Culture, Society and Religion of India/South Asia

HomeEssaysQ&ACulture, Society and Religion of India/South Asia

Question 1

The caste system in South Asia and India, in particular, is one of the main dimensions of dividing people in the region into classes on a religious basis. It is prevalent in India since there is mainly a Hindu practice there. In India, the caste system is a closed frame that constitutes the sole basis for the systematic ranking of unequal access to resources including income and power for much of the population especially in the rural parts of the country (Stein, 2010). What is more, it also has a basis in which family one is born into, and is unable to escape from it. It also restricts the interaction between the members of different castes (Chakrabarti & Makkhan, 2014). Defining textual origins, the historical development, and contemporary significance of the caste system reveal the foundations of Indian society.

The caste system originates from the oldest texts found on the Indian subcontinent. As a result, it has been internalized into the daily social and occupational lives of most people. The most comprehensive explanation of the caste system comes from the Vedic texts, which are considered holy in the Hindus’ religion (Stein, 2010). Most people agree that the Brahmans, the ones belonging to the highest rank in the caste system, which mostly consisted of priests, are the people who were primary in charge of compiling, legitimizing, and interpreting the Vedic texts (Chakrabarti & Makkhan, 2014). Subsequently, it is not a surprise that they historically have construed the texts in question so as to elevate themselves to the summit of the community and become the arbiters of the Hindu society. The Rig Veda, a Hindu religious text, explains that the primal man destroyed himself in order to create a human society (Stein, 2010). The Brahmans were made of his head, the Kshatriyas came from his hands, the Vaishyas derived from his thighs, and the Shudras were made of his feet. Thus, this hierarchy is seen as having come from body parts. People have used it to justify the continued practice of discrimination on the basis of castes (Chakrabarti & Makkhan, 2014). It has led many people to subscribe to the Aryan theory of caste system origin.

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Some historians have claimed that the aboriginals of India were dark-skinned people for many centuries. However, the Aryans who were lighter-skinned started arriving in India around 1500 BC (Stein, 2010). In India, there are extensive records about the culture showing that the aboriginal tribes were the precedent one to the Aryans while the latter appears to have unbroken documentation of the former, which resulted in the caste system. When the Aryans arrived in India, the first people they met were the Dravidians. The Aryans seem to destroy completely the local cultures and start conquering all areas to the North of India while the locals were pushed to the south, towards the jungles (Stein, 2010). The Aryans had organized themselves into three groups on the basis of the importance of their occupations: education and religion, political and military activities, and, lastly, economic and menial jobs (Chakrabarti & Makkhan, 2014).

The Aryans stated socio-cultural, religious, and economic rules, which would secure their status in the new classification. They have done it by ensuring that they preserved the priesthood as well as warrior and merchant classes (Stein, 2010). Thus, the indigenous people became outcasts since they were darker in comparison with their new social and political rivals, the Aryans. Among three Aryan Verna castes, the Shudras were treated as the outcasts as well (Stein, 2010). From the earliest times, they were excluded from religious worship, which sealed their exclusion from the society (Stein, 2010). It was, however, not as severe as that of the outcasts. This classification system established the fact that the sons would inherit their fathers’ professions over many generations. These famines later caused the emergence of the Jat communities. With time, the members of Jat communities were added to different castes depending on their professions (Stein, 2010). The Aryans excluded people who practiced what the Aryans considered polluting occupations and termed them as untouchables, the Dalits (Stein, 2010). The coming of the British seemed to further enforce these socio-cultural and religious classes since they followed divide-and-rule practice, and it was in their interests to undermine the little fluidity that existed in the caste system (Stein, 2010). Independence meant that people were able to reach higher stages of the social ladder without resorting to the caste system. After proclaiming independence of India, there seems to be more relaxed environment regarding the castes today. Currently, there is much more interaction between people of various castes as compared to the colonial times. Wealth and power as well as other social parameters are now more important social signifiers than the caste system principles (Stein, 2010).

However, in certain parts of the rural areas, the caste system still holds significant sway over the lives of people (De Haan, 2013). In some instances, violence against the Dalits continues to be a burning issue in the rural areas. The government has reserved educational slots, jobs, and other opportunities for the Dalits in a bid to ensure that they have a chance to reach success just like the rest of people do. However, it has led to the emergence of hostility among the members of the high-ranked castes (De Haan, 2013). For this reason, only a small number of the Dalits have benefited from the preferential policies mentioned above (De Haan, 2013). This fact shows the complexity of the whole issue.

Question 2

Religious syncretism refers to blending several religions, usually with independent religious systems. It happens due to the interaction of two or more religious systems in the areas where different religions co-exist and religious promotion among people who are not willing to change their entire belief systems but want to adopt certain elements of other religions, which suits them. It can also happen when an area is conquered but the new rulers do not succeed in imposing their religious beliefs totally upon the local population. Hinduism is one of the most receptive to the outside influences religions. The diversity of beliefs in Hinduism makes syncretism possible. While many people consider Islam and Hinduism to be conflicting all the time, it is not the case in this situation; there has been the incorporation of certain Islamic beliefs into the Hindu tradition in diverse regions of South Asia.

In certain regions of India, the Hindu and Muslim traditions mix due to the close interaction between their adherents. Some of Hinduism followers have borrowed particular aspects of Islam and incorporated them into their belief systems without any fear of contradiction in spite of the fact that Hinduism is largely a polytheistic religion while Islam is strictly monotheistic one. It is a view that Peter Gottschalk explores in his essay The Village as Hermeneutical Lens: Spaces of Rural Hindu-Muslim Interactions. In it, there is a mechanic who considers is a Hindu, even a nationalist Hindu who headed the branch of the Hindu nationalist organization Rastriya Swayamsevak Sangh (the National Volunteer Society), participates in religious ceremony that is usually an Islamic ceremony (Gottschalk, 2010). It illustrates the contradictory view of the issue of competition, yet cooperation among various religious adherents.

In this case, syncretism seems to be a product of good deeds of a Sufi leader. It is notable that in this part of India, there is a mix of religions since both Christians and Hindus flock to the tombs of Sufi Muslims (Gottschalk, 2010). In this particular case, a Sufi leader made a favor to his family a generation ago, and although nobody remembered what the favor was anymore, it has meant that a Sufi received the veneration of the Hindus of the village, notably from Paksin Sharma’s family (Gottschalk, 2010). Thus, the family has involved the Sufi ritual of praying at the grave of a dead saint in its religion.

The second stage after the introduction of the religious rites of another religion is their application to the new one by individuals in their personal capacity or as a part of a larger group. Paksin, in spite of being a Hindu, feels that as a member of the family he has the obligation to participate in the rituals connected with the Muslim Sufi tomb (Gottschalk, 2010). Gottschalk (2010) notes that the Hindus, in this case, even hired two local Muslims so as to lead them in du’as, which is the Islamic supplication that many might be considered to be contradictory to the traditions of Hinduism (p.174).

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What is more, at the initial stages, the instances of religious syncretism might face the opposition of the followers of the religion who might consider them impure. Gottschalk seems to realize it by implying that Paksin finds the whole idea embarrassing when trying to reconcile with his role of a former local leader of the RSS and his role of a member of the family, in which he is obligated to venerate a dead Sufi (Gottschalk, 2010). As such, for the first time, there might be the instances of antagonism that is created as a result of the differences between the religions. Gottschalk (2010, p.174) notes that while these “negotiated local realities” of religious syncretism might concur in the village in some cases, the communalist-inspired violence may also occur there. It concerns the village, in which Paksin lives and where a Sufi tomb is located near a Hindu temple.

When the leaders of the society representing different religious organizations of India use communalistic rhetoric, one gets the view that the religious conflict has psychological character for Indians. While the religious differences between the Hindus and Muslims of the subcontinent have been a reality, the everyday religious experience of many people, especially the ones living in mixed areas, portrays another picture (Gottschalk, 2010). The rhetoric of exclusion continues to be a source of consternation but at the local level, in the villages, the situation might be totally different (Gottschalk, 2010). However, this rhetoric of hate and separation will continue to exist until the syncretism becomes a system-wide phenomenon. For now, it is much developed at the local level, in the areas where both religions co-exist.

In the case of institutionalization of religious syncretism between the two religions will ensure more common understanding as well as less religious competition and strife on the subcontinent. It seems likely to happen considering that Hinduism has been noted to save its ability to absorb certain things from relations with other religious practices without losing its core form. However, the Hindutva rhetoric of such organizations as the RSS, which claim that India equals Hindu, might hamper this process. It might only be for the short term while the in the long term, religious syncretism might be the norm, rather than the exception (Gottschalk, 2010). It might result in decrease in the religious competition in the future and, consequently, less animosity.

Question 3

In South Asia, like in most parts of the world, patriarchy holds sway over the population, and, as a result, the outward either aggressive or passive forms of masculinity are apparent. Consequently, most women are subject to the whims of men, and especially it is true for the countryside. It has led to the social, psychological, and economic suppression of women. However, females have learned to use certain strategies in order to subvert the patriarchal society and masculine power. There are various methods the women can apply to do it.

The first approach the women adopt includes the resort to religious ways of sorting disputes, which are connected with the situations when they are harassed or mistreated by men, and address the “god-king” through the seers (Banerjee-Dube, 2011). In a region that is largely conservative, especially the one located in the rural area, sometimes, women have very limited options but to rely on a divine in search of justice from the harassment of men. Fortunately, in most communities, a divine is easily accessible through the village gods and their seers, who usually reside in the village temple ready to assist in dispute resolution (Banerjee-Dube, 2011). After filing a complaint, a council is usually called where both parties are heard, much like in a court. After the determination of the issues, the men are required to stop harassing the women. The men then swear to leave the women alone in fear of the sanction from the “god-king” (Banerjee-Dube, 2011). In a region, in which the society perceives women as people belonging to the second class, unlike men, the use of such symbols is tightly connected with assisting women in subverting masculinity.

In these regions, there also seem to be the acceptance of the fact that women should follow the religion of their husbands and new families. The individualism in religion is considered the aberration and even insult to a family of a husband. Banerjee-Dube (2011) explains that for the followers of Mahima Dharmi, the women represent a subject to pressure and ridicules by their new families, which aim to make them follow their new families religious tradition. The same can be applied to the unmarried women as well. According to Banerjee-Dube (2011), the male members of a family would wonder how a woman can have her independent views on religion. The strategy here seems to be unyielding in the view of pressure from the male part of the society, and when they face ridicule they “occasionally give it back”, thus, demonstrating the fearlessness (Banerjee-Dube, 2011, p.168). She also used it as a frame for ending the hegemony of masculinity within the traditional nuclear family. According to her, women have to realize that marriage is not the panacea to everything (Banerjee-Dube, 2011). These views can help them to free from traditional structures that assist in reinforcing masculinity and ending patriarchal narrative.

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The education is one of the methods, which women of the region have used to escape the overwhelming influence of masculinity that strides the region. It seems to be a strategy that has been in use during the later years of the colonial times. It can be demonstrated through the case of Remena, a reformist who, unlike many women of her age, failed to get married early but undertook her studies in Sanskrit until she the age of twenty-two, which was quite late for women in the late nineteenth century (Stein, 2010). She went to Calcutta and then abroad to study. It was an aspect, which allowed her to avoid the influence of masculinity in her life successfully. In spite of having been the daughter of a child-bride, she managed to rescue many by educating them especially during the famine of the late 1890s in India (Stein, 2010). Thus, as it is apparent, not only did the education assist her to resist the aspects of both passive and aggressive masculinity that she encountered in her life successfully but it also gave her the ability to sensitize other women. It proves the potent role of education in this regard not just for the individual but also for the entire population.

Another way, in which the women have been able to subvert the male oppression in the region, is by ensuring that they had independent incomes from those of their husbands. One of the reason, for which the masculinity is perverse, is that the women are totally dependent on their husbands in satisfying their daily needs and those of their families (Gamburd, 2011). Consequently, the women have to adjust to most of the things that they consider offensive for them, for instance, the violence from their husbands, in order to provide for themselves and their children. However, it seems that in recent decades, more and more have gone outside the homesteads in a bid to satisfy the needs of their families and their own ones (Gamburd, 2011). For instance, in the Middle East, a substantial number of women now work. Most can acquire property, for instance, a plot of land or a house by themselves earning money by working abroad (Gamburd, 2011). Gamburd (2011) notes that since more women work abroad and remit money back to Sri Lanka, there is a shift in gender relations; therefore, the dominant narrative that “women should be at home with their children” is abandoned (p.691). What is more, their power within the homesteads increases since they start getting wage; thus, the working woman paradigm challenges the existing principle, according to which a man is always the breadwinner in a family (Gamburd, 2011). These circumstances have released the control that the men had over their wives in the families.

Question 4

There is a great divide between the way of life in the urban centers and that in the rural areas. The reasons for it are different social and economic circumstances that obtain in these areas. In particular instances, it is more apparent in regions like South Asia where the urban areas are still growing, and a substantial part of the population continues to live in the countryside.

In the first place, the divide seems to be in the government construction of the towns at the earliest times in certain countries, for example, India. In India, in the early independence days, the government construed the urban areas as the centers for the planned development (Weiz 2010). The villages were secondary in this regard. It might have led to the uneven development of the regions with the urban areas dominating due to the developed industries. The construction of the towns, which became the centers of the progress, had different influences on both the countryside and urban areas.

One of the most obvious results of construing the towns, which had to become the centers promoting the development of the country as opposed to the villages, by the government is that the urban areas had more diversified economic interests. In the villages, the total income was gained from agriculture or similar industries. For instance, Weiz (2010) provides the example of a village, in which most people are farmers. The only person who seems not to be involved in farming activities there is a gentleman whose name is Varadan. He works at the dam that supports farming in the village (Weiz, 2010). In contrast, the urban areas seem to support a wide array of income-generating activities ranging from work in various industries to merchandising. There is also an attorney there (Weiz, 2010). What is more, it also seems like the wages of those who work at their own are better; thus, the attorney is able to send his children to the best private school.

Socially, there is a difference between urban areas and villages. In the villages, the caste system holds sway. Some people seem to be destined to do certain jobs in rural areas with little or no chance for getting different occupations. Weiz (2010) documents the case of Varadan who is the dam operator in the village but is ridiculed and not even allowed to set a foot on the village property presumably because he was born a member of a lower caste. However, in the city, the attorney explains that these issues do not abound there, and he can interact with all people including legislators; however, it is something he would struggle to do in the village (Weiz, 2010). Thus, it is evident that the urban areas offer higher social and economic mobility than the villages do.

However, the urbanized elite also seems to be more educated than rural folk. Thus, it would consider particular customs emanating from the village as throwbacks to the savage era (Korom, 2006). Tagore, an Indian intellectual and cultural nationalist, likens the people belonging to the urban and educated elite as “been abstracted” from their Indian ideals (Korom, 2006). On the contrary, in the village, most people were not stuck to the customs including the caste affiliations among others.

What is more, it seems that people have more attachment towards their village lives than their city ones. Daniel (2010) explains that in the case of Sri Lanka, the displacement of people during the civil war was not just the loss of the places they called homes, their lives, and limbs but also the loss of the collective village experience, the “ur”. According to Daniel (2010), the reason for it is the fact that for most people, the “ur” provides not only a home but also an identity due to its univocity.

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However, the city and village lifestyles are similar in certain aspects. While the acquisition of material wealth is important in both cases, the pursuit of a family seems more prominent. For instance, according to Korom (2006), being a member of the middle class in a city is measurable by both having the material wealth and marrying off a son or a daughter. It shows that in spite of modernism in the city, most people a level of culture that is found in the village.

Globalization has had a diverse and often even contradictory effect on the divide between the urban and rural areas. The development of Calcutta was designed to be in line with London and, thus, have the glamor of a European town (Korom, 2006). However, globalization has led to an increase in shantytowns, in which poor citizens live. In this way, these towns have an effect of becoming the new villages of India since they mediate between the urban middle class and rural poor (Korom, 2006). It has reduced the disconnect that used to exist between the city and the village.

However, while globalization has succeeded in moving the village to the city through the shantytowns, it has not achieved the diversification of the income-generating activities in the rural areas. What is more, according to experts, it has also led to an increase in the inequality in both the cities and countryside since the prices of the essential goods have enhanced, thus, harming the most vulnerable layers of the society (Inden, 2010). With the intensification of the globalization, the new ideas from the city permeated the villages. It demonstrates the difference between the past when the cultural and linguistic diversities between the city and the village ensured that there was little exchange of information between the two regions.

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