A must-read on religion and society

I have finished reading M N Srinivas’ Religion and society among the Coorgs of South India. The volume I have with me (published by Oxford fifty years after the first publication) also carries an introduction by Andre Beteille. Both the book and the introduction are a must-read if you are interested in questions of religion, society and the interaction between the two.

In his introduction, Beteille not only traces the intellectual lineage of Srinivas, but also describes the philosophy behind Srinivas’ approach:

The essence of the sociological approach is to view religion as a social phenomenon, on the same plane as kinship, economics and politics, and to interpret and explain religious beliefs and practices by relating them to other social phenomena and to the structure of society as a whole. This is the task that Srinivas undertook in this book.

He [Srinivas] favoured the sociological approach and viewed Indological approach with disfavour if not hostility. The point of the sociological approach was not simply to amass data on religion, caste and community, but to show how they hung together. And if there were bits of data that were missing, one could always go back to the field and test out the connections made on the basis of one’s first investigation, One could not travel back to the eleventh century in search of missing data as easily as one could travel from Mysore, or even Oxford, to Coorg.

The objection to the Indological approach was that, at least as it was then practised, it was largely a form of conjectural history. If there were missing bits of evidence, one did not go back to the past, one simply invented them.

If Beteille’s introduction puts the book in perspective, as usual, Srinivas comes up with several brilliant observations and analysis, which, with hindsight, look very straight-forward and simple, but never occurred to one before reading him.

It is generally said that Hinduism is not a proselytizing religion; however, it is not usually explained how it survived some others which were (like Buddhism), or how it managed to spread so far and wide within India without proselytization. For the first time, in this book of Srinivas, I notice what the answer to these questions might be (emphasis mine):

Caste guarantees autonomy to a community, and at the same time it brings that community into relation with numerous other communities all going to form a hierarchy. The importance of such an institution is obvious in a vast country like India which has been the meeting-place of many different cultures in the past and which has always had a considerable regional diversity. While the autonomy of a sub-caste was preserved it was also brought into relation with others, and the hierarchy was also a scale of generally agreed values. Every caste tended to imitate the customs and ritual of the topmost caste, and this was responsible for the spread of Sanskritization. When this process is viewed on a continental scale and over a period of at least 2,500 years, it is easy to see how Sanskritic ideas and beliefs penetrated the remotest hill tribes in such a manner as not to do violence to their traditional beliefs. Caste enabled Hinduism to proselytize without the aid of church.

Caste, which was so successful in absorbing autonomous groups everywhere, also provided the pattern for relations with non-Hindu groups. Christians and Muslims were regarded as castes, too, and they accepted such a status. Even revolutionary movements which had aimed at the overthrow of the caste system ended by either becoming a caste themselves or reproduced the caste system within themselves. The main body of Hindus regarded these sects and castes and not as as sects. Thus the caste system effectively neutralized all attempts to change it.

The book is also full of information about the customs and practices of the Coorgs. I liked this bit about umblical cords and schoolyards:

The rice-field is divided into a number of ridged-up plots and the central plot of the rice-field is regarded as particularly sacred. Formerly it was the custom to bury the umbilical cord of the eldest son in the central plot. A man is supposed to have a special affinity to the place where his umbilical cord is buried. If a Coorg boy is found going to a particular place frequently, his elders twit him, ‘Is your umbilical cord buried there?’ Nowadays the umbilical cord is buried in the yard of the palace of Mercara, or in a school-compound, because Coorgs want their sons to do well in examinations and become high government officials.

Some of the Coorg customs also sound nearer home:

A Coorg never says that a lamp has gone out. He says instead, ‘the lamp is brighter’ (boLicha dump pOchi).

At home we were taught to say “The lamp has reached the peak”.

Srinivas, in a paragraph reminiscent of Raja Rao’s Foreword to Kanthapura, writes about patriotism and the religious colours that it takes:

Mountains, rivers, lakes, and trees become associated with characters and incidents in the epics and purAnas. Such local myths are found in every part of India: rAma built a temple here, sIta bathed in this river near that rock, shiva and pArvati live in kailAsa in the Himalayas, agastya the sage meditated on top of that mountain, and so on. One’s country become the home of one’s gods. Patriotism acquires a religious quality.

Srinivas, with his careful observations and analysis, also manages to demolish some myths, of which, the following one deserves a mention:

It is wrong to assume, as some do, that in the contact between Brahmins and non-Brahmins, Brahmins have always influenced non-Brahmins, while they themselves remained uninfluenced.

It is only natural to ask the question as to how this book compares with the other classic of Srinivas, namely, his Remembered village. As a lay reader not trained in anthropology, I would still rank Remembered village higher than this; for example, the last paragraph of the book about the attitude of Coorgs towards ascetics sounds like what a graduate student would write in a thesis – simply for the sake of completion; Remembered village was without such rough edges and is more rounded.

In fact, according to Beteille, even among the other path-breaking monographs of the same type, published at around the same time, Srinivas’ book is not the best-written (but that, precisely, is also the reason why it is the greatest):

Religion and Society does not have the unity, the coherence and the elegance of the two monographs on African religions. But that was bound to be. It was a more daring and innovative venture whose scope was enormously larger than that of either of the two other monographs.

Bottomline: strongly recommended. Have fun!

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8 Responses to “A must-read on religion and society”

  1. Nikhil Narayanan Says:

    I should pick this book.
    “If a Coorg boy is found going to a particular place frequently, his elders twit him, ‘Is your umbilical cord buried there?’ ”

    My parents are from North Malabar and I have heard this question many a times from my mom.
    I am quite not sure where exactly umbilical cords are buried these days.

    Similar sounding funny custom in North Malabar(or may be elsewhere):
    Throwing off milk teeth that comes off to the tiled roof (Supposedly to have teeth as perfectly aligned as roof tiles) or burying them next to Thumba (Leuca Indica) flowers to have teeth as white as these flowers.

    -Nikhil

  2. A must read on religion and society | DesiPundit Says:

    […] India.If you are interested in questions of religion, society and the interaction between the two, it is a must read, says Guru. The book is also full of information about the customs and practices of the Coorgs. I liked this […]

  3. Guru Says:

    Dear Nikhil,

    I am sure you will enjoy the book; the book mentions many customs that the Coorgs have in common with people from Malabar as well as those from South Canara and the Kannada country.

    In fact, according to Srinivas, many of the Coorg folktales tell about the Gods who come from the milk ocean who first reach Malabar coast, and from thence come looking for a place to stay in the Coorg country, in which process, they “lose their caste”. According to Srinivas, this might actually represent not only the debt of Coorgs to Malabar, but the changes they have made to these received customs; Srinivas also gives an example story which he links to the matrlineal and patrilineal societal set-ups. There also seems to have been strong trade ties between Malabar and Coorg.

    By the way, we also had the practice of throwing the milk teeth on the tiled roofs where I grew up (a border district from Tamilnadu in contact with both Karnataka and Andhra); but we looked for roofs which sheltered a pregnant women (probably to make sure that the teeth grew as fast as the baby — though I am not sure why).

    Guru

  4. Nikhil Narayanan Says:

    @Guru
    Thanks for the info.
    Some customs are really interesting. 🙂

  5. Indian History Carnival - 7 | DesiPundit Says:

    […] has a post about M N Srinivas’ Religion and society among the Coorgs of South India. One question the book […]

  6. A tribute to MNS « Entertaining Research Says:

    […] tribute to MNS By Guru It is no secret that I am a great fan of MNS and his writings; see here and here for example. So, I was very happy to see Ram Guha’s latest piece in the Telegraph in […]

  7. Bhamini Says:

    Hi Guru,

    informative post, i have been wondering which book i could read to learn more about my social ancestry so to speak, for i am a Kodava from Coorg.
    I look forward to reading the book.

    Best,
    Bhamini

  8. Through the looking glass – A Book Review of “RELIGION AND SOCIETY AMONG THE COORGS OF SOUTH INDIA” –M.N.SRINIVAS | Chiteisri: The Gypsy Diaries Says:

    […] Press, Chapter Eight at pg.228 -241  [16] Opinion of a researcher in Sociology , Guru written at https://mogadalai.wordpress.com/2008/07/11/a-must-read-on-religion-and-society, last visited on 30th June, 2011. Share this:TwitterFacebookLike this:LikeBe the first to like […]

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