We do this to ourselves: India: mistreating the elderly and the young in the name of custom?

I am a proponent of collective consciousness thinking. I believe that we are all webbed together and our blinders prevent us from seeing or knowing this on a day to day basis.

I can rarely find an instant, where one action has not somehow affected another. There are simple examples:

I leave work in a rush, angry over some detail. I am striving to get errands done and arrive home timely. I am in traffic and become angry watching cars ahead of me race through the yield sign and shove their way into the traffic, further delaying my journey because of a lack of courtesy. Miles down the road, I sense a car patiently waiting could use a break, needs some considerate motorist to let them into the traffic so they don’t remain in place for the next hour. Do I notice, do I see, do I allow this person in or do I carry over my anger from my earlier frustrations? Do I in turn now punish this motorist for the ones earlier who almost ran people off the road without care? Do I stop and realize, at times, I may have inadvertantly been the one not slowing at the yield sign, perhaps not out of a lack of deliberate inconsideration, but because I was so in my own world, my own perspective, I simply thought it was “my turn”?

Now, this is just a loose description, the point being is that when you become aware, it is hard to divorce any moment, any action, any word from another.

Today, there are two striking news articles that made me again think: We do this to ourselves. The first is the treatment of “elderly” Hindu woman, the second the treatment of female brides and the price of dowrys.

I saw a picture of a young woman standing in traffic. BBC news entitled its piece: Indian Woman Strips in Dowry Row

This young woman, standing with just underclothes on in traffic and what appears to be a baseball bat in her hand. The picture sounds like a scream to me, I feel that I can hear her soul screaming.

The second article that I keep thinking of was posted on CNN, entitled: Shunned from society, widows flock to city to die:

VRINDAVAN, India (CNN) — Ostracized by society, India’s widows flock to the holy city of Vrindavan waiting to die. They are found on side streets, hunched over with walking canes, their heads shaved and their pain etched by hundreds of deep wrinkles in their faces.





A widow makes her way in Vrindavan, India, where an estimated 15,000 widows live on the streets.


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These Hindu widows, the poorest of the poor, are shunned from society when their husbands die, not for religious reasons, but because of tradition — and because they’re seen as a financial drain on their families.

They cannot remarry. They must not wear jewelry. They are forced to shave their heads and typically wear white. Even their shadows are considered bad luck.

Hindus have long believed that death in Vrindavan will free them from the cycle of life and death. For widows, they hope death will save them from being condemned to such a life again. Video Watch how some widows are rebelling »

“Does it feel good?” says 70-year-old Rada Rani Biswas. “Now I have to loiter just for a bite to eat.”

Biswas speaks with a strong voice, but her spirit is broken. When her husband of 50 years died, she was instantly ostracized by all those she thought loved her, including her son.

“My son tells me: ‘You have grown old. Now who is going to feed you? Go away,’ ” she says, her eyes filling with tears. “What do I do? My pain had no limit.”

As she speaks, she squats in front of one of Vrindavan’s temples, her life reduced to begging for scraps of food.

There are an estimated 40 million widows in India, the least fortunate of them shunned and stripped of the life they lived when they were married.

It’s believed that 15,000 widows live on the streets of Vrindavan, a city of about 55,000 in northern India.

“Widows don’t have many social rights within the family,” says Ranjana Kumari with the Center for Social Research, a group that works to empower women.

The situation is much more extreme within India’s rural community. “There, it is much more tradition-bound; in urban areas, there are more chances and possibilities to live a normal life.”

But the majority of India’s 1.1 billion population is rural. “The government recognizes the problem,” Kumari says. “It can do a lot, but it’s not doing enough.”


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One woman, a widow herself, is working for change. Dr. Mohini Giri has formed an organization called the Guild of Service, which helps destitute women and children.

Giri’s mother was widowed when Giri was 9 years old, and she saw what a struggle it was. Then, Giri lost her husband when she was 50, enduring the social humiliation that comes with being a widow. At times, she was asked not to attend weddings because her presence was considered bad luck.

“Generally all widows are ostracized,” she says. “An educated woman may have money and independence, but even that is snatched away when she becomes a widow. We live in a patriarchal society. Men say that culturally as a widow you cannot do anything: You cannot grow your hair, you should not look beautiful.”

She adds, “It’s the mind-set of society we need to change — not the women.”

Seven years ago, Giri’s organization set up a refuge called Amar Bari, or “My Home,” in Vrindavan. It has become a refuge for about 120 of India’s widows. Giri’s organization is set to open a second home, one that will house another 500 widows.

But as she says, “Mine is but a drop in the bucket.”

At Amar Bari, most widows reject traditional white outfits and grow out their hair. Along the open air corridors that link the house’s courtyard are green wooden doors, leading to dark tiny rooms, home for each widow. Photo See the widows of Vrindavan »

Bent over by osteoporosis, 85-year-old Promita Das meticulously and slowly sweeps the floor just outside her door and then carefully cleans her dishes.

“I came here when I couldn’t work anymore. I used to clean houses,” she says. “Nobody looked after me, nobody loved me. I survived on my own.”

She married at 12 and was widowed at 15. Seventy years later, she finds herself at Amar Bari. “I used to live in front of a temple, but then I came here,” she says….”.

On one end of the spectrum of life, there is mistreatment for not bringing enough into the marriage and the family. On the other end, there is banishment for not having enough left to give after already have given it to everyone else.

I have posted before about the eternal question: why? And yes, as I read these and other stories, my first impulse is to still ask why, but I no longer am convinced that figuring out the “why” will fix these problems. Whose “why” would I begin with? Through whose eyes would I look through first and with whose eyes would I end in trying to figure out the origin?

Other Sources/Viewpoints:

Shubho introduces another view & different statistics:  Atmaav Blogspot

Uprising Radio: Review of Deepa Mehta’s film: Water

India Together: Land Titles & Widows

Widows Rights Organization

WomensENews: 2004 article

America: Debate on caring for elderly patients: family or professionals?

28 thoughts on “We do this to ourselves: India: mistreating the elderly and the young in the name of custom?

  1. One would think that the treatment of one’s aging parents would be generally similar, although not necessarily consistent, throughout the world’s cultures today. How appalling this practice is! It’s criminal!

    Strange how bad examples in “other societies” can make one feel good or proud about your own society.

    Now before we all gleam with pride because that does not happen here, consider just how different life for most widows here would be were it not for the various federal and state programs provided solely as a result of taxes that no one happily contributes too. Even so, who would argue that for many of them, abandoned by their families for one reason or another, spend many nights alone, scared, cold and hungry. If you look closely you will find them amongst the homeless in the cites of our enlighten society.

    Why you ask? Sadly, it is simply in our nature.

  2. IT is amazing that in todays society that such behavior and traditions still prevail. We are all connected and what is done to these women is being done to all of us. This is very sad.
    Thank-you for a well written article which has further educated me.

  3. The only thing this article lacked was direction on how to get involved! I want to help these women and inspirational leaders like Dr. Mohini Giri. I have to think that women all over the world will read this article and think the same thing – where can I sent a contribution?

  4. Carl: I think your words more emphatically spoke of the emotional level of these pieces. You are right, it is criminal to not help anyone who is helpless, let alone those that “helped” for the better part of their better years. Your comments are well received.

  5. B. Kane: the power of your desire to help comes straight through your words. There are a few links above, compliments of CNN where you can help or others can contribute. I have also posted more pieces in the past with links, some under our section Get Out Of The Box and Humanitarian News. If none of these links work for you, stop back and leave us a note, I will be happy to provide more for someone so willing to help others. Namaste B. Kane.

  6. The insinuation that this is a common practice in Hindu society in India today is completely bogus and blatantly untrue.
    Story on India = shocking or exotic. The editors at CNN need to grow out of the elephant/snake-charmer vision of India, seriously.

    The story of the destitute widows of Varanasi is one of human tragedy. But the cruelty meted out to them is an exception, not a rule. It speaks more about the depraved mentality of the children and extended families of the victims who throw them out, than of Hindu society in general. THIS is the distinction that the CNN story conveniently avoids. It’s like reporting a story on the murders of homeless on the streets of America’s cities and leaving the story open-ended to show that that’s how Christian America treats the poorest of its citizens.

    However, it is shameful that such a situation still exists in this day and age in India today, in however small a scale. That said, there is nothing more ironic than an American news organization lecturing Eastern societies on how to take care of the elderly! Coming from a country where there is no concept of ‘respect’, and where it is an accepted part of life to be put in a ‘home’ once you are past your use-by date, only to be visited once every two years by the same children that you once parented, it is a bit rich!!

    For a much more balanced review of this article, I’d suggest http://atmaav.blogspot.com/2007/07/cookie-cutter-analysis.html.

  7. Shubho: greetings.

    Thank you for lending a different perspective to the post.

    CNN does highlight events, as does BBC. I won’t begin in this reply to attempt to analyze and set forth the reasons that drive certain media to portray our world in slices, rather, than in an overview of the entire pie.

    Here at Surface Earth, we try to dive into the dimensions of humanity, to ask, what is the virtual earth?

    People in India no more shun their children and respected elders than those in America. I see above, and it saddened me, that you cite to no respect in America. I think that is only a slice of the entire view of what occurs in America, do you not know of people who sacrifice themselves, their hopes, dreams, their smaller and growing families, their careers and income, to be there day after day to take care of their own?

    I do.

    We can no more say that there are people in India who do not respect their own than we can say that about America.

    At all times, we are talking about individual circumstances of humanity that we must stay aware of and help each other, even when we feel we have no energy to do so, for the good of us all, because in truth, the Earth has no boundaries, but for the ones we inherit and let be drawn.

    I thank you for guiding us to another viewpoint, perhaps one that is more global or a better view of the larger slice of humanity. We will read it.

  8. SurfaceEarth:
    Thank you for your response. My reference to cruelty meted out to the elderly in America was made to put things in perspective.
    I could have picked a country in Europe or Africa, but CNN happens to be based out of Atlanta, and the reporter covering this story is an American.

    The point is, this story speaks about inhuman behaviour. How is that linked to religion?

    Consider the first point in the story’s highlights:
    “India’s Hindu widows can’t remarry, are forced to shave heads and wear white”

    This is blatantly untrue and a gross generalization. A practice that social reformers had started to reform in the mid-1800s. Where does this rookie reporter get off trying to suggest that this is a ‘Hindu’ practice in today’s India? How many people has she spoken with? Where is her raw data?
    I’m Indian. I’m Hindu. I’ve lived more than 30 years of my life all over India. I’ve NEVER seen one single instance of any family where the elderly were disowned. Elders are venerated in Hindu culture. They are very well taken care of, often in spite of severe financial burdens. Because in India there is no difference between your immediate and extended family, you can have old aunts and uncles residing with you till they die. They are honoured and their views are respected. Contrast this with most western societies where even staying with your parents is considered to be some kind of social taboo, and most old people are considered to be some kind of geriatric waste product of society.

    People who abandon their old parents, whether in Vrindavan, or the streets of LA, are scum, and should probably be prosecuted by the law. This reflects on cruelty and heartlessness on an individual scale, and should under no circumstances be extrapolated to point fingers at an entire society based on flimsy evidence collected from a handful of people in a religious town.

    It is sad that such a situation exists in today’s world, and there are innumerable voluntary organizations in India who do exemplary work on these fronts. None of them are mentioned in this article, of course, leading most Indians reading this to get that deja vu feeling again about the mythical ‘white man’s burden’.

    Consider the lines “Hindus have long believed that death in Vrindavan will free them from the cycle of life and death. For widows, they hope death will save them from being condemned to such a life again.”.
    What is the fact that jumps at you from these sentences? As someone who does not live in India or knows India, what is the picture this conjures up?
    This is shoddy reporting, without any idea of what Vrindavan signifies in Hindu culture.

    You cannot take such immense human tragedy and call it a ‘Hindu’ problem, because that is a lie.
    Hinduism does not sanction such cruelty. Whether the author of the article does it because of ignorance or subconscious religious bigotry is debateable.

    At best, this is a human interest story that has been reported in the Indian press from time to time, and has found its way to many works of literature and cinema. There is understanding and compassion in India about the plight of these widows, but as with anything in a country as diverse, populated and frankly, chaotic, as India, change is slow. With a billion people, sometimes the real tragedy is that even human suffering has to be graded and prioritized to aid the most vulnerable first.

  9. Shubho:

    Welcome back and thank you for another articulate comment.

    We must take some responsibility for the version that caused you to comment. Our first post only included reference to the CNN article on widows. We did cite to BBC, but that was a different issue as you know.

    Interesting to note, we did read the article you cited and truly thank you for introduction to that blog. We will post a link to that in our post above. In the meantime, we have done several different searches to see what predominantly comes up on the Internet, and again, the stories of widows in India is of course the ones that draw our attention in the world as we know it. Some call it the attraction of bad news. Others, like a commenter on a different post of ours entitled Trashing Celebreties at https://surfaceearth.wordpress.com/2007/06/26/trashing-celebrities/, helped us as follows:

    “In general, it’s schadenfreude — enjoyment obtained from the troubles of others. It’s terrible, but common. And people delight in “watching the mighty fall”.

    comment provided by Sibbia

    I think, maybe that is part of it, I can delight in being a good person at someone else’s misfortune. In other words, their misfortune allows me to be good.

    On another level, a basic and pure human desire to help others should remain just that, unexamined, unless something else occurs that raises the flags.

    What am I saying Shubho?

    That I think not all press on issues is bad if it raises positive results. Yet, to have a life, a culture you know personally, misaligned, and individuals and family you know misaligned by poor reporting or a distortion of the facts, is a different beast all together.

    We invite you to post here any and all links that you feel will help our readers see the bigger picture.

  10. Pingback: America’s Children or America’s Parents? « Surface Earth: expansion of humanity via the virtual earth

  11. Most cultural practices are rooted in long standing customs and traditions. With the benefit of hindsight, cultural maturity, enlightenment or (more likely) by the pressure of others, the norms of the past are often soured by the perceived norms of the present. But surely this practice couldn’t have been the norm. Or could it have? There was a time when the widows among certain American Indian nations were treated no better. Upon losing their husband, whether in sickness, old age or even in battle; the widows would be stripped of all possessions – everything except the clothes on their back. Their existence depended on the pity of others or what they foraged. They found warmth sleeping among the horses. But surely this practice couldn’t have been the norm. Or could it have?

  12. Interesting, you touch upon what Shubho asked before: what does this have to do with religion?

    I am unsure how to escape the parameters of religion, culture or politics, I find they have a root in most of how we act or what we believe today.

    Of course, we are open to suggestions and a new way of seeing…

  13. The religious beliefs in India are extremely Conditional. Not all are cherished and valued equally. With cattle perceived as more precious then human. There are psychological results of these beliefs to slef esteem, self respect and having a loving self image.

  14. Sue Ann Edwards:

    And your point is?
    In those few sentences you come across to me as probably a bigoted indivudual, whose sparse knowledge of India and its religious beliefs comes from 50’s hollywood’ised ‘Gunga Din’ stereotypes. We really don’t ride elephants to go to school you know? And no, my father wasn’t a snake charmer.

    Go, get an education.

  15. Ok People. I am debating here: free expression or edit?

    I run a non-judgmental site, convinced there are ways to get our points across without shooting arrows.

    With that said, I think if you take a look at Sue’s blog, you will see a lovely personality Shubho.

    Thank you for providing a link, we will check it out.

  16. Shubbo, just because you didn’t like what I said, doesn’t make it untrue. You’re being presumptous, which is fine. I understand. Your feathers are ruffled. You have taken insult where there is none. Just honesty. There is no religious belief anywhere in the world that hasn’t been conditional, India is no exception. I wouldn’t want to leave anyone out or be exclusive.

    The beliefs we choose, what ever they be, have a great deal to do with our psychological makeups. And that applies to each and every one of us. I’m not saying any belief is ‘bad’ or ‘wrong’. I’m simply saying every belief has its costs and consequences. Psychological costs and consequences. That many of us who crow about having our beliefs respected, fail to claim responsibility and accountability for.

    Conditional is not equitable.

  17. Sue Ann Edwards:
    “Just honesty.”

    I beg to differ ma’am. Your comment wasn’t ‘honest’, it was judgemental and condescending. Which would be fine if you had intimate knowledge of the subject you’re talking about. Which you don’t. And I’ll tell you why.

    First of all, your usage of the term ‘conditional’ is vague. I suspect deliberately so.

    Hinduism (or Jainism, Sikhism, Buddhism) is not ‘conditional’, in whichever context you want to use the term.
    Your first comment says “Not all [religious beliefs in India] are cherished and valued equally”. That’s right. But help me out here. That’s bad because?
    Hinduism is the complete anti-thesis to what the west understands religion to be…a well-organized, well-funded, marketable commodity. We don’t ‘sell’ Hinduism. Its beliefs are not peddled door-to-door or on the streets. They are not rammed down anybody’s throats. There is no ‘baptism’ in Hinduism. Everyone is a Hindu. Anyone can partake in it, revel in it, reject it, critisize it, not believe in any of its core beliefs, and STILL be a Hindu. I am an avowed aethist/rationalist and an equally proud Hindu.
    There are no hard-core written commandments we have to follow, and yet there are thousands. There is no god we HAVE to believe in, and yet there are thousands. There is no festival we HAVE to participate in, yet there are hundreds. There are no ‘evil traditions’ we need to believe in, yet there is the caste system (a hyped up, over-blown issue in the west, mainly because of the very vocal and politically well connected, once opressed and now pampered yet disgruntled minority).
    Conditional? I don’t think so.

    “With cattle perceived as more precious then human.”
    What do I say? Let me try.
    “With America today drowing in the morass of Christian religious dogma, it’s only a matter of time before most developing nations overtake the United States in medical research.”
    How’s that for sweeping statements about Americans? If you don’t see it in the international press, it’s probably because people are not stupid to make such gross generalizations about all Americans. Yet, you don’t blink before you make the above statement about Indians/Hindus.
    Cattle are considered precious in most ancient cultures, be it in Africa or Asia. For someone with your educational credentials (yes, I took a peek at your blog), you should be in a position to understand why that should be the case in societies that were predominantly agricultural at one point in time. Cows provided milk, oxen pulled yokes and carts. Belief in vegeterianism prevented cattle being used for meat. The number of heads of cattle was a sign of wealth and prestige (as it is today in many parts of rural Asia and Africa). Yes, they were, and are, precious.
    You suggest that there are “psychological results of these beliefs to self esteem, self respect and having a loving self image”. As opposed to what? A clean psychological bill of health if society considers cattle as fodder, to be slaughtered out of sight in mechanized abattoirs? Do you realize how much of your point of view comes from self-righteousness? From your background of Christianity and western society? I’m not maligning Christianity or western society here. I’m just asking a question.
    It may be deliberate or subconscious on your part. But you may want to examine the reasons behind your line of thought, and realize that you are putting yourself up on a pedestal.


  18. I say that you are soley responsible and accoutable for how you choose to perceive things. Which you are not claiming at this time. ‘Defensiveness’ is an indication of emotional insecurity issues. We all have them, might as well claim it. As I said, ‘not all are valued, cherished, and love equally. “So what”, you ask? Well…it shows.

  19. Ms Sue Ann Edwards:

    Let me try to organize this a little:

    1. You said: “With cattle perceived as more precious then human. There are psychological results of these beliefs to self esteem, self respect and having a loving self image.”
    The first sentence is quite untrue, as I think I have sufficiently explained in my previous post.
    And if you really believe it to be true, then it sounds almost comically Archie Bunker’ish to me…(yes, we watch old American reruns too).
    In the middle of a particularly bitter debate about his male chauvanism, when Gloria pointed out that India had a woman Prime Minister, Indira Gandhi, Archie retorted, “A country that worships cows will put anybody in charge!”. Sure it got the laughs, but we all know the constituency that Archie represented.
    No disrespect meant here. I’m just trying to point out how absurd this reasoning seems to me.

    Also, when you say “There are psychological results of these beliefs”, I take it that you do not mean good psychological results.
    So, in effect what you are saying is that following Indian religious beliefs (of which perceiving cattle to be more precious than human is supposedly one), one is likely to be adversely affected psychologically.

    Well, that sounds demeaning to me, and I would guess, to any rational person.
    I would be very interested in learning about any evidence that you could provide to back up this sensational claim.

    2. I went and read and re-read your two previous comments to try to find out what I might have mis-interpreted the first time.
    There is only one thing I can think of, and it may be a long shot.
    In the context of the CNN widows story, you are trying to say that the people who mistreat these destitute women and throw them out of their houses do so because of their psychological makeups. And their psychological makeups are the result of their belief in some kind of perverted religious/cultural traditions. [“The beliefs we choose, what ever they be, have a great deal to do with our psychological makeups…I’m simply saying every belief has its costs and consequences. Psychological costs and consequences.”].

    If this is what you meant, it sounds awfully contrived to me…forced logic to satisfy a preconceived notion, not an argument based on facts.
    Again, I would be very interested in learning about any evidence you could provide to back up this claim.

    If you still feel that I have perceived things differently from what you meant them to be, then, please, enlighten me.

    There’s nothing I hate more than drag a dying conversation on and on, but now that you have labelled me, and others who share my stand on this issue, as defensive and emotionally insecure, I guess I need to salvage some dignity…!

  20. They say perception creates reality. No, it’s not a typo, as perception can often be heard to create illusion also. We live with what we know, what we think we know, and if blessed, with what we yearn to know. There are the good and the bad moments, but we all have that potential to be better than we are, whether interacting with our elders, children or motorists.

    Peace to all of you.

  21. Shubho…

    I know you don’t understand. And it’s ‘OK’. The perspectives you’ve shared, however, do more to give proof to what I have said, then any further explanation on my part.

  22. Sue Ann:

    Thank you for those condescending words and leading us all to salvation with the illusive ‘meaning’ in your posts that we are not able to understand, but which according to you, prove a lot of things about me.

    Since neither of us likes to flog a dead horse, let’s just say that the lesson I take away from this conversation is that age, experience, educational credentials and a show of open-mindedness count for nothing if one does not have the humility or magnanimity to admit that sometimes one’s view can be conceited, misinformed, or simply wrong.

    SurfaceEarth, thanks for letting me use your comment space.


  23. Pingback: America’s Children or America’s Parents? « Surface Earth

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