Pitfalls of Respect for Tradition


I am writing this post with the ideas that I had held for a long time, but using Shankara’s blog post titled ‘Girl child infanticide in India. The truth behind the evil.’ (click) as an illustrative case in point.

Shankara’s basic premise is that because Hindus had traditionally attached divinity with the feminine, respected women warriors (e.g., Rani Chennama, Rani Durgawati, Rani Laxmibai, etc.) and devotees (e.g., Meerabai), “Hindus have respected and adored women, raised them to most exalted positions”. He further states that “no ancient record or Hindu books of itihasa (history) such as the Ramayana and the Mahabharata have recorded or alluded to the destruction of girl child in India”. So, he implies that women were considered at par with men in their status, were respected and adored, and the practice of female infanticide, which represents something exactly the opposite of this implication, was alien the Hindu tradition. He points out that it was the Muslim invasions, in which lot of crimes were committed against women, especially of sexual nature, that is what made the parents preempt such pain and humiliation by killing their newborn girls. To support his assertion he points out that this practice was (and is) most prevalent where the Muslim invaders had interfaced first with the Hindu tradition and thus had been most aggressive in their crimes against women. He has cited a few references at the end of his blog post that I have not gone through:

They would regularly kidnap and rape women folk, later selling them into slavery, prostitution or just leaving ravaged women on the streets to become social outcasts.

People living in troubled times and in the path of these marauding Muslim invaders in the north west of India which is modern Punjab and Haryana today bore the brunt of such inhumane acts. As a direct result of such atrocities committed by Muslim rulers the girl child became an unwanted burden an offspring that can only bring misfortune and stigma to the parents and to be done away with at birth. How many parents could bear to see their beloved daughters some as young as 10 years old kidnapped or taken away at the point of a spear or sword to be raped by soldiers in plain sight or carted away as loot to be sold into slavery in the markets of Baghdad.

The above assertions sound somewhat reasonable, and moreover, as I have not gone through the above references, I cannot refute them. However, I would still like to make some significant (counter) points.

The first of the above two statements ends with “…(owing to various crimes committed by invading Muslims against helpless women, women) become social outcasts”. The use of passive voice is surprising here. Nobody becomes an outcast in vacuum. It is the very Hindus who had been worshiping goddesses, that outcast the women against whom sexual crimes were committed, over which they had no control. This does not come out as very respectful of women. In fact, it reeks of an urgency to objectify women and evaluate their worth in terms of who they had sex with (that too under coercion). It is redundant to point out that these girls/women could have still been worshiped, loved and adored and provided emotional support. The subsequent statement “bring misfortune and stigma to the parents” also echoes similar sentiment of justifying castigation of women simply because sexual crimes were committed against them. However, I understand that if the girls would be sold as slaves in foreign lands then that would obviously emotionally very much trouble the parents, and for this reason, it is just about possible that parents would kill their infant daughters. However, the idea that women’s sexuality was a matter of tug of war between a civilization and a warring tribe, is not lost upon me.

One of the commentators, Karmasura, had asked a counter-question:

During Muslim rule, many young boys were also castrated and sold as khusros, yet, we don’t have any such tactic towards the males of the society to prevent them from being castrated.

Of course, it is possible that parents looked at boys as potential protectors of the family when they grow up, as against girls who would largely be incapable of that, hence infant boys were not killed.

Another commentator, Archana, had pointed out few instances from Hindus epics that indicate that women were indeed objectified.

However, despite my saying the above, I find it reasonable to assume that infant girls were not killed as a matter of systematic practice prior to the Muslim invasions of India. I had read in the past that the Purdah system (practice of women covering their face and head with a fold of their clothing) in India had also begun as an attempt to keep away the gaze of lecherous invading soldiers. In fact, the point I want to make depends heavily on this assumption that no such systematic female infanticide used to occur in India, and that it was solely Muslim invasion that had led to the beginning of this practice and its obdurate persistence in certain pockets of India. Quite unfortunately, the idea of inferiority of the female gender has become so prevalent in the society that even places as far (from Punjab and Haryana) as Gujarat and Maharashtra see immense popularity of female feticide (as against infanticide), so much so that, opening up ‘clinics’ with ultrasonography machines that could detect sex of the fetus and thus enable abortion, if found to be female, had become a staple of gynecologists in several districts and cities. The practice still continues, but lot more covertly than before.

But we also know that after a few centuries, the Indian society had reached a semblance of peace as far as friction between Hindus and Muslims was concerned, and further down the timeline, it is tempting to believe things are lot more peaceful. At least currently we are pretty sure than no Hindu girls in India are being openly abducted, raped and/or sold by Muslims, then why still in certain sections of the Hindu society, girls are largely looked at as burden? As far as being a surrogate of discrimination against the girl child goes, there is practically no difference between female infanticide and feticide. This is what an article (presumably) endorsed by the UNICEF (click) had to say:

The decline in child sex ratio in India is evident by comparing the census figures. In 1991, the figure was 947 girls to 1000 boys. Ten years later it had fallen to 927 girls for 1000 boys.

Since 1991, 80% of districts in India have recorded a declining sex ratio with the state of Punjab being the worst.

Shankara himself sort of answers it.

In modern times the practice of girl child infanticide had taken such deep roots in certain sections of the society especially the peasantry, landed communities and poorer sections of the society that it was being practiced blindly as a tradition or received wisdom from the elders that girl child is of nuisance value and not to be had or purely to avoid property and financial loss following the marriage of the daughter.

And in his quote, it is the part I highlight above is what I am most interested in. I believe, that most, if not all, traditions serve to maintain stability in the society. But two things need to be noted here. First, every tradition suits its peculiar circumstances. Second, a tradition is supposed to serve a goal. If either of the two (circumstances or goal) change, so does a tradition need to. E.g., if it is a tradition to wear loose, flowing clothes in a desert during day, it makes sense. The ‘circumstance’ here is obviously the atrocious climate. And the goal is ‘being comfortable’. Such clothing would not make sense in Antarctica.

I believe, the basic goal of any ideology ought to be maximizing human survival and happiness. It stands to simple logic that one of the prerequisites of being able to be happy is absence of conflict between humans. Having satisfied that condition, if a tradition does not uniformly further happiness and comfort for the one contemplating following it, then such following must be reconsidered. If furthermore, such following is against ones conscience, prospects of happiness or system of ethics, then no doubt, it must not be followed.

Just think of the parents who have been killing their newborn daughters. There is little doubt that it takes lot of cruelty and overcoming of compassion and pity to kill a defenseless child. Yet, it is the power of tradition that had made them do it – for centuries, to this extent that in some areas in India, the sex ratio is less than 900 females per 1000 males, meaning more than one in every 10 girls were killed (if it is assumed that once born, the survival-probability for both the sexes must be similar). This blind following of tradition is sourced in lot of social conditioning that we take for granted. At the heart of it, is the (unfounded) idea that somehow those living before us were better and wiser human beings. What makes it apparent that no tradition was ‘perfect’ is the fact that there is such a heterogeneity between different groups of people in any given place. If certain traditions were ‘perfect’ and would have served with same perfection, we would not have had so many different kinds of traditions – all civilizations and groups of people would have followed ‘one perfect tradition’. Another idea that falls in the same league is that of respecting whatever the parents (or elders like teachers) ask the child to do. The idea that an ‘obedient child’ = ‘good child’ is deeply ingrained in the society’s psyche. Society puts immense pressure on its members to ‘fall in line’. Those diverting are harshly critiqued or ostracized. And on the other hand, those who are most compliant (or rather shall I call it pliant?) are rewarded.

The paranoia of a tradition getting extinct is needlessly too severe. What is the harm if any tradition gives way to another one? If a new practice serves a set of people well, what harm is it, if it is ‘imported’ from outside or if it develops de novo? It is not that the society had remained stagnant in the past. On the whole the quality of human life has improved (except for if one truly believes something like Bharat was sone ki chidiya), and ‘change’ is a necessary corollary of ‘improvement’. So, people will do what they feel is the best for them in the altered context of their lives. It is unwise to think that my parents are the wisest and smartest and they have answers for every situation I would encounter, so I must obey and follow them blindly. I am not creating a strawman here. It is precisely what those parents (of murdered girl children) must have thought who had continued to kill their daughters against their conscience and without any ‘need’ to do it… only to perpetuate a tradition.

And that is the pitfall of respect of tradition.

Lastly, I must ask that if the practice of worshiping women as goddesses is so easily attributed to Hindu tradition to show that it respects women, to which tradition should the declining and still less-than-1000:1000 sex ratio that exists in India, and which had required perpetuation and continuation of a practice involving merciless & needless killing of infant-girls be attributed? Please be honest! Even if one were to point out that it were the practices of dowry and girl having to go to the groom’s house that made the girl child disliked, then who were the people who had perpetuated such traditions? What was the compulsion to send away one’s girl to someone else’s house so that she would be thought of as ‘burden’, and to be ‘relieved’ of it, one would have to pay a dowry?

The simple solution is to be proud or ashamed of only those things that we do by our own volition. If we attach personal pride and esteem to the actions of dead ancestors or even to our parents or fellow citizens or co-religionists, firstly it would be illogical to do, and secondly, we would have no control over those actions, which would make it very difficult to retain our objectivity and honesty. So, why attach pride, shame, guilt, etc. to those actions over which we fundamentally have no control?

PS: Too much ranting has happened above. I might try to come up with a more coherent post in the future.

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19 thoughts on “Pitfalls of Respect for Tradition

  1. Your post is more than coherent enough. This business with traditions and culture is a two-edged sword. The sword doesn’t kill – it’s the “well-oiled nut” wielding it that’s the real problem. Not to put too fine a point on things, to those academics and other punters who try to explain (read: give excuse) to how so-and-so influence has transformed this-or-that tradition (the “but-for” argument as we lawyers call it) is pure horse manure. Women and children being kidnapped, raped, sold into slavery and killed has nothing to do with tradition. It’s desperate people doing desperate things on the lives of others. I take a rather cynical but also high accurate view that writers you mentioned are basically rationalising things as a soloing technique (“showing off”) about how acute their intellect is. Instead of getting down to getting things fixed, all we get from them is white noise. Many thanks for a good post about the negative effects of tradition.

    • thenakedlistener,

      Welcome to the blog! And am extremely sorry for such a delayed response.

      I agree with all you point out. But the problem is because of social conditioning and the idea that ‘parents/elders are always right’ (which I guess is much more prevalent in India/Asia as compared to where you might have been living), all the atrocities/ill practices – whether they be against women or even simple superstition that lead to wasting of resources – get social sanction. Not just social sanction, but those subjected to such conditioning, owing to peer pressure and force of habit, feel an obligation to perpetuate them. So while I absolutely condemn the ill practices and the attitude of blindly following tradition, I also recognize that to solve such problems we need to understand this social dynamic because of which this attitude gains currency. I feel the only solution is to promote rational thinking and questioning everything right from the childhood. It is only then that silliness of patently dangerous traditions would be apparent to all.

      Personally, I don’t think that the women in India were respected or accorded a equal status as men to the extent Shankara suggests in his post. But it is possible that the practice of female infanticide might have begun because of what he suggests. So, in my post I was not trying to contest or endorse the view that women were indeed respected and considered equals. However, the thrust of my post was on the point that blind respect for tradition without scrutiny is very dangerous.

      Thanks for reading and your ideas!

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  3. Dear Ketan,

    I do not think I want to start by praising the blog, that is a given otherwise I would not be here commenting on it.

    The dichotomy of worshiping and exploiting women is unique to India. The extent, brazenness has varied according to the time and prevalent practices, alongwith economic compulsion of people in that time and age.

    What started as an action for prevention of crime against girl child and ignominy for family, evolved over time and protector became the destructor.

    Female infanticide is a result of our greedy and nothing else. This is happening in a country which identifies and worships Female in so many different forms is deplorable.

    • Anil,

      Thanks! Yes, you have rightly said that women have always been exploited, and to various degrees at various times. But I would not blame the greed alone. I believe, most humans possess some basic conscience, and when it comes to infants, to that conscience gets added compassion and a tendency to nurture. Even if we have to blame greed (owing to dowry), the point is that dowry got institutionalized because of respect for tradition. Had this idea not been prevalent that elders and tradition must be respected at all cost, perhaps more people would have stood up and opposed dowry. Perhaps, same people would have opposed more vehemently the practice of killing infant girls. But all that did not happen, and that I believe is because of inordinate respect for tradition and for elders.

      The dichotomy between worshiping women and also exploiting them exists, I believe because, of the feeling of inferiority complex and insignificance of human beings (compared to the deities) that religions seek to instill in humans. Hindus might be worshiping the young girls, but while doing that they think, not of the girl sitting before them that they worship but of some other Goddess like Lakshmi or Parvati, who might make them prosperous and ‘bless’ them. The idea of sanctity of humans is sorely missing in almost all religions to the extent I know. This, coupled with the idea that death is ‘not a bad thing’, because on dying one might go closer to the God, just perhaps would have made it easier to kill girl-child, which ordinarily is a very, very difficult thing to do.

      Thanks again for reading, the compliment, an elaborate comment! That is all very encouraging for a blogger like me. 🙂

  4. As I remember, soon after President Smt Pratibha Patil assumed office, raked a sort of controversy when she blamed Muslim invaders for some bad traditions like child marriage. Soon a few historians(may be pseudo-secular historians) contradicted the theory and said the traditions dates back well before Muslims arrived here. But honestly, I could still believe and see some sense in those theories but female infanticide, that too when we are few centuries away from those days is beyond my understanding. As I see it, the principal reason behind such inhuman practices is that woman are still considered a burden, a “paraya dhan”, dowry and solution lies in their self-dependency, their education and sense of equality starting from home itself. No matter the historical background, the problem must be seen in today’s context and their solutions should come accordingly. History is full of both good and bad events, harping on them will not serve any purpose.

    • Akhtar,
      You said: “…I could still believe and see some sense in those theories but female infanticide, that too when we are few centuries away from those days is beyond my understanding.”

      Actually, that is what the whole post is about. I tend to believe that though women were exploited and were considered inferior to men, I have not encountered the idea of killing the girl child systematically in the mythological stories. In fact, in Mahabharata, if I remember correctly, Ganga had killed her own seven sons. So, perhaps, gender-based infanticide was not systematic. But to the second part of your question, as to why did the practice continue beyond the point where girls were no longer raped and killed by Muslims, I think that is what I have tried to answer. It is because of the idea that tradition and elders must be respected at all cost. As a corollary, to go against tradition is ‘bad’. In fact, you’ll find many benign forms of this attitude all around. Among Hindus, if a child would perform morning Pooja, apply ‘tika’, he would be considered a ‘good’ child. If a person would not go to temples, or stop wearing the janeu (the thread worn across the chest by many communities), there would be some kind of chastisement or at least people will gossip about it. These might seem benign things, but the point I am driving at is that the unseen peer pressure to follow tradition blindly is tremendous. Following a tradition is met with praise, and going against is met with resistance. So, for vast majority of average people who do not possess the attitude of introspection or analysis, and who also do not possess the courage required to meet this resistance, easily go in for following of tradition. And when they have children, if their children do not follow the same tradition that they had been following, they see it as some kind of affront, they would think as if their children are telling them “what you had done in your youth was wrong, hence I will not follow it”. Hence, collectively they and their brothers and sisters and other ‘elders’ would apply pressure on the youngsters. Of course, now with nuclear families and parents and relatives living away from the young couple and with most of the day spent in ‘office’ it is easier to disobey and go against traditions, hence we are seeing changes in society so quickly. However, try to imagine what the situation might have been a few centuries ago, and perhaps, then one would realize, it was much more difficult to against tradition and much easier to follow it (blindly).

      So, even though gender inequality (and consequent female infanticide) were merely illustrative examples, this post was centered around why following a tradition blindly or even considering it a ‘good’ thing by default is such a risky thing to do, and hence the title. 🙂

      Kindly also see my response to Anil Kohli above. It also deals with the dowry angle.

      Thanks a lot for commenting and reading!

  5. Those who say that ancient India fully respected women as the equal of men are being disingenuous.

    In many scriptures, a woman is supposed to be a “pativrata” who’s highest goal in life is to serve her husband and do whatever he says no matter how evil or cruel.

    This doesn’t strike me as being particularly respectful of the equality of women. Mind you, it’s not a simple relegation of tasks – it’s an attitude that they’re supposed to have.

    Gandhari had to tie up her eyes just because her husband was blind.

    And let’s not even start talking about sati.

    Scripture also leads us to believe that sons were more valuable than daughters – much more valuable. Hence Kunti gave birth to six sons and Madri had two sons as well. Dasaratha had no daughters. Krishna had no sisters and both of Ram’s children were sons.

    Where is this famous “respect for the equality of women” I keep hearing about?

    • Bhagwad,

      I think those who say that in the India tradition women were considered men’s equal are not being merely disingenuous, but dishonest to the degree that they perhaps don’t believe that themselves.

      Yes, I was also going to point out the Dashratha-example.They had a putra-kaamesthi yadnya, but I don’t think I have heard of putri-kaameshthi yadnya.

      But as you might notice, this post was not at all about gender inequality and relative disrespect for and exploitation of females. This post was about trying to demonstrate the pitfalls of tradition. But I think, not just you, perhaps all the readers missed that point, perhaps, because female infanticide (and feticide) are lot more serious issue than a societal attitude like respect for tradition. My point was it is the power of blind respect for elders, traditions and resulting societal pressure that make people overcome their conscience and compassion and kill a defenseless child. It is this power of tradition that people do not realize and is what I wanted to highlight. We take tradition for granted as a ‘good’ thing and that is wired in our psyche. I find this attitude a ridiculous and dangerous one. And hence this post.

      Thanks for your inputs!

  6. I think the “tradition/ritual” of girl child infanticide [on large scale] is not more than 200-300 years old. Have a look at the data:
    http://www.savegirlchild.org/facts.html

    Interestingly, till 1960’s state like Orissa, Bihar, Chattisgarh had a very healthy sex ratio. So, according to my blamestorming, it was Britishers or may be it is socialism or 2 child policy or …

    • Prashant B,

      Welcome to the blog!

      I think, Shankara has addressed in his blog post, why this practice was not prevalent in other areas and is most prevalent in areas that had borne the greatest brunt of Muslim invasion. Because, in other places like Orissa and Chhattisgarh, if the practice was not prevalent, the British rule was as much present as it was in Punjab, Haryana, Rajasthan, etc. So, what made this difference?

      Even if it was two-child norm, and if it were selectively girls that were killed, it still begs the question why boys were not killed. But in fact, quite paradoxically, in their attempt to have boy-child, couples used to produce many children so that they could have as many boys possible or ‘at least’ one boy. So, even among the Hindus one of the reasons for high fertility has been preference for the boy-child. I have heard it is said among Hindus that parents, after death, do not attain salvation if their pyre is not lit by their own son. So perhaps, apart from other factors (like dowry and the girl having to leave the family after marriage), this idea about salvation might have also contributed to the preference for the male child.

      Thanks for the informative link! One curious thing I found out was that the lowest sex ratio is in Arunahchal Pradesh, where perhaps, Hinduism is not much prevalent.

      Thanks also for reading and your inputs!

  7. I wonder how many Hindus practicing girl-child infanticide are doing it because of the “indirect” cultural influence of the dowry system? My guru speaks against the paying or accepting of dowries because it does make the birth of a girl-child a financial liability (you pay for them to get married and go to another family) whereas a boy child is an asset (they will stay in your family and traditionally support you in old age).

    • Tāṇḍava,

      Welcome to my blog!

      Yes, what you suggest is in fact a lot more likely contributor to female infanticide. But even if it, we must ask how did the ideas of girls’ parents paying the dowry, even if it is beyond their financial means and that only girl must leave the parents’ house after marriage institutionalized. Would have society been harmed if the son would have left for the in-laws’ house after marriage? How did this practice become so firm, such that ghar jamaai is a contemptuous term? Why were the contributions of the bride in household activities not recognized as assets, but her ‘upkeep’ were seen as liabilities. These all, according to me are results of blind following of tradition and people taking prevalent social practices as sacrosanct that cannot be breached.

      Thanks for visiting and commenting!

  8. Dear Ketan,
    Your arguments seems to be centered around the generalities of following a tradition without questioning it. But I don’t think “female infanticide” is a tradition even, its a crime which never got a sanctity of being labeled a tradition. I know a few persons, who desperately wanted a boy child for other reasons and confided to me the ills of having a girl child. Nowhere they mentioned the reasons you stated in your post, nor they gave the tradition argument as an excuse. They instead told me societal to economic reasons, from “ladke se vansh chalta hai” to “ladki bojh hoti hai” kind of excuses( you grow a girl child only to marry her off to someone else later). Solution of a problem comes from a clear understanding of the issue. As you quoted in your post the the ratio of 947 girls to 1000 boys in 1991 falls further to 927 ten years later, when the reasons you mentioned in your post do not exist today and perhaps don’t exist for the last two and a half centuries at least, if I take your reasons to be really convincing. Its rather contradictory to ratio further declining, when it should actually be improving given the govt initiatives and general awakening steps among the society of the evil effects of it. My understanding of the problem still suggests that the reasons behind female infanticide are not traditional but the general status and perception of girls in our society which needs to be addressed to root out the evil.

    • Akhtar,

      I’m not sure if you saw my reply to Anil Kohli, which I had referred to.

      To him I had said the following: “Even if we have to blame greed (owing to dowry), the point is that dowry got institutionalized because of respect for tradition.”

      Elsewhere I had said (to Tandava), the following:

      “we must ask how did the ideas of girls’ parents paying the dowry, even if it is beyond their financial means and that only girl must leave the parents’ house after marriage got institutionalized. Would have society been harmed if the son would have left for the in-laws’ house after marriage? How did this practice become so firm, such that ghar jamaai is a contemptuous term? Why were the contributions of the bride in household activities not recognized as assets, but her ‘upkeep’ were seen as liabilities. These all, according to me are results of blind following of tradition and people taking prevalent social practices as sacrosanct that cannot be breached.”

      I think the reason sex ratio had been constantly declining, because of advent of modern technology, which made sex-determination as well as early abortion easier. The former was made possible through availability of better and cheaper USG-machines, whereas latter through newer and safer MTP regimes. So, now there was no need to kill an infant, instead the fetus itself could be destroyed, which is seen as lot less cumbersome.

      And when a practice is so prevalent that it leads to a sex-ratio as low as 800:1000, it might not be wrong to call it a tradition or at least an acceptable practice. If sex-ratio is 900:1000, we can conclude that 1 in 10 females were killed. If it is 800:1000, it implies 1 out of 5 were killed.

      I’m not sure if I could answer your questions, but I am surprised that you felt I was disagreeing with you. I have mentioned all the points you have mentioned, but not all of them were addressed to you.

      Thanks, again!

  9. @akhtar: The societal reasons that you talk about like “ladke se vansh chalta hai” is a tradition per se given mandate by the society-we call it patriarchy. The economic reason-not having money to pay dowry and the fact that Girls are not as good an investment as Boys since girls are married off are all there because of the traditions that have existed for too long under patriarchy. There have been societies which followed matriarchy but partiarchy was largely adopted world over. In some stratas of society where the present generation has broken out of patriarchy or matriarchy, Both Girls and boys are accorded equal status and respect. We now see that when a couple buy their own home, Both sets of parents, the boys as well as the girls are welcomed once they become too old to live on their own. With education and financial freedom, women are able to look after their families as well and are making their parents proud by venturing into various fields. Even men are being liberated form the shackels of patriarchy which made it hard for them to pursue artistic, non-lucrative careers, show emotions, express themselves without violence and aggressiveness.
    @Ketan: The moment people start questioning half the problem is solved. It is very important to think critically before we adopt a certain practice.

  10. For too long in India unquestioned obedience has been equated with respect. If one chooses not to conform, he/she is ostracised, punished and sometimes killed.

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