Hinduism: Social Aspects | 17



Hinduism is not just a religion focusing on the individual’s relationship to the divine but a network of social relationships and power.

Elaborate kinship arrangements and connections are laid out in text and practice, and every family member has specific ritual functions to perform. The family is the centre of most social, cultural, and religious events.

Social divisions are part of a complex system of castes, communities, sub-communities, and linguistic groups:

Among some higher castes, families may have a name called a gotra (literally a “cow-pen”), a word referring loosely to a clan. While a person is expected to marry within a sub-community and caste, he or she must marry outside his or her gotra.

Throughout the history of the Hindu tradition some men have practiced polygamy, but since the passing of the Hindu Marriage Act of 1955–56 monogamy has been the only legal option.

Inheritance, succession, divorce, adoption, and other issues are all dealt with under codified Hindu family acts.

There have been occasional instances of polyandry in Hindu narratives, and it was not uncommon in matrilineal states. Except for the matrilineal culture in the state of Kerala and a few other castes and tribes, Hindu traditions have largely been patriarchal and patrilineal.

Large extended families were common in India until the late 20th century.

Marriages were and still are arranged between men and women of the same caste, and marriage is seen not so much as a union of individuals but of families. While divorce has become increasingly accepted in many levels of society, it remains relatively rare.

In many Hindu communities a woman who is “auspicious” is honoured and respected.

Auspiciousness refers to prosperity in this life. It is seen in terms of wealth and progeny, along with the symbols and rituals connected with these.

In the classical literature dealing with dharma, and in practice, it is auspicious to be married and to fulfil one’s dharmic obligations.

A sumaṅgalī—a married woman whose husband is alive—is the ideal woman with the ideal amount of auspiciousness, who can be a full partner in dharma (duty), artha(prosperity), and kāma(sensual pleasure); through whom children are born; and through whom wealth and religious merit are accumulated.

Only a married woman bears the title Śrīmatī (meaning “the one with Śrī [auspiciousness]”):

She is called Grihya-Lakṣmī (the goddess Lakshmi of the house) and is the most honoured woman in Hindu society, especially if she bears children.

The ethical issues surrounding reproductive technology are debated. Some of their basic logic may at first seem to run contrary to the smriti literature dealing with dharma.

Books on dharma written about 2,000 years ago by Manu and others emphasized the importance of married couples having children.

Abortion, homosexuality, and other issues that are controversial in the West are not often publicly spoken about in India.

While the texts of dharma condemn abortion and encourage the birth of many children, laws permitting abortion passed in India without prolonged debate or any strong dissent from religious leaders.

Many Hindus are not even aware of the pronouncements of the texts of dharma; the dharma texts simply have not had the compelling authority that religious law has had in some other religious traditions.

Preference for male children in some parts of India has led to cases of female feticide (sex-selective abortion), which was made illegal in 1996.

Extramarital sex is frowned upon if a married woman is involved; premarital sex with someone who does not become one’s spouse may be extremely damaging to a woman and her family. As in many cases, the rules and mores of the Brāhmanic and the so-called higher castes are more stringent than others.

Many traditional teachers argue against the authority of women and some so-called “lower castes” to recite the Vedas or conduct religious rituals:

Despite these opinions, there are several movements that periodically bypass such Brāhmanic values and simply initiate practices that may have been forbidden earlier.

Thus, some groups train women to recite the Vedas, and in some families women may perform funeral rites that were forbidden to them;

all these activities become woven into the social fabric without any chastisement or repercussions because there is no centralized authority to condemn such acts.