Guest post by Quintus Curtius on Indian society and history
A nation’s geography is its destiny. When discussing India, we have to keep in mind that it is a more a continent than a country: from the Himalayas to the tropics of Sri Lanka, its two million square miles has hundreds of cultures, languages, cuisines, religions, and folkways. There is not one India, but many. Its history is staggeringly ancient; the oldest of its civilizations, the Mohenjo-daro, dates from at least 3000 B.C. While the northern regions share in the cold of the Himalayas, the southern parts from Delhi to Sri Lanka are oppressed by unrelenting heat. The alluvial plains of the Punjab, however, offer an agricultural fecundity that can feed more than one nation.
One cannot speak of Indian social issues without mentioning its historical caste system. It apparently dates from the earliest recorded history, when the northern Aryan peoples swept into India and asserted their control over the indigenous Naga and Dravidian peoples. Aware that they would be absorbed within a few generations unless strict rules on endogamy and exogamy were formed, the minority Aryans imposed restrictions on intermarriage with native peoples; these restrictions multiplied into a hundred manifestations, and eventually permeated into every facet of old Indian life.
The caste system was relatively mild during India’s Vedic period (2000-1000 B.C.); but as conditions changed into those described in the Mahabharata and the Ramayana texts, the system became fully entrenched, and remained so for centuries. Officially abolished since Indian independence in the twentieth century, it nevertheless still casts a long shadow over Indian social, occupational, and cultural life. Status, rules, hierarchies, competition, and the concept of social “undesirability” remain potent forces. The caste system, for all its lack of appeal to modern tastes, did have some advantages: it codified habits of diet and cleanliness for all; it brought order to men’s ceaseless striving for unattainable ends; it prescribed a code of conduct (dharma) to each man in every class; it dignified every occupation and vocation with divine grace; and it gave the country a political and social stability that lasted for centuries. The Brahmans maintained, preserved and transmitted the nation’s cultural heritage through invasion, war, and pestilence, thereby fulfilling their role for posterity.
Officially, the position of women in old India was low. Marriage was not left to the whims of passion; parents or village elders arranged it frankly and without apology. The ideal espoused by the Ramayana was that of the faithful “Sita” who stands humbly and patiently behind her husband, and follows him in death. But these scriptures were written by men. Theory gave way to practice, and women found ways of compensating for legal restrictions by taking on a nearly dictatorial role in hearth and home. No one today would accuse Indian women of being submissive, wilting lilies.
In the Hindu system, marriage was not optional, but mandatory. A bachelor would be an outcast; male virginity was viewed as a disgrace. Marriage was arranged when the parties were very young, even as children. The official subordination of women in Indian society was also evidenced by such practices as temple courtesans (nautch girls), the purdah (official seclusion of women) and the “suttee”, an old custom whereby a wife was expected to follow her husband in death. The spread of Islam in northern India probably had something to do with the lowering of women’s position in old India after the Vedic period.
What do we conclude from all of this? It is clear that traditional Indian society is heavily weighted down with the legacy of custom, rules, and strictures. Religion—whether it be Islam or Hinduism—had the effect of cementing these rules firmly in place. When we see an Indian today, we must remember that he is the product of a nation and a society infinitely more old (and perhaps wiser) than ours; we must not be too quick to judge him and his habits, for they have been inculcated into him in a thousand ways before he reaches maturity. If we are to understand India, we must understand that it is a country where social and cultural institutions have always been more powerful than governmental authority. Governments in India come and go; yet the family, the clan, and the traditions remain.
He, like us, is only the product of his history and environment. Like many immigrants to the West from ancient cultures, he is likely to be shocked and disoriented by the social practices he encounters. The product of a chaste and modest culture himself, he may find himself disturbed by the degree of sexual license and freedom given to women in America and Britain. This, combined with the isolation experienced by some immigrants, can heighten feelings of alienation and anxiety. The son’s challenge is great: he must satisfy his filial duties by honoring his parents, and at the same time make his way in a world very different from that of the mother country. And just as the son may learn from his father, perhaps the father may rely on his son’s more intimate contact with Western ways.
It is a story as old as history.