Cultural Aspects in India
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If the 20th century was generally recognized to be the American century, then the 21st might very well be regarded as the Indian century. After all, following China, India has the largest population in the world. Like China, it too has a large and fast-developing economy, and it is steadily converting these economic gains into growing political power abroad. Unlike China, however, India is governed by a vibrant, participatory democracy, which, while chaotic, reflects the political values of human rights and pluralism so cherished in the West. Indeed, as countries which have long guided the West in leading the world begin to lose ground to counterparts in the developing world, India is one of the few major future powers in a position to pick up the West's mantle of human progress and freedom.
Though like the West in its commitment to democracy, India brings with a unique set of circumstances, informed by a history and culture, which stretch back for thousands of years. The common theme of Indian history has been heterogeneity. The abundant diversity found in India today was present almost from the beginning. The country's oldest historical document, the Rig Veda, which is also a religious one, recounts a massive migration of one conceived ‘ancestor' group and its intermingling with a loosely described native culture (Keay, 19-56). Scholars have found evidence of civilizations on the Indian subcontinent stretching back to times concurrent with the first city-states of Mesopotamia, Indian history (Keay, 1-18). Between the time of the Harrapan City States of around 3,000 B.C. all the way to India's current prime minister Manmohan Singh, India has absorbed wave after wave of new peoples, new beliefs, and new ideas and added this to an already heady mix with every passing century. As a result, India's startling diversity and variety were multiplied in countless directions.
Nowadays there are over 400 languages spoken in India with over 14 official languages recognized according to the CIA World Factbook. Its population, which had stayed predominately rural until recent years, is becoming more urbanized, and two of the world's five most populous cities are located there. The Indian parliamentary democracy is multi-party, regional, and highly factionalized, reflecting the drastic differences that exist between districts even within the same province.
With all this diversity, it is tempting to impute irreconcilable contradictions between the types of people, institutions, and beliefs found in India. One might ask: how can one form a coherent statement about the existence of an overarching Indian culture? The answer to this has been as much a problem for government leaders as it has been for scholars, but it is one this paper will endeavor to supply in the following ways:
- We will discuss the major components of Indian culture (people, frames of references / communication, and group interactions) to illustrate the staggering variety of Indian cultural practices.
- We will focus on the notion of the Indian family and its characteristics, and attempt to make the case that the family as an institution provides a unifying theme for Indian culture, and a vehicle, which simultaneously relieves and reinforces the tectonic tensions brought on by societal diversity.
- We will discuss the findings of our interviews and outside readings to form a “big picture” analysis of Indian culture.
II. Culture Components
Gannon and Pillai supply readers with two metaphors through which to conceive of the sheer magnitude of diversity found in Indian cultural practices: the Dance of Shiva and a Kaleidoscope. In either case, there is a dynamic tension between change and stasis, creation and destruction, and the rules of general and specific; both metaphors create a framework for understanding that heterogeneity is the rule of thumb when conceiving of India as a whole. To view Indian culture in all its staggering complexity, it is necessary to begin with the component parts: people, frames of references / communication and group interactions.
A. The Indian People
For Westerners seeking to understand the staggering diversity found on the Indian Subcontinent, there is a helpful quote from a Hindu religious prayer, which can assist: “May good thoughts come to us from all sides” (“Religions”). Its simplicity reveals an acceptance of variety, heterodoxy and the unconventional; it turns on its head the notion of diversity being a challenge, and refashions it as an asset. To effectively argue that there is a general, overarching Indian culture, it is important to first acknowledge as true that such a culture is also served by many distinct parts, which have guided that nation's historic, political, social and economic development. When considering the citizens of India, it is similarly important to perceive the numerous and stark divisions with regards to ethnic / linguistic groupings, social and economic levels, as well as religious and philosophical make-up.
i. Demographics; Social and Economic Levels
India is the second most populous nation in the world, having an estimated population of 1.17 billion (CIA World Factbook, “India”). Though the World Factbook only subdivides India's immense population into four ethnic categories: Indo-Aryan (72%), Dravidian (25%), Mongoloid and other (3%), the plethora of languages spoken in India - 400 at last count, plus 2,000 dialects - speak to a diversity almost beyond the average Westerner's comprehension.
India is also a very young nation, with the mean age being 25.3, and with nearly 95% of the population under the age of 64 (CIA World Factbook, “India”). India's population is also increasing at a brisk, if not explosive rate; it ranks 84th in the world in terms of highest growth rates-- higher than the United States (CIA World Factbook, “India”). Literacy is at 61%, and only 29% of the population is urban—a number which has been increasing at the slow creep of 2.4% over the last five years (CIA World Factbook, “India”).
When adopting a big-picture perspective, noticeable differences appear between men and women: males tend to be younger, more literate and more educated (CIA World Factbook, “India”). Males also tend to be more plentiful earlier in life, with a higher birth rate of 1.12 males to every female, but their life expectancy is lower by almost five years (CIA World Factbook, “India”). One of Hinduism's most potent legacies, insofar as demographic effect is concerned, is India's hierarchical caste system (Lonner; Zhang, 11 and 14). Although the caste system evolved from Hinduism for over 1000 years, some groups of other faiths such as Christians and Muslims adhere to this ancient social structure (“Religions”).
India's society reveals large gaps between the lifestyles of upper and lower class Indians; the bottom 10% hold only 3.6% of the nation's wealth, where the top 10% have accumulated 31.1% (CIA World Factbook, “India”). By purchasing power parity, India is the 5th largest economy in the world, yet, it remains one of the poorest, with an estimated 53% of the population subsisting on less than one dollar a day in income (CIA World Factbook, “India”; Gannon and Pillai 469).
Compounding economic difficulties are social, geographic and political realities, which prevent equal development for all. In a submission to the periodical Cultural Anthropology, writer Kaushik Ghosh describes the conflicting strains of “indigenousness, locality and transnationalism,” which combine to blunt social and economic development efforts being made in India. The reality for India is that, given its immense, far-flung borders (greater than the continent of Europe, according to WorldBusinessCulture.com), extreme geographic features, and the extreme multiplicity of the ethnic, linguistic, and religious groups, it is not possible for any change to be applied uniformly and in a way that affects all people equally. Ghosh depicts the isolated tribes of Jharkhand, India, who, in their efforts to lobby their local government and national representatives, become effectively nullified when they are lumped in with other, separate interest groups that are labeled “indigenous.” Another writer, Navtej Dhillon, shares that “the majority of India's 150 million muslimsMuslims suffer relative deprivation when to education and access to public employment.”
For a time, the Indian government had utilized socialist economic policies, and today the state is still a large player in economic development. The role taken by government can be paternalistic, and elected officials try to reward their voters and supporters with jobs and economic opportunities. Combine this economic reality with the fact that India's multiparty, parliamentary government is characterized by heavy regionalism and identity politics, and you get the following: certain groups are sometimes purposefully excluded from lucrative government business opportunities (Bellman, “Politics & Economics: Reversal of Fortune Isolates India's Brahmins”). In an article published in the Wall Street Journal, journalist Eric Bellman describes a government policy in the State of Tamil Nadu, which allocates 69% of government jobs and public college slots for lower castes. Though this policy actually has its genesis in the Indian Constitution, which itself was formulated to correct concentrations of wealth and privilege in the higher castes, the article documents a new dimension to the state policy, which is considerably less altruistic and more partisan.
Yet for all that academics, journalists and political leaders have described the staggering dimensions of social and economic inequality, it is apparent that within India itself, there is consensus insofar as a solution is concerned: education. Gannon and Pillai describe the perceived success of India's educational sector, which, as mentioned above, has produced an enormous pool of highly-educated and specialized workers (Gannon and Pillai 504). India's success in these areas also masks startling inequalities, namely the low literacy rates and a general lack of access to education for many people (505). Competition to rise above one's peers is inordinately tough given the limited number of slots open at public and private universities, and in secondary school, a performance test is given to determine which field of study for which a student is eligible (Cheney, Ruzzi and Muralidharan, 8). Despite the systemic challenges like a drastic lack of funding, deficient facilities, and teacher absenteeism, the value placed on education and knowledge is so present in Indian culture as to make “millions of students achieve at remarkably high levels.” It is this valuing of educational attainment, which has established India as a preeminent figure in high technology fields, and paved the way for long-term economic development.
Despite the endemic poverty, economic development in India has given rise to a sizeable and growing middle class, which contains in its membership the “largest number of college-educated scientists and computer specialists in the world.” (Gannon and Pillai, 469). India is now looking inwards to, in the words of Indian President, Manmohan Singh, “a vast unfinished agenda of social and economic development,” to correct abuses and disparities which occur due to culture, history, politics or environment.
ii. Religion and Philosophy
Every aspect of Indian culture has been impacted by religion. Prominent Hindu and philosopher Swami Vivekananda stated, “Each nation has a theme in life. In India religious life forms the central theme, the keynote of the whole music of the nation” (Gannon 470). Martin Gannon wrote, “For 2000 years of its history, India was almost completely Hindu, but for the last millennium or more, Indian culture has been a synthesis of different racial, religious, and linguistic influences” (470). Tolerance has also sustained religious pluralism of Muslims, Christians, Sikhs, Buddhists, Jains, Secularists, and other persuasions (Census of India).
Despite having an 80.5% Hindu population, Indian culture is not only a Hindu culture (Census of India). The other major indigenous religions in India are Jainism (0.4%), Buddhism (0.8 %), and Sikhism (1.9%), and the major imported religions are Christianity (2.3 %) and Islam (13.4%) (“Religions”). Other smaller religions comprise 0.6% of the population, and are namely, Zoroastrianism or Parsi, Baha'i Faith, Jews, and tribal persons who practice the most ancient religion of animism (“Religions”). 0.1% of India's population did not state a religion (Census of India).
Hinduism is tied with the ancient Vedic tradition estimated to have formed around 1500 B.C. and had continued to be the sole religion of India up until a thousand years ago or more (Gannon, 470; Heitzman). Indian philosophy, with its thematic undercurrents of cycles, owes much to Hinduism and later dharma traditions (Gannon, 471). The dharma and ancient monastic tradition of Jainism, owes much of its religious precepts to Hinduism (Census of India; “Religions”). Experts speculate the formation of Jainism began in the 9th century B.C. by Parshvanatha whose teachings required a path of non-violence for all living beings and other practices to guide the soul to divine consciousness (“Religions”). Similarly, Buddhism was inspired by the life and beliefs of Siddhartha Gautama, or Buddha, between the 6th and 4th centuries B.C. (Census of India; “Religions”). Buddhism is a dharma religion consisting of varied philosophies, beliefs, and traditions that have spread to the East. Buddhists in India near the Chinese border mainly follow Tibetan Buddhism or Vajrayana, which means from Sanskrit “Vehicle of the Thunderbolt”; and those located near the Myanmar border practice Theravada, translated from Pali “Way of the Elders” (“Religions”). Sikhism was established by Guru Nanak in the sixteenth century, who attempted to reform specific Hindu tenants like eliminating the caste system, race, and gender inequities (Census of India; “Religions”).
Islam arrived in India during the early eighth century; largely from the Sunni sect (Census of India; Heitzman; “Religions”). The division of the British Empire at India's independence forced many Muslims to migrate to Pakistan and Hindus to India, but Islam still remains the largest minority religion today (Census of India; “Religions”). India's Christian inhabitants are majority Roman Catholic, but consist of several other denominations, including both independent and consolidated Protestant churches of Church of North India and South India (Heitzman; “Religions”). India's small community of Parsis comprises the last practitioners of Zoroastrianism, which was brought by Iranian immigrants one thousand years ago. There are small communities of Judaism, Baha'i Faith, and tribal animists (“Religions”).
After India's independence in 1947, the establishment of a secular government further facilitated mutual respect of all religious practices in public society through legislation advocating neutrality in all things rooted in an individual or group's faith (Sen, 19). Notwithstanding its constitutional obligation, religion and government do still intermix, shown in the management of Hindu temples by the Tamil Nadu state government or the Sikh political party exerting full authority over the state assembly in Punjab (Heitzman). Furthermore, India's long tradition of religious tolerance began to be challenged by fundamental ideologues starting from the 1960's. From the 1990's to the present, riots and religious-based political parties continue to impact public life and its relatively neutral governmental body (Heitzman).
1. Hindu Religion & Philosophy
The general premise of Hindu philosophy is that truth is organic, pluralistic, and sometimes inconsistent, and should be arrived by multiple sources, rather than dogmatic principles (“Religions”). In other words, context matters most in India, a culture that Edward Hall refers to as high-context (Hall, 101). Hinduism is an ancient polytheistic faith originating from Vedism, or simply Brahmanism, brought by invading Aryans in 1500 B.C and thus is subsequently deemed to be the oldest “living” religion (“Religions”).
Hinduism's major groups are Vaishnavism and Shaivism, though membership in these groups is loose, dynamic, and vague (“Religions”). The leading sects are the Vaishnavas, who worship Vishnu god or a related avatar such as Rama and Krishna, Shaivas which worships the god Shiva, and Shaktis, a cult that worships the manifestations of Shakti, the mother goddess and companion of Shiva. Other smaller sects advocate religious reform and revival, charity to the poor, or follow the teachings of a charismatic leader (“Religions”).
There is said to be “five tensile strands” in Hinduism: doctrine, practice, society, story, and devotion (“Religions”). All Hindus follow these strands to varying degrees and accept their distinct tensions and contradictions, favoring religious enthusiasm over “fundamental rigidities of practice or doctrine” (“Religions”). To achieve absolute happiness one must live beyond worldly possessions through spiritual enlightenment—a journey in search of salvation or mukti in which leads to an ethereal transcendence called moksha (Gannon, 475). Hindu philosophy guides each person on a distinct path to this exultation from worldly suffering along four fundamental avenues that often are intertwined: intense devotion or love of God (bhakti yoga), selfless work or service (karma yoga), philosophy or knowledge of self (jnana yoga), and meditation or psychological exercise (raja yoga) (Gannon, 475). The difficulty of achieving moksha in one's lifetime is accommodated by the concept of reincarnation in which souls or jivas enter the world through God's power mysteriously and ascend from the simplest life forms to the most complicated bodies or human form where the search for mukti begins (Gannon, 475). The degree of these three fundamental qualities is determined by the equilibrium of rights and wrongs done in past lives, called karma and is predicted by astrological charts at birth (Gannon, 476).
Hinduism also gave rise to the caste system. A caste or jati (translated as “birth”) is a social organization into which someone is born. It is also a system purported to provide social support and established economic and social roles, making it the most influential contribution to India's collective culture (“Religions”; Zhang, 11-13). There are over 2000 distinct jatis in Indian society today (“Religions”). Each member marries within the same jati and follows specific rules of behavior such as kinship, profession, and diet, and interacts with other jatis according to their social position (“Religions”). Each jati is associated with five caste clusters or varnas in descending order: Brahmans which are priests, Kshatriyas as warriors, Vaishyas which were originally peasants but now associated with merchants, Sudras as artisans and laborers, and Panchamas which historically had been excluded from the system because of their occupation and ways in life (“Religions”). The fifth varna reveals the mechanism for determining the level of the caste: purity. The rate at which a group comes into contact with pollutants such as dung, menstrual flow, leather, dirt, hair, saliva, and blood, determines its ranking within the social caste system (“Religions”). Panchamas are avoided for fear of contamination, hence the name “Untouchables,” but the Constituent Assembly of India adopted legislation after India's independence outlawing the reference (“Religions”). More recently, the phrase “Dalit”, which means “Oppressed”, has been utilized in contemporary India, but is officially called “Scheduled Castes” (“Religions”). One sixth of the population belonging to this caste are typically landless, have agricultural professions, and other ritually contaminating occupations such as leatherwork which is the largest Scheduled Caste (“Religions”).
Author Richard Lannoy demarcates mutually exclusive Western conceptions of “right and wrong” or “good and evil” from India's philosophy which stresses finding the middle way (227). Furthermore, the cyclical nature of Hindu thought lends to an “open-ended sense of perfectibility, less anguish in the face of time, a less fanatical will to achieve everything in a single lifetime” and manifests in India's holistic, non-linear, and inductive styles of reasoning and dialogue, harmonious existence with its environment, fluid sense of time, and high Long-Term orientation (Hall, 17; Lonner; Zhang, 20).
2. Holidays, Traditions & Celebrations
Both religious holidays and secular celebrations are observed broadly in India, often time with the same holy day being celebrated in unique ways by the varying religious and secular communities. For example, in Hinduism the festival of Diwali plays a significant role, but is interpreted differently by other related religions, such as BuddismBuddhism, Sikhs, and Jains. In its most generic form, Diwali is the festival of lights. Easter, Christmas, Islamic New Year and many others are also broadly celebrated by the Indian populace.
In addition to holidays, the religions of India tend to be very ritualistic traditions as well. One such ritual is the lighting of the lamp before the altar of Lord Brahma while saying a prayer. This lighting represents darkness, knowledge, and ignorance. It is common in many Indian homes to have an altar or a prayer room. This symbolizes the Lord Brahma as the master of creation, and thus reorients the lives of people who occupy the surrounding space towards him and themselves. Hindu women often wear the pottu or tilak, which “invokes a feeling of sanctity the wearer and others”. The different colors and forms depend on the caste and religious subdivision. Taken as a whole, all these act of devotions - large and small - present a pattern as to the approach a great many Indians take toward religion and spirituality: integration. Indians of all religions are also known to regularly make pilgrimages to visit certain holy or nationally evocative sites. This attribute attests to the powerful force of religion in an Indian's daily life.
B. Frames of Reference / Communication
In the latter half of the 20th Century, pioneering anthropologist and culture-expert, Edward Hall conceived of what he called “the silent language” of culture. By extending the notion of culture from the more well-known and studied “front-stage” elements, and exploring the rich “back-stage” of culture, Hall demonstrated how beliefs, schemas, associated meanings and symbolism could affect intercultural communication as assiduously as spoken language might. The second subdivision of the component parts of Indian culture consider the communication patterns and frames of reference utilized by society as a whole, beginning with an exploration of the expressions and general attitudes found in contemporary Indian society, continuing with a discussion of role relationships, and ending with gestures and non-verbal communication.
i. Expressions and General attitudes
Like few other cultures, the belief systems found in India tend to be exhaustive and encompass a variety of values and philosophical perspectives on a wide variety of issues, such as nature (environment), human nature, privacy, individuality, wealth / material possessions, social positions, government, politics, childhood and child-rearing, time, crime, violence and others.
A prominent feature of Indian society, even in non-Hindu cultures, is fatalism, which is an ultimate acceptance of the hand of fate insofar as guiding one's affairs are concerned (www.communicaid.com). Fatalism is tied to the Hindu notion of Karma, that “everything happens for a reason” and breeds and encourages passivity, and a surprisingly low uncertainty avoidance score for a country with such traditionalistic cultures (www.communicaid.com).
Indian society is high context and collectivist; thus a prevalent concern in all interactions is the maintenance of social relationship and the preservation of social face. As such, activities which would provoke harsh judgment from one's peers isare frowned on.
Many experts have noted that successful communication in India depends on precise knowledge of the status of the individual with whom one is speaking, and the relative standing between each party. Edward Hall diagnosed India as having a high-context culture, which is characterized by indirect, face-saving and listener-centric communication styles (Hall, p. 101). In India, communication is informed by role relationships, which, reflecting the society at large, are varied and complex.
ii. Role relationships
Role relationships in Indian society are in some instances outgrowths of the traditional caste system, as well as religious beliefs. The Indian caste system has been and continues to be influential in everyday life of the people. The main purpose of the caste system is to bring a sense of order in the society. The caste system enables people to have their own place in society and keeps away from any conflict.
Outside of the traditional, economic and religious strictures of the Caste system, India as a society is marked by high power distance and tends to embrace clearly articulated lines of authority and respect. Indians base this respect on the behavior, title, class, and status of the person with whom he or she is interacting.
The status of an Indian is determined in part by his or her possession of a university degree, his or her profession, age, and caste. In terms of professions, given the deference provided to authority figures, it is considered more impressive to work for the government than the private sector. Gender-based differences also exist, despite laws to the contrary. The head of the family is almost universally the eldest male. Male chauvinism is well-established, and women do not have the same privileges as do males.
iii. Gestures and Non-verbal Communication
As a high context culture, Indian communicators tend to rely heavily on indirect verbal and non-verbal cues to reinforce their message. In addition, Indians rely on a variety of contextual cues for comprehending meaning. For example, the word “No” or any kind of direct refusal is absent from most Indian discourse because it implicates an aggressive, harsh, impolite, and arrogant tone. Instead “vague and open-ended answer such as ‘I'll try' or ‘I will confirm with you another time'” are considered acceptable answers (“India: Prosperous Entertaining - Part I”). Subsequently, a “Yes” does not always imply agreement or acceptance. Extrapolated further, some of these cues have taken on a life of their own, which is separate and considered standard when interacting with others. For instance, in order to show respect, greetings are offered with what is termed the ‘namaste' or the placing of both hands together - as if praying - coupled with a slight bow. Use of the right hand when touching people or objects is recommended; due to the cultural association, the left hand is viewed as being unclean.
Head bobbles, head wobbles, and Indian head shakes refer are a common gesture found in South Asian cultures, most notably in India. The head shake is the non-verbal equivalent of a multipurpose and omnipresent Hindi word, accha, which can mean anything from “good” to “I understand.” Shaking a head sideways is taken as non approval of certain things, whereas shaking a head up and down is taken as approval, though the meaning is reversed if you are aan Indian from the South. Similarly, a side to side hand wave is frequently interpreted by Indians as “no” or “go away.”
Eye contact with an elder or person in a senior position is considered very rude. Avoiding eye contact with the seniors is considered as a sign of respect. Another non-verbal taboo is to touch a person's head because it ; The head is considered sensitive and so shouldn't be touched. Likewise, one should never point with a single finger or two fingers, instead, point with the chin, whole hand or thumb.
Prostrating before God and elders and touching their feet is the humblest way of conveying respect in Indian culture. Known as Sashtang Namaskar it is bowing with four limbs of the body touching the ground. Touching feet of the elders is showing respect. Staring is also acceptable, as staring at strangers is a Western cultural taboo that does not carry the same weight in India. Many people feel quite free to stare at anything, or anyone, that is different from them and as part of their culture. Interpreting this as rudeness is unproductive.
C. Group Interactions
The third component of culture is group interactions, which are limited here to general social interactions amongst friends, peers and professional settings. Generally summarized, interactions can be sub-categorized into greetings, visits, and meetings.
Renowned expert organizational behavior and psychology, Dr. Madhukar Shukla, describes Indians as outgoing and friendly, an attitude that is bolstered by a sense of privacy, which is less guarded than in the West (Shukla, “India: ConversatonConversation - Part 1). One should not, therefore, be surprised by the ease with which conversation is started, nor with which it covers ostensibly private subject matters.
There are several different naming forms in India, which vary from region to region (Kwintessential.com, “Global-Etiquette: India-country profile”). In the north of India, it is common to see a given name, followed by a surname or family name, whereas in the south, names commonly begin with a reference to the town or region the person is from, followed by the father's name, and then lastly their given name. Similarly, in Muslim culture, surnames are not common, instead, have a derivative of their father's name tacked on after the given name by ‘bin' if the person is a male, and ‘binti' if they are a female, which in both cases means ‘of'; the name ‘Hajji' might also have been added if this person had made the pilgrimage to Mecca. Sikhs,Sikhs also have a unique naming system, which is the given name followed by the name ‘Singh' (Kwintessential.com, “Global-Etiquette: India-country profile”). In all cases, however, it is recommended that when addressing someone, one should give the correct name, prefaced by 'Mr.” or “Mrs.”, or by his or her professional title: doctor, director, chairman/woman, and so on (Shukla, “India: First Name or Title?”). Furthermore, the same source points out that despite the variety, in many parts of India, people will conform to the Hindu style of naming, which is the most widely used.
Upon entering the room, greetings should be offered first to the oldest or most senior person present; in many cases, the oldest person will be the most senior-ranked. Offering a “Namaste,” a handshake or even a pleasant “hello” is acceptable, though there are important caveats to note. Depending on the religion of the person with whom one meets - if he or she is a muslimMuslim - a “Salaam Wale Kum” might be more appropriate (Shukla, “India: First Name or Title?”). Handshakes are acceptable for men; however touch is a sensitive area for many Indians, so a handshake might not be as acceptable for women (Shukla, “India: First Name or Title?”). Experts suggest respecting the physical space of Indian counterparts, and any physical interactions should be at their initiative. The recommendation of the “hello” and slight wave,wave should only be acted upon if the audience is younger, as it is reasonable to assume they would be familiar with this aspect of western culture. (Shukla, “India: First Name or Title?”)
“Hospitality is a key value in Indian culture, and the guest is considered the equivalent to god” (Shukla, “India: Prosperous Entertaining - Part I”). Foreigners and Indians alike can attest to the geniality one encounters from invitations by those they just met to “drop on by” at any time. The Indian host will go above and beyond to make a guest feel welcome, so much so that they will ignore any violation of etiquette (“Indian Etiquette”). This extraordinarily amiable nature is the foundation for social visits, and supports the age-old nuances of Indian culture passed through the generations.
If an invitation is accepted, it is polite to call in advance before arriving at someone's home, but more often than not, Indians will casually “drop in” without notice (Shukla, “India: Prosperous Entertaining - Part I”). In fact, Indians will frequently bring additional guests not explicitly invited by the host, sending a positive indication of a close informal relationship (“Indian Etiquette”). Furthermore, Indians' sense of punctuality contrasts Western perceptions in that it is considered rude to be on time at social gatherings. Good manners require arriving fifteen or thirty minutes late if invited over to someone's home (“Indian Etiquette”). In general, Indians do appreciate promptness and upholding commitments, but because of their polychronic sense of space and time, they “stress involvement of people and completion of transactions rather than adherence to preset schedules” (Hall, 17). Thus, Indians are more flexible and loose with appointments than their Western counterparts.
Upon arriving, unless a person is a close family member, friend or superior, people should address others by last name, professional title, a courtesy title such as “Ma'am” or “Sir”, or suffix the name with “ji” for strangers that are not old (“Indian Etiquette”; Shukla, “India: First Name or Title?”). Out of respect for hierarchical roles, guests will attempt to first greet the host with the highest role status, and vice versa, if possible at a social gathering.
For any proper depiction of a social gathering, the dynamics of Indian conversation must be addressed because as Shukla points out, “Conversation in India is as much an exchange of views as it is a mode of building and strengthening relationships” (Shukla, “India: Prosperous Entertaining - Part I”). A South African artist and expat living in India, Andrew Verster, recounts the nature of the Indian dialogue as similar to his paintings: “Layered and intertwined.”
A hypothetical example illustrating the significance of hierarchical structure and role relationships is offered in a satirical piece, “How to Start a Conversation with an Urban Indian” by a Mumbai native writer, designer, illustrator, and photographer Samir Bharadwaj. Bharadwaj provides a “step-by-step formula...to become an instant hit at any Indian party” for both the foreigner and local to abide by. One must “name-drop” any individual, preferably common friends, acquaintances or colleagues, who has “made it big in the world” with “money, power and riches” as suitable indicators for success, then respond with “the magic words” to a question about the person chosen: “He/She is very well” (Bharadwaj). One must “present proof” why the person is doing well like having a “good job, obscene salary, royal benefits, [etcetera].”
Other popular subjects that one might encounter or suggest at social visits are sports, especially cricket, movies, politics, travel, economic reforms, and most importantly, heritage (Shukla, “India: Conversation - Part 2”; Schaffhauser).
The art of questioning in general, is much more informal and open during conversations which can be misconstrued as intrusive by the outsider (Shukla, “India: Prosperous Entertaining - Part I”). Cultural experts identify degrees of self-disclosure into information that is available to everyone as “public-self” and information that is not readily accessible as “private-self” (“What are the Major Differences in Intercultural Verbal Styles?”, 187). Being a collectivist society armed with a large “public-self,” privacy is virtually non-existent in India (Shukla, “India: Prosperous Entertaining - Part I”). Consequently, it is not uncommon to be met with innocent inquisitiveness from even strangers (Shukla, “India: Prosperous Entertaining - Part I”).
The overall system of Indian discourse unfolds into a common pattern of repetition, rephrases, philosophies, and loquaciousness. Author Amarthya Sen remarks, “Prolixity is not alien to us in India. We are able to talk at some length” (3). A model case of India's zeal for verbosity is illustrated at the United Nations where Krishna Menon spoke for a full continuous nine hours-- the longest speech ever to be presented there (Sen, 3). Reasoning, debate, negotiation, and persuasion are non-linear or spiral, indirect, and inductive (“What are the Major Differences in Intercultural Verbal Styles”, 188-189). Indians need to understand or explain the full context of any topic through vociferous metaphors, hints, and non-verbal nuances as high-context communicators (“What are the Major Differences in Intercultural Verbal Styles”, 188-189).
Nevertheless, a few subjects are generally not discussed for the sake of politeness, to save the face of the group, or sheer desire to deter from an awkward or aggressive confrontation. Topics to avoid during small-talk are obviously dependent on the nature of the relationship, but the general areas that should be avoided are religion the historical feud between Pakistan and India, (at the dinner table) specific business or work-related conversations, sex-related issues, public displays of affection and finally the absence of a middle class and large rich-poor divide.
Gifts in India are “typically small” with the sole purpose to express friendship and warmth (“India Etiquette: Etiquette, Protocol, and Manners for Travel to India”, “Giving Gifts in India”; Shukla, “India: Gift Giving”). As a general rule, inexpensive gifts are given at social gatherings, while extremely expensive gifts are reserved for close family members and friends in certain occasions such as a wedding (Shukla, “India: Gift Giving”). Colors have different connotations in various regions, so appropriate choices of wrapping paper, flowers and other gift related items should be researched beforehand. Specific types of flowers have different regional meanings as well. If invited to the home for dinner, sweets or flowers should be brought and if the host has children, a toy or book is welcomed. At festivals, it is traditional to bring sweets (Shukla, “India: Gift Giving”). Monetary gifts are typically given to friends and family members at life events such as birth, marriage, and death, in denominations of 11, 51, 101, 501, and so forth because they are considered lucky numbers (Shukla, “India: Gift Giving”). Jewelry should not be given to a woman by a man because it is considered an intimate gift, but it is appropriate if given by a woman; however, gold jewelry is reserved only for family and relatives (Shukla, “India: Gift Giving”).
Religion has also had an enormous impact on Indian etiquette, especially regarding customs and protocol while eating. When a host plans a dinner party, it is important for them to be sensitive to their guests' dietary needs. For example, Hindus firmly believe one's own diet facilitates a proper lifestyle seen through such practices as offering food to God before eating, avoiding beef or meats altogether due to religious respect for animals, and may fast once a week which confines themselves to fruits only (“Indian Etiquette”; Shukla, “India: Prosperous Entertaining Part 1”). Muslims do not eat pork and only halal meats which must be ritually slaughtered (Shukla, “India: Prosperous Entertaining Part 1”). Jains normally consume cereals or lentils and avoid honey, meat, and most vegetables (Shukla, “India: Prosperous Entertaining Part 1”). Many Indian communities, Muslims, and Sikhs are forbidden to drink, but in urban areas this rule is not strictly practiced (Shukla, “India: Prosperous Entertaining Part 2”). Even still, those who normally do drink alcohol will abstain on religious holidays or festivals.
Before sitting down, it is always best to allow the host to direct seating arrangements. It is also customary to serve food in a particular order: honored guest, men, and then children. Frequently, female hosts remain in the kitchen because they believe their contribution is to make guests feel comfortable and welcomed through cooking (Shukla, “India: Prosperous Entertaining Part 3”). Compliments and appreciation of these culinary endeavors are customary practice to praise the female host, but saying “thank you” at the end of the meal is deemed too impersonal (Shukla, “India: Prosperous Entertaining Part 3”). Instead, guests will offer the host a dinner of their own to demonstrate their gratitude and friendship (Shukla, “India: Prosperous Entertaining Part 3”).
When eating or preparing food, cleanliness is of utmost importance to all Indians, so a few general rules will be addressed. Upon arrival, it is especially important to take off one's shoes before entering the home because the feet are considered unclean (“Indian Etiquette”). Washing hands before and after dinner is paramount (“Indian Etiquette”). With the exception of dining at Westernized restaurants, most Indians eat, serve, and pass plates around with their right hand because the left is considered unclean (“Indian Etiquette”). There are regional differences of hand-eating etiquette as well. For instance, in the north it is unsuitable to dirty more than two segments of your fingers, which is not hard to accomplish because dishes chiefly encompass dry curries and rotis (“Indian Etiquette”). The whole hand is required to eat the wet curries and rice dishes of the south (“Indian Etiquette”). Breads such as naan, roti, poori, or chappati can also be used to scoop food, and spoons for eating soup. Since individuals eat with their hands, it is good practice to wait to be served in order to circumvent dirtying the serving utensil. Sharing food between one another is customary, especially on long journeys, but individuals do not eat off of the same plate or thali, use the same utensil or glass, and do not bite off the same food item such as a sandwich, ice cream, or sweet. Any situation where someone comes into contact with another's saliva is considered contaminated or dirty—a concept called “jootha” (“Indian Etiquette”).
Indians extend formality and relationship-building to the work environment as well. Similar to general meetings and visits, knowing the hierarchy is a must, as Indian businesses are managed with clearly delineated lines of authority (“Indian Business Structures”). Meetings in India will not be run with the same respect for time; “flexibility is paramount” advises one online professional resource (“Doing Business in India”). The same resource goes onto mention that the type of conversation described in the previous two sections will be offered as a warm-up to negotiations. Another resource indicates that the meeting will not be sacrosanct; people working for an Indian counterpart may come in and out of the room, and conversations will take multiple tracks (www.WorldBusinessCulture.com). Ultimately, one is advised to not take any answer received on face value; Indian culture frowns on rudeness, so the word ‘no' might not initially be uttered, even if it is ultimately intended. Likewise, Indian business culture does not employ a decision-making process, which only takes into account “hard facts,” rather, thoughts and feelings are taken into account too (www.WorldBusinessculture.com).
III. Focusing on the Family
Even faced with the complexity and seemingly endless iterations of customs, practices, and beliefs found under the umbrella of Indian culture, there are certain perceptible themes, which can be identified: a deeply religious people, those who also self-organize based on religious and cultural practices; high context communicators, who depend on social hierarchies to inform conversational approach; universal respect for the concept of a guest. The most universal overlap, though, comes in the structure and the individual's relationship to the Indian family. While each family might not have identical practices, or roles, the commonality comes from the singular importance the family has in Indian life, and the way it functions as a pocket outpost of culture for millions upon millions of Indians.
A. Family Structures
Even though India is a country made up of numerous religions and communities of people, the basic values and realities of family life remain broadly similar. India, like most other less industrialized and traditional societies, is a collectivist society that emphasizes family integrity and unity (“India - Family Life and Family ValuesIndia-Family Life and Family Values”). Collectivist cultures are those in which people, from birth onwards, are integrated into strong, cohesive in-groups, often extended families (with uncles, aunts and grandparents) that continue protecting them in exchange for unquestioning loyalty (Geert Hofstede). In India, this model is universally known as the “Joint Family.” Collectivism also reflects a greater readiness to cooperate with family members and extended kin on decisions affecting most aspects of life, including career choice, mate selection, and marriage, which is very common in Indian families (“India - Family Life and Family ValuesIndia-Family Life and Family Values”).
The Indian family is considered strong, stable, close, resilient, and enduring (“India - Family Life and Family Values”Mullatti 1995; Shangle 1995). A joint family normally includes three to four living generations, including uncles, aunts, nieces, nephews, and grandparents living in the same house all together. They share the happiness and sorrows of life. The family supports the old; takes care of widows, and the disabled; assists during periods of unemployment; and provides security and a sense of support and togetherness (“India - Family Life and Family Values”Chekki 1996; Sethi 1989). The joint family has historically been the typical family type in the Indian culture, and most Indians at some point in their lives have participated in joint family living (Nandan and Eames 1980”India - Family Life and Family Values”). Religion has played a crucial role in providing the “glue” which is needed for people to stay in such an arrangement (Vamsis's Tabloid 2008“Deteriorating Family Values in India Families - A Cause for Concern”).
Because of this family structure, children grow up with a strong sense of security and stability. Children in Indian culture are not seen to be independent. The family is expected to provide an environment to maximize the development of its children's personalities and positively influence the child's attitudes and behaviors within the context of the Hindu beliefs and philosophy (“India - Family Life and Family ValuesIndia-Family Life and Family Values”). The family also plays a central role in shaping an individual's future. Children consult their parents before accepting a job offer or traveling abroad. At the core of Indian culture lies an innate respect for parents and other elders in the family, and usually no major decision is taken without consulting them (“India - Family Life and Family ValuesIndia-Family Life and Family Values”).
In the Indian culture, there are certain rules and regulations that each and every child is taught. Traditionally, Indians have laid greater emphasis on strong family ties; respecting the elders, joyousness and hospitality, spirituality, respect for one another and collectivism. Individuals are expected to exercise knowledgeable, responsible choice in the interest of the greater good, rather than remain passive, ignorant or self-centered. Indian society has always focused on being responsible for one's family and think of “all” rather than breaking away to pursue your own individual desires.
Elders are the driving force for any family and hence the love and respect for elders comes from within and is not artificial. An individual takes blessings from his elders by touching their feet. Elders pass on the Indian culture to the new generation. A young person is expected to never speak in a lofty or rude tone to those who are older to him; he or she should always give full respect to elders and refer to them politely (“India - Family Life and Family ValuesIndia-Family Life and Family Values”).
In the Indian household, lines of hierarchy and authority are clearly drawn to maintain family harmony and structure (Heitzman, “Family”). All family members are expected to accept the authority of those ranked above them in the hierarchy. The head of the family is always the oldest male, who is charged with making all the decisions and taking up the responsibility of looking out for the other members. In the hierarchy of women, daughters of a family give full respect for the wives of their brothers; the mother of the household is in charge of her daughters and daughters-in-law. Among adults in a joint family, a newly arrived daughter-in-law has the least authority, and she is expected to do what is told to her. Ideally in this system even a mature adult man living in his father's household would acknowledge his father's authority on any matter. Women are strongly socialized to accept a position subservient to males, and subordinate their personal preferences to the needs of the family (Heitzman, “Family”). Analyzing the Indian household with Hofstede's measure of Power Distance, one can see that power is unequally distributed between the family members (Heitzman, “Family”).
For the Indian family, it is very important to have children,children and one or two are usually not enough. The desire to have a male child is greatly stressed and is considered by some to be a man's highest duty: a religious necessity, and a source of emotional and familial gratification (Heitzman, “Family”). Because male children are desired more than female children, they are treated with more respect and given special privileges. Male children are raised to be assertive, less tolerant, independent, self-reliant, demanding, and domineering (Heitzman, “Family”). Females, in contrast, are socialized from an early age to be self-sacrificing, docile, accommodating, nurturing, altruistic, adaptive, tolerant, and religious, and to value family above all (“India - Family Life and Family ValuesIndia-Family Life and Family Values”). Additionally, sons are more preferred because they normally earn money for the family and support their parents during their old age, and a son also guarantees the continuation of the male line. Daughters, on the other hand, are viewed as an expense, because they don't earn money for the family and, in addition, have to be given a dowry when they get married.
Family properties and businesses have traditionally been controlled by males in the family. Customarily, according to traditional schools of Hindu law, women did not inherit land or buildings, and were thus beholden to the male head of family male who controlled these vital resources. In the Muslim tradition, women are entitled to inherit real estate and often did so, but their shares were typically smaller than those of similarly situated males. Under modern law, all Indian women can inherit land (Heitzman, “Family”).
Generosity and sharing are other aspects that Indian culture broadly encourages. The maxim of hospitality in India has crossed generations and is not only learned but truly believed by each individual. Most Indians freely exchange property and food. The respected person is not one with large savings, but rather one who gives generously. Indian culture treats guests with respect and passion and serves them and takes care of them as if they are a part and parcel of the family itself. The Sanskrit saying, “Atithi Devo Bhava,” or “the guest is truly your god,” dictates the respect granted to guests in India. Even if the family does not have much to offer, guests never left hungry and are always looked after by the members of the family and are treated with caring and generosity.
Although the grandfather or great grandfather is the most prominent symbol of the family, the women are the backbone of traditional hospitality. Despite fulfilling her duty as a wife and a mother, a true Indian woman takes pride in herself, her family, and her house and will not let a guest go away unfed or unhappy from her home. An Indian woman shows her talents and her warmth through food and is known for her ability to serve fare to her guests, whether they are invited or uninvited (Heitzman, “Family”).
B. Dating and Marriage Customs
Just as the importance of families transcend all the subgroups of Indian culture, the singular importance of marriage transcends all families, whether Hindu, Sikh, Jain, Muslim, rich, poor, upper or lower caste. Shrewd hoteliers around the world are recognizing the veritable pot of gold that is the Indian wedding market.
The cultural/historical aspects involved in the uniting of two families in India are very much tied to the spiritual and religious affiliations of the perspective bride and groom. The average weddings in India are replete with customs and traditions that vary between households and which were adopted by respective forefathers. Following is a brief summary of the marriage and dating ceremonies found in the Indian state of Maharashtra, excerpted from “India in the 1950s and 1960s; Dating and Marriage in the 1950s and 1960s.” The State's predominantly spoken language is Marathi; therefore, throughout the items which follow, some of the terms used will be given in Marathi.
For the average Marathi couple of that era, dating and marriage relationships were first suggested by a priest or mutual friend of the respective couple. The article does, however, offer a caveat: it reveals that during the 50's and 60's, these more formal ceremonies were in reality culturally-necessary steps in the process leading to marriage; dating was not very common. As a process akin to our concept of dating, the Marathi utilized a ceremony involving the alignment of horoscopes: the Kanda-Pohe, which was arranged so that the male suitor and his parents could visit with the family of the female. From that point on, the ball was in the girl and her family's court. If the match was acceptable, it was relayed through a mediator, and then relayed to the elders. When this had been done, another small ceremony called the “Saksha-Gandh,” was performed, which officially confirmed the match.
After the Saksha-Gandh (today called the Saka-Puda) was performed, dating consisted of routine visits by the groom to the girl's house to get acquainted with the girl's family. FollowingAfter the official dating process would come, the preparation for the wedding ceremony commenceditself.. The followingsubsequent steps were part of the wedding ceremony: first is the recitation of the hymns or “mantras” by the priest. Then a cloth called the ‘Antarpat' was held at eye level in front of he bride and groom; no eye contact was allowed. Then garlands were draped over the couple, followed by the showering of rice or “Askshanta”, then followed by the exchange of garlands. As soon as the exchange takes, this is the moment the couple officially becomes husband and wife.
Of course, the pomp and circumstance involved in these elaborate ceremonies and rituals,rituals are not found exclusively within any one region, sect or creed in India. Generally applicable standards do exist, and these are summarized below.
Dating is generally done in groups, rather than taking place in on a one-to-one basis. Many “date” alternatives are also chaperoned, in keeping with the formality of the courtship process. Public displays of affection, in partly in respect to the privacy due women, are very much disapproved of. Engagement customs are generally enforced by the parents, and the influence of he parents prior, during, and after the marriage continues as the bride leaves her home and leaves to moves in with her husband's family.
The prevalence of the phenomenon of arranged marriages in India, illustrates the importance Indians place on family. A great number of marriages in India are arranged by families, where matches are made after taking into account factors such as the respective individuals' age, height, personal values and tastes, the backgrounds of their families (wealth, social standing), their castes, and the astrological compatibility of the couples' horoscopes. In India, marriage is thought to be for life, and the divorce rate is extremely low.
When arriving at the actual wedding process, appearances matter. The traditional dress for an Indian woman at her wedding ceremony is the Sari. Jewelry is also a necessary item; the bride's hands are usually adorned with bangles made from 18 or 22 karatt. gold - which is not the standard in Western countries. Her hair is also adorned with jewels, some of which coming directly down the middle of the forehead. The bride's hands and feet are then decorated with henna or “mehandi.' Finally, she is given the Henna dot to signal she is now a married woman. Given the staggering expense in procuring some of the aforementioned items, the more elaborate rituals are usually found in weddings of upper income households and royalty.
Paradoxically related to the rather stiff and formal courtship processes illustrated above is the reality that India enjoys much of the same attitudes towards sex that other western nations share. From a historical perspective, India wrote the first literature on sex and became known for a time as sexually very advanced in thought and practice. The seriousness of the dating and marriage protocol seems to reflect not so much an abjuration of sex, but rather submission to the ultimate sacred cow: family, and the desire of individuals to weigh the needs of their family along with their own.
IV. Interviews and Analysis
No description of Indian culture can be understood more accurately than from Indians themselves. A total of five interviews were conducted in order to provide each respondent's personal interpretation of their cultural identity. Questions surrounded the following themes for each interviewee to address: personal history such as place of birth, current location, migration, education, and work, as well as personal attitudes of religion, family and business. It was decided to style questions in a narrative format, rather than a quantitative or empirical one, for two reasons. First, quantitative research-oriented questions are inappropriate for any meaningful data analysis in this context because of the relatively small set of interviews conducted. Second, the team wanted to grant each respondent a chance to elaborate upon their experiences and opine over certain subjects organically in order to gather intimate or humanistic information that a research survey could not reveal. Certainly asking a person to scale their cultural identity by means of a quantitative tool such as the Hofstede Value Orientation mechanism would not meet these goals. Besides, there is an inordinate amount of data recorded by various research organizations on a much larger scale.
The hope was to be able to find common threads of Indian culture discovered in the team's previous research and class readings, as well as unique variations. It is truly surprising that a microscopic peek into five individual's lives would meet our expectations. Though queries were confined to specific subjects of religion, family and work-life, all answers mirrored the balancing act of tradition and modernity contemporary India faces today. According to the interviews, traditional India does include certain items of culture such as patriarchal social structure, arranged marriages, joint families, high-context business models, and religious practices and mores; however, in their views, these seem to be items belonging to the past. The strong emphasis on education appears to be a powerful influence on these changes through increased social mobility, irrespective of gender and caste. For example, thirty six year old Sucheta Chouduri moved to the U.S. alone to complete her PHD in English and thirty eight year old Prasanna Karmarkar migrated to be with his wife who similarly was pursuing a PHD. These cases illustrate the gender role transformation from traditionally defined practices in which women remained at the home. In fact, most all interviewees have migrated to the U.S. to attain a degree or join family members that are going to school. The commitment to education it seems is an inherently Indian value as thirty eight year old Sanjay remarks, “In India, education will always be a priority. Family will always be a priority. Economic well being will be a priority. The role of religion and caste, as well as many strict cultural rules and mores are lessening. Most folks will not know what they are [in terms of precise cultural identity].”
Sanjay's sentiments reflect another common thread amongst the group of interviews: the commitment to family. Family has been a long-standing cultural value in India, and the responses indicate that despite specific structural and behavioral alterations, it continues to be an important aspect today. The “joint family” is one cultural practice in India viewed to be ebbing from contemporary India, although the degree of this change varies in responses due to social class, generational, and regional differences. The older generation is voiced through the interview of eighty four year old Syed Mohamed Akul who also moved to America to be near his family. He describes the joint family tradition whereby all family members, especially grandparents with their sons and their sons' wives and children, live in the same house owned and led by the grandfather. In fact, responses from all interviewees indicated the significant role grandparents have in the upbringing of children as “babysitters”, regardless if they cohabit. Syed believes the joint family remains the most common form at 80% in India today practiced by both Muslims and Hindus. From his perspective many other conservative values such as arranged marriages as “two families' marriage, not individuals”,
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