- Sanskritisation may also refer to introduction of Sanskrit vocabulary in another language or dialect (such as Khariboli).
Sanskritisation is a particular form of social change found in India. It denotes the process by which castes placed lower in the caste hierarchy seek upward mobility by emulating the rituals and practices of the upper or dominant castes. It is a process similar to passing in anthropological terms. This term was made popular by Indian sociologist M. N. Srinivas in the 1950s, although earlier references to this process can be found in Castes in India: Their Mechanism, Genesis and Development by Dr. B. R. Ambedkar. The earliest references to this process of "descent of imitation from the top to the bottom of social ladder", in another context, can be found in The Laws of Imitation by Gabriel Tarde.
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 … ."
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.
According to M.N. Srinivas, Sanskritization 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 Sanskritic theological ideas which become common in the talk of people who are sanskritized.
This phenomenon has also been observed in Nepal among the Khas, Newar and Magar people over the centuries.
Srinivas first propounded this theory in his D.Phil. thesis at Oxford University. The thesis was later brought out as a book titled "Religion and Society Among the Coorgs of South India." Published in 1952, the book was an ethnographical study of the Kodava community of Karnataka. Srinivas writes in the book:
"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 Sanskritizing 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 'Sanskritization' in this book, in preference to 'Brahminization', as certain Vedic rites are confined to the Brahmins and the two other 'twice-born' castes."
The book challenged the then prevalent idea that caste was a rigid and unchanging institution. The concept of sanskritization 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.