The recent rape and brutal murder of an 8-year old girl in Kathua ( Jammu ) have been universally condemned. What is equally shocking is that many politicians and lawyers whose oath of allegiance is to fight for justice came out in support, not of the girl and her family, but the alleged killers.

Is this a manifestation of a cultural bias towards how people view right and wrong?

Anthropologist Ruth Benedict popularised the distinction between a guilt-based society and a shame-based culture. In a guilt-based society, a person knows his behaviour is good or bad by what his conscience feels. Guilt refrains people from doing wrong things. The US and much of Europe would be examples of societies that have traditionally had a guilt-based culture.

In a shame-based society, a person’s behaviour not based on moral perceptions of right and wrong but on the risk of being caught while doing wrong. If the likelihood of being caught is low, people would have little compunction in engaging in behaviour that is unethical and wrong. Personal honour, and how others in the community perceive behaviour is more important than individual values of right and wrong. ‘A thief is the one who gets caught,’ as the saying goes. In such cultures, the first rule when you do wrong is, don’t be found out, and if you are, then bluff your way through. Admit to a wrongdoing only when every other alternative has failed, because it will bring shame and disgrace. Japan was the prototypical shame-based culture where people often committed suicide to avoid the shame associated with being caught.

Neither culture is perfect, and there is value to be found in each. Also, while every society has individuals that would fall into either category, one is forced to look at averages when studying social behaviour. Both types of cultures teach personal behaviour but have very different approaches to wrongdoing and as a result, have very different implications for social discipline. The positive aspects of a guilt-based culture are its concern for truth and justice, the preservation of individual rights, and the sense of personal responsibility that comes from knowing that you alone are responsible for doing right even when no one is watching. In the shame-based culture, the desire to avoid shame to the exclusion of all else is the overriding factor. The positive aspect of this is that people engage in socially-conforming behaviour, but, that is also its downside especially when it results in mob destruction. Also in the guilt-based society, criminal acts generally tend to be carried out by lone wolves, whereas group criminality tends to dominate bad behaviour in shame-based societies.

A good illustration of these different moral behaviours is the 1 AM traffic light test. A person in a guilt-based society will most likely NOT jump a red light even at 1 AM in the morning because he knows it is wrong. But in a shame-based society, he probably will know that no one is watching, and he is unlikely to get caught.

Like most Asian societies, India has a shame-based culture. What prevents people from doing wrong is not guilt but the fear of getting caught. Most people in India would fail the 1 AM test and jump the traffic light. In such a culture, it is also typical of people with power in society to act like they have a license to engage in secret wrongdoing. So when Bollywood actor Salman Khan was killing animals that are on the brink of extinction, his conscience did not alert him to the fact that he was doing wrong. In his shame-based view of things, it mattered only that he would not get caught and if he did his status as a big movie star would allow him to bluff or buy his way out. Large-scale bank corruption in which the socially powerful have looted billions of dollars in connivance with officials of public sector banks is another manifestation of the shame-based culture and how those with political and social power abuse the system because they are unafraid of being caught.  The politically powerful rarely go to jail in India, so the system limits the odds of such people getting caught for wrongdoing.  In a culture, therefore, where getting caught and not guilt is the primary determinant of recalcitrant behaviour it is no surprise then that almost 40% of elected officials in India have criminal cases against them, with almost 25% facing serious charges like murder, rape, and kidnapping.

The recent rape and brutal murder of an 8-year old girl in Jammu is an unfortunate example of India’s shame-based culture. The alleged killers were members of a religious organization and raped the poor child in a temple in front of the very gods they feared. They had no moral conscience or guilt of the horrendous deed they were doing. They thought they were doing their religious community a favour and would be protected by the religious brotherhood. And as is typical of the group nature of shame-based violence the shameful act involved not one but by several people.

Worst, when two leaders of a major political party were forced to resign as a result of the public outrage over their support of the rape accused, the national party office wrote the following letter: “It is a simple resignation letter, but they have done it to save party (sic) from the adverse publicity going on in the media about their publicly supporting the Hindu Ekta Manch.” The letter was a stark reminder of the dominance of shame in India’s culture. The letter did not state any acceptance of wrong-doing or even acknowledgement of the dastardly act–saving face and the honour of the party was the primary consideration.

Shame definitely has a place in any moral system–it does prevent many from doing wrong. But when it dominates guilt and personal responsibility, then people are less reluctant to be honest, especially if they know they can get away with it. Such shame-based beliefs pervade almost every aspect of Indian life. From politicians to financial institutions, corporations, and even doctors–almost all exhibit behaviours of a culture that doesn’t look at wrong-doing as a moral issue, but as something that is acceptable as long as they don’t get caught. This lack of guilt is reflected in almost every sphere of Indian life–the way people drive on the streets, how they litter everywhere, how they treat the environment, corruption, bribery etc.. There appears to be little evidence that the average Indian citizen reflects on right versus wrong.

Can this be changed? Can India transition to a guilt-based society where people refrain from doing wrong because they know it to be wrong, a society in which people exercise good moral judgement with regard to social behaviour and accept personal responsibility for all wrongdoing? History has shown that once societies reach a certain level of complexity, shame-based cultures can transition to becoming guilt cultures. Japan and Singapore are great examples of countries that have successfully transformed from a very traditional shame-based culture to a rules-based guilt culture. But there are also examples of countries that have gone the other way. Mexico moved from a Catholic guilt-based culture based on personal atonement to a shame-based culture in which personal morality is dictated by the possibility of getting caught and losing acceptance within the community and the church.

India is a complex country with a billion conflicting interests. It is a largely undisciplined society which lacks clear rules of personal and public behaviour, inadequate understanding of the rights of others, and woefully little sense of personal responsibility and accountability. It is also a country steeped in centuries of traditions that will be tough to change. For example, the “ khap” tradition in Haryana, with its focus on community acceptance of right and wrong, is a shame-based society that dominates the lives of its people. Similar traditions can be found everywhere else in the country. The problem with India is its leadership. The country has thousands of politicians but very few leaders who have the moral courage to call out a wrong when they see one.  It is hard to imagine an Indian politician ever admitting to his guilt, taking responsibility for his failings and stepping down. Singapore with its population of very traditional shame-based culture like the Malays and Chinese transitioned into a guilt-based society largely because it had a leader, Lee Kuan Yiew, who had the moral conviction of speaking out against wrong.

India sadly lacks such leaders. When something as dastardly as the Kathua rape transpires and the nation is horrified it is the moral duty of leaders to reassure people. India has several women in leadership roles in Government. Words of comfort from them could have greatly calmed young women and girls. Instead, India’s politicians engaged only in what they do best– blame games and deflecting shame.

India’s transformation into a mature democracy will require a new generation of young men and women with a strong moral compass and personal convictions about guilt and wrongdoing. Hopefully, one day India will also get leaders and not politicians, people with the courage to call out wrong irrespective of its political implications, and people who can inspire the youth to understand right from wrong.  Till then we can expect those who can get away to keep engaging in murder.

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2018-07-26T22:39:45+00:00 April 18th, 2018|


  1. Dr Govind Prasad Sharma May 1, 2020 at 10:18 am - Reply

    Quite a rightly taken analysis focussing on the grassroots’ realities and reflecting on the very crux of the matter.
    ‘ld like to know you in terms of your academic background, profession that you are currently attached to, place that you live in and as to how I may remain in touch with you.
    ‘m a freelance Social Anthropologist-cum-Researcher, 64yrs old now, remained engaged in the self-driven action research activity of some nature or the other in different parts of my life; living at Ranchi iocated in the eastern part of India.
    My personal regards and best wishes to you…

  2. Survivor of Shame November 24, 2020 at 7:32 pm - Reply

    A very well written article

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