Cultural Comparison

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A Discussion of Hair

Culture: it’s all the behavior we learn, everything we pick up on as we grow up, all the little things we do not even notice we do. It can be as obvious as the clothes you wear and the customs you practice or as subtle as your sense of personal space and the respect you show others. There are differences in culture in every society around the world. Now, society is not defined by political lines. A society is a group of people with the same learned behavior, or culture. There can be many different kinds of people with many different kinds of learned behavior within the political boundaries of a country. On the flip side of that, there can also be a group of people with the same culture that is spread out over several countries, maybe even several continents. Two examples of societies which happen to fall mostly inside the boundaries of a country are the Hindu women in India and typical North American women.

India is one of the most populated countries in the world, with a population of 1,166,079,217. For every 1.06 men in India, there is one woman. 80.5% percent of the people in India practice Hinduism. Hinduism is the oldest of the five most commonly practiced religions. Some prominent themes of Hinduism include Dharma (ethics/duties), Samsāra (The continuing cycle of birth, life, death and rebirth), Karma (action and subsequent reaction), Moksha (liberation from samsara), and the various Yogas (paths or practices). To list every Hindu practice would be close to impossible because there are many different variations of the Hindu religion and practicing Hindus believe different things. One ritual some Hindu women practice is called tonsuring – the cutting of hair for religious regions. This is the ritual that will be discussed, as well as other reasons why Indian women shave off their hair.

Meanwhile, thousands and thousands of miles away on the North American continent, there is a very different society. Yes, there are practicing Hindus in North America, but the vast majority of North American are part of a fast paced, self-centered, extremely visual society, where the attention span of children shortens and shortens every generation. The women of this society (population numbering about 155, 300 in the United States as of 2007) have a remarkable amount of freedom and liberties and have for several decades. The ideal North American woman has a career, a family, is good looking, in shape, and is completely obsessed with having “good hair” In the Hindu religion, some women practice a ritual known as tonsuring, which is the cutting of hair as a symbol of a devotee’s renunciation of worldly fashion and esteem. When a Hindu woman is clean shaven, she is then perceived as devout because shaving one's head is a symbol of total submission to God. As a sign of repentance one’s head is shaved in a temple of a particular deity, then the devotee bathes and stands bowed down in the presence of the deity, seeking forgiveness and offering to become a new person. Tonsuring is the outward symbol of beginning life anew.

When women shave their heads in temples in India they have no idea that sometimes their thick, black hair is being sold. The Venkateswara temple in Southern India is one of Hinduism’s holiest sites. It is also one if the richest temples in India, earning about $18 million by selling the hair to be used in wigs and weaves in the West. In temples like Venkateswara, barbers are revered as priests and tons of hair is collect every year from the heads of women who believe they are simply submitting to God and acting devoutly.

However, temple hair only accounts for 25% of India’s hair market. The majority of it comes from poor Indian women who grow it and sell it. This is called the dead hair market; the women of a village may pool their hair together and sell it for maybe $2. The hair collector comes weekly to the slums and gives small trinkets, sometimes not...
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