André Béteille: Religion and Society

By Abhijit Menon-Sen <>

Many years ago, someone sent me the URL to a short opinion piece published in The Telegraph, by the sociologist André Béteille, about how religion and society cannot be studied independently. I liked it very much, and forwarded it to many people, but at some point the URL stopped working, and I had to dig up the text from my archives each time I wanted someone to read it.

Today, I noticed—while preparing to forward the article—that the URL works once again. Kudos to The Telegraph for bringing it back to life.

Here's an excerpt.

Just over 50 years ago, M.N. Srinivas, who was to emerge as India's leading sociologist, published his book Religion and Society among the Coorgs of South India. The book introduced a new approach to the understanding of Hinduism, and it established its author's reputation as a sociologist of the first rank. In it he used the distinction between the book-view and the field-view of society and the contrast between the Indological and the sociological approaches to religion. It may appear in retrospect that the contrast was overdrawn; but it expressed an insight of great significance.

Srinivas became the leading advocate of the field-view and the sociological approach, by which he meant an approach based on a careful and methodical examination of observed or observable facts. It does not treat religion as being either completely autonomous or as invariant, eternal and unchanging. Religious beliefs and practices vary and change, and this has to be examined in relation to variation and change in the structure of society. No religion operates independently of specific social arrangements, and Srinivas set out to show the two-way relationship between religion and social structure. This approach does not always find favour with religious believers who are inclined to regard religion as pure and society as corrupt.

The believer seeks out what he sees as the invariant and unchanging core of religion, and when he does not find it, he tends to put the blame on external material and historical forces for it. The Hindus in particular have lived with the idea of Kaliyuga since time immemorial, and that has helped them to explain many things away. The sociologist, on the other hand, recognizes that religious beliefs and practices are embedded in the social order, and tries to see how they are refracted by it. For him, Hinduism is not single and indivisible. Thus, Srinivas spoke of local Hinduism, regional Hinduism, peninsular Hinduism and all-India Hinduism. He also showed how religious beliefs and practices were refracted by the structures of joint family, caste and village.

M.N. Srinivas's book sounds pretty interesting too.