This book is written by one of the foremost social anthropologists in the world during his time, M. N. Srinivas as a Ph.D thesis. Working with the golden generation of anthropology in Britain during the 1940s, he readied the thesis for publication, under the influence of distinguished anthropologists, tracing a lineage back to Emile Durkheim.
As is probably expected of a person under Durkheim’s considerable influence, Srinivas is preoccupied with the question of social structure, and how culture, which is the subject matter of anthropology, either affirms or is used to note the change of a person’s place in the extant social structure. The Durkheimian concept of ‘functional analysis’ or the study of the functions of human behavior in preserving the social structure resonates throughout the book. However one may disagree with the conclusions drawn by Srinivas, the book provides a pretty thorough picture of an interesting people around the 1940s.
Srinivas’ analysis of the social structure of India mainly focuses on the caste system, and certain vertical (i.e, geographically local) organisations, such as the village, family and nad, which is a cluster of villages. Certain ties between people, such as those of caste, tend to emphasize horizontal or geographically widespread relations whereas some others, like those which arise due to division of labor, tend to emphasize vertical relations.
Most of the book concentrates on the various rituals and customs and festivals of the Coorgs, and the role they and other castes play in them. He brings about an interesting correlation between the various customs and rituals, and how they emphasize and tend to preserve the social structure. For example, if a person dies, the mourning period for the relatives increases with increase in intimacy of the relationship shared with the deceased, formalizing what is a purely social bond into a custom or ritual.
People who know Kodavas will inevitably know their clannish behavior, especially with regards to their family (i.e, all sharing a surname). Srinivas spends a lot of time describing the structure and customs within a Coorg joint family, which is the strongest unit of organisation in the Coorg society, far more than any other kind. It is so strong, that a person without a family name (such as a child born out of wedlock) is as good as extinct. Therefore, family members usually try to place an illegitimate child in either parents’ family.
The major theoritical contribution that this work makes to Indian anthropology is the concept of Sanskritisation, which is essentially the way outlying tribes and communities get absorbed into mainline Hinduism, which he calls Sanskritic Hinduism. He describes how the puranas have contributed to the inclusion of various local myths and folklore into the mainstream of Hinduism, performing has a dual function : regionalising Sanskritic Hinduism and globalising local cultures. This, he argues, is a preliminary step which eases the way for complete Sanskritisation of a culture, while retaining its distinct identity, since it’s own deities are now part of or identified with Sanskritic such as Shiva or Brahma or Vishnu. He gives an example of how contemporary educated Coorgs tended to identify village gods with Shiva (Coorg was ruled by Lingayat kings for a considerable amount of time, so Shaivism was popular there when the book was written. This no longer seems to be the fact) and explained the deities’ liking for liquor and meat as a consequence of ‘losing their caste’ while crossing over from Malabar to Coorg. He also documents the occurrence of the origins of Kaveri, a sacred river among Coorgs and generally most of South Indian Hindus, in the Skanda Purana, which eased the way for the integration of Coorgs into mainline Hinduism, since their river deity was now a part of the Hindu pantheon.
Overall, an interesting read, though the attention to detail which is an anthropologist’s forte, tends to be tiresome for someone used to reading engineering definitions and terse prose. The analysis of Hinduism itself is rewarding enough to stick with the book till the end.