What is ‘Indian’ Anthropology?

Updated: Sep 13, 2021

NK Vaid, Academic Nomad AC – 177B, Shalimar Bagh

Delhi – 110088

Ph.: 91-9311337737

E-mail: nareshkrvaid@gmail.com


I

Despite being a serious student of Anthropology for almost 50 years, the question makes me uneasy. It is easy to explain to the novice or beginner; but how to convince someone who has read and practised Anthropology?

I must admit that I have not been able to pinpoint what Anthropology is not. That could have made my job easy. Here I start with some historical facts.

  1. When Aristotle defined man as a featherless biped walker did he know he was defining the limits of Anthropology?

  2. In Class 9th or 10th, I had read a poem starting with the couplet: Know then thyself, presume not God to scan; The proper study of humankind is human. Doesn’t Alexander Pope, the poet, sound an Anthropologist?

  3. Again, the same year, we had a poem by Tennyson on Crimean War, The Charge of the Light Brigade, which most of us must have read; I remember a few lines:

Canons to right of them

Cannons to left of them

Cannons in front of them

…………

Into the mouth of hell

Rode the six hundred

Now, is this Anthropology? “No” will be your standard reply. But, if I tell you that the latest fashions of France of 20th Century were named after the Generals who lost their lives in Crimean War; and Again, if I tell you that Victoria Cross given by the British government is made of the metals recovered from the remains of the ammunition used in the War, then will it become a part of Anthropological query or not?

I am fond of quoting Murray Last, who began his Foreword to a book by Angela Cheater (1987) with the words, Anthropology has proved too useful to be left just to anthropologists. Yet, I feel, Anthropologists have limited themselves to a traditional knowledge base either because of the fear of facing criticism or because of their lack of passion for the Discipline. Or they just don’t want to come out of their ‘comfort zone'. Any or all of these can be true. Here I am talking about Indian Anthropologists.

II

Most of my students are engineers, doctors, or Chartered Accountants. Occasionally some with a background in social sciences also join. Many of them have read Ember, Ember &Peregrine’s Anthropology. Interestingly, most of the basic books in Anthropology published in the US were rarely recommended to students, nor were these available in the market after 1970 (when grants under PL 480 were withdrawn and consequently textbooks from the US became out of reach of Indian students). For the first time, I purchased the 3rd edition of Ember et al from a footpath in Connaught Place in Delhi for Rs. 10/.[1] Finding it a good read, I purchased 100 copies of the same and distributed them to my students. To begin, I ask them ‘What is Anthropology’. Some of them have memorized definitions given by various Anthropologists. Then I pose a query and enquire from them if they think I am a layman without the knowledge of technical terms and jargon used in these definitions? Silence meets my query! Then I narrate to them a childhood story which some of them may have read or heard (and which many of the readers too must be knowing); the story of ‘five blind men and the elephant’.

Five blind men were asked to explain the appearance of an elephant through touch. One touched the tail and concluded that the elephant was like a rope. The second touched an ear and felt that the elephant was like a fan. The third touched a leg and was sure that the elephant was like a pillar; and so on. They used their imagination and experience and replied accordingly. The question that emanates is- Were they all wrong? Or all, right? To be honest to them, none was wrong, but then, none were right too. After narrating this story, I ask my students to replace those blind men with disciplines and elephant with a human. Then I explain the need for a discipline that can study humans as humans, not as its components.

To elaborate, Economics studies economic relations; Politics, political relations; Medicine, health, and disease (as a pathological condition), and so on. Anthropology studies human beings, integrating all its components. The story told above also makes it clear that all other disciplines can (and do contribute) to the making of Anthropology and the discipline has never shied away from borrowing observations of these disciplines. Conversely, Anthropology has shared a lot of its knowledge, method, and fieldwork techniques as also an interdisciplinary approach in enriching other disciplines.

III

For the beginner, we define anthropology as the “holistic study of humans” with further elaboration, “in time and space”. Then we tell them that “in time and space” is jargon used by us. In fact, this ‘jargon’ hides a very important difference of anthropology from other (social) sciences. For example, History, within its limits (from the time script evolved and has been deciphered) also studies humans in time and space. But there are certain definite differences (other than biological and evolutionary).

First, till a few decades ago, history was mainly ‘political’ history narrating events from the perspective of the chronicler. They have been divided into leftists, rightist, nationalist, subaltern and many more schools of thought. One may infer that most interpretations of past events today are coloured in ‘isms’ blurring the truth for the reader. History is thus presented in terms of political units, not cultural so that similarities across international borders are deliberately obscured. Even many historical facts may not be revealed for the fear of ‘backlash’. Besides, the glorification of certain events or persons is integral to historical writings. Just to take one example, all historians of Ancient India agree that no institution of the Indian social system is even ‘similar’ to ‘caste’, yet all social sciences make caste the basis of their studies even from a historical perspective. History has subsequently borrowed social, cultural, economic aspects from a holistic perspective of anthropological discourse.

Falsification of Indian Social System

In the entry of caste, in the McMillan Dictionary[2], it is “derived from castā meaning species, lineage, race or clan, and was used by Portuguese traders to describe the people they met on the West coast of India when they arrived there in the 16th and 17th centuries. In many Indian languages, the word for caste is jāti, which can also mean a genus, distinct sex, a tribe, a family a lineage or clan, a population or a nation. Hindus classify all living beings into genera and each genus (caste) is thought to share substances (such as for example blood, bone or flesh).” All western dictionaries define caste in the same manner (including Merriam-Webster) and most Indian social scientists, including sociologists and anthropologists, use it in their writings.

Anthropology teaches us that to know the truth, we must rely on primary sources of information, which (with respect to the Indian Social System) incidentally, are written in Sanskrit and I do not know many Indian social scientists who learnt Sanskrit to comprehend its complexities. They have relied on the writings and interpretations of Max Mueller and his ilk, who were paid employees of British East India Company. There is enough evidence to suggest that some of the interpretations of western researchers may have had vested political interests in distorting Indian culture.

Many anthropologists reject Dumont’s[3] explanation of Varana and Jātias as one of the caste system’s post-British explanations. They never knew that Varaņa has been defined in NiruktaSastra[4] adopted by Dumont (without its reference): The text should be read as Guru assigns Varaņa[5] to Snataka (his student, after he graduated) based on qualities, performance, interests. Manu makes it clear that initially there were only three Varaņas and even the word ‘Śudra’ appears only once in ŖgVeda, that too in X Mandala, which historians agree was a later addition to ŖgVeda. Besides, ‘Śudra’ of X Mandal has no connection with VaraņaŚudra. Similarly, Jāti is derived from the Sanskrit Jnati which means ‘kin group’ and has nothing to do with the meaning and interpretation given by all social scientists.

Similarly, criticizing Manu and Manusamriti is the most common attribute in all debates of the caste system, particularly his recommendation of eating cow meat [6]. But immediately in the next Sloka (5/51), he makes it clear that “the one who hunts, who kills, who cuts it into pieces, who sells, who cooks, who serves and who eats are all sinners”. Does it mean that Manu is contradicting himself?

Those who criticize Manu don’t even know how many Manus were there and which one of them wrote these first laws for humankind. Besides, the ongoing research shows that the total number of Ślokas (given in Manusmriti available in the market is 2685 but) in original Manusmriti, was not more than 1471 and the rest have been interpolations with a particular intention[7] because:

  1. No sane person (forget about Manu) will contradict himself, that too immediately.

  2. Language, Style, Context and Pattern of these ślokas (26-50) are different from Manu’s.

  3. Friedrich Nietzsche, the German philosopher, described as the greatest by many, has written about Manusmriti (The Will to Power, p 126):

Close the Bible and open the Manu Smriti. It has an affirmation of life, a triumphing agreeable sensation in life and that to draw up a law book such as Manu means to permit oneself to get the upper hand, to become perfection, to be ambitious of the highest art of living.

Till date none, not even the greatest European thinkers, have ever questioned the above view of Nietzsche.

The truth is that the whole reality of the Indian social system has been distorted deliberately and with definite objectives. (I have explained it in my U-tube series, “The History that Never Was). Caste, the way we find in contemporary writings, was forced by the British and they didn’t hesitate to admit it. The Commissioner for Census 1921 had lamented:

We criticize the Indians for what we forced on them (i.e. caste system). Yet we keep on harping on concocted facts about ourselves.

Contention thus is: What is “Indian” in Indian Anthropology?

IV

Some three or four years ago (I don’t exactly remember), as the centenary of Indian Anthropology was approaching, I wished, someone should write the history of Indian Anthropology. I discussed this matter with three prominent Anthropologists I knew, namely Vinay Bhai (Prof. VK Srivastava, who had recently joined Anthropological Survey of India as its Director), Prof. VS Sahai(now Prof. Emeritus, Ranchi University) and Prof. Abhik Ghosh (who was then the Chairperson, Department of Anthropology, Panjab University, Chandigarh). All of them agreed. Prof. Vinay Srivastava was most competent to take the responsibility. Not only because he was an erudite scholar with exceptional writing skills but also an outstanding command of various subdisciplines of Anthropology. He was also a voracious reader and brilliant editor having edited several prominent Indian Journals. The other two lacked somewhat in their knowledge of Biological Anthropology but it was a minor issue as the task was massive and required teamwork with team members having command on one or more subdisciplines of Anthropology.

Vinay Bhai left us prematurely (on Dec. 23, 2020) and I know nothing about the progress he made in this regard. Yet, during Covid-19, through several webinars organized by the International Anthropological Society, under the Anthropological Survey of India, he did help us know more about Indian Anthropology. The other two must have been busy in their respective professional engagements and I am not aware of any progress made by them in this regard.

Early this year, two messages were uploaded in a WhatsApp Group of United Indian anthropology informing the publication of contributions of Indian Anthropologists. I was excited and immediately placed an order to procure three volumes of Doyens of Indian Anthropology and one volume of Retrospective of 100 Years of Indian Anthropology). I finished reading these within a week. Unfortunately, three volumes on Doyens of Indian anthropology are deeply disappointing, to say the least[8].

The Editors belong to Kolkata and so do most of the contributors (directly or indirectly). There is nothing wrong with it; but if the goldmine of Anthropology (Anthropological Survey of India & others) is present in Kolkata, why the content of all these volumes is so shallow. It seems that all authors and editors were under compulsion to keep a timeline and in the process compromised on the quality and content of the publication. It is also possible that some of them could not say ‘no’ to the editor(s) or contributed under some other compulsion. My worry is that whatever be the reason, these volumes are not going to help the otherwise sagging reputation of Anthropology.

I need not comment on the quality of editing and proofreading as these require editorial expertise. All established publication houses use the services of professional editors but most of the smaller Indian publishers simply rely on the language competencies of authors/contributors (to reduce production costs). However, any publication is a collective responsibility of the contributors, editors and above all publishers, who publish without blind peer reviews and editing. Ironically these three volumes are a saga of grammatical and factual errors and certainly do not represent Indian anthropology or the academic and life journeys of scholars covered in the volume[9].

However, there was one silver lining. Architects of Anthropology in India, edited by Sarthak Sengupta, though having limitations, is a welcome volume in terms of content, selection of contributors as well as Architects and sincerity of efforts put therein. Contributions in the three major subdisciplines, namely Biological, Social Cultural and Archaeological, have been accommodated

V

Under the influence of Anthropology in the US, Anthropology in India too is divided into four subdisciplines namely Biological, Social-Cultural, Archaeological and Linguistic. During Covid-19, during 2020 and 2021 many webinars were conducted by the Anthropological Survey of India as well as many departments of Anthropology and some related associations. On the basis of inputs from these webinars I made a design of Anthropology and sent it to many senior Anthropologists most of which appreciated it while some others did not respond. None, however, asked the question: why only four?