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The Crux Of India's Heritage: Part I

Dr. Paul R. Fleischman
01/20/2011

What exactly defines Indian culture? Does it contain some unique value? Who speaks for Indian culture and can be said to authoritatively define it? Are its authentic spokespersons limited to Sanskrit-chanting Pandits in Varanasi? Can Muslims, Parsees and Sikhs who are born in Georgia or New Jersey speak for Indian culture? What makes a person Indian, and what makes a person knowledgeable about Indian civilization? Can a person without any Indian blood speak for India? Can a person who has never been to India be an expert on Indian culture?

The great German Sanskrit scholar and anti-Nazi protester Heinrich Zimmer wrote many books in English and German about Indian art and civilization, and in the 1950s became the most important spokesperson in the West for the artistic and literary traditions of ancient India. Some of Zimmer’s many books continue to be used in American and German universities. Zimmer is perhaps best known as the man who inspired Joseph Campbell. Joseph Campbell has referred to Heinrich Zimmer as his guru. But Heinrich Zimmer never saw India.

Today many Indians, both in India and resident throughout the world, have become uncertain about how to define their culture and their identity within it. Many Indians today may be highly familiar with one aspect of their culture yet may have lost contact with other aspects of it. Some feel a need to adopt a chip-on-the-shoulder pride in everything or anything from India. Other Indians want to distance themselves from their ancestral land, which they imagine to be a place of wife-burnings, farmer-suicide, and Naxalite violence.

Subrahmanyan Chandrasekhar came from a prominent Tamil family. At the age of 19 he went to Cambridge University to get a PhD in physics, and after receiving his degree he moved to the University of Chicago where he remained for about six decades as professor of Astrophysics. Dr. Chandrasekhar was a rigorous mathematician and a severe scientific literalist. He refused contact with any religion, called himself an atheist, became an American citizen, attenuated his connections with India, and made his way through life as a pan-cultural, universal man. Even when the Government of India awarded him the Padma Vibhushan, “Chandra” only went as far as Washington D.C. to accept it from Moraji Desai. After “Chandra” received the Nobel Prize in physics in 1983, he became the subject of a biography by an Indian-American physicist, K.C. Wali. Here we find out that Dr. Chandrasekhar, whom Wali describes as “an exile from India,” felt an identity rooted in his early exposure to Hinduism. Was Dr. Chandrasekhar culturally Indian? Was his astrophysical atheism a form of Upanishadic monism? Was his devotion to mathematics, and his refusal to return to India, based on over-Anglicization, or was it traditional Indian single-pointed Sadhana, like his hero, Srinivas Ramanujan, or like his uncle C.V. Raman, the first Indian science Nobelist?

There has been a long history of non-Indian foreigners who become entranced by, and immersed in, Indian culture. Can these people speak for India? Can they ever really understand it?   The list of foreigners who have been fascinated by India goes back to the dawn of recorded history. Possibly even the Vedic Aryans could be seen as foreigners who migrated to India and who absorbed, and renovated, India’s already deep Indus and Dravidian cultures. Alexander the Great is the first well-known Western tourist to visit India, about 300 B.C. Over the next millennia the Chinese, with their interest in Buddhism, as well as Arab and Persian intellectuals, all visited India and became not only recorders of Indian culture but admirers of it as well.   Although the British became notorious for imperialistic oppression of India, the Raj was also filled with numerous Europeans who became devotees of the sub-continent. Annie Besant; Charles Freer Andrews, Gandhi’s intimate co-worker; Verrier Elwin, the anthropologist and folklorist; Sir William Jones, the scholar who brought Sanskrit to the attention of the Western world; Mark Twain the traveler; form just a short list of the many Westerners who became admirers of and proponents for India’s great ancient heritage.

For all the confusion about what makes someone Indian, and about what defines Indian culture, and for all the NRIs who become uncertain whether and to what degree they are Indian, there is someone else who is genetically absolutely non-Indian, but who nevertheless feels Indian on the inside.

I grew up in an America that was completely ignorant of the planet outside of its own boundaries. Post-World War II America was proud, self-satisfied, and parochial. The English language and the Atlantic and Pacific oceans bounded the known world for Americans. The only time that I heard India mentioned in my childhood was when one of my parents’ friends, a successful surgeon, visited India. She showed us photographs of large caves that had been chiseled out of solid rock in order for people to meditate in them. I was totally fascinated by this image, although I had never heard of meditation.

I owe my knowledge of India to the University of Chicago. I majored in psychology there and as a requirement for the major, I was told that I had to take a year-long course in non-Western civilization in order to be able to think about what aspects of psychology were universal, and what aspects of psychology were merely cultural artifacts. I immediately signed up for Chinese civilization. But the Chinese civilization course was taught in an antiquated manner, based on textbook memorization, and after a few lectures I dropped the course. For one reason or another, Russian civilization, Latin American civilization, and the others did not appeal to me. So I stumbled into the yearlong Indian civilization sequence at the University of Chicago as a last resort in order to fulfill a mandated course requirement.

I was already several lectures behind. I came to the lecture hall late and sat in the back. Many words were on the blackboard from previous lectures and all were inscrutable to me. I had never heard of the language Sanskrit. (It was not widely spoken in Newark, New Jersey, in the 1940s and 50s). I felt a wave of frustration and alienation sweeping over me, as I could not understand what was being said in the lecture. I was already weeks behind the other students, and I could think of no other course that would fulfill my non-Western civilization requirement. I stopped trying to listen and just sort of zoned out into 1960s-style alienation. The lecture flowed up to me from the podium at the bottom of the large semi-circular hall. Suddenly I began to realize that I was hearing concepts that I had never heard discussed in public before, concepts that I had intuited or imagined all of my young life, but for which I had never found any outside corroboration. By the time the lecture had ended, I had become a devotee of (or you can say addicted to) Indian civilization. About 45 years later this interest has not dimmed.

I can vividly recall my first impressions of India. The year was 1970, and I was a medical student at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine in New York City. My medical school had set aside money for fellowships for two students every year to study in a foreign country. The understanding was that medical students of the 1960s might well want to go to London, Paris, Tel Aviv or Rome to study advanced medical and scientific techniques. On a whim, I wrote an essay for explaining why it would be important for me to study Ayurveda in India. After submitting the essay, I completely forgot about it. It was a shot in the dark. Besides, I didn’t really want to go to India. It was very far away and strange. I owe a debt of gratitude to the Albert Einstein College of Medicine Fellowship Committee for being free-spirited enough to give an eccentric student a small pile of money to study Ayurveda in India. The medical school also did me the favor of connecting me to Dr. Suren Merchant, the distinguished Bombay pediatrician, who helped me to arrange for the details of my stay and to study in Bombay, at Wadia and K.E.M., as well as at Poddar Ayurvedic Hospital under the guidance of Antakarji (who was to later collaborate in research on Ayurvedic pharmacology with Dr. Ashok Vadia of Ciba-Geigy India).

When I arrived in Bombay in the wee hours of the morning, ceiling fans were rotating in the heat, and men in blue uniforms left over from the Raj were officiating at the airport. Some medical students had come to the airport to meet me and as they drove me through the streets of Bombay in the early morning my eyes glided past men in turbans, bullock carts hauling turpentine canisters, filigreed arches over the windows of apartment buildings, milky colored cows ambling across the very lightly trafficked streets, lines of women in electrically multicolored saris waiting to fill metal pails with milk, and I immediately felt that the strangest of places was my place, that I belonged here, that I knew it very well and that I had come home.

To embrace the wonder of Indian culture is not the same thing as to overlook the problems of India or to romanticize its deep shadows. By no means does everything in India appeal to me. I am not rationalizing away India’s contemporary social, political, economic and environmental problems. On my most recent trips I have been particularly offended by growing pollution by plastic bags and garbage, by the air pollution that effects even smaller cities, and by the noise pollution that renders the famously meditative country an ear-jangling cacophony.

Many of the things that I do admire about India cannot be said to be absolutely unique to India. After all, as we have already discussed, cultural exchange between India and the West goes back at least as far as Alexander the Great, and has become a flood over the past several hundred years. Let’s remember, for example, that Gandhi’s invention of Satyagraha, which is often embraced by people whose knowledge of Gandhi is limited to the Attenborough movie as an essentially Indian idea, was explicitly founded, Gandhi emphatically informed us, on the essay “On Civil Disobedience,” by the American, Henry David Thoreau. So when I talk about my admiration for and identification with Indian culture and civilization, I am not referring to something that is precisely and clearly separated from all of world culture and civilization.

(This article originally appeared in Khabar Magazine, Atlanta, USA (www.khabar.com) )

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1.The Crux Of India's Heritage: Part I January 21, 2011djsunshine 

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