Why Understand the Western Culture?

Let me begin this contribution, the third piece about our culture and traditions, by sharing something you are familiar with. Very often, I have heard the NRI parents in the USA making the following remark:

When I came to the US so many decades ago, I knew very little about Hinduism. My ignorance was driven home when I had children and they began to ask what Hinduism was. Because I had to educate them, I ended up learning more about Hinduism in the US (thanks to this or that organization or Swami) than during all the years I spent in India.

Let us reflect on this experience. When Indians come to the US, they feel that they are confronted by their ignorance (or their lack of knowledge) about ‘Hinduism’. To account for this state of affairs, they could blame either their earlier lack of interest (in learning about their ‘religion’ while they were in India) or the absence of education (in India) in this regard. Of course, neither of the two quite explains why they need explicit instruction in ‘Hinduism’ in order to transmit traditions to their children. After all, the transmission of the Indian culture over the millennia depended (continues to depend) upon ordinary people who have ‘learnt’ their traditions from their parents and peers, and not from any pundits. One’s ‘knowledge’ and ‘ignorance’ when one came to the US, in this sense, are comparable to the similar ‘knowledge’ and ‘ignorance’ of the ordinary Indians. In all probability, had they remained in India, their absence of knowledge would not have worried them as much as it worries them now. They would have transmitted their tradition and culture the way millions do in India: without any explicit instruction in the ‘religion’ called ‘Hinduism’. Peer groups, family circles, friends and relatives, would have also played a role in this process no doubt.

However, what appears to work in India appears to fail when Indians come and settle down in the United States. Here, they feel the need for some sort of an explicit education about ‘Hinduism’. Clearly, this is due to the environment they find themselves in: not only does their new environment not help in the transmission of the Indian culture and traditions but it also forces the individual Indian parents to school themselves in the Indian ‘religions’ in a particular way. That is to say, unlike the Indian environment where cultural transmission can take place without an explicit education in their ‘religions’, people are forced to articulate what their religion is about when they come to live in the western culture. Therefore, unlike (most) of our parents and peers, Indians living in the West appear to face a different kind of challenge: come up with an explicit understanding of ‘Hinduism’, if they intend to transmit their culture and traditions to their children as well.

Yet, it is my impression that what appears to work for them (namely, codifying ‘Hinduism’ in terms of either its beliefs or practices, or by spelling out their ‘Ten Commandments’, etc) does not work for their children who are born and grow up in the United States: what satisfies the parents does not satisfy the needs of the children. While the parents are quite happy to meet in self-study classes, read Patanjali and feel good that they have arrived somewhere, because now they can talk about ‘pramaana’ and ‘anumaana’, their children do not seem to share the parents’ sanguinity. The children feel that they are left to fend for their own and face questions from their peers and teachers, which they do not understand or cannot answer.

In other words, there seem to be three different kinds of problems. First: the Indian ways of transmitting traditions and culture appear to break down, when Indians come and settle down in the West. Second: the Indians seem to feel the compulsion to codify their traditions in some form or another, because of the pressure exerted by the cultural milieu they live in. Third: such codifications, while they seem to satisfy the needs of the parents, do not appear to help the children in their daily interactions with their peers and society at large. Because of these three problems, a fourth problem also comes to the fore: such codifications have the tendency to downplay both the importance and the necessity of the kind of diversity and pluralism that the Indian traditions have.

In the current piece, I want to reflect on this situation. For the sake of convenience, I will assume that my impressions (and they are only that, impressions) are by and large true. I will furthermore also assume that they are true for many (if not all) Indians living in the West. I am interested in localizing the problems and seeking solutions for them; I am not interested in either apportioning blame or identifying the ‘culprits’. Even though I have some idea why such a situation has come about, I shall be mostly silent on this issue for the time being.

Setting the Context

When the British East India Company consolidated its hold over many parts of India and its administrators assumed the position of rulers, a very peculiar kind of hostility towards the Indian traditions became the hallmark of the colonial administrative policy. Of course, this hostility was there from the very beginning: in ‘Hinduism’, the ‘religion’ of the Hindus, they found everything that was reprehensible and repugnant. This hostility arose not merely because they ‘discovered’ that some of the Indian practices were intolerable or immoral, like child marriage, sati and what-have-you. Their repulsion had a deeper root: their understanding of religion taught them that such perversions are integral to false religions. Because ‘Hinduism’ was a false and degenerate religion, its perversions were not mere accidents but its necessary features.

We need to understand this well because the notion of false religion does not make sense to us. Therefore, let me put it in very simple terms. To the followers of the Semitic religions (Judaism, Christianity and Islam), only God can be the object of worship. When they speak of ‘God’, we need to keep two things very firmly in mind.

The first is this: this ‘God’ is the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. According to their scriptures, (the biblical) God created the world (for instance, as it is described in the book on Genesis in the Old Testament Bible). He is the God of the Israelites (of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob and their descendents), who punished the Jews, scattered them across the world for forgetting Him, and also promises to save them. In the hands of the Christians, (the biblical) God’s promise to save the Jews got transformed into the salvation of the entire humanity; the ‘God of Israel’ also became the singular, unique and unqualified ‘God’, even though He continued to be the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. His promise, the Christians claimed, was redeemed in Jesus of Nazareth: Jesus was the promised messenger of this God. (‘Christ’ means the anointed one or the messiah.) The Jews did not think that Jesus of Nazareth was the Christ, whereas the followers of Jesus claimed that he was precisely that. (In this sense, one of the points of disagreement between the Christians and the Jews is about the status of Jesus of Nazareth: Is he the Christ or not? Has the Christ already come, as the Christians claim, or should one await his arrival, as the Jews insist?)

The second point is this. Satan, or the Devil, attempts continuously to seduce ‘people’ to stray from the path of worshipping (the biblical) God. In the hands of the Christians, ‘people’ refers to the entire humankind. Satan or the Devil (he has many names and his followers are ‘legion’) undertakes this task of seduction by making the credulous believe that he, the Devil, is the ‘true’ (biblical) God. Of course, he is not the ‘true God’; he is the ‘false god’. In this task, he is immensely helped by the human followers of the Devil: the ‘priests’. These ‘priests’ create all kinds of ‘rituals’ and mumbo-jumbo, deceive the credulous, hide the ‘true message’ of (the biblical) God, and so on and so forth. By doing all these, they encourage the ordinary people to worship the devil and his lieutenants: these are the ‘false gods’. So, we have one ‘True God’ (the biblical God, the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob) and multitudes of ‘false gods’. Because religion is the worship of God, we get two kinds of religions: the ‘true’ religion that worships the ‘true God’ and false religions that worship the ‘false gods’.

To the British Christians (and to the Islamic rulers before them), the ‘religion’ of the Hindus could only be false religion. Our devas and devis were false gods and merely different representations of the Devil and his lieutenants. To the Protestants (and to most of the Catholic missionaries), such a false religion could only be understood in terms of the seductive power of the Devil and the machinations of Devil’s ‘priests’, viz., the Brahmins. Such a false religion not only delivered the credulous into the clutches of the Devil and sent them on a one-way ticket to hell, but it also had to be intrinsically immoral. Consequently, any phenomenon they thought they saw in India, whether it was sati or child marriage, had to do with the immorality of ‘Hinduism’ and the wickedness of the priests of this false religion. They believed that such a false religion could only exist because a cunning and devious group of people (these are the ‘priests’ of such false religions) succeeds in deceiving the majority: in the Brahmins, they found such a layer of ‘priests’. How did these priests gain and maintain their power? In the ‘caste system’, they found the answer to this riddle. Somehow, the Brahmin priests invented the ‘caste system’ and somehow they imposed this immoral system on the larger society. Thus, this ‘caste system’ became an integral part of the false religion that ‘Hinduism’ was.

You must remember that the foundation and the framework of these ‘discoveries’ were not empirical investigations but their theological beliefs. Everything they ‘discovered’ was fitted into this framework. The discovery of the Upanishads and the Buddhist (and the Jain) traditions merely strengthened the framework. Thus, they came up with the three stages of the decay and degeneration of ‘Indian religion’: Vedic religion, Brahmanism and Hinduism. The Vedic religion retained the intimations of (the Biblical) God and His original message; Brahmanism was the corruption and decay of this religion in the hands of the Brahmin priests; ‘Hinduism’ is a further degeneration and corruption of the already corrupt religion of Brahmanism. The Buddha fought the ‘Brahmin priests’ and, because of this, in the eyes of the Protestants, ‘Buddhism’ was less ‘corrupt’ than Brahmanism. But ‘Hinduism’ was the most degenerate and corrupt ‘false religion’, which, unfortunately, was embraced by the majority of the gullible in India.

Therefore, all the ills of Indian society and culture were traced back to ‘Hinduism’. They are intrinsic to this religion, the British claimed, and integral parts of the same. Lie, when repeated often enough, becomes the truth; nonsense, when propagated widely, begins to make sense. Such is the case with respect to the story about the Indian ‘religions’, especially ‘Hinduism’.

Drawing a Parallel

The Indian intellectuals of yesteryears swallowed this story wholesale. (The ‘why’ is a very big question, which I shall ignore in this piece.) Thus, two extreme reactions came into existence: at one end of the spectrum, some people wanted to ‘reform’ the religion of the Hindus. They wanted to go back to the ‘purer’ religion of the Vedas and the Upanishads. At the other end of the spectrum, rabid defenders of ‘Hinduism’ also came into existence. As is usual in such cases, any number of intermediate positions between these two extremes also crystallized.

The ‘reformers’ tried to build a purer form of Hinduism: they accepted that the pujas in the temples and at home constituted ‘idol worship’ and, therefore, were intolerable; they discovered that, indeed, the Upanishads did not talk about the ‘rituals’ that the people practiced and, therefore, the ‘Brahmin’ priests had corrupted this purer religion of the Indians; and so on. Having agreed with the British about almost everything they said, these intellectuals began the process of constructing a pure religion called ‘Hinduism’ that was modeled upon their understanding of Protestant Christianity. They discovered the ‘Nirguana Brahma’ that some people had spoken of earlier; they found out that the Indians too had spoken of ‘God’ in the singular; etc. In short, their only ‘disagreement’ with the Protestant Christians was this: could the ‘Indian religion’ be reformed to resemble some or another respectable variant of Christianity or not’ The Brahmo Samaj, the Arya Samaj, the Prarthana Samaj, etc. began to create ‘respectable’ versions of ‘Hinduism’ that would not overly shock the sensibilities of Protestant Christians. Like all ‘respectable religions’, these versions of Hinduism identified its ‘scriptures’ and codified them into clear sets of beliefs; they also had ‘God’ at the centre of their ‘doctrines’; had their own versions of ‘ethical commandments’ and their ‘vocation’ of service to fellow-human beings. And, much like their Protestant brethren, they wanted to ‘reform’ Hinduism, abolish ‘the caste system’ (and all such ills), and looked down upon the ‘ignorant’ mass of the Indians who were not knowledgeable about the subtle tenets of the Upanishadic doctrines and were sunk in superstitious practices.

Even though these reformers were intolerant of the Indian culture and its manifold traditions, the rest of India tolerated them as yet another contribution to the variety and diversity of the Indian traditions. The Arya samaji’s, for instance, were as much ‘Hindus’ as the ‘Vaishnavites’ were; the differences between them merely exemplified the different paths that India had been used to over the millennia. So, these reformers could survive too, the way many others before them had survived.

When the British noticed that the majority of Indians are ignorant of their scriptures, the reformers tried to respond to this by going back to some texts from their traditions; when the British criticized this or that practice, the reformers tried to modify or replace that practice; when the British thought that Indians were immoral, the reformers tried to come up with a set of moral rules from their texts to show that ‘Hinduism’ could be moral as well? In many ways, these reformers merely acquiesced to the demands and criticisms of the British and tried to sculpt a ‘Hinduism’ that could meet the criticisms. However, in the midst of all these, they failed in doing that one thing which would have helped them: understand the culture of the British and the nature of their religiously inspired criticisms. They merely assumed that the British were justified in the criticisms of the ‘Hinduism’ of their time and tried to show that underneath the contemporary corruption, a ‘purer’ form of religion was waiting to be found. In this too, even where they did not know this well, they followed the British and European portrayal of India and the degeneration of her ‘religions’.

Why is this story important to us today? There are two reasons. The first is this: the portrayals of the Indian culture and the nature of her traditions, which the western culture has provided over the centuries, have become standard text-book trivia today. Even though the picture the West has painted is incomprehensible without presupposing the truth of the Christian doctrines, the claims about the so-called ‘religions’ of India appear comprehensible even to those who do not know anything about Christianity. Intellectuals in the West and in India believe in the truth of the western descriptions of the Indian culture. Most of us in the West believe that ‘the caste system’ exists in India; that the Brahmins have oppressed the so-called ‘Dalits’ in India over the millennia; that Buddhism was a rebellion against the ‘ritualistic’ domination of the Brahmin priests; and so on. Indian intellectuals believe in this story as well: witness our ‘reservation policy’ and the ‘conversion’ of the so-called ‘Dalits’ into ‘Buddhism’, as mere examples of our commitment to the truth of these western stories about India.

There is an additional reason as well. Today, most Indians in the West respond to the questions and challenges posed by their milieu the way the Indian reformers responded to the British criticisms and challenges. In which way are our responses today similar (if not identical) to those of the reformers from yesterday?

Two Different Ways

Consider the following questions, which are routinely asked about our culture in the West. Why do you wear bindi?; Why do you not eat beef?; Is it true that you worship the phallus?; What do you think about the caste-system?; Do they still burn widows in India?; Why do your gods have six or eight arms?; What is your religious symbol?; Do you worship that statue in that temple?; Do you believe in God?; Are you religious? And so on and so forth. What does one do when one faces these questions?

Broadly speaking, there are two ways of responding to this situation. The first would be to try and answer these questions assuming, in the process, that (a) the questions are intelligible and that (b) one understands them. This is the route chosen by most of us and the Indian reformers. We now need to notice what happens if we tread this route today because, unlike the reformers of yesteryears, our milieu is not the Indian but the western culture.

The first requirement, of course, is that we come up with satisfactory answers. However, satisfactory for whom though? Should it satisfy us, the first generation Indians in the West, or our children, the second generation Indians, or the questioner? Consider, as an example, one of the oft-heard answers to the question about not eating beef which goes as follows: Indians are nourished by cow’s milk which is akin to being breast-fed by the mother; therefore, most Indians consider the cow as their mother. Hence, they do not slaughter cows and eat beef. (Or cattle are crucial to the survival of the Indian peasantry; hence they do not slaughter and eat them; or any number of such ‘explanations’.) Needless to say, this answer is satisfying neither to the questioner nor to most second generation Indian children. In India, one sees people beating cows and throwing stones at them, which is hardly an expression of ‘reverence’ to the mother figure that the cow is alleged to be; no Indian goes around feeding his ‘mother’ when he sees the cow foraging for food on the streets; furthermore, at first sight, it also appears an irrational answer: surely, people dying of starvation is of greater consequence than abstaining from eating beef. Is it not possible to reduce starvation and hunger in India, if people were ‘allowed’ to eat beef? To questions like these, one has to come up with all kinds of convoluted answers, which leave most unsatisfied. Alternately, one takes the route of the Jews and the Muslims: we are forbidden from eating beef for ‘religious reasons’, in the same way the Muslims do not eat pork and the Jews want only ‘kosher’ food. This answer will work only so long as one does not meet someone well-versed in the history of India. When such a person comes up with textual evidence that there was no prohibition against meat (including beef) in the early Indian ‘religion’ then one gets well and truly stuck.


However, the presence of such multiplicity of answers is itself an occasion for embarrassment. Why do different ‘Hindus’ give different answers to questions like the above? Here is where the new cultural milieu exerts pressure for standardizing the answers. Some questions like ‘why do Hindu women wear bindi on their foreheads’? might allow for some leeway regarding the answers; some others, like ‘why do you worship phallus’? does not appear to do so.

The standardization of answers seeks to impose uniformity across the variety that characterizes the Indian traditions. These answers not only codify but they also strengthen (among some) another typical tendency of all immigrants, namely, the tendency to accentuate one’s practices and beliefs and to hold them both rigidly. One tends to hold on to the real or remembered practices of one’s ancestors even more rigidly than one’s own ancestors (or the Indians in India) and to become a super-orthodox ‘Hindu’.

This codification of beliefs and a rigid attempt to transplant into a totally different milieu a set of local practices, which might or might not have worked in India, encourages the fossilization of human practices. Instead of being an expression of the dynamic adaptation of human beings to their environments, human practices become rigid and, as such, require justifications. Such justifications can only be provided by a highly dogmatic set of beliefs formulated by this or that institution or Swami. Thus, a ‘Hinduism’ that resembles the Semitic religions comes into existence.

Needless to say, such a ‘Hinduism’ becomes even more vulnerable to challenges from the new cultural milieu. Now, the diversity and multiplicity of the Indian traditions are counter-posed to it and Hindu Americans are being accused of dogmatic orthodoxy. The same milieu which appears to force one to come up with a recognizably Semitic version of Hinduism sharply criticizes all attempts at doing so.

There are many more things to be said about this process but I shall have the occasion to return to these issues later. For the time being, all we need to notice is this: this way of responding to the western milieu merely forces us in the direction that the Hindu reformers took. However, unlike them, we do not live in a milieu generated by the Indian culture. That is to say, the ‘Hinduism’ that we would sustain in the cultural milieu of the West would be even worse than that created by the reformers of yesteryears. It would resemble their ‘Hinduism’, because of the attempts to codify beliefs. It would be worse than that, because we would end up rigidly adhering to some sets of practices. We would sacrifice the very vitality that characterizes the Indian traditions, which allowed them to survive over the millennia and in different environments.

How can we avoid these and other assorted ills and yet continue to practice our traditions in the West? To answer this problem, let me begin by raising the following question. Why are most of these questions not raised in India by us or our fellow ‘Hindus’? I mean to say, why do we not go around asking questions about eating beef, wearing bindi, worshipping the Shiva Linga, and such like in India? Surely, it is not because we know the answers: if we did, we would have no problems in providing the same answers to our western interlocutors. Here is a simple but a very important point: it does not occur to us to raise these questions about our traditions. It does not occur to us, not because we are any less curious or intelligent than people in the western culture, but because such questions do not make sense in our cultural milieu. That is to say, we learn not to ask such questions about our traditions and this learning is a part of learning to become a member of the Indian traditions. Of course, when I say that we do not ask such questions, it does not mean that we have never raised such questions at any point in our lives: as children, we raised them and the answers satisfied us. Most of these answers referred to the nature of our inherited practices.

In other words, when we confront such questions in the western culture, we need to understand two things: (a) these questions force and compel us to provide a particular kind of answers; (b) they do not make sense in the Indian culture, but are eminently sensible in the western culture. That is to say, when such questions are asked of the Indian traditions, we should not assume that these are intelligible to us; they are not. It is in the nature of the western culture to raise such questions.

Almost all of us, who are successful in the West, assume that we understand the western culture. The reason for this assumption is our ability to be successful in the West. Furthermore, we also assume that we know what these questions mean just because we speak and understand English (or European languages). I would like to submit to you that this assumption is false: we have not understood the western culture at all.

One of the most important consequences of my claim is this: when the western culture quizzes us about the nature of the Indian traditions, this culture is telling us about itself. To provide satisfactory answers to our interlocutors about our traditions does not require that we read the Upanishads or Patanjali; it does not require that we come up with our own ‘Ten Commandments’ or a poorly spun theology. We need to understand the nature of western culture. Simply put: to answer questions about the Indian traditions, we need to understand the western culture.

This is what the reformers did not understand; this is what we do not understand either. The questions that the West raises are rooted in their culture. Consequently, if we want our children to confront this milieu with confidence, more than anything else, we need to teach them about the western culture. We need to make them understand why the West raises such questions and what these mean. Currently, they understand neither. We need not teach them ‘the’ answers to such questions; they will figure out on their own which answers are appropriate. However, we need to make them understand what the Western culture ‘means’ when its members ask us whether ‘the Hindus believe in God’, ‘what the religious symbol of the Hindus are’ and why ‘the Hindus worship the penis and the monkey’.

To sum up: while we live in the West, we are forced into creating a rigid and codified ‘Hinduism as a religion’, much like the reformers of yesteryears. While such constructions surely have their place in the variety and diversity that characterizes the Indian traditions, they neither solve nor address the problem that our children confront. Our children, much like us, do not understand either the culture they are living in or how to respond to some of its challenges. This situation defines our basic task: to teach our children about the West while we pass on our traditions to them. The question we have to ask ourselves is this: how successful have we been in doing both?

4 thoughts on “Why Understand the Western Culture?

  1. Pingback: Why study the Western culture? | All Roads Lead to Jerusalem!

  2. Pingback: Denying Experience: Do Hindus ‘worship’? Do they do Pooja to phallus (linga)? | All Roads Lead to Jerusalem!

  3. bennedose

    When I read of Greek descriptions of Indian religion and Al Beruni’s description, I get the impression that Hindus in that era were self confident about their beliefs and practices and not apologetic and seeking to please.

    It is very likely that British scholars questioned Hindu reformers as masters talking to subjects, and the latter were under pressure to please rather than offend. It is likely also that anything that caused offence would be dismissed as further proof that Indian beliefs and practices were definitely the devils work.

    it occurs to me that Hindus after 1947, and Hindus in the west have retained that same attitude of apology and reticence. And it is these attitudes that are being handed down to their children.

    After all, you rightly point out that Hindu beliefs and practices are not “taught” in India and no one questions them either. In fact no one questions why one must wash oneself after defecation. One could ask in the west why they wipe and not wash. People in the west don’t question themselves about why they wipe and don’t wash – it is simply a cultural trait. Hindu beliefs and practices are similarly cultural traits, and are varied because they are unrestricted. There are no limits on what one must believe or profess. Freedom of choice. It is a matter of personal choice that is difficult to understand for a person who has been taught about one God and a religion dependent moral code while he was being taught to wipe himself.

  4. perrocomedor

    What questions are considered to make sense is not so much a property of the milieu as it is an artifact of the direction of the gaze. Both in India and in the West, the gaze is from the Westerner to the Hindu; it is up to the Hindu to explain himself to the Westerner in both cases.

    “Understanding of Western culture” therefore is a matter of learning to reverse the gaze; it is important to state this, otherwise Hindus might nerd out for years trying to master (largely irrelevant, unless one is specializing) details about Western culture and religion. A superficial knowledge of the bare elements of Westerrn religion and culture (for syntactic purposes) along with a conscious decision to reverse the gaze should suffice.

    Taking Christianity as an example, there are unanswerable questions when a Hindu gazes at a Christian (let us say Catholic for this example): Why do you people do symbolic human sacrifice and eat the flesh and drink the blood of the sacrificial victim every Sunday? Isn’t that barbaric and disgusting?

    The reason this question gets asked hardly at all is only superficially because Hindus lack the understanding that Christianity is founded on a human sacrifice model of religion. The core reason is that it doesn’t occur to us that the question can be asked; once we recognize the possibility of asking the question and embrace it, the tiny bit of information required to formulate the question is readily available from the public domain.

    What happens in a mutually-respectful world in which the gaze has equal status in both directions? Then, probably, the honest answer to both the question about symbolic phallus worship and the question about symbolic human flesh consumption would be to to say, “I am sorry but I cannot answer that question truthfully as it would be rude to do so, inasmuch as the truthful answer is that, by asking that question, you have shown that you would be incapable of properly understanding my answer.”

    Both symbolic phallus worship and symbolic human flesh consumption, as practices are irrelevant to Hinduism and Christianity respectively. What each is actually worshipping is the sanctity attaching to those respective symbols due to millennia over which humans worshipped those things. It is the implicit awareness of this fact imbuing Indian culture (of every religious persuasion) that is the secret of India’s famed and unique feature, variously known as pluralism, tolerance and so on. When that feature does work as advertised, obviously.