Vedic ideals suggest that women must be valued and protected. Some Hindus
claim that practices such as early marriage, polygamy, and dowry were based
on these principles but in time became degraded. Others, including some
Hindu reformers (see The Reform Movements
rejected these practices outright as outdated and superstitious.
Besides caste, many other well-advertised social anomalies have developed in India. Since the 19th century, increased recognition of social abuse has promoted ideas of reform. Some Hindus, possibly more inclined to Western thought, opted to purge Hinduism of what they considered dated and superstitious features. Others acknowledged the potential viability of ancient principles and practices which, according to their vision, had become degraded over time. The following are a few of the social practices and phenomena that prompted social reform and had a signicant influence on Hindu lifestyles.
The affluent world often perceives a simple, rural life as abject poverty,
and a sign of social retardation. Hindus traditionally considered it virtuous
to voluntarily accept an uncomplicated life for spiritual purposes. With different
views on wealth, poverty and success, the West is prone to hastily dismiss
India's socio-religious practices as backward and irrelevant. Nonetheless,
poverty remains a real problem in many areas.
The role of women
Hindu texts stress the importance of stable family ties and valuing and protecting
women. Nonetheless, there has been – and there still is – wide abuse. Despite
this, the tradition largely rejects the post-modern notion that social justice
is achieved simply through promoting material equality.
Texts recommend marriage at an early age, particularly for girls in order to protect their chastity. Sexual transgression is considered particularly detrimental to spiritual life. Many so-called child marriages were actually a form of betrothal and marriage was not consummated until the wife was of age.
Sati was voluntarily performed on the basis of overwhelming affection for
the partner and a desire to follow him into the next life. Hindu texts forbid
its performance in Kali-yuga, the present age.
Polygamy was made illegal in 1952. It was previously considered essential
for a limited number of responsible and qualified men to redress the gender
imbalance in a society where practically all women were supposed to get married
and significant numbers of men remained celibate.
The dowry system
The dowry system was originally a sign of affection by the father for his daughter. The dowry remained the wife's personal property, not that of her husband or his family. This system has been abused by unscrupulous in-laws who terrorise and even murder those brides who don't provide a sufficient dowry.
- How do we view India and the above-mentioned issues?
- Could there be any sense behind apparently dated practices?
- What is our experience of people confusing religion with materiality?
- Is religion a socio-political phenomenon or are there genuine spiritual forces at work? How do we recognise the difference?
The principles behind Hinduism are now out of date, and contemporary
Western values are helping address the resultant social anomalies
Some Hindus now consider that Western researchers have unfairly dismissed
many Hindu practices without sufficient consideration of any possible rationale
behind them. Misuse of a principle does not negate it. One example is varnashrama-dharma.
Caste abuse has even prompted some writers to claim that varnashrama-dharma is inherently racist. In fact, caste is quite different from varnashrama-dharma,
for the latter simultaneously promotes spiritual equality whilst acknowledging
material diversity. Other phenomena require similarly sensitive treatment
in order to understand them better. Naturally, even the purer spiritual
principles, as distinct from later aberrations, may challenge or conflict
with many post-modern values.