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. These developments curtailed individual freedom, but strengthened the family, making it a central facet in Indian society.
Family is as usual a thing in our life, as it is crucial to our well-being. All families are similar, yet no two families are ever alike. Indian society evolved certain unique family characteristics, the most important of which was the irreversibility of marriage, meaning an absence of divorce. This one facet of Indian family led to significant peculiarities of Indian society. Understanding them is essential if one wishes to understand India....
Origin of family and its Features in Human Societies
All human civilizations came into existence around the family structure, making family a relatively common feature of all societies. In earliest tribal societies around the world, the family structure was largely based on mother-child relationship, an instinctive phenomenon that is frequently observed even in the animal kingdom and is essential to the survival of most species.
Matriarchal bonds can, thus, be considered the earliest form of the family, which indicated a relatively flexible and loose bond between the mating male and female. In some societies with such traditions, it was either the tribe as a whole that owned the children, or in case of more sophisticated societies, it was a matriarchal clan to which the children belonged.
The strengthening of the bond between the male and the female and the evolution of the institution of marriage where the couple undertook to spend their whole life together brought a somewhat different family into existence. In many ways, it completely changed the dynamics of the society. The male now became the protector of the family, a role that somewhat suited him physiologically, and enabled the mother to focus more on the children. On one hand, it led to the division of labor and responsibilities with male taking up more of the family’s interaction with the outside world, and the female, who was also the mother, taking up more within the household. On the other hand, it also led to development of patriarchal family tradition.
Such patriarchal families have been common to several societies, with all kind of variations. It is the further refinement of these families, and their peculiarities that define the nature of most sophisticated societies and civilizations.
Characteristics of Indian Family & its Centrality to the Society
Given the fact that Indian society and Indian families precede recorded history by several thousand years at least, the full evolution of Indian marriage is not fully documented in Indian history. One must note that social characteristics vary within the India society, both on the basis of territorial practices, but perhaps more importantly, within clans or where such practices have been harmonized in such clans, in the castes and sub-castes. However, with time, many of these characteristics of Indian family have been adopted very widely within Indian society, and can be considered as its identifying characteristics.
What makes the Indian family somewhat unique is the strength of the bonds and commitments that define families everywhere. What is unique, though, is the extent of irreversibility of those commitments, the strong social backing of these bonds and the centrality of family in all social activities, including economic pursuits. The strengthening of the family bonds, their use as social accreditation of family, and extension of family as the underlying unit in almost all social and economic interactions made the whole Indian society centered around family identity and existence.
Most Unique Feature of Indian Family: Irreversibility of Marriage
One of the most important, peculiar and unique characteristics of Indian family is the strength of the marital bond. The stability of survival of marriage is an important aspiration among all societies. In Indian society, this aspiration was taken to an unprecedented extreme, by making marriage a virtually irreversible bonding. Separation of married couple was not institutionalized, or in other words, there was no institutional practice of separation of married couples within Indian society. Words like "divorce" and "talaq", which were always a part and parcel of married life in other societies either did not exist in most Indian languages, or were not commonly used!
Impact of Irreversibility of Marriage: Arranged Marriages & Complete Ban on Premarital Relationships
In the absence of divorce, Indian marriages became a lifelong bond for the marrying couple. This had immense implications. First of all, marriage is an affair, where it is hardly ever possible for the two individuals to be sure that they will be definitely able to tolerate and survive each other for the rest of their lives, and I am not even attempting to use a word like "like" or "love"! Thus, keeping all couples together for the rest of their lives required immense force, which in Indian society, came from the very strong social sanctions, traditions and values. “Peer pressure” within Indian society achieved what no law, regulation, counseling or learning might be able to.
The adverse social implications of separation of married couple in Indian society were not limited to the couple involved, but also impacted the families to which they belonged, creating very strong incentives for both families to ensure that marriage involving their members did not end in social disgrace for them. This meant, that all family members and even relatives (who were considered part of the larger family) and in some cases, even the whole clan (group of families with common origins) had a significant stake in the marriage of two individuals. It also gave all these stakeholders a say in the choice of marriage partner.
The traditional role of family in deciding the choice of bride or groom for an individual in India can be best appreciated by the fact that marrying against the wishes of family and relatives has been one of the most common themes in Indian movies of Twentieth century. For Indian youngsters, getting married to a person against the wishes of the family was, by and large, the biggest possible adventure. No doubt then, that such stories evoked great passion and interest among Indian audiences. As one would expect, foreign audiences from different social traditions, could seldom understand or appreciate these social melodramas from India!
Since relationships between young males and females are instinctive in nature, the Indian society, with its obsessive emphasis on maintaining the sanctity of marriage, gradually developed very strong social social embargo on such relationships before marriage. One of the prime reasons for this must have been unintended pregnancies resulting from pre-marital sex, which affected the female much more than the male, and could ruin her chances of finding an appropriate groom. The male partner was also not completely immune from the adverse consequences of such an eventuality, and could face severe repercussions from society. In some cases, where both families were compatible, there could be great social pressure for marriage of such couples. In other cases, it could even lead to violent outcomes. It is notable that in an otherwise non-violent Indian society that extended non-violence even to the animals, loss of family honor was considered capable to invoking violence with full social sanction! Sanctions against extra-marital relationships exist in all societies, and were in place in Indian society in same measure too. The strong social sanctions can be considered the main factor resulting in suppression of pre marital and extra marital relationships.
Remarkably, the State had very little role to play in these affairs. The people preferred to deal with them at their own level, involving other members of the society, but keeping the King and his officers out of these issues.
Family Image as a Socio-Economic Brand
As one can appreciate from the preceding narrative, family image came to acquire a very important role in the Indian society. A family with a history of adherence to social norms and honorable conduct was trusted by other families in all interactions. On the other hand, a family known to be defying social norms would not be considered honorable and not preferred by other members of the society. The family image thus became a very important intangible asset of the family, sometimes, even more important than its other material possessions. Interestingly, this aspect of Indian society is not very different from the importance placed on Brand value by Companies in the modern competitive markets.
Acceptance of Outsiders by de-facto Inclusion in the Family
Another interesting aspect of Indian family is the manner in which outsiders were accepted within family environment by according them a de-facto status. For instance, a neighbor with whom the family has developed close friendly bonds would be referred by assigning him a family relationship appropriate for his age, such as uncle, aunt, grandma, niece, nephew, sister-in-law etc. In Indian society, particularly in smaller towns and villages, it is still customary to call and refer to close acquaintances as “bhaiyya” (brother), “didi” or “behanji” (sister), “amma” or “bai” (mother), “nani” or “dadi” (grandma), “chacha” or “kaka” or “tau” (uncle), “bhabhi” (sister in law) and so on. It is the Indian way of accepting outsiders within the family environment. In cultured families, even servants are referred in this manner.
Epilogue: Changing Times, Changing Social Norms
Much of what constituted Indian family is not the same any more. In particular, the so called "Joint families”, where several couples across generations would be sharing the household and a common kitchen, have mostly disintegrated into small nuclear families. While India still does not have broken families and single parents to the extent they are common in Western societies, they are not rare anymore. Divorce is recognized in law in modern India, and is becoming more and more common, while premarital and extramarital relationships are also beginning to abound.
These developments have come as a relief to those who dread the social shackles as imprisonment of individual freedom. Not surprisingly, the young brides, who had to bear the greatest burden of these social restraints often welcome it the most. The same may not always be true of individuals on the extremes of life. Kids in modern Indian families miss the companionship that they got in bigger families, but the worst affected are aged people, specially nearing the end of life, for there is no substitute thus far for the emotional component of the family care for old and debilitated nearing their end.
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