Sunday, September 18, 2011

Indian Culture includes Western Culture

Oh, East is East, and West is West, and never the twain shall meet,
Till Earth and Sky stand presently at God’s great Judgment Seat;
But there is neither East nor West, Border, nor Breed, nor Birth,
When two strong men stand face to face,
Tho’ they come from the ends of the earth!

- Rudyard Kipling
Rudyard Kipling was a Bombay born British poet and Nobel Prize winner. The verses above is from his classic work titled “The Ballad of East and West” which was first published in 1889. As a general rule I do not understand the reasons for the anti-Western feeling among certain educated members of the Indian society. We live in a world where all kinds of information can be accessed for free very quickly. As a society we are running out of excuses for not knowing. In addition we are also very informed about the cultural, religious, linguistic, philosophical and ethnic diversity of India now more than any time in our history. So where is this anti-Western feeling coming from?

Labeling someone as a stooge of the West (or western influenced) is one of the most common charge that is leveled at any Indian today who is very critical of India, Hinduism, our traditions and/or our culture. I think this is partly due to the fact that some Indians try to link liberal and/or critical thinking or questioning as a domain of the West. So if I seriously question the Hindu caste system or some of its basic assumptions (like the often repeated false notion that it was portable at one point) then I must be Western influenced!!
Personally I do not believe in the concept of East and West. Separating philosophies, cultures and religions based on Eastern or Western is illogical and does not make sense. Today Christianity is considered a Western religion but Islam is not although they pretty much evolved from the same region (Middle East). Christianity was present and well known in many parts of the East long before it set foot on some of the major Western nations.
Philosophy is a study of issues concerning knowledge, values, existence, mind and language. Today the term “Western Philosophy” loosely defines the ancient philosophy of Greece. The Greek philosophy of that period was mostly an intellectual process involving the study of physics, culture, astronomy and mathematics. But most people in India know that such intellectual endeavor was also very common in India during the period as well. Is there a better “Western Philosopher” than Buddha?
I have another problem with equating Greek philosophy with Western philosophy. Greece even today is by no means a “Western nation”. The culture and people of Greece are very different from Western Europe or the United States. When Greek philosophy and culture was at its peak, Greece was interacting in a major way not with the West (which was mostly unknown during that time) but with places like India, the Middle East, the Mediterranean and North Africa. So how can a philosophy that is partially a result of such interactions be considered strictly as Western?
Can an Indian today claim that he/she is not influenced by the West or Western thought process? To put it differently is there an Indian who is not a “stooge of the West”? Most of us know that parts of India and eventually the whole of India were under the control of European (Western) countries for almost 500 years. Although the colonizers left their legacy lives on.
We follow the parliamentary form of democracy and the law of the land is based on “English law” imposed by the British during the 18th century (today we call it the Indian Penal Code (IPC) and it was actually enacted in the 1860’s). So can an Indian who is living under a system of government created by the West and a set of laws enacted by the West that is based on Western culture and values, say that they are not Western influenced?
The greatest and the most effective tool to propagate a set of values is language. There is no question that English which is the most important language of the West and also the language of business and science also happens to be the favored language of the middle class and upper middle class Indians. In addition English is also the language of science and technology in India as well. There is no question that irrespective of government’s efforts to impose Hindi, English continues to be the most important and fastest growing language in India. Can an Indian who is trying hard to master the English language and is totally dependent on this language for his/her livelihood state that he/she is not influenced by the Western culture?
The impact of Western culture on India is huge. Today an Indian is very comfortable living in Western nations including the United States, Britain, and Australia rather than living in a country like China, Saudi Arabia or Malaysia although these nations have a lot more in common with us than the Western nations.
Let us step back and take this argument even further. Indians as evidenced from our DNA have varied backgrounds (For more please read my article The First Indians). Some of us directly migrated from East coast of Africa to India almost 60,000 years ago. Others migrated from the Middle East almost 35,000 years ago. But there is a group that migrated from parts of Central Asia, South Russia and Ukraine to India fairly recently (a few thousand years). These migrants are the speakers of the Indo-European languages like English and Hindi (larger numbers of North Indians and Upper Caste Indians have these genetic markers than others). The issue of whether or not Indian epics like the Vedas, Upanishads and the Mahabharatha were written by these European migrants is still an open question!!
Can a group of people, some of whom share DNA with Europeans, who also happen to speak languages closely related to European languages (and not other Indian languages like Tamil) claim that they are not influenced by the “West”? In a sense we are part of the West!!
You have to leave the city of your comfort and go into the wilderness of your intuition. What you’ll discover will be wonderful. What you’ll discover is yourself” – Alan Alda