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Nowadays one of the recurrent views I see expressed on the internet is that the current norms in Indian society were brought in by the British or the Islamic invaders, and were not present in ancient India. An example would be this post on reddit that claims:

  1. Women could go around topless in public.
  2. There were no rules around sex. You could have sex with any gender without being judged.
  3. "log apne naam ke aage apne maa ka naam lagaya karte thhe". i.e. People would use their mother's surname.
  4. Etc

However, I have always found it hard to believe such claims for a few reasons:

  1. People make up stuff to suit their agendas. There are Christians that - in order to appear modern - claim there is no conflict between Christ's teachings and homosexuality, or no-fault divorce, or abortion etc. However, most mainstream Christian scholars would disagree. Such views only emerged recently, and contradict the Christian tradition through most of history.
  2. Having grown up in India and watching Ramayana and Mahabharata the impression I got of Vedic society is one that is very modest and conservative. The 'cheer haran' of Draupadi wouldn't be as scandalous if women were used to going around topless. Similarly, if someone claimed that Sita went around topless, people would be offended and rightly so.
  3. Exception does not drive the rule. There are depictions of beastiality on Ajanta caves. But I've always thought that was an exceptional thing limited to a certain region and not the general practice all over India and not a part of Hinduism. Similarly, women being topless might have been a tribal thing.
  4. These claims always seem to come from people who have nationalistic and anti-British/American views. Which is not to say they are wrong, but makes you wonder of their biases. And ironically, they might be trying to retro fit modern western culture (about sex etc) onto ancient Indian society.

So my question is: What is the consensus view among Hindu scholars on appropriate societal norms? How much truth is such in such claims that these are radically different from modern Indian norms? Emphasis on consensus view, because I'm more interested in understanding the broader tradition than someone's personal opinion.

Thanks.

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    nonsense claims made by librandus who want to ape the west. it's funny that they blame society's ills (caste, sati, child marriage etc.) on the west, not realizing two things - they are not ills to begin with, and they're not brought by the west. they are virtues cultivated by our own ancestors. our society was/is/will be traditional/conservative. all religions are conservative. these fools want to be different from Abrahamic religions just for the sake of it. If Islam says "do not drink alcohol or go to prostitutes", these guys will say Hinduism is different and then justify their sins.
    – ram
    Mar 14, 2023 at 10:10
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    @mar Yes. I think Hinduism needs to be understood in light of its own scriptures and tradition, and not comparatively against another religion/philosophy.
    – New
    Mar 14, 2023 at 10:23

3 Answers 3

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After doing a bit of research I have compiled my own answer to the question. I still look forward to other answers from people more knowledable than I.

Trends currently acceptable in modern west are considered sinful in Hinduism:

  1. Porn: What is Hinduism's view on porn?
  2. Homosexuality: What is the punishment of lesbian sex, according to Smritis?, Verses about homosexuality
  3. Abortion: What is Hinduism's view on abortion?
  4. No-fault divorce: Remarriage in Sanātana Dharma

I think that some people driven by their dislike of Islam/Christianity are simply trying to make Hinduism the polar opposite of these religions.

This might be a mistake for two reasons:

  1. The Rishi's in Vedic times were not trying to define Hinduism in contrast to Islam. Infact, Islam didn't even exist back then. Hinduism needs to be understood in light of its own scriptures and tradition, and not comparatively against another religion/philosophy.
  2. If Hinduism is the older religion, then it is possible that it influenced other religions. So obviously there would be similarities in their teachings. This is the opposite of what they are claiming. Instead of Islamic invaders bringing in the current moral codes, it would've been Hinduism that provided these to begin with.
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  • Hinduism differ from Abrahamic religions(Islam/Christianity) in context and principle. Conflicting Ideas on ethics, metaphysics, ontology etc can never be reconciled. Also, Contrasting tenets , such as kala chakra , eternity of soul , principle of reincarnation et al , cannot be harmonized.Christianity/Islam have profaned , long upheld traditions of hinduism, ever since their invasions..There is a danger of abandoning of Vedic wisdom , profound Hindu scriptures by any kind of acceptance / accomodation . Although a peaceful coexistence, is possible if it is grounded on mutual respect.
    – Athrey
    Mar 14, 2023 at 15:08
  • Bravo! said the Swami. 'Now, if you had the same positive feeling for your religion, your true mother, you could never see any Hindu brother converted to Christianity. Yet you see this occurring every day, and you are quite indifferent. Where is your faith? Where is your patriotism? Every day Christian missionaries abuse Hinduism to your face, and yet how many are there amongst you whose blood boils with righteous indignation and who will stand up in its defense?' (Return to India,Swami Vivekananda ,A biography by Swami Nikhilananda)
    – Athrey
    Mar 14, 2023 at 15:10
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Firstly the nationalistic concept of "ancient india" has no basis in vedic scriptures. As per scriptures there are four yuga cycles - satya, treta, dvapara, kali (nationalists not aware of this concept). The period before invaders came to india, referred as "Ancient India" by nationalists, also falls under kali yuga as per vishnu puraNa CHAP. XXIV :

From the birth of Paríkshit to the coronation of Nanda it is to be known that 1015 years have elapsed ... At the birth of Paríkshit they were in Maghá, and the Kali age then commenced, which consists of 1200 (divine) years. 

Kings including guptas, mauryas, nandas, etc. of "ancient india" are described as low in morals in the very same chapter:

These will all be contemporary monarchs, reigning over the earth; kings of churlish spirit, violent temper, and ever addicted to falsehood and wickedness.

As per harivamsa 3_003 , kaliyuga sculptors are also not reliable :

shilpavanto.anR^itaparA narA madyAmiShapriyAH | mitrabhAryA bhaviShyanti yugAnte janamejaya ||3-3-8

O janamejaya ! At the end of the era, there will be sculptors, speaking lies, men who like spirituous liquor and meat and men who consider wives as friends.

Ajanta caves, khujrao, etc have been built by these kings who were under the evil influence of kAlI yuga. Thus those homsexual sculptures, etc. built by them cant be taken as part of authentic religion. Practices like "Women could go around topless in public", "There were no rules around sex", "You could have sex with any gender without being judged", etc. if at all they existed under these Kings of "ancient india" cant be considered as authentic religion. On the contrary it proves that such practices are clear violation of dharma, as such a society made these kings vulnerable and incapable of defending themselves against invaders!

"Ancient India" remains of these kaliyuga-kings thus is not a reliable source of dharma. The only reliable sources of dharma are vedas + 5th veda (itihasa, puraNa), etc. which condemns above practices

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    I appreciate the scriptural references, thanks for your answer. That makes so much sense. I was aware of the concept of Kali yuga but never made the connection to Ajanta caves, and remained confused. These kings were obviously corrupt as evidenced by their bloodshed and lust for power.
    – New
    Mar 14, 2023 at 18:59
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There is some truth in the claim that societal norms were different in ancient India than the current norms.

Women had freedoms that would seem to us today to border on hedonism as is clear from this passage of Mahabharata:

... women formerly were not immured within houses and dependent on husbands and other relatives. They used to go about freely enjoying themselves as best as they liked. O thou of excellent qualities, they did not then adhere to their husbands faithfully, and yet, O handsome one, they were not regarded sinful, for that was the sanctioned usage of the times.

Mahabharata, Adi Parva CXXII

Then let me point out the different attitude in medieval India compared to today's attitude regarding certain matters. We all know about the sculptures on the outside walls of certain Khajuraho temples, Sun temple, Konarak etc. Can anyone build such sculptures bedecked temples today? Why did attitude change? The above mentioned temples were built c 1100-1200 ce. There was a 500 year old Muslim rule between 1200-1700 ce and then 150 year British rule between 1800-1947 ce. It is probably reasonable to assume that the long foreign rules did have some effect on Hindu attitudes.

The advice given in Hindu scriptures regarding social customs, traditions and mores is to not blindly accept them.

One should practice what one considers to be one’s duty, guided by reasons, instead of blindly following the practices of the world.

Mahabharata Santi Parva Section CCLXII

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  • Thanks for this answer. I followed the reference you provided and read the text. The text says that a practice since antiquity was for women to act like 'birds and beasts without any (exhibition of) jealousy (from husbands)'. But that it was changed by Swetaketu who was angry at a man who had sex with his mother in presence of his father. Now I'm confused. It seems to contradict other portions of Mahabharat and manu smriti as described here.
    – New
    Mar 15, 2023 at 0:03
  • Or it might just mean that humans behaved like animals during the origin of human race (what period antiquity refers to is undefined in the text) but that the rules were different now (during time of Mahabharat) and promiscuity was sinful.
    – New
    Mar 15, 2023 at 0:05
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    @New - above poster is known for his semi-Charavaka views i.e. "your own conscience is the best decider of course of action". Almost every answer of his uses some variation of this misguided quote. The original intent of such advise is - if you don't have any dharma smriti, or gurus, or elders, to guide you, only in that last resort, use your own conscience.
    – ram
    Mar 15, 2023 at 7:21
  • @mar 'your own conscience is the best decider of course of action'. The conscience of a rapist-murderer doesn't stop him. Which is why you need Dharma.
    – New
    Mar 15, 2023 at 9:47
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    continued...As you rightly pointed out all other passages of mahabharata and other shastras regard such women freedom as eternally sinful (all yugas). Thus in above case, "immoral" is an appropriate term which fits the context i.e. the practice was not immoral earlier but was made immoral by shwetaketu's curse. Also in stories of satya/treta/dvapara yuga only women like sita, arundhati, savitri (satyavan) who have not committed that sin are glorified thus proving that practice was eternally sinful and above story of shwetaketu has no impact on "sinful" status and only impacts "moral" status
    – ekAntika
    Mar 15, 2023 at 15:11

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