INDIA – History
Through thousands of years of great civilizations, invasions and the birth of religions, understanding Indian history can be elusive. Nomadic tribes from the Indus valley straddling the India/Pakistan border were the initial people and great cities had been developed by 3500BC. Aryan tribes from Afghanistan and Central Asia filtered in controlling the north and forcing the Dravidians south. The Hindu sacred scriptures, the Vedas were written between 1500 – 1200BC. The Persian king Darius and Alexander the Great invaded to its borders. Buddhism and Jainism developed around 500BC. The Mauryan empire controlled most of the country by 321BC and it reached its peak under emperor Ashoka. A rigid caste system was in place. It disintegrated into multiple kingdoms and trade was started with Rome and China.
The Gupta empire flourished until the 6th century AD and Hinduism became the dominant religion with Buddhism especially declining. The Indian south had a separate set of powerful kingdoms especially the Tamils who ruled for 1500 years. Christianity was introduced by St Thomas the Apostle in 52 AD. Trade flourished from Egypt to SE Asia. Hinduism was the bedrock of south India while Muslim armies invaded the northwest starting at 1000 AD and the entire north was Muslim by 1200. Tamerlane invaded from Central Asia in 1398 and mercilessly slaughtered Hindus. The Mughals, again from Central Asia, invaded in the mid 1500’s. Akbar was most prominent leader with a strong interest in culture. Shah Jahan built the Taj Mahal in the 1650’s. Hinduism insurgency was common in central India.
In 1498, Vasco de Gama arrived and the Portuguese controlled the SW coast. The British East India Company arrived in 1613 establishing posts at Madras, Bombay and Calcutta. The commercial company, not the British government controlled British India for 250 years until 1858 when control passed to the government, the period of the British Raj. Iron, coal, tea, cotton and coffee were the main products and the vast rail network was developed. A landowner system developed leaving a landless, impoverished peasantry.
The Indian National Congress, with a goal of Indian independence, was started in 1885. In 1919 with riots and an unfortunate shooting of hundreds of Indians, Mahatma Ghandi introduced nonviolent protest. He started the Quit India campaign in 1942 and was imprisoned for the second time. Excluded from independence talks, he was assassinated by a Hindu zealot in 1948. Independence was declared for August, 1947 with the decision to divide the country into separate Muslim and Hindu territories. The dividing line was tricky as some areas had very mixed populations and islands of one faith resided well within the others boundaries. Moreover, the two Muslim regions were on opposite sides of the country. The Punjab and Bengal areas around Calcutta were particularly difficult and bloodshed was heavy. Kashmir remains a casualty of the original dispute. With a majority Muslim population but a Hindu Mararaja, they joined India.
INDIA – The Way of Life
The most enduring impression of India is the way everyday life is intertwined with the sacred. Everybody performs puja (prayers) daily. Along with religion, family lies at the heart of Indian society. Being unmarried and without children is unthinkable. The extended family remains a cornerstone with the man the breadwinner. National pride has swelled because of India’s achievements in IT, science, medicine, film and cricket. The robust economy has been slowing lately but they take pride in their nuclear and space technology.
Marriage is an auspicious event, and although love marriages are on the increase, most marriages are arranged. Dowry, although illegal is still a big issue. Some families are plunged into debt and India’s high abortion rate of female fetuses is predominantly due to the financial burden of providing for a daughter’s dowry. It’s still the norm for a wife to live with her husband’s family and the mother-in-law relationship is often strained. Irrelevant of education, once married, a woman’s role is still as a homemaker above all else. If she fails to live up to expectations (even not producing sons), consequences can be dire. The extreme practice of ‘bride burning’ where 250 cases go unreported for every reported case. Divorce is rare (about 11/1000 but is increasing) and widows are expected to not remarry. Indian law does not provide for alimony and thus Indian women are likely to put up with anything with no prospects for remarriage and no income.
The caste system is important especially in rural India. It largely determines ones social standing and occupational and marriage prospects. Living a righteous life and fulfilling your moral duty raises your chance of being reborn into a higher cast and improving ones circumstances. The four main castes are priests and scholars, soldiers and administrators, merchants, then labourers. Beneath this are the Dallits or untouchables who do menial tasks (sweepers and latrine cleaners), and at the bottom are the unnotified tribes who eke out a living at societies fringes. The Adivasis are the 400 tribal groups that comprise 8.2% of the populations. Their literacy rate is 30% compared to the national average of 65%. Today the Dallits have 25% of many quotas and their lot has improved. My view is that when the main way to get ahead is to be reborn in a higher caste is why these people are so religious and crime rates so low. No one wants to be reincarnated as a dog, the lowliest of animals.
Devout Hindus are expected to go on pilgrimage once a year to implore the gods to grant a wish, take the ashes of a departed relative to a holy river, or to gain spiritual merit. Many festivals have a religious basis and are thus a magnate for pilgrims. Kumbh Mela is the biggest. Held four times every 12 years at four different locations, it attracts tens of millions over 6 weeks with normally six auspicious bathing dates. All branches of Hinduism come together in mass belief and take a dip in a holy river.
Hinduism is practiced by 80.5% of the population. With roots extending before 1000 BC, it has no central authority and doesn’t proselytize. Earthly life is cyclical – one is born again and again depending upon your karma or conduct. Bad karma can even result in rebirth as an animal, and animals are not eligible to escape the cycle of reincarnation. All Hindu deities are a manifestation of Brahman who is formless and without attributes but has three main manifestations, all with attributes. Brahma was active only in the creation of the universe, and is depicted with 4 heads each turned to a point of the compass. Vishnu is the preserver and is associated with right action. He has 4 arms and holds a lotus flower, conch shell and a mace. His consort is Lakshmi, the goddess of wealth and his vehicle is Garuda, the man-bird creature. Shiva is the destroyer but his creative role is phallically symbolized by the frequently worshipped lingam. With 1008 names, he takes many forms and has snakes draped around his neck. His consort, Parvati, who can take many forms. He rides Nandi, his bull. Other important deities include Ganesh (elephant headed, the child of Shiva and Parvati, and is the god of good fortune); Krishna is an incarnation of Vishnu sent to earth to fight for good and combat evil. The young fellow where I used the internet in Varanasi has shrines to Ganesh and Lakshmi and offers puja daily (although he doesn’t often bath in the Ganges). Cows (fertility and nurturing) and snakes, especially cobras (fertility and welfare), are both holy. Most homes have a dedicated worship area and individuals offer puja to the deities of their choice. Food is often blessed at temples and then shared with family and friends. Other forms of worship include aarti (the lighting of lamps or candles) and the playing of devotional songs.
Islam. Most Muslims in India are Sunnis (emphasize the orthodox way). Shiites believe that imams can reveal the true meaning of the Quran. Comprising 13.4% of the population, there are more Muslims in India than in Pakistan and Bangladesh.
Sikhism, founded in the Punjab in the 15th century, began as a reaction against the caste system and Brahmin domination of ritual. They believe in one god and reject the worship of idols. Although they believe in rebirth and karma, there is no ascetic tradition ending the cycles of rebirth. Singh, literally ‘lion’, is the name adopted by many Sikhs. A belief in the equality of all beings lies at the heart of Sikhism.
Buddhism. Buddha lived from 563 – 483 BC. A prince, at 29, he embarked on a quest of emancipation from suffering and achieved nirvana (the state of total enlightenment or full awareness) at 35 at Bodhgaya, India. Critical of the caste system and the unthinking worship of gods. The four noble truths are life is rooted in suffering, suffering is caused by craving, and craving can be eliminated by following the Noble Eightfold Path of right understanding, right intention, right speech, right action, right livelihood, right effort, right awareness and right concentration. By complying with these, one can reach nirvana. Buddhism has had a resurgence since the 1950’s with the influx of intellectuals and Dalits disillusioned with the caste system, and Tibetan refugees.
Jainism. Arising in the 6th century, it was also a reaction to the caste system and rituals. Liberation can be achieved by complete purity of the soul. Right conduct is essential along with nonviolence to in thought and deed to any living thing. They are strict vegetarians and even abstain from eating root vegetables like potatoes, onions, carrots, beets and garlic!
Christianity. It probably arrived not with St Thomas, but with a Syrian merchant, who in the 4th century came to Kerala with 400 families. There was a strong presence after the Portuguese arrived. Protestant missionaries with the goal of conversion have been arriving since the 18th century.
The Landscape. It is the second largest Asian country and has a very diverse landscape. The Himalayas have the highest peak in India at 8598m. They stretch 2500km from Afghanistan to Myanmar. They create both the monsoon and a dry rain shadow on their north side. The Indo-Gangetic Plains cover most of northern India. The vast alluvial plains of the Ganges drop a mere 200m from Delhi to West Bengal where it joins the Brahmaputra River from India’s northeast before joining the sea in Bangladesh. Sediment has accumulated to the depth of 2 kilometers creating the most fertile land on earth. South of this is the Deccan Plateau bound by the western and Eastern Ghats which come together in the south with the Nilgiri Hills. On the west there is a narrow coastal lowland with a luxuriant rainforest.
Environment. 65% of the land is degraded to some extent at least partly to the Green Revolution of the 60’s when fertilizers and pesticides enabled huge growth in agricultural output at enormous environmental cost. There are simply too many people for India to support at the current level of development. The over one billion population is expected to double by 2050. Climate change has resulted in severe floods in both 2005 and 2010. The biggest threat is inadequate access to clean drinking water and proper sanitation. Of 3000 cities and towns in India, only 8 have proper wastewater treatment facilities. 70% of the freshwater is polluted and the Ganges is one of the most polluted rivers on earth. Garbage is everywhere. One of the problems may be that the few garbage bins are called dust bins. Street sweepers are a huge source of employment for Indians. Every morning most streets are swept and the garbage is loaded into small wheel barrows, only to be repeated the next day. If Indians devoted even 1/10th of the energy they put into religious practice towards their environment, India would be much farther ahead.
Everyone spits everywhere. Men are constantly loudly clearing their throat and then spitting. Chewing betel and tobacco are done by most men. Picking ones nose in public and belching freely are routine. ‘Please’ is never uttered, ‘thank-you’ is rare and ‘your welcome’ is occasionally heard. Indians are very impatient and I’m sure their behavior is predicated by the huge numbers of people. Getting off a bus or train is difficult as the boarding passengers don’t wait for anyone to disembark. There is always a huge crush in the aisle. Waiting in a que can be frustrating as inevitably, some man simply moves in front of you. Women que in separate lines and move to the front of any line. Indians must have the best eye sight in the world as eye glasses are uncommon, except in school children attending private schools. Sunglasses are very uncommon. Hats are virtually never worn. Everyone is the same color although I saw two people with blue eyes in Gujarat. Grey hair is not rare, but black hair dye is a huge seller. Often henna is used to color the grey resulting in a garish orange color on hair and beards. Indians must have small heads as it is impossible for me to buy a hat.
Men. Moustaches are routine in most over 30. Long hair is rare and few shave daily, saving up for a trip to the barber. All clothes are carefully ironed with most men wearing long-sleeved cotton shirts or occasionally golf shirts and creased long pants. The dhoti, a loose, long loincloth pulled up between the legs is less commonly seen. Turbans appear in Gujarat and Rajasthan especially in older men. Many older men grow hair from the outside of their ears. Some don’t trim this and they have incredible bushes sticking out. It looks bizarre.
Young men and children treat foreigners with great interest. One is constantly approached – “Which country?” or “Which place?”, “Name?” and they want to shake your hand. Taking pictures with Indians can get tiring. They announce that they want to be your friend despite you just met them and will never see them again. In places with few visitors, one can become surrounded by huge crowds of curious Indians. At one bus stop, two women and I were suddenly surrounded by at least a 120 staring Indians.
Women. Indian women must be the best dressed women in the world. The saris are gorgeous and most appear new. Worn with the sari is a tight-fitting blouse and a drawstring petticoat. Also commonly seen is the salwar kameez, a dress like tunic and trouser combination accompanied by a long scarf. These clothes come in an appealing range of fabrics, designs and prices. Their wardrobes must be huge. 22-24 carat gold jewelry is the norm and all Indian women have nose rings, elaborate earrings, chains, and toe rings. They present a very sober countenance and because of social pressures Indian women rarely interact with strangers, especially foreigners. If you try to talk to a teenage girl, they react by giggling only. Full burkas are the norm with Muslim women.
Being Indian (a brief guide to understanding the Indian code of behavior)
These ideas are excerpted from the book ‘Being Indian’ by Parvan Varma, an essential read before coming to India.
Power is a legitimate end in itself. All Indians respect the powerful and are happy to cooperate with them for personal gain for success at any cost. They are very hierarchical and bend easily to those perceived to be superior but self-esteem and personal image are very important. Not democratic by instinct or temperament, democracy flourished as it was seen as the most effective system for upward mobility, acquisition of personal power and wealth. They are not other worldly, want material goods, and look up to the wealthy. Flattery is often effusive. Resourceful entrepreneurs, they pursue profit aggressively with their feet firmly on the ground with concern for a successful result, not the means of attaining that result. This results in a finely system of corruption rife throughout society especially in politics and police behavior. Corruption is not considered wrong as long as it yields the desired result. If discovered, great moral outrage is provoked in inverse proportion to the degree it is accepted. Morality is largely ignored in real life as impractical. Religious practice is a means to harness divine support for power self and Hindu gods are benevolent, infinitely forgivable, easily mollified, and eminently bribable. Traditional Hindu society has no real concept of moral problems, and Indians are pragmatic and naturally amoral. The most popular gods are Ganesha, the overcomer of obstacles, and Lakshmi, the goddess of wealth, and most Indians will have idols of these two in their homes to which they pay puja (prayer) to at least once a day.
Indians are completely self-absorbed as evidenced by their remarkable tolerance of inequity, filth, and human suffering.
Modernity (ability to react to issues rationally without prejudice or subjectively) is the professed goal but only a garb to hide behind tradition. They are nonviolent as the goal is to ensure survival, preferring coexistence to suicidal annihilation. Violence creates instability and threatens the social system, but can be violent to enforce caste hierarchy or purity. There is a propensity to compromise and coexist when survival is a stake. This has allowed Hindu culture and civilization to outlive and be enriched by the countless conquests of proselytizing invaders. Education has always been valued by the Indian elite, but paradoxically India has the largest number of illiterates in the world. Brahmins have used it as a means of perpetuating their supremacy and education is the first track of upward mobility.
The most important distinctions among people are cultural, not political, economic or ideological. Ancestry, religion, language, history,values, customs, and institutions are attributes by which people define themselves. There are two important Indian truths. They have an amazing ability to retain hope, no matter how appalling their condition. They still nurture the hope that one day they will make it big, or bigger, and that their children will lead a better life. The economic trickle down of incremental political empowerment has been inadequate but just large enough to keep active the intrinsic Indian propensity for not losing hope. Second, the resilience that comes from being constantly exposed to adversity has bred an inventiveness and a remarkable will to survive.