What are the salient features of Indian society? What makes Indian society unique in sustaining its culture? Read here to understand the intricacies of Indian society.
Indian society is known for its ability to tolerance acceptance, and social cohesion making it unique in sustaining its culture. The importance of fraternity enshrined in the Preamble of the Constitution makes it a duty of every citizen. Indian society is extensively diverse in cultural and regional aspects and it is pertinent that it is posited in each individual the realization of ideas and objectives in the Preamble concerning every other individual.
India from ancient times has thrived to create a nationality that is neither governed by universalism nor by exclusivity to its interest groups. The multi-cultural conundrum is a salient feature of Indian society that has been a boon and a bane over the history of the country.
Jawahar Lal Nehru wrote in The Discovery of India- “Indian Society and Culture are like some ancient palimpsest on which layer upon layer of thought and reverie had been inscribed, and yet no succeeding layer had completely hidden or erased what had been written previously”.
Also read: Sanskrit Literature
Salient Features of the Indian Society
It is rather difficult to make pointers on what are the features of Indian society as the essence of Indian society lies in harboring diverse and distinct identities, ethnicities, languages, religions, and culinary preferences. History stands witness to the fact that the societies that have struggled to hold differences were shattered in such an attempt.
But for understanding and simplifying the conundrum, the salient features of Indian society can be listed down as-
- Multi-ethnic Society
- Multi-Lingual Society
- Multi-Religious Society
- Multi- Caste
- Unity In Diversity
- Patriarchal Society
- Kinship System
- The balance between spiritualism and materialism
- The balance between Individualism and collectivism
- Co-existence of traditionalism and modernity
The multi-ethnic Indian society
Multi-ethnicity is a major salient feature of Indian society. An ethnic group or ethnicity is a category of people who identify with each other, usually based on a common language or dialect, history, society, culture, or nation.
A society with the co-existence of a wide variety of racial groups is a Multi-ethnic society. India is home to almost multiple racial profiles like Nordic, Dinaric, Proto-Australoid, Mongolian, etc.
Herbert Risley classified the people of India into seven racial types. These are-
- Mongoloid, and
Indian multiculturalism can be explained by the ‘Salad bowl theory’- within the large Indian society, the newly arrived cultures do not lose their identity, but rather get intermixed without losing their unique characteristics, just like ingredients in a salad bowl are recognizable while contributing to the overall composition of the salad.
Also read: Classical Languages of India
Multilingualism- a salient feature of Indian society
India is home to many native languages, and it is also common for people to speak and understand more than one language or dialect, which can entail the use of different scripts as well.
India’s 2011 census documents that 121 languages are spoken as mother tongues, which is defined as the first language a person learns and uses.
Of these languages, the Constitution of India recognizes twenty-two of them as official or “scheduled” languages. Articles 344(1) and 351 of the Constitution of India, titled the Eighth Schedule, recognize the following languages as official languages of the states of India:
- Assamese, Bengali, Bodo, Dogri, Gujarati, Hindi, Kannada, Kashmiri, Konkani, Maithili, Malayalam, Manipuri, Marathi, Nepali, Oriya, Punjabi, Sanskrit, Santhali, Sindhi, Tamil, Telugu, and Urdu.
Six languages also hold the title of classical languages (Kannada, Malayalam, Odia, Sanskrit, Tamil, and Telugu), which are determined to have a history of recorded use for more than 1,500 years and a rich body of literature.
Languages in India are categorized into language families based on their different linguistic origins, which often include different scripts as well.
- The main language families include Dravidian, Indo–Aryan, and Sino–Tibetan. Bodo is the Sino–Tibetan language spoken in northeastern Indian states with the most speakers (1.4 million).
- Languages considered mother tongues or regional languages in the south of India have grammatical structures and scripts with Dravidian roots, and languages used in the central and northern regions of India are part of the Indo–Aryan family of languages.
Many central and northern Indian languages use scripts derived from the Nagari script.
- Contemporary variations of Hindi use the Devanagari script, and scripts used in Gujarati, Punjabi, and Marathi use Nagari-derived scripts or versions of Devanagari that include some differences in their alphabets.
Another aspect of India’s multilingualism is that each mother tongue, or regional language, roughly belongs to one or more states. India’s twenty-eight states have been largely organized along linguistic lines since the 1950s, just after Independence, with the formation of the southern state of Andhra Pradesh in 1953 for Telugu speakers.
India is a cradle of world religions whose ancestors have preached and practiced almost all major religions of the world giving rise to worldly beliefs, practices, rites, rituals, ceremonies, and institutions.
The co-existence of all religions and a variety of faiths has been a shining example of religious pluralism and tolerance.
- The principle of secularism despite several conflicts and riots has been upheld by our citizens time and again.
- Indian Constitution has rightly reflected the idea of multiple religions. It states that “every citizen has a right to freely practice, preach, profess and propagate any religion or faith”.
- A secular state has been defined as a “state in which all religions and citizens irrespective of their faith would be treated impartially”.
- Apart from the major religions, several tribal religions are coexisting in Indian society.
- Hinduism is one of the most ancient religions in India. Although followed by the majority of the population, its origin is not owed to any founder.
- Major Hindu scriptures include Vedas and the holy book is Bhagwad -Gita, Ramayana, Puranas, etc.
- Idol worship, the theory of Purushartha, the theory of Karma, and the doctrine of rebirth are some of the major principles of Hinduism.
- They believe in the trinity of Brahma (creator), Vishnu(sustained), and Mahesh or Shiva (destroyer).
- Originated in Arabia in around the 7th century A.D.The term Islam in Arabic means to surrender to God.
- Prophet Mohammad is the founder of this religion and followers believe only in one god Allah with Quran as the holy book of Islam.
- The religion is based on five pillars, they are Allah (belief in only one god), Ramzan (fast in the auspicious month), Hajj (Pilgrimage at least once in a lifetime), Namaz (praying five times a day), and Zakat (Charity).
- The major two sects of Islam are Shiyahs and Sunnis.
- The Bible is the holy book of Christianity.
- The believers are further divided into Roman Catholics and Protestants.
- The major principles of religion are described in the Ten Commandments.
- The Bible includes the values of humanity, charity, mercy, repentance etc.
- Guru Nanak is the founder of Sikhism. Guru Granth Sahib is the holy book of Sikhs which includes all the hymns and the songs composed by all the ten Gurus of Sikhism.
- Sikhs believe in Satnaam, God as the almighty. A Sect of Sikhs who follow Khalsa Panth is known as a Singh meaning lion or the protector of religion.
- They are expected to follow the 5 K‟s. i.e. Kesh, Kara, Kanga, Kachha and Kirpaan.
- Jainism is a religion based on ethical conduct alone. The twenty-fourth Tirthankara was Vardhaman Mahavira who is said to be the founder of Jainism.
- It is further divided into two sects, Shwetambara and Digambara. Jainism believes in Karma but does not believe in caste inequalities.
- Ahimsa (Non-violence), non-stealing, truth, and non-possessiveness are some of the values preached by Jainism.
- The majority of the followers of this religion are found in India.
- Buddhism is termed a universal religion.
- Though found in India, its followers are found all over the further divided into Hinayanas and Mahayanas.
- They believe in the eightfold path as the solution to sorrow in life.
Caste system in Indian society
The social division of society in India is peculiar. Unlike many other civilizations in the world where the society was divided into race, ethnicity, or clans, Indian society is broadly divided into a hierarchy of caste.
The word caste comes from the Portuguese word ‘Caste’ which means breed and is intended to be used for classification based on the purity of blood.
Caste is unique to India and especially to Hindu traditional society and its customs. It is imposed as a divine and has an extensive sanction in society.
- The Sanskrit word for caste is ‘Varna’ which means color. The caste stratification in Indian society has its origin in the chaturvarna system. During the Vedic period, there were four Varnas or castes namely Brahmins, Kshatriyas, Vishays, and Shudras.
- This division was based on the division of labor and occupation. Along with occupation, it also denotes endogamy (marriage within one’s caste) and the notion of purity and pollution related to food restrictions, clothing, and language.
- Further, these groups were subdivided into several jatis or subcastes based on diversity of occupation. Each group was like a water-tight compartment moving out from which was impossible for any member of the society.
- The notion of purity and pollution resulted in several atrocities in the hierarchy against the lowest strata. The shudras (untouchables) faced tremendous injustice and atrocities at the hands of the higher castes, especially Brahmins.
It was termed the black period of Indian history where several inhuman practices were prevalent in the society denying the basic human rights of these suppressed classes.
However after independence, under the great leadership of Dr. Baba Sahib Ambedkar, the oppressed class got a special status in the Constitution of India as Scheduled castes.
- The term used for them was Dalit (the depressed) or Harijan (as coined by Mahatma Gandhi). Dr. Baba Saheb Ambedkar was a pioneer in initiating the Dalit movement in India to bring up the status of untouchables by converting to Buddhism which does not believe in the caste hierarchy.
The salient feature of Indian society rests in the Unity in diversity
India as a nation is a classic example of it as despite having multiple geographical, religious, linguistic, cultural, and racial diversities, India has always stood up as an integrated nation.
In India, people of different religions have continued to respect the ideals and values of people of other religions, and hence, India has always stood up as an integrated nation ready to put its arms around everybody in this world.
Diversity in India exists at various levels in different forms and various factors that contribute to Unity In diversity can be as follows:
The previously mentioned salient features of Indian society very well define how the factors have influenced the diverse yet united culture of Indian society.
There have been instances in history wherein the unity of the country was tested like during the partition, communal riots in Gujarat and Karnataka are a few dark chapters. But each time the country has fought back and upheld its values.
Patriarchy is a social system in which men hold primary power and enjoy greater status than women. Indian society is a largely patriarchal society.
However, some tribal societies are matrilineal societies where women have the dominant decision-making power. The few matrilineal societies of India are:
- The Nairs and Ezhavas of the state of Kerala have a matrilineal society,
- the Khasi and Garo tribes of Meghalaya,
- Bunt and billava of Karnataka
Patriarchy is a still existing problem in India- and impacts women the most-few impacts of this are-
- Women are still paid 20% less than men for the same job.
- They still experience a shockingly high rate of domestic violence, which highly depicts the culture of the patriarchal society in India.
- Male child preference is also one such example that shows the patriarchal mindset leading to female infanticide and foeticide.
- Dowry tradition and discrimination based on that.
Family and Kinship
Blood relations and kinship ties enjoy a stronghold over other social relationships in India.
The family is one of the most important social institutions. Most of the world’s population lives in family units. The family is a primary institution responsible for ‘socialization’.
Kinship refers to a set of relationships and relatives formed thereof, based on blood relationships (consanguineal), or marriage (affinal).
This social institution ties individuals and groups together and establishes a relationship between them.
There are about 705 Scheduled tribes in the country and they constitute 6 percent of the population of the country, according to the 2011 census.
Scheduled Tribes mostly inhabit two distinct geographical areas – Central India and the North- Eastern Area.
- More than half of the Scheduled Tribe population is concentrated in Central India, i.e., Madhya Pradesh (14.69%), Chhattisgarh (7.5%), Jharkhand (8.29%), Andhra Pradesh (5.7%), Maharashtra (10.08%), Orissa (9.2%), Gujarat (8.55%) and Rajasthan (8.86%).
- The other distinct area is the Northeast (Assam, Nagaland, Mizoram, Manipur, Meghalaya, Tripura, Sikkim, and Arunachal Pradesh).
More than two-thirds of the ST population is concentrated only in the seven states of the country, viz. Madhya Pradesh, Maharashtra, Orissa, Gujarat, Rajasthan, Jharkhand, and Chhattisgarh.
There is no ST population in 3 States (Delhi NCR, Punjab, and Haryana) and 2 UTs (Puducherry and Chandigarh), as no Scheduled Tribe is notified.
The balance between spiritualism and materialism in Indian society
Contradictions between spirituality and materialism have existed in Indian society for a long time. The ancient thoughts differ in positing that material life is all that matters, matter and consciousness interact to create the world, or matter is just the base from which one has to rise to full consciousness.
Swami Vivekananda is one of the prominent figures and makers of modern India who was known for his speeches on spiritualism and materialism.
- In his various speeches and writings, he emphasized the need for the material development of the poor. According to Vivekananda human beings are not just physical and material beings that exist to satisfy their senses but spiritual beings as well.
- It is this spirituality that unites humanity across the world at a higher level. But, mere spirituality is not enough. Therefore, he underscores the need for material development.
Also read: Anti-superstition laws
The balance between individualism and collectivism in Indian society
India is a society with both collectivistic and Individualist traits. The collectivist side means that there is a high preference for belonging to a larger social framework in which individuals are expected to act for the greater good of their defined in-groups.
- In such situations, the actions of the individual are influenced by various concepts such as the opinion of one’s family, extended family, neighbors, workgroup, and other such wider social networks that one has some affiliation with.
- For a collectivist, to be rejected by one’s peers or to be thought lowly of by one’s extended and immediate in-groups, leaves him or her rudderless and with a sense of intense emptiness.
- The employer/employee relationship is one of expectations based on expectations – Loyalty by the employee and almost familial protection by the Employer.
- Hiring and promotion decisions are often made based on relationships which are the key to everything in a Collectivist society.
The Individualist aspect of Indian society is seen as a result of its dominant religion/philosophy – Hinduism. The Hindus believe in a cycle of death and rebirth, with the manner of each rebirth being dependent upon how the individual lived the preceding life.
People are, therefore, individually responsible for the way they lead their lives and the impact it will have upon their rebirth. This focus on individualism interacts with the otherwise collectivist tendencies of the Indian society which leads to its intermediate score on this dimension.
Co-existence of traditionalism and modernity in Indian society
Indian society is always trying to balance traditions and modernity, especially with changing times, which is a salient feature of Indian society.
Indian society will always be in transition, continually transient, and undergoing a constant process of change. It implies the idea of constant change is intrinsic to contemporary Indian society.
Global and regional happenings have shaped the changing society in India-
- Colonization is a crucial factor that impacted Indian society the most by introducing foreign cultures and practices.
- Industrialization and modernization led to technological expansion and went on to transform society at various levels.
- Liberalization, Privatisation, and Globalisation (LPG) were inherent in the logic and processes of economic growth and reform in India.
- Mass Media and Information and Communication Technology (ICT) is a crucial factor in modernization and development in India. It has both personal and social consequences.
- Social Movements caused change in multiple ways in the past as well as in the present. They occur due to certain societal conditions and aim at improving it by bringing transformation in the social structure.
Indian society is the result of a journey from the Indus civilization to today’s globalized world. In this journey, it has gone through many transformations under the influence of the outside world and reform movements within the society. However, what is unique and appreciable is the fact that it has managed to adopt and accept various features while preserving its past.
There are many factors out there threatening the unity of the Indian society but India has the strength to overcome communal violence and religious threats. The common values of democracy, equality, and justice, as defined in the constitution is a part of the value system of Indian Society.
Previous year questions
“Caste system is assuming new identities and associational forms. Hence, the caste system cannot be eradicated in India.” Comment. (2018) – 10 Marks
In the contest of the diversity of India, can it be said that the regions form cultural units rather than the States? Give reasons with examples for your viewpoint. (2017) – 10 Marks
What are the two major legal initiatives by the State since Independence, addressing discrimination against Scheduled Tribes (STs)? (2017) – 10 Marks
The spirit of tolerance and love is not only an interesting feature of Indian society from very early times, but it is also playing an important part in the present. Elaborate. (2017) (15 marks)
To what extent globalization has influenced the course of cultural diversity in India? (2016) – 12.5 Marks
Describe any four cultural elements of diversity in India and rate their relative significance in building a national identity (2015) – 12.5 Marks
What makes Indian society unique in sustaining its culture? Discuss. (2019) (10 Marks)
What are the continued challenges for Women in India against time and space? (2019) (10 Marks)
Are we losing our local identity for the global identity? Discuss. (2019) (15 marks)