We are one of the oldest civilisations on this planet. By many accounts, we were also one of the wisest. Yet, that wisdom seems to have stagnated for several centuries now. These days, we have become so engrossed in the surface learnings from the West, that we have forgotten the lessons that our ancestors taught us. Lessons on introspection, the art of asking questions, of evolving with time. It would not be wrong to say that in many ways we have decided to stop our mental evolution. We want to stay within the safety of some ideas that we remember from the past. And this kind of thinking is what has led to the taboo that surrounds so many aspects of our lives even today. Sadly, the worst hit in all of this is women.
Taboos keep changing in number and reasoning from region to region. There are several cultural taboos in India. Some more dangerous than the others. Other stronger than some. We can only hope for change if we understand where these taboos come from. Here are 5 topics that are considered taboo in Indian culture and why!
1. Inter-religion and inter-caste marriages
The majority of the country still believes that one should marry within their religion and caste. Although for many in the urban, upper-middle-class and above families, these issues don’t matter any more. But the vast majority of the country still lives in small villages and cities where ancient beliefs still prevail. There are several factors behind the prevalence of this taboo. Many believe that marrying outside one’s caste or religion is a sin. It is believed that such an act leads to the couple, their offspring, and their families, all being cursed for eternity.
Those who don’t believe in such myths find it difficult to challenge societal norms. The “Log kya kahenge” dialogue has been ruining lives in India since God knows how long! We are a society that cares deeply about the opinions of those around us. And it is an undeniable fact that mixed marriages are looked down upon. They are seen as a betrayal to one’s religion or caste. Especially for women. We are a patriarchal society where a couple’s children take their father’s name and religion. In such a society, the mother’s identity gets lost completely. So, even in many metropolitan cities, while it is acceptable for a man to marry outside his religion. Women still have to face an uphill battle just to get married. Followed by a lifetime of gossip about their life.
The East learns from the West in this new world order. So, I can’t call Indians out on their homophobia, knowing that it is a global problem. However, homophobia in our society is a sign of our intellectual regression. Especially because homosexuality was accepted in ancient India. In his book “Tritiya-Prakriti: People of the Third Sex”, writer Amara Das Wilhelm talks extensively about the existence of homosexuals and the third gender in ancient India. The book contains extensive research of ancient Sanskrit texts. And concludes that homosexuality was accepted by the society back then.
The world-renowned book, Kama Sutra, also mentions ‘Swarinis’ who were women who married one another and raised children together. Sculptures of the Khajuraho temple in Madhya Pradesh depict people of the same gender engaging in sexual acts. Bhagirathi is a King of ancient India who is said to have been born to two queens. Of course, the tale involves a magic potion that made them pregnant with the former king’s child. And the interpretations of these and many other mentions changes depending upon whether you are talking to a liberal or a homophobe. But the way Indians today see homosexuality as unnatural is not an opinion which always existed in this country. We often forget that it was the British who made homosexuality a crime in our law.
3. Sexual desire and the act of making love
It pains me to see how regressive we have become as a society. Once, one of the most liberal civilisations has now become one of the most conservative. For as long as anyone can remember, sex has been seen as a sin in our society. Talking about it or even harbouring sexual desire is considered shameful. While the virility of men is a matter of pride. The sexual desires of women are looked down upon. Essentially reducing women to objects whose purpose is to satisfy the needs of her husband. And pre-marital sex is a sin from which you cannot recover.
But several studies of ancient texts leads me to believe that this wasn’t always our attitude towards the act of lovemaking. After all, one of the most renowned texts on sex and the art of pleasuring was written in India: the Kama Sutra. The fact that we are one of the most populated countries in the world, reveals our hypocrisy on another level. With one or two short verses, Vatsyayana rejects the possibility that the sexual act is intended only to produce children. One of the things that distinguish human beings from animals’ sex, he points out, is the fact that, unlike animals, human women have sex even when they are not in their fertile period.
4. Divorce and remarriage
One might wonder why all of these taboos revolve around the relationship between two people. Love is an emotion that is at the core of humanity. By controlling the aspects of love in a person’s life, you control them. That is what the Laws of Manu aim to do about women. And the ignorant men of our time choose to follow those laws as they ensure male superiority. In our society, being in an abusive and sad marriage is considered better than getting divorced. It is always the women who seek divorce who are blamed for the end of her marriage. Because of this, it is far easier for a divorced man to get married than a divorced woman.
Many ancient texts describe divorced or widowed women as second-hand objects. And even today, women who seek divorce live a life of shame and ridicule. Things aren’t easier for widowed women either. And why would any of this not make sense? After all, we are a society that believes it is a matter of great pride to stay in a bad marriage. And even the family of the tormented women discourages her from seeking a divorce.
When I was in the 7th standard, a friend of mine showed me a side of India, that I never knew existed. Her grandmother made her stay in a separate room outside the main house all 7 days of her periods. This friend wasn’t from a backward village. She was from the city of Kanpur. This itself should show how widely spread the taboo around menstruation are. In many regions, menstrual blood is considered to be ‘sin’ leaving the body. The shame that we are made to feel about our body extends to its biological processes too. Menstrual blood is seen as impure and dirty, simply by the virtue of where it comes out from. This taboo around menstruation is the cause behind the lack of menstrual hygiene awareness in India. Problems arising from this lead to so many diseases and deaths among women.