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Indian Culture – What’s that?

Is there more to Indian culture than just bollywood, curry, yoga or samosas.

A tourist from overseas wishes to see ‘true’ India and wants to experience the real Indian culture. So he goes to a village in Rajasthan. He is hungry and goes to an old lady who is making Bajre ki Roti. She gives him some ‘Sarson kaa saag’ on the not-so-soft ‘Bajre ki Roti’. The tourist eats the ”Sarson kaa saag’ and returns the roti saying, ‘Here is your plate’.  Obviously he never heard of the bajre ki roti and his response was but natural.  But is this an authentic search for real India or it is just an example of a pedestrian tourist experience of Indian food, costume, tradition, festivals of the land etc?

The common understanding of Indian culture seems to be limited to yoga, samosas, spices, bollywood, papadoms, some dancing, colours, of course the Taj Mahal and now the slumdog millionaire. For many reasons this has naturally been stereotypical responses just like the mention of Egypt evokes the pyramids. It’s said that “Stereotypes are devices for saving a biased person the trouble of learning”. It’s easy and languid to misunderstand any culture than to make an effort to understand it. This equally applies to one’s own culture.

Indian culture while living overseas

In New Zealand we have Indians from different parts of the world. Indians here are mainly from Fiji, South Africa, Malaysia, Singapore, Sri Lanka and of course the mainland-India. For each such group of “Indians”, the word ‘Indian Culture’ has many different meanings. Indians overseas identify themselves Indians for many obvious reasons. It is often said that India has ‘many Indias’ – Is that so? If Indian culture is still alive in many parts of the world, is it because people still

  • visit temples or Gurudwaras?
  • speak Hindi or an Indian language?
  • touch the feet of elders?
  • wear Indian clothing and costumes?
  • maintain traditions like upanayanam, religious rituals?
  • cook Indian curry?
  • Have Indian names for newborns?
  • live the values of the Indian belief system?
  • watch Indian movies
  • have interest in cricket or kabaddi?

Different notions exist about Indian culture based on where one comes from; one’s knowledge and experience of India. We all know that Indian culture has a plethora of masterpieces in fields of art, music, and theatre and for that reason all lovers of art and culture all over the world emulate it.

The banana skin is not the banana and Indian culture seen through the covering of art forms, traditions, cuisine etc is something more deep, mystic and mysterious. The great Indian mystic Osho confirms this long-established account on an esoteric and secret India when he declares that

“The real India is a quest of the inner most soul of man – not the geography, nor the political history, but the inner journey. The journey of meditation is the real India. Mahavir represents it. Buddha represents it. Krishna, Christ and Nanak – they represent the real India…”

Wherever we humans live, we tend to live within the precincts of our culture, atleast to begin with – unless we believe that we are free-spirits of mother Earth to embrace whatever life offers.

However Mahatma Gandhi seemed to exemplify this attitude yet confirmed his rooted-ness when he remarked “I do not want my house to be walled in on all sides and my windows to be stuffed. I want the cultures of all lands to be blown about my house as freely as possible, but I refuse to be blown off my feet by any. I refuse to live in other peoples’ houses as an interloper, beggar or a slave.”

Indian culture – multi-lingual, multi-religious, multi-ethnic, multi-cuisine…

Few countries in the world have such an ancient and diverse culture as India has. Stretching back in an unbroken sweep over 5000 years, India’s culture has been enriched by successive waves of migration which were absorbed into the Indian way of life. It is this variety which is a special hallmark of Indian culture. Its physical, religious and racial variety is as immense as its linguistic diversity. Underneath this diversity lies the continuity of Indian civilization and social structure from the very earliest times until the present day.

Modern India presents a picture of unity in diversity to which history provides no parallel. The catalogue of Indian culture features Indian religions, science, mathematics, festivals, rituals, artifacts, monuments, costumes, music, dance, language, literature and almost all human records of learning.

India’s great diversity of cultural practices, languages, customs, and traditions are examples of an unique co-existence over the past five millennia. Dig deeper into the Indian culture and you will find that we have much to gain from the deep knowledge of ‘Indic’ culture. That’s probably why Mark Twain had remarked

India is the cradle of the human race, the birthplace of human speech, the mother of history, the grandmother of legend, and the great grandmother of tradition.”

The American historian and philosopher William Durrant in his praise for India says

“India was the motherland of our race, and Sanskrit the mother of Europe’s languages: she was the mother of our philosophy; mother, through the Arabs, of much of our mathematics; mother……….. Mother India is in many ways the mother of us all.”

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