Nationalist anthropology in India

Nationalist anthropology in India


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Abhijit Guha

Former Professor of Anthropology at Vidyasagar University, the author is currently Senior Fellow, Indian Council of Social Science Research, The Institute of Development Studies Kolkata.


Research on the history of anthropology in India unlike western countries has not yet become a formidable tradition. Existing works contain a lot of useful data on the history of anthropology during the colonial and post-colonial periods but they did not venture into a search for the growth of nationalist anthropological writings by the Indian anthropologists or the role of the anthropologists in nation building in the pre and post independence periods. On other hand, we find critiques of Indian anthropology, which found a colonial hangover in Indian anthropology.

Under this context I shall argue  that along with the colonial tradition, a nationalist trend in Indian anthropology could also be discerned, which was growing during the pre and post-independence periods in India and this trend was characterised by the works of the anthropologists who were socially committed and contributed to nation building through their analytical writings and research.

Nationalist anthropology

Along with the colonial tradition, a nationalist trend in Indian anthropology could also be discerned, which was growing during the pre and post-independence periods in India and this trend was characterised by the works of the anthropologists who were socially committed and contributed to nation building through their analytical writings and research(Guha 2018:8).[1] These anthropologists learned the methodology of the discipline from the West but did not become blind followers of Europe and America and they also did not want to derive their anthropology from the religious scriptures of the ancient Hindus. Instead, they visualised an Indian character of anthropology, which according to them could be used in nation building, a task which finally could not develop into full maturity by their own successors.

As early as 1938, one of the founding fathers of Indian anthropology, Sarat Chandra Roy wrote an article entitled ‘An Indian Outlook on Anthropology’ in Man, the Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute of Great Britain and Ireland. This article can be regarded as one of the pioneering ones which attempted to build up a nationalist tradition of Indian anthropology. Because, in this article Roy not only critically evaluated the major theories developed in the then Western anthropology, like evolutionism, diffusionism and functionalism with much scepticism but he also made a novel attempt to synthesize the ideas of ancient Indian philosophers with Western anthropological concepts. According to Roy, the essence of Indian thought lay in the subjective process of ‘sympathetic immersion’ with other cultures and societies and this could be combined with the objective approach of Western anthropology. I quote Roy

Thus the objective methods of investigation of cultural data have to be helped out, not only by historical imagination and a background of historical and geographical facts, but also by a subjective process of self-forgetting absorption or meditation (dhyana) and intuition born of sympathetic immersion in, and self-identification with, the society under investigation.

The spread of this attitude by means of anthropological study can surely be a factor helping forward the large unity-in-diversity-through-sympathy that seems to an Indian mind to be the inner meaning of the process of human evolution, and the hope of a world perplexed by a multitude of new and violent contacts, notably between Eastern and Western civilizations (Roy 1938:150).[2]    

One may note that Roy did not bring in any Hindu religious connotation to this method. For him, the Indian way of reaching the Universal through a sympathetic understanding of particular cultures through tolerance and love could build up a national character which would not try to shape the different peoples and cultures in a uniform pattern. In Roy’s words

The better minds of India are now harking back to the old ideal of culture as a means of the progressive realization of the one Universal Self in all individual- and group-selves, and the consequent elevation or transformation of individual and ‘national’ character and conduct, through a spirit of universal love. The anthropological attitude while duly appreciating and fostering the varied self-expression of the Universal Spirit in different communities and countries, and not by any means seeking to mould them all in one universal racial or cultural pattern, is expected to help forward a synthesis of the past and the present, the old and the new, the East and the West (Ibid).

Sarat Chandra Roy’s approach to develop a nationalist anthropology in India was not a   simple theoretical exercise. One should remember that he was the first Indian who founded the second professional journal of anthropology in India named Man in India in 1921.[3] Roy’s aim was to develop an Indian School of Anthropology. In an editorial of Man in India published in 1985 the then editor Surajit Chandra Sinha commented

Sarat Chandra Roy’s enterprise in Man in India was motivated by the national needs of his times and his personal pride in nationalism. As for lines of scientific enquiry he also wanted Indian scholars to seek suggestions from Western scholars and so was adopted a policy…. It also transpires that practically all the Western and Indian path –finders in the anthropology of India have contributed to this journal (Sinha 1985: iv-v).[4]

Suffice it to say that Roy was not a blind nationalist. He was open to suggestions and contributions from western experts in the pages of Man in India and quite a good number of western anthropologists had contributed their original research findings on India in this pioneering journal. Sangeeta Dasgupta’s perceptive comment in this regard is useful

Roy’s long and varied career witnessed the rise of Victorian evolutionism, then diffusionism, and the eventual displacement of these by functionalism: at different points in time he applied all these concepts to the Indian context.At the same time, as a professed Hindu and nationalist Indian, particularly in the later phases of his career, Roy sought to methodologically establish an ‘Indian view-point’ for anthropology, believing that anthropology would help in the integration of national life (Dasgupta 2007:144).[5]

Roy’s nationalism, despite his professed Hindu background was basically Indian. In this connection one may recall a 1933 article written by Panchanan Mitra who was Roy’s contemporary and the first professor of anthropology in India. The article was published under the editorship of Roy in Man in India under the title ‘Research leads in anthropology in India’. In this article Mitra justified not only the importance of in India in cultural studies but also pointed out to the relevance of Indian philosophical thinking in developing modern anthropological theory. I quote him

It is a far cry yet from the India of the day when it would not merely echo the modern West but would try its own methods to interpret anew the laws of nature and the predominant culture pattern of India would lead it to its time old probing of all the secrets of creation through the introspection and scientific investigation of microcosmic man (Mitra 1933:12).[6] 

One may find a similarity in the thoughts of P. Mitra and S.C. Roy in their hopes to synthesise Indian philosophy with Western anthropology.


The future of anthropology in India under the broader context of nation building cannot be understood without looking into its past. The true nationalist tradition of anthropology in India, or for that matter in any country cannot be developed without looking into the works of the anthropologists which contributed towards the task of nation building.


[1] Guha,A.(2018). In Search of Nationalist trends in Indian Anthropology: Opening a New Discourse.  Occasional Paper No. 62. Kolkata: Institute of Development Studies

[2] Roy, Sarat, Chandra. (1938). An Indian Outlook on Anthropology. Man. 38(171-172):146-150.

[3]The first professional journal of anthropology in India was Journal of the Anthropological Society of Bombay which was founded in 1886. Its first editor was Edward Tyrrell Leith, a British national and professor of Law at the Government Law College, Bombay (now Mumbai). This journal continued up to 1973(Shah 2014:363). Shah, A.M. (2014). Anthropology in Bombay, 1886-1936. Sociological Bulletin.63 (3):355-367.

[4]Sinha, S. (1985).Editorial of Man in India. 65(4): i-v.

[5] Dasgupta, S. (2007). Recasting the Oraons and the ‘Tribe’ Sarat Chandra Roy’s anthropology.In P. Uberoi, N. Sundar, & S. Deshpande (Eds.), Anthropology in the east: Founders of Indian sociology and anthropology (pp. 132–171). Ranikhet: Permanent Black.

[6]Mitra, P. (1933). Research leads in anthropology in India. Man in India. 13(1):1-16.

Image Courtesy : The Statesman

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