To an outsider not familiar with it, India will always be something different. A flowing mass of humanity that has survived for at least seven to eight thousand years in continuity… of people who continue to follow their own traditional way of living even in 21st century… are some of the instant observations. But a more detailed understanding suggests unique social traditions that are centered around family, that self regulate themselves, that shun violence and even keep their King under check …
The people of India are as diverse as are prospering social masses anywhere else on this planet. But the unique features of its people are shared by most of its people. India, or the Indian civilization has evolved these unique characteristics during several thousand years of its existence, and continue to retain them in spite of the tumultuous nature of social changes that have affected mankind in last couple of centuries. These unique features can sometimes make the Indian society appear somewhat odd to an unfamiliar outsider. A deeper analysis of these features, however, would indicate their enormous contribution in India’s survival and continuity.
Extremely Family Centric Society
One of the most intriguing aspect of Indian society is the extreme centrality of families, not only in social interactions, but also religious aspirations and even politico-economic outlooks. In Indian society, families do not exist for individuals.
On the other hand, it is the individual who exist for the family, and must devote his or her for it! Thus, marriage is not a choice of the individual getting married. It is a choice of the family, since the relationship of two individuals in a marital bond is considered less significant than the bond that marriage establishes between two families. Not surprisingly, then, a very large proportion of Indian marriages continue to be arranged by their families.
Indian law recognizes legal ownership of the family instead of the individual, since the property, consisting primarily of land, has often been retained by a family for centuries at a stretch. Another striking example of the centrality of family in Indian society is the manner in which outsiders get acceptability in a family by being considered a family member and being addressed as brother, sister, uncle, aunt, grandma and so on. In families that are considered cultured by Indian standards, even servants would be addressed in this manner.
Dharma or the Spiritual Doctrine of Duty
While Indians are some of the most religious and spiritually oriented people in the world, the Indian religious and spiritual philosophies are significantly different from the modern religions of the West. The most striking part of Indian religious philosophy is the focus on duty rather than the divine dictates. What is generally referred to as ‘Hinduism’ is actually termed “Sanatana Dharma” in scriptures, meaning “Universal Duties”. Dharma (literally meaning ‘Duty’) of a person depends on his situation. The dharma of a father toward his children is different from the dharma of a son towards his parents, or the dharma of a wife towards her husband. Dharma of a Brahmin (intellectual) is different from the dharma of a soldier or that of a merchant.
In this sense, Dharma is very different from religions, particularly, in its universalism and its complete lack of communalization, and is actually more of a moral-spiritual code of conduct that should be followed by every living person, rather than being an identity of a group of religious followers. For instance, there is no concept of a formal conversion to the Hinduism. One can say that there is no Hindu or Indian religion as such, and the Indian concept of Dharma is conceptually very different from the other religions that place a great emphasis on their communalization as well as the expansion and dominance of their community.
In modern times, particularly with the advent of Islam and Christianity, there has been a growing tendency for Indians to look at Hinduism as a religion. There have been groups advocating and even working for communalization of Hindus in the same manner as other religions, and some even resorting to similar communal intolerance as observed by extremists in other religions. However, thanks to their underlying philosophical strength, most Indians remain unimpressed with such endeavors.
Supremacy of Traditions
For a society that has sustained since thousands of years, it would only be expected that traditions rule the conduct of its people. In India, these traditions, from the rituals of prayer to god, to the marriage ceremony and cremation, form significant parts of expected social conduct. There are many traditions, such as the celebrations of common festival that continue to survive. However, many such traditions are undergoing changes, albeit at a pace that is slower than the rest of world, and often takes several generations to manifest, the exceptions being large cities like Delhi and Mumbai, where immigrants from all over India feel free to set their own rules to their lives!
Non Violence and Vegetarianism
One of the most striking feature of Indian philosophy is the concept of non-violence, which is almost astonishingly absent in most of the world around us, and often makes it hard for outsiders to even appreciate it. The concept of “AHIMSA” or non-violence is not just an aspiration or an idealistic goal in the Indian society. It is a practice that is religiously adhered to by large masses, including those who are neither formally educated, nor very well off in material terms, and have nowhere to show off their conduct!
India has the largest proportion of human beings that do not eat animal meat and survive from birth to death by only eating vegetarian food. These vegetarian people do not even think of eating food like eggs, chicken, meat and fish, which form the staple diet in most parts of humanity. Certain food items, which are taken for granted in the rest of the world, such as beaf and pork are almost unthinkable in most decent Indian restaurants in smaller Indian towns and cities.
These concepts of non-violence and vegetarianism are deeply intertwined in the Indian philosophy, and arise from the concept of “Ahimsa” or “voluntarily abstaining from harming any living creature”, which is a part and parcel of Indian civilization. Its consequences go far beyond culinary preferences. Killing of cows and cattle, which are a part and parcel of Indian households in largely agrarian villages and contribute to their well being, is highly despised and leally banned in many parts of India. The fact that violent conquest of foreign territories never became the addiction of Indian Kings may also have its genesis in it.
Keeping the King under Check
Another distinctive feature of Indian society is its hierarchy, wherein King is delegated to the second rung, after the ascetic intellectual teachers (Brahmins). Traditional Indian society placed the teacher (Guru) at the highest pedestal. Mother, being the first of teachers and father, from whom the children will learn their craft and livelihood skills, were also revered in the role of teacher. In the social hierarchy, Brahmins (intellectuals/teachers/philosophers) were placed at the top, followed by King, politicians and soldiers (Kshatriya), merchants and traders (Vaishya) and other folk (Shudra) in that order.
An important political result of this unique social hierarchy was the social check placed on the King and the ruling elite by the society. In a way, this ensured that the power of the State, which was often uninhibited in most other civilizations, was kept under a tight leash of social control. As a result, the Indian society invariably enjoyed more leverage vis a vis their Kings, a situation that has not changed even today. When Alexander attacked India, the Greeks were highly perplexed to know that Indian Kings and soldiers never caused harm to the ordinary people of the territory they were in war with. The very strong roots of Indian democracy also indicate this favorable equilibrium between the State and the Society. Probably, it also indicates how civilization is and remains the most sustainable form of participative democracy that mankind has been able to invent.
Both Strengths & Weaknesses
These are only some of the unique characteristics of Indian society and civilization. They bring with them strengths as well as weaknesses. The strengths are more or less the strengths of civilization…. they tend to facilitate the continuity and sustenance of the society. The weaknesses are more with relation to the State that is undermined by the social norms, and is thus lacking in strength when faced with foreign States, in war, conflict and confrontations.
The strengths of Indian civilization facilitated it to survive for all these centuries. Its weaknesses may have resulted in the failure of Indian States, its Kings and its armies during their conflicts with foreign invaders.
The history of India in the last one thousand years is a testimony of this conclusion!!
There were many Filipino Customs and Cultures that were of Hindu origins. And even if we don’t know it, we actually have some roots in Indian Culture.
The strength of Indian civilization and its unique social hierarchy where the ascetic intellectual, the Brahmin, was placed above the all powerful King, helped in putting restraint on its rulers. However, while this strengthened the ability of the society to reign the King, it also had a weakening effect on the State, which became crucial when India was faced with foreign invaders.
Understanding the peculiar characteristics of Indian family and the social norms and values that drive and reinforce them is crucial in developing an understanding India. The fact that Indian marriages were conceived as inseparable bonds for the rest of one's life, was an important tool of social engineering adopted by Indian society, and led to significant consequences.