The 1987 Stirling Award Essay
by Dennis McGilvray, Ethos, American Anthropological Association, Vol. 16, No. 2 (June 1988), pp. 99-127
Since 1952, when the concept of Sanskritization was first utilized by M. N. Srinivas in his study of the Coorgs of western India, the idea has been a useful, if at times ambiguous, tool in the analysis of caste hierarchies and social mobility patterns in South Asia. Briefly stated, Sanskritization is a specific type of Hindu reference-group behavior where the values, beliefs, and rituals of orthodox Brahmanical Hinduism, often (but not always) embodied in Sanskrit texts, are adopted by lower ranking castes in status emulation of those higher ranking castes who already display them. The concept has been applied widely and examined critically (Staal 1963), but only recently has there been an attempt to utilize Sanskritization as part of a psychogenetic explanation of South Asian religious pantheons. I refer to the monumental study by Gananath Obeyesekere, The Cult of the Goddess Pattini (1984), which includes as one of its diverse intellectual strands an argument for the key role of Sanskritic Hindu child socialization in transforming the benign Sinhalese Buddhist goddess Pattini into the ferocious Tamil Hindu goddess Kali.
I hasten to add that Obeyesekere’s book contains a great deal more than this, including an unparalleled ethnographic and textual documentation of the Pattini cult, a stimulating reinterpretation of Sri Lankan medieval religious history, and a number of provocative
psychoanalytic interpretations of Buddhist and Hindu myths, rituals, and cults. I have chosen to discuss only one component of his
opus here because of its empirical connections with my own fieldwork in Sri Lanka and its larger relevance to problems of theoretical
validation in psychological anthropology.