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Category: DHARMA / WISDOM

PATRIARCHY AND DOWRY IN THE INDIAN CONTEXT

http://sinduland.blogspot.in/2012/04/patriarchy-and-dowry-in-indian-context.html

When trying to correct problems like dowry related deaths and female infanticide in public life, it is important to understand the fundamentels. Once the basics are clear it is easy to identify who is the culprit and what is to be done...

When women outnumbered men more than three to one, the most gracious solution in society was that a man could take as many as four wives. Now that men outnumber women in India, it will be unhealthy in society if polyandry is not allowed. But what is it that has brought us to this pass…?

Some thought leads us to the conclusion that the practice of Dowry, as seen in the context of patriarchy in contemporary India, is the cause of this adverse female to male ratio. But the question of Dowry cannot be seen in isolation; there are several global issues involved.

At the outset, when considering issues of Dowry, patriarchy, women’s lib and Human Rights, two important points have to be reckoned…

First, Ideals are indispensible: No human togetherness worth its name exists in the absence of the pursuit of an ideal. People must be encouraged to either offer a better ideal or keep their criticisms to themselves (and stop wasting public space and time).  

Second, fairness and justice is the bedrock of team strength: Any successful human team endeavor gains strength when individuals who participate in that endeavor become willing spokes; and no one becomes a willing spoke if he is subjected to atrocities. It is impossible to achieve civilization status, and that too sustained for thousands of years, at any place where the members of a group commit atrocities against one another… Hitler, Polpot, etc are high profile examples of such failures… lower profile examples can be had in our immediate neighborhoods in the form of bosses and heads of families who don’t quite make the cut…   

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The medieval period in European History, that lies somewhere between the age of the Greeks and the Modern era, is more or less considered as an era of wilderness. Comparatively, the modern era is heralded as a time when Europe made great progress; the women too are supposed to have taken great strides forward in this period. It took a long time coming though, for instance the women in the USA got a right to vote as late as in the 20th century.

Under this typical world-view, no one opposes the rant of certain individuals who talk down the ‘Victorian’ age and express how much they have progressed ever since… Such persons also have the tendency to measure the whole world with the same yardstick and in the process accuse the traditional systems in India as being Victorian-like. In their well meaning efforts they would want to take India forward to equality and greatness. This is absurd.

India has been a civilization for more than 3000 years—may be 5000 years—unbroken. No civilization ever survives unbroken that long if it were to be based on committing atrocities on more than 50% of its population—in fact much more… the idea is impractical… all who propose that it has been atrocities all along are either misguided or do not sufficiently understand human nature.

Columbus’s attempt to find India can be marked as the beginning of the attempt of the western world to understand India—and the west are yet to discover it fully… instead, in the meanwhile, thanks to the education initiatives of William Bentinck and the East India Company, the western world has extended into the minds of the intellectuals of India. So these ‘educated’ Indians too still need to discover the brilliance of the ancient Civilization alongside their thought-compatriots in the west….

In truth, when Europe sans Greece had not even progressed out of tribal existence the principles of equality were already deeply etched in the life and traditions of ancient India; that too in a form that is even more advanced than is practiced in modern day Europe.

At the core of the Indian civilization is the Vedantic thought process and the associated Varna system. (Never mind the ranting that will immediately commence condemning the ‘caste’ nature of its arrangement… this shouting can be parked in one corner of our minds, for it does not help in the progress of knowledge and understanding.) So at the pinnacle of this system were supposed to be the Brahmins and it is instructive to understand an essential component of their marriage rites. This is instructive because though it one understands the essential principles of living together that were idealized in this land… The brahminical way of life was a beacon which other groups drew inspiration from…

At one stage in the marriage rite of the Brahmins the girl shifts her position from the right side of the groom over to the left. What does this act in the ritual signify?

When the ceremony commences, her standing to the right signifies that she is equal to the man. During the process of the wedding she accepts subservience to him and there upon shifts to the lift… Now this may sound repulsive to women’s lib, but we need to enquire further to understand this better… She says to him in the rituals, “in order that I shift from your right to your left I lay down seven conditions which you must accept…” and the man on the other hand says that he has only one condition that she must accept in order that she may the place to his left… these conditions form the basis of the composition of marriage in an ideal Hindu society.

What are these seven and one conditions…? The most obvious of the seven would probably be that the man will not set his eye with desire on any other woman—indeed it is… but that is not just it, consider these two conditions… “You will not dispose any property that you own without my PERMISSION”, and “You will not make donations without my PERMISSION”. See? It is not just ‘tell me what was donated’, or even ‘tell me what you are going to donate…’ it is ‘take my permission’… now is it not heavily loaded on the side of the woman… but the condition on the side of the man settles it… “You will respect my parents and you will ‘obey’ me”…

For a moment, if detached contemplation is done on this exchange, it becomes evident that a certain dynamics is set into motion by this commitment they make to each other in front of their near and dear ones; and it is encapsulated in the ritual of the lady stepping from the right of the man to his left… the question to be asked here is whether this ideal must be condemned in the name of it being a component of the ‘unequal Patriarchal system’?  Do also remember that this was designed more than 3000 years ago…

Patriarchy needs to be seen from another perspective. It is usual to say that it was brute force that made society settle on the equation that woman must be subservient to man (it is the kind of thinking which claims that all of the ancient world was ‘primitive’) but instead, if we start with the premise that the persons who designed this ideal in ancient India were indeed ‘equal’ minded as the generous moderns aspire to be, and were gracious and truly concerned of all in society just as the well meaning persons of modern society are, then we give ourselves a chance to understand what they must have reckoned while setting up the ideal.

Indeed the biological realities of homo sapiens and the technology of those times dictated solutions in which the men were generally considered bread earners while home nurturing became the career of the female of the species. Then there is the question of menopause… in the case of men it is later; if a couple must lose interest in sexual intercourse roughly around the same time, it was but natural to encourage older men and younger women to pair up. Coupled with this is the fact that when equals form teams there is a tendency for democratic stalemate as everyone would assert their rights to decide for the team. In order to avoid this captaincy was to be awarded to one of the pair and the older one was the natural choice. And arrangements for other social needs were constructed in the traditions surrounding these basic considerations.

Now, solutions generated were not uniformly like this… there have been successful traditions in which the lineage has been based on matriarchy… That does not matter, whatever the choice, successful groups always were based on essential equality of all humans…

Seeing that this sense of equality is the essence of Indian Civilization the question arises as to what the logic behind the system of Dowry is…

A materialistic perspective which gives a degraded position for women would consist of ‘paying’ the girl’s father for ‘purchasing’ the woman… Positively seen, this tradition of giving bride money can mean to afford compensation to parents for the loss of the love and company of their daughter… but in the Indian system the thinking is something else. Where inheritance has traditionally been through males, a parent who treats his children as equals would therefore pass on a daughter’s share of his property to her when she went to her in-laws. The property would add up to the property of the in-law home as is usually held in a patriarchy. Her going to the in-laws (and not staying with her parents) too was one of the dimensions of a well designed patriarchy, which in turn was built to satisfy the prime goal of equal concern to all members of society.

But the situation stands altered today. The Indian state has changed the policy of inheritance on the basis of some new ideas of doing justice through equality. Thanks to the parliaments of free India, there is an attempt to redo the social structure in India on the basis of “equality” concepts coming in from ‘modern’ thinkers… With new rules in place, based on the constitution of India, there is a direct attempt at re-structuring the patriarchal system that existed in most of traditional India.

Under these new conditions, the property share need not be given out to the daughter during marriage; the question of dowry or Sthreedhana does not therefore arise… expenses of marriage ceremonies is preferably borne equally by both sides, even the daughter need not be encouraged to go to the groom’s place after marriage… it also not fashionable for the girl to obey her husband since they are ‘equals’…

Therefore, when we make measurements on the basis of the fundamentals of equality that underlies successful civilizations, with special reference to the question of dowry, there is no ‘well-being’ reason for continuing the ideal tradition of dowry in today’s context. In this new arrangement traditional thought itself points out that Sthreedhana need not be passed on at the time of wedding; the question of dowry therefore does not arise… though of course daughters may be expected to look forward to a share of their parents’ property later in life, which they will hold in their own name…  

The dowry problem is the result of the nation being caught up in a confused blind between these two alternate arrangements—traditional and the so called modern. If one is clear on which side he is he will easily be able to take a decision but either way it is important to realize that it is about fairness to one and all… and it is no more than a matter of dividing one’s disposable property equally amongst the children and seeking to perpetuate a fruitful family environment within or outside a patriarchal system…

As for practical life today, if we go beyond the ideals, it must be pointed out that ‘dowry seekers’ are not among the ‘worthy’ people a girl’s parents must entertain. A home that harbors greed (more so if it got rid of its daughters in the womb or soon after birth) is hell for a daughter. Parents are fools who purchase a life of misery for their daughter… They must take recourse to wisdom, especially if they love their daughter and truly want to invest for her future of peace and contentment and therefore joy…