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August 10, 2009 III-30 AB/BSE Literature Asian Literature
Unveiling the Face of India in Santha Rama Rau’s On Learning to Be an Indian Endowed with richness of culture, India gained the admiration as well as the criticism of the world. As its face was adorned with the veil of rigid customs and traditions, Westerners see the embroidery of strictness and inflexibility resulting to stagnation and poverty. In Santha Rama Rau’s essay entitled “On Learning to Be an Indian,” this veil was lifted up to show the face of India’s culture – a culture of love, of faith, of respect, of strong disposition and of innate pureness. The soul of the essay wanders around the antagonistic views of a Western mind to the culture that is enveloping her. Her grandmother, her mother and the writer herself were pivotal figures in the essay. Her grandmother, whom she called Asha, is the embodiment of traditional Hindu beliefs. Her mother represents a modern Hindu woman who sees Hindu traditions perfectly, but seeks refinement. The writer, whose eyes were covered by ignorance, is the representative of Western attitude and ideas. The essay involves a battle of perspectives between these three pairs of
eyes as they examine Hindu ideas on social stratification, marriage, rituals, role of women, education, joint family system, economy, and progress. Nurtured by a more liberated culture, the writer had difficulties in conforming to the rigid standards that were placed in front of her. Mistakes were always at her hand and ignorance in her mouth. She delved into every situation with I-do-not-understand exclamations. Sometimes, even with Ithink-that’s-ridiculous thoughts, especially towards the prayers, rituals and caste marks. Daily rituals and prayers were performed to ensure the general welfare of an individual, a group of people or an entire society and as part of one’s dharma. Caste marks, on the other hand, are of spiritual significance and they were applied in a manner prescribed in the scriptures. The true meanings of these were unknown to the writer. Because of the writer’s ignorance, problems rose one by one, starting with her dealings with the servants. One of the most highly criticized conventions of India is the 3500-year old caste system. In the essay, it is exemplified that servants, who are low-caste people should be treated differently by the high-caste Brahmins. They are not equals. The system has been an aberration of the Indian psyche. Asha, who believe in the power of this system, believes that they are ‘united in diversity.’ The Bhagavad-Gita defines the works of each caste: The works of Brahmins, Kshatriyas, Vaishyas, and Shudras are different, in harmony with the three powers of their born nature.
The works of a Brahmin are peace; self-harmony, austerity, and purity; loving-forgiveness and righteousness; vision and wisdom and faith. These are the works of a Kshatriya: a heroic mind, inner fire, constancy, resourcefulness, courage in battle, generosity and noble leadership. Trade, agriculture and the rearing of cattle is the work of a Vaishya. And the work of the Shudra is service. The Hymn of Man from the Rig-Veda vividly portrays the different castes as different parts working together in a single body: When they divided Purusha, how many portions did they make? What do they call his mouth, his arms? What do they call his thighs and feet?
The Brahman was his mouth, of both his arms were the Kshatriya made His arms became the Vaishya, from his feet the Sudra was produced. Giving a human form to the Indian society, it can be said that the priests and teachers are its expressive face, its guide for Hindu teachings; the warriors and rulers, its protective arms; traders and farmers, its supporting thighs; and, servants and laborers, its transporting feet.
The caste system rooted from the domination of the Aryans who ruled the country around 1500 B.C. In the gulf on these years, it had endured different attempts of eradication. At present, a Brahmin physician would have to wrap Sudra’s skin before feeling his pulse for fear of defilation of his soul, low caste people cannot use the wells of the high caste, and Brahmins would always be married to a Brahmin. On a Western view, this is pure discrimination and should be abolished. In an essay written by J. Arith Kumar, an Indian national, he pointed out that “any religion that refuses to reform with the times will be relegated to oblivion and insignificance.” A modern Hindu like the mother in the essay seeks reform and not destruction which is obviously impossible. It is very true that this can never be totally dissolved, for the bonds of the system lies in the Indian spirit as part of their nation’s identity. And this will survive even to the harsh forces of modernization and urbanization. In the essay, Asha did not expect the writer to become a Hindu because of the lucid evidence that her granddaughter will never meet the standards of their religion. But, she expected her to become true to the Brahmin blood that runs in her veins – to maintain the dignity of their Brahmin family. The caste system does not entail, however, total indifference of the higher caste to those of lower caste. Their way is social distance, not absence of concern. In the essay, Asha discussed how servants should be treated: “By all means, we should give the servants medicines if they are sick, see that their children were well treated, visit their quarters and make
sure that their rooms were kept clean, even give their children education – which they would never get if we left to their families – but we should always keep our social distance.” The writer’s grandmother also refers to them as “those Indians less fortunate than ourselves.” Thus, the ‘unity in diversity’ exemplified in the Hymn of Man and Bhagavad-Gita, is the prevailing idea of the caste system. Westerners may view the caste system as a form of injustice. But it is not. It is as normal as one uses his mouth to eat and his feet to walk. It does not seek to discriminate lower caste from the upper caste just to make life comfortable for the latter while miserable for the former. It seeks to designate tasks for each part while ‘working together’ for the benefit of their country. One may be unfortunate to be born as a Sudra, but this does not mean that they are not given the respect appropriate to them. The grandmother in the essay says, “The real Indians are the villagers, the peasants. Poverty and work on the land is so much a part of their daily living that they must have a tremendous, inclusive faith to make such living possible.” This entails that ‘faith’ keeps the Hindu caste system alive throughout the years. Although the demands of modern life may cause changes in the system, a culture founded on faith and on love for one’s country will continue to resist. Another aspect of Hindu tradition that is subject to the critical eyes of the world is the role of women in the Hindu society. The three pivotal figures in the essay are the different types of women, the conservative, the liberal and the ignorant, viewing the portrait of a Hindu woman in their own
perspectives. The views on rituals, marriage, education, and economy were also held in feminine light in the essay. Traditional female values and duties are within the women’s dharma. As a child, she is expected to be obedient and respectful to her parents and elders, to control her greed and passions and to speak truthfully and pleasingly. In a household life, she is expected to serve her husband and treat his friends and relatives with affection without mixing intimately with other men, to be expert in household affairs, to dress and decorate herself to please her husband and to love, protect, and nurture children. In later life, she is expected to dedicate time to spiritual practices and to give counsel to younger family members. This is the dharma that Sita, the heroine of Ramayana, lived by. Sita, the faithful wife of Rama, is considered to embody all the virtues of a traditional Hindu woman and has been held up as a role model for Hindu girls to follow. This is also the dharma that the writer’s grandmother faithfully embraces in her heart. However, her granddaughter, born and raised in England, is more susceptible to the ideas of the Westerners. The greatest fault of the writer in the course of her essay is when she invited John her friend, and an Englishman, to tea. This was considered an outrageous behavior by her grandmother because the traditional Hindu society does not allow dating or mixture of sexes. Hindu women are expected to have a womanly reserve. But still, Asha rejected her granddaughter’s suggestion to withdraw the invitation because when John
was invited, he is already considered a guest. And as a host, Asha believed that their family should extend their hospitality to him, no matter what. However, they were not left by themselves. Chaperoning was customary for a Hindu woman. She was not allowed to be left alone. They had tea with the gardeners as their audience. The writer admitted that she was influenced by the sensational inaccuracies in Katherine Mayo’s Mother England. Mayo criticized the patriarchal society of India and believed that “Indian womanhood as a whole is a state of slavery, superstition, ignorance and degradation.” Among the issues looked upon by critics like Mayo are the child marriage, arranged marriage, and restrictions on intercaste and intercommunity marriages. Mayo thought that child marriage involves exploitation of women leading to early pregnancy. However, this is proven to be false in Santha Rama Rau’s essay. The writer’s grandmother married when she was nine, but this is only a betrothal ceremony and the real marriage happened a couple of years later. The purpose of this betrothal is to train the girl to be a perfect wife and mother in the near future, not to make women suffer from early pregnancy. Evident in Indian literature like Ramayana and Panchatantra, arranged marriage is considered to be a central fabric of Hindu tradition. In Ramayana, the king of Janaka agreed to give his daughter Sita to the man who would be able to string the great bow given to him by the gods. Through this arrangement, Rama won Sita. In one of the stories of the Panchatantra
entitled “Mouse-Maid Made Mouse,” Yajnavalkya, the hermit father of the maiden decided to find a suitable husband for his child when she reached the age of twelve. By the word ‘suitable,’ it means that he should find someone of their own status. It was exemplified that: Where wealth is very much the same And similar the family fame, Marriage (or friendship) is secure; But not between the rich and poor. Inter-caste marriage is still a taboo nowadays.The reason, as what is exemplified a while ago, was social distance. A Brahmin should marry a Brahmin. A Shudra should marry a Shudra. They must maintain the caste of their forefathers and accept the tasks and way of living assigned to them. Those who had inter-caste marriage had to face big hurdles in the light of their decision to defy all the basic norms of the society. Among these is the discord between the families which can lead to mutual disharmony between the couples. In the essay, grandmother gaudily told the writer that even if she had lost all her rights to her religion and caste, it does not give her the freedom to marry someone outside the Brahmin caste and ruin their family name. Intercommunity marriage was another concept introduced in the essay. If a woman is from Kashmir, her husband must be from Kashmir too. This is one of the social rules broken by the writer’s mother when she was a girl. Those who choose to have intercommunity marriage are held in the same
light as those who risked having inter-caste marriage. Because of her defiance, the writer’s mother is still not well-received by people. Marriage in India is considered to be a marriage of families rather than a marriage of individuals. If one could understand this concept, he will see the beauty of arranged marriages and think that this is the best. The approval and support of the families of both sides are essential to a healthy marriage. Moreover, this kind of marriage proved to be more successful than love marriages. Indian culture sees the real love as something which does not spring from romance, but from a properly arranged union between individuals. Another issue present in the essay is the right of women to education and career. Women are denied opportunities men have. This led the writer’s mother for another cultural defiance. She entered a medical school in Madras. Being the only girl in the class, she was immediately taken out from the school and pursued the study of English literature. Later, she earned a living by lecturing in a Madras college. The writer’s mother understood their traditions well. In her heart, she is always a Hindu. However, she could not contain her dreams inside the box of these traditions. This seclusion of women may lead some to believe that the Hindus put their women on a low position. On the contrary, in the traditional Hindu culture, women are held in the highest regard and are more respected than in the West. Tracing back the history, women occupied a very important position in ancient India. ‘Sakhti’ is a feminine term for ‘power’ because
Hindus believe that all male power comes from the feminine. Women at that time could also study and teach the Vedas. They enjoyed rights of property and took share in social and religious rites. However, the status of women declined as Islamic Invasion came into the picture. During such aggressions the honor and chastity of women often became the casualties. As a result, Hindu society became more protective about its women and started to restrict their freedom. This entails that the restrictions on women did not come from a low regard by men, but out of love and out of protection for the sake of their honor. Santha Rama Rau did not paint the Hindu woman as someone who is entirely powerless. Feminine colors were vibrant in their role in a joint family. Although they have no legal rights, the wife of the oldest son can be the head of the household. And with their leonine powers, they can have the absolute control over the members of the family for they hold and dispense all the money in the household. The personification of this autocracy in the essay is Asha. Even when the joint system in India is declining, she still had the powerful influence over her family, though not in absolute degree. Having the eye of an outsider, the writer would always feel that the conventions of India are hindrances to progress. Her mother, although born a Hindu, would still believe on progress and the need for change. But Asha, would remain faithful to their religion and philosophy and content herself with the progress she knows – their journey from the great age of India.
Among the three, it is Asha who had a clearer picture of the real face of India. India is not a poor country. It may be on the base in terms of monetary wealth. But, it is on the summit by the richness of its values and traditions. In the essay, Asha said: “Hinduism… the most rigid of beliefs, the most realistic of philosophies and it determines everything from food to their morals.” It is in India where religion and philosophy are tightly interwoven to the people’s way of living. It is in India where culture is not displayed in the museums but in the hearts of all men. India was viewed by the Westerners as a place where people imposed rigid rules upon their people, denying progress, ignorant to the demands of the modern world. In the end, it is the Westerners who proved to be ignorant, who sees only the surface of Indian culture without digging to its true richness – faith, respect, honor, love and purity – which the gods bestowed upon them.
Sources: Books Grihault, Nicki. Culture Smart! India. Random House, 1996. Perry, Marvin. A History of the World. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1985. Websites Jayaram V. “Hinduism and Women.” Hinduwebsite. 17 July 2009 <http://www.hinduwebsite.com/hinduism/h_women.asp> Kamat, Vikas. “India’s Arranged Marriages.” 1 Jun. 2005. 8 Aug. 2009 <http://www.kamat.com/indica/culture/sub-cultures/arranged_marriage.htm> Murthy, J. S. “Restorative Justice and India’s Caste System.” New World Outlook. 1 Aug 2009. <http://gbgm-umc.org/nwo/99ja/india2.html>
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