Sociology, as a discipline, came much after the contributions made by social thinkers, philosophers, administrators who worked at understanding the Indian society, in general, as well as studying some specific aspects of Indian society, such as law, family, religion, caste system and so on.
It is the contributions made by the indologists such as Henry Maine, Alfred Lyelt, etc. which helped the development of sociology in India. They emphasised the need to preserve the indigenous social institutions found in Indian society rather than destroying them and imposing an alien way of life on her people. They recognised the past glory of Indian cultural and literary tradition.
Besides the indologists there were the British administrators who made extensive study of Indian people, their races and cultures. Most of these studies helped to generate a body of knowledge, preserved in the Census Reports, Imperial Gazetteers, District Gazetters, etc. as well as in books and monographs which are referred by social anthropologists and sociologists even today.
Along with Sociology, Anthropology was also developing in Indian universities. In the Indian context, it is just not possible to distinguish between Sociology and Anthropology except in terms of methodology.
Generally, Sociology has studied urban-industrial groups, while Anthropology has focused on tribes, caste, tribes and communities. But the sociologists have also been anthropologists and vice versa.
In fact, it is better to use the term "Ethno-sociologists" to describe those writings in the fields of sociology and anthropology. Ethno-sociologists combine documentary and literary data with oral traditions and field data. Thus, in the Indian academic studies, tribe, caste and region have been linked with each other in a variety of ways. Both Sociology and Anthropology in India have one thing in common. They are mainly based on empirical data. Both of them deal with aggregates of people in a number of locales, village, town and city.
During British rule, a number of ethnographic works were written by J.H. Hutton, Edward Theurston, and H. Risleyand others. There were also the writings of Sir Henry Maine and W.H. Baden Powell on the village community in India.
It may be observed that there was a difference between western and Indian intellectual developments. In the west, modern intellectuals strove to 'secularise' the thought. They were reacting to the hegemony of church in doing so. But, in India, the religion did not place a bar on free thinking. The stimulus to creative work in the Indian sciences came from interaction with the west.
(a) Early Social Thought:
The ancient Indian philosophy consists of six schools of thought, these are Yoga, Sankhya, Nyaya, Vaishesika, Vedanta, Mimamsa. These are valuable sources for social thought. Moreover, the Upanishads consist of philosophical enquiries into the man's inner life and final destiny. Indian society had the impact of Islamic tradition which gave rise to the Sufi cult and had influence on the life-style and value system.
(b) Impact of British:
The traditional handicraft of India was unable to match with machine-made textiles and other goods from England. The Indian villages were no longer self-sufficient units under the colonial rule.
(c) Reform Movement:
In the late nineteenth century and early 20th century Indian middle class began to think in terms of reforming and modernizing Indian society. This attempt contained both religious and social components.
Early social thinkers such as Ananda Coomara Swamy's works helped in the development of sociology in India. Being a believer in the abstract values, e.g., God, values of goodness, etc his work is just opposite of B.K. Sarkar who worked to explore the material basis of Indian society.
The first three decades of 20th century may be described as a period of Renaissance. Notable personalities such as Vivekananda, Sri Aurobindo, and Rabindranath Tagore were also trying to project an idealistic view of India. These men were of the opinion that the greatness of India lay in its spirituality.
Through the revival of her spirit, India could not only overcome its poverty and backwardness, but also bring solace to the west, which is disrupted by violence, war and materialistic greed.