The title of Alvaro Enterria’s books is very apt. it is indeed A View of India from Within. Alvaro has lived in Varanasi for many years, founded his publishing house there, and is educating his children in the city. What better place could there be to view India from than Varanasi, or Benares as it is also known? For Varanasi is the heart of India, the place which above all others embodies its ancient Hindu culture. It is the only ancient city not just surviving today but surviving with its ancient culture still alive. Cairo for instance survives, Athens survives, but where is ancient Greek or Egyptian culture? Who could be a better guide for strangers to India’s culture than alvaro. Born a Spaniard but dedicating his life to India, to describe him as an ex-patriate would be wholly inaccurate. He is a citizen of two culture, Indian and European. This gives him a deep understanding of the differences between the two cultures.
It is the differences between the two cultures which makes India so difficult for travelers who visit this unique country to understand, and a guide like Alvaro’s book so necessary. As Alvaro says “consciously or unconsciously the idea that western values are the universally valid human values prevails in the West”. He goes on to point out that India rejects this idea because its culture is based on very different principles. This presents a particular difficulty for people educated in Western culture who tend to see things in black and white, and believe in ultimate truths.
There is exploitation and injustice in India. There is callousness and cruelty. There is a slip-shod attitude to work and every Indian will tell visitors about the pervasive corruption that corrodes the government’s activities. All this is visible because India is a very open culture and it doesn’t hide its deficiencies. So Westerners seeing all that’s black about India often tend to write its culture off as inhumane and inequitable, unjust. Alvaro does not try to hide the dark side of India but he does enable readers to see beyond it, to become aware of the richness of the culture. He says, “it is clear one can not idealize India. If on occasion it appears that I do so, it is in order to correct the balance and offer a counterweight to facile and ignorant criticisms.”
The Indian custom of caste is particularly prone to facile and ignorant criticism. It is widely regarded as unacceptable to attempt even to explain caste let alone respect it. So deep-rooted is the Western aversion to caste that many have seen its failings, and particularly the practice of untouchability, as sufficient reason for writing off the whole of Indian culture. They are unwilling to try to understand how caste has survived for thousands of years. Yet Alvaro is surely right when he says, “A system of social organization that has endured for many millennia without giving rise to major revolts or revolutions must, in some way, be appropriate to human nature and certainly merits respect at the very least.” This does not however imply that Alvaro supports untouchability or any other distortions of the caste system.
Western culture’s attitude to caste is coloured by its own belief in egalitarianism. But the western practice of egalitarianism has its flaws too. It does, for instance, give rise to the inhuman belief in what is called meritocracy. This is inhuman because it condemns large sections of society to considering themselves as lacking in merit, and leads to the unhealthy adulation of success which is such a prevalent feature of modern Western culture. As Alvaro says in his chapter titled The Castes Western society many believe in the ideology that all men are equal but “economically and socially western society also has its hierarchies”. Indian culture starts from the premise that all are different, and Alvaro argues the merits of this belief.
Visitors to Alvaro’s home city of Varanasi will find plenty which may make them see Hinduism in black with no redeeming white. It can all to easily appear superstitious, obscurantist, and priest-ridden. Hinduism is very difficult to understand for people whose religious education has been limited to one of the Semitic religions. Idolatry is prohibited in all Semitic religions and worshipping any deity other than The One God is strictly forbidden. The many Gods of Hinduism, and their colourful images in stone which are revered by many Hindus, can give those steeped in Semitic religions the impression that Hinduism is a primitive form of polytheism, and hence anathema to them. In fact like all religions Hinduism has primitive and highly sophisticated forms.
Underlyi9ng Hinduism is a fundamental difference with Semitic religions. Hindus believe that there are many different ways to the realisation of the Supreme Being. They do not believe it is possible to make exact or dogmatic statements on the Supreme Being’s nature. R.C. Zaehner, who held the chair of Eastern religions and Ethics at Oxford once wrote, “For the passion for dogmatic certainty which has racked the religions of Semitic origin Hindus feel nothing but shocked incomprehension.”
The rejection of dogma makes Hinduism and indeed Indian culture as a whole much more capable of coping with difference than Western culture is. But, as Alvaro points out the Indian attitude towards difference is not easy for Westerners to comprehend. India has been described as a salad bowl culture and in comparison the West has been described as a soup culture. In a salad there are many different vegetables but each retains its individual flavour. In a soup all the contents are mixed together so there is only one taste. India rejoices in variety. The West always seeks for homogeneity. Those who are only at home with homogeneity inevitably feel uncomfortable with diversity.
Alvaro maintains, rightly I believe, that India’s capacity for coping with diversity has enabled its civilization to survive so long. It wasn’t swamped culture of British colonialists. It has been able to bend in the wind, as a Hindu holy man Alvaro once introduced me to, said. But now India faces a new threat. It is, as Alvaro points out, undergoing changes in a few decades which occurred over several centuries in Europe. This has led to a consumer society, with the new Middle Class going through, what Alvaro calls, “a nouveau riche intoxication”. He asks the crucial question, “Will it be possible to integrate science and modernity with the classical spiritual vision of India?”
If it is not possible to integrate science and modernity with India’s deep understanding of spirituality, and to make economic progress without undermining cultural values, India’s ancient culture will at last be overcome. The victor will be the soulless materialism, the selfish individualism, the single-minded pursuit of economic progress blind to all other considerations which are, as I see it, the hallmarks of the culture threatening India. If India’s culture is to be preserved it is important for all Indians to understand what they are in danger of losing. As for the rest of us, we need to realize how Indian culture can contribute to our thinking. Alvaro’s book is therefore a much-needed wake-up call to us, but not just to us. He wrote his book with travelers to India in mind, but it is dedicated to “all those who keep alive the traditions of India”. The burden of the responsibility for doing that inevitably falls on India’s shoulders. That burden can be lightened if the rest of the world understands and sympathises with what India is trying to do, and does not attempt to make Indians conform to a global culture.
The traveler who lands in India for the first time will probably receive quite a strong shock. If he is not lucky enough to arrive during the short winter season, he will be besieged by a suffocating heat the moment he sets foot in the country, and he will soon find himself surrounded by masses of humanity the likes of which he has probably never seen before. One top of this, as soon as he leaves the modern centres of the big cities he will immediately be engulfed by a boundless exuberance that his mind cannot possibly grasp, much less analyze. A variety of population, races and human stimuli, of dirt and garbage, fabrics and colours, shops and stalls, vehicles of all kinds, gods and images…all existing side by side in the midst of apparent chaos, without order or form. The visitor will also see a large part of the population living in conditions of poverty and want, which he will immediately qualify as utter destitution. A professor from Africa went to India in the 1960s to see if something of the Indian way could be applied in his own recently independent country, and remarked in confusion, “Too many people, too many animals, too many customs, too many gods… too much of everything!
The traveler who has been in another non-western country before may have a few more points of reference, but if there is a country that is more unlike what we are familiar with in the West, it is without doubt India. It does not easily reveal itself to the newcomer: only little by little, by taking the time, trouble and interest might our visitor manage to make his way through the dense jungle of impressions and understand something of Indian society beyond the appearances. This is definitely not an easy task, for Indian society, in addition to being very distinct from ours and operating under quite different parameters, is also extremely complex and varied. The richness of the Indian subcontinent defies and exceeds all facile explanations or generalizations (we would add in parentheses that his book not escape the inevitable risk of generalizations and simplification. These are thousands of facets and visions of India, and my experience of the country, being just one among many in a specific city in the north, can only given community is not so in another, and there are many exceptions to every rule. Whatever one could say about India is partly false, for the contrary will also be true. A characteristic of Indian civilization is the ability to permit contradictory elements to coexist in peace. Curiously enough, this is also a peculiarity of Indian philosophy; in has the ability to consider multiple points of view that set forth partial and valid realities solely from their own standpoints, and thereby accept apparent contradictions without undue difficulty).
There is at least as much difference between the landscape and people of he Himalayan region and those of the extreme south of the peninsula as there is between the scenery and people of northern and southern Europe, and the ethnic and cultural diversity of India is probably greater and more diverse than that of the European continent. India is an encyclopaedia of races, climates, languages, social systems, religions and cultures. And, as has often been said, it is a country of extremes. All the eras of history co-exist side by side without interfering with each other; across from the nuclear power station a farmer ploughs the earth as has been done since time immemorial. The tremendous contrasts of shocking poverty and obscene opulence; of refined spirituality and materialism and immoderate hedonism; of a purity that seems not of this world and depraved corruption - none of these contrasts give rise to the same amazement and bewilderment felt by the westerner, for they are accepted as part of the eternal play of life, where all opposites should manifest. In India one can contemplate the most sublime and the most horrifying of scenes.
Often, the visitor arrives full of prejudices and expectations that are promptly destroyed upon contact with the reality of India. Between the romantic idea of a country living in a world of spirituality and non-violence, full of maharajas, yogis, and snake charmers, and the catastrophic vision of a poor country full of people dying of hunger, beggars, and untouchables, the real India hardly fits. Nor does the information transmitted by the press and television help to understand the real India. The Western media usually portrays a very unbalanced view of India, showing above all the injustices, negative aspects, catastrophes, and sensational stories. With a few honourable exceptions, rather than contributing to an understanding of the country, they present the most astonishing and outlandish aspects out of context, disseminating the usual clichés and judging the country from a narrowly western viewpoint. The Frenchman Guy Deleury, who lived in India more than 30 years, commented: “We were gratified to view a 4-hour documentary about India. All except one of the sequences were authentic; all of the interviews had actually taken place; nevertheless, the entire film was false.”
This book is intended to try to clear a way for an understanding of this immense country, home to a civilization that has endured without interruption since antiquity. Indian civilization has developed very far away from the western universe. If the bases of European culture are Greek philosophy, the Judeo-Christian religions and the French Revolution, those of India are the Veda and the Puranas, the darshanas and the caste system. The principle of non-contradiction is not as uncompromising as it is in the West, and moderation and the middle way, so precious in western culture, are often strikingly absent. India does not fit into western patterns and evades all classification. Consciously or unconsciously, the idea that western values are the universally valid human values prevails in the West. But to attempt to use our parameters and way of thinking to judge or attempt to understand a society and culture that, being based on very different principles, eludes our grasp, is to run the serious risk of not understanding anything.
However, this is something that is done all the time. Almost everybody in the West ‘knows’ or has heard at some time that religion in India is an assortment of idolatrous superstitions, that the castes are something horrific and inhuman, that the Indian woman is terribly oppressed, etc. thus, as a counterweight, and without pretending that many of the criticisms are without any basis in fact, in this book we will favour the Indian point of view: that is, the way traditional Indians view their own culture (of course, here ‘traditional’ signifies more a pole than a fixed reality, course, here ‘traditional’ signifies more a pole than a fixed reality, for there is no absolutely pure ‘tradition’). Thus, certain paragraphs may appear as a panegyric of Indian culture. I do not claim that this one is without shortcomings, and don’t maintain that there is no exploitation or injustice in society, or that the religion is free of obscure or stultifying aspects. It is clear that one cannot idealize India. If one occasion it appears that I do so, it is in order to correct the balance and offer a counterweight to facile and ignorant criticisms. Often the large gap between ideals and realities is evident; nevertheless, the ideals of a society are still very meaningful.
A few years ago, the writer and photographer Richard Lannoy wrote, “Anybody describing the way things are in India at the end of the twentieth century is faced with the challenge of trying to find a balance between the inspiring and the grim.” The India of today, so vast, so complex, so contradictory, with so many people, so much poverty, so much wealth, so many tensions, so much of everything mixed together, has enough defects to give grounds for numerous and extensive criticisms. Many of these defects are so obvious that it would be useless to focus on them excessively. When we first discover a country, it is best to learn about its highpoints and virtues before being forced to point out its defects and weaknesses. For their part, Indians (like the Spanish and many other people) are very critical of their own country among themselves, but they do not like to be criticized by outsiders. They will expound their virtues and cultural achievements with great eloquence to foreigners, and reserve their criticisms for meetings with friends and colleagues.
As the reader will note, this is not a neutral book. As someone indebted to the country and integrated without its society for many years, I cannot present a cold and ‘scientific’ account that aspires to be objective. In addition to what I have read on the subject, what I recount derives in great part from my experience among this admirable people. I have often been indignant at the incomprehension and blind platitudes that abound in the West regarding India (often adopted as well by the English speaking elite, who often interpret their own country through western ideas and stero-types). Thus I may have opinions that hardly appear ‘politically correct’ in that I consider Indian culture from the standpoint of its own values rather than those increasingly used to judge the entire world. Of course, may of the opinions herein can be debated, for any given reality can be seen from many points of view (even more so in the case of the vast reality of India), but I believe they are never unfounded or gratuitous.
In speaking of the stumbling blocks that hinder an understanding of India, the Anglo-Indian writer Pratima Bowes writes: “I found one doctrine that constitutes a major road-block in communication: This is the evolutionary doctrine of development and progress implicity assumed by most people in the West (and people trained in the Western tradition) as the only way to understand things. According to this doctrine truth is cumulative, and the truth about things can only be understood in terms of their historical development and progress over time…The latest thing in civilization is the post-industrial Western civilization, hence it must be truer than other versions that have preceded it, including its own past…and the incredible development of material riches in the present civilization is taken as a proof positive of the truth of this doctrine….The idea is not that some societies are more advanced than others in some particular sphere, say food production or dancing, the judgement is one the society as a totality.” Already in the 19th century, Richard Burton, a British adventurer, explorer and scholar who spent many years in India commented that the English had absolutely no understanding of the natives, “the principal obstacle being…the nearly insuperable difficulty that consists in ridding oneself of typically European ideas and ways of thinking.”
There are four major differences of vision between India and the West - among many others that are possible - that often cause a good deal of miscomprehension:
1) While the modern West is individualistic and is based on the idea that autonomous and independent individuals make up the foundation of society, traditional India is what we might call community-based’. It is the different communities that form the elements of society, and the individuals are members of these communities: family, caste, ethnic or geographic communities, etc.
2) Since the French Revolution the West is egalitarian in outlook: all men are basically equal. This idea is so anchored in the minds of Western people that it is taken as an unquestioned axiom. However, ancient India had the opposite point of view: every man is distinct, each one having different abilities and qualities. Of course, either point of view can result in justice or injustice: it is as unjust to discriminate among men based on secondary considerations as it is to demand the same behaviour of people who possess very different qualifications. However, failure to recognize the validity of the Indian point of view commonly gives rise to a lack of understanding of its organization in castes and in various communities, and of the different role played by women in traditional Indian society.
3) While the West has always considered that the truth is one and can be expressed in words (and if A is true, B is not), India has always admitted many truths, or many expressions of the truth. Ultimate truth is inexpressible, but from the moment we try to manifest it in words many expressions and different visions are possible and equally valid, and all of them contain a part of the truth. This belief in the validity of many disparate points of view is the cause of the great tolerance that has always existed in India in the realm of ideas.
4) Whereas the modern West places an emphasis on peoples’ rights, traditional India emphasizes their duties. In accordance with each persons’ situation in life, he will have different duties with respect to other family members, his community, and the universe. Certainly, each person has rights, but they are connected to the accomplishment of his duties.
These two sets of values coexist side by side in the India of today. Modern, political, official India is based primarily on western values (the Constitution is clearly of western inspiration), while traditional India and a large portion of the society operates, albeit less consciously and explicitly, with other values. in today’s India one can often observe the polarity and tension between these two sets of values.
In this book I will speak above all about traditional society and thought, and of what survives of the latter (which is still a good deal) in today’s India. There is also a new India of which many westerners are ignorant: a scientific, industrial, and technological leader, a power that must be taken into account by the world in this 21st century, and one that runs on very different rulers and concepts. Day after day, the large cities in India (known as the ‘metros’) are emerging as world leaders in informatics, new technologies and many other fields. It is undoubtedly this new India that holds the keys to the economic and political future of the country. But while modern India is easily understood by the westerner since it is very similar to its own society (although there are also obvious differences), it is traditional and profound India that escapes all western points of reference. And between the two extremes mentioned above lay all the graduations that make up India today. Thus, the degree to which many of the norms and descriptions in this book apply will depend on the environment in which we find ourselves. In the same way, I will speak much more about Hindu culture than Muslim culture (with 12.5% of the population being Muslim, Islamic culture is also important in India) or Christian, Sikh, or other groups that make up small minorities (albeit large in absolute terms, given the enormous population of the country). This is because it is Hindu culture that has given India its special character: it penetrates everything, though often modified by significant pockets of Islamic and other cultures. And due to the limitations of my own experience, I will place more emphasis on the culture of north India than that of the south, with which I am much less familiar.
Many readers may find that the ‘Religion’ section is too large in the context of modern India. I have made it so because I think that, even if most Indians are not aware of various facets of classical ‘religious’ culture, it has largely shaped all culture on the Indian continent. ‘Religion’ was not a separate, distinct subject, but rather constituted the Indian vision of the universe in all its aspects, and thereby formed the foundation for the entire culture and the overall worldview. It was this nebulous conglomerate later called ‘Hinduism’ which gave its peculiar personality to Indian civilization.
A journey to India is a challenge, an adventure in which the traveler will be confronted with himself, for India acts often as a mirror. A visit to India cannot deceive. It may horrify or impassion, and indeed frequently provokes a mixture of both sentiments. For many, India is a poor, dirty and uncomfortable country (which in fact it is); for others, it is a wonderful country where everything is possible, a place situated almost on another planet (and I am not one to deny that this is also true). But in any case, every visitor is guaranteed one thing: he won’t be bored.
One last note: don’t take this book too seriously. India is also many things that are not in this or any other book that attempts the impossible task of describing or explaining her. In the end, India is but our own experience of her, the experience of each one of us, both Indian and foreign.
The various sections and chapters in the book can be read independently without following the order of content, though often concepts used in one section may be elaborated upon in a different section.
Due to my own formation, I interpret many aspects of Hinduism from the point of view of Vedanta, but there are of course many other possible interpretations depending upon the tradition. I often use the word ‘man’ in the sense of the first definition found in Webster’s Seventh Collegiate Dictionary where the meaning is ‘human being’ irrespective of sex.
I am profoundly grateful to Pep Bernadas of Altair, Barcelona, who had been urging me for years to write this book; to my wife, Arati, to whom I owe my knowledge of many facets of Indian culture, and who helped me resolve many questions; to Vanesa Garcia and to Jesus Aguado, who patiently and attentively read over the manuscript and offered suggestions; to Swami Satyananda who advised me concerning certain sections of the book; to Oscar Pujol, his wife Mercedes Escrich and Diana Fernandez ‘Rani’ who helped me write chapters on topic about which they are much better informed than i. I am also profoundly grateful to Swami Avimukteshwarananda Saraswati, who gave me a deep understanding of many things regarding Hindu dharma, and to Dilip Kumar Jaiswal of Indica Books, who translated the book with great interest and dedication, and to Michael Ianuzielo who revised the final English text and gave insightful suggestions. Richard Lannoy, brilliant writer and photographer, was kind enough to let me use some of his photographies; so did the artists Gol and Raj Kumar Ghosh with some of their drawings. And of course, my deep gratitude to the renowned writer and journalist Mark Tully for gracing this book with his preface.
Back of the Book
Indian society is manifold and extremely complex. The richness of the Indian subcontinent defies and exceeds all facile explanations or generalizations, and cannot be adequately interpreted through western concepts.
This book tries to clear a path towards an understanding of this immense country, home to a civilization that has endured without interruption for millennia. In this small encyclopaedia of India, the author explains the roots and foundations of India civilization, covering almost every aspect of Indian culture; its broad topics include History, Religion, Society, Arts, The State, and Travel. Offering an illuminating selection of information concerning many aspects of India, this is surely among the most complete cultural guides about this country and its varied cultures.
Alvaro Enterria has lived and worked in India since 1989. He lives in Varanasi with his wife from Orissa and their two children.
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