A common and genuine fear among conservative Indians (specially the elders) is that the rampant westernization amongst Indians is leading to the gradual decline and eventual ruins of Indian culture and tradition. They suspect that Western goods, clothes, foods, festivals, style, language, and moreover Western thought is spreading across the populace. The purpose of this article is to look at the many reasons that cause such fears and analyze them by comparing with reality. This analysis is mainly from the Hindu perspective since that is where my experience lies. The analysis however, would probably apply in equal measure to those Indians of other religious persuasions as well.
Broadly, culture and tradition can be thought to be made up of the following: celebration of festivals and religious practices, clothing, foods, arts, traditional sciences, language, and lifestyle. An analysis on these lines may give us a good handle on the topic and provide a reasonably complete picture.
Festivals and religious practices
Indians now celebrate a wide variety of festivals cutting across religious lines. Special attention has been focused on Valentine's Day, New Year's Eve, Halloween, Christmas, and such festivals that are considered to be alien to India. The fact that a large number of youngsters have taken to celebrating these has aroused substantial fears leading to even threats of, and in many cases real, physical violence.
These days Christmas and New Year's Eve are celebrated with gusto among the Indian middle and upper classes. Though Christmas is an important religious festival for Christians many Hindus celebrate Christmas. Valentine's Day is gaining popularity mainly amongst youngsters. There is an allegation that Valentine's Day is a venture introduced by the media and commerce. Whatever be the cause, it has gained popularity.
Most people celebrating Christmas, New Year's Day, and Valentine's Day do it as a celebration rather than as a religious festival. Valentine's Day is looked upon as a celebration of love and it provides youngsters opportunities to express their love to their partners. Christmas and New Year's Day are celebrated more for the consumption of cakes and wine rather than for religious reasons. In a manner, many Indians have adopted these as general non-religious festivals. Interestingly, celebrations on New Year's Eve have acquired an Indian dimension and it isn't always about drinking and dancing.
Traditional Hindu festivals are also celebrated with pomp and splendor, increasing by the year. In Mumbai, during the 2-3 days of Ganapati visarjan, Mumbai’s beaches are filled to the brim. The number of devotees and the number of Ganapatis, big and small, have to be seen to get an understanding of the involvement of people. Krishna Janmashtami is celebrated publicly in every other street. Handi breaking contests have tough competition and tougher competitors. Heights of the handis go up to 13 tiers and the prizes of some of the mandals can cross five million rupees. Sankranti, Yugadi, Dipavali, Dasara, Durga Puja, Rama Navami are all celebrated nowadays much more than in the previous generation, say about 25 years ago.
We find that many festivals are moving more and more into the public domain while retaining their private aspects. The public Ganapati pandals in Mumbai attract millions of devotees (several millions of rupees are collected at Lalbaghcha Raja Ganapati, for instance). The public celebration of festivals provides coverage for those who don’t or can’t celebrate privately.
Regarding religious practices, the activity is now higher than it was in the earlier generations. Group singing of Soundarya Lahari, kumkumarchanas, homas, and yajnas seem to be increasing. Temples are overflowing (may be the same with Churches and Mosques). What used to be a road-side shanty temple has acquired a full temple status with permanent buildings and committed followers. Old temples in several villages are being renovated and people (both local and those who have migrated) are actively contributing to these initiatives. Religious gurus are attracting more followers and there is a wider audience for their discourses.
Western clothing has percolated into the Indian populace quite widely. Some of the Indian traditional dresses such as dhoti, turban (for men), sari, langa-blouse-daavani (for girls) are becoming rare.
The westernization of Indian clothing started during the British rule. The trousers, skirts, shirts, ties, suits, and such have been in vogue for quite some time now.
Indian dresses continue to live well. The traditional dresses are common on all special occasions including amongst youngsters. The salwar-kameez, kurta-pyjama, mundu, sari, and such are still commonly used. Western clothing has also been adopted widely, probably due to convenience. Western clothes that are inconvenient to wear such as corsets, large flowing gowns, and long skirts are quite rare. Here again, traditional Indian dresses don’t seem to be in any danger of being subsumed by westernization.
The Indian palate has welcomed Western (and Eastern) cuisine. Pizzas, burgers, ice-cream, and noodles are commonplace in Indian cities and towns. Of late, barbecues, steaks, pasta, lasagna, spaghetti, tacos, and other foods are also making their presence felt.
When the major Western food joints started operations in India, there were widespread fears that it was the end of Indian foods like dosa and idli. No such thing has happened. The Indian foods, with all their regional traditional identities, have in fact grown stronger. There is enough demand for the appam as there is for the roomali rotis. The rasgullas and the Mysore paks are both relished with equal fervor. Some special dishes that were getting quite rare a decade ago are now reappearing and are even being marketed commercially. For instance, in Karnataka, dishes such as manohara, kunda, kardant, and todedev are spreading from their earlier regional silos and are addressing larger markets. There may not be many Indian dishes of value that have been sacrificed at the altar of Western / foreign foods.
Western music and dance are quite popular among urban Indians. Concerts by western artists are well received. Hollywood movies have a decent market, at least in the tier-1 cities. Have these affected Indian arts?
Indian traditional arts also seem to be doing well. Carnatic and Hindustani classical music, light music, Bharatanatyam, Kathak – all these have good following. Many people qualified in various professions also practice these, at times giving up their main professions to follow the route of the traditional arts. Many schools / trainers teaching the classical arts seem to have enough students. Bollywood, Tollywood, and other film industries have good markets and are teaching a thing or two to Hollywood. As in food and clothing, even in art, the Indian traditional arts don’t seem to have lost out to the western arts.
In case of traditional sciences, there is a widespread feeling that Indian medicinal systems like Ayurveda have been ignored and ridiculed and only the Western allopathic medicine is being encouraged. Some feel that Indian sciences like yoga will be appreciated only if it comes from the West.
Ayurvedic practitioners are doing quite well. There are many companies that prepare and market ayurvedic medicines and these are as commercially oriented as their allopathic counterparts. Governments are running Ayurvedic colleges and enough people are graduating from these. Ayurveda in general seems to be doing quite well. We must acknowledge that the allopathic medicine is far advanced in terms of scientific growth and is the only option available for proven remedies in critical conditions. The improving infant mortality, life expectancy, and such healthcare-related metrics can all be credited to the allopathic medicine. Adaptation of this is inevitable and desirable.
As for yoga, they never went out of practice in India. There is now, much higher appreciation for the benefits of yogasanas, pranayama, and meditation. Many schools teach these to students as part of the regular extra-curricular activities and the children of today are likely to know more asanas than their parents.
Learning English is seen as the ipso-facto requirement for gaining better employment opportunities and consequently better life style. Usage of English is on the rise and it shall be so for some time to come.
Have the Indian languages been neglected? Study of these by serious student scholars may have seen a down trend. This is to be expected since English is a vehicle that brings in global employment opportunities to India. Almost all scientific and engineering terminology is in English and this is the natural language for studying these subjects. However, following for literature in the local languages seems to be quite healthy. Millions of people attended the recently concluded Kannada Sahitya Sammelana in Bangalore. Large number of Kannada books (amounting to Rs. 80 million) were sold on this occasion. Similarly, the international Tamil conferences have been great hits recently.
The leading authors of Kannada are still writing books and selling in substantial numbers. It could be a similar story with other Indian languages. There is a sizable market for English books too. However, when people read English literature, novels and such, it is from the standpoint of an external observer. Few will try to superimpose the Western cultural and traditional aspects expressed in these books upon themselves and their lives. A casual look at all the famous intellectuals of the country (those exposed to wide range of western literature) in the last century will prove that study of English literature does not automatically affect the lives they lead.
We can find that in the different regions of India, people are quite comfortable in using their mother tongue without any sense of inferiority. The education system fosters learning of multiple languages and anyone not conversant with the local language and / or mother tongue would be considered not up to the mark. As usage of English spreads to all sections of the society across the country, the exalted status enjoyed by English will come down to be on par with other native languages. Then it will become just a language of convenience and not have any cultural aspects coloring its usage. That local languages are as popular as English is already seen – a sampling of popular Radio / TV channels / programs should establish this.
There is a strong following for the regional language television and print media. All in all, it appears that though English is getting quite common, the other local languages are not really languishing.
A great deal has been said about the Pub culture fostered by the Western civilization and the devastating effect it has on Indian culture. The ease with and extent to which girls and boys mix together; the disco bars; the drinking and merry making; the coffee joints with hookahs; are all frowned upon as being against Indian morality.
There is no particular lifestyle that can be said to be 'Indian.' The Indian values of family life, respect to elders, affection to younger ones, sense of duty are all still very much in evidence. People given to the pleasures of life like drinking, merry making, were always there even in the ancient Indian society. In fact, it appears so that in ancient India, people by and large had a jolly good time. The frowning upon all pleasures as sins is probably foreign to Indian and may be an effect of the Victorian conservatism imported by British. The Muslim rule may also have had significant influence in this conservatism.
Indians, including the financially well-to-do still get married with the intention of staying together for the rest of their lives. If financial insecurity has reduced among working women and consequently they are able to assert themselves against abuse, it has be applauded as progressive rather than considering it as a loss of culture and tradition. If in the past Indians treated their women badly or unequally (daughters, wives and widows), then the equality that is being bestowed upon women is a good value. This shall probably restore the respect for women that ancient Indians were proud to have.
Rampant Consumerism / Brand Materialism
Another aspect of the lifestyle clearly noticeable is the rampant consumerism and brand materialism. In recent years, we are seeing in India an expanded brand materialism, an annoying number of goods for the flesh and its enjoyment. This practice has affected all aspects of life – not just cultural. This is also reflecting in the gross / coarse practicing of the traditional Indian values. For instance, the sizes of the Ganapatis, the quantum of money donated, the lavishness of the feasts and such.
It is not that ancient Indian societies were free from this, but their opportunities were limited. Due to paucity of mechanization and automation, the society then was closer to nature and the speed of life was within healthy limits (as perceived from today’s standpoint).
Consumerism is not the bane of just Indian culture and traditions. This is an issue for all societies that believe in simplicity and environmentally friendly lifestyles.
The general consumerism and the things people do to feed this, is disturbing for many people. It appears that everything is hopeless and is degenerating. This is not unique to the current times. Even in the Mahabharata, Sage Vyasa shows his frustration in the final Svargarohana sarga –
न च कश्चिच्छृणोति माम् |
स किमर्थं न सेव्यते। ||
I raise my arms and shout but no one listens.
From dharma come wealth and pleasures.
Why then is dharma not practiced?
In any case, evolution will eventually create a balance when lifestyles are unsustainable.
We live in a global world with the borders becoming hazier. Goods and cultural aspects travel across geographies. The current upward growth of India in the world economy makes the osmosis of cultural aspects inevitable. There are many aspects of India that the western worlds are adapting. Similarly, Indians are taking from many foreign countries.
Indian culture has been embracing aspects of foreign cultures over the years. Aspects of Hindustani music are attributed to Persia and Sufi music. Many foods from foreign lands are now well entrenched into the Indian cuisine. Indian culture has thus ensured that it is strong and has survived. Closing it down in an un-impregnable box (not that it is possible to do so) would choke it and eventually kill it.
The Indian culture and traditions are not getting killed. Rather more things are getting adopted, accommodated and adapted. Every new aspect of culture adopted from the west (or elsewhere) adds a new taste, a new dimension to our existence. It does not take the place of another value, but rather adds to it. Good aspects from various cultures are added to the already heady mix, catering to a hitherto unexplored taste. Undesirable traditions and cultural aspects will be discarded whether they are Indian or foreign. The valuable ones will be retained and consolidated. This is a process of evolution. It will all make the Indian experience richer and merrier.
Indian culture dates back to over 6,000 years. Anything that is proven by time thus, definitely has intrinsic values that are appreciated and cherished by Indians. Moreover, it has sustained since it has been able to take many things foreign and make them its own. External winds are blowing and will blow – they’ll bring in some things of value and probably blow away some of lesser value. But Indian Culture can surely take care of itself.