Saturday, June 23, 2012

Indian culture and modernity

One of the reasons that I wanted to see India is that it is rapidly modernizing and (along with China) many expect it to be one of the economic giants of the coming century. I know nothing of China, but I foresee a rocky road ahead for India.

India has great resources: Thanks to a long coastline and thousands of miles of railway laid down by the British, it has an enviable transportation infrastructure. Its people are energetic, friendly, and intelligent. It seems that everyone speaks at least two languages.

The Indians I have met and talked with may be exceptions to the rule, but I doubt it. They are warm, kind, and have a passion for education. It seems that every other billboard advertises some kind of school. Most offer English classes, and many also offer courses in business and information technology.

The India people seem infinitely adaptable. They have survived invasions by the Greeks (Alexander the Great in the 3rd c. BCE), several waves of Muslim invasion, and finally 200 years of rule by Great Britain. Each encounter has changed them in some way, but I believe the core of their culture has remained the same.

 I suspect that India today is facing its greatest challenge: the encounter with modernity. India has changed more in the last 40 years than in the preceding 400 years. Forty years ago Julian McPhillips, an Alabama businessman turned Episcopal priest (he was rector of St. Luke’s, Mountain Brook, for 2 years in the early 60s) came to Calcutta to serve as director of the Peace Corps for eastern India. I do not know if the Peace Corps is still active in India, but the conditions that McPhillips faced when he came here have changed. Today India can feed its people. Education is more available than ever. And clean, safe water may still be a problem in some places, but waterborne diseases such as cholera and typhus seem to be under control. One interesting fact is that in India today non-communicable diseases such as cancer and heart disease are on the rise while communicable diseases are on the decline. In other words, in terms of health India is starting to look more and more like the United States.

Most definitions of modernity include the following features: (1) separation of state and religion; (2) the use of reason as the principal tool for controlling the world around us; (3) industrialization and urbanization; and (4) individual autonomy.

The U.S. had the good fortune to come into being as modernity was on the rise. Because we were from the beginning a nation with many different religious bodies, we rightly chose not to give any one religious group a privileged status. There is a very vague and general sense that the U.S. is influenced by Judeo-Christian values. This may be true, but such values are broad and tolerant enough to accommodate all religions and none.

Very early in American history there was a struggle between a vision of the U.S. as a rural, agrarian society, on the one hand, and as an urban, industrial society, on the other. The agrarian vision was associated with Thomas Jefferson and was part of his reason for acquiring the vast tract of land from France that we know as the “Louisiana Purchase.” The land Jefferson acquired was to provide enough land for every family to have a farm. Jefferson’s nemesis, Alexander Hamilton, however, foresaw an urban, industrial America, and by and large, Hamilton’s views have prevailed. Interestingly, the appeal to an idealized, pre-urban, pre-industrial America of nuclear families and small towns still has a strong grip on the American imagination.

America is also profoundly modern in that it is a society that exalts the individual above the community. People come to America to escape their communities, whether those are religious, ethnic, or familial. Oddly, though, the same people who invoke the image of small town America are often the same ones who also praise rugged American individualism, even though in small communities there is enormous social pressure on individuals to conform to community values and standards.

What does all this have to do with India? India is an ancient culture. Its climb from an agrarian, pre-industrial past to the modern world will take infinitely more energy than did America’s rise.

Americans have no experience of transforming an ancient culture into a modern one. America began with a more or less a blank slate; India is beginning not with a blank slate but with an entire library of cultural, religious and social values, norms, and customs. India’s culture is thousands of years old. It is written indelibly on the hearts and minds of its people. It is implicit in their thoughts and feelings, and is a part of their DNA. All of us react in unconscious ways because of our culture, but Indian culture is not only far more ancient than our own, it is also unimaginably different.

I believe that separating religion and state in India will be an enormous challenge. Officially, India is a secular state that does not privilege any religion. In reality, India is Hindu. Frequently during my time here I have been told that India and the Hindu faith are one and the same. Two of our guides told us that there is no such thing as Buddhism. The Buddha, they told us, was a reformer of the Hindu faith. I am certain that this would come as a great surprise to millions of Buddhists in China, Thailand, Japan, and elsewhere who experience their faith as quite different from Hinduism.

It has been said that India is the world’s most religious country, and I believe this is true. Wherever one looks there are temples, and every home and place of business contains a shrine. I am not sure what a well-educated Indian would say if pressed about the 30 million gods and goddesses of India, but I believe the practice of honoring these deities is deeply written on the India soul and will re-assert itself even if belief in the gods is challenged.
Indian religion seems much like the religion of ancient Rome. The Romans feared and persecuted the Jews (to a degree) and Christians (even more than the Jews) because they refused to honor the Roman deities. Why was this? Because the deities guaranteed the stability of Rome. Refuse the deities their ancient honors and the fabric of Roman society would start to unravel. And so it did.

What will happen in India as the acid of modern skepticism starts to work on its religious life? I suspect there will be a powerful resurgence of traditional Hinduism and a reaction against modernity. Indeed, this seems to be happening with the rise of the BJP, the Hindu national party.

India is also still a culture in which the community takes precedence over the individual. For example, most marriages are still arranged. What could be more contrary to modernity than not letting people choose their own life partners?

I sincerely hope that India will successfully negotiate its transition to the modern world. The world will be a stronger and safe place if India modernizes. But I am certain that there will be a profound, probably violent, and lengthy period of turmoil before India is fully modernized. India’s ancient culture will fiercely resist the encroachment of modernity. And I believe the element that will resist modernity most strenuously will be Indian religion.