Is Indian Culture Obsolete ? – Part 1
Keynote address presented at the Vivekananda Jayanthi Lecture for Youth organized by the Bharateeya Vichara Kendram at Thiruvananthapuram (Trivandrum) on 12 January 2000 by Michel Danino
The Angry Young Indian
If I were to picture myself as a twenty-year-old Indian today, my answer to this question would have to be a harsh one. I would have to ask my elders how in fifty years they managed to bring the nation to such a state of degradation. I would feel both anger and contempt for the hordes of politicians and bureaucrats who have been dutifully bleeding this country white and have turned the daily life of honest Indians into a hopeless hell. But I would also ask the many good, honest, capable, cultured people of this country why they have done so little to stem the rot, why they have contented themselves with throwing up their hands in despair and pleading helplessness—or, at best, with giving fine lectures on every ill India is ridden with. I might even be cynical towards programmes such as the one which has brought us together tonight, asking what they achieve, if anything. And I may possibly be tempted to do like many of my friends : go abroad, leave this hell, and fly to some “heaven” across the seas, where you do not have to pay a bribe at every step, where you do not have to prove that you are “backward” before you can move forward, where your talents can be used rather than crippled—in a word, where you do not have to feel ashamed of your country.
This, as I have frequently seen, is what many, if not most, young Indians carry in their hearts. It is a justified, legitimate if bitter feeling, nurtured by scores of daily proofs.
But I have also seen that it often goes a step or two further, and our “angry young Indian,” as I will call him or her, may voice the following feelings (I am summarizing here voices I have actually heard over the years) :
“See how Westerners live : their cities are modern and clean, people don’t dump garbage all around, trains and buses run on time, there is no corruption, no illiteracy, they are hard-working, they have discipline, a civic sense—while we Indians have none, we are lethargic, we have no courage to fight the system ; hypocrites that we are, we will talk about our great culture while throwing our rubbish to the other side of the street or greasing palms at the least demand, and while crores of us still live in the most abject misery. All right, maybe we were great two or three or five thousand years ago, maybe our kings of old were better than the crooks and criminals who now rule us, but what good is that ancient culture today, except to attract a few foreign tourists ? Today, it is the Westerners who are superior ; they don’t talk as much as we do, but they have conquered the world with their abilities and hard work. They wanted to be ‘achievers’ and they achieved ; they hunted after success and they succeeded. And if there is any hope for this country, it is only in adopting their methods, their science and technology, their management and trade—nothing else is going to bring us prosperity, certainly not our traditions which have degenerated into so much ignorant superstition : see the caste divisions, see the survival of sati or child marriage, see the countless barbaric customs still prevailing in our villages. Who wants to waste time glorifying all that ? And what has our surfeit of religion achieved, except to make us weak, fatalistic, always ready to bow to everyone else ? Are temples going to make the country prosperous ? Will smearing ashes on our foreheads help us build the future ? Let’s face it : culture is good for people who have nothing to do. The sooner we throw out those relics of the past and turn to healthy rationalism and progressive thinking, the better for all of us.”
That, with endless variations of course, is what most of our young people are fed with more or less subtly from their schooldays, and every day through our Westernized media. It represents fairly well today’s conventional thinking, or shall I say the “politically correct” view of India aired by self-appointed guardians of our thought. There is a certain amount of truth in those statements, and we will do well to admit it ; but there is much blindness and facile thinking too, and we will have to confront it.
The part of truth is there for all to see : True, our cities are generally congested and unclean, because municipality officials and clerks think their only duty is to draw their salary. True, we have millions of illiterates, because our policy makers have failed to make education not only compulsory and free, but also stimulating and enriching, and because our educationists think their duty is done when they have spoken at a few dozen seminars while the average village school struggles along without electricity, sometimes without a roof, and quite often without teachers. Very true, it is revolting to have to give a bribe for the smallest certificate, to pay one’s admission to a College and often one’s way to a job, because we have come to accept that the dharma of those in power is to live off the fat of the land even more shamelessly than our British rulers ever did. True again, we are generally too sluggish to protest effectively against this state of affairs, ready to condemn it in private talk but willing to condone it in deed. And true also, Indian tradition has often become cluttered with meaningless minutiae or a convenient excuse for rigid and retrograde attitudes.
To be continued….
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