Academic journal article Forum on Public Policy: A Journal of the Oxford Round Table

Birth, Marriage, Honor & Poverty: Ramifications of Traditional Hindu Culture & Custom on Modern Indian Women

Academic journal article Forum on Public Policy: A Journal of the Oxford Round Table

Birth, Marriage, Honor & Poverty: Ramifications of Traditional Hindu Culture & Custom on Modern Indian Women

Article excerpt


The continuing ramifications of Hindu teachings on the lives of modern Indian women and girls are an important aspect of understanding crimes of violence against them, as is the fact that the application of scriptural and traditional knowledge is mitigated by economic class, religious caste levels, and geographic location. Nevertheless, overall and despite prohibitive legislation, discrimination, hostility, and violence against women remain pervasive throughout the sub-continent. Hindu teachings, as they are applied on the basis of customary practice, have changed over time and are further affected by changing economic systems, particularly the shift from traditional agriculture to capitalist structures. These changes have not improved the status of women.

There are many lenses through which to view the status of women and the discrimination and violence they regularly experience. This paper focuses on two extreme practices that occur most commonly in northern India through a discussion of two case studies: son preference as it affects female infanticide and female feticide; and marriage, as it affects dowry and dowry-related deaths, often called "dowry burnings." Both practices are considered part of the private, domestic sphere into which neither neighbors nor police want to intrude. And, both practices, in their extremity, are at variance with Hindu Scriptural teaching.

Historic and contemporary attitudes have overridden scriptural admonitions regarding the treatment of daughters, marriage practices, and the giving and receiving of dowry as part of wedding rituals. Interpretations of scripture have been and continue to be used in a manner that perpetuates the subordination of women in support of patriarchal values. (1) Ramayana's writings, for example, were often comparatively liberal regarding the treatment of women, but were deliberately misinterpreted by theologians to support various vested interests. These interpretations enjoyed wide acceptance and became prescriptive.

During the Vedic Age, the wife held a high position. According to the Taittriya Brahman, no man could perform sacrificial rites without a wife, and the wife was called patni because of her equal participation. The Rig Vedic hymns stress the harmony of the marital couple without referring to the woman as inferior. Men were admonished to protect women, hence the command that the woman must be under the male protection of her father, husband, or son, but such protection was not intended to curb her freedom to fulfill scriptural duties. Indeed, Mann taught that a man's protection of a woman must be voluntarily accepted by the woman. In this context, it is easily arguable that any man who tolerates violence against his wife or daughter has violated scriptural admonitions. (2)

The most dominant Hindu guidelines for virtuous female behavior are the Manusmritii with authorship credited to a single writer, Manu. This document followed the Vedic scriptures, and was composed between 200 BCE and 300 CE. Manu was somewhat ambiguous in his teachings about women. On the one hand, he wrote that "Brahma separated his body into two parts; from half he created man and from the other part woman. She is, therefore, born equal." In another section, Manu argued that "gods reside where women are respected and where they are insulted, all endeavor is useless." (3)

At the same time, Manu perceived women to be seductresses of men, explaining that "it is the nature of women to seduce men in this world; for that reason the wise are never unguarded in the company of females. Women lead astray in this world, not only a fool, but even a scholar, and make him a slave of desires and anger. One should not sit in a lonely place with one's mother, sister or daughter, for senses are powerful and master even a learned man." (4) This advice later combined with Islamic teachings of purdah and the desire of upper class indigenous Indians to keep their women away from Muslim invaders to create an atmosphere in which women became confined to the private realm, serving their husbands and families. …

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