India: Culture and Society Rowena Robinson Professor of Sociology Department of Humanities and Social Sciences Indian Institute of Technology Bombay Introduction


Caste, village and joint family: The



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Caste, village and joint family: The real story

It was when scholars began to rely on ethnographic fieldwork rather than solely on ancient texts, especially those in Sanskrit, to understand Indian society that they started to see the complexity of real social formations. This became well-known as the field-view of Indian society, as opposed to the book-view. Others argued that the book-view and the field-view must be placed side-by-side; one should not be rejected in favor of the other. Clearly, a considerable shift had taken place in the way in which Indian society was studied.

It is true that the Indian caste system was one of the harshest systems of hierarchy to be found in the world. Each caste found its place in the hierarchy in accordance with the rules of purity and pollution. Occupations, food, materials and even persons were ranged on a scale from purest to most impure. For instance, occupations that involved contact with bodily or other waste – scavenging, leather-work and the like were considered deeply polluting. Meat was eaten only by the lower castes. The structural distance between castes was defined in terms of purity and impurity. A higher caste was pure and would therefore avoid certain forms of contact with the lower castes in terms of eating food cooked by them or marrying or having sexual relations. Sometimes, there could even be a ban on touching. This formed the basis for the notorious practice of untouchability, whereby the touch or even the shadow of certain castes was considered polluting for the higher castes. Castes considered untouchable would have to maintain a certain physical distance from the high castes. Inadvertent touch would entail a ritual cleansing process for the higher caste person. A person was born into a caste, practiced the caste occupation, married and died in the caste and could rarely hope for change or a better or different life.

Despite all this, it is now accepted that the caste structure was never a completely rigid social system. Avenues of mobility and flexibility were available within the structure of caste. Despite the closed nature of the system, there have been shifts in the caste hierarchy over time. For instance, certain cultural practices acceptable during the Vedic Hindu period came to be considered taboo in later times, with the impact of Buddhism and Jainism. These practices included the drinking of liquor (soma), the offering of animal sacrifices and the eating of beef. In a later period, these practices were abhorred, but they continued among the castes considered low on the social scale.

Important channels of mobility in the ancient period included conversion to Jainism, Buddhism or other heterodox sects, migration and the renunciation of the world in favor of the life of a mendicant. There has always been heterodoxy within the Hindu world. Sectarian movements often rejected caste and called for socio-religious reform. It is another matter, of course, that over a period of time, some of them simply began to be considered yet another caste within the overall society. An important path of mobility in both traditional and more contemporary periods has been that defined by the sociologist M N Srinivas as sanskritization. Sanskritization is a process where a low Hindu caste changes its customs, rites, rituals, ideology and way of life in the direction of a high and frequently twice-born caste. The twice-born castes are those belonging to the Brahmin, Kshatriya or Vaishya groups.

Another path of mobility from the colonial period onwards has been that of westernization. M N Srinivas defined westernization as the changes brought about in Indian society and culture as a consequence of the over 150 years of British rule. It is a term that covers changes in technology, institutions, ideology and values. Thus, particular castes began to adopt a westernized life-style including the consumption of meat and alcohol and the espousal of western values of equality and individualism and the like. Conversion to Christianity was yet another avenue of social mobility available to the avarna communities during the colonial period. There were several large-scale, group conversions from the latter half of the nineteenth century.

Literature on the family in India was also, for a long time, saddled with particular assumptions. Especially, it was considered that the three-to-five generational patrilineal household was the typical familial living arrangement among Hindus. The ‘joint Hindu family’ thus remained a standard reference in a lot of early literature. There emerged a popular understanding that all Hindus lived together in such joint families, eating at the same hearth and sharing property in common. However, the reality has been considerably different. Scholarship has now shown that the nuclear or small joint family (with two married couples) is and has probably always been typical of India. The existence of a complete joint family, where married sons continue to stay in the same house with their parents, married and unmarried brothers and sisters, pool their expenses together and eat together, is rare.

Anthropologists have also shown that there is no such thing as a perpetual joint or nuclear family. At different stages in their development cycles, households may move from being nuclear to being joint and, further, to different degrees of joint-ness. Even when joint families are found, analysis has revealed that it is the small joint family consisting of not more than two married couples that is most typical household unit in India. The nuclear and supplemented nuclear family (which may be treated as ‘joint’) are also equally common. It is more common to find one married son living with his parents, than to find married brothers living in the same household, with or without their parents. Further, while joint families can occur across castes, it is agreed that they generally tend to be found more often among the higher castes.

With respect to gender differences, however, it is true that traditional families had several restrictive implications, especially for women. Women joined their husband’s family on marriage and retained few rights in their natal home. Property was inherited in the male line. Marriages were arranged by elder family members and the bride and groom would meet only at the wedding ceremony. Women had little mobility outside the home and even within their marital home they had to carefully veil in front of senior male members of the household. A young bride would expect to be burdened with household responsibilities; it was often only after many years of marriage that a woman, if she had begotten male children, would be able to gradually cement her place within her husband’s household.




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