Friday, October 25, 2013

What is Indian culture?

New situations, in general, stretch us beyond our comfort zones. The experience of the new can either help us grow and expand. Or it can cause us to cling to the safety of our old world-views. That’s the big risk and challenge inherent in moving to a different country. It’s been a little more than a year since I shifted from India to the U.S. It’s been interesting to see how the new challenges the old, and how it is assimilated (or not) as Indians live their lives here.

Recently, I had a chance to observe an immigrant Indian father and his son in conversation. The son has more or less grown up in the U.S. (having moved here when he was in middle school) and is in his mid-twenties. While the group talked about the differences between India and the States, the son and the father got into an argument about whether the Indian tradition of touching elders’ feet to show respect made any sense. 

According to the father, even if the person whose feet he touched was a villager, that person would have a wealth of experience that his son might not have. The son answered by saying that he himself had an extensive experience of city life. Did that make him deserving of respect because of his “different” experience? And anyways, what his dad was talking about was knowledge, not wisdom. He did a quick search on his smart phone and read out the dictionary definition of wisdom which also included the fact that it was a commonly- held misconception that age grants wisdom. By this point, his father, eager to make his own point, looked obviously incensed. Other people intervened, and the father moved away.

Talking to the rest of us, the son said that he hadn’t liked touching people’s feet when he was in India and he didn’t like doing it here. Moving on from there, he brought up the topic of how no one he knew in India could tell him why Hindus don’t eat beef (he ate beef as did his father). At this point, I interjected that it was probably because Krishna – one of our Gods – was a cowherd and by association, the cow is considered holy. The son said, see, no one there could ever explain that.

Later on, while coming back home, I thought about this conversation. It could have easily been a conversation between a father and son in India except that the cultural differences raised questions that might not have been raised there. It was true that in all my years in India, no one had ever told me either why beef was not eaten by Hindus. It was just the norm. Most people had never even thought about it, even those who religiously went to the temple. It was only when I came to the U.S, when I saw people around me eating beef that I thought and came up with the Krishna explanation.

It is interesting how much we accept without a second thought. Sometimes, it’s because we are part of something bigger; sometimes, because we are not encouraged to think at all. But moving to a different country and a different culture challenges our assumptions. It can be a call to truly understand the essence of our native cultures and integrate it with new beliefs. If we don’t eat beef and choose to touch elders’ feet to show respect, shouldn’t we at least know why we are doing it? Shouldn’t we also have the choice to not touch those said feet if we feel no real respect? And isn’t practice without understanding the meaning pointless? Isn’t it just blind obedience, an unthinking, unconscious going along?  


  1. Ehhh... Ritu Beef was eaten by most Hindus... well until King Asoka made Jainism the state religion... It was then that Hindus shifted from beef eating to non-beef eating.... Ram was a hunter... right ???

    1. I didn't know that Hersh. I'll read up on it. There's so much that's just handed down - this is how it's always been. The more I know, the more I am moving away from religion - it seems so corrupted.

    2. I dont like the word religion... religion is all about rules and regulations!!!...but i love the word GOD!!

    3. Yes, religion is made up by people. I don't like the rules either.

    4. My faith is based on a relationship!!! with my maker--- thats the base,,, rest follows from that... rules.. laws... moral laws.... basic laws of human nature