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Rated: E · Essay · Educational · #390292
A short toolkit for understanding Indians
Understanding Indians
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It’s tough. You can loose your bearings at times, but it can be done. On 3’rd August 1492, Christopher Columbus the great Italian explorer set out to find a westward route to India, financed by the royals of Spain. He found a land no European had seen before him. He was convinced that he had reached the Indies and started calling the local people ‘Indians’. In fact he had reached the Bahamas. He was a great explorer but a poor politician and got out-manoeuvered by an official called Amerigo Vespucci. Vespucci threw Columbus into prison and gave his name to the new continent – The Americas. The world has lived with both names ever since.

On the opposite side of the earth lies the real India, deriving its name from the land east of the river Indus and the fertile plains of the river Ganga, farmed for 8000 years. An early urban civilisation developed around Mohenjodaro and Harappa in the 3’rd millenium BC. To understand modern Indians, their looks, culture and religions, you should snap out of the modern day concept of a nation state and think in millenial time frames. The enormous cultural diversity of the people is reflected in the vast numbers of languages spoken, the variety of beliefs, customs, diet and dress. The diversity is a result both a response to the region’s range of natural environments and the result of successive migrations of people over the centuries who have spread new cultural influences and modified others.

About 1500 BC, the first great migration took place. The lighter skinned Aryans moved from central Asia to the Ganga river basin, forcing the original inhabitants, the darker skinned Dravidians, to move south. The conflict lives on even today, believe it or not. The Aryans spoke Sanskrit, an early Indo-European language from which most Northern Indian languages are derived. The Indian Aryans formed Hinduism and their traditions are preserved in the books of knowledge – the Vedas and Upanishads and the classic epic poems the Mahabharata and the Ramayana. The Mahabharata written around 500 BC is the world’s longest poem with more than 200,000 lines which contains the Bhagavad Geeta (Song of the Lord). These books of knowledge formed the base for the richness of philosophy and literature of the Indian subcontinent.

Alexander the Great(Sikander) came marching into India and defeated king Porus' elephant army. Many of the Greeks remained and married locally. The legacy lives on in Kashmir, in the Gandhara art that was formed with the fusion of Greek and Indian cultures and the light eyed people that one sees in the far north and along the coastal areas. Over the ages, people persecuted in other lands have found refuge in India. The Syrian Christians, the Parsis and more recently, the Dalai Lama and his Tibetans. They have all come in and merged with the cultural mosaic that is India. The culture has also flowed out through the ages along the trade routes but never in violence, war and subjugation of peoples. The adoption of Buddhism in the rest of Asia, the temples of the Angkorvat in Cambodia( familiar to those who have seen Lara Croft- Tomb Raider) and the Hindu island of Bali in predominant Muslim Indonesia stand testament to this fact.

Now let’s break some myths. To think of India as a country would be a mistake ( apologies to all shades of patriots). Its reference as a subcontinent is closer to the mark. Modern India has 26 states and 3 centrally run union teritories, many of them bigger than many European countries. Conceptually it is closer to compare it with Europe which is today a continent with open internal borders. Each state has its own language, dialects, dress, traditions and cuisines. There are 16 official languages that can be used in Parliament, including English. For example, Bengali (Bangla) is the language of the eastern state of Bengal ( and also the country of Bangladesh which was partitioned by the British and then won its independance from Pakistan in 1972). Tamil is the language of southern state of Tamil Nadu, Marathi is the language of the western state of Maharashtra, and so on. Hindi is the language of the four northern states and is supposed to be the national language according to the constitution. Many Indians, specially in the South, do not accept this and consider it as an imposition of one language over another, in some ways a carry over of the ancient conflict of the Aryans and the Dravidians. People have committed self immolation to protest against the imposition of the Hindi language. English is the urban link language, but spoken with various accents and variations. A great deal of Indian words have gone into the English language and so have European words come into Indian languages through contacts of trade snd commerce.

External influences are woven into the subcontinent’s cultural tapestry. In the South, trade with Europe and Asia influenced historical development. The introduction of Christianity is attributed to St Thomas, one of Christ’s 12 apostles. There are 5’th century references to a white Jewish community in the state of Kerala. I will always remember the ancient synagogue next to the spice trading center in Cochin. The Parsis, practicing Zoroastrianism, a religion that originated in Persia(Iran), migrated to India in about the 8th century to escape Muslim persecution. Between 1000 and 13’th century AD, Muslim invaders from central Asia conquered the plains of the Indus and the Ganga. This became the Mogul empire and had a profound effect on culture, arts, law and architecture. A lot of conservatism that we later see in India stems from this influence. Ancient Hindu India was an open and liberal society with works such as the Kama sutra with its discourses and advice on matters sexual. If you visit the temples of Khajuraho in the middle state of Madhya Pradesh you will see all the sexual positions that you can ever fantasize, as beautiful erotic sculptures on the walls of the temples, including group sex and many positions that are only to be seen to be believed. The liberal attitudes are being revived lately, though the traditions did carry on with indigenous tribal people in the rural areas.

The final strand of cultural influence was introduced by the British during the colonial period.They brought Protestant Christianity and inaugurated widespread changes in government, administration, the legal system, trade and transportation. They also encouraged the migration of Indian labor to the Carribean, Fiji and Africa to work on plantations and build railroads. This year’s (2002) Nobel prize for literature was won by VS Naipaul, one of their descendants. Catholisism came via the Portugese who ruled the western state of Goa as a colony till 1968, when they were driven out by the Indian army under much indignant protest in Lisbon.

Within the subcontinent, there are two Indias that coexist. First, a modern, industrialized, educated India, which is at the cutting edge of technology and second, a rural India with age old practices, superstitions, feudalism, caste wars and poverty. I hesitate, unlike some others, to categorize this division as ‘urban’ and ‘rural’. Because of migrations to the ‘bright lights’, the divide blurs in the urban areas, where the highest modern standards coexist with the worst that you can ever see. This rural migration has not only happened within India but also world wide. The early migrations into Britain were mostly by illiterate peasants. This led to the creation of caricatures of Indians as seen by Westerners. The later migrations, mostly to the United States, were by and large by educated and qualified Indians, though they sometimes carried the baggage of conflicts in the old country on to the new ones. There was a movement in the southern state of Tamil Nadu to throw out the upper caste Brahmins from positions of power through discrimination after elections had taken care of their historical rule. The result was that many of the upper caste Brahmins fled to the north of the India and many migrated to the United States. Normally the people of the south, and there are many in the United States, have darker skins ( there are exceptions) and northeners have lighter skins. However, layers upon layers of migrations have made this a difficult statement to make. The color of the skin is not much of an issue in India, as are the bonds of community and some feudal heritages specialy in the rural areas. Many of the matrimonial advertisements mirror the fondness parents have for light skinned brides.


The much talked about caste system started from the philosophical and religious premise of the development of human soul and consciousness in ancient India. It started with the recognition that people have various degrees of refinement. People whose realities are wholly identified with their physical bodies have a long evolutionary climb to undertake. They react to sense stimuli. They were classified as the peasant types (Sudra).The climb up the second flight involves a steady increase in the use of intelligence, but the refinement does not yet bestow and expansion of intelligent awareness, rather it is used for selfish gain. Right and wrong are determined by ‘what’s in it for me’. They have the ‘merchant type consciousness (Vaisya), though they need not be merchants in real life at all. The ego arrives at the third flight of stairs when it begins to find its limited identification with the ego, no longer natural, but stiffling. Now it dreams of expanding its identity to include in its own happiness the happiness of an increasing number of others, to embrace even broader horizons in its sphere of awareness. The self–expansive ego thinks in terms of serving, rather than of being served, of self sacrifice for the good of the many rather than sacrificing others for its own good. This is the attitude of a selfless warrior ( Kshatria). At the fourth stage of evolution, the ego conceives the desire to be guided solely by the superconsciousness and mankind’s highest potential. The epitome of this fourth stage is the priest or spiritual teacher, but includes all who deeply aspire to unite their souls with God (Brahman). Obviously these stages were not considered watertight. There could be gradations within each and the mobility to move from one to another stage.

Over the years it got distorted by the political and powerplay of humans into a rigid system of social hierarchies which became the caste system consisting four broad castes, Brahmins(priests), Kshatrias(warriors), Vaisya(merchants) and Sudras(peasants). The mobility disappeared. People would only marry within the same caste and would be limited to professions which were strictly regulated along caste lines. Again it would be a mistake to think that this is something basic to Hinduism. It is not. Later social movements have considerably reformed societal values. In the modern educated India, caste is not a major factor at all. It would be an error to think that any interpersonal conflict or discrimination exists in urban areas or in office environments on the basis of caste. In some socially backward states, caste plays a major factor in the elections. Intercaste marriage is very common as is the practice of choosing one’s partner on one’s own. However, in the other India, rural, feudal, superstitious, caste is still a political force. Election campaigning, for instance in the northern state of Bihar, is done pretty much along caste lines and there are frequent caste wars, specially with regard to property rights and control of territorial power. Surprisingly, in many places, the caste system operates within Christians as well, as seen in the state of Goa in western India.

Arranged marriages are quite common in India even today though things have changed considerably in the First India ( as I have mentioned above). Earlier, parents used to arrange marriages along strictly caste lines. Now, people choose their own partners in work places or in social gatherings such as the festivals and group dancing as the Dandiya Ras among the Gujrati people. These are the love marriages. Then there are the arranged-love marriages where the families preselect by social and financial classes and then cleverly arrange meetings, which the couple may or may not be aware of. A similarity of social, educational, family and social backgrounds, has lead to fairly low rates of divorce. This is also true for inter religious marriages. Social attitutes vary from state to state and with the standards of education, specially women’s education and spread of liberal values.

Buddhism started in northern India where Gautama Buddha renounced his life as a prince and found enlightenment. This philosophy does not talk of God. As it does not have a caste system, many have converted to this great religion. The other major religions are Jainism, Sikkhism, Islam and Chistianity. With so many religious traditions coexisting, there is no state religion and the country is secular. This is guaranteed in the constitution despite the fact that India's one billion population is mostly Hindu. India's 120 million Muslim population is greater than most 'Islamic' countries of the world. While there are sometimes religious tentions, mainly fuelled by politicians, this is a very responsible Muslim population. This was perhaps the only Muslim population which was not swayed by the pan islamic call of jihad by Osama Bin Laden. The reason is not difficult to find. The existence of a secular democracy where the word of the people is heard in an elected parliament and a free and vibrant press.

So, next time you meet an Indian, don’t jump to preconceived conclusions based on stereotyping. Ask him which state he is from. Is he from a city, town or the rural areas? Ask him about his language. Ask him about his religion, though if he is an educated Indian, this will not matter much to him, neither will you be able to distinguish between any peculiar characteristics based on religion. Modern Indians wear the same kind of dress that you do. Denims, shirts and shoes do just fine. Traditional dresses or the Western suit is worn for social occasions such as weddings. The office rig is generally trousers, shirt and tie for men or the colorful saree or western business rig for women. Its all pretty flexible. It is a wonderful mosaic of diversity, being perhaps the most diverse nation on earth, a place full of color and a photographer’s paradise. Indians people a land as diverse as themselves. From the tallest mountains in the world in the north, to the green fertile farmlands of the Punjab and the Ganga basin, the deserts of Rajasthan to the long continuous sea coast on three sides, with the Bay of Bengal to the East, the Arabian sea to the West and the Indian ocean in the south. Stand at Kanyakumari at the southern tip of India and you will see the three colors of seas and oceans mingling together. Mingling as all the people, cultures and religions do in this amazing country, shaped by vast migrations, vast conflicts and vast landscapes, building a tennuous unity in diversity.



Take a look at some "Snapshots from India




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