So what really makes Indians Indian?
"Indian-ness" is the cultural part of mind that informs the activities and concerns of daily life of vast numbers of Indians. How to behave toward superiors and subordinates in organizations, the kinds of food conducive to health and vitality, the web of duties and obligations in family life, are as much influenced by the cultural part of the mind as are ideas on the proper relationship between the sexes, or the one to the Divine.
The cultural part of our identity, modern neuroscience tells, is wired into our brains. The culture in which an infant grows up constitutes the software of the brain and much of it is already in place in childhood. Not that the brain, a social and cultural organ as much as a biological one, does not keep changing through interactions with the environment in later life. Like the proverbial river, one never steps into twice, one never uses the same brain twice. Even if our genetic endowment were to determine 50 per cent of our psyche and early childhood experiences another 30 percent, there is still a remaining 20 percent that changes through the rest of our lives. Yet as the neurologist and philosopher Gerhard Roth observes, "Irrespective of its genetic endowment, a human baby growing up in Africa, Europe or Japan will become an African, a European or a Japanese. And once someone has grown up in a particular culture and, let us say, is 20 years old, he will never acquire a full understanding of other cultures since the brain has passed through the narrow bottleneck of culturalization."
In other words, our identities are less "fluid" than we would like or realize, our choices in this respect limited by the possibilities of the adult brain. Identity, then, is not a garment that can be put on or taken off in response to the weather outside, but is worn under the skin. It is not something I have chosen, but what has seized me. It can hurt, take a tragic course, be cursed or bemoaned, but cannot be discarded though it can always be concealed from others or, more tragic, hidden from one's own self.
I am well aware that at first glance the notion of a singular Indian-ness may seem far-fetched. How can one generalize about a country of a billion people - Hindus, Muslims, Sikhs, Christians, Jains, speaking 14 major languages and with pronounced regional and linguistic identities? How can one postulate anything in common between a people divided not only by social class, but also by India's signature system of caste, and with an ethnic diversity characteristic more of past empires than of modern nation states? Yet from ancient times, European, Chinese and Arab travelers have identified common features among India's peoples. They have borne witness to an underlying unity in apparent diversity, a unity often ignored or unseen because our modern eyes are more attuned to espy divergence and variation than resemblance. Thus in 300 BC, Megasthenes, the Greek ambassador to Chandragupta Maurya's court, remarked on what one would today call the Indian preoccupation with spirituality:
"Death is with them a frequent subject of discourse. They regard this life as, so to speak, the time when the child within the womb becomes mature, and death as a birth into a real and happy life for the votaries of philosophy. On this account they undergo much discipline as a preparation for death. They consider nothing that befalls men as either good or bad, to suppose otherwise being a dream-like illusion, else how could some be affected with sorrow and others with pleasure, by the very same things, and how could the same things affect the same individuals at different times with these opposite emotions?"
In more recent times, India's first Prime Minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, writes in his The Discovery of India.
"The unity of India was no longer merely an intellectual conception for me; it was an emotional experience which overpowered me... It was absurd, of course to think of India or any country as a kind of anthropomorphic entity. I did not do so... Yet I think with a long cultural background and a common outlook on life develops a spirit that is peculiar to it and that is impressed on all its children, however much they may differ among themselves."
This "spirit of India" is not something ethereal, inhabiting the rarefied atmosphere of religion, aesthetics and philosophy, but is captured, for instance, in animal fables from the Panchatantra or tales from the epics of Mahabharata and Ramayana that adults tell children all over the country. It shines through Indian musical forms, but is also found in mundane matters of personal hygiene such as the cleaning of the rectal orifice with water and fingers of the left hand or in such humble objects as the tongue scraper, a curved strip of copper (or silver in case of the wealthy) used all over India to remove the filmy layer that coats the tongue.
Indian-ness, then, is about similarities produced by an overarching Indic civilization, pre-eminently but not exclusively Hindu that has contributed the lion's share to what I would call the "cultural gene pool" of India's peoples. In other words, Hindu culture patterns have been dominant in the construction of Indian-ness although I would not go as far as that acerbic critic of Hindu ethos, the writer Nirad Chaudhury, who maintained that the history of India for the last 1,000 years has been shaped by the Hindu character and that he felt "equally certain that it will remain so and shape the form of everything that is being undertaken for and in the country."
Some of the key building blocks of Indian-ness or Indian identity are: an ideology around personal and especially family relationships that derives from the institution of the joint family, a view of social relations profoundly influenced by the institution of caste, an image of the human body and bodily processes that is based on the medical system of Ayurveda, a cultural imagination teeming with shared myths and legends, especially from the epics of Ramayana and Mahabharata, a "romantic" vision of human life (in contrast to a more "ironic" vision prevalent in the West), a special Indian cast to the mind that prefers a relativistic, contextual way of thinking. Here let me illustrate what I mean by taking the example of human relationships.
The Indian gloss on the dilemmas and pain of banishment from the original feeling of oneness, the exile from universe, has been to emphasize a person's enduring connection to nature, the Divine, and all living beings. This unitary vision, of soma and psyche, individual and community, self and world, is present in most forms of popular culture even today. From religious rites to folk festivals, from the pious devotion of communal singing in temples to the orgiastic excesses of holi, there is a negation of separation and a celebration of connection.
The high cultural value placed on connection is, of course, most evident in the individual's relationships with others. The yearning for relationships, for the confirming presence of loved ones and the psychological oxygen they provide, is the dominant modality of social relations in India, especially within the extended family. Individuality and independence are not values that are cherished. It is not uncommon for family members who often accompany a patient for a first psychotherapeutic interview, to complain about the patient's autonomy as one of the symptoms of his disorder. Thus the father and elder sister of a 28-year-old engineer who had a psychotic episode described their understanding of his chief problem as one of unnatural autonomy: "He is very stubborn in pursuing what he wants without taking our wishes into account. He thinks he knows what is best for him and does not listen to us. He thinks his own life and career are more important than the concerns of the rest of the family."
The high value placed on connection does not mean that an Indian is incapable of functioning when he is by himself or that he does not have a sense of his own agency. What it does imply is his greater need for ongoing mentorship, guidance and help from others in getting through life and a greater vulnerability to feelings of helplessness when these ties are strained.
The yearning for relationships, for the confirming presence of loved ones and the distress aroused by their unavailability in time of need, are more hidden in Western societies where the dominant value system prizes autonomy, privacy and self-actualization, and holds that individual independence and initiative are "better" than mutual dependence and community. But, it depends of course, on the culture's vision of a "good society" and "individual merit" whether a person's behavior on the scale between fusion and isolation is nearer the pole of merger and fusion with others or the pole of complete isolation. In other words, the universal polarities of individual vs. relational, nearness versus distance in human relationships are prey to culturally molded beliefs and expectations.
To borrow from German philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer's imagery, human beings are like hedgehogs on a cold night. They approach each other for warmth; get pricked by the quills of the other and move away till, feeling cold, they again come closer. This to and fro movement keeps on being repeated until an optimum position is reached where the body temperature is above the freezing point yet the pain inflicted by the quills - the nearness of the other - is still bearable. The balancing point is different in various cultures. In India, for example, as compared to modern European and North American cultures, the optimum position entails the acceptance of more pain to get greater warmth.
The emphasis on connection is also hreflected in the Indian image of the body, a core element in the development of the mind. In the traditional medical system of Ayurveda, everything in the universe, animate or inanimate is believed to be made of five forms of matter. Living beings are only a certain kind of organization of matter. Their bodies constantly absorb the five elements of environmental matter. For Ayurveda, the human body is intimately connected with nature and the cosmos and there is nothing in nature without relevance for medicine.
The Indian body image, then, stresses an unremitting interchange taking place with the environment, simultaneously accompanied by a ceaseless change within the body. Moreover, in the Indian view, there is no essential difference between body and mind. The body is merely the gross form of matter (sthulasharira), just as the mind is a more subtle form of the same matter (sukshmasharira); both are different forms of the same body-mind matter -sharira.
By contrast, the Western image is of a clearly etched body, sharply differentiated from the rest of the objects in the universe. This vision of the body as a safe stronghold with a limited number of drawbridges that maintain a tenuous contact with the outside world has its own cultural consequences. In Western discourse, both scientific and artistic, there is considerable preoccupation with what is going on within the fortress of the individual body. Preeminently, one seeks to explain behavior through psychologies that derive from biology - to the relative exclusion of the natural and meta-natural environment. The contemporary search for genetic basis to all psychological phenomena, irrespective of its scientific merit, is thus a natural consequence of the Western body image. The natural aspects of the environment - the quality of air, the quantity of sunlight, the presence of birds and animals, the plants and the trees - are a priori viewed, when they are considered at all, as irrelevant to intellectual and emotional development.
Given the Western image of the body, it is understandable that the more "far-out" Indian beliefs on the effects on the sharira of planetary constellations, cosmic energies, earth's magnetic fields, seasonal and daily rhythms, precious stones and metals - are summarily consigned to the realm of fantasy, where they are of interest solely to the "esoteric" fringe of Western society.
It is not only the body but also emotions that have come to be differently viewed by the Indian emphasis on connection. As cultural psychologists have pointed out, such emotions as sympathy, feelings of interpersonal communion and shame, which have to do with other persons, become primary while the more individualistic emotions, such as anger and guilt, are secondary.
The Indian mind has a harder time experiencing and expressing anger and guilt, but is more comfortable than the Western individualistic psyche in dealing with feelings of sympathy and shame. If pride is overtly expressed, it is often directed to a collective of whom the self is a part. Working very hard to win a promotion at work is only secondarily connected to the individual need for achievement, the primary driving motivation in the West. The first conscious or pre-conscious thought in the Indian mind is, "How happy and proud my family will be!"
This is why Indians tend to idealize their families and ancestral background, why there is such prevalence of family myths and of family pride, and why role models for the young are almost exclusively members of the family, very frequently a parent, rather than movie stars, sporting heroes, or other public figures favored by Western youth.
This greater relational orientation is also congruent with the main thematic content of Indian art. In traditional Indian painting and especially in temple sculptures, for instance, man is not represented as a discrete presence, but absorbed in his surroundings; the individual not separate, but existing in all his myriad connections. These sculptures, as Thomas Mann in his Indian novella The Transposed Heads remarks, are an "all encompassing labyrinth flux of animal, human and divine...visions of life in the flesh, all jumbled together...suffering and enjoying in thousand shapes, teeming, devouring, turning into one another."
If one thinks of Eros in its narrow meaning of sex, then it is undeniable that contemporary Indian society is marked by widespread sexual repression. If, however, one conceives of Eros in its wider connotation of a loving "connectedness" (where the sexual embrace is only the most intimate of all connections), then the relational cast to the Indian mind makes Indians more "erotic" than many other peoples of the world.
The relational orientation, however, can also easily slip into conformity and conventional behavior, making many Indians psychologically old even when young. On the other hand, the Western individualistic orientation has a tendency towards self aggrandizement, "the looking out for Number One," and the belief that the gratification of desires - most of them related to consumption - is the royal road to happiness.
In a post-modern accentuation of "fluid identities" and a transitional attitude toward relationships, of "moving on," contemporary Western man (and the modern upper class Indian) may well embody what the Jungians call puer aeternus - the eternal youth, ever in pursuit of his dreams, full of vitality, but nourishing only to himself while draining those around him.
I do not mean to imply that Indian identity is a fixed constant, unchanging through the march of history. Indic civilization has remained in constant ferment through the processes of assimilation, transformation, re-assertion and re-creation that came in wake of its encounters with other civilizations and cultural forces, such as those unleashed by the advent of Islam in medieval times and European colonialism in the more recent past. The evolution of Indo-Iranian forms in art, architecture and classical music in medieval times, the modern developments in painting, sculpture and literature, are some of the examples in the field of "high" culture although virtually no part of Indic civilization has remained unaffected by these encounters. Be it "traditional" Indian cuisine or Bollywood musical scores, Indic civilization has not as much as absorbed as translated foreign cultural forces into its own idiom, unmindful or even oddly proud of all that is lost in translation. The contemporary buffeting of this civilization by a West-centric globalization is only the latest in a long line of invigorating cultural encounters that can be called "clashes" only from the shortest of time frames and narrowest of perspectives. Indic civilization, as separate from though related to Hinduism as a religion, is thus the common patrimony of all Indians, irrespective of their professed faith.
Indians, then, share a family resemblance in the sense that there is a distinctive Indian stamp on certain universal experiences: growing up male or female, love, sex and marriage, behavior at work, status and discrimination, the body in illness and health, religious life and, finally, ethnic conflict. In a contentious Indian polity, where various groups loudly clamor for recognition of their differences, the awareness of a common Indian-ness, the sense of "unity within diversity," is often absent.
Like Argentinian writer Jorg Luis Borges' remark on the absence of camels in Koran because they were not exotic enough to the Arab to merit attention, the camel of Indian-ness is invisible or taken for granted by most Indians. Their family resemblance begins to stand out in sharp relief only when compared to the profiles of peoples of other major civilizations or cultural clusters. A man who is an Amritsari in Punjab, is a Punjabi in other parts of India and an Indian in Europe and North America; the outer circle of his cultural identity, his Indian-ness, is now much more salient for his self-definition, and for his recognition by others than his sub-identities when he was at home. This is why in spite of persistent academic disapproval, people (including academics in their unguarded moments) continue to speak of "the Indians", as they do of "the Chinese", "the Europeans" or "the Americans," as a necessary and legitimate short cut to a more complex reality. Here, whenever we compare Indians to people belonging to other major cultures, our comparative intent does not assume an opposition between civilizations, but regards them as complementary ways of existing in the world.
Indian-ness is a composite portrait, which enables Indians to recognize themselves and be recognized by others. This recognition cannot have a uniform quality even while we seek to identify the commonalities that underlie what the anthropologist Robin Fox calls the "dazzle" of surface differences. I suspect that Hindus belonging to the upper and middle castes will see a picture in which they will see many features that are intimately familiar. Even in their case, the portrait is not a photograph. But neither is it a cubist representation a la Picasso where the subject is barely recognizable. Our effort is more akin to the psychological studies of such expressionist painters as Max Beckman or Oskar Kokoschka or, nearer to our times, the portraits of Lucien Freud who uses realism to explore psychological depth. Others at the margins of Hindu society (such as the Dalits and tribals, or the Christians and Muslims ) will spot only fleeting resemblances in one or other of the fea tures. Indian-ness, then, is a category with fuzzy boundaries. Yet, this Indian-ness does exist, that the Punjabi and the Tamil, for instance, however different they appear on the surface, share a family resemblance at the psychological level.
I am also aware that what we are attempting here is an unfashionable "big picture," a "grand narrative". Yes, there is a speculative quality on settling on certain patterns of Indian-ness as central. Yet without the big picture - whatever its flaws of inexactness or tendency to err in some details - the smaller, local pictures, however accurate, will be myopic, a mystifying jumble of trees without the pattern of the forest.