Lately, there’s been a lot of talk amongst my buddies about what drives the expensive social conservatism we see during our various social and religious ceremonies. There is, of course, the cash-flashing wealth-waving syndrome that leads to obscene shows of buying power, and the media-spurred my-faiwytale-wedding delusion, but what spurs people with sensible plans and ideological commitments to chuck it all and take a nose-dive into these proforma spectacles of self-destructive wastage?
In a country like India, where power comes in many forms and from many different sources — age, caste, gender, class, senior social roles, perceived religious devotion, nobleness of profession (teaching, for example) — I’d say that apart from the usual suspects, embittered failures in roles of familial power — parents, the elder brother/sister, the oldest son of a family and so on — play an enormous role in enforcing this socio-religious conservatism. This is not to say that successful people with genuine affection for their families cannot be socially conservative, but in the specific case of bitter underachievers, reverting to traditions crafted for the patriarchal family head in a very different economic era allows them, temporarily, to become directors instead of dependants. The more rules and strictures they reinforce, the more power and control they have.
Rituals and ceremonies are their particular triumphs, since during them, they can reduce their more successful kin to temporary penury (or close), their level of lack by insisting things be ‘properly’ done at enormous expense, almost none of which they bear themselves. The worst aspect of this entire situation, perhaps, is that we have an automatic pity-flavoured weakness for the weak and dependent amongst us, and for these brief periods, give them free(ish) rein over our lives out of affection or sympathy (or adherence to social hierarchy), not realising the undercurrent of malice that such indulgence feeds. Indeed, I would say most people practising such malice don’t realise they are being malicious either. They take their socially-assigned roles seriously, and quite successfully hide their subconscious jealousy and vengefulness even from themselves by dressing them in the righteous garbs of culture, tradition and propriety.
This is aided, in Hindu society, by a complete ignorance of what Hinduism accommodates and entails. A very practical set of scriptural directives have been drowned under a collage of folk practices over the centuries, and since first-hand knowledge of Hinduism requires actual scholarship (and a broad, receptive mind), most self-identified Hindus go with the flow of simplistic homogenised inventions and outright aberrations, firmly convinced they’re treading the path of their ancestors a million times removed. If today I get married, and decide to serve roast beef and fried pork at the wedding feast, it will be an absolute phenomenon. I would find no caterers, people would nervously offer lame excuses for not attending, and those attending might think they’re being revolutionaries breaking stupid ‘Hindu’ rigour. But even for a few centuries after Budhha’s death, roast calves and fried pork were centrepieces of Hindu daily and ceremonial eating, in combination with deer, rabbits, boar, various birds, ghee, rice, barley, and honey/sugar/thickened milk based sweets. But I digress.
The point is, in a social system where there are competing structures of power, every time you mark a social milestone in your life, unless you have genuinely loving and/or sympathetic kinsfolk in positions of familial power, or people secure enough in themselves to either aid you or allow you the freedom of choice, be prepared to either incur considerable financial damage in the name of maintaining the social fabric, or causing breaches in the family, for which you shall bear all the blame. After you have spend a smaller but still considerable amount in marking the milestone anyway.
It’s called social living. Or the tyranny of the weak.