Family

Social research in recent years has emphasized the primacy of the family over the individual in Hindu and other societies outside North America and western Europe. Hindu individuals were more likely to define themselves with reference to the extended family (kula) as a corporate unit. Social responsibilities, which constitute underpinnings for the concept of dharma, rather than individual rights, were clearly the priority among ethical concerns. Except in some parts of South India, primarily Kerala, the family was patrilinear, patriarchal, and patrilocal, though the authority of the patriarch was limited by traditional law. He did not have the right to dispose of family property arbitrarily, nor did he have complete control over the lives of family members.

The ritual of sraddha, whereby dead ancestors retained a presence, sustained by the living, was a powerful force in shaping the character of Hindu family life. A male descendant to perform the sraddha, a ritual offering of rice balls (!), was needed not only to sustain the ancestral lineage but also to avoid one's own suffering in the afterlife. In view of heavy child mortality, it was incumbent upon families to produce as many children as possible, in the hope that at least one surviving son would maintain the lineage, attend to the spiritual needs of the ancestors, and contribute to the economic well-being of the family.

A Hindu wife was integrated into her husband's family, and theoretically (though not always in practice) completely subordinate to him. In many communities it was considered indecent to leave a girl unmarried after her first menstruation, and marriage normally required the payment of a heavy dowry. Thus, the birth of a daughter was often looked on as a misfortune. Although female infanticide has been practiced and persists in some parts of India, the practice is completely without foundation in the Hindu scriptures, which look upon abortion and infanticide as grave forms of murder.

Prospective parents employed various techniques to increase their chances of bearing a male, rather than female, child. Diet and activities of a pregnant woman were believed to influence the sex, physical features, and character of the offspring. Treatises of Ayurveda advise that intercourse on even days after the onset of menstruation produces sons, and on odd days it produces daughters (Caraka, iv. 8. 5). Pumsavana rites to alter the sex of a recently conceived embryo and ensure the birth of a male child are discussed in the texts of Ayurveda. They are also discussed in religious treatises of the Veda and other texts that detail proper Hindu codes of conduct (dharmasastra) (Kane).

In recent years profitable ultrasound clinics have proliferated in India, in some states illegally, to make use of modern technology to identify and abort female fetuses. Responding to a culturally based gender bias and a persisting dowry system that taints perceptions of female children as economic liabilities, this ultrasound technology challenges the viability of pumsavana clinics previously established in some Ayurvedic hospitals and employing traditional Hindu medical methods for assuring the birth of male children.

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