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Indian Journal of Community Medicine

Vol. 30, No. 1 (2005-03 - 2005-03)


East or West ...............

'To understand the age or a nation we must understand its philosophy... The circumstances of men's lives do much to determine their philosophy... and conversely their philosophy does much to determine their circumstances' (Bertrand Russel)1. Seen in this way we can understand better the differences in the evolution of family between the developed and the developing world. This is important from public health point of view, since family has an intimate role in health care of its members e.g. care in illness, care of the elderly and indigent, reproduction, child rearing, emotional support and socialization are important functions of the family.

We often talk about disintegration of the institution of family in the West. Actually, what we observe today about the status of family (breakdown; high divorce rate etc.) in developed countries is the natural outcome of the outlook of the western philosophy towards the relationship between the STATE and the FAMILY.

In the west, the institution of family has been successively and successfully subjugated to the state or to the ruler/king. Systematic efforts were made to suppress the individual identity of family as a unit. Development of personal attachment among the family members was deliberately discouraged. Rather, attempts were made by the state, from the very beginning, to weaken the family. The family was never allowed to settle down and take roots... It was always seen to be a means (provider of soldiers, farmers and workers) to an end (welfare of the king/state). Contrasted with it, the Indian philosophy dwelt upon development and nurturing of family... making it stronger and stable... e.g. devising an ingenious and farsighted system of 4 ashramas; creation of a vast expanse of epic literature - Ramayana - Mahabharata etc. - as a reference (a gold standard) to fall back on...... for the masses... creation of folklore strongly steeped in family relations with intricacies of Hindu family system/kinship thrown in the story line generously. All these mechanisms helped in sustaining the family as an institution in India... rather than deliberately weakening it for the selfish motives of the rulers (like the west).

In fact, western philosophy has never encouraged development of intimacy between family members as contrasted with the immense importance given to code of conduct and role models etc. for family relations in Hindu philosophy, mythology and scriptures.

From the very beginning people in the west have been trained to not to show affection to their children... or even to spouses. To sample a few thoughts in western philosophy regarding the kind of family ties they envisaged to engineer for laying the foundation of future society e.g. Lycurgus did not like that children should be private to any man but that they should be common to the commonwealth - 'rule for a woman to bear children to the state from her 20-40 years... for man, after getting over the sharpest burst in the race of life thenceforward to beget children to the state until he is 55 years old. Any child begotten otherwise will be considered illegitimate and unsponsored'1,2.

'...the rule - among friends everything is common property - would apply to women and children' '...these women shall be without exception the common wives of these men... and that no one shall have a wife of his own... likewise that the children shall be common and that parents shall not know his child nor the child his parent...' '...taking precaution... no mother shall know her own child...' (Plato - The Republic)2.
'It would be an immense advantage for the wives and children to be common to all...'

Thus, the experimentation with family as an institution in the form of Oneida community and Koinoia partners in 19th/20th century AD can be traced to these ancient origins.3 Contrasted with numerous futile trials for development on newer family types in America and elsewhere no such restlessness or dissatisfaction with the family system is visible in India. This indicates that the family as an institution has sound and firm foundations in our country.

Quite often, the rearing of children has been considered a botheration in western philosophy e.g. '...The training of the young in the interval between their birth and education... is considered the most troublesome business of all...'2

'Democritus... did not desire children, as their education interfered with philosophy...' He also disapproved of sex (overwhelming of consciousness with desire) and thought ill of women...1

'...At the age of seven, boys were taken away from home to put in a boarding school...'.1,2 (again an anti-family mechanism) However, children have never been considered as liability in Indian philosophy (Rather there are examples to the contrary - wherever the ruler considered children as liability - they were shown to become heros eventually e.g. Nachiketa, Bhakt Prahalada or Lord Krishna).

In the modern times (20th century) also, anti-family policies have been witnessed in the West -

'...Most deplorable is the family's loss of its educational function... not as an inexorable fate but as an outcome of planned interference by state and society'4.

In modern times - the social significance of the family has been radically devalued by the state and society. The family has been reduced to the private sphere. The family is considered a freely controllable mechanism'4.

'The state's interference in divorce laws (making it easier) or on criteria of eligibility for marriage, on prescribed number of kids has been documented in different countries with disastrous results5.

In the contemporary society 'self realization' has been claimed as sole meaning of human existence... The family's authority was sacrificed and parental authority supplanted by the state to give adolescents the illusion of 'self discovery' ...emancipation from parents, a necessary step in evolution of 'self-realization'4.

The traditional form of family has always been under attack from socialists, and militant feminists. One of the most pernicious attack on the family is the social insurance system of the modern welfare state4 i.e. an attempt to take away the role of family. It seems that from the very beginning 'family' has been 'watched' by the state (The concept of 'nanny' state). At every step, its evolution as an institution was thwarted in the west.

Evidence of both negative and positive eugenics has been there in the western thought from the outset. The overall goal was, again, ensuring the supply of able bodied men e.g. 'As soon as children are born they will be received by officers appointed for their purpose... the issue of inferior parents and ...and all imperfect children that are born will be concealed in some mysterious and unknown hiding place'.

'Those of our young men who distinguish in the field or elsewhere will receive more privilege to associate with women in order that the greatest number of children may be issue of such parents'.

'If a newborn was not healthy it was thrown by elders into a deep pit of water'1,2.

Thus, Hitler was not the originator of negative eugenics (sterilization of unfit; euthanasia for permanently institutionalised)5. Rather, he just implemented... what has always been there embedded in the western philosophy. Even in 20th century this concept prevailed in every country in which Eugenics was prominent - US, UK, Japan, Germany, Russia, Brazil and Argentina - Eugenics fitted into a comprehensive concept of 'Social Hygiene' albeit one that translated easily into racial hygiene5. Even for child rearing and socialization (nurture) there were directives from state:

'Mothers and nurses are to tell their children only authorized stories... poets are to be condemned... banish all dramatists from city' (since someone has to play villain. And this was supposed to spoil the citizens)'.

Even censoring of music was advocated ' sorrowful or relaxing music... only such as to instill bravery'.

'All the useful art, I believe, we thought degrading. No soft or enervating music to be admitted into the perfect STATE. All musical instruments are to be excluded. All complex rhythms are to be prohibited'2.

Cultural development - fine arts etc. were also considered idle preoccupation in the west. Thus, the STATE did not allow the natural and spontaneous development of micro-culture within the family. It was the state which decided what was to be taught, what arts was to be developed.

Thus, in every area of personal lives of citizens... the 'state' was omnipresent... seriously compromising the individuality and independence of people... thwarting the development of family as a focus of attention for the individuals... the 'producers' and 'fighter/protectors'. And an element of totalitarianism was always there in the west.

Contrasted with it, we see an elaborate system of 'ragas' and music in India. And this did not develop in a vacuum. In fact, the Indian never felt that the world was a field of battle where men struggled for power, wealth and domination. When we do not need to waste our energies on problems of life on earth, exploiting nature and controlling the forces of the world, we begin to think of higher life, how to live more perfectly in the spirit. Perhaps an enervating climate inclined the Indian to rest and retirement. The security of life, the wealth of natural resources, the freedom, the detachment from the cares of existence and the absence of a tyrannous practical interest stimulated the higher life of India, with the result that we find from the beginnings of history an impatience of spirit, a love of wisdom and a passion for saner persuits of mind7. (cf. Maslow's Theory). Even since the Vedic times, family was accorded due importance in the Indian society. All samskaras originated from the family. The striking feature of ancient Hindu family are its spiritual continuity and physical indivisibility.

In the Varnashrama system the important of family was highlighted by giving maximum emphasis to grihasthashrama ('all ashramas flow into it').

Family for a Hindu is a sacred institution deriving sanction from religion and social tradition with myths and legends. A number of Hindu dharmashastrakaras or law-givers like Manu, Yajnavalkya, Vishnu, Narada, Vyasa, Brishaspati, Kautilya, Katyyayana, Parashara and others laid down norms, rules and regulation to protect the institution of family and to regulate and control family relations, family property and family activities. The Hindu customs, practices, values, institutional patterns and the whole normative system also served to safeguard the institution of family and to continue its tradition8.

On the other hand, government intervention in the family, as seen in the west, has a long history in human evolution dating back to the first formal code of laws established by Hammurabi in 18th century BC in Mesopotamia (...on structure and maintenance of families). In the US, the Moynihan Report concluded that government's economic and social welfare policies were helping to destabilize families, especially the African-American ones9.

Western societies had from early times taken steps to regulate their communities for the common good. Even, public health measures were undertaken jointly in the name of the state and the people. But it involved the regulation of individual's life - home, work, family relations, recreation, sex - that went beyond the medical police of the previous century (Germany). From a contemporary standpoint such intimate regulation of the individual by the state may seem overbearing, but with some notable exceptions, the population of developed countries accepted it as an appropriate and even desirable role for the state5. When we see higher prevalence of homosexuality in the west... and its association with HIV/AIDS... it must be realized that this was also not a random development. Rather, the encouragement of homosexuality is repeatedly witnessed in ancient western thought... 'homosexual love was a recognized custom in Sparta - an acknowledged part in education of adolescent boys'. Romanticism was also scoffed at (cf. Kalidasa - Meghadoot etc.)

Even the universal taboo of incest was attacked in western philosophy... 'the law will allow intercourse between brothers and sisters... if the lot chances to fall that way'1,2.

...So, it is no surprise that, today, an incest lobby exists in U.S. Such mechanisms again did not favour development of family as an institution in a healthy way in the west. (...rather homosexuality can be seen as an anti-family mechanism... i.e. seeking sexual gratification outside the socially approved opportunity through marriage and family).

Moreover, enough evidence is there to prove that 'sex' was not an 'open' subject in the western history (no sex please... we are British). The system of 'celibate' clergy (promoting homosexuality') also is a part of western culture.

Hence, we, as Indians, can not and should not denounce the rich cultural legacy inherited from our wise and visionary ancestors who strived to ensure the sustenance of family as an institution over the millennia. This primary preventive measure - the health promotion by instilling rich samskaras to the young through strengthening of family should not be frittered away by blindly aping the west. We should, as public health experts, contribute our bit to help sustain the institution of family by carefully selecting our 'interventions' which are not inimical to it. Rather, the public health interventions contemplated by us should strengthen the role of families by devising family centred strategies i.e. families should not be excluded in our plan of action. We should believe in and be proud of Indian philosophical thought.

As far as the west is concerned, experts observe:

'...the family, at least as we know it, is under attack; and if the trends continue the institution of the family will be greatly changed, greatly weakened and may cease to exist...'9.

The trends that we are observing today are simply adjustment to a new post-industrial social order, in the same way that prior human transitions from hunter-gatherer to agricultural to industrial were associated with major social disruptions. Only time will tell whether we are seeing the start of a decline in the family unit or a period of transition to a new evolving form9. Families have endured throughout most of human history and although they may look different in future, are certain to maintain their role as the foundation of our daily lives.

' our time people have been reducing their personal investment in the collectivity of the family's best interest is increasingly not to be found in the ...better opportunities for pleasure self enhancement, advancement, even material goods, might be found elsewhere' ...As a consequence, the last half of the 20th century has seen a substantial transformation affect the institution of marriage...'9.

It is for us to choose which model to follow and sustain - eastern or western. Our decision can be greatly facilitated by remembering the words of Dr. S. Radhakrishnan. '....Of the great civilizations of the world - hoary with age - only the Indian still survives. When confronted with new cultures or sudden extensions of knowledge, the Indian does not yield to the temptations of the hour, but holds fast to his traditional faith, importing as much as possible of the new into the old. This conservative liberalism has been the secret of the success of Indian culture and civilization'7.


  1. Russel B. History of Western Philosophy, New York, Routledge, 2002.
  2. Plato. Republic. J.L. Davies and DJ Vaughan (translators) Hertfordshire. Wordsworth Classics of World Literature, 1997.
  4. Hoshii, I. The World of Sex, Vol. 2. Sex and Marriage. Kant, Paul Norbury Publications Ltd., 1986.
  5. Hamlin C. The history and development of public health in developed countries. In. Oxford Text book of Public Health, 4th edition. Vol. 1. The Scope of Public Health. Detels et al (eds.). Oxford, Oxford University Press, 2002, 21-37.
  6. Kephart WM and Jedlieka D. The Family, Society and the Individual - 6th ed. NY, Harper and Row Publishers. 1988.
  7. Radhakrishnan S. Indian Philosophy. Vol. 1. Oxford, Oxford University Press, 1999.
  8. Rao CNS. Sociology of Indian Society. New Delhi, S. Chand and Co. Ltd., 2005.
  9. Puma MJ. Families. In. Oxford Textbook of Public Health, Vol. 3 - The Practice of Public Health: 4th edition. R. Detels et al (eds.). Oxford, Oxford University Press, 2002, 1569-86.

Dr. A. J. Singh

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