Indology - UP and Running
From Commercialism to CommunionA seeker’s perspective on present-day India
by Prabhath P
India is fast getting assimilated into the economic liberalization and globalization paradigm that is
Lilykutty, my sister’s walking partner, is ecstatic. Her 22-year-old niece has just landed her first job for Rs 70,000 and has got married to someone who has been transferred to Germany. For her, the new Indian dream is unfolding.
Shashi Coontoor, a small scale industrialist in Bangalore, reflects, “My nephew is all of 22 years, and his first pay packet is equivalent to what I am earning now at 52 after 25 years as a business man. His annual income would be equivalent to the retirement fund of his father, a government servant. At his age I was talking about going to Lonavala (from Bombay) for a holiday – he talks of Mauritius and Hawaii. The first flight I boarded was at the age of 40 – he treats the airport like a bus stand. Soon, my son will be doing the same.”
A local newspaper interviewed a bunch of teenagers on how much they intended to spend for New Year on clothes alone. The average amount they quoted, which comprised largely of branded clothes, was around Rs 5,000.
Well may you rub your eyes in disbelief. Frugal, austere India, which aspired to simple living and high thinking, is embracing the consumer revolution with gusto.
Ever since liberalization and globalization happened somewhere in the early 90s, the country has undergone seismic changes of such magnitude, that it is hardly recognizable any more.
In the last 12 years or so we have faced a satellite revolution which brought world cable TV and multiple channels to a country fed on Doordarshan pap, and virtually exposed the whole of India to the West. Simultaneously, we also faced a computer revolution that changed just about every industry and challenged almost every white-collar worker. If you didn’t know how to type or use the computer, you either shaped up or shipped out.
The biggest revolution was liberalization. The borders separating the world and us have crashed, and a Pandora’s Box of consequences, both good and bad, have assailed us. A country long used to pressing its nose against the windowpane of Western goodies like chocolates, cheeses, soaps, perfumes, beauty aids, electronic gadgets and vehicles, suddenly found itself free to buy them.
Fortunately, the multinationals were also hiring. Salary rates spiralled in corporate India. And when BPOs streamed into India in search of cheap labour, the middle and lower middle classes hit the jackpot as kids with an American accent were hired for Rs 10,000 plus.
The world came closer socially and culturally too. Writer-poet Arundhathi Subramanian says, “I’ve been invited to several international poetry festivals since 2000 – three in Italy, one in Spain, one in Holland, a writing residency in Scotland and a poetry tour of the UK. I was invited in 2003 to edit a national poetry website that’s affiliated to an international project entitled the Poetry International Web.” She adds, “For me the greatest personal reward of globalization is that it’s made it possible for me to turn ‘marginality’ into something meaningful, peripherality into a state of multiple citizenship. It allows me to belong to Bombay and — well, any place else I choose.”
Media professional Aparna Jacob, now settled in Australia, speaks for most young people when she says, “As soon as we got our internet connection, I was chatting with people around the world every night, looking up things and reading up on subjects I’d always wanted to know about. It changed the way I looked at the world. It’s made me quick to adapt and equipped me with enough to go anywhere in the world and earn a living.”
Choices assailed us. Not one TV channel but 100s. Not one breakfast cereal but dozens. Not one or two types of cars but scores of them. Not one entertainment option but numerous ones. Not one source of music but thousands. Not one information outlet but countless ones. The consequences have been both enriching and bewildering, forcing us to consciously prioritize.
The Good Life?
Today, urban India is a composite of mall culture, multiplexes, page 3, blonde highlights, straight ironed hair, botox, plastic surgery, obesity, booming real estate prices, skyrocketing sensex (up from 9,500 to 14,000 in 2006), millionaires and billionaires, owners of multiple cars and homes, multiple credit and debit cards, high-end vehicles, branded clothes, etiquette and grooming columns, events of megawatt glamour, ready-to eat meals, restaurants of every possible culture in the world, gyms, personal trainers and so on. At the urban level, we are richer, smarter, more successful, and with more possessions.
The spectrum of professionals interviewed agreed with this.
Bangalore-based S Venkatesh, president, group HR of a leading mines and metals company, and his writer-researcher wife, Sangeeta, say, “We are certainly richer. We live in a bigger house, can own a car, are able to afford to eat out more often (though personally and for health reasons we may wish not to) and able to take holidays (including foreign holidays) more often. Air travel is also possible most of the time.”
Devdas Menon, a professor at IIT, Madras, says, “Personal finances have improved. Previously, it was practically a hand-to-mouth existence.”
Rajender Menen, a writer based in Mumbai, says, “I am richer for sure. I can afford anything I want. But this doesn’t mean much as I am not materialistic.”
Adds Shashi Coontoor, “I am definitely richer in terms of earning capacity, and poorer in terms of spending on things which I normally wouldn’t have a few years ago such as watching movies in multiplexes, eating pizzas – the rate of one of which is equivalent to six kgs of rice, or 15 kg of sugar. I would consider it sacrilegious before, but now it’s the norm – my son wants it.”
So what do we make of this phenomenon that has overpowered us all? Is it a good thing or a bad thing?
Perhaps to get a proper perspective on that question, we need to look at what came before. The reign of socialism, the domination of monopolistic state-ruled industries, and the general atmosphere of scarcity, frustration, indifference and inertia. Film-star Sarika, in an interview with a Sunday supplement, talks about how she ran away from her exploitative mother at the age of 21. When she called home to declare her decision, her mother didn’t bat an eyelid. “Just transfer the gas from your name to mine,” was all she said. Such was the shortage. My own mother carefully brought her gas papers with her when she moved from Vizag to live with me in Mumbai, and thereby liberated me from the travails of the kerosene stove.
The same story holds true for telephone instruments too. When my sister and I moved to a newly built housing society in a Mumbai suburb, few members possessed a phone. All of us made our calls at a local grocery shop.
Inertia, corruption, indifference and ‘chaltahai’ characterised work life. Excellence was not even a distant dream. We were a nation of low-achievers, focussed only on survival. As a journalist, I remember that we cogged foreign journals with impunity, safe in our obscurity. The kind of energetic journalism present today was rarely evident and newspapers were stodgy and dull, with an obsessive interest in politics.
The suffocating government controls fuelled endless corruption and babugiri, and stopped all growth from happening.
On the whole, given the choice between the thou-shalt-not strictures of our socialistic phase and the have-it-flaunt-it credo of our present times, I think the latter is preferable. For the simple reason that we have devolved out of someone else’s control to our own, even if the latter is inordinately influenced by media, peer pressure and sensory indulgence.
The bottomline is this: we have moved from tamas to rajas
The Descent of Tamas
We have been steeped in tamas for a great deal of time. Psychologically, we are a depressed nation whose sense of self was cruelly distorted by centuries of foreign rule, during which our way of life was disparaged and destroyed. After Independence, we staggered into a completely Western-dominated world, with a worldview and priorities profoundly out of odds with our own.
Responding with the classical symptoms of low self-esteem such as a need for acknowledgement and acceptance, and paralyzing self-doubt in our own abilities, way of life and character, we thoughtlessly applied Western norms into every aspect of our lives. Although the great visionary, Mahatma Gandhi, had outlined an economic, political and social vision for the country in line with its needs, situation and philosophy, we were not capable of following it. How could we when we were so out of touch with our essential self – our Indian soul?
Instead, we went the socialistic and industrialist way in economics, putting our trust in big business, big dams, and big everything. In politics, we flung every scruple to the winds as we launched into a blood hunt for money and power.
In our cultural and social mores, we became hopeless WOGs (Western oriental gentlemen). We aped them mindlessly. We wore their suits and boots in a climate more suited to the airy unstitched clothing of our tradition. We used forks and knives even though anyone who has eaten with the hands knows how much more palpable the food experience is when you touch it with your hands. We read their books and magazines, listened to their music, watched their movies, fell in love with their men and women, molded our minds in their universities and imitated their ideas. We adopted their language, sense of beauty and fashions and looked down on those who did not. Our ideas of what defined progress or sophistication were defined by the West’s. They colonized our mindspace even though they had moved out of our land.
The people they honored became heroes in our land. Their scientific discoveries became received wisdom in ours. We scrambled to imitate their technology and mechanization of work. We fought for their favors and hungered for their recognition. The fact that America favors Pakistan more than us, has given us enormous heart-ache, as if America was our mother playing favorites.
In short, thus far, we have been a psychological basket case.
But slowly over the last 60 years, time has been healing our wounds. Our sense of self is getting increasingly stronger. We are beginning to trust in ourselves a little more, and have more confidence in ourselves. Even better, we are getting to know our own strengths. This could not have happened without liberalization. As long as the iron curtain between them and us remained closed, we could never have measured ourselves against them. Never known where we stood. Now we have. We have faced the floodgates of Western expertise and competition. Our industries have had to measure themselves against the sleek monoliths of Western capitalism and our people have had to rise up to Western standards of competence and efficiency.
No battle is free of casualty and there have been victims galore. But the dust has cleared and we have been found not just standing, but perhaps advancing. No wonder there is almost a giddy sense of achievement and self-aggrandizement.
Lakshmi Mittal took over Arcelor last year to emerge the world’s largest steel company and now Tatas have outbid Brazil’s CSN to take over Corus, another steel behemoth. Kiran Desai won the 2006 Booker award, for her book, Inheritance of Loss, the last among a long line of illustrious literati, starting with Salman Rushdie and including Arundhati Roy, Vikram Seth, Amitav Ghosh, and others.
Shilpa Shetty not just won the Big Brother reality show but appears to have triggered off a national introspection in Britain over its racist mindset. And of course, our biggest export – yoga, meditation and spirituality in general – has never been more popular as a surfeit of materialism in the West drives a search for peace and lasting happiness.
Our image in the eyes of the world is up. We are viewed with the grudging respect due to a worthy competitor, instead of with the concerned compassion that has been our lot as a pitifully poor country ravaged by natural disasters. Fashion journalist Meher Castelino says, “I have been going abroad regularly since 1993 as a journalist. In the last two years I have seen a marked difference in the way I am treated – more like a VIP. There is great respect and admiration for our intellect. It made me feel really proud that finally we are where we should have been long ago – at the top!”
Indu Kohli, corporate trainer, echoes her opinion. “Earlier, shopkeepers abroad ignored you. Today, they court you actively.” An informal poll conducted by Bombay Times among city youth reflects a greater sense of self-worth. Sixty one per cent said they respected themselves and stood by their beliefs and 62 per cent disparaged the need to put on a foreign accent.
Kids today are confident about measuring themselves against world standards. Says Abhishek Thakore, a 24-year-old corporate consultant: “I guess we do have to gear up for international competition. I love the feeling of being a part of the global village...this New Year I was at London – with people from every continent and so many different races...it felt so beautiful to be a truly global citizen.”
Aparna Jacob, 26, who did a course in Sydney, says, “When I moved to Sydney, I was all prepared for a culture shock. Instead, I felt right at home. Oddly enough, I realised this was because of TV. I could walk the walk and talk to my classmates about anything and we were surprised to discover that we had shared the same heritage of TV shows growing up. Basically we are being raised on the same diet of information and entertainment. We dress alike and talk alike. We are even beginning to look alike!!!”
And people are working harder and better than they ever did.
Says S.Venkatesh, “You need to be an inspiring leader/manager to a multi-cultural workforce and the standards therefore have to be world class. You need to be culturally sensitive, yet confident when dealing with people from the West.” Says Shashi Coontoor, “Professional standards have increased, documentation has to be perfect and industries are all going in for ISO certification. So there’s more streamlining of work.”
Time to Pause
So we’re doing well, then? Not really.
The trouble with the present times is that almost every gain has a loss. Every upside has a downside. People are working harder but they don’t have time for family, themselves or for their health. There’s plenty more money but also more stress, more competition, more family breakdowns, more latchkey kids. More fancy food and more obesity. More fun, clothes, holidays, entertainment, less happiness and peace of mind. Communication has never been easier but the resultant overload takes its toll. Says Indu Kohli, “You get one call telling you someone is ill and before you have absorbed your worry, someone else calls to give you some good news. There is no time to process feelings.”
For the spiritual seeker, this emphasis on materialism is appalling. Says Prabhath P, a writer committed to creating spiritual awareness, “The current society places too much emphasis on material standards in every area of living. I don’t follow such demands if they aren’t in tune with my sense of spiritual evolution. Instead I would like to focus on what I can contribute to counter and subvert the unreasonable demands of the times!”
Environmentalists everywhere are up in arms against the alarming degeneration of the planet caused by rampant capitalism. Says Prabhath strongly, “Liberalisation and globalization is organized plunder and rape of the planet! An evolutionary crisis lies ahead of us. We have only ten years to reverse ecological disaster according to scientists. Whether we will disintegrate or manifest an integral, holistic way of life or not, will decide our fate.”
And of course when the lens falls upon the dispossessed and the marginalized, even the hardiest among us will cringe. Says Aparna Jacob, “Everywhere, the rich are getting richer and the poor are getting poorer. When I think about this, I can’t ever get myself to buy a shirt tagged $70 that says made in China or Indonesia or India.”
Rajender Menen adds graphically, “For the Indian middle class and its margins, about 500 million of them, it’s a good time. For 600 million desperately poor, it’s the same old story. Get raped, killed, or simply starve to death.”
Says Swami Sachidananda Bharathi, founder, Dharma Bharathi Ashram, “There are many losers I see around me. I personally know many of them. I sympathize with them. The parents who are abandoned in ‘old age homes’ because their children are away making money and making it big, the wives / husbands who are lonely and neglected because of long hours of work and the growing tension of their spouses, the children who do not get love and attention as their parents are very busy, the poor who have lost their jobs, the small farmers who cannot compete with multinationals / large-scale farmers… these are all losers. They lead lives of loneliness and rejection, poverty and hunger, deprivation and exploitation.”
Arundhathi Subramanian observes, “At times this feels like Kalyug; at others like the dawning of the ‘naya zamaana’, the Age of Aquarius. The possibilities seem tremendous, the challenges seem tremendous too.”
Yes, rajas has its shadow side. But as a nation newly emerging from tamas, this materialistic orgy is inevitable. We need to go through this. We need to appease our starved senses. We need to outgrow our famished desires. Our vasanas must spend themselves.
If we are ever to get to a better balance, this is the way to it. So let’s not waste our time resisting it. Indeed we have no need to, for it is evident to those who can see beyond the present feeding frenzy, that the excesses of rajas are themselves producing their own solutions. Consider this: Liberalization and globalization have brought the world together. In these days of pandemics and global economies we are recognizing that we swim or sink together.
Loosening borders have raised the need to cultivate respect for differences and many countries are anxiously striving to gain it.
Here in India, it is liberalization that forced us to search for our identity. If everyone was wearing blue jeans, was it really cool to do so? If everyone spoke English with an American accent, what distinguished us? How could we stand out in the global village unless we knew who we were?
Today, we are experiencing a resurgence of Indianism. There is a newfound respect for the ancient wisdom of this land and its holistic gentle ways. More and more are moving into spirituality, yoga and ayurveda. Vastu shastra is mandatory today for any new residential building. And the newfound craze for astrology is accelerating by the day. In this way, the very times are producing the new era.
Says Swami Satchidananda, “Humanity and the creation at large are subject to an evolutionary growth process. In spite of the trials and tribulations faced by us today, we shall stand to gain much in course of time if we persevere in the path of truth, goodness and beauty. The best days of our life lie ahead of us.”
The Way Forward
In short, rajas will make way for sattva. Let us cease to be besotted by economic growth or a rising sensex. Let us stop tallying our achievements as proof that the Indian hour has arrived.
In truth, the future is ours. But this future will not be characterized by economic or political might. Other countries will not tremble before ours and call it a superpower. Our destiny is different.
Our destiny is to take the world forward. To forge the new world culture. To bring the people of the world together in a spirit of love, peace, harmony and mutual co-operation. We are uniquely equipped to do so by the strength of the philosophy of this land.
“India does not rise as other countries do, for self or when she is strong, to trample on the weak. She is rising to shed the eternal light entrusted to her over the world. India has always existed for humanity and not for herself and it is for humanity and not for herself that she must be great…” said Sri Aurobindo.
The truth is, we have all the answers. How to be happy, how to be conflict-free, how to make others happy without damaging our sense of self, how to retain free enterprise without damage to the environment, how to heal the body, mind and soul, how to restore one’s relationship with the Divine without damage to one’s rationality, how to achieve one’s highest potential, how to achieve the real purpose of life, how to tolerate differences.
For the Vedic seers had long ago enunciated the highest truth: All is one. The Creator lives in the creation, and therefore it is divine. Indian civilization has long operated from this concept of life as an indivisible divine whole. All its systems from ayurveda, siddha, vastu shastra, astrology, have as its basis, the interrelationship between the parts and the whole. Its ideals and worldview have been deeply influenced by this truth. Only this truth will wield together the one-world family and generate respect for all and exploitation of none.
It is this India that we must discover both within and without us and actualize. We need once again to blow life into our old values and ideals – such as prioritizing the spiritual over the material, taking custody over the environment and all species, consuming only as much as we can give back to the earth. We need once again to put ourselves under the stewardship of Mother Nature and be guided by her. We need to respond with respect and compassion to the needs of the underprivileged and raise them to standards of equity for all. Most of all, we need to recognize that the real purpose of life is to realize the Divine within us. We are not here to chase money, fame, power, possessions, seductive as they may be. We are here to discover our true divine Self.
We need to resolutely be true to ourselves in every way. We need to create educational systems that will ignite our highest potential. We need to use fabric and garments that suit our climate and lifestyle. In a country with such a vast population we need systems that will enable us to use this great resource, instead of having it waste away through computerization and mechanization. We need political and social systems that will ensure dignity and freedom for all. We need to rewrite our entire way of life and bring it in alignment with our Indian soul.
The task is humungous but not beyond us. For the soul of India lives in all of us, no matter how far away we may imagine we are from its ethos. It lives in our instinctive respect for elders or for those in authority. Which Indian child would choose to remain seated when a friend’s parents or his teacher came into the room? It lies in the instinctive way that we touch a paper to our foreheads if we have stamped on it, or on elders, for it arises again from respect for the whole.
We enshrine the spirit of Vasudhaiva kutumbakkam(the world is one family), through our endearing habit of bestowing kinship to one and all – bhai, bhaisaheb, didi, beta, even aunty and uncle. Our Indian soul expands our hearts and makes us deeply emotional. Even our lack of killer instincts are a virtue for it comes from our innate sense of cooperation with the whole. Our tolerance and appreciation of diversity once again arises from our ability to penetrate to the underlying unity of all things.
And for those who fear that India will founder in her materialistic orgy, Dr S Radhakrishnan, India’s first president and a great philosopher, has the answer. He says, “By what strange social alchemy has India subdued her conquerors, transforming them to her very self and substance..? Why is it that her conquerors have not been able to impose on her their language, their thoughts and customs, except in superficial ways?”
India will survive this onslaught as well, and majestically negotiate her way towards sattva. That’s a cert.
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