The joint family system has ancient roots in India, being traceable to the Vedic times when four generations lived together. The tradition helped in maintaining strong bonds of kinship and keeping alive customs and traditions of the past. This book seeks to examine the joint family system in India: its evolution and relevance and practicality in the present times. It deals with the changing social norms, value systems and human behaviour over time and views the role of religion in promoting human values and fellowship which are an essential ingredient of joint family norms. With case studies, it explores aspects of the Indian family like its cultural and ritualistic traditions, the importance and role of the woman as the backbone of the Vedic society, the position and status of the aged with the decline of the joint family system, and the importance of the joint family as a vehicle for accumulating wealth — both material and in terms of serving and benefiting all. The volume will prove a useful contribution for scholars and students in the field of Indian social and cultural studies.
Singh, Bal Ram, is the Director of Center for Indic Studies at UMass, Dartmouth, where he teaches a course on Science of Kriyayoga. Dr Singh, as a Professor of Biophysical Chemistry and Henry Dreyfus Teacher-Scholar at University of Massachusetts, Dartmouth, and the Director of Botulinum Research Center, has been conducting research for 20 years at UMass, Dartmouth, on the molecular mode of action of botulinum and tetanus neurotoxins, and lately also on yoga, mind, and consciousness. Dr Singh has published about 175 research articles, has edited three books, including India’s Intellectual Traditions and Contributions to the World (DKPW, 2010), and Origin of Indian Civilization (DKPW, 2010), and has obtained 3 patents. He has published over three dozen scholarly articles on issues related to Indian tradition, culture, and philosophy. He is Associate Editor of the International Journal of Indian Culture and Business Management. Dr Singh is President of BBTech, Inc., Dartmouth, MA, and Managing Director of BBTech Herbal in India. He is also Manager of a girl’s school, Kuruom Vidyalaya, which he has established in his native village in India.
Growing up in India during 1960s and 1970s, family was everything that one had. Every decision, from areas of studies, marriage, and job, was decided in accordance with the family consideration. Living in the United States for over two decades, most of Indian Americans try to learn philosophical underpinnings of their family traditions even as they encounter an alien culture and tradition on a daily basis. There are constant questions about their food, dress, family, religion, and other traditions. But the most dominating topic of discussion remains the arranged marriage system of India. There is so much curiosity and awe with such a system. However, their awkward questions and looks also reflect a degree of disdain for the system as well. Such situations beg for better and deeper basis of the traditions. This is especially becoming relevant as the Indian American families are the most stable group in the United States.
Personally, I grew up in a village as part of a joint family. Even though my father passed away about three months before I was born, I actually never realized that I did not have father until I was seven years old. My uncle, four generations apart from us, is still the head of the family amongst men. My mother remained the head of the family amongst women as long as she was alive (until 2004). As I
travelled through towns, cities, metropolises, to the United States growing up through education and jobs, this part of my life kept raising more and more conflicts personally and philosophically. Many pros and cons have been presented by family and friends for my continuous support to my joint family in the village, visiting them every year, and, as much as possible, treating them the same as my nuclear family living with me in the United States. I have based my action on my own experience, and have tried to rationalize with the philosophy of the tradition. This has led me to reflections and introspections in view of the changing world where many of the value systems have changed, and are replaced with legal and new social norms.
Concepts of joint and extended families in India exist more as practices than prescriptions, and are largely visible in the rural India. The system in place in rural India is easier to understand, as people live in vicinity, follow similar lifestyle, have similar outlook of life, and have similar social and spiritual needs. My experience in rural India was in conflict with the experience I had in cities in India, and I always felt that given the constraints of limited resources, space, and freedom of lifestyle, the joint family system may not be applicable in the urban India. This was my conflict until I met Chandra Mohan Bhandari, who was joint secretary in the External Affairs Ministry of the Government of India in 2005, and had been ambassador to Cambodia and Consul- General to Canada. Subsequently, he became ambassador to United Arab Emirates and Poland. He had mentioned to me about his joint family existing at that time while he was obviously away from his ancestral home. That conversation I had with him in Delhi in 2005 in fact triggered the concept of organizing a symposium on Indian Family System, as I was inspired to bring out the idea of joint family system to the modern world, using Bhandari's family which mostly lived in cities taking up jobs in different cities. One of his brothers was a professor at ITT Kanpur, while another lived in the village. I believe another of his brothers lives in the United States. But somehow they have kept the basic concepts of a joint family running. He reflects his experiences and ideas in his chapter entitled “Joint Family System”.
The Symposium on the Indian Family System opened my eyes to a lot of information previously unknown to me. As it happens in society frequently, certain institutions established with best intentions and substantial planning become stale and ritualistic over a long period of time. Philosophical underpinnings and social capitals of the systems get lost or at least taken for granted.
The family system seems to have unfortunately reached that state, and a discussion must take place on the basic values which may have provided inspiration for such a system.
I am grateful to contributors who agreed with me on the necessity of a discussion on this topic, and who wholeheartedly supported the concept by joining at the symposium and for submitting their articles. The articles represent social, economic, business, scientific, and spiritual aspects of family traditions. It is hoped that there is sufficient coherence of the chapters for the reader to get an overview of the issues involved.
I am grateful to my assistant, Miss Shwetha Bhat, for helping me put together the proceedings. I would also like to thank my administrative assistant, Ms. Maureen Jennings for helping in organizing the Symposium. Dr. Sukalyan Sengupta’s help along with his assistant, Mr. Kumar, is appreciated. I would also like to express coy appreciation to Ms. Heather Tripp and Ms. D. Confar of UMass Dartmouth’s Photographics Department.
Finally financial support from the center for Indic studies and education society for the heritage of India is gratefully acknowledged.
The Evolutionary Concept of Family
Family is not just an optimum number of people who live together, hut is a foundation of the society anywhere in the world. However, such foundations are of humans, and thus subject to human frailties as much as to the devotion, dedication, perseverance, and patience. While there are innate traits in all of the creations in this world, humans have been rendered with the instrument of intellect, perhaps more than others, to construct their thoughts and make decisions accordingly. A culture is thus developed from these constructions and thoughtful actions. Variations in such cultures are natural as are the natural living conditions of geography and climatic habitat, biodiversity and sustenance over a long period of time, and development of diverse philosophical and social thoughts.
Survival and reproduction have been considered as hallmark of the evolution process. Current model of evolution generally considers this survival and reproduction to be a selfish trait which drives all organisms to compete, adapt, and advance. There is ample evidence for such evolutionary process based on a trail of fossil records, phenotypic complexities, and perceived notion of human superiority amongst all living beings. The latter notion appears to affirm the selfish behaviour of individuals, which eventually forms the basis of association a person makes in the society, including family and friends.
Evolution, being a modern scientific concept, provides much of the moral authority to individuals to work for selfish interest, be it inside or outside the family. Such behaviour has been detrimental to the ideas of joint and extended family systems practised in the Indian subcontinent for thousands of years. Additionally, the industrial revolution that dawned over the past two centuries or so has had significant impact on the societal shift, more towards nuclear and fragmented nuclear families in the modern world, To understand root causes of the family fragmentation one has to look into this philosophical shift in the world today, and corrective measures taken at that level will automatically result in behaviours of individuals amenable to more cohesive family.
To address the issue and role of selfishness and its influence in social as well as scientific parlance of today’s world, one has to understand the origin of such a philosophy. Living in the United States for the past 27 years, I have personally seen much contrast between fundamental social issues of India (East) and the Western world. The Western world has increasingly controlled the intellectual discourse for much of the past half millennia, and has thus defined the paradigms of knowledge and norms. In my conversation with a philosophy professor at Jawaharlal Nehru University in India, Dr R.P. Singh, he tried to contrast the philosophy of East and West by defining the position of man in the world. In Western philosophy, man is the centre of the world whereas in the Eastern philosophy man is as at the periphery. The word parivara literally means that what is seen from the paridhi (periphery). Thus self-importance which is very much a norm in the West, is the antithesis of Eastern philosophy of parivara or family.
There may be naturally legitimate reasons for the selfish philosophy in the West, primarily due to the climatic extremities, limited availability of food, and need for protection against cold weather, especially during the Ice Age. Their approach to survival perhaps leads them to remain selfish. For example, most of North America and Europe still get only one crop in contrast to India where three crops are easily possible. Thus the behaviour of the Western world is understandable, but it cannot be condoned in today’s world, and can certainly not be applicable to other cultures and geography (particularly in the southern hemisphere of the world) when understood correctly and applied properly.
Cautions are advised even for the use of Western science in other cultures for fear of misunderstanding and conflict for local cultures and traditions. Professor Northrop of Yale University pointed this out while writing the Introduction to the Physics and Philosophy (Prometheus Books, 1999) of Werner Heisenberg who had received Nobel Prize in 1932 for quantum mechanics. Professor Northrop wrote:
• The instruments of modern science derive from its theory and require a comprehension of that theory for their correct use.
• This theory rests on philosophical as well as physical assumptions.
• When comprehended, these philosophical assumptions generate a personal and social mentality and behaviour quite different from, at points incompatible with, the family, caste and tribally centred mentality of native Asian, Middle Eastern or African people.
Family and Culture
These observations suggest that if something as concrete as physics may be affected by the philosophy and culture, then more pliable topics like family relationship ought to be influenced by cultural experience and philosophy. Indian experience and philosophy must therefore be considered when examining families. And given the experience of the world in maintaining family structure, as shown in Table 1 below, it is more important that the philosophy underpinning the stable Indian marriages (India does not even appear on the list of countries with most divorce rates) be examined and perhaps highlighted.
Indian philosophy in general has been multiculturalistic, which is the reflection of two golden goals of life for any living being. These are independence and freedom. Within India, there are differences in practices of marriage ceremonies irrespective of language, religion, and in many cases even region. However, ultimately the goal is for the stability of the family. Rituals and traditions vary with ,jati/kula/varna, and also depend on the educational, financial, and social status of the families involved, and urban vs. rural location of the families.
Indian society is currently undergoing major transition due to economic progress and educational achievements. The traditional values are therefore under natural stress. While arranged marriage still makes over 99 per cent marriages in India, young people, particularly those living in cities and more exposed to Western values, tend to feel liberated and at times pursue what is called “love” marriage. Whether such marriages are “love” or “lust” based, there is a tendency to fall into catchy phrases like “falling in love”, or “love is blind” which more often than not leads young and restless to a path sometimes at odds with the families.
In recent years, there have been dire consequences of young deciding to marry on their own, especially if the couples are from different jatis or religions. There have been family tensions, at times leading to “honour killings”. There are communities like Khaps of Haryana state who have taken a political stand to force governments to ban same gotra marriages. Educated liberal class in India is aghast at such stands, but traditions are not easily done away with.
Family Traditions and Government
Traditions can also take ugly forms, such as dowry system, which can make family lives of the women anguished and intolerable. Despite the laws against dowry, the menace continues to grow in Indian society. Government response to enact further laws to protect women has also taken an ugly turn, and is being used to settle scores between families.
Clearly, enacting laws, particularly with selfish culture in mind, is not a very effective approach to solve social and family problems. However, Government of India has gone on with several intriguing laws to solve family problems. Interestingly, these laws are enacted only for Hindus, the majority community in India, leaving Muslims and Christians untouched presumably to exhibit the government’s secular practice. In addition to giving an impression of Hindu practices in need of reforms (thereby wrong) the secular principles borrowed from west where culture and practices are very different are being applied to Indian culture many times confusing the population and also at times at the behest of international organizations and groups.
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