India offers astounding variety in virtually every aspect of social life. Diversities of ethnic, linguistic, regional, economic, religious, class, and caste groups crosscut Indian society, which is also permeated with immense urban-rural differences and gender distinctions. Differences between north India and south India are particularly significant, especially in systems of kinship and marriage. Indian society is multifaceted to an extent perhaps unknown in any other of the world’s great civilizations—it is more like an area as varied as Europe than any other single nation-state. Adding further variety to contemporary Indian culture are rapidly occurring changes affecting various regions and socioeconomic groups in disparate ways. Yet, amid the complexities of Indian life, widely accepted cultural themes enhance social harmony and order.
Themes In Indian Society
India is a hierarchical society. Whether in north India or south India, Hindu or Muslim, urban or village, virtually all things, people, and social groups are ranked according to various essential qualities. Although India is a political democracy, notions of complete equality are seldom evident in daily life.
Societal hierarchy is evident in caste groups, amongst individuals, and in family and kinship groups. Castes are primarily associated with Hinduism, but caste-like groups also exist among Muslims, Indian, Christians, and other religious communities. Within most villages or towns, everyone knows the relative rankings of each locally represented caste, and behavior is constantly shaped by this
Individuals are also ranked according to their wealth and power. For example, some powerful people, or “big men,” sit confidently on chairs, while “little men” come before them to make requests, either standing or squatting not presuming to sit beside a man of high status as an equal.
Hierarchy plays an important role within families and kinship groupings also, where men outrank women of similar age, and senior relatives outrank junior relatives. Formal respect is accorded family members—for example, in northern India, a daughter-in-law shows deference to her husband, to all senior in-laws, and to all daughters of the household. Siblings, too, recognize age differences, with younger siblings addressing older siblings by respectful terms rather than by name.
Purity and Pollution
Many status differences in Indian society are expressed in terms of ritual purity and pollution, complex notions that vary greatly among different castes, religious groups, and regions. Generally, high status is associated with purity and low status with pollution. Some kinds of purity are inherent; for example, a member of a high-ranking Brahmin, or priestly, caste is born with more inherent purity than someone born into a low-ranking sweeper, or scavenger, caste. Other kinds of purity are more transitory—for example, a Brahmin who has just taken a bath is more ritually pure than a Brahmin who has not bathed for a day.
Purity is associated with ritual cleanliness—daily bathing in flowing water, dressing in freshly laundered clothes, eating only the foods appropriate for one’s caste, and avoiding physical contact with people of significantly lower rank or with impure substances, such as the bodily wastes of another adult. Involvement with the products of death or violence is usually ritually polluting.
One of the great themes pervading Indian life is social interdependence. People are born into groups—families, clans, subcastes, castes, and religious communities—and feel a deep sense of inseparability from these groups. People are deeply involved with others, and for many, the greatest fear is the possibility of being left alone, without social support. Psychologically, family members typically experience intense emotional interdependence. Economic activities, too, are deeply imbedded in a social nexus. Through a multitude of kinship ties, each person is linked with kin in villages and towns near and far. Almost everywhere a person goes, he can find a relative from whom he can expect moral and practical support.
In every activity, social ties can help a person and the absence of them can bring failure. Seldom do people carry out even the simplest tasks on their own. When a small child eats, his mother puts the food into his mouth with her own hand. When a girl brings water home from the well in pots on her head, someone helps her unload the pots. A student hopes that an influential relative or friend can facilitate his college admission. A young person anticipates that parents will arrange his or her marriage. Finally, a person facing death expects that relatives will conduct the proper funeral rites ensuring his own smooth passage to the next stage of existence and reaffirming social ties among mourners.
This sense of interdependence extends into the theological realm. From birth onward, a child learns that his “fate” has been “written” by divine forces and that his life is shaped by powerful deities with whom an ongoing relationship must be maintained.
Family and Kinship
The essential themes of Indian cultural life are learned within the bosom of a family. The joint family is highly valued, ideally consisting of several generations residing, working, eating, and worshiping together. Such families include men related through the male line, along with their wives, children, and unmarried daughters. A wife usually lives with her husband’s relatives, although she retains important bonds with her natal family. Even in rapidly modernizing India, the traditional joint household remains for most Indians the primary social force, in both ideal and practice.
Large families tend to be flexible and well suited to modern Indian life, especially for the more than two-thirds of Indians who are involved in agriculture. As in most primarily agricultural societies, cooperating kin help provide mutual economic security. The joint family is also common in cities, where kinship ties are often crucial to obtaining employment or financial assistance. Many prominent families, such as the Tatas, Birlas, and Sarabhais, retain joint family arrangements as they cooperate in controlling major financial empires.
The ancient ideal of the joint family retains its power, but today actual living arrangements vary widely. Many Indians live in nuclear families—-a couple with their unmarried children—-but belong to strong networks of beneficial kinship ties. Often, clusters of relatives live as neighbors, responding readily to their kinship obligations.
As they expand, joint families typically divide into smaller units, which gradually grow into new joint families, continuing a perpetual cycle. Today, some family members may move about to take advantage of
job opportunities, typically sending money home to the larger family.
Family Authority and Harmony
In the Indian household, lines of hierarchy and authority are clearly
drawn, and ideals of conduct help maintain family harmony. [i] All family members are socialized to accept the authority of those above them in the hierarchy. The eldest male acts as family head, and his wife supervises her daughters-in-law, among whom the youngest has the
least authority. Reciprocally, those in authority accept responsibility for meeting the needs of other family members.
Family loyalty is a deeply held ideal, and family unity is emphasized, especially in distinction to those outside the kinship circle. Inside the household, ties between spouses and between parents and their own children are de-emphasized to enhance a wider sense of family harmony. For example, open displays of affection between husbands and wives are considered highly improper.
Traditionally, males have controlled key family resources, such as land or businesses, especially in high-status groups. Following traditional Hindu law, women did not inherit real estate and were thus beholden to their male kin who controlled land and buildings. Under Muslim customary law, women can—and do—inherit real estate, but their shares have typically been smaller than those of males. Modern legislation allows all Indian women to inherit real estate. Traditionally, for those families who could afford it, women have controlled some wealth in the form of precious jewelry.
Veiling and the Seclusion of Women
A significant aspect of Indian family life is purdah (from Hindi parda, or “curtain”), or the veiling and seclusion of women. In much of northern and central India, particularly in rural areas, Hindu and Muslim women follow complex rules of veiling the body and avoidance of public appearance, especially before relatives linked by marriage and before strange men. Purdah practices are linked to patterns of authority and harmony within the family. Hindu and Muslim purdah observances differ in certain key ways, but female modesty and decorum as well as concepts of family honor and prestige are essential to the various forms of purdah. Purdah restrictions are generally stronger for women of conservative high-status families. [ii]
Restriction and restraint for women in virtually every aspect of life are essential to purdah, limiting women’s access to power and to the control of vital resources in a male-dominated society. Sequestered women should conceal their bodies and even their faces with modest clothing and veils before certain categories of people, avoid extramarital relations, and move about in public only with a male escort. Poor and low-status women often practice attenuated versions of veiling as they work in the fields and on construction gangs.
Hindu women of conservative families veil their faces and remain silent in the presence of older male in-laws, both at home and in the community. A young daughter-in-law even veils from her mother-inlaw. These practices emphasize respect relationships, limit unapproved encounters, and enhance family lines of authority.
For Muslims, veiling is especially stressed outside the home, where a conservative woman may wear an all-enveloping black burka. Such purdah shelters women—-and the sexual inviolability of the family-—
from unrelated unknown men.
In south India, purdah has been little practiced, except in certain minority groups. In northern and central India today, purdah practices are diminishing, and among urbanites and even the rural elite, they are rapidly vanishing. Chastity and female modesty are still highly valued, but as education and employment opportunities for women increase, veiling has all but disappeared in progressive circles.