A Personal Journey: The Hindu Way Of Life And Constant Change
As a Hindu woman, I believe there are enough traditions that give me special status and primacy. There are many spaces that I can claim as my exclusive domain, without feeling the need to fight for the odd exceptions.
As the philosophers have long said, the only thing that is constant is change. Evolution is the natural order of the world. Change happens in various ways.
Real, long-lasting change usually comes from within, after reflection and deliberation. It happens silently, away from the shrill headlines, and transforms societies.
Recently there has been heated debates on the entry of women in a few Hindu temples. Some women’s groups have objected to the exclusion and have petitioned the courts.
I personally don’t have a strong view on the matter. As a Hindu woman, I believe there are enough traditions that give me special status and primacy. There are many spaces that I can claim as my exclusive domain, without feeling the need to fight for the odd exceptions.
However, there are clearly women who think differently. The exclusion in specific temples seems bother them greatly, and they have every right to fight their battle using all legal means.
My objection is to judicial overreach, and discriminatory treatment towards Hindu affairs. But that is a separate debate for another day. This article is about change and organic evolution of Hindu traditions, as I have experienced in my own family.
I was born into a large, ultra-conservative Brahmin clan in Assam. The matriarch of my mother’s family was buri-aita (old grandmother); a frail woman, whose word was law. For my siblings and I, she was the beloved family storyteller, and the follower of bizarre customs.
Widowed at eighteen, buri-aita brought up her two sons alone, and dutifully followed every Brahminical rule imposed by tradition, without complaint. She wore no jewellery or make up, dressed in pure white, and followed a rigid diet that required giving up meat and many other things, which she had once enjoyed.
Every morning, after her bath and prayers, she cooked her own food, in a separate kitchen. If anyone touched her before the cooking was over, she would bathe and start all over again.
Her daughters-in-law were not allowed to eat out, except in the homes of relatives. They wore the traditional mekhla chadar (two piece saree) and covered their head in front of elders. During menstruation, they stayed away from the kitchen. The list of dos and don’ts was extensive, but it was a way of life, and no one questioned them.
When my mother and her siblings came along, buri-aita continued with her customs, but recognized that the world of her grandchildren was different. Many rules for them were relaxed. They were allowed to eat out, including at the homes of their Muslim friends. The girls were allowed to wear modern sarees, and experiment with fashion. This big shift was implemented without much ado.
Then came the big challenge to the family’s way of life. My uncle fell in love and married outside the community. The elders didn’t tell buri-aita as they feared she would die of shock. After weeks of deliberation, when they mustered the courage to break the news, buri-aita went quiet for a while. Then she said, “She is the daughter-in-law of our house. Why haven’t you brought her home?” It was as simple as that, yet it represented monumental change.
Years later, my father died suddenly, leaving behind a young widow and three children. In the midst of her personal turmoil, my mother took a decision, which in many ways became the foundation for who I am. She informed the gathered clan that she would not follow any of the widow traditions. “My children have already lost a father”, she said. “They will not lose their mother as well”. With those words buri-aita’s granddaughter turned age-old customs and family tradition on its head. All the members of the clan supported her, and a paradigm shift happened, without fuss.
This is a snapshot of my family’s evolution, but the process is not unique to me. Such change is happening across India, from the smallest village to the metros. The process of questioning and churn, which is an intrinsic part of the Hindu philosophy, is going on every single day.
Ultra conservative friends have educated their children and set them free to choose their food habits, dress, and life partners. That is change. Girls are refusing to marry men who seek dowry. That is change. Women are performing the last rites of their parents. That is change. These are just a few examples, and you can see them everywhere.
As the philosophers have long said, the only thing that is constant is change. Evolution is the natural order of the world. Change happens in various ways. One can force it with a sledgehammer or allow it to happen organically. Sledgehammer tactics are dramatic and attention grabbing. But real, long-lasting change usually comes from within, after reflection and deliberation. It happens silently, away from the shrill headlines, and transforms societies.
I would like to end by emphasizing two critical points. First, this process of evolution in Hinduism is not a modern construct. It has been going on since Vedic times. What we consider tradition today was once an innovation. Second, even as we have continuously evolved, we have held on to the core values of our civilization. Indeed, this very process of evolution is one of the core values.
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