Through the looking glass – A Book Review of “RELIGION AND SOCIETY AMONG THE COORGS OF SOUTH INDIA” –M.N.SRINIVAS

At the YIF, my current programme – one of the earliest subjects taught was by  Sociological Reasoning by Prof. Andre Beteille. Our evaluation for the course was to do a book review of selected works of Sociology and I chose the above for a number of reasons (some listed below). Here is my review – which I thoroughly enjoyed writing as M.N. Srinivas’s book is truly a classic!

"The Classic!"

Front Cover of the book by M.N. Srinivas - Image Courtesy: Google Books

I was three years old when my mother made the big shift from Gujarat to Karnataka after having been inducted to the Karnataka Cadre of the Indian Administrative Service. My childhood years were spread across the districts of Mysore, Hassan and Chickmanglur, where I could absorb and imbibe the language, habits and customs of the Coffee districts. My mother was often heard wishing that she could get a posting in Kodagu, and I was always desirous of visiting Tala Kaveri. Sadly for the both of us, it was not meant to be in the twenty-year stint whilst she was a bureaucrat.

I speak of this, to give a context as to why I chose this book especially to review – The Kodavas are a tribe that have fascinated me for over a decade. The colours and customs at a close friend’s wedding, the sheer size of a typical family and what seemed a highly ‘endogamous’ structure I have observed over the years, had aroused curiosity – and I began reading the book with a hope that I get a more comprehensive and systematic insight into their rich culture. The book did not disappoint – as its appeal transcended the sociological framework of the Coorgs, complete with rich detail of the cult of the ‘Okka,’ popular myths and traditions (including that of Tala Kaveri[2]) and an introductory chapter to the history and geography of the region. Published in 1952 by Oxford University Press, this work of Prof. M.N. Srinivas was a ‘watershed in the sociological study of religion’[3], and the first of-its-kind in India.

The back cover carries a quote from a review in the Hibbert Journal that ‘Probably his chapter on Hinduism is one of the most valuable, for it epitomises the wider significance of the book…’ and thus was a turning point [4]in the sociological study of Hinduism[5].

What is palpable is that he does not depict what ‘it ought-to-be’ but rather ‘what it is’ –  this has been echoed in the praise of many sociologists and social anthropologists both in India and abroad. The chapter begins elucidating “Attempts to define an enormously complex and amorphous phenomenon like Hinduism have usually ended in failure. No definition will be attempted here, but instead some important characteristics will be mentioned.”[6] Special care is taken in explaining the process of Sanskritization[7]  and the ‘spread of Hinduism’ in an objective and rather empirical method.

This style of recording the data and phenomenon extends to the excerpts where he describes the relationship the Coorgs to the river Kaveri. e.g. – “All India Hinduism possesses certain features which make easy the absorption of local elements. The worship of the river Ganges which is one of the features of Sanskritic Hinduism makes easy the absorption of river-worship in every part of India, including the worship of the River Kaveri which rises in, and flows through Coorg.[8] He goes on to integrate this text later with saying – “There is a myth about practically every river in India, and in every one of these myths some Sanskritic deities, and sages and characters from the epics and the puranas, take part. Each myth is time becomes a part of the vast corpus of Hindu mythology. Each myth makes sacred certain features of local geography by associating deities, and characters from the epics and the puranas, with them. The myths abound in inconsistencies which, however, do not bother the bulk of the Hindus.”[9]

As Prof. Beteille remarks “Srinivas did not seek to assert or deny the ultimate unity of Hinduism as a faith or doctrine, but only to show how its beliefs and practices were refracted by the social structure. Religious believers might find fault with the book because it deals with the social structure in too much detail, but that is what gives it its strength from the sociological point of view.”[10] A crucial aspect to bear in mind is the time period and ‘audience’ that Prof. M. N. Srinivas was directing towards in his fieldwork and comparative study of the Coorgs.  He sought ‘an investigation into the social function of religion in a particular society’ and was required to examine the relation of the religion to the social structure.  Set against the stage of the works of sociologists and social anthropologists from all over the world – this pioneering work is what illuminates that ‘the Coorgs are sufficiently like Professor Srinivas for him to see the otherness in them and is therefore in an unusually advantageous position to interpret for the Europeans the religious thought of the Coorgs. He has carried out his task admirably…”[11]

The second chapter on Social Structure is where this is clearly seen – He begins that “The existence of subdivisions among Coorgs does not prevent them from regarding themselves, and from being regarded by others, as a single group… It is necessary to give here a very brief and general account of the caste system in order to make clear the implications of the Coorg claim to be Kshatriyas.”[12] What follows is an exhaustive yet unbiased explanation to the caste system, hierarchy and social stratification in India, prior to the divisions amongst the Coorgs themselves. This horizontal as well as vertical analysis of their social stratification is a tool of sociological reasoning used by Prof. M. N. Srinivas, who was greatly influenced by Prof. Radcliffe-Brown at Oxford. While there might have been differences of opinion between him and Prof. Evans-Pritchard, who succeeded Prof. Radcliffe-Brown to the Chair of Social Anthropology he acknowledges that prior to their teachings – his approach was that of an ethnologist and not a sociologist.[13]

From a lay person’s standpoint – someone who is moderately aware of the Coorgs and is merely curious (I have a background in Law) – it is these ‘feeder’ bits of information that provides a strong contextualization to the sociological reasoning. As this method is followed throughout the book, including the chapters of ‘The Cult of the Okka’ and the ‘Ritual Idiom of Coorgs’ , a person is able to understand how the ‘social structure’ forms the base to the superstructure of ‘religion’ in the cohesive units of their small and compact community. As I read ‘the Cult of the Okka’ – a fundamental question that I had as an ‘outsider’ had was answered. How could there be such an endogamous unit within Karnataka, and yet remain an obvious mix of different family names within the Kodavas till today? And more so, why is endogamy so rigidly practised (more or less) till date? Srinivas at the outset explains of how the ‘Okka seems to be stronger and more sharply structured than the joint family elsewhere is south India’ – ancestral homes, estates, festivals, kinship and marriage and village administration have their basis in the Okka.[14]

The structure of their family, kinship and marriage are so powerful, that one can deduce how they have maintained being an endogamous unit, but practiced exogamy i.e. without transcending degrees of prohibited relationship in their kinship and marital ties. The elaborate focus on this ‘cult’ sends a direct message to someone like me – of how strong an Okka would be a value-system to even a modern-day Coorgi youth who wears jeans, plays football and enjoys Rock music.

In his effort to remain unbiased, Srinivas also highlights the position of women in the strongly patrilineal Okka, without passing judgement on whether some customs and rituals have become antiquated.  Even the literal translation of rituals indicates the careful analysis of his desire to project them ‘as they are’ and not ‘what they should/ought be.’ While one hundred per cent objectivity may not have been achieved at each reference, it is supplemented with an elaborate clarification on the ‘why’ aspect of every such ritual. One observes that Srinivas desired to be an individual who took various ‘snapshots’ of every ritual idiom – and then sought to cross-reference them later, instead of scrutiny into each separately.

Finally, the entire book comes to perspective only once it touches the very last chapter aptly titled ‘Religion and Society’. It is here where the popular myths of the Kodavas are highlighted in the mode where they have been or could be harmonized with the larger structure of ‘All-India Hinduism’.  Srinivas also speaks of how some of their ritual worship (e.g. cobra worship) is similar to the larger communities in South India, and some hill or warrior tribes of the rest of India. [15] As a student though, I wish that the second edition – published 12 years later than the first would have been made up-to-date through a single extra chapter or appendix. There has been an academic discussion on why and how such a book was not written again and why similar books – studying a single community extensively cannot be found.

Upon its academic function, the book has been justly famous and quoted as “Srinivas’s best work.” But as a mere reader, my conclusion would be similar to this opinion, that – “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.”[16]

Thus a personal opinion is that the merit of this book lies in that it is a must-read for any person who is interested in the Kodava community in general. I can foresee myself recommending this book to friends and family with whom I have discussions about Karnataka, the Kodavas, Indian customs and habits, river mythology and social stratification in India. It offers an insight into a wide-range of topics, in a very simple yet contextual manner. The sheer brilliance aroused by the curiosity and empathy of M.N. Srinivas is inspirational for a student-writer like me; reading this book has been a thoroughly enjoyable and fruitful experience.


[1] *Book review by Chiteisri Devi, YIF-16 for ‘Sociological Reasoning’ by Prof. Andre Beteille
[2]  Tala Kaveri is the source of the river Kaveri that is situated in Coorg district. The Appendix of ‘Religion and Society of the Coorgs in India’ describes its mythology in detail.
[3] Beteille, Sociology: Essays on Approach & Method, Oxford University Press, Chapter 3 ‘Sociology and Social Anthropology’ at p.67 para. 2
[5] Beteille, Sociology: Essays on Approach & Method, Oxford University Press, Appendix II Interview of Andre Beteille by Surendra Munshi at pg.306
[6] M.N. Srinivas, Religion and Society among the Coorgs of South India, Oxford University Press, Chapter Seven at pg.213
[7] It denotes the process by which castes placed lower in the caste hierarchy seek upward mobility by emulating the rituals and practices of the upper or dominant castes (Source : Charsley, S. (1998) “Sanskritization: The Career of an Anthropological Theory” Contributions to Indian Sociology 32(2): p. 527)
[8] Supra n.4 at pg. 215 at para 5
[9] Supra n.4 at pg.216 at para.6
[10] Beteille, Sociology: Essays on Approach & Method, Oxford University Press, Chapter2:Sociology and Current Affairs at pg.44.para 3
[11] Quoted from the review of ‘The Times Literary Supplement’ found on the back cover of this book to illustrate its critical acclaim
[12] M.N. Srinivas, Religion and Society among the Coorgs of South India, Oxford University Press, Chapter Two at pg.23
[13] M.N. Srinivas, Religion and Society among the Coorgs of South India, Oxford University Press, Preface at Para. 2
[14] Supra n.10 at pg.48 Para. 2
[15]   M.N. Srinivas, Religion and Society among the Coorgs of South India, Oxford University Press, Chapter Eight at pg.228 -241
 [16] Opinion of a researcher in Sociology , Guru written at http://mogadalai.wordpress.com/2008/07/11/a-must-read-on-religion-and-society, last visited on 30th June, 2011.
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About Chiteisri: The Gypsy Diaries

Its a Fair Warning to all =) While there may be some things about me that everyone knows ... There will always be something about me which nobody can or ever will, figure out! But for a typical introduction - I am a former Law student from India, who is a writer and traveler at heart. I am 27 and have been to 28 countries (and counting) and this blog is a humble attempt at taking a part of my life, experiences, holidays, learnings and dreams to another world of imagination in cyber-space. I know that the world has its fair share of problems, and there is plenty to despair about out there. But I truly believe that this world can be diverse, plural and inclusive and yet one entity - humanity. I am the Dreamer, a lost soul - slowly finding her way back home i.e. to herself! I write. I read. I paint. I dream. I learn. I listen. I empathize. I travel, and no matter who or what I become - these I shall always do! https://chiteisri.wordpress.com/2012/04/11/defining-a-me-at-23/
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2 Responses to Through the looking glass – A Book Review of “RELIGION AND SOCIETY AMONG THE COORGS OF SOUTH INDIA” –M.N.SRINIVAS

  1. Surendra Munshi says:

    Have you seen my article on Srinivas? If not, you may like to see it. ‘Tribal Absorption and Sanskritisation in Hindu Society’, Contributions to Indian Sociology , Vol. 13, No. 2, 1979, pp. 293-317. If you have problem in accessing the article I shall send it to you. You may write to me on the following email address: surmunshi@yahoo.co.in
    Surendra Munshi

  2. That would be an honour Mr. Munshi.
    I shall try and see if an accessible download of the full article is available anywhere. (I am not a member of JSTOR or an online library as yet) Else I will surely write to you.
    How did you come by my blog Sir?

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