Population Ethics: III. Religious Traditions: G. Hindu Perspectives

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Hinduism includes a complex array of teachings related directly and indirectly to population dynamics (fertility, mortality, and migration) and to the ethics of populationrelated behavior. Its rich heritage spans millennia and embraces diverse populations. Hindus are found in many world regions, both within and beyond South Asia, its area of origin. Hinduism is the predominant religious tradition of India (for a general overview, see Hiltebeitel). It is practiced in one form or another by about 80 percent of the approximately 800 million people living there. Another 20 million Hindus live in nations other than India, including Fiji, Indonesia, Singapore, Guyana, Trinidad, Canada, the United States, and the United Kingdom. Diaspora Hindu communities increased in number and prominence in the United States beginning in the late 1960s, when the law was changed to allow immigration of educated professionals. The construction of major Hindu temples in such cities as Pittsburgh, Chicago, New York, and Washington, D.C., demonstrates the vitality of this international growth.

Basic Hindu teachings on population-related ethics and behavior will have different impacts depending on the context in which Hinduism is practiced. Within a particular locality, socioeconomic class, caste, and ethnicity are associated with differences in awareness of and adherence to Hindu religious teachings. Moreover, social resistance to certain aspects of orthodox Hindu religious teachings is being voiced around the world, particularly by ethnic minorities and women's groups.

This article first considers key aspects of Hindu religious teachings. It then focuses on Hindu values in India and how they contribute to demographic practices and outcomes. Last, it offers some observations on how members of Hindu communities in the United States are revising Hindu values related to population.

Hindu Teachings Related to Population

Several key teachings of Hinduism relate to population dynamics and have implications for how governments might formulate policy. A primary value is on ahimsa (this word combines the prefix a, "non," with himsa, "harm," thus meaning "nonviolence" or "nonkilling"). A well-known source of Hindu teachings on proper behavior, The Laws of Manu (Doniger and Smith), describes the model of four life stages (ashramas): student, householder, celibate, forest dweller. Manu's guidelines about marriage stipulate that the best form involves the father giving a virgin daughter, implying that the marriage is arranged by the parents of the bride and groom. Repeated statements in The Laws of Manu emphasize the importance for a woman of bearing offspring, especially sons. Other popular classical Hindu myths, such as in the epic Mahabharata, contain messages relevant to population. One is that the world is overpopulated, and that renunciation of the world is a valid means for release from personal, familial, and other worldly attachments. Celibacy is honored as reflecting a high level of self-control and spiritual attainment. Teachings about celibacy are linked with a strongly enunciated value on premarital chastity for females.

It is likely that these general teachings are known to Hindus throughout India and across most social divisions. It is also likely that links between people's knowledge of Hinduism and their population practices vary markedly across regions because India's demography differs dramatically by region and class (see Miller, 1981). Fertility is much higher in the northern plains than in the south and east. Mortality is more gender-differentiated in the northern plains, with excess female mortality, and is less severely skewed by gender in the south and east.

Thus we are confronted with a puzzle: Basic Hindu teachings are espoused by India's Hindu population more or less equally, but Hindu demography does not present a smooth pattern. We must therefore assume a loose linkage between Hindu teachings and demographic outcomes such as fertility rates and child survival by gender. In other words, as an explanatory variable affecting population dynamics, Hindu teachings are partial at most.

Population Issues in India

FERTILITY. Reproduction should, according to Hindu cultural norms, take place only within marriage. Stigma is attached to a premarital pregnancy, a situation that may bring serious consequences to the persons involved. A high premium is placed on marriage as a universal life stage through which, ideally, everyone should pass. As a householder, one marries, has children, and raises them. Reproduction is the primary goal of marriage. For Hindu women, the key to auspiciousness (a highly desired status for women that implies the opposite of stigma) involves being married, being devoted to one's husband, and bearing sons. All these values are clearly pronatal.

Hindu values support the bearing of children within marriage, and they emphasize the bearing of sons. Sons provide social security for their aged parents. The social security function of sons is especially marked in the northern Indian kinship system, which is followed strictly by Hindus and Jains. North Indian kinship rules stipulate that a daughter must marry a man from outside her natal village while a married son remains with his parents and brings a bride into his family. Another primary value of Hindus is to have a son light one's funeral pyre; a daughter cannot perform this task. The Sanskrit word for "hell" is put; the word for son, putra, means "the one who saves his ancestors from hell" (May and Heer, p. 200). Given mortality rates of the mid-1960s, demographers estimated that in order for a man to have a son who would be alive when he was sixty-five years old, his wife would have to bear seven children. Preference for male children operates to promote fertility and also plays a role in excess female mortality and indirect fertility reduction as discussed below. Desire for sons prompts families to keep trying until they have one, and then to have a second or third son as well.

The pervasiveness of the Hindu teachings on the value of having sons may be regionally variable in terms of intensity. Social surveys across the nation reveal that a stated preference for sons is stronger in the northern region than in the south and east (Dyson and Moore). This difference arises because socioeconomic factors such as the gender division of labor, marriage and kinship patterns, and the costs of marriage operate to affect the level of son preference (Miller, 1981; Dyson and Moore).

Other important fertility-reducing factors related to Hindu beliefs include ritually determined rules for sexual abstinence that limit the frequency of intercourse. One study found a total of 120 days mentioned for abstention (Nag). Such rules may be linked to a lower frequency of intercourse among Hindus than among Muslims, since the latter do not have such ritually proscribed days. Also important are the positive value placed on male self-control, including control of sexuality, and male anxiety about semen loss (Bottero). No one knows how much of an effect these conditions might have on the frequency of intercourse or actual reproductive rates, but one could posit at least some impact on both compared with non-Hindu populations.

Hindu views concerning widowhood may also lower fertility, since widows should not remarry and therefore should not reproduce (Mandelbaum). Restrictions on widow remarriage most significantly decreases fertility when women are widowed at a young age, as they often are in India.

Direct methods of fertility control, such as condoms, birth-control pills, or sterilization, are not antithetical to Hindu teaching since sexual intercourse is not seen solely as a means to achieve pregnancy. In contrast with this fairly liberal understanding, the famous leader of the independence movement and national hero, Mohandas Gandhi, supported abstinence as the only appropriate contraceptive.

Abortion for sociomedical reasons has long been legally allowed in India, except in the predominantly Muslim state of Kashmir (Chandrasekhar). In spite of legal provisions for abortion, safe services are lacking (Dixon-Mueller). This situation reflects the political priorities of the central and state governments more than religious doctrine.

Sex-selective abortion, a practice begun in the 1980s, is done almost exclusively to abort female fetuses. One study of a large number of hospital births in the Ludhiana area of the state of Punjab in northwestern India found that after 1983, when sex-selection became possible through amniocentesis, the sex ratio at birth rose from a normal of 105 boys per 100 girls to 117 boys per 100 girls in 1989 (Sachar et al.). Many feminist activists in India wish to maintain a woman's right to seek an abortion while striving to ban sex-selective abortion. The debate on prenatal sex selection in the public media in India has been largely secular.

MORTALITY. India is well known for its gender bias in survival of males and females. Hindu teachings that favor males provide the ideological justification for better treatment of males than females. But it is not possible to explain the scarcity of females relative to males in the Indian population solely on Hinduism. North India and neighboring Pakistan, which is predominantly Muslim, have similar gender patterns in mortality. Recent demographic data on China reveal substantial differences in mortality rates between males and females there as well. Economic, political, and social factors are important in explaining this phenomenon.

In the northern plains of India, son preference is linked with behavior termed "daughter neglect" (Miller, 1981, 1987). This neglect, which takes the form of biased allocations of food, medical care, and psychological attention, can be fatal. It skews the sex ratio among children as well as in the general population. In northern India, census data from the first part of the twentieth century indicated that unbalanced juvenile sex ratios favoring boys characterized all major religious groups in the area: Sikhs, Hindus, Muslims, and Jains. Son preference interacts with daughter neglect to create excess female child mortality. The indirect fertilityreducing effect of excess female child mortality is clear: If daughters experience higher mortality than sons, then the number of future childbearers is reduced in comparison with what would be the case without excess female child mortality. In such a demographic regime, the ratio of living sons to daughters is maintained over time, as brides are brought in from other villages and regions to marry sons; thus, no "shortage" of brides to produce future sons is perceived or experienced.

Hindu beliefs seem implicated in the high mortality rates of widows, which are caused by general neglect and nutritional deprivation (Chen and Drèze). More extremely, the low value placed on a woman once her husband has died relates to the uncommon practice of sati, the suicide of a Hindu widow on the funeral pyre of her husband. In general, the value of female self-sacrifice is long-standing in Hinduism, and it supports socialization patterns of girls that train them in self-denial of food and other resources.

MIGRATION. According to traditional Hindu teaching, migration beyond the boundaries of India was grounds for outcasting. Since the late nineteenth century, however, the rate of migration of Hindus outside of India has increased substantially (Madhavan), and anxiety about "outcasting" appears to be nonexistent among migrants. With international migration, Hindu traditions are being reshaped in local contexts.

The United States

In the United States, most Hindus are middle or upper class (Helweg and Helweg), although large populations, especially in New York City and New Jersey, are less well off. Among this employed and generally well-educated population, fertility rates are low, infant and child mortality rates are low, and longevity is high.

The value placed on having a son among the Hindu population of the United States is an important but unresearched question. Undocumented sources indicate numerous cases of demand for prenatal sex determination, in order to keep male fetuses, by South Asian immigrants in the United States and Canada. As of 1994, U.S. law prohibits abortion based on the sex of the fetus, but people circumvent this rule. They may have a test done ostensibly to reveal genetic abnormalities in the fetus and, in the process, find out its sex. If the fetus is female, they go to another doctor and present a story about genetic abnormalities in their family that cannot be proved or disproved because the relatives who are claimed to have the genetic problems are in South Asia. On this basis, the couple requests an abortion.

Within the teachings of Hinduism, nothing specifically argues against sex-selective abortion per se, since traditional teachings do not address the topic of abortion from a gender-specific perspective. This issue will pose a challenge for contemporary theologians and ethicists working within the Hindu tradition.

Another issue being quietly contested in the everyday lives of Hindus and Jains in the United States is premarital chastity. In opposition to the more liberal sexual mores among the general population, many Hindu and Jain parents apply pressures on their children, especially daughters, to maintain their virginity before marriage. Depending on how conservative the family is, more or less intergenerational conflict ensues.

Many Hindu and Jain communities have started Sunday schools (never a tradition in India) and summer camps where religious values are instilled in young children and teenagers. Such values include premarital chastity. At the same time, marked liberalizing changes are being made in some Hindu rituals in the United States, as a response to lowered fertility rates (many Hindu families have only one child) and an interest in treating daughters the same as sons. In the early 1990s, the Hindu-Jain temple of Pittsburgh held its first upanayana (sacred thread) ceremony for girls. Several liberal-minded leaders promoted this reform of Hindu tradition, which restricts the upanayana ceremony to boys of the upper castes.

The Challenge of Change

Neither Hinduism nor population dynamics is static. Contemporary movements in Hinduism range from conservative trends that could be termed fundamentalist to more liberal tendencies among some migrant communities. The greatest challenges to the study of the relationship between Hindu teachings and population lie in the following directions: the links that individuals make in their thinking between Hindu tenets and their own demographic practices; the reactions of Hindu theologians to new questions such as sex-selective abortion; and governments' policies in dealing with such problems as population growth and excess female mortality within a moral framework that would be acceptable to Hindu constituents.

barbara d. miller (1995)

SEE ALSO: Abortion; Adoption; Coercion; Embryo and Fetus: Religious Perspectives; Eugenics and Religious Law; Feminism; Fertility Control; Freedom and Free Will; Genetic Testing and Screening; Harm; Hinduism, Bioethics in; Infanticide; Informed Consent; Justice; Life; Natural Law; Race and Racism; Rights, Human; Sexism;Women, Historical and Cross-Cultural Perspectives; and other Population Ethics subentries


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Chen, Marty, and Drèze, Jean. 1992. "Widows and Health in Rural North India." Economic and Political Weekly of India 27(43–44): W5–81–W5–92.

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Doniger, Wendy, and Smith, Brian K., tr. 1991. The Laws of Manu. New York: Penguin.

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Sachar, R. K.; Verma, J.; Prakash, V.; Chopra, A.; Adhlaka, R.; and Sofat, R. 1990. "The Unwelcome Sex: Female Feticide in India." World Health Forum 11(3): 309–310.

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