Bhartiya Nari is a powerful symbol. It evokes/provokes both reverence and derision. To some people it symbolises all that is great and beautiful about our culture and to others it depicts our misogyny and hypocrisy whereby women are simultaneously deified and oppressed.The symbol represents all the virtues which are associated with a woman and hence an ideal for every Indian woman. Interestingly, there is no male equivalent of this symbol. I have not come across any term like Bhartiya Purush in any discourse. Often,all wrong-doings by a woman are treated as a slur on Indian womanhood, whereas in case of men they are treated as personal failures/shortcomings and not in any way reflective of the collective . Thus it seems that while we have a fairly clearly defined notion of what an ideal Indian woman ought to be, the culture seems to be relatively silent on what an ideal Indian man ought to be.
The obvious explanation for this discrepancy lies in the power/status difference between the two genders. In any system(family, work organisation, society at large) the code of conduct is more strictly enforced for those who are lower in the power hierarchy. People at higher levels, generally have more flexibility and leeway for transgressing boundaries. Their primary task being to ensure that people below them adhere to the prescribed norms by disciplining them. A patriarchal social design creates power inequity between men and women. Hence it is not surprising that the demands for preserving the culture and its values is placed on women and men can act as the gatekeepers and monitors.
However, there may be another complication in the Indian context. In my understanding (which is also supported by insights gained from scholars like Ashish Nandy) Indian culture is essentially androgynous (integration of the masculine and feminine principle) If anything, it leans more towards the feminine side. Most of the cherished Indian values e.g. primacy of familial ties, peaceful co-existence, looking at nature as a living entity, treating guests as god, faith in cosmic benevolence, respect for wisdom and innocence and not an exclusive worship of youthful virility etc.,have a distinct feminine flavour. These values may not necessarily translate into actual behaviour but they do have a strong normative pull in the Indian Psyche.
On the other hand, the Indian social design is highly patriarchal and reinforces the superior status of men over women. This tension between the essence of the culture (tilt towards the feminine) and social design (tilt towards the masculine) is perhaps resolved through excessive codification for women and ambiguity in the notion of an ideal man.
Thus, while a woman is expected to be a good daughter, a good sister, a good wife, and a good mother; for men the injunctions go rarely beyond being an obedient son and a protector of family honour. Depictions of ideal husbands and ideal fathers are conspicuously absent from most Indian mythology and folklore. There are many stories about a son sacrificing for the sake of father (e.g. Rama going into exile for 14 years to honour his father’s word, Puru sacrificing his youth for his father Yayati, Bhishma giving up his claim to throne and accepting a life of celibacy so that his father can marry) one hardly comes across similar sacrifices made by fathers. Similarly there are countless stories about a wife’s love and devotion towards a husband but hardly any the other way. It would seem that the underlying message is that while women must grow into multiple roles,men must remain stuck in their “son” role and thereby never truly embrace mature masculinity.
This leads to an uneasy relationship between Indian men and their masculinity. The cultural tilt towards femininity becomes more a source of shame and smallness rather than something to be celebrated. Often these feelings of shame and smallness are discharged through insensitive oppression of not just women but of anyone who is seen as lower in status hierarchy.
Centuries of external aggression and dominance have fuelled the feelings of inferiority even further and left us with a sense of not being sufficiently manly. Thus it is not surprising that the cultural tilt towards femininity becomes even more burdensome for Indian men and they often seek refuge in culturally alien forms of masculinity. What we need to recognise, accept and cherish is the reality that the only form of masculinity which will be meaningful for us will be of an androgynous variety i.e. which has a strong integration with the feminine principle. In recent history a powerful example of this was provided by Swami Vivekanand whose masculinity was accompanied by strong compassion and service orientation.
In this sense, there ought to be no difference between our notions of an ideal Indian Woman and and an ideal Indian Man, because both are essentially a derivative of the androgynous construct of Ardhnarishwar. By over- codifying the notion of Bhartiya Nari, we seem to have passed on the entire responsibility of preserving Bhartiyta (Indianness) on to the women. Is it any surprise that it has become a caricature and invites more derision and defiance than respect and inspiration. It is high time that Indian Men start embracing the values which they associate with the construct of Bhartiya Nari. This interestingly may be the only viable way for them to come to terms with their masculinity. The first step in this endeavour is perhaps to go beyond the limited definition of being an obedient son and a protector of family honour. The multiplicity of roles which they associate with an ideal Woman (daughter, sister, wife, mother) needs to come alive for themselves as well ,particularly in terms of their husband and father roles.