Verrier Elwin : Career and Orientation

Dr. Bhabagrahi Misra

[ This article is the first chapter of the book Verrier Elwin: A Pioneer Indian Anthropologist (1st publication (1973): Asian Publishing House, New York; Indian Edition(2001): Mayur publications, Bhubaneswar, Odisha,) that Acharya Bhabananda had authored when he was known as Bhabagrahi Mishra. This chapter, according to the author is ‘to shed light on the highlights of his (Verrier Elwin’s) intellectualism.’ Verrier Elwin ‘had no formal professional training in either folklore or ethnography ’ but according to the author his ‘folkloristic work’ does prove him to be an ‘Anthropological folklorist.’ Verrier Elwin in the words of Cora Du Bois, who wrote foreword of this book, was ‘one of those 20th century Englishmen who loved India and served her well.’ This piece may create interest in the young scholars to know about Verrier Elwin whose involvement with Indian tribes was legendary.-Editor]

A SCHOLAR is the product of his time, environment, the prevailing“ ideas and above all, what he chooses to be. This is especially true in the case of a social scientist, because he oscillates between two worlds, one a world of ideas and the other a world of methods in understanding these ideas, reflected in the culture in its multifaceted forms. In the evaluation of the products of any social scientist both these factors have to be considered concurrently to understand the strength and weaknesses in his work. Verrier Elwin not only belonged to the two worlds of ideas and methods, but also to two differing physical worlds of West and East, looking for the universals of the human mind in literature, history, religion and folklore. In order to understand and evaluate his work I propose here to portray the highlights of his career and orientation, which will corroborate my discussion in the following chapters and ‘prove not only his eclectic methods and scientific ambivalence, but also substantiate my contention that the personality of a social scientist shapes and colors his findings.

Verrier Elwin1, the son of Bishop Elwin of Sierra Leone, was born on August 29, I902. At the age of nineteen he entered Merton College, Oxford University, enrolled as an undergraduate student majoring in English literature. After finishing his B.A. degree, he did two years of work in the field of theology. On receipt of his M.A., he started his academic career as Vice-President of Wycliffe Hall, Oxford in I926, and was subsequently a Lecturer at Merton in I927. His keen desire for practical humanitarian work could no longer allow him to confine himself to the academic world. At the age of twenty-five he sailed for India to join the Christia Seva Sangha in order to look for universals in the higher religions of the world. He was particularly fascinated by Oriental mysticism. This zeal to choose India as his future abode was a kind of youthful, romantic and emotional decision made as “an act of reparation” for the exploitation done by his countrymen and his family2. Once he reached the shores of India, he immediately plunged into the study of Indian religions and tried to present Christian doctrines in Oriental terms. In this respect he started his independent academic work with an evangelical faith, rather than scientific motivation.

It is appropriate, therefore, to present here in bare outline the essence of his publications during this period, which reflect his orientation and at the same time supply the cue to understand his lifetime scholarly work on Indian folklore and anthropology. His first publication at Oxford was an eleven-page pamphlet in which the youthful romantic quest for the mystery of life is touched upon3. Not only as the first published article from Elwin’s pen, but as the reflection of a man it has utmost relevance in understanding his life and work. This quest remains the sine qua non in all his subsequent writings, only the dimension of inquiry changes depending upon the nature of data. His writings during the period of I927 to I934 can be broadly classified under two distinct categories: (i) religious and (ii) political. But this dichotomy is only an external one so long as the contents are concerned. The undercurrent was the same in all these publications. In other words, religion and politics were not considered by him as two distinct areas of investigation, but identical—-the ultimate justification of which lies in the contribution they can make toward better life. In this respect ‘he was a “practical man.” “We must free our minds," says Bertrand Russell, “from the prejudices of what are wrongly called ‘practical men.’ The ‘practical’ man, as the word is often used. is one who recognizes only material needs, who realizes that man must have food for the body, but is oblivious of the necessity of providing food for the mind.”4 His researches, therefore, during this period or in later life were not of the type that is called "basic research." They accepted the responsibility of “practical application“ as the nucleus.5

His religious studies and in later life his anthropological and folkloristic works spring from the motive in discovering traditions and human beings, to obtain personal satisfaction and provide reassurance of better life on earth, through humanitarian work. To him human beings and their traditions all over the globe reflect a kind of unanimity though circumstances are diverse and the means of their realization are different6. Thus in essence he seeks to establish a kind of “philosophical universal" through the comparative study of religious language7, and even through the study of a particular culture-area in its manifested reality.8 He not only addresses himself to a kind of theoretical postulate but tries to follow it through, in his life via the “path of love" in transcending the theory by practice. As he says: Love, which is active and vigorous by its very nature, can never fall into the mistake of an inert passivity or an anti-social negativism. Humility submits all to God: love would cleave through a universe to cling to him.9

It is the dimension of religious fellowship between the West and the East10 conceived by Elwin, provided him momentum to plunge into direct political activity11. The Indian nationalistic movement in which he participated and which he advocated did not come out of political motivation, but the religious qualities it presented12. In this respect the Christian idea of poverty13, the romantic ideas of Wordsworth14 and the teachings of Christ found their manifestation in the personality of Gandhi. For this reason he was attracted to Indian politics and practiced and preached15 for the betterment of the Indian people. In other words, the “philosophical universals” envisaged by Elwin in different world religions found their manifestation in the practical affairs of men through Gandhi’s teachings and work, which shaped Elwin’s ultra-nationalistic attitudes. If Christ furnished the spirit and motivation, Gandhi furnished the method.

Though “piety and politics” have different ways16, in the Indian scene Gandhi channeled them in a unilinear direction and it is he who once said, “I have met many religious men in my life who were politicians in disguise, but I who appear to be a politician am really at heart a man of religion 17." This clearly enumerates why Elwin was attracted to participate in Indian politics. Despite his faithful understanding of Gandhian techniques and his following of it in life rigidly18, he refused to be bound by doctrines and environment. This trait of individualism and search for freedom throughout his life, and the spirit behind this search seems to me to be one of the main reasons for his unique achievements. lt can be easily noticed that his curiosity and concern about human affairs could not endure the restrictions of human prejudices19. He neither submitted to the laws of nature, science nor facts of circumstances alone. Scientific insight was only a means to help in understanding human beings and their lore—an instrument to achieve a greater purpose in life, i.e., to help people and assist them to develop on the line of their own genius. In other words, his works portray a kind of meta-cultural perspective.

The independent attitude in his personality and in his work had many roots--which in essence form the part of his eclecticism in methods and scientific detachment from any single theoretical approach. In any case, the evidence of fact was his primary tool in understanding the people and their culture, no matter what theories about human behavior may tell. l believe this aspect of his adherence to facts he owed to Gandhi and later transferred it in the study of anthropology and folklore, particularly in the collection of meticulous details. Gandhi was a man who could abide by the evidence of facts and his famous answer of seeking "Truth" in all aspects of human life, seems to have left an indelible impression on Elwin's mind and even on his scientific methodology20.

The independence of mind, which Elwin inherited from theological education and apprenticeship under Gandhi impelled him to withdraw from the Anglican Church and from all “conventional religions" for life. Under historical circumstances21 he was forced to withdraw from political activities and take the arduous path of humanitarian work amongst the tribes of lndia. He sums up his experiences in lndia as follows: “ln lndia l have found sorrow and joy, disappointment and fulfillment but above all reality, an answer to the prayer: ‘From the unreal, lead me to the real’22.

This statement comes from the pen of a folklorist who produced twelve monographs and innumerable articles on Indian ethnography and folklore. In other words this proves again my contention that Elwin, temperamentally, was an inspired folklorist rather than a scientific-academician. But nonetheless he did not neglect to pursue the rigid path of scientific methodology; instead he synthesised it with subjective appraisal.

He received many honors for his contributions to Indian anthropology and folklore amongst which are: Wellcome Medal (I943), S. C. Roy Medal (I945), Rivers Memorial Medal (I948), Annandale Medal (I952), Campbell Medal (I960), Dadabhai Naoroji Prize (I961) and finally, Padam Bhusan (I961), which was one of the greatest recognitions for his work from the Government of India. Oxford University conferred upon him the degree of Doctor of Science (I944) for his work on the Indian tribes. As an anthropologist he served as Honorary Ethnographer to Bastar State (I940), Anthropologist to the Government of Orissa (I944), Deputy Director of the Anthropological Survey of India, Government of India (l946—I949), Anthropological Consultant in NEFA (I954) and Advisor for Tribal Affairs to the Government of India until his death in I964. 23

His professional career as a self-made anthropologist and folklorist got unique recognition from all quarters. In I943 he was elected President of the Anthropology and Archeology Section of the Indian Science Congress, a Fellow of the National Institute of Sciences (India) and in I945 became a Member of its Council. In I946 he became President of the Lokvarta (Folklore) Society of Bundelkhand. He was also elected as Fellow and Council Member of the Royal Asiatic'Society of Bengal and editor of Man in India. Outside India, he was a Fellow of the Royal Anthropological Institute, Honorary Member of the Ecole Francaise d’Extréme-Orient and member of the International Society for Folk-Narrative Research.

In analysing the different ideas and personalities that have influenced his life, Elwin refers to (i) poetry (ii) mystical aspects of Christianity (iii) Gandhi (iv) Tagore (v) Nehru and finally (vi) Buddhism 24, but not a single anthropologist. As Mandelbaum writes:

. . . his autobiography suggests that he really had little to take from professional anthropologists, once he had grasped the fundamentals of their discipline and their approach to people. . . . Elwin's principal intellectual nourishment was in literature, especially poetry.25

To add to these observations of Elwin himself and Mandelbaum, I am inclined to believe that besides all the ideas and persons to whom he owes his intellectual stimulus, a strong undercurrent of his religious ideal remains paramount. Without the understanding of this ideal, his scientific ambivalence, craving for practical activity and a career comprising many paradoxes cannot be understood. His intellectual tension oscillated between religious commitment and scientific detachment, but in productivity it was surpassed by his creative zeal. As Elwin states: “Inner strength [italics mine] is essential both for happiness and for good work.”26

In concluding, I feel Gerald Sparrow‘s observations of Elwin as a scholar and a man, is of importance to quote here, to understand Elwin’s contribution to Indian anthropology and folklore. As Sparrow says: “. . . l have a strong suspicion that Verrier is a saint, not a pale historical saint reeking of purity and unction, but a modern saint, fallible and human, yet with an infinite compassion.27 This “infinite compassion” is the key-word to understanding Elwin's personality and to attempt an evaluation of his work. “A gay freedom of spirit is the most precious of possessions, and simplicity of heart the greatest treasure man or woman know," says Hivale, was Verrier Elwin's philosophy for humanity at large.”28


  1. For biographical details see: Verrier Elwin, The Tribal World of Verrier Elwin , An Autobiography (Bombay and New York, I964), cited hereafter as Autobiography; Shamrao Hivale, Scholar Gypsy. A Study of Verrier Elwin (Bombay, l946), cited hereafter as Scholar Gypsy.
  2. Elwin, Autobiography, p. 36.
  3. Verrier Elwin, Onward Bound, (A Paper) (Oxford. 1925).
  4. Bertrand Russell as quoted in W.T. Stace, Religion and the Modern Mind (New York, 1960), p. 151.
  5. See Chapter V of this study.
  6. Elwin refers to Rabindranath Tagore's statement “East and West are but alternate beats of the same heart" at various places in his works. For example see Autobiography, p. vii.
  7. Here l refer to his analysis of the historically transmitted patterns of meanings in religious language (symbols) to find a basic congruence between the Christian contemplative tradition and analogous tradition in Indian thought. See Verrier Elwin, Christian Dhyana or, Prayer of Loving Regard, A Study of “The Cloud of Unknowing," (New York, 1930) cited hereafter as Christian Dhyana.
  8. See Chapter lV of this study.
  9. Elwin, Christian Dhyana, p. 68. He recommends the same method in the study of anthropology. See Autobiography, p. l42; see also Verrier Elwin, A Philosophy of Love (New Delhi, 1962).
  10. For this aspect of his study see Verrier Elwin, Richard Rolle (Madras, 1930); Verrier Elwin, Studies in the Gospels (Madras, l93l)
  11. The difficulties he faced in this regard have been eloquently documented in Elwin, Autobiography, pp. 86-99.
  12. Verrier Elwin, Truth about India: Can We Get It? (London, 1932).
  13. Intellectually Elwin owes his inspiration to the examplary life of Saint Francis. See Verrier Elwin, Saint Francis of Assisi (Madras, l933); also see T.S.R. Boase, St. Francis of Assisi (Bloomington, 1968), pp. 38-39. In its practical experimentation he followed Gandhi's teachings and went to work for the tribes of Madhya Pradesh in I931 and stayed amongst them until I953. See also Appendix Il:Gandhi-Elwin Correspondence, pp. I16-I26 of this study.
  14. He compares Wordsworth's “Song at the Feast of Brougham Castle" with Gandhi's recommendation of the Spinning Wheel as the symbol of self-reliance to attain Indian independence and records the religious significance of the spinning wheel in Christian and Vedic scriptures. See Verrier Elwin,Religious and Cultural Aspects of Khadi (Madras, I931). Cited hereafter as Kliadi; also Kanu Desai and Verrier Elwin, Mahatma Gandhi, Sketches in Pen, Pencil and Brush (London, 1932), p. 11, cited hereafter as Mahatma Gandhi.
  15. Jack C. Winslow and Verrier Elwin, The Dawn of lndian Freedom (London, 1931)
  16. The relationship of religion and politics in modern times have ably been discussed in Alan F. Geyer, Piety and Politics (Virginia, I963). For particular reference to this relationship in the lndian Scene see pp. 84-86.
  17. M. K. Gandhi as quoted in G. Ramachandran, "Notes on Gandhi as a Religious Force for Peace," Gandhi Marg, XLVIII (1963). P. 118.
  18. See Appendix ll: Gandhi-Elwin Correspondence, pp. 117-I23 of this study.
  19. Here I refer to his opposition to both “Hindu" and Christian workers trying to impose their way of life amongst the tribes. This opposition to the acculturative factors culminated in the development of his philosophy, to assist the tribes to develop on the line of their own genius. For further discussion see Chapter V of this study.
  20. Kanu Desai and Verrier Elwin, Mahatma Gandhi, (London, I932), pp. 2- 11.
  21. Here l refer to the Colonial administrator’s altitude toward him and the circumstances under which he was to quit politics so as to live in lndia. See Elwin, Autobiography, pp. 40-99.
  22. Elwin, Autobiography, p. vii.
  23. Warren E. Roberts, “Obituary: Verrier Elwin (I902—l964)," AFS, XXIII(I964), D. 213, C. Von Ftlrer-Haimendorf, “Obituary: Verrier Elwin: I902-1964,"Man, LXIV (I964), p. IIS. ’ .
  24. Elwin, Autobiography,.pp. 339-345,
  25. David G. Mandelbaum, “Verrier Elwin 1902-1964," AA, LXVll (I965), p. 449.
  26. Elwin, Autobiography, p. 343.
  27. Gerald Sparrow, Land of the Moon-Flower (London, I955), p. l4l.
  28. Ethel Mannin‘s statement on Elwin in Privileged Spectator, italicised and quoted by Hivale in Scholar Gypsy, p. 205.