Today, humankind finds itself in an all embracing crisis. The visible points of this crisis are too numerous to count, ranging from ecological decay, inability to meet basic needs of vast humanity, gap between the rich and the poor, nuclear proliferation, asymmetrical nature of power distribution, exclusivist agendas and their terror instruments, and so on. There is an equally lethal crisis of a more subtle kind, that is, humankinds relationship to its extensions and institutions. I shall restrict myself to the most basic institution of humanity, the family.
Every person has three essential coordinates the day he or she is born: his/her age, sex and the family he/she is born in with its own identity tag, system of values, world view and behaviour. The social matrix between the individual and the state extends from family, the basic societal cell, to ecological sub-collectivities such as village community, to religious, ethnic and racial collectivities, to classes and to what has come to be known as civil society. In the great transition from pre-modern to modern to post-modern social order, many of these human extensions were expected to collapse. However, this has not happened. The family, the community and other intermediary bodies have survived. Yes, they have declined in significance and have shed many of their instrumental roles but have retained their expressive roles. I will return to it later.
In a legalistic sense family is a human kinship group that is formed due to genetic factors, marriage or adoption, at the closest and smallest bonding level. They share, to some degree, a common life, taking responsibility for one another, physically, materially and morally. Hence, recognition of the family is largely restricted to nuclear family--husband, wife, children and immediate dependents. In many countries, including my country India, the actual family structure is far more extended. It covers grand parents, grand children, uncles and aunts, cousins, nephews and nieces of any degree and other relatives. In common parlance we call it Hindu joint family or Hindu undivided family. Patrilineal joint families live together or try to live together. Typically, after the marriage of second or third son, the joint family becomes too large to manage, yet the family and its property remains undivided until the eldest male, usually the grand father or father, decides to partition it or dies. In most cases, jointness of the family continues even such partitions.
Be that as it may, family, whatever be its location, in India or elsewhere, is an island of emotional intimacy and solidarity in a sea of strangers. It is rightly argued that family holds together by love and trust. I cannot but repeat often quoted observation of Margaret Mead that family is the main safeguard of human progress. This love and trust in family milieu is result of unconditional Acceptance of the uniqueness of each other, This is the bed-rock of family life. If one regards society as the family writ large, then one has to understand how and why families tend to harmonize conflicts. Indeed, simultaneous presence of ooperation and conflict is a major feature of everyday family life. Usually, the spirit of cooperation prevails and partial convergence of interests is reached for family harmony and solidarity. Same holds or should hold true for intra-society and inter-society relations.
We must recognize and accept that the family is the repository of multiple hidden dimensions of unconscious culture. Notwithstanding exceptions, normallyfamily members pull together and live in cooperation. It is because the family is the first institution that teaches its members the distinction between the individual and the person. It initiates the individual to have communion with others, focuses on liberation not through conquest or confrontation but through harmonization with others in the family and then with ever enlarging network of relationships, often requiring .transcendence of self-centeredness. Harmonization becomes not only a personal goal but also a societal goal and a cosmic ideal. It extends the boundary of self, not for absorption of everything else to oneself but for giving oneself freely to others. Self-extension then provides the ground for sociality and society becomes a network of extended selves rather than a mechanical aggregate of enclosed selves or an all consuming totality of fictional abstraction.
At this point I will not be amiss if I cite Margaret Mead again. She warned that human beings who have laboriously learnt to be human may lose humanity. Writing in1949, she added: It is not without significance that the most successful large-scale abrogations of the family have occurred not among simple savages, living close to the subsistence edge, but among great nations and strong empires, the resources of which were ample, the populations huge, and the power almost unlimited.” Having said this, I would like to add that like human beings, its extensions and institutions such as family, too, have polar potentialities, both positive and negative. Inability to create and maintain a family environment, rich in psycho-social-spiritual meanings, constitutes a significant deprivation for every family member—growing child, maturing adult and other grown ups. No family seems to have been spared from this affliction whether it is nuclear family located in the modern sector or extended family in the traditional sector.
This is what I call spiritual hollowing of the family. At the ideational level, it reduces family’s ability to cope with twin assaults of social Darwinists and Cartesian rationalists. This has adversely affected family structures that is Indicated by break in traditional family roles. At the functional level, such break down of family implies maladjustment, malfunctioning, psychological decay and problems in inter-personal relations that often lead to emotional breakdown, crimes, juvenile delinquency, promiscuity and social welfare agencies taking away children from the family. One can build a large inventory of pathologies that have roots in family disorganization.
If these are indicators of weakening of the institution of family, there are still more such as high rates of divorce, single parent families, children born out of wedlock, live-in relationships, etc. Alarming statistics come out periodically in the west but my part of the world is also catching up, particularly its metropolitan urban sector.
The force of custom, supported by a code of duties (dharma)—personal, social, moral, and religious—is on the decline. Indeed, the great challenge of the egalitarian ideal in contemporary India is the negation of the principle of hierarchy with which the child grows up and is firmly rooted in socialization practices that are part of its culture. The chief source of worldly comfort, particularly in non-metropolitan areas, comes from primary group setting of the family where it is possible to trust and share. Hence changes in the external world caused by state intervention or corporate strategies affects deeplythe biological family and similar in-groups. Internal adjustments aside, its relationship with state agencies, corporate bodies and other external groups is imbued with feelings of diffidence, insecurity and mistrust. This is the great tension of modern India.
Universal love among all people and human solidarity is the cherished ideal of all world religions. However, in modern times the dominant notion or rather conviction is that everyone fights against every one else, people compete against each other and general war is the principle of life. This has percolated down to even socialization practices of the family. Relationship is often based on power equation even within the family setting and it becomes more and more manifest in the larger institutions at the local, national and international levels We should no longer be fooled by rhythm of family life behind the façade of modernity in whose awe we exist. Powerlessness and lack of self-affirmation within the family, here and now, has impaired our capability to establish meaningful relationships. Out of this chaos called modernity, the family must recover what it has lost or loosing fast by reestablishing practices, embedded deep in its culture, that enables self that integrates with the other.