Saturday, March 12, 2011

Effects of Westernization on Indian Culture and Traditions

A common and genuine fear amongst conservative Indians (specially elders) is that the rampant westernization amongst Indians is leading to the gradual decline and eventual ruins of Indian culture and tradition. Western goods, dresses, foods, festivals, style, language and moreover the western thought is suspected to be 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 the author’s 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:: Celebration of festivals and religious practices, dresses, 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 Valentines Day, New Years Eve, Halloween, Christmas and such festivals that are considered to be alien to India. The fact that 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.

Christmas and New Years Eve are celebrated these days with gusto amongst the Indian middle and upper classes. Though Christmas is an important religious festival for Christians many Hindus celebrate Christmas. Valentines Day is gaining popularity mainly amongst youngsters. There is an allegation that Valentines Day is a media and commerce introduced venture. Whatever be the cause, it has gained popularity.

Most people celebrating Christmas, New years and Valentines, do it as a celebration rather than as a religious festival. Valentines Day is looked upon as a celebration of love and it provides youngsters opportunities to romance the opposite sex. Christmas and New Years are celebrated more for the consumption of cakes and wines rather than for religious reasons. In a manner, many Indians have adopted these as general non-religious festivals. Interestingly, New Years eve celebrations have started acquiring an Indian dimension and it is not always about drinking and dancing.

We must note that the traditional Hindu festivals are also celebrated in pomp and splendor, increasing by the year. In Mumbai, during the 2-3 days of Ganapathi Visarjan, Mumbai’s beaches are full to the brim. The number of people coming and the number of Ganapathis (Huge ones and small ones) is to be seen to get an understanding of the involvement of people. Krishna Janmashtami is celebrated publicly in every other street. Handi breaking competitions in this period have tough competitions and tougher competitors. Heights of the Handis go up to 13 tiers and prizes of some of the mandals go even above 50 Lakh rupees. Sankranti, Ugadi, Deepavali, Dasara, Durga Pooja, Raama Navami are all celebrated nowadays much more than in the previous generation (around 25 years ago).

We find that many festivals are moving more and more into the public domain while retaining the private celebrations too. The Public Ganapathi pandals in Mumbai attract lakhs of devotees (crores of rupees are collected at Lalbaghcha Raja Ganapathi). 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, kumkumārchanas, homās and yāgas seem to be increasing. Temples are overflowing (may be the same with Churches and Mosques). What used to be road side shanty temples acquire full temple status with permanent buildings and committed following. Old temples in several villages are all 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.

Dresses

Western dresses have percolated into the Indian populace quite widely. Some of the Indian traditional dresses such as Dhoti, Turban (for men), Saari, Langa-Blouse-Daavani (for girls) are becoming rare.

The westernization of the Indian dress started much before, during the British rule. The Pants, 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, Saari and such are still commonly used. Western dresses have also been adopted widely, probably from the convenience aspect. The western dresses that are inconvenient to wear such as corsets, large flowing gowns and skirts are quite rare. Here again, traditional Indian dresses don’t seem to be in any danger of being subsumed by westernization.

Foods

The Indian palate has welcomed many western foods (and eastern as well). Pizzas, Burgers, Ice creams, Noodles are all common place 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 Idly. No such thing has happened. If any, the Indian foods, with all their regional traditional identities in tact, have grown stronger. There is enough demand for the Appam as for the Rumali 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, 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.

Arts

Western music and dance are quite popular amongst 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 and light music, Bharata natya, Kathak, 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, also have good markets and are teaching a thing or two to Hollywood.

As in foods and dresses, even in art, the Indian traditional arts don’t seem to have lost out to the western arts

Traditional Sciences

In case of traditional sciences, there is a widespread feeling that Indian medicinal systems like Ayurveda have been ignored and ridiculed and only western allopathic medicine is being encouraged. Some feel that Indian sciences like yogāsana 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 Aurvedic colleges and enough people are graduating from these. All in all, Ayurveda 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 health care related metrics can all be credited to the allopathic medicine. Adaptation of this is inevitable and desirable.

As for yogāsanas, they never went out of practice in India. There is now, much higher appreciation for the benefits of yogāsanas, prānāyāma 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 āsanas than their parents.

Language

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. Lakhs of people attended the recently concluded Kannada sāhitya sammelana in Bangalore. Large number of Kannada books (amounting to Rs 8 Crores) 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 sizeable 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 tongues 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 vernacular television and print media.

All in all, it appears that though English is getting quite common, the other local languages are not really languishing.

Lifestyle

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, 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 amongst 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 Ganapathis, 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 Vyaasa shows his frustration in the final swargArOhaNa sarga as below ::

ūrdhva bāhur viraumyeśa na ca kaścit śrnoti mām
dharmāt arthaśca kāmaśca sa kimartham na sevyate

I raise my arms and shout but no one listens. From dharma come wealth and pleasures. Still why is dharma not practiced?

In any case, evolution will eventually create a balance when lifestyles are unsustainable.

Summary

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 6000 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.

Author: K.B.S. Ramachandra

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18 comments:

  1. Dear Ram,

    The article is really an I opener. Good contents. I feel the real strength of Hinduism is it's flexibility. We (Hindu's) don't make anything as compelled as other religions. We have the freedom. Dharma is the guide which tells you what is good and what is bad. The society/Ruler is the one who should punish/restrict Adharma or going against the guidelines.
    We need to learn the descipline, to follow the guidelines. (Present example of Japanese during the disaster how they behaved shows us the value of following the guidelines, the value of descipline). We talk great about our culture but who will STOP and WAIT at the Traffic light when it's RED and there are No Traffic. We do that when we are out side India. Who will put the debri in the dust bin after searching for one? Yes it's because how we follow the rules.
    These small things when we highlight in the Films/TVs (Mass communication media) it can reach people.
    I would recommand at least in the TV shows/ Films the sensor committee should watch and CUT the scenes of smoking/drinking in public, throwing debris etc.. We need to practice at homes which our children will follow. Practicing of Dharma needs that discipline in our mind.
    Hinduism is alive because of it's adaptability. Otherwise there were threats when followers of Budha, Mahaveer were making the new Religion but Hinduism adapted and accepted it.
    But big question now is are we making our children READY for the FREEDOM we enjoyed? YES if we fail to make our children READY for the FREEDOM of the kind India exercises we will be in trouble. We should thank our parents/seniors for making US ready for this type of freedom. But because of small isolated families and LESS time to spare with our children we may be COMMITTING a mistake by not preparing our children to experience this FREEDOM.

    Regards,
    Arunkumar

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  2. Ram,
    good points. but, some of them are cannot be concluded so simplistically.

    the essential challenges of our present debate [i am sure it applies to other countries / cultures as well], is the fear of change.
    your article addresses that very well and assures that cultures outlive generations.

    but the point it, is it the same culture?
    or do we even want culture to be static?
    invariably, the answer to both these questions is 'no'.

    if you look a little deeper into some aspects related to culture, there are certain inferred values of the society - however regional it is.

    is cricket Indian culture? cricket matches have become so emotional for the nation.
    why do we not see the same unity or the attachment to a result for other issues of national importance - whether it is development or terrorism.

    the question to ask - i do not have answers :-) - is the influence and degeneration of the core values of a society; including tolerance, the interest of community etc.

    the second aspect to be looked at deeper is the understanding or internalization of the 'rites of passage' associated with cultures. [i know i am probably very loosely using culture and society].
    while we find many non-christian youngsters 'celebrating' christmas and can be happy that tolerance is increasing - how many really either know the details of the story or meaning of Jesus Christ?
    so, it more of a superficial - possibly commercially influenced - action.

    the commercial influence is seen on Hindu festivals too - a few years ago, i had not heard of akshaya tritheeya. now, banks have special counters to sell gold on that day.
    you see huge ads urging you to invest on that day!

    whereas, one does not find similar ads or campaigns for people to invest in themselves - or for their society.

    yes, the crowds at concerts or roadside temples are growing - but that could be because the population is also growing.
    and by patronizing a roadside temples are we not creating traffic congestions?

    the need for 'something to hold on to' as one's culture will always be there, even if it a pop- or protest-culture.

    my summary:
    we do not have a single version of Indian culture. cuisines to caps, they vary from state to state - or possibly even district to district. so, rather than being afraid of it being eroded or influenced by other cultures, we should focus on creating a culture where each individual can arrive at that balance not only within himself - which could lead to a laissez-faire chaos - but also within the circles that one is closely associated with.
    whatever we may say, 'society' - or the leaders of society, does expect unflinching conformism.

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  3. @Arun - I don't think we need to fear about our children not being ready for or misusing their freedom. Every generation would feel tentative about the next.

    @Shiv - I agree that culture is not static. It is evolutionary in nature. Whatever is valuable will be retained and new aspects with value will get adopted and adapted (such as your eg - Cricket).

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  4. Dear Ram,

    Excellent article and very nice comments as well!

    There are somethings that must not be changed and there are others that must be changed. For example, it would be welcome if my children wanted to get married to someone who is their "peer"; one or two generations ago, we would split hairs about crossing fine lines and divisions among the Brahmin communities when it came to marriage. On the other hand, "modernizing" the Hindu Shraddha ceremonies to have a free-flow of alcohol, is merely confusion run amock with arrogance. Do we and our children (youngsters) know this difference, about what must be changed and must not be changed?

    Many of the issues you raise in your article, have a common underlying thread - our foolishness (as a society) to discount every other attribute in deference to wealth. When such foolishness gets mixed up with the lack of understanding of what must be preserved, we will surely have an environment where "anything goes". Here there is only one guiding principle - "Kottavanu Kodangi - Eeskondavanu Veerabhadra". This simple dynamic drives the society; it is easy, fast paced, and ever changing, so there is no room for thought or conscience to interfere with the either accumulation of wealth or the infliction of harm to the culture or society.

    Perhaps we can think about what we (and our elders) can do to help us all understand what must be preserved and what must be changed? Distinction and character are good things; averages are always - averages - they never excel - this culture could not have survived for so many thousands of years by averaging.

    Shivu

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  5. KBS, your article does invite one to participate! Well done.

    You are basically saying "All izz well". In doing so, you turn a blind eye to some issues.

    Dresses: The veshti is dead (not counting P. Chidambaram). Even in small towns, the Pant rules. Only women keep India dresses alive. North India may be better off in this respect, but South Indian men have lost it completely.

    Traditional sciences: We do not even know what traditional sciences we really have. Indian scientific institutions are moribund (only ISRO keep the tradition of Aryabhatta alive). Ayurveda barely survives (surely its popularity is nowhere near that of Western medicine?). Yoga has been emasculated to calisthenics and no longer is the eight-fold path defined by Patanjali. And yes, we invented decimals, but Ramanujan had to emigrate to succeed (and die). Sorry, we are completely wiped out, on the mat , out for the count, making not the slightest effort to get up.

    And yes, Vyaass was right; there is a huge wart in national character when it comes to Dharma. That is surely the lifestyle that has sustained from time immemorial! (Ghandi was an exception that proves the rule)

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  6. Ram,
    Well structured article. As Kishore pointed out, it seems to be steering clear of the harder aspects of the subject matter.

    @Kishore: I was at Chennai last week and was surprised to note a fairly large % of men wearing all white dhoti/shirt combination.

    @Sivaguru: Fine observations and comments.

    What are your views on the effects of (intrusion / inclusion of) technology in day-to-day life on our culture, tradition, etc?

    On a lighter note, nothing has changed since Vyaasa's times. We have been safeguarding our culture & traditions well :-)

    - Gopal Rao

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  7. @Shivu - Good points. Thanks for your comments

    @Kishore - The effort is to take smaller slices of cultural / traditional aspects and analyze the same. Hence it may appear simplistic, but I believe it is a good model for analysis.
    Veshti, Mundu still lives outside of TN too (I wear it myself at home and at family functions).
    The lack of progress in traditional sciences is not because of westernization, but because they stopped growing to meet emerging challenges. However, whatever knowledge is available, I believe is being put to decent use.
    That we didn't build upon the early progress in astronomy, mathematics and such is a different matter and again not directly related to the influence of other countries or foreign cultures.

    @Gopal - Technology has probably enhanced the cultural richness. Advances in media, telecom, transportation, Internet have all contributed positively.

    Vyaasa will always be right :-)

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  8. I absolutely agree with Mr.Sivaguru. There is no need to be fearing change in tradition and culture as there is a dying need for it especially when the change brings out the stark reality of a murkier India which believes in the tradition and culture of Khap panchayats, honour killings, female foeticide, child labour and bondage, women slaves, gangrape as caste justice and who knows what all issues which we in our ivory towers will never face. It is high time there is change in tradition and culture which will slowly trickles down to such places which is actually keeping the old Indian tradition alive. Indian culture is an other name for the Old Age Homes and unhindered continuation of the patriarchal era (ok, men, dont typically shoot me). There better be change albeit in some areas which dare not be touched, such as the sari as I absolutely like wearing such attires with a lot of bangles and flowers.

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  9. sorry for the grammatical mistake of 'will' in the 6th line.

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  10. @Leena - As I've said in the article, the valuable aspects of Indian culture will live on - so no need to fear the erosion of these.
    Whatever were the societal ills that had grown over a decadent period in history (please note that India is NOT unique in this - all societies have had such), will be thrown out in the process of evolution that Indian Culture has proved repeatedly that it is capable of.

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  11. Sad that the evolution is not taking place fast enough. These are the very ills that has to worry Indians who are truely worried about Indian culture and tradition, not the outer appearances that will not bring or make any difference to the many who are suffering these very ills which also calls itself the fabric of Indian culture. As Mr.Kishore puts it all is not well in certain areas, but prioritising these areas is more important. there is no denying the fact that the positive aspects of our culture has to continue with the next generation but what about the present itself!

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  12. @Leena - The evolution is not fast enough? You'd know that the societal ills you have listed are already crimes under the law of the land.

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  13. Well articulated but I do not know if it is a good development or not moving in this direction. However, kids today are more logical and analytical in their thinking and look for outcome of any consequences

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  14. Indian religions, festivals, rituals, artifacts, monuments, costumes, music and dance, language and literature form an inseparable part of its culture. Though it has now blended with western cultures and tradition, it is still incomplete without its originality.
    Lifestyle & People

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  15. its really a great comment and also it makes us realise our real identity

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  16. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

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  17. excellent articulation. we must respect our ethical values and remain unique in terms of culture and way of living. the life style of today is increasing a gap between woman and a man in terms of marriage.

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