Saturday, January 25, 2014

Differing Views on Indian Culture and Modernity

Last updated on Jan. 30th 2014

A correspondent passed on this article on Indian culture and modernity by a Prof. Jain,

I have given below a slightly edited version of my responses to him.

Interesting article.

My take is somewhat different on some of the topics touched. However, my views have been formed by experience and my general reading, and not systematic and intensive research. Specifically I do not have data to back up my views whereas Prof. Jain has given some data to support his views. [I must also say that the data provided by Prof. Jain does not mean that he has to be right. Ideally these views must be critically examined by researchers in the field who can state whether the data references are accurate, appropriate and substantial enough to make the case and whether there are other important pieces of data not considered by Prof. Jain which argue otherwise.]

Social Equality: "One of the popular assumptions is that modernity provided equal status to downtrodden sections of the masses." and then Prof. Jain mentions the Swadhyaya initiatives concluding, "Just a small example to show how social equality can be achieved by Hindu cultural values." My view is that even a few centuries ago Hinduism was quite unequal as compared to Hindu society in 21st century India today. It seems to me that Kshatriya (warrior) and Brahmin (priestly) castes together physically and mentally ruled over the majority of the population during the Hindu rule days prior to Muslim/British rule. The remnants of that mindset are visible even today in many parts of rural India notwithstanding the supposed equality before the law.

Hinduism seems to have undergone tremendous reform over the past few centuries, some of which was initiated by Hindu saints, some perhaps by the challenge of other religions like Christianity and Islam, and some by democratic and science-minded reformers. I am very comfortable with most of what I see of  and read about 21st century Hinduism in South India (I don't know enough about it in other parts of India).

[To ensure that I do not get misunderstood I must mention my view that all humanity (and other lifeforms too) from a deep spiritual view point are one/equal. Further, I think spiritual evolution, especially in today's easily available knowledge world, is not the prerogative of any caste or creed/religion.

Regarding material differences between Hindu castes/groups in the 21st century, I think the future clearly is a society where castes may only play roles related to traditions and not have any superiority/inferiority stuff. Further, Indian society already provides opportunities for people from any caste or creed to rise up in society, at least till middle-class and upper-middle-class levels. That, it seems to me, will surely continue in the future.]

About the Swadyaya innovative experiment - Amrutalayam and its achievements: I think this is wonderful to know. I think other spiritual groups in India do something similar in their village oriented projects. But I don't know about the scale issue - it is great to have a few successful/demonstration experiment villages but it is quite another matter to replicate it in many villages. That needs dedicated teams of such workers and leaders - I think that is where NGOs and spiritual organizations are coming up short.

One must also mention the power of such working-experiments/demonstrations being lighthouses to inspire others to better ways of living even if they are not able to reach the level of the lighthouse itself. I think this lighthouse of harmonious village life aspect is vital. It shows that it can be done and is not just a pipe-dream of an armchair idealist.

About democracy in ancient India: Well, there may have been some examples of republics here and there but even those may have been on the lines of Greek and Roman republics where only the privileged classes were entitled to vote and the lower working classes and slaves were not entitled to do so, if I recall some of my readings correctly. In under developed rural villages of India one can see remnants of India's millenniums old history with washermen washing clothes at the river, bullock carts etc. The life of these working classes - washermen, marginal farmers or agricultural workers, etc. - is very, very tough. Back-breaking work, man, back-breaking!

Fortunately India today has very subsidized ration and free govt. medical services, even free plots of land to build houses for such poor people of villages. I believe that labour in the USA in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries were leading a very tough life like the villagers in some parts of India. I think it was similar in the UK during some parts of the nineteenth century till the industrial revolution and UK being the leading colonial power in the world gave it enormous wealth which was distributed partly to the working classes.

With that background I think democracy as we see in India today, where rural votes can bring state and central governments to power or remove them from power (due to which governments are forced to provide them livelihood support in the form of heavy subsidies and even freebies), was just not there earlier (before Independence or perhaps before rural India woke up to the real power of voting collectively which may have been a few decades after independence). I think India then was a feudal setup like Europe had a feudal setup prior to the French revolution. That does not mean that the working classes - tradesman, farmers etc. - did not have any voice. They must have had their guild-equivalents (some of which probably continue to this day in fields like temple sculpting which may be the domain of a caste-based group) and the rulers would listen to the guild-leaders. Similarly the rulers would have been dependent on farm produce and so the farmer-leaders would have a say. But that would have been nothing like the power the working classes have in modern democratic systems both in the Western world and in India.

About Feminism: I think in cultured upper classes (Brahmin and Kshatriya), Indian Hindu women were given some prominence but they were typically not treated as equal to men. In the working classes, womens' position seems to have been horrifying and that very, very unfortunately and very, very shamefully, can be seen in some economically and socially backward villages of India even today. Yes, in Indian history, we do have examples of women leaders in various fields including spirituality but they seem to be exceptions. Male dominance seems to have been the norm. Even today males tend to block women from rising up, especially to very powerful positions, in India. Those women that reach top positions do so, from their innate capability, rather than absence of male prejudice against them. [I am not talking about corporate India which is a small fraction of India, population wise - I am talking about rural and semi-urban India and poor parts of urban India] I think the Western world is way, way ahead of India, in general, in terms of the laws and culture they have, as of today, to allow women to rise up in society and protect the rights of women.

I think the point about women being over-loaded to earn money (by working at a job) as well as run a home is a valid point too. I think a home-maker wife who may work part-time and is educated leads to a more wholesome and happy family than a full-time working wife (and working husband) family. But I think this should be a matter of choice. I also have to state that dependence of a wife on a husband for money seems to be a primary source of husband ill-treating the wife. So many women may not want to have such dependence on their husband.

About Science/Technology and Rationality: "It is true that modern science has added tremendous inventions for human society but to claim that tradition or culture was non-scientific will again be misleading." Well, here perhaps one needs to be very careful about jargon. I am not a scientist but my readings have led to my view that hard sciences like Physics or Chemistry have very clear principles and norms like measurability, objectivity, repeatability and the need for a theoretical explanation for phenomena. When compared to ancient history of mankind, such principles and norms have been astonishingly/mind-blowingly successful in showing some traditionally held beliefs and explanations of phenomena to be false, and given the correct or more correct explanations in their place. They have also led to unbelievable innovation and technology that have made life far, far more pleasant than it was for millenniums prior to such hard sciences. I think a lot of Hindu traditional knowledge like astrology and spirituality are non-scientific but that does not mean they are false and do not have validity. It is just that they do not conform to the principles and norms of hard science. Other Hindu traditional knowledge like metallurgy may have been very accomplished for their time but I don't think they followed the principles and norms of hard science and so they being termed as non-scientific may not be wrong, IMHO.

Environment protection: I agree with the author's statements about it being sad that viewing rivers and trees as divine are ridiculed. But I am not sure whether an attitude of worship towards rivers and trees necessarily implies effort to protect rivers and trees. I think most people may do the worship once in a while and leave the task of protecting the rivers and trees to somebody else. And, unfortunately, such somebody-else protectors are very, very rare in Indian society today. I think India seems to be facing ecological challenges of immense proportions. Just reading about pollution in the holy Ganges itself gives one the hard-truth-picture about current Indian ecological damage. From the wiki on Ganges, "The Ganges was ranked as the fifth most polluted river of the world in 2007, Pollution threatens not only humans, but also more than 140 fish species, 90 amphibian species and the endangered Ganges river dolphin. The Ganga Action Plan, an environmental initiative to clean up the river, has been a major failure thus far, due to corruption and lack of technical expertise, lack of good environmental planning, and lack of support from religious authorities."

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