ABSTRACT: The phrase ‘modernization in India’ has generated years’ worth of contentions and debates within academic circles. Perhaps it was with this view that renowned sociologist, Yogendra Singh (1973) wrote the book titled ‘Modernization of Indian Traditions (A Systematic Study of Social Change)’ As promised in its preface, the book offers valuable insights about not just the nature of modernization of Indian society, but also a thorough analysis of its early roots and causes.
Modernization, in Singh’s view, has not been treated with the full-bodied deconstruction of concepts and theories from a historical and cultural view, that he believes it deserves. Therefore, he has tried to carry out the same deconstruction by placing the process of modernization and social change in India in a cultural and historical context.
Social Change and its Impact on Modernization
The essays in the book aim to explore the idea of modernization from a ‘systematic sociological perspective’. Singh’s imagination of modernization in the Indian context is rooted in the twin phenomena of ‘social structure’ and ‘tradition’. Following a critique of erstwhile sociological interpretations of Indian modernization as being simply blinded by nationalist agenda, he proposes the study of modernization from a socio-historiographical point of view.
For ease of understanding, Singh further divides both social structure and tradition into ‘macro-structures’ and ‘micro-structures’ and ‘little traditions’ and ‘great traditions’, respectively. This enables readers to engage with the complex historiography of Indian society more holistically and comprehensively. Moreover, this paradigm of understanding social structures and traditions highlights several aspects of social change that seeks to move beyond simply descriptive interpretations and replaces them with series of critical analyses
Inducing his ideas from the works of sociologists like Louis Dumont and Talcott Parsons as well as several other early thinkers of Indian sociology like G.S Ghurye, M.N Srinivas, D.P Mukherjee, Singh offers a mostly structural-functionalist and positivist depiction of Indian modernization.
An Analysis of Yogendra Singh’s ‘Modernization’
To explain modernization in the Indian context, Singh employs a method of looking at ‘internal’ and ‘external’ developments in the socio-cultural and political history of the Indian subcontinent. Within both social structures as well as tradition, he believes that modernization occurs through a series of ‘orthogenetic’ or the ‘internal’ socio-cultural transitions as well as ‘heterogenetic’ or the ‘external’ transitions. Accordingly, Singh believes that for understanding Indian modernization, it is necessary to study the cultural synthesis of both the orthogenetic as well as heterogenetic forms of social change and their respective impacts on Indian society.
Singh uses an integrative approach by critically reviewing and incorporating previously studied dichotomies such as ‘Sanskritization’ vs ‘Islamization’, ‘Sanskritization’ vs ‘Westernization’, ‘Great’ and ‘Little’ traditions as well as ‘universalization’ vs ‘parochialization’ to study the nature of social change in Indian society. However, he believes that it is inadequate to study concepts like Sanskritization and Westernization only in the context of social change and wishes for them to be examined even in the context of ‘tradition’.
When looking at tradition from the point of view of these dichotomies, Singh observes that in Indian society, where Hinduism and Islam were the primary driving forces of community life, at least from a socio-cultural, if not necessarily a political point of view, the traditions in both religious communities had been undergoing significant orthogenetic changes, that essentially marked the onset of what most philosophers would call ‘modernization’. Singh argues that some of these driving forces of socio-cultural life within Hinduism and Islam, at least in the traditional sense, tend to follow a trajectory of cultural rigidity, holism, hierarchy and transcendence. By understanding the nature of social change in both the above-mentioned socio-religious entities, it can be observed that over time, they have morphed into a way of life marked with greater egalitarianism and cultural flexibility.
Interpretation of the External vs Internal Factors of Changes in Indian Society
As explained previously, in the book Singh has named the external and internal factors of change in Indian society as ‘heterogenetic’ and ‘orthogenetic’ changes, respectively. In the designated chapter titled ‘Orthogenetic Changes in Cultural Traditions and Modernization’, the author has tried to explore the Cultural renaissance that Indian society underwent with the onset of the spread of Jainism and Buddhism.
Here, he notes that the exchange of cultural ideas between these two religions and Hinduism itself brought about a dynamic change within the socio-cultural fabric of Indian society, especially in terms of the caste system and the varna system. While talking about both Hinduism and Islam, Singh has explained the difference between ‘great’ and ‘little’ traditions in both cultures. Here, they signify the difference between core concepts like socio-cultural interactions between people, the rules of social order, etc which are strongly intrinsic to the respective religions and the difference between the adaptive changes in family, marriage and kinship structures that both religions underwent, especially when they came in contact with one another during the period of ‘Islamization’.
Singh has strongly tried to differentiate between religions of Indian or ‘Dharmic’ origin and religions that originated outside the Indian subcontinent (such as Islam, Judaism and Christianity). The purpose of this has been to trace the contrasts in the way that each religion has impacted the socio-cultural changes in Indian society. Interestingly, Singh argues that while values of modernity (the state of having ‘modern’ ideas, rooted in scientific thought and rationalism) have been brought about by introducing egalitarianism and greater socio-cultural flexibility, this scientific thought and social egalitarianism do not need to be interdependent on one another for a society to be known as ‘modern’.
To further explain this point, Singh (1973) says “It is otherwise possible that a successful scientist may be a failure as a modern human and a most affluent or technologically advanced society may also be the one which is the most tyrannical.” Naturally, this acts as a disclaimer to note that the idea of modernization itself, is a very value-added concept and Singh seeks to warn us, despite a very positivist approach to the idea of modernization that it cannot be looked at from a neutral stance.
Finally, the book also explores changing trends in social institutions of family, village, and caste, that is, changes in the micro and macro structures. Especially in terms of family and caste, these changes are marked with increased mobility in the ascribed and acquired the status of individuals, many of which have been facilitated by rules of marriage and kinship among various communities.
Relevance of the Book in Current Times
Yogendra Singh’s work has been noteworthy in essentially transforming the dynamics of Indian Sociology through the inclusion of a thorough historiography of Indian society. This book is considered a classic reader on modernity and social change in India and reading it completely can be quite a rewarding experience. However, as it is with any classic writing, this book may appear to have some dated interpretation of religion in India, especially in terms of the Muslim community in India, a detail that cannot be ignored.
The terming of Islam in India as ‘heterogenetic’ or being an ‘outsider’ has been deemed problematic in several instances. In this context, Irfan Ahmad (2020), who happened to be a student of Singh has remarked that this was the tendency of ‘alienation’ that most sociologists, Singh included, like to study and conduct discourses about. But they would refuse to see it arising in their own theories and classroom experiences.
Overall, the text is theoretically rich and nuanced, the language is extremely academic, but it is welcoming for any student of social sciences to read. One must be careful to not use present-day standards to judge a book written in the 1970s, but rather learn and eventually, unlearn from it. To its readers, his book can offer a pathway into the much more diverse world of Indian social change and modernization.
1) Ahmad, I. (2020). A critical tribute to sociologist Yogendra Singh (1932-2020) — as a teacher, and his thoughts as a scholar -India News, Firstpost. Retrieved 19 May 2021, from https://www.firstpost.com/india/a-critical-tribute-to-sociologist-yogendra-singh-1932-2020-as-a-teacher-and-his-thoughts-as-a-scholar-8389141.html
2) Singh, Y. (1973). Modernization of Indian tradition (1st ed.). Faridabad: Thomas Press (India) Limited.