India, Land of Contradictions
India, the Interior Life and the Renunciation of the Material World
Before I began reading “White Tiger” and V.S. Naipul’s “India: A Wounded Civilization,” I had developed several stark stereotypes of the country.
As Buddha’s birthplace, India had become mythologized for me as a culture steeped in self-examination, the interior life, meditation, and the renunciation of the material world.
Gandhi was the other part of the jig-saw puzzle; he fit quite naturally into my notion of India as the golden land of serenity, inner peace, and wise teachers. Although he raised consciousness to more political, social-justice levels, I continue to imagine Gandhi as this austere, simple, reflective man who never raised his voice, meditated daily, and led quiet passive-resistance demonstrations for social equality, Indian independence, the end of English colonial rule, and reconciliation between Hindus and Muslims.
Krishna and Belly-Dancing
On the other hand, I have seen many paintings with the mythological blue-bodied character, Krishna, the flirtatious, whimsical, always-showing-up-in-the-bedroom-of-a-nubile-maiden kind of guy. Krishna was the dessert, the delicacy, the eternal charmer, to the main-meal, search-for-enlightenment Buddha and the ever serious social-justice guru, Mahatma Gandhi.
Krishna also represents a kind of allegorical figure fleshing out the sensual, the playful in Indian culture. He is the male complement to the female belly dancer whose voluptuous and supple body lines could completely reframe male voyeuristic desire. Any weak-in-the-knees man would literally write bad checks to have one erotic, private-dancer moment with his favorite belly dancer with her lascivious rings of jet-black hair. And, if the tempo of the music or the beat of the drum could increase his body temperature by a few degrees centigrade, all the better
In Indian culture, Krishna embodies the sensual, spontaneous, the whimsical “now.” The now of material renunciation found in the Buddhist and Hindu traditions, on the other hand, is all about undressing one’s life of luxuries, breaking it down into simple, manageable, stoical moments, of doing the right thing—right speech, right thinking, right behavior, balance, moderation, and meditation.
Class, Poverty, and Compassion
And the now of Gandhi continues to be a patient, expectant “now” ready for quiet, Fabian-like, social revolution that, in Gandhi’s time, would end English colonial rule and make some feeble but failed attempt to dissolve the ancient ethnic hatreds of the Hindus and Muslims and the stigma of the untouchables (dalits).
Mother Teresa’s Indian persona continues to be associated with the rescuer and consoler of the poor, another persona expanding the boundaries of my notion of India, rightfully or wrongfully, as a nurturing caretaker. Born in Albania, she eventually became an Indian citizen and nun setting up many missions to aid the poor and offer many medical services.
Not unlike Gandhi, she became a strong advocate of the poor, an advocacy which V.S. Naipul accused Ghandi of having morphed into a belief that poverty was a morally superior status to wealth (the same kind of “blessed-are-the-poor” bias of Christianity).
Mother Teresa has also been criticized for making poverty a kind of spiritual ideal, unlike the left-wing sympathizer, Arhundati Roy, who continues to decry the fact that 80% of India’s population lives below the poverty level and that India has the largest number of malnutrioned children in the world.
Moksha (Release), and Dharma (The Rule of Law)
India, the land of poverty, the disenfranchised, the untouchables is another meme competing with the image of India as deeply rooted in a spiritual wellness and an interior world of inner peace, if not other-worldly transcendence. The poverty meme also plays tag with the other India as a frivolous, chatty, sing-your-way-to-happiness Bollywood movie set, a more modern, updated version of Krishna-like frivolity.
And in the midst of all of this poverty, the disenfrancised are told by their priests that moksha (release) is the final letting-go of all suffering (samsara), sometimes seen as a hoped-for goal, an escape hatch through and into which all suffering will cease—a kind of cathartic abstraction that is supposed to give the economically destitute some salutary sense that relief is just around the corner, that suffering is just an ephemeral illusion, that all pain will disappear into the moksha-like bliss of sweet forgetfulness.
Traditional India also has a reputation for ritual and the iconic. Whether it is touching the feet of a superior, purifying oneself in the Ganges, praying, or carrying images, traditional Indians appear to move with ease through the worlds of icons, deference, and rituals as part of their deeply-held traditions.
Not unlike other highly ritualistic cultures, India, over centuries, has produced a Brahmin-priest class that, historically, has considered itself an elitist group and a mediating force between the finite and the timeless world of the gods.
The relative quietness of the traditional meditating, interior postures of the priest-teachers presents a stark contrast to the ever-busy, constantly spinning worlds of destruction and creation found in the cosmological domains of Vishnu, Brahma, and Shiva. And even here we are presented with paradoxes, contrasts, contradictions. On the one hand, all of these characters live in a mythical, transcendent other-world of epic intensity; on the other hand, their human dimensions seem to point to a need their followers have to identify with a personified image, making them accessible across all caste boundaries.
Everything in Hindu cosmology is held together by the glue of Dharma, the rule of law, the steady, unchanging, underlying principle of all reality. Reified into the daily lives of Indians, dharma is also the principle behind the inevitability of being born into a particular caste, a kind of divine inevitability, a fate written in stone from all eternity (it should be noted, however, that discrimination based on caste is unconstitutional, even though it is still practiced in rural Indian communities).
A Mixed Salad
So, here you have it—the mixed-salad of Indian culture from the wily Krishna to the land of Buddha-Gandhi-Vishnu-dharma high seriousness; from the transcendent release of moksha to the ever-present cruelties of earth-bound-malnutrioned-babies; from Bollywood frivolity to all levels of egalitarian, social-revolutionists from the Roys to the Gandhis (Oh, and did I forget about the centuries of English colonialism? And the Sikh warrior class?)
Just when I thought the door was closed on Indian culture, in walks the entrepreneur, the middle-class small business guy, the new outsourced employee tucked away in his white cubicle, talking through a pea-sized microphone to some harried Verizon customer in Kansas.
My review of “White Tiger” (India, Part II) will continue the conversation about Indian culture. It should be up within a week or two.