a whole. It is thus not considered to be a threat to the caste system which is deep-rooted in the Hindu society.