English anthropologist and Anglican priest Verrier Elwin (1902–1964) was a respected though controversial authority on the tribal peoples of India during the final decades of British rule and the first decades of Indian independence. He arrived in India as a young Christian missionary but quickly became involved with Gandhi's movement for home rule. Elwin adopted elements of Indian philosophy and lifestyle, ultimately eschewing formal religion altogether. His practical and scholarly work both had tremendous impact, and he was awarded India's highest civilian honor, the Padma Bhushan, in 1961.
Verrier Elwin became a citizen of India and lived with many indigenous tribes, gaining an understanding of people who still comprise the least visible and least understood parts of India's vast population. Learning tribal ways first hand, the anthropologist authored numerous books and articles on the subject. After India achieved independence in 1947, the new prime minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, invited Elwin to advise the fledgling government on the inclusion of tribal peoples in the former British colony's rapidly modernizing economy. He served the Indian government in many capacities for decades, always advocating for recognition, respect, and protection for the tribes.
Elwin was educated in the British public school system and then studied theology at Merton College Oxford, where he earned degrees in English language and literature before completing his D.Sc. and becoming ordained an Anglican priest in the Church of England. The son of an Anglican Bishop (Edmund Elwin died of yellow fever in 1909), Elwin also felt the call to missionary service, which meant evangelizing: conveying the teachings of the Christian Gospel to the non-Christian populations of colonial lands. For centuries, Christian denominations from many European countries had viewed colonization as the will of God; it allowed them to accompany colonizing forces to these pagan (that is, non-Christian) populations and convert them to the Christian faith. By doing so, they reasoned, they were saving these native people from ignorance, darkness, and spiritual damnation. Along with religion, missionaries attempted to instruct native people in aspects of European culture, viewing Western traditions of hygiene, decorum, and industriousness as superior. In effect, their intent was to “civilize” presumably savage populations.
Elwin excelled at Oxford and was appointed a don (or professor) upon graduation from Merton College. He and his superiors in the church assumed that he would follow in his late father's footsteps and become an emissary of both church and empire. However, the young academic found himself drawn to mysticism, the inner, prayerful aspect of religion, such as the teachings of the desert fathers, or early Christian hermits. When he learned of a small group of Anglican monks living in a monastic community in Poona, India, he jumped at the chance to join them, arriving in 1927. As he experienced life in India, which was very different from that of cosmopolitan Oxford, his curiosity grew and he met with followers of Mohandas (Mahatma) Gandhi (1869–1948), a former lawyer who had renounced material life in favor of living and teaching a deliberately ascetic lifestyle. Gandhi was an important moral leader within India's movement for home rule, or independence from the British Empire.
Enamored of India as well as of Gandhi's teachings, Elwin became active politically within the Indian National Congress party, which advocated for democracy and independence from the British Crown. As he began publicly protesting English brutality and advocating for British withdrawal from India, he gained the displeasure of the colonial administration as well as of the Anglican Church, which returned Elwin to England in 1931. He fought to return to India, and was finally granted permission by the British government, on the condition that he sign a promise to give up all political activity. When Elwin returned to India, it was with a focus on seva, or selfless service to the poor.
Elwin considered working with “untouchables,” the poorest of the poor and those who performed the lowest, dirtiest work. Untouchables had no hope of advancement in the traditional Hindu social order, a caste system called “Jâti,” in which one's birth determines one's occupation throughout life. Through a meeting with Gandhi, he earned the Indian leader's favor, and Gandhi was recorded as saying that Elwin felt like a son to him. Another important Congress party leader, attorney Vallabhbhai Patel (1875–1950), counseled that it was the Hindus’ responsibility to make right with the untouchables, and that Elwin could be of more help working with the impoverished tribal peoples of India's remote interior. These indigenous groups were seldom seen or heard from, living deep in the forests and hill country. Tribes had unique languages, practiced their own religions, and stood the greatest risk of being exploited and exterminated by progress.
On the further advice of an Anglican bishop stationed in central India, Elwin sought out the Gondi, a large tribe inhabiting several states, including eastern Mahrashtra, Madhya Pradesh, and Chhattisgarh. Four of the last five Europeans preceding him had died within a year of arriving among the Gond, but Elwin did not hesitate. He was eager to prove his devotion to his adopted land, and he and Pune Indian friend Shimrao Hivale, a fellow Anglican awaiting ordination as a priest, arrived at a Gond village, setting up a school and medical dispensary.
Once arrived in central India, Elwin found that he was less than enthused about working in a village clinic or teaching at a school. His interest was that of a scientist; what he did best was write about tribal life as a participant and observer, and over time he trained himself to be an anthropologist. During the next few years he authored dozens of scholarly books, among them The Agaria (1942), The Aboriginals (1944), and The Muria and Their Ghotul (1947), as well as several collections of tribal folk songs. Through his books and articles, he illuminated the tribal world for academics and distant decision makers alike. Elwin was driven in part by the desire to make up for the many injustices done to indigenous Indians by their colonial British overlords. He also hoped to portray tribal people as humans worthy of respect rather than as the “tiresome savages” they were frequently portrayed as.
Still an Anglican priest, Elwin practiced a mix of Christian and Hindu mysticism for several years, and he strove to understand tribal life through the lens of love and compassion. His superiors in the Anglican Church were unsupportive and refused to officially recognize the accomplishments of Elwin and Hivale. By the time the two men parted ways with the church, Elwin characterized himself as a “humanist anthropologist” as well as a citizen of India. An avid reader and writer of poetry, he freely quoted verse in his anthropological writings, claiming that it helped him toward a deeper understanding of the human condition. Despite parting ways with the Anglican Church, his spiritual upbringing stayed with him as a foundation of his abiding belief in love.
Although Elwin gave up being an evangelist in the religious sense, he was successful in advocating on behalf of the impoverished and isolated tribes of central India. He worked tirelessly to make these people, whose population numbered in the tens of millions, known to the leaders and intelligentsia of the newly established Republic of India. First through his books, letters, and articles, and later as a member and leader of committees in Indian government, Elwin helped politicians, activists, and ultimately all citizens of India, recognize theirs as a nation comprised of diverse peoples. Elwin's output of quality ethnographic observation was far greater than any other individual's work, encompassing decades lived among many different tribes, and Prime Minister Nehru would later credit him for expanding his understanding of tribal affairs.
With every writing, published or personal, Elwin extolled the best qualities of indigenous people: their honesty, integrity, and social maturity. According to his study, they never exploited one another, valued all members equally, and had very equitable social norms for relationships and marriage. All of this contrasted positively with the culture of so-called civilized people. Although Elwin, as an Anglican, adopted a simple, non-materialistic tribal lifestyle early in his studies, he eventually rejected asceticism in favor of the more exuberant aspects of tribal life: celebration, dancing, and good food and drink. He invited controversy when, in 1940, at age 38, he “went native” and married Kosi, a 13-year-old student in the Raithwar school and a member of the Raj Gond tribe, which was known for its open attitudes toward sex. The couple traveled extensively, meeting with the leaders of the future government of India, participating in the final push for home rule. After nine years of marriage, during which Kosi became the subject of several anthropological studies, Elwin left her and their eight-year-old son, Jawaharlal, filing for divorce in a distant city and marrying another tribal woman, Lila. None of this endeared him to his critics, who already considered him a rebel and pretender to anthropological science.
Elwin spent the rest of his life devoted to Indian tribal welfare, working in various capacities for the Indian government as well as publishing well-regarded books and articles and engaging his critics in speeches and letters. He continued to live with various tribes while traveling throughout India and abroad as duties dictated. He received many awards for his publications and was given India's highest civilian honor, the Padma Bhushan, in 1961. Elwin died on February 22, 1964, while living in New Delhi, after a heart attack. He was survived by Lila, who died in 2013, and their sons Wasant, Nakul, and Ashok.
Elwin, Verrier, The Muria and Their Ghotul, Oxford University Press, 1947.
Elwin, Verrier, The Tribal World of Verrier Elwin: An Autobiography, Oxford University Press, 1964.
Guha, Ramchandra, Savaging the Civilized: Verrier Elwin, His Tribals and India, University of Chicago Press, 1999.
American Anthropologist, New Series, Volume 67, number 2, 1965, David G. Mandelbaum, “Verrier Elwin 1902–1964,” pp. 448–452.
Economic and Political Weekly, Volume 31, numbers 35–37 (1996), Ramachandra Guha,“Savaging the Civilised: Verrier Elwin and the Tribal Question in Late Colonial India,” pp. 2375–2389.
International Review of Mission, October, 1995, Barbara Boal, “Din-Sevak: Verrier Elwin's Life of Service in Tribal India,” p. 455.
New Statesman, May 17, 1999, Guy Mannes Abbott, “Savaging the Civilised: Verrier Elwin, His Tribals, and India,” p. 50.❑