The Great Hindu Family
Family is regarded by many sociologists as the cornerstone of society. It forms the basic unit of social organization and it seems difficult to imagine how human society would function without it. The heterosexual family has been seen as a universal institution, as an inevitable and integral component of human society. Generally it has been regarded as a “good thing,” both for the individual and the society as a whole. This view has tended to divert attention from some important and interesting questions. For example, it has discouraged serious and detailed considerations of possible alternatives to the family. The feminist movements of the 1960s in the west, especially the left-liberal ones, shook the foundations of the patriarchal family by attacking its inherent flaw – the oppressive presence of the male member over the subordinate female member. The absence of such a strong movement in the discourse regarding women in India has led to a somewhat passive acceptance by a majority of the population of the patriarchal Hindu family. The family and kinship relations in India ensure the unquestioned dominance of the male over the female. And customs, ideology – especially that of the right-wingers, which is gaining more and more acceptance among large sections of the population, and the deployment of patriarchal authority help to define gender relations and keep them in place.
The role of women in society was succinctly stated by Kautilya in the Arthashastra. He states that “the aim of taking a wife is to beget sons.” In fact, even the Mahabharata holds that “The begetting of offspring, the nursing of children already born and the accomplishment of all acts necessary for the society, behold, all these have women for their cause.” The Arthashastra and the Manu Smriti, both considered as law codes for the Hindu society, laid huge restrictions on the sexual freedom of “family women” and sought to exercise patriarchal control over the bodies of women using social norms. The Manu Smriti says that “A woman should obey her father as an infant, obey the husband in her youth and obey the children when widowed.” In all, a woman has to depend on a male at every stage of her life and she cannot, at any point of time, exercise her will independently. The notions of sexual purity and maintaining the family lineage also restricted choices for the women. Endogamy was stressed by Hindu customs in order to keep the property of the feudal classes within themselves. Take this proposition by the Manu Smriti that “If a family suffers on account of not having a child, the women could obtain the consent of the father-in-law and the husband and have intercourse with the brother-in-laws and the close relatives of the husband and give birth to children.”
In this context, it is necessary to bring Engels’ arguments in The Origins of the Family, Private Property and the State. Engels argued that throughout the various stages of the history of humanity, more and more restrictions were placed on sexual relationships and the production of children. He speculated that from a stage of primitive communes, where “promiscuity” was normal, marriage and the family evolved through a series of stages to its present stage, the monogamous-patriarchal family. The monogamous family developed with the emergence of private property. The emergence of private ownership of production and the advent of the state to defend its economic interests also had a direct impact on familial and kinship relations in society. The state instituted laws to protect the system of private property and to enforce the rules of monogamous marriage – in our case, endogamy was also supported by the feudal states. Property was owned by males and in order for them to pass it on to their heirs, they must be certain of the legitimacy of those heirs. In Engels’ words “It is based on the supremacy of the man, the express purpose being to produce children of undisputed paternity; such paternity is demanded because these children are later to come into their father’s property as his actual heirs.” The men, therefore, needed greater control over the bodies and the sexualities of women so that there would be no doubt about the paternity of their offspring. Thus, the married “chaste” woman was an asset of the Hindu family, a property that had to be guarded against violation, an icon of the clan honor, an object of sexual gratification and a child-rearing machine.
The role played by Hindutva ideology has played a crucial role in reinforcing perceptions about the role of men and women in the Hindu family. The following is an observation by ‘Swami’ Shivananda, a Hindutva ideologue.
“ Hindu women have been the custodians of the Hindu race. Hindu religion and civilisation still survive in spite of the many foreign invasions. Other civilisations have come and gone, but only Hindu civilisation has survived on account of the purity of Hindu women. The women are taught to regard chastity as their most priceless possession, and the loss of it equal to the eternal damnation of their soul. From their very childhood religion is ingrained in Hindu women. As such they illumine and enliven the home through the glory of their purity. This is the secret of the endurance of the Hindu religion, civilisation and culture.”
His views on Hindu women more or less sums up the notion of women in Hindu right-wing ideology. The Hindu woman was supposed to be protected from the lustful advances of “the other communities” by the family – and the Parivar, assuming the task of an extended patriarchal family, took on this responsibility with vigor in public spheres. The past few years have witnessed numerous cases of Sangh Parivar hooligans going around cities in North India and beating up couples whom they suspected of having an “inter-religious love affair.” The notion that the Hindu woman is a part and property of the larger Hindu family has become firmly entrenched in the minds of huge sections of people in North India and this reactionary ideology is slowly gaining strength in the South. In fact, even the women ideologues of the Hindu right wing do not dare to transgress feudal perceptions of feminity. In the words of an activist of the Mahila Vibhag, the women’s wing of the Vishva Hindu Parishad, “We do not want women’s liberation but Nari Shakti. We want that as a mother or as a wife, a woman should have power.” Not surprising, considering that Golwalkar, the chief ideologue of the RSS thought that teaching samskaras to women was more important than eradicating female illiteracy.
The propagation of this kind of ideology has led to deployment of excessive patriarchal authority over women where it did not exist, besides glorification of the same where it existed. The Hindu male is burdened with the job of being a guard to the chastity of his women. The women, despite whatever education she might possess, is still considered the sexual property of the Hindu male.