Thursday, January 2, 2014

One view of Indian identity

I enjoyed reading Being Indian: Inside the real India by Pavan Varma. I have visited India 5 times for a total period of about 15 weeks within the past 4 years. Given this I found this book fascinating and stimulating.

The reviews on goodreads are helpful, particularly as many appear to have been written by Indians. They seem to largely agree with Varma's portrayal. I found this surprising because a Western reader might consider that Varma was highly critical and negative about Indians. The only criticism of the book seems to be [understandably] that he presents to many generalisations. This is an understandable problem. Given the diversity of India [more than a billion people, more than 20 official languages, several major religions, incredible contrasts of poverty and wealth....] any analysis will struggle with over-simplification and the existence of counter examples.

Here are some of the claims that Varma makes. I am not qualified to say whether they are accurate or not. I merely point out that I think that some represent human nature, but perhaps become more focussed and/or public in India.

Varma claims that contrary to some Western perceptions, Indians are not other-wordly and spiritual. They are materialistic and very concerned with both acquiring wealth and showing others that they have it. This is seen particularly in parents being most concerned with their children pursuing studies that will lead to the most financially lucrative careers. Furthermore, the willingness of Indians to pay large amounts on money for status Western brand names, from Levis to Luis Vutton testifies to this. Varma emphasizes the centrality of prosperity to Hinduism, particularly in the attention that the god Lakshmi receive.

Yet I wonder if this reflects the broader human tendency to want to use religion for ones own personal advantage. Within Christianity [defined as a social phenomenon] one sees this in the prosperity ["health and wealth"] "gospel" whose followers claim the Bible teaches that Christians are meant to be wealthy and the only thing stopping this is their lack of faith. [I personally think this is an abomination, but that is another story....]

Power and status.
"To an Indian the projection of power and the recognition of status are intimately related. When a person's entire worth is dependent on the position he occupies on a hierarchical scale, the assertion of status (and its recognition by others) becomes of crucial importance. .. There can be no ambivalence in these equations. Under the caste system transgression was impermissible. Old rigidities are blurring today, but the preoccupation with the notion of hierarchy very much persists, and in some respects has become even more frenetic..."
In the West, I think one sees somewhat similar traits, particularly in the USA. Status is defined by wealth and by professional or career standing. Some Americans are very keen to let you know where they are in the pecking order and find out where you are.

India has an incredible pedigree. It is the largest democracy in the world. Furthermore, it is the only country that has kept a continuous democracy since the end of colonial rule. One might like to think that this is because Indians have a high commitment to the philosophical ideal of democracy. However, Varma considers that they are more pragmatic and even cynical. Democracy provides a possible means whereby election provides segments of society access to the "spoils" of government [jobs, contracts, perks, bribes, ...].

Moral flexibility. 
Varma claims Indians consider that the end justifies the means.
"Corruption is, of course, not unique to India. What is unique is its acceptance, and the "creative" ways in which it is sustained. Indians do not subscribe to antiseptic definitions of rectitude, as are common in the Scandinavian countries. Their understanding of right and wrong is far more related to efficacy than to absolutist notions of morality An act is right if it relies the desired end; it is wrong if it does not."
I think that in a post-Christian era in the West many people also think and act this way. Until recently they would not state it publicly, but now they do. In Australia one sees this in politicians actually saying that it is o.k. to make false promises in order to get elected.

Only 3 per cent of the workforce is employed in the organised sector [government, registered companies and organisations] of the economy.
90 per cent are self-employed working "on the street".
This is in striking contrast to the West where the vast majority of employees work in the organised sector.
Later I will post how Varma considers this offers great hope for India's economic future.

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