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Updated: August 9, 2011 17:44 IST

Study on socio-cultural traditions of India

Vinay Kumar Srivastava
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An internationally acclaimed scholar, T.N. Madan has been contributing to studies in social anthropology and sociology for half a century and more. The first of the two parts in this collection of his papers deals with some of India's prominent religious/cultural traditions. The second part, which would interest a specialist more, speaks of the “tradition-builders” of Indian sociology, their salient contributions and approaches.

Significantly, there is a chapter on Contributions to Indian Sociology, the 1957-launched premier journal that has given a clear theoretical and methodological direction to studies in the area. Rarely are research journals studied systematically. Madan needs to be commended for having attempted it, and his effort should inspire others to look into the history of research publications. After all, a journal — like a human — has its own dynamics, perspective, and priorities.

Another notable component of the book is the Epilogue. It is striking for the way Madan looks at his academic life and its trajectory. Treating it as a “social fact”, he puts it through as rigorous a study as the subjects dealt with in the book. Perhaps, one should read it first, because the write-up, while helping to know the author, holds a lesson on critical self-examination.

Fieldwork

Of the several important issues raised, two deserve particular mention. One relates to fieldwork. Madan recounts an occasion when, as a member of a team of ‘field workers' on a visit to Ranchi, found everyone of his team-mates asking the villagers questions about their lives “without any regard for their feelings or convenience.” He got the impression that fieldwork, the much eulogised and recommended method, was “degrading to the unwilling subjects of observation” and a “violation of their personal life by strangers.”

This was perhaps what motivated Madan to study his native community, the Kashmiri Pandits. What was remarkable was that he approached the subject with an open mind, endeavouring to live “strangely with intimates,” instead of taking for granted what he already knew about his people. And the outcome was one of the finest accounts ever came to be written of the community's kinship system.

The second issue arises from Madan's study of medical practitioners, which was among the several he conducted on modern occupations and professional groups during his long stay at the Institute of Economic Growth, Delhi. This research was done by adopting the survey method, sending questionnaires to the sample population and then treating the data quantitatively.

Although numerically significant correlations could be drawn between different variables, Madan wondered, whether he “really got to know the doctors,” or gained a “closer and humanistic understanding of the predicaments of their lives and their relationship to work.” For an empathetic understanding, fieldwork is the right method to adopt — of course, not of the type Madan cited from his Ranchi experience. He moots the idea of a “resident fieldworker,” one who lives “intimately with a group of strangers” and learns from within, at their convenience and preference.

The first part that discusses India's religious traditions (Hinduism, Islam, and Sikhism) has a paper also on the convergence of the views of Max Weber, a prominent German sociologist, and Mahatma Gandhi on the inter-connection between ethics, capitalism, and conscience.

On secularism, Madan's prime area of research, he argues that the Western distinction between the ‘sacred' and the ‘secular' dimensions — supported also by early Christianity — is inapplicable to India, where people do not think that the religious realm of their lives has to be “directly separated from [the] secular.” What obtains in India is a “religio-secular” concept.

In the paper on Hinduism, Madan speaks of the “book-view” (the knowledge obtained from Indological literature) and the “field view” (what one gets to know through an intensive study of people practising that religion), and argues in favour of their complementariness. Although a sociological enquiry is principally concerned with an analysis based on observations of human behaviour, in a study of literate civilisations (such as India's), the vast corpus of textual material cannot be ignored. As for Islam, Madan shows how the wide variety of local communities adapt themselves to myriad cultural contexts without losing sight of the basic tenets of their religion. Muslims in Kerala may vastly differ from those in Manipur in their lifestyles. In the language they speak and in the manner of their living, they may be indistinguishable from their respective non-Muslim neighbours. What unites the two Muslim groups is the universal Islamic prescription.Madan offers a critical appraisal of the idea that Sikhism is a “secular religion.”

What emerges from a study of these religions is that the separation between the sacred and the secular that evolved in the West found little support in India. Against this backdrop, “secularism” in the Indian context is bound to be different from what it is in the West. Madan's ability to handle complex ideas with exemplary ease comes across right through.

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