IMMORAL HINDU PRACTICES DISALLOWED IN MY MOTHERLAND
Posted on January 28th, 2011
Dr. Daya Hewapathirane
It is often overlooked but is necessary to highlight in a most prominent manner that Buddhism, the foundation of our nation’s culture prevented many discriminatory and criminal practices and cultural norms of Hindu Indians from being adopted in our country. We are indebted to and revere the founders and guardians of our nation “”…” our Sinhala royalty and nobility and our esteemed Mahasangha for protecting our nation from these extreme forms of Hindu Indian prejudices, injustice and violence. In spite of being exposed to Hindu India from historic times and in spite of our country being under the control of Hindu Dravidians for varying periods of time in the past, Buddhist principles and cultural norms which form the basis of our nations culture protected our nation and disallowed our people from observing unhealthy and undesirable Hindu cultural norms widely practiced in India. These immoral practices of Indian Hindus, being completely contrary to Buddhist teachings and social norms were not acceptable to our people. In fact, they shunned these gruesome practices of Hindus. This is a clear case of our people not being prone to blindly accepting whatever cultural norms that came to us from India. Compatibility with Buddhist principles and adaptability to suit Buddhist norms were fundamental considerations in the incorporation of elements of other cultures into to our own. This has resulted in the development in Sri Lanka of a national culture that is unique to us, a culture that strongly reflects Buddhist ethics and Buddhist principles. Our nation’s unique Buddhist social structure is indigenous to our nation, it is home grown, and therefore gives our nation a distinct identity as a highly refined, virtuous, ethical, gracious and honourable nation.
Cultural norms of our nation are founded on values cherished by our Sinhala Buddhist civilization. These values inculcated in us by the Buddha Dhamma have been upheld by our people for over 2300 years. A fundamental value that Buddhism imbibes in people is that life is precious, that all sentient beings desire to live, fear death, harm and suffering and that one should act in such a way that would guarantee the safety of life of all, along with their possessions and belongings. The Buddha’s teaching emphasizes boundless compassion to all living beings. The first precept of a Buddhist is that “I shall commit to myself that I shall not kill”. Buddhism does not teach or give a license to kill to suit one’s needs or because it is in-keeping with religious beliefs. The Buddha admonished his followers not to blindly hang on to beliefs, upholding them as the sole truth and denouncing the rest as false, for such an attitude is a primary source of conflict. Buddhism teaches that the act of harm or kill will come behind you and you will have to face the same repercussions either in this birth or the next birth, and when it so happens you will have no place to hide. What is taught in Buddhism is not only to avoid taking any kind of life, but also not to praise and promote violence, brutality and hostility. Non-violence and non-cruelty are the fundamental principles in Buddhism.
The Buddha expounded that the phenomenal world that we inhabit, is engulfed in the “fires” of greed, hatred and delusion raging fiercely in the hearts of people and they are the basic cause of suffering in human existence. It is the struggle associated with the impulses of these three mental poisons that causes so much pain, distress and destruction in human society. This is clearly evident when we try to understand the Hindu attitude towards children and women as enumerated in the foregoing paragraphs titled “ƒ”¹…”Killing infant females’ and “ƒ”¹…”Dowry Related Killings’ in India.
KILLING INFANT FEMALES
It is a common and widespread practice among the Hindus of India to kill infant females and abort female fetuses because of the obsession among these Hindu Indians for sons. This has been one of the most horrendous traditional practices and in fact, a criminal social norm of Hindu India from early times. The dowry system as practiced in India as an indispensable custom in Hindu marriages is the reason for this appalling community practice. The Indian Hindu dowry system requires the family to pay out a huge amount of money when a female child is married. Therefore, for a poor family, the birth of a girl can signal the beginning of financial ruin and hardship. Much of this utterly discriminatory criminal anti-female bias is to do with cultural beliefs and social norms of Hindu Indians. What is noteworthy is the fact that this ghastly custom is by no means, exclusive to poor Hindus, but prevails irrespective of the social and economic status and educational exposure of Hindu Indians, wherever they may live in the sub continent. By avoiding or preventing a girl being born, a family can avoid paying a large dowry on the marriage of their daughter. Girls with older sisters are often subject to the highest risk of mortality.
In Hindu India, sons are the parent’s only source of security in old age. This is particularly so where women have little economic independence or cannot inherit property. Son preference is also strong because in India women have fewer opportunities to earn income and invest household resources in female children. In Hindu tradition, sons are needed by Hindus for the cremation of deceased parents. Only sons can light the funeral pyre. It is a strong belief among Hindus that sons help in the salvation of the souls of dead parents by performing the ritual called “pind daan”. In the Hindu tradition, only sons can pray for and release the souls of dead parents, and only males can perform birth, death and marriage rituals. In contrast, Buddhist funeral ceremony is a very simple rite that can be performed by the widow, the daughter, or anyone else. According to Buddhist thought, future happiness does not depend on funeral rites, but on an individual’s actions while living.
India is a country with the most pervasive preference for sons and one of the highest levels of child mortality for girls in the world. Child mortality for girls exceeds that of boys by 43%. According to a recent report of the United Nations Children’s Fund, up to 50 million females are missing from India’s population as a result of systematic gender discrimination. In other words, about 50 million girls and women are killed or disappear in India every year owing to this criminal socio-cultural norm among Hindus. In India, there are less than 93 women for every 100 men in the population. The accepted reason for such disparity is the popular practice of female infanticide in India. In the year 2000, 68 of 1000 girls reported to have been born in India did not live beyond their first birthday and 86 of 1000 births did not live beyond age five.
According to the UNESCO, the problem is getting worse as scientific methods of detecting the sex of a baby and of performing abortions is improving in India. Diagnostic teams with ultrasound scanners detecting the sex of a child are commonly available all over India. They advertise with catch lines such as “spend 600 rupees now and save 50,000 rupees later”. These methods are becoming increasingly available in rural areas of India, and the trend towards the abortion of female fetuses is on the increase. Tamil Nadu, Karnataka, Rajasthan, Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, Punjab, and Gujarat are the provinces with the strongest preference for sons. This was revealed by the National Family Health Survey of India conducted in 1992-93. The first two provinces “”…” Tamil Nadu and Karnataka are the foremost Dravidian provinces of India with a combined population that exceeds 120 million. Tamil Nadu is the homeland of the Tamils wherever in the world they live, and culturally linked closely with the Tamils of Sri Lanka. It is well known that caste is a primary component of Tamil culture in Sri Lanka. Hindu religious practices among Tamils have reinforced their caste system. In fact, people of so-called low castes are not allowed in Hindu Shrines patronized by the so called high caste Hindu Tamils. The savage Tamil LTTE terrorist movement clearly reflected caste differences and rivalries. These terrorists were generally drawn from the Tamil fisherman caste which is a so-called low caste among the Tamils.
It is ironical, in fact hypocritical, that alongside the differential treatment and for that matter discrimination in the most extreme forms against females, the Hindus hold several Goddesses in high esteem and special kovils are built to venerate them. According to the Hindu religion, the Supreme Being has both masculine and feminine traits and the female part is as important as the male part. Among prominent goddesses in Hinduism are Durga symbolizing moral order and righteousness, Lakshmi symbolizing wealth and fortune “”…” material and spiritual, Saraswathi symbolizing arts, music, knowledge and wisdom and considered as the consort of Brahma the creator of the universe in the Hindu religion, Kali who is the violent and ferocious of all goddesses and is referred to as goddess of death and Parvathi who the consort of Shiva, the trinity god in Hinduism. How can Hindu males venerate female goddesses while indulging in or subscribing to gruesome criminal actions against females in their day to day lives?
For whatever reasons some Sinhala Buddhists also venerate a few of these Hindu goddesses but what is important to note is that there is no hypocrisy as far as the attitude of these Buddhists are concerned, because unlike their Hindu counterparts, Sinhala Buddhists do not subscribe to the differential treatment and discrimination against women in the real world they live in. Also, it is noteworthy that Buddhists hold motherhood in high esteem irrespective of the gender composition of her family. Mothers may have special attention for her sons but not at the expense of her daughters. In Buddhism, motherhood is considered as a position of high responsibility and respectability. Highlighting this special position of the mother, the Buddha raised the status of women in society. The Buddha said that a person has none else as worthy of honour and respect as one’s own mother. In Buddhism, the woman as the mother is always mentioned first when referring to the parental pair in the compound form “mata-pita”. The father is considered as playing a secondary role in bringing up children. In his discourses the Buddha highlights the close intimacy in the relationship between mother and her offspring, showing that none else can provide that love and protection of a mother to her offspring. When a mother fails in her duty as a mother, neglects or ill-treats her children, the impact of such action on the children is highly injurious.
DOWRY RELATED KILLINGS
There are deep rooted prejudices against women in India. Cultural practices such as the payment of dowry tend to subordinate women in Indian society. Although the dowry was legally prohibited in 1961, it continues to be highly institutionalized and grooms often demand a dowry consisting of a large sum of money, farm animals, furniture, and electronics. The practice of dowry abuse is rising in India. When the dowry amount is not considered sufficient or is not forthcoming, the bride is often harassed, abused and made miserable. This abuse can escalate to the point where the husband or his family burns the bride, often by pouring kerosene on her and lighting it and killing her. Such killings are reported as accidents or suicides by the family.
In Delhi, a woman is burned to death almost every twelve hours. The number of dowry murders shows an increasing trend. A 1997 government report stated that at least 5000 women die each year because of dowry deaths, and at least a dozen die each day in “kitchen fires” which are intentional. These official records are under-reported to a great extent. According to the 1997 report dowry deaths are showing an increasing trend. Convictions being rare, and judges who are usually men are often uninterested and susceptible to bribery. The lack of official registration of this crime is well evident in Delhi, where 90% of cases of women burnt were recorded as accidents, 05% as suicide and only the remaining 05% percent were shown as murder. The maternal mortality in India is the second highest in the world.
LOW STATUS OF WOMEN
The low status of women in India is confirmed by the Human Development Report (1995) of the United Nations Development Programme where the status of women in India is placed in the bottom one fourth (1/4) of all 195 countries in the world. There are approximately 10 million prostitutes in India (Human Rights Watch, Robert I. Freidman, “India’s Shame: Sexual Slavery”¦,” The Nation, 8 April 1996). There are 300,000-500,000 children in prostitution in India (Rahul Bedi, “Bid To Protect Children As Sex Tourism Spreads”, London’s Daily Telegraph, 23 August, 1997). The “ƒ”¹…”devadasi’ tradition prevalent in many parts of India, prominently in Dravidian Karnataka province, continues to legitimize child prostitution. Tamil Nadu, Karnataka, Andhra Pradesh and Maharashtra are considered “high supply zones” for women in prostitution (Central Welfare Board, Meena Menon, and “The Unknown Faces”). In the Districts bordering Karnataka and Maharashtra known as the “devadasi belt”, women are in prostitution either because their husbands deserted them, or they are trafficked through coercion and deception. A devadasi is a woman married to a god and many of them are dedicated into prostitution for a goddess named Yellamma. Tamil Nadu Hindu leaders such as Jayalalitha will be doing a better service by her Tamil people if her attention is focused on uplifting the low status of women in Tamil Nadu where prostitution is rampant.
In 1997, there were reports of Indian armed forces arresting, torturing and molesting women and girls in Kashmir. Every day the local newspapers report such incidences. (KASHNet, Human Rights Information Network, 14 August 1997). Women and girls have been systematically brutalized and raped by Indian forces in house to house searches in Kashmir between October 1996 and December 1997. (“Rape and Molestation: A Weapon of War in Kashmir,” The Institute of Kashmir Studies,” 1998). Here, it is relevant to note that, withdrawing their earlier allegation against our armed forces, the USA State Department declared later that there have been no reports that rape and sexual abuse were used as tools of war in Sri Lanka by our Military forces unlike in other conflict areas around the world. It is noteworthy that our Military forces are basically composed of Sinhala Buddhists and are guided by Buddhist values.
SRI LANKAN SITUATION: IMPACT OF BUDDHISM
The Buddha’s liberal attitude toward women had a great impact on the behavior of both men and women in Buddhist societies. The Buddhist doctrine of salvation through an individual’s own efforts presupposes the spiritual equality of all beings, male and female. This assertion of women’s spiritual equality, explicitly enunciated in the texts has had a significant impact on social structures and how women are viewed in the world. Women and men alike are able to attain the Buddhist goal by following the prescribed path; no external assistance in the form of a priestly intermediary or veneration of a husband is necessary as in the case of Hinduism. The Buddha condemned the caste structure dominated by Brahmins and denounced excessive ritual and sacrifice.
Understanding the culture of our nation involves knowing the basic values developed and promoted in Buddhism. They have exerted the greatest impact on all aspects of life in our motherland. Whether one calls Buddhism a religion or a philosophy, it is a way of life for mankind so that all beings who are here and everywhere live in comfort and security, without any threat on anybody’s account, to their continuance and survival- “Sukhino va khemino hontu sabbe satta bhavantu sukhitatta”.
As an integral part of the Buddhist spiritual path, compassion is a state of mind that is non-violent, non-harming and non-aggressive. It is a mental attitude based on the wish for others to be free of their suffering and is associated with a sense of commitment, responsibility and respect towards the other. Genuine compassion is based on the rationale that all human beings have an innate desire to be happy and overcome suffering. They have the natural right to fulfill this fundamental aspiration. On the basis of the recognition of this equality and commonality, one develops a sense of affinity and closeness with others. With this foundation one can feel compassion regardless of whether one views the other person as a male or female, infant, child or adult, Hindu, Muslim Buddhist or Christian of whatever caste. It is based on the other’s fundamental rights rather than your own mental projection.
INNER DISCIPLINE OF BUDDHISTS
Gaining peace and tranquility of mind is what Buddhists seek because it is such a mind that enables the development of wisdom and insight and thereby the experience of true happiness. It is the cultivation of one’s mind that is central to Buddhism and not the observance of dogmas and beliefs. Inner transformation by one’s own efforts is what Buddhists strive to attain. Inner discipline is the basis of Buddhist spiritual life and this involves combating negative states of mind such as anger, hatred, greed, and jealousy and the cultivation of positive states of mind such as compassion, kindness, tolerance and caring.
“Greed” indicates uncontrolled desire for, and attachment to material and other forms of worldly comforts, for wealth, dowry, power, fame and sons instead of daughters. The impulse of “hatred” involves resentment, rage and envy that are triggered when our egocentric desires are not fulfilled. These escalate into various forms of destruction and violence like in the case of aborting female fetuses, getting rid of female infants and discriminatory treatment of daughters as opposed to sons in Hindu families. “Delusion” refers to willful ignorance of reality or the ignorance of the true nature of life and the world. The wisdom that illuminates and reveals the true nature of life is referred to in Buddhism as “enlightenment.” Delusion clouds and obscures the light by which one might see things in their true nature. It makes one believe in something that contradicts reality.
BUDDHIST PRINCIPLES: THE FOUNDATION OF OUR NATION
Buddhist values are geared at developing a social ethic which, would contribute to co-existence, mutual understanding, co-operation and total harmony. It is to achieve this goal that Buddhism very strongly upholds that mankind is of one species, and hence everyone should be charitable and liberal towards the others, be pleasant in speech to them, do whatever is beneficial to them and above all, be impartial and treat all equally. To strengthen impartiality, people are advised not to succumb to biases and prejudices not to give in to hatred, fear, confusion, but to rise above them and do what is righteous. This concept of righteousness, which is designated by the term “ƒ”¹…”Dhamma’ in fact, provides the firm foundation for the whole of Buddhist culture. The general admonition is to do what is righteous or Dhamma and avoid what is unrighteous or adhamma and what is righteous is what is beneficial to one and others, as well.
On this basis all that is beneficial to oneself and others is considered meritorious or Punna and wholesome or Kusala and their opposites as demeritorious or Paapa and unwholesome or akusala. As Stanza No. 183 of the Dhammapada states: Not to do any evil, to cultivate good, to purify one’s mind “”…” this is the Teaching of the Buddhas. It is on this basic teaching that Buddhist values are developed, lives are moulded and social relations are cultivated. This explains why Buddhist culture attempts to nurture in the people a feeling for others, to mutually share with others moments of happiness and joy, to show respect to elders, to care for parents to attend on the sick and destitute, to honour and respect those who are deserving, to treat guests and visitors with friendliness and affection. These values brought and taught by Buddhism have sunk deep into the ethos of our people. The Panchaseela or five ethical precepts for lay persons provide additional content to the Buddhist conception of social institutions and conceptions of the good. These precepts enjoin refraining from killing, stealing, lying, sexual misconduct and intoxication. Put together, and viewed in a social context, they together constitute advice against violence and actions likely to sow discord, and advice towards openness and integrity. These more general values can inform the development of social institutions.
NO SEX PREFERANCE
Sri Lanka’s Constitution guarantees equal rights without discrimination on grounds of sex and provides for affirmative action to ensure equal rights. In 1993, a “WOMEN’S CHARTER” became law, providing greater policy coherence on women’s issues and this Charter has been accepted as the cornerstone of all policy decisions on women by successive governments. A democratic society founded on Buddhist principles enshrined in its social order and institutions has a greater prospect for success, greater prospects for providing its citizenry with good lives and in fact greater claim to moral legitimacy. Generally in Sri Lanka, especially among the Sinhala people, there is no sex preference for males in child birth. In fact, having a daughter as the first child is considered as a blessing and a good omen for the new family. Also, dowry is not a primary consideration in most marriages in the Sinhala community. In some arranged marriages the girls’ party may declare prior to decision on marriage whatever that is offered as dowry for their child. Often it is left to parents to offer what they could in whatever form, for their daughter, as a form of material assistance for the new couple to establish themselves comfortably. In fact, in most arranged marriages the socio-economic standing of both parties, including property ownership, financial standing, education and professional status are primary considerations.
DAUGHTERS ARE ECONOMIC ASSETS
In contrast to the situation in India and other South Asian countries in general, in Sri Lanka, increased economic opportunities for women have resulted in parents regarding their daughters as economic assets rather than as liabilities. Increased opportunities of education for female children have led to an increase in their income-earning potential and thereby raise their economic value to their parents. Compared with other Southern and South Asian countries, the status of women in Sri Lanka is found to be more advanced. The many social welfare programmes of post-independence decades have helped to create favourable conditions for women, promoting greater participation of women in the development process. These include (a) rapid expansion of literacy and educational attainment of women, (b) improved life expectancy and decline in fertility and (c) wider participation of women in formal and informal economic activities.
Female literacy is quite high at 87% in Sri Lanka for several years. Female literacy in urban areas is 91%, while the rural rate is 78%. School attendance is equally high for both sexes at 84 per cent. In 1987, nearly 60 per cent of married women in the age group 15-49 years had an education beyond the primary level. The percentage of women entering universities in Sri Lanka has increased to 54.3%. About 50% of our school going population consists of girls. According to the New Internationalist, Issue 240 – February 1993, in developing countries of Asia and Africa, fewer girls than boys go to school and they spend fewer years there. Out of 100 million children not in primary school, two-thirds are girls.
The maternal mortality ratio is 32 per 100,000, the lowest in South Asia, whilst the child mortality rate under the age of 5 has declined to 10.2% per thousand live births. The average life expectancy of women in Sri Lanka is 76 years which surpasses the male life expectancy rate.
The economic participation of women in the modern sector has shown a marked increase in recent years and has helped to improve their social mobility. In manufacturing industries and export oriented modern industry about half of the total employed are women. Increased employment opportunities for women have given them a high degree of economic independence and personal freedom. With the opening up of foreign employment opportunities many women in our society play a constructive role in improving the economic conditions of their families by working abroad. Today 48% of our overseas workers comprise women. In the higher echelons of the public service and in the professional categories in the private sector women are increasingly playing a key role. In urban areas, many women are higher wage earners than their male spouses.
DIFFERENCE BETWEEN BUDDHIST AND HINDU MARRIAGES
In Buddhism, unlike in Hinduism and Christianity, marriage is not a sacrament. It is a purely secular contract. In the Sigaalovaada Sutta the Buddha gives advice of a very practical nature to a young layman on how spouses should treat one another. The marital union is approached in a spirit of warm fellowship. The marital relationship is a reciprocal one with mutual rights and obligations, which is a momentous departure from Hindu ideas of marriage. The significant point is that the Buddha’s injunctions are applicable to both parties.
In ancient India a widow was expected to lead a life of strict celibacy and severe austerity upon the demise of her husband, for she was thought to be bound to him beyond death. With the death of husband she loses her social and religious status. In Buddhism, by contrast, death is considered a natural and inevitable end for all beings. As a result, a woman suffers no moral degradation on account of widowhood, nor is her social status altered in any way. In Sri Lankan society, a widow does not have to proclaim her widowhood in any tangible way, such as relinquishing her ornaments, shaving her head, or practicing self-mortification. The remarriage of widows is a common practice with no stigma attached. The disgusting sati ritual is unknown in Sri Lanka or any other Buddhist society. In India, in the year 1990, more than 50 widows were burnt alive when their husbands’ bodies were cremated in a ritual known as “sati,” based on the belief that a Hindu woman has no existence independent of her husband. (Sonali Verma, “Indian women still awaiting independence,” Human Rights Information Network: Indi News Network Digest, Volume 2, Issue1648, 16 August 1997).
LESS VULNERABLE TO DISCRIMINATION AND OPPRESSION
What is important to note is that within the family, Sri Lankan women are less vulnerable to discrimination and oppression than their counterparts in India and other South Asian countries. The extreme situations of male dominance such as dowry deaths and widow immolation which are common in Hindu India are unheard of in Sri Lanka. So is the traditional practice of child marriages which is widely prevalent in India and totally non-existent in Sri Lanka. About 40% of the world’s child marriages occur in India. According to UNICEF’s “State of the World’s Children “”…” 2009″ report, 47% of India’s women aged 20to 24 were already married before their legal age of 18, with 56% in rural areas.
These positive comments on the status of women in Sri Lanka do not imply that everything is fine with Sri Lankan women. There are many serious issues and pervasive problems that remain unresolved, such as sexual assault, rape and spousal abuse associated with alcohol abuse, but the fact remains that on a comparative basis, the status of women in Sri Lanka is far better than that of women in India and other countries of South Asia. In general, women in Sri Lanka are relatively free from extreme forms of discrimination and harassment that are characteristic of Indian women and generally of women in other major Asian cultures. The social freedom enjoyed by women in Buddhist societies such as that of Sri Lanka, has evoked comment from many Western observers. A complete lack of segregation of the sexes has distinguished Buddhist societies from those of the Middle East, the Far East, and the Indian subcontinent, where segregation has often lead to the seclusion and confinement of women behind walls and veils.
Dr. Daya Hewapathirane
January 28, 2011