Society has traditionally been strongly patriarchal and strongly hierarchal. The presence of the caste system has made Indians very rank and status oriented. Social relations often begin with a certain amount of sizing up based on caste, ethnic group or rank and how they are related to each other in a certain way prescribed by caste rules.
The extended family, village community and caste system are three primary societal structures.
There are great contrasts between traditional India and modern high-tech and Westernized India.
In the old days Indian society was dominated by a large number of poor people, with a small elite characterized by flamboyant maharajas and a middle class made up largely civil servants. These classes largely exist today except the middle class is more diverse and larger and the small elite includes industrialists and high tech entrepreneurs as well as large landowners.
Hindus have traditionally looked to the caste system and religion to create order and structure in society. Government has traditionally been looked upon as something that maintained society and kept anarchy from breaking out.
In India, the ideal stages of life have been most clearly articulated by Hindus. The ancient Hindu ideal rests on childhood, followed by four stages: undergoing religious initiation and becoming a celibate student of religious texts, getting married and becoming a householder, leaving home to become a forest hermit after becoming a grandparent, and becoming a homeless wanderer free of desire for all material things. Although few actually follow this scheme, it serves as a guide for those attempting to live according to valued standards. For Hindus, dharma (a divinely ordained code of proper conduct), karma (the sum of one’s deeds in this life and in past lives), and kismat (fate) are considered relevant to the course of life. Crucial transitions from one phase of life to another are marked by sometimes elaborate rites of passage. [Source: Library of Congress, 1995]
See Separate Articles: 1) HINDUISM AND INDIAN CHARACTER AND PERSONALITY, 2) INDIAN CHARACTER AND PERSONALITY
Complexity of Indian Society
India is justly famous for its complex social systems. Indian society is multifaceted to an extent perhaps unknown in any other of the world’s great civilizations. Virtually no generalization made about Indian society is valid for all of the nation’s multifarious groups. Comprehending the complexities of Indian social structure has challenged scholars and other observers over many decades. [Source: Library of Congress, 1995 *]
The ethnic and linguistic diversity of Indian civilization is more like the diversity of an area as variable as Europe than like that of any other single nation-state. Living within the embrace of the Indian nation are vast numbers of different regional, social, and economic groups, each with different cultural practices. Particularly noteworthy are differences between social structures in the north and the south, especially in the realm of kinship systems. Throughout the country, religious differences can be significant, especially between the Hindu majority and the large Muslim minority; and other Indian groups–Buddhists, Christians, Jains, Jews, Parsis, Sikhs, and practitioners of tribal religions–all pride themselves on being unlike members of other faiths.*
Given the vast diversity of Indian society, any observation must be tempered with the understanding that it cannot apply to all Indians. Still, certain themes or underlying principles of life are widely accepted in India.*
India’s complex society includes some unique members–sadhus (holy men, See Religion) and hijras (transvestite-eunuchs, See Separate Article). Such people have voluntarily stepped outside the usual bonds of kinship and caste to join with others in castelike groups based upon personal–yet culturally shaped–inclinations.*
Gaps and Differences in Indian Society
Access to wealth and power varies considerably, and vast differences in socioeconomic status are evident everywhere. The poor and the wealthy live side by side in urban and rural areas. It is common in city life to see a prosperous, well-fed man or woman chauffeured in a fine car pass gaunt street dwellers huddled beneath burlap shelters along the roadway. In many villages, solid cement houses of landowners rise not far from the flimsy thatched shacks of landless laborers. Even when not so obvious, distinctions of class are found in almost every settlement in India. [Source: Library of Congress, 1995 *]
Urban-rural differences can be immense. Most of India’s population dwells in villages, with agriculture providing support for most of these rural residents. In villages, mud-plastered walls ornamented with traditional designs, dusty lanes, herds of grazing cattle, and the songs of birds at sunset provide typical settings for the social lives of most Indians. In India’s great cities, however, millions of people live amidst cacophony–roaring vehicles, surging crowds, jammed apartment buildings, busy commercial establishments, loudspeakers blaring movie tunes–while breathing the poisons of industrial and automotive pollution.*
Gender distinctions are pronounced. The behavior expected of men and women can be quite different, especially in villages, but also in urban centers. Prescribed ideal gender roles help shape the actions of both sexes as they move between family and the world outside the home.*
Crosscutting and pervading all of these differences of region, language, wealth, status, religion, urbanity, and gender is the special feature of Indian society that has received most attention from observers: caste. The people of India belong to thousands of castes and castelike groups–hierarchically ordered, named groups into which members are born. Caste members are expected to marry within the group and follow caste rules pertaining to diet, avoidance of ritual pollution, and many other aspects of life.*
Themes in Indian Society
India is a hierarchical society. Within Indian culture, whether in the north or the south, Hindu or Muslim, urban or village, virtually all things, people, and groups of people are ranked according to various essential qualities. If one is attuned to the theme of hierarchy in India, one can discern it everywhere. Although India is a political democracy, in daily life there is little advocacy of or adherence to notions of equality. [Source: Library of Congress, 1995 *]
Castes and castelike groups–those quintessential groups with which almost all Indians are associated–are ranked. Within most villages or towns, everyone knows the relative rankings of each locally represented caste, and people’s behavior toward one another is constantly shaped by this knowledge. Between the extremes of the very high and very low castes, however, there is sometimes disagreement on the exact relative ranking of castes clustered in the middle.*
Castes are primarily associated with Hinduism but also exist among other Indian religious groups. Muslims sometimes expressly deny that they have castes–they state that all Muslims are brothers under God–but observation of Muslim life in various parts of India reveals the existence of castelike groups and clear concern with social hierarchy. Among Indian Christians, too, differences in caste are acknowledged and maintained.*
Throughout India, individuals are also ranked according to their wealth and power. For example, there are “big men” (bare admi , in Hindi) and “little men” (chhote admi ) everywhere. “Big men” sit confidently on chairs, while “little men” come before them to make requests, either standing or crouching down on their haunches, certainly not presuming to sit beside a man of high status as an equal. Even men of nearly equal status who might share a string cot to sit on take their places carefully–the higher-ranking man at the head of the cot, the lower-ranking man at the foot.*
Within families and kinship groupings, there are many distinctions of hierarchy. Men outrank women of the same or similar age, and senior relatives outrank junior relatives. Several other kinship relations involve formal respect. For example, in northern India, a daughter-in-law of a household shows deference to a daughter of a household. Even among young siblings in a household, there is constant acknowledgment of age differences: younger siblings never address an older sibling by name, but rather by respectful terms for elder brother or elder sister. However, an older sibling may address the younger by name.*
Even in a business or academic setting, where colleagues may not openly espouse traditional observance of caste or class ranking behavior, they may set up fictive kinship relations, addressing one another by kinship terms reflecting family or village-style hierarchy. For example, a younger colleague might respectfully address an older colleague as chachaji (respected father’s younger brother), gracefully acknowledging the superior position of the older colleague.*
Purity and Pollution in Indian Society
Many status differences in Indian society are expressed in terms of ritual purity and pollution. Notions of purity and pollution are extremely complex and vary greatly among different castes, religious groups, and regions. However, broadly speaking, high status is associated with purity and low status with pollution. Some kinds of purity are inherent, or inborn; for example, gold is purer than copper by its very nature, and, similarly, a member of a high-ranking Brahman, or priestly, caste is born with more inherent purity than a member of a low-ranking Sweeper (Mehtar, in Hindi) caste. Unless the Brahman defiles himself in some extraordinary way, throughout his life he will always be purer than a Sweeper. Other kinds of purity are more transitory–a Brahman who has just taken a bath is more ritually pure than a Brahman who has not bathed for a day. This situation could easily reverse itself temporarily, depending on bath schedules, participation in polluting activities, or contact with temporarily polluting substances. [Source: Library of Congress, 1995 *]
Purity is associated with ritual cleanliness–daily bathing in flowing water, dressing in properly laundered clothes of approved materials, eating only the foods appropriate for one’s caste, refraining from physical contact with people of lower rank, and avoiding involvement with ritually impure substances. The latter include body wastes and excretions, most especially those of another adult person. Contact with the products of death or violence are typically polluting and threatening to ritual purity.*
During her menstrual period, a woman is considered polluted and refrains from cooking, worshiping, or touching anyone older than an infant. In much of the south, a woman spends this time “sitting outside,” resting in an isolated room or shed. During her period, a Muslim woman does not touch the Quran. At the end of the period, purity is restored with a complete bath. Pollution also attaches to birth, both for the mother and the infant’s close kin, and to death, for close relatives of the deceased (see The Ceremonies of Hinduism; Islam).*
See Separate Article on the Caste System
Social Interdependence in India
One of the great themes pervading Indian life is social interdependence. People are born into groups–families, clans, subcastes, castes, and religious communities–and live with a constant sense of being part of and inseparable from these groups. A corollary is the notion that everything a person does properly involves interaction with other people. A person’s greatest dread, perhaps, is the possibility of being left alone, without social support, to face the necessary challenges of life. This sense of interdependence is extended into the theological realm: the very shape of a person’s life is seen as being greatly influenced by divine beings with whom an ongoing relationship must be maintained. [Source: Library of Congress, 1995 *]
Social interaction is regarded as being of the highest priority, and social bonds are expected to be long lasting. Even economic activities that might in Western culture involve impersonal interactions are in India deeply imbedded in a social nexus. All social interaction involves constant attention to hierarchy, respect, honor, the feelings of others, rights and obligations, hospitality, and gifts of food, clothing, and other desirable items. Finely tuned rules of etiquette help facilitate each individual’s many social relationships.*
Western visitors to India are sometimes startled to find that important government and business officials have left their posts–often for many days at a time–to attend a cousin’s wedding or participate in religious activities in a distant part of the country. “He is out of station and will be back in a week or two,” the absent official’s officemates blandly explain to the frustrated visitor. What is going on is not laziness or hedonistic recreation, but is the official’s proper recognition of his need to continually maintain his social ties with relatives, caste fellows, other associates, and God. Without being enmeshed in such ties throughout life, a person cannot hope to maintain long-term efficacy in either economic or social endeavors. Social bonds with relatives must be reinforced at family events or at rites crucial to the religious community. If this is not done, people who could offer vital support in many phases of life would be alienated.*
In every activity, there is an assumption that social ties can help a person and that their absence can bring failure. Seldom do people carry out even the simplest task on their own. From birth onward, a child learns that his “fate” has been “written” by divine forces and that his life will be shaped by a plan decided by more powerful beings. When a small child eats, his mother puts the mouthfuls of food into his mouth with her own hand. When a boy climbs a tree to pluck mangoes, another stands below with a basket to receive them. When a girl fetches water from the well in pots on her head, someone at her home helps her unload the pots. When a farmer stacks sheaves of grain onto his bullock cart, he stands atop the cart, catching the sheaves tossed up to him by his son.*
A student applying to a college hopes that he has an influential relative or family friend who can put in a good word for him with the director of admissions. At the age of marriage, a young person expects that parents will take care of finding the appropriate bride or groom and arranging all the formalities. At the birth of a child, the new mother is assured that the child’s kin will help her attend to the infant’s needs. A businessman seeking to arrange a contract relies not only on his own abilities but also on the assistance of well-connected friends and relatives to help finalize the deal. And finally, when facing death, a person is confident that offspring and other relatives will carry out the appropriate funeral rites, including a commemorative feast when, through gifts of clothing and food, continuing social ties are reaffirmed by all in attendance.*
Ma-Baap Social System
Hindu and South Asian society is organized according to a filial system called Ma-Baap (literally “Mother and Father”)— a sort of spiritual form of Confucianism in which families, clans, provinces and states pay homage to powerful people such as senior family members, clan chief or national politicians. Being in the presence of a powerful person is described a darshan (spiritual solace).
Darshan (also spelled Darsan) is an important aspect of Hindu worship. It refers to viewing an image of a deity. “A Hindu goes to a temple,” writes historian Daniel Boorstin, “not to ‘worship,’ but rather ‘for darsan ” …Darsan is a two-way flow of vision. While the devotee sees his god, so too the god sees the devotee, and the two make contact through their eyes. In the building of a new temple…when the images of the gods are made, their eyes are the last to be completed…The bulbous or saucer eyes that make Indian paintings of gods seem so bizarre to us are clues to the dominance of vision in the Hindu’s relation to his gods. Many gods, like Shiva and Ganesh, have a third eye in the center of their foreheads. Brahma, the Thousand Eyes, regularly has four heads, to look in all directions at once, and sometimes he has leopard-spot eyes all over his body.”
The Ma-Baap system also explains why national leaders such as Gandhi have been worshiped and treated with religious reverence. Darshan is also associated with people of great holiness. Great leaders like Gandhi are also believed to possess darsan. When Indians glimpsed the Mahatma through the window of trains on his travels across India they were “taking darsan” and Gandhi was giving it. The importance of eye contact between the gods and humans helps explain why Hindu disdain eye contact in public, even between husband and wife.
Powerful people are expected to take care of the people who look up them and ordinary people are expected to all but worship their superiors. Much of Indian corruption is based on the necessity of powerful people to take care of their relatives and their ability to take advantage of ordinary people by manipulating them and hoodwinking them out of their money.
Panchayats (village councils) are the main organizing forces in village community life. They: 1) help settle disputes on matters ranging from inheritance to violations of caste rules: 2) allocate scare resources; 3) make decisions on communal labor and communal land; and 4) make arrangements for seasonal festivals. They are also involved in things like obtaining village land for schools, deciding how to distribute electricity, latrines and brick lanes and selecting families to live in government housing. A panchayat can meet at any time; meeting are usually called as masters of concern arise.
Panchayats (derived from a Hindi word that literally means “council of five”) are usually made of elected members and representatives from: 1) all the caste groups in a village, 2) male village elders, 3) landowners and 4) members of upper classes. They include a headman ( patel), watchman and an accountant ( shanborg)— all of whom have traditionally been peasants. These position are typically inherited. The responsibility of the headman is to represent the village to the government and visa versa. The accountant keeps a register of how much land each head of a family or joint family has and the amount of tax on the land.
A 1993 amendment to the constitution required that a third of all panchayats seats and village chief positions be reserved for women. A study in 1999 found that a third of the new female panchyat members were rubber stamps for their husbands but two thirds were actively involved in exercising power.
A village is largely self-sufficient: it provides its own food, security, justice system and public services. Traditional councils and caste councils sometimes overlap with official units of the local government and leaders of councils are sometimes elected to membership of government bodies as well. The purpose of the council system is to administer a given village and multi-village affairs and carry out development projects that are consistent with statewide plans and goals. Issues addressed by village councils include things like improving roads, desilting ponds, building wells and constructing community platforms.
Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, Lonely Planet Guides, Library of Congress, Ministry of Tourism, Government of India, Compton’s Encyclopedia, The Guardian, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic Monthly, The Economist, Foreign Policy, Wikipedia, BBC, CNN, and various books, websites and other publications.
© 2008 Jeffrey Hays
Last updated June 2015