Sanskritisation (or Sanskritization) is a term in sociology which refers to the process by which castes or tribes placed lower in the caste hierarchy seek upward mobility by emulating the rituals and practices of the dominant castes or upper castes. It is a process similar to 'passing' in sociological terms. This term was made popular by Indian sociologist M. N. Srinivas in the 1950s.[1][2][3] Sanskritisation has in particular been observed among mid-ranked members of caste-based social hierarchies.[4]

In a broader sense, also called Brahmanisation,[5] it is a historical process in which local Indian religious traditions become syncretised, or aligned to and absorbed within the Brahmanical religion, resulting in the pan-Indian religion of Hinduism.[6][3][7]


Srinivas defined Sanskritisation as a process by which

a low or middle Hindu caste, or tribal or other group, changes its customs, ritual, ideology, and way of life in the direction of a high and frequently twice-born caste. Generally such changes are followed by a claim to a higher position in the caste hierarchy than that traditionally conceded to the claimant class by the local community..."[8]

In a broader sense, Sanskritisation is

the process whereby local or regional forms of culture and religion – local deities, rituals, literary genres – become identified with the great tradition of Sanskrit literature and culture: namely the culture and religion of orthodox, Aryan, Brahmans, which accepts the Veda as revelation and, generally, adheres to varrṇāśrama-dharma.[9]

In this process, local traditions (little traditions) become integrated into the great tradition of Brahmanical religion,[7] disseminating Sanskrit texts and Brahmanical ideas throughout India, and abroad.[3] This facilitated the development of the Hindu synthesis,[5][3][7] in which the Brahmanical tradition absorbed local popular traditions of ritual and ideology.[5]

According to Srinivas, Sanskritisation is not just the adoption of new customs and habits, but also includes exposure to new ideas and values appearing in Sanskrit literature. He says the words Karma, dharma, papa, maya, samsara, and moksha are the most common Sanskrit theological ideas which become common in the talk of people who are sanskritised.[10]


Srinivas first propounded this theory in his D.Phil. thesis at Oxford. The thesis was later brought out as a book,[11] which was an ethnographical study of the Kodava (Coorgs) community of Karnataka. Srinivas writes:

The caste system is far from a rigid system, in which the position of each component caste is fixed for all time. Movement has always been possible, and especially in the middle regions of the hierarchy. A caste was able, in a generation or two, to rise to a higher position in the hierarchy by adopting vegetarianism and teetotalism, and by Sanskritising its ritual and pantheon. In short, it took over, as far as possible, the customs, rites, and beliefs of the Brahmins, and adoption of the Brahminic way of life by a low caste seems to have been frequent, though theoretically forbidden. This process has been called ‘Sanskritisation’ in this book, in preference to ‘Brahminisation’, as certain Vedic rites are confined to the Brahmins and the two other twice-born castes.[12]

The book challenged the then prevalent idea that caste was a rigid and unchanging institution. The concept of Sanskritisation addressed the actual complexity and fluidity of caste relations. It brought into academic focus the dynamics of the renegotiation of status by various castes and communities in India.

According to Jaffrelot 2005, p. 33, a similar heuristic was previously described by Ambedkar (1916, 1917).[13][note 1] Jaffrelot goes on to say, "While the term was coined by Srinivas, the process itself had been described by colonial administrators such as E. T. Atkinson in his Himalayan Gazetteer and Alfred Lyall, in whose works Ambedkar might well have encountered it."[14]

Virginius Xaxa notes that sometimes the anthropologists also use the term Kshatriyisation and Rajputisation in place of Sanskritisation.[15]


Sanskritisation is often aimed to claim the Varna status of Brahmin or Kshatriyas, the two prestigious Varna of the Vedic-age Varna system. One of the main example of it is various non-elite pastoral communities like Ahir, Gopa, Ahar, Goala etc. who adopted the Yadav word as part of Sanskritisation effort to gain upward mobility in society during late 19th century to early 20th century.[16][17][18][19] Similar attempts were made by communities who were historically classed as non-elite tillers like Kurmi[20] and various communities like Koeri,[21] Murao etc. from the late 19th century onwards through their caste organisations by claiming higher social status.[22] Kalwar caste is traditionally involved into distillation and selling of liquor, but around the start of the 20th century, various organisations related to the caste sought to redefine the image of their community through this process.[23]

Another example in North India is of Rajput. According to historical evidence, the present day Rajput community varies greatly in status, comprising those with royal lineage to those whose ancestors were petty tenants or tribals who gained land and political power to justify their claim of being Kshatriya.[24][25][26]

One clear example of Sanskritisation is the adoption, in emulation of the practice of twice-born castes, of vegetarianism by people belonging to the so-called low castes who are traditionally not averse to non-vegetarian food.

One more example is of Hindu Jat in rural North India who did Sanskritisation with the help of Arya Samaj as a part of a social upliftment effort.[27]

An unsuccessful example is the Vishwakarma caste's claim to Brahmin status, which is not generally accepted outside that community, despite their adoption of some Brahmin caste traits, such as wearing the sacred thread, and the Brahminisation of their rituals. Srinivas juxtaposed the success of the Lingayat caste in achieving advancement within Karnataka society by such means with the failure of the Vishwakarma to achieve the same. Their position as a left-hand caste has not aided their ambition.[28]

Srinivas was of the view that Sanskritisation was not limited to the Hindu castes, and stated that the semi-tribal groups including Himalayas's Pahadis, central India's Gonds and Oraons, and western India's Bhils also underwent Sanskritisation. He further suggested that, after going through Sanskritisation, such tribes would claim that they are castes and hence Hindus.[29] This phenomenon has also been observed in Nepal among Khas, Magar, Newar, and Tharu people.[30]


Yogendra Singh has critiqued the theory as follows:

Sanskritisation fails to account for many aspects of cultural changes in the past and contemporary India as it neglects non-sanskritic traditions. It may be noted that often a non-sanskritic element of culture may be a localised form of sanskritic tradition. Sanskritic rites are often added to non-sanskritic rites without replacing them.[31]

See also


  1. ^ Jaffrelot 2005, p. 33 notes, "Ambedkar advanced the basis of one of the most heuristic of concepts in modern Indian Studies – the sanskritization process – that M.N. Srinivas 1952 was to introduce 40 years later."


  1. ^ Charsley 1998, citing Srinivas 1952
  2. ^ Srinivas et al. 1996.
  3. ^ a b c d Editors of Encyclopaedia Britannica [b] n.d.
  4. ^ Baru, S. (2021). India's Power Elite: Class, Caste and Cultural Revolution. Penguin Random House India Private Limited. ISBN 9789390914760.
  5. ^ a b c Flood 2013, p. 148.
  6. ^ Flood 2013, p. 148: "Within the developing Hindu traditions we can see the process of Sanskritization or Brahmanization, whereby the great brahmanical tradition of vedic social values, vedic ritual forms and Sanskrit absorbs local traditions of ritual and ideology."
  7. ^ a b c Turner 2008.
  8. ^ Jayapalan 2001, p. 428.
  9. ^ Flood 2013, p. 128.
  10. ^ Srinivas 1962, p. 48.
  11. ^ Srinivas 1952.
  12. ^ Srinivas 1952, p. 32.
  13. ^ Ambedkar, Bhimrao Ramji (May 1917) [9 May 1916]. "Castes in India: Their Mechanism, Genesis and Development". Indian Antiquary. XLI.
  14. ^ Jaffrelot 2005, p. 33.
  15. ^ Xaxa, Virginius (12–18 June 1999). Raj, Krishna; Prakash, Padma; Gavaskar, Mahesh (eds.). "Transformation of Tribes in India: Terms of Discourse". Economic and Political Weekly. Vol. 34, no. 24. Economic and Political Weekly. pp. 1520–1521. JSTOR 4408077. Scholars have conceptualised diversely the processess of social change experienced by tribes in contact with non–tribal societies. This is evident from the range of the terms used for capturing the processes, the most common being 'Sanskritisation' and 'Hinduisation'. At times anthropologists have also used 'Kshatriyisation' and 'Rajputisation' as substitutes for 'Sanskritisation'.
  16. ^ Jassal, Smita Tewari; École pratique des hautes études (France). Section des sciences économiques et sociales; University of Oxford. Institute of Social Anthropology (2001). "Caste in the Colonial State: Mallahs in the census". Contributions to Indian sociology. Mouton. pp. 319–351. Quote: "The movement, which had a wide interregional spread, attempted to submerge regional names such as Goala, Ahir, Ahar, Gopa, etc., in favour of the generic term Yadava (Rao 1979). Hence a number of pastoralist castes were subsumed under Yadava, in accordance with decisions taken by the regional and national level caste sabhas. The Yadavas became the first among the shudras to gain the right to wear the janeu, a case of successful sanskritisation which continues till date. As a prominent agriculturist caste in the region, despite belonging to the shudra varna, the Yadavas claimed Kshatriya status tracing descent from the Yadu dynasty. The caste's efforts matched those of census officials, for whom standardisation of overlapping names was a matter of policy. The success of the Yadava movement also lies in the fact that, among the jaati sabhas, the Yadava sabha was probably the strongest, its journal, Ahir Samachar, having an all-India spread. These factors strengthened local efforts, such as in Bhojpur, where the Yadavas, locally known as Ahirs, refused to do begar, or forced labour, for the landlords and simultaneously prohibited liquor consumption, child marriages, and so on."
  17. ^ Mandelbaum, David Goodman (1970). Society in India. Vol. 2. Berkeley: University of California Press. p. 443. ISBN 978-0-520-01623-1.
  18. ^ Jaffrelot, Christophe (2003). India's silent revolution: the rise of the lower castes in North India. Columbia University Press. pp. 210–211. ISBN 978-0-231-12786-8. Quote: "In his typology of low caste movements, (M. S. A.) Rao distinguishes five categories. The first is characterised by 'withdrawal and self-organisation'. ... The second one, illustrated by the Yadavs, is based on the claim of 'higher varna status' and fits with Sanskritisation pattern. ..."
  19. ^ Leshnik, Lawrence S.; Sontheimer, Günther-Dietz (1975). Pastoralists and nomads in South Asia. O. Harrassowitz. p. 218. ISBN 9783447015523. Quote: "The Ahir and allied cowherd castes (whether actually pastoralists or cultivators, as in the Punjab) have recently organized a pan-Indian caste association with political as well as social reformist goals using the epic designation of Yadava (or Jadava) Vanshi Kshatriya, ie the warrior caste descending from the Yadava lineage of the Mahabharata fame."
  20. ^ Jaffrelot, Christophe (2003). India's silent revolution: the rise of the lower castes in North India. London: C. Hurst & Co. p. 196. ISBN 978-1-85065-670-8.
  21. ^ Prakash, Om (2000). "Political Awakening, Caste Movement and Congress Behaviour". Proceedings of the Indian History Congress. 61: 954–957. ISSN 2249-1937. JSTOR 44148171.
  22. ^ Jaffrelot, Christophe (2003). India's silent revolution: the rise of the lower castes in North India. London: C. Hurst & Co. p. 197,199. ISBN 978-1-85065-670-8.
  23. ^ Bayly, Christopher A. (1973). "Patrons and Politics in Northern India". In Gallagher, John; Johnson, Gordon; Seal, Anil (eds.). Locality, Province and Nation: Essays on Indian Politics 1870 to 1940 (Reprinted ed.). Cambridge University Press Archive. p. 63. ISBN 978-0-52109-811-3.
  24. ^ Editors of Encyclopaedia Britannica [a] n.d.
  25. ^ Varadpande 1987, p. 290.
  26. ^ Talbot 2015, p. 33–35.
  27. ^ Christophe Jaffrelot (2010). Religion, Caste and Politics in India. Primus Books. p. 431. ISBN 9789380607047.
  28. ^ Ikegame 2013, p. 128.
  29. ^ Bopegamage, A.; Kulahalli, R. N. (1971). "'Sanskritization' and Social Change in India". European Journal of Sociology. 12 (1, Permanent non–Revolution). Cambridge University Press: 124. doi:10.1017/S000397560000223X. JSTOR 23998568.
  30. ^ Guneratne 2002.
  31. ^ Singh 1994, p. 11.