In sociology, Sanskritisation (Indian English) or Sanskritization (American English, Oxford spelling), is the process by which caste or tribes placed lower in the caste hierarchy seek upward mobility by emulating the rituals and practices of the dominant 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.
In a broader sense, also called Brahmanization, it is a historical process in which local Indian religious traditions become aligned to and absorbed within the Brahmanical tradition, creating the pan-Indian tradition of Hinduism.
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 ... ."
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 varnasrama-dharma.
In this process, local traditions ("little traditions") become integrated into the "great tradition" of Brahmanical religion, disseminating Sanskrit texts and Brahmanical ideas throughout India, and abroad. This facilitated the development of the Hindu synthesis, in which the Brahmanical tradition absorbed "local popular traditions of ritual and ideology."
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, paap, maya, samsara, and moksha are the most common Sanskrit theological ideas which become common in the talk of people who are sanskritised.
Srinivas first propounded this theory in his D.Phil. thesis at Oxford. The thesis was later brought out as a book, 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.
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)[note 1][note 2] 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."
Sanskritization is often aimed to claim the Varna status of Brahmin or Kshatriyas, the two prestigious Varna of the Vedic-age Varna system. One such 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. The word Kshatriya is hence not synonymous with Rajput.
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.
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.
Srinivas was of the view that Sanskritization 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 Sanskritization. He further suggested that, after going through Sanskritization, such tribes would claim that they are castes and hence Hindus.
... 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.