Wednesday, August 21, 2013

India Breeds Codependence

A lot of us pardesi's struggle to understand and put into words what we see in India. From how families work together to how the country manages to hold together in what seems like pure chaos to us. Through my own struggles, I've now been able to rationalize the things I have seen and know about India and the way things work there. I'm also gaining an understanding of the why's and how's that relate to where all of these behaviors and attitudes come from. This concept is what causes a huge divide between life in India vs. the US.

It has a name - paticcasamuppada or pratītya-samutpāda (Sanskrit) - also known as the Buddhist concept of codependent origination*. Buddhism did not invent this concept, it simply put a name to it.

What does codependent origination mean? It means that you (nor anyone) is truly independent. Your life, your actions, your interactions are shaped by the world (and people) around you. In the US, as most of you know, the concept is that you can be and do just about whatever you want and you don't have to consider the world around you to do it. We feel we are free from the world while Buddhists do not.

This concept filters across a good majority of India. Children grow up thinking they can't make major decisions by themselves, they must turn to their parents and elders. The bonds and family ties hold people back and develop a strong codependency in which individuals are stifled. Breaking these bonds is critical to achieve self-actualization and reach your full potential. But few Indians are strong enough to break these bonds. (This would hold true in any country, as a surviving co-dependent, I can personally attest to how difficult this is!)

Further leading to codependency in average everyday Indians is the concept of shame. Shame is a word you will hear often among Indians. Don't you have any shame? Don't shame the family? Children are raised with a fear of bringing shame on their family. Shame is not an individual concept and it is something easily brought on by non-conformance. (This includes marrying a white girl for those of you who wonder why it's so hard for your boyfriend to tell his family about you.) It is paramount in Indian homes to never let the world see any of your flaws or shortcomings. Hence every young man must earn an engineering degree and make large sums of money.

It's an unrealistic set of norms to uphold. Imagine if you could never let anyone see the things that weren't mainstream or normal in your home. Imagine feeling intense guilt that your mother couldn't tell everyone she knows that her son graduated with a Masters degree in a respectable field. Shame - or rather, the fear of being shamed - is prevalent in Indian society.

Is all of this wrong? I'm not psychologists and I don't expect India to stop what it's doing and adopt American philosophies but I know living as a codependent was torture. I can't imagine that it's easy to live this way, in a system full of corruption, bribes, emotional blackmail, etc. None of these concepts are good for the human psyche.

This could explain why MIL's sometimes continue being devastated by the simplest injuries (like one I heard who stumped her toe and then couldn't walk for 3 days). Codependency leads sufferers to seek self-worth from the actions of others. Their self-esteem is typically low. Another characteristic of Indians who lack confidence in many areas of their lives. Codependency breeds these negative thoughts which in turn build negative energy and lead to further feelings of suffering and lack of control. It's a vicious circle...or triangle. (See Karpman Drama Triangle)

Some Recommended Reading for you:
PyschCentral: Shame: The Core of Addiction and Codependency
The Culture Mandala Vol 7 no. 1: The Emptiness of Codependent Origination
Patrick B. McGinnis, PhD, LMHC: Codependency-Abandonment of Self

*In Buddhism, which I do not study, this concept is sometimes known as dependent co-origination or dependent origination.


  1. Alexandra MadhavanAugust 21, 2013 at 3:20 AM

    great article. co-dependency takes the power out of one's own hands. being a western woman, i really can't stand it! you can only truly rely on yourself, and until people realize that, codependency is a set up for shame, duty, blame, obligation, and missed opportunity. i think in any relationship, you have to meet your own needs and bring something to the table (I'm talking about efforts, nothing to do with financial). that includes husband/wife, parent/child, inlaws, friends, and sibling relationships too.

  2. I agree, it is a great article, very insightful.

    However, having read a few Buddhist texts, I understood that one of the Buddhist ideas is that everything you do and even think has an effect on the World, and that separation is an illusion which brings suffering because in reality we are all one, even the plants and animals. That's the spiritual principle ; have compassion for others because they are you. What you describe is like a perverted interpretation by society of this principle for selfish uses (?).

    What you have lived in Punjab was rather scary. I suffered from co-dependency for years but I found that my husband's insistance to talk and think about "us" was very soothing. Perhaps it's because I know he respects me as an individual person and doesn't try to manipulate me. A co-dependant person may have problems with intimacy by fear of being annihilated by the partner. I don't know if what I say makes sense...

  3. Indian culture is traditionally a tribal/collectivist culture and so co-dependance in a group is likely to be very strong as individualism takes a backseat. Western societies have always been ruled by centralized bureaucracies (exceptions aside) since Roman times and so evolved into a culture where extended kin relations were de-emphasized in favour of the nuclear family. Western culture = individualism.

    Shame/face is the social mechanism of regulating inter-group behaviour to maximize inter group harmony.



  4. I think there is a difference between interdependence and codependency. Interdependence can be a good thing - there's just 24 hours in a day and 7 days in a week and having people you can turn to or call on, those you trust to help you in some aspect of life, is a great thing. Sometimes we do have to make sacrifices to maintain those relationships or to let go of our egos to allow someone else to 'do' for us what we would not be able to do well ourselves. But complete independence also requires sacrifices of its own.

    There is definitely an issue when there is too much dependence in a relationship, when people can't make their way in life without first checking with others to see if it's okay. But too much independence can also be a problem... have you watched Arrested Development? It's interesting to see the three brothers and how they are an example of this. Buster, of course, is the one who is so dependent on his mother he can't function in regular life at all. Gob is as independent as Buster is dependent - he takes up a career in magic, tries every weird scheme he can think of to get ahead in life (which all fail), and enter into relationships and even marriage with a devil-may-care attitude. His decisions negatively affect everyone around him. Michael is the middle ground between them, making his own decisions in life but also doing what helps the others in his family as well. It is a good study of the levels of dependence in what is otherwise a materialistic and dysfunctional (fictional) family. :)

    I think any family from any culture can be dysfunctional and codependent. It is certainly not limited to India, nor do I think it's particularly something India breeds better than the US. I have seen that families here do want their children to be able to manage their own affairs, even if it takes longer than the 18-22 years Americans generally give their kids to get themselves together. Sometimes this doesn't happen but I think it is the exception rather than the norm.

  5. I liked the initial paragraphs of this post that briefly explain codependency but you lost me as it suddenly narrowed down drastically to stifling children's choices. IMO, whether one reaps the comforts of this " mutually beneficial" system (prateetya in this context could mean comfort, sama = equal, utpaada = production / output) or gets crushed by it is a combination of :
    1. Family members personalities - both young and old.
    2. Their education & worldly exposure
    3. Openness in communication
    4. Understanding of tradition / culture.
    In my case, I have had a highly favorable mix of each of the above. Also, I am from the south of India which IMO is far more progressive than the north so I have personally never come across such instances that could help me relate. At the same time, when you mention your personal experience, my heart goes out to you for being in a situation which I can only imagine. Coming back to the impact on society, sadly India has lost almost all of its concept of shame, so atrocities are rampant and unchecked these days. Inherently, shame is a rather powerful stick to check social behavior and inter-dependency in a family is a constant and mostly free, support system. Each Indian family fits in someplace between this spectrum of complete desolation to absolute joy and many families have been steadily moving from closer to the former towards the latter. It is inaccurate and unfair to generalize the entire country based on a certain percentage of its families that could well be a minority.

    1. I disagree. If shame was such a powerful inhibitor, all manner of social evils wouldn't have taken root in society.
      A thousand years of caste-based oppression, the utter and complete subordination of women within the family, the hierarchical nature of our society, which breeds pronounced asymmetry of power -- all of these existed despite a shame-based culture.
      In fact, it's evident that shame was used as a powerful tool of social control.
      My great grandmother,who died in 1974, refused to learn to read and write, because she'd been conditioned to think of literacy as "immoral" as a child and a young woman.
      Till the end of her days, she refused all attempts to teach her reading, because of the powerful shame of violating "tradition"

  6. Exactly! Community living is not a bad concept, it's the bribery, over-dramatizing and other behaviors intended to control someone else for your own satisfaction that's not healthy. You have to be an individual person just as much as you are a family unit.

  7. The Buddhist concept of interdependence on each other is not bad. What I'm referring to as co-dependence is the over-dramatic woman who stumps her toe and then lies in bed for days over it so she can get sympathy. I'm talking about the 'you carry this heavy load for me and I'll massage your feet' type of mentality. Codependence is not healthy for anyone and is simply a means of control. This is a negative perversion of the community living concept. The Buddhist concept doesn't include controlling behavior, it merely defines how we are not independent of anything no matter how much we want to believe it.

    What you say about the codependent partner makes perfect sense. I understand codependence quite well as a fellow survivor. While in India, my husband and my in-laws didn't treat me with controlling or manipulating ways (uncle ji and his bunch excluded). There were other aspects that were quite scary about living there though and many I just didn't blog about *yet.* I didn't have nearly as much trouble defining what I would and wouldn't tolerate as I seem to have here in the US. That concept in itself is strange to me. Of course, I'm still in the process of analyzing myself and discovering things about me I still don't understand.

    Thanks for your comment!

  8. I saw a good deal more codependence in India and now in relationships between Indians outside of India. The mere concept that women need to grow up and get married to have protection starts the vicious cycle. Then the women feel they must do what it takes to survive the relationship, etc. You've heard all of that in the anti-women stories that go around. I won't rehash it here.

    I'm not sure who has more, India or the US but I know India definitely has more people using the same types of detrimental and controlling behaviors. Shaming is simply not a widespread concept in the US (though it occurs indeed) like in India. Nor is the rampant aunty dramatics. Sure, we have hypchondriacs here in the US but even they don't generally dramatize the way I've heard some aunties do it.

    Of course, to even imply I had compared the US and India for this post would be inaccurate. I simply only thought of India as I wrote it and reflected on things before publishing it.

    I also actually like the system of letting the kids take longer to get establshed before moving them out but that is more interdependence. Codependence is quite an ugly system. It's all about control and manipulation. Like faking illness to get your son to marry and breed sooner, etc. That's not healthy nor a product of interdependence. It's pure selfish controlling behavior.

  9. I too believe the south is far more progressive than the north of India. I've seen many examples and had many commenters here on my blog that more than prove that.

    Even though the news stories come out about atrocities in the north, shame is still a very real concept there. It stifles communication and I see it on a daily basis among friends, family and random Indians I encounter.

    Interdependence and codependence are not the same things. They are close but one is far more negative than the other. It's perfectly healthy to live in joint families and rely on each other for things. It becomes inherently unhealthy when control and selfishness become involved with the only point being to get your way without a thought for the one you're manipulating. I've seen this both in the south and the north though it was definitely a lot less in the south.

    I did a considerable amount of research on this post. It's been in the works more than a year actually. The things I write about on this blog are not just my experiences. I have stood up for others as well. I find it hard to believe that I have 80+ contacts from people I don't know telling me about their situations and then another 300 in our community, many of whom have encountered the same things and people still single me out as generalizing and say I only see/experience the minority. I think it's unreasonable to assume that I'm some random unique case because someone else hasn't seen or heard the same things. I find it more plausible that these people gravitate to me because I'm not afraid to write about our experiences and tell the world what I see, even if it means someone will disagree with me.

    I'm not like other people. I don't mind heated debates. I don't get offended by disagreements. I know that not everyone sees the same things as me, not every thinks like me, not everyone will know of the things I know of. That's how life works. I have lived a different life and have different experiences than everyone else. Each person in the world has a unique life. It is their own. I don't devalue opinions, etc. (not that you did either).

    I am happy that you haven't seen or experienced these things.However, I know there is a good majority of people who have. They're not a small minority. I see stories daily about these issues.

    A lot of people misread my blog thinking this means I hate India or I have a distaste for it. I simply don't have those feelings that people sometimes think I do. But that's okay. I urge you and everyone else to do their own research. I even provided links to get you started. This work is not just my own. Others in the world have found the same thing. Codependency is not an innocent word and you will find more articles by other people if you search. Please also keep in mind India has not yet warmed up to the idea of mental health and since it's not as recognized there, that will inhibit common citizens knowing and understanding what they are going through.

  10. I appreciate your comment. We in the US have decentralized the family more so than Indians have. It's not a perfect system but it's also not a bad system. It needs improvement in many ways and is good in many ways. Interdependence is healthy and works for the good of everyone involved. It's only manipulation and control that ruin things for everyone.

  11. The uniqueness of Western civilization lies in striking a perfect balance between individualism and civic mindedness, ie consideration for others in the context of being a good citizen. Indians haven't found that balance yet, and likely won't for several more decades.

    Also American Punjaban, people in the east equate individualism for selfishness, but this isn't true. Individualism breeds moral universalism. Since members of Tribal cultures depend on their tribal/caste groups for identity, it is in their interests to elevate the interests of their tribe above everything, including principle. Since westerners do not depend on any particular group in that way, their morals are universal.

    This is why you'll notice that in India people vote along tribal/caste lines whereas in the west people vote along the lines of ideology.

    A Tribal/castiest/collectivist person will ask: Is it good for my tribe/group?

    The westerner will ask: Is it good for mankind?

    Small wonder then, that it was the west that created the modern world as we know it.

    If you wish to read more about this, I've written an article here:

  12. I think people say you're generalising not because it's not happenimg around them but because that's all they have seen and it's hard for them to see it for what it is despite finding it hard emotionally. They just dismiss it as that's how things are. I just realised that being codependent carries into your old age when you marry your son and expect them to live with you because you are old and need to be taken care of. I see people refuse to take perfectly easy steps to stay healthy and then expect children to stay with them so they can help them when they refuse to help themselves. I have seen old people choose to live seperately by choice without being driven to do so by children because they wanted freedom. It's not that they don't have health problems but they CHOOSE to take care of themselves. And so can anyone crying about their children leaving them alone especially when that child lives in the same city.

  13. Thank you. :) I agree, this is a difficult thing to face. Working together is good in so many ways but like you said, refusing to do things for yourself because you're depending on someone else to take care of you later is not healthy for anyone involved.

  14. Yes. I have seen many aged people with lots of health problems turn their lives around completely with a healthy diet and exercise.

    No medicine or hospital or help can do what you can. And no one can force you to do it if you refuse to. I have seen so many examples of parents depending solely on meds (and their children to remind them to take them) to stay healthy I feel sad for their kids who feel tied down and unable to do anything as they see all those meds go down the drain while you barely hang on to some illusion of health.

  15. what are the physical symptoms of codependency?
    codependency workbooks