I find these days that there is a lot of talk about Indian culture. Linked, of course, to the fact that India is coming into its her own as an economic powerhouse. Obama repaired his accent to suit us.
There’s a little noticed but perennial discussion about what is ‘Indian’ meandering its way through gatherings of the social elite (but in a way that they already know what it means… lik, they’re telling, not asking or suggesting), especially if there are non-Indians or people-of-Indian-origin around. New shows on international television channels celebrating India’s salable exotica have returned. The odd magazine/newspaper article, numerous blog and travelogues and even some valiant attempts at books that offer to finally and truly understand Indian Culture.
So let’s take that idea up. Indian Culture. A phrase made up of two vast, confusing, ever-evolving ideas that we’re not even sure exist in any tangible form. I mean what is India? A hurriedly strung together collection of regions that were (at the time of being hurriedly…) politically united by the British Crown, with some common economic interests of railroads and telegraph poles linking hinterlands to ports (because the British only really needed that part), trying to loosen the shackles of foreign rule all at once (also debatable) with the help of an anthem and a flag which, sixty years on, are nothing more than tiresome and ridiculed preambles to cinematic experiences (disclaimer – this post does not reflect the beliefs of the author, this is being said to build an argument, so chill!). I’m being too harsh, but it could be argued thus! No?!
And Culture – “refers to the cumulative deposit of knowledge, experience, beliefs, values, attitudes, meanings, hierarchies, religion, notions of time, roles, spatial relations, concepts of the universe, and material objects and possessions acquired by a group of people in the course of generations through individual and group striving…gaggfaahgag…somewhereongoogle…”
I wonder what kind of response one could expect from a random urban teenager, small-town shopkeeper, farmer in Orissa, social activist or industry captain when asked about their ‘Idea of India’. One thing’s for sure, they wouldn’t be saying the same things. Of course there might be obvious overlaps and concurrence over some very broad things, but I don’t believe the answers would anywhere near as similar to each other as when diverse peoples from other large democracies talk about their countries; not the Americans, not the Chinese (It is a democracy!)
Not very long ago somebody important (I forget who) likened India to Europe. That’s why its called a subcontinent. And many Indians when confronted with this uncomfortable task of describing India wear that description as a badge of honour; actually a shield behind which they take comfort.
This problem of description is deeper, though, and has to do with the context within which nations began to be described. The manner (I’m looking for a better word denoting the process of synthesis) of coagulation of feudatories into nation states in Europe gave rise to both the understanding of the ‘nation’ as well as provided vocabulary and measures to describe it. In the aftermath of nation building is when its defining characteristics came to be enumerated. And then the rest of the world (which was, incidentally, colonized) referred to those processes and built their own nations in the mould of their European masters. So did India (which at the time meant the subcontinent as stitched together by the British). But, as I learned in the Political Sciences class, India fulfills none of the requirements of nationhood, except, hold your breath, ‘Nationhood’… which means it is a nation not by any organic factors which bring it together, but because its people ‘want’ to be a nation. It would be interesting to understand exactly when the awareness of nationhood entered the collective consciousness of the people of the subcontinent.
I suspect that people who lived in this area, now called the subcontinent, may have had a sense of the cohesiveness of the geography of this region. In geography or history class we learned that India has natural boundaries – the Himalaya and Hindu Kush to the north and north west respectively, the desert in the west and the sea on three sides, protecting ‘us’. And thence.
Perhaps it never did, perhaps it was always there, bubbling beneath the conscious mind, simmering, with the worn out memory of centuries of pushing together and pulling apart on the subcontinental scale – united variously and differently by the british, the Mughals, by traveling saints and mystics of the middle ages, and once before in a time whose vestiges barely exist, by Ashoka the Great.
So there are a few common strains that have always united us. Religious or spiritual pursuit – in both, its positive and fundamentalist avatars. Taxes on land and income. Superstars (any sarcasm detected here is only in your own head) viz Adi Shankaracharya, the Buddha, Akbar, Ashoka, Lord Someone-or-the-other, the Mahatma, Amitabh Bachchan, Shah Rukh Khan, Sachin Tendulkar…
But its got to be better than this, surely! There is something about this country that continuously draws the outside world in. My patriotism clouds my objectivity and I have created in my mind a division between the porous borders of my country and ‘the rest of the world’. As if India is still, even in the 21st century C.E., what ancient Greece and Rome and Renaissance Europe made it out to be in their myths and fairy tales. And so, while I admit to this delusion, I also like it. And I also think it is good for me to keep it!
I do see glimpses of a very mature and intelligent society. You see, it is very difficult to bring even a hundred of us together in common protest (unless you pay us for it!). There seems to be an inherent wisdom and almost saint-like tolerance (or perhaps it is a collective fear) that allows us to let things sort themselves out. And most importantly we have not, for all the infusion of rationalist thinking in the last half century, forgotten that we live only for the generation after us, and not, absurdly enough, for ourselves. And every successive generation thinks the same. So who is it that we live for… What is this ‘life’, this ‘living’ that we speak of? Our grandparents didn’t ‘live’ so that our parents could… and our parents didn’t so that we could… and we won’t so that our children can… and in this we find that life makes sense, that it has meaning, that we build it, and find joy in doing so, and in nurturing the possibility that someone after us will actualize all that has been evolved… and (oh joy!) that that point will never actually come… That we must enumerate our achievements on the preparation for the future. This is an important idea. And philosophically too, that is the space into which we are led. Be prepared, and let the world happen to you. Do your best and leave the rest up to the Lord. We must find fulfillment only in the effort and give up the desire of the result of action, for we have right only over work, and not over reward – that is something that the Law of Karma, the Lord of the Universe, the Supreme Consciousness, will take care of. Build infrastructure and allow the economy to evolve. Provide education and watch people become more socially responsible. Create collective or community assets (streets, markets, public transport, open spaces and green areas etc) and see how quality of life improves. Work towards speedier and simpler judicial procedure and voila, democratic institutions are immediately strengthened (‘immediately’ means over a generation; but what is a generation over 5000 years). Adopt organic farming techniques and see health and nutrition improve. Apply the practices of Yoga and meditation in your daily life; practices that have been validated over thousands of years; and walk down the path of greater evolution and enlightened community life. Prepare, prepare, prepare. And wrest the initiative from the forces of Karma. Force the universe to respond to the fact that you carry everyone along with you. Let the machinations of the world find the most effective path in the seed-bed of your preparation, and plant the future in your wake! Deposit yourself into the hands of your Maker, and strive to do only His (or Her, if you prefer) bidding. Find joy and contentment in preparation – on every level of existence, in every sphere of life – and you will find that you are happy with whatever be the result. This is grace. This is the reason we are who we are. the result of what we prepared ourselves to be. And we better like it, rather than not! This is our culture, our unity, our faith, our mysticism, our religion our spirit and our happiness!
Now the point is, how do we follow this? Wait for part 2, but it will be a while… 🙂