Three Approaches to study Indian society and culture by Western scholars

For the past many centuries, scholars have studied Indian society through various lenses. Many rulers have ruled the subcontinent of India, and it has been analyzed by multiple people differently. Studying the sociology of Indian society is an integral part of sociology. Bernard S. Cohn is the one classical sociologist that the students read about very early in their degree. One of the most celebrated works by Cohn is An Anthropologist among the Historians and Other Essays. In this article, we will discuss a selected chapter (Notes on the History of the study of Indian Society and Culture) which primarily focuses on the three approaches to studying Indian society in colonial India, namely (a) The Orientalist, (b) The Missionary, and (c) The Administrative. 

The three approaches to study Indian society and culture by the western scholars in Pre-Independent India

How ‘India’ was studied by scholars before the British Colonizers 

Way before the Britishers conquered India; there were a lot of colonizers and/or travelers who came to India before them. Different sections of travelers like Greeks, Romans, Jews, Arabs, Turks, Afghans, Persians, etc., looked at Indian society differently. 

A Greek philosopher named Megasthenes is one of the most famous philosophers to describe Indian society. In his understanding, he divided the Indian society into seven classes:    

  1. Philosophers who offer sacrifices and perform other sacred rites
  2. Husbandmen who form the bulk of the population
  3. Shepherds and hunters
  4. Those who work at trades and vend wares and are employed in bodily labor
  5. Fighting men
  6. Inspectors
  7. Counselors and assessors of the king 

According to him, these classes were endogamous in nature, where people were restricted from changing their occupations. Also, interestingly, Megasthenes, while writing his theory, made no mention of the varna theory at all (Cohn, 1987, pp-138).

The Portuguese settlers like Duarte Barbose also claimed the caste system to be the most important cultural feature of Indian society. He recognized the high positions of Brahmans, caste purity and pollution, endogamy, untouchability, caste customs, and the relationship between caste and political organization. However, Barbose’s view was very naive because of the top-down gaze, which presented the Brahmans at the top without including the varna theory or contemplating the benefits or evils of the caste system (Cohn, 1987, pp-139-140).    

Entry of the British Colonizers

When the Britishers conquered India and began to settle here permanently, it was felt that there was an urgent need to gather information for administrative purposes and rule over the population. From 1760 onwards, the British officials aimed to accumulate a systematic knowledge of Indian society. Three major traditions of approaches to Indian society can be seen by the end of the eighteenth century: the orientalist, the administrative, and the missionary. Each had a characteristic view, tied to the kinds of roles foreign observers played in India and the assumptions that underlay their views of India (Cohn, 1987, pp-141). 

The Orientalists 

Before the middle of the 18th century, there was not much information about Indian society. After the post-Plassey generation, Sanskrit and the vernacular language began to emerge, which in turn allowed the Britishers to formulate the history of India that we know today (Cohn, 1987, pp-141). Alexander Dow, an officer in the East India Company, was one of the first people who translated Indian history to English from the Persian language. Dow’s translation of the Persian work interpreted that Indian society was ruled by the Brahmanic prescriptions and was primarily a ‘Hindu’ society. He saw the society as being divided into four great tribes, and each tribe was made up of several castes. The tribes did not intermarry, eat, drink, or associate with each other in any manner (Cohn, 1987, pp-142).

The Orientalists were convinced that the Hindu texts were the accurate guides to understand India’s culture and society. The orientalists got all of their information from the pundits and the sastris, which was a very biased point of view that only reciprocated the dominant ideology. This influence of the Brahmans allowed them to become the central figure in the social order (Cohn, 1987, pp-142). Bernard S. Cohn says that accepting this view was all the more peculiar because it did not reflect what was happening. There were hardly any Brahman dynasties in the 18th and 19th centuries. Even if there were, they held no political or military power. 

The drawback of the orientalist view was it portrayed Indian society as being static, timeless, and spaceless (Cohn, 1987, pp-143). They saw India as having no regional variation. It was merely concluded that Hindus ran the society, and everyone else followed their orders without questioning or resistance.   

The Missionary

The Missionary view developed after the orientalist point of view. Charles Grant was the first missionary. He believed that the caste system, legal system, government, and the Brahmans, who were the dominant group, were all the cause of the degraded state of the Hindus. The missionaries believed that the nation could get better and flourish by eradicating Hinduism from the subcontinent. In their view, this had to be taken up by the Christian missionaries because they saw it as their job to convert the Indian population to Christianity (Cohn, 1987, pp-144). 

The missionaries used rituals such as sati, purdah, slavery, worshipping cows and idols, and caset system to elucidate how the Hindu society was deprived and it needs to be condemned. The caste system was critiqued immensely because it was part and parcel of Hinduism; therefore, the missionaries sought to destroy the caste system to forgo Hinduism. When large groups of people converted to Christianity, the missionary leaders were in charge of many economic and social responsibilities (Cohn, 1987, pp-144).

The two camps- the orientalists and the missionaries- held opposing assessments of Indian culture and society. However, they agreed upon the central principles and institutions of society. They agreed that Indian society was held up and together by religious ideas and practices. They agreed that Brahmans were the maintainers of the traditions, and it was them who had control over knowledge. Both the groups accepted that it was the varna theory through which caste was practiced.  

The differences lay in how the missionary and orientalist were related to their respective social backgrounds and their occupational roles in India. The orientalists saw the difficulties of Indian society as being a fall from a golden age. They held this view due to better education and belonging to upper class British society. They were conservatives and accepted the status quo. In a way, they were structuralists who saw stability and order in the institution of caste. In contrast, the missionaries saw Indian society and culture as always having been corrupt, pernicious, and filled with absurdities. The people of this group were primarily Baptist missionaries belonging to the lower orders of British society. They wanted to reform Indian society, as well as their own. Their focus was to change India rather than maintain the existing status quo (Cohn, 1987, pp-146-148). 

The Administrative 

Around 1757 to 1785, the East India Company sought to develop an administrative system that would allow them to maintain law and order in India. In order to do so, the Britishers had to study Indian society afresh once again. They had to gather knowledge about how the internal political structure worked. The British administrative officials used the process of Census to gather all the relevant information they needed to rule over Indians. In 1872, the first census was carried forward. It paved a brand new path with a new body of information about Indian society (Cohn, 1987, pp-148-154). 


Britishers, while collecting data for the census, saw caste as a ‘thing’, an entity that was concrete and measurable and had definable characteristics such as endogamy, commensality rules, and fixed occupation. To make their task easy, the administrators clubbed many castes together so that they could be done with one grouping and jump to the next one. This was also done because it falsely reassured them that they knew the people they were dealing with. It was assumed that “not only could one know a ‘people’ by knowing their caste and what its customs and rules were; what one ‘knew’ could be reduced to hard facts” (Cohn, 1987, pp-155). 

The people in charge of census and the Britishers in general India as a sum of different castes. To understand caste, they had to develop a classificatory system, and H.H. Risely gave the most famous classification. He reduced 200 odd castes which the census had found in India to seven types (Cohn, 1987, pp-155):

  1. Tribal
  2. Functional
  3. Sectarian
  4. Castes formed by crossing
  5. National castes
  6. Castes formed by migration
  7. Castes formed by changing customs


In the early 19th century, another official view of Indian society was also being developed simultaneously with caste, the view of India as a land of ‘village republics’ (Cohn, 1987, pp-158). The village community was thought to be an unchanging body of co-sharers of the land and its produce. The economy was self-sufficient, and they had very little or no connection to the larger political system. Administrative British officials believed that “The village communities lasted when nothing else did. Dynasty after dynasty tumbles down; revolution succeeds to revolution; Hindu, Pathan, Mughal, Mahratta, Sikh, English, are masters in tum; but the village communities remain the same” (Cohn, 1987, pp-159). 

B. H. Baden-Powell, a British administrator, compiled an empirical study of the social system of rural India. He argued that there were two types of villages in India. The first one was called the ‘ryotwari or the non-landlord village’, where the cultivators did not have any right as a joint or corporate body to the whole estate. This holding was connected closely with the government and was found in the central provinces, Madras, and Bombay. On the other hand, the second kind of village were called the ‘landlord or joint village’. There was a strong joint body in these villages that belonged to the upper caste and lived on the estate. They hired people to live and work in the field for them rather than doing the work themselves. Such villages were found in Uttar Pradesh and Punjab (Cohn, 1987, 160-161). However, just understating the caste system, the administrative clubbed villages together so that they could rule easily.   

Mentioned in this article are the three most popular lenses that the colonizers used. To read and understand this history is important even today. Things have changed a lot now, but in order to critique and move forward, one needs to know what happened historically. 


Cohn, B. S. (1987). Notes on the History of the study of Indian Society and Culture. In An Anthropologist among the Historians and Other Essays (pp. 136-171). Oxford University Press.

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