In a Just World

photo of Dr. Anant Rambachan

Subject: Dr. Anant Rambachan Interviewer: Alison Rostankowski
Transcripts: Shaun Mader/ Cheryl McShane

The segments included in this interview* were during July 2001, as part of In a Just World a documentary on world religions, family planning, contraception, and abortion.. The documentary is a co-production of The Duncan Entertainment Group with WTTW-Chicago. Anant Rambachan is Professor of Religion, Philosophy and Asian Studies at St. Olaf College, Minnesota.

(* This transcript has been edited due to length.)

How do you interpret Hindu teachings in regards to procreation and contraception?
Well, I think we have to see the desire for a large family in India in historical context, and politically the desire for lots of sons, and from an economic point of view, from the point of view of social welfare for the elders in the family. But now with the change in economic and social realities in India, such large families are no longer necessary. And from a religious point of view, the Hindu tradition does not have any objection to the use of contraception as a matter of ensuring small families. In fact, if we go back to the earliest scriptural sources of Hinduism, the Vedas, we find references there to certain kinds of contraceptive matters to prevent birth. So the tradition would be fully supportive of contraception as a matter of birth control.

While Hinduism allows for contraception, does it also see having children as a public duty?
That's true. As part of the tradition in Hinduism, there is a notion of indebtedness. A human being is seen as a person who is indebted, and for example, we are indebted to the divine. We are indebted to our ancestors, and the way in which one discharges or fulfills ones indebtedness to ones ancestors is by having children. Now we see also in the Indian context the patriarchal influence. The culture is patriarchal so not only is there, from a religious point of view, the goodness of having children but also the preference for the male child. Male children are preferred for many reasons. One is that you've got to look at traditionally is that India was an agricultural society. Male children are sources of labor. Secondly they provide security for the parents in their old age in a society which doesn't have public retirement programs. And thirdly, I would add the fact of infant mortality. Children did not survive very long so one had to have a certain number of children to ensure that one had children. Now the area where I think the patriarchal bias of the culture is afflicted would be first of all in the dowry. Girls were and still unfortunately are seen as undesirable and the boy is preferred. Now whatever might be its origins, and scholars debate the origins of the dowry system, today it has become a very exploitative instrument in India that I think underlines the inferiority of the woman. So when a girl is born into a family, immediately the family has to begin setting aside precious resources to ensure a proper marriage for her which comes about through their ability to give a generous dowry gift. So the girl is seen as an economic liability. Whereas the boy is seen as someone who would win a dowry into the family, the girl is seen as someone who would take resources of the family into another family. And this is why you have the high rate of female abortion in India. And you would be quite surprised to see how open the issue is and how openly medical practitioners advertise their services. Ads would read something like this, "spend 500 rubles today and save 5,000 in the future." --to encourage people to use medical technology for the abortion of females.

So what is the Hindu position on abortion?
Well, I think the best way to look at the Hindu position on abortion is to see it as a middle position between what we have in the west as the pro-life and the pro-choice positions. Let us start with what we're familiar with as the pro-life position. I think when one looks at the whole history of the Hindu attitude to abortion, we will first of all see Hinduism does share some perspectives with what we refer to as the pro-life position. Traditionally, and Hinduism has a great deal of consensus on this issue; traditionally Hinduism has always understood the life to begin with conception. Now understanding this viewpoint, we must also take into consideration that we're talking about a tradition which has as one of its central doctrines a belief in reincarnation. The human spirit after the death of the physical body continues to be and is likely, until liberation to go through a journey, a journey in which it is successively reborn. So in the traditional Hindu understanding, at the time of conception the spirit enters into the new body. So if you had to ask, "when does life begin from the Hindu point of view?" The tradition has answered, as I said, with great unanimity, that it occurs at the time of conception, or the time of fertilization. And from then on, it's really a process of manifesting the potential of the being. So you will not find traditionally in Hinduism, any sort of discussion about degrees of humanity or any attempt to put higher value on the embryo at a later stage as compared to an earlier stage of life. It is a human being and it's the fullest of its potential that is evolving and developing. And so the tradition has seen abortion as something undesirable, something human beings ought not to engage in and abortion traditionally violates the ethic of ahimsa or nonviolence. It is a form of violence to a living entity. And that is what I think Hinduism shares with what would be the pro-life position in the west. Having said that, at the same time, what we find is that the tradition has not absolutized the right of the embryo or the fetus. There are exceptions; there are circumstances under which it would be appropriate to have an abortion. And by and large the circumstance would be dictated by a central value of Hinduism, which is compassion. So, for example, if there were a conflict between the interests of the mother and the interests of the embryo then the tradition would give to the mother the choice of aborting the fetus. So in India today, a woman can have an abortion if the fetus presents problems to her physical or her mental health. So for example, in case of rape, in cases of incest, if the pregnancy is a threat in any sense to the health of the mother or also if a contraceptive device has failed. It would be seen as causing such great anguish to the well being of the mother that an abortion is legally permissible. So my point is that I see this as kind of middle ground. Yes we agree that the embryo is an evolving and a developing human being, but at the same time the tradition has not absolutized its rights to exist especially in relation to the to the well being of the mother.

Why do Hindus believe that life begins at conception?
Well, the act of conception like so many other things in the Hindu tradition is seen as mirroring the universe. It's a microcosmic reflection of the macrocosmic reality of things. And in every act of conception and every act of creation, there is a parallel of God entering the world, because in the Hindu text we are told when God created the world and when God entered into the world. Similarly, at the moment of conception you have the coming into being new physical life, but simultaneously with the coming into being of physical life is the entry of the spirit into the physical body. So each time you have a child conceived it's like a replication of God's act of creation. This is why in Hindu tradition we do not have a notion of degrees of ensoulment, or a view that it is some time later in a later stage in the development of the child the spirit enters. It's at the very moment of conception.

In India, is the discussion of abortion as polarizing as it is in the US?
I don't think that the issue of abortion is as polarized or as divisive in India as it is in the west. But there we have some very different issues which are causing controversy today and from my perspective, I am pleased to see that the issue of abortion is becoming a controversial one. Unfortunately in India, most of the abortions that take place are not performed and are not done for birth control purposes, not as a birth control measure, and this is where this issue becomes so painful. Because all of the studies that have been done show that only in this subcontinent, medical technology, particularly ultrasound and aminosythesis both of which are well known medical procedures intended for the well being and health of the unborn child are used today for the purpose if determining the sex or the sexual identity of the fetus. And if it is a female, fetus is likely to be aborted. If it is a male, the pregnancy will be allowed to go through and of course a child will be the result. But abortion is used in India as a matter of sex selection. This is where the issue is really problematic on the Indian subcontinent. So much so, the use of abortion as a method of getting rid of the female fetuses which is another form of infanticide, has resulted in a significant disproportion in the numbers of males and females. A recent statistic would put it at nine hundred and twenty seven women in India for every one thousand males.

So how would you characterize the issues and debate?
I think when we look at the issue of abortion in India and in the Hindu world, the traditional Catholic ways of pro- life and pro-choice are not the ones that that could be used to understand the issues or understand the debate because I think woman would be troubled by the fact that abortion is used largely in India as a method of self-selection to abort female fetuses. This is something that in fact woman should be quite incensed and angry about and it goes right to the heart of the status of the woman and the preference for the male child. So the challenge in India is the challenge of lifting the status of the woman through education and through literacy. When that happens it appears that she's more likely to use contraceptive matters because in the Hindu tradition there is no religious or moral objection to the use of contraception. But the use of contraception seems related to the question of literacy. And so we need to implement measures both socially and from the religious standpoint to ensure that that the woman, in India, has the same opportunities for personal development, growth, and education and the realization of her potential as males do. And when that happens there seems there is a train of effects which, in a way, addresses the issues of abortion and dowry and other such measures.

In an ideal world, what would you like to see happen?
In an ideal world, there would be no need for abortion. I think as I look at the religious traditions of the world, all of us agree that even when abortion is possible it is not something that we celebrate, it is not something we rejoice about. This is a situation that has come about because of certain earlier kinds of failures on our part. So we have not only to discuss the issue of abortion, but in an ideal world we would all be striving to get at the kinds of social and economic and cultural conditions that that push women, even unwillingly, to want have abortions.