Looking for Indianness


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OUR twenty-first century world seems to be caught in a dangerous paradox: on the one hand a global monoculture, spread by market and media forces, is constantly eroding traditional cultures, while on the other our societies appear ever more fragmented, with every small bit of the mosaic noisily asserting its ‘identity’. In October 2010, the German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s statement that Germany’s multicultural approach has ‘failed, utterly failed’, was soon echoed by several of her European counterparts, who called for ‘integration’ rather than mere juxtaposition of cultures. But what are the mechanisms of such integration, and what happens to the identity of the ‘integrated’ bit, assuming it has willingly submitted to the process?

Indeed, nothing seems more confusing to contemporary societies and individuals than the question of identity: Should it be based on ethnicity, religion, culture, nationality or profession? On all of them, or on some combination of them? Will it be singular (‘I am a freethinker’) or plural (‘a Black American’), binding individuals to a community or specific society? And what of gender, age and other ingredients in our global khichri?

Nowhere as in India have these questions been asked with a degree of intensity that often moves crowds and occasionally decides between life and death. At the back of the numberless identities the subcontinent has created over time lies the overarching question of how to define Indianness. I will not presume to attempt such a definition; instead, I will begin by tracing my own journey towards identity, uninteresting as it may be: the personal approach has obvious and severe limits, but is often a more honest and reliable starting point.

My parents were born Moroccans, and with three visits to that country in my early years, it became a part of me – a small but vivid bit of ‘Orient’ adding some colour to a continental drabness. Our family is Jewish, and something of that Jewishness remained with me long after I had rejected the Biblical foundations of Judaism; the Jewish view of life, especially its obsession with knowledge and its stubbornly positive outlook in the face of adversity, always has great lessons for a ‘secular Jew’ (a useful oxymoron). I was born and brought up in France, and Frenchness taught me the meaning of culture, intellectual lucidity and a sense of ceaseless quest. Yet three and a half decades ago, as an immature but resolute twenty one year old, I decided to come and live in India, a country I knew next to nothing about, and which many Indians readily compared to hell in contrast with a heavenly West.


Why India? A short answer is, Sri Aurobindo. The meaning he gave to life and the evolution of humanity appealed to me like no other thought system I was aware of. But it was more than thought: it also answered and fed deeper stirrings. I was moved by Sri Ramakrishna, inspired by Swami Vivekananda, interested in several other Indian great masters of the twentieth century, and decided that this was what I wanted to explore.

This exploration soon extended to India: what made this land what it is. I began studying rather haphazardly its archaeological and historical origins and its cultural developments. Eventually, I adopted Indian citizenship, realizing that there was no meaning in technically remaining a ‘foreigner’ in a nation I had not once felt foreign to from the minute I had landed in Bombay on a sultry evening of July 1977.

What happened to my other identities? I had become an Indian, possibly a Hindu (accepting an extended definition of the term), though still a White (no ‘darkness creams’ are available in India), but could I still be a Jew, a Frenchman, a European? After some years, I found out that the answer was in the positive, but those identities were neither hyphenated – neatly compartmentalized as in some Indians living abroad – nor somehow jumbled. Relegated to the periphery, they still contributed to the core on occasion. Whatever I had imbibed of the French sense of rigour and discernment came in handy while exploring the jungle of ancient India, with a riddle behind every tree, as it were. My Jewish atavism protected me from exclusiveness and saw me through particularly rough patches, leading me to extract their hidden message and look beyond.

Were those peripheral identities limiting in any way? They might have been, left to themselves: the French make a cult of the intellect, often closing the door to other ranges of consciousness; the Jews are prone to make a cult of pragmatism. But once reined in, my minor selves became valuable helpers: the old Indian image of the charioteer and his horses applied.


Things got curiouser when circumstances led me to lecture or teach on the material and cultural roots of Indian civilization. While I had migrated towards Indianness, I saw numerous young Indian moving away from it – not deliberately or consciously so, but as a result of a fast changing India, exposure to global media (‘global’ meaning here, as it so often does, ‘American’), peer pressure, and a school system which, strangely, keeps the best of India’s knowledge systems out of sight of the student. A White man teaching young Indians about their own past and heritage is something of an irony, but India, as we know, is the land of paradoxes. And it had the advantage of tickling my students’ curiosity, in the initial stages at least.

It has been interesting to observe their responses, ranging from complete self-alienation to a strong urge to rediscover themselves. In the process, I observed what Indianness meant to them: at one end of the spectrum, very little, a mere accident of birth and a low level of self-esteem as Indians, barely relieved by an nebulous sense of patriotism (cricket and Bollywood among its prime drivers); at the other, a strong attachment fuelled by some awareness of India’s intellectual, artistic, spiritual, scientific or technological achievements. The difference between the two attitudes has a considerable impact in actual life: the first produces individuals who see themselves as such – islands in time and space, with few or no roots; the second results in a sense of belonging to a stream of civilization and imparts an identity, self-confidence and resilience.

The latter attitude is of course something of my own, provided that the attachment is more than merely sentimental, and the awareness grounded in genuine knowledge. This, in fact, is among the first points I make in my courses: patriotism, a superficial and passing sentiment, easily leads to excesses, as the most cursory reading of history tells us; a wholesome pride of belonging to a country, a culture, a civilization, can only be founded on dispassionate knowledge.


To decide what is worth teaching young Indians of India’s past is a delicate exercise. It is tempting (and some do yield to the temptation) to use shortcuts and paint a glorious picture of a golden past by exaggerating here, misinterpreting there and cherry-picking all over. This, of course, leads nowhere, because it makes nonsense of the long maturing of ideas, trials and errors, debate and disagreement that go into the building of knowledge. At the other end of the spectrum, for the last few decades a neo-colonial view of India as a land that failed to produce any useful knowledge has resulted in ‘standard’ history books that blank out most advances in science, technology, grammar, literature, yoga and spirituality, among other thought systems. Ashoka or Akbar find a place, not Panini, Patanjali or Aryabhata. Striking a middle path has been challenging, but rewarding.


A more difficult exercise is to reconcile this high culture, which has elicited the admiration of countless travellers to India and western Indologists, with the spectacle of life in ‘modern’ India. I am not just referring to the fast rise in violent crime, financial fraud or all-pervasive greed and corruption, but also to a less tangible though equally serious ravage: in this land which, from all accounts, valued and nurtured beauty, not just in great monuments but in everyday life, we now have to live with unsightly dwellings, ugly and polluted cities, garbage heaps sending up toxic fumes from every village, clouds of smog extending across vast stretches of rural areas, disappearing rivers and forests.

There seems to be a growing disconnect between modern Indians and the nature their ancestors regarded as sacred, a tacit acceptance that economic growth comes at a price – a price no one can quantify, but which certainly involves a sacrifice of the finer aspects of life. To a sense of aesthetics nurtured on, say, sublime Indian music and dance, the grandeur of Indian architecture, the exquisite delicacy and rich imagery of a Kalidasa, an encounter with the indescribable vulgarity of India’s nouveaux riches or an awareness of the colossal wastage of material or human resources in public life are like slaps in the face.

I have not yet quite managed to understand how those Indians who still embody the former values manage to survive the latter. I am well aware that every culture can throw up such painful paradoxes; Voltaire or Beethoven may not be of great daily concern to the average twenty-first century European. But the distance between the two ends of the spectrum seems to me much greater in India.

Since going back is never a solution, in my limited field I have endeavoured to show, through real-life examples, how Indian ethics or ecological traditions could still offer solutions, with due adaptation, to the increasingly unmanageable problems besetting twenty-first century. Others have done it before, and better, in fields like agriculture, irrigation, nature conservation or medicine, often with considerable success. And while ordinary Indians tolerate (though with growing signs of impatience) endless deceit and bottomless incompetence on the part of their rulers, this very state of things has given rise to numerous ‘unsung heroes’: men and women, generally unknown and more often than not from humble social origins, who have silently protected a forest, planted trees in urban or rural space, rescued brutalized animals, opened a school on a pavement, protected a monument, a pond or a river, or sometimes their country with no regard for their own lives.

I have tried to keep track of a few such Indians, whose contribution will not appear in official reports or history textbooks, but who are, in my opinion, those who best help us understand Indianness: they are embodiments of India’s ancient value system, which prayed for the welfare of every creature and enjoined one to leave the world a better place than he or she found it.


Can this worldview (I am referring here to the belief systems that go by the names of Hinduism, Jainism and Buddhism) contribute in any way to easing the growing tensions of our globalized twenty-first-century societies, Indian or not?

I have already alluded to nature conservation based on India’s high ecological traditions. It is, in fact, a whole philosophy of environment that they flowed from, based on the one hand on the sacredness of nature, and on the other on restraint: we can ‘milk the earth’, in the image of the Mahabharata, but not bleed her; she is our mother, not a garbage dump for our precious consumption. Ancient India developed the art of being happy with little – not asceticism, but just what is required for our basic needs to be taken care of. In contrast, current market economics creates a condition of being unhappy with much. Many of the saner voices we hear today in the West (Schumacher was a pioneer) have used some of these Indian threads to weave a new paradigm of sustainable development in which consumption becomes a side activity, no longer an end, and the human being is restored to the centre.


Secularism is the shibboleth of our century. It was Europe’s creation: she needed it to free herself from the clutches of churches. But in India, no ruler ever imposed a state religion. Indian history reverberates with wars, but not wars of religion. With rare exceptions, belief systems – a term more apt than ‘religion’ in the Indian context – were a matter of individual or communal choice, not to be interfered with; they could hardly have been, the said systems having non-dogmatic foundations.

Strictly speaking, then, secularism of the European kind is ill-suited to India, since religion did not here attempt to harness political power. Moreover, it is not just nature that was (since I cannot honestly use the present tense here) regarded as sacred, but, ideally, all stages and activities of human life: studying, marrying, acquiring wealth, benefiting the society at large, or simply building one’s house. Such a culture is non-secular by definition and shows the limits of our concept of secularism: imposing it on Indian public life can only lead to cultural nihilism, as we have seen in the field of education: in the name of keeping religion out, it is the whole of Indian heritage that has been hidden from the view of its rightful inheritors.


Because of this awkward situation, which India’s intellectual discourse has never really confronted (what to make, for instance, of Sri Aurobindo’s assertion, ‘There is to me nothing secular’?), India had to invent its own definition of secularism, holding that the term actually means equal treatment of all religions and religious tolerance.

Thus, in India, ‘I am a secular person’, an oft-heard proud assertion, really means, ‘I am broad-minded (or at least I think I am) and well disposed towards all religions.’ Perhaps future editions of standard dictionaries will end up including this unorthodox definition (with an ‘India’ tag), and ‘secularism’ will end its chequered carrier as a mere appendage of the notion of tolerance. But here too, the Indian brand of tolerance is different from the one Europe came up with after a long and bloody experiment in intolerance: here, in its genuine form, it is acceptance – acceptance that the other is as much a manifestation of divinity as oneself, and therefore has as much a right to strike his or her own path to the truth.

This attitude has been very largely practised in India, resulting in the mind-boggling cultural pluralism that confronts us at every street corner. Even the caste system, now studied exclusively through a prism of ‘exclusion’ and ‘marginalization’, did have inclusive features that promoted cultural diversity, endowing each community with customs, festivals, sometimes godheads of its own. But India’s model is neither the ‘mosaic’ nor the ‘salad bowl’; I like to think of it as a banyan tree, constantly throwing fresh roots, but keeping its trunk at the centre. There is a centre. Indian society, sorely tested and bruised as it may be, remains a living proof of it; otherwise, I am convinced it would have irretrievably fragmented long ago.

It may, of course, yet do so. No one knows whether or how long what remains of India’s classical culture will survive (and I am well aware that many, regarding it as hopelessly obsolete, actually wish its final disappearance). Throughout its history, this land has had a proverbial ability to assimilate, transform, while retaining that indefinable Indianness; but the present phase is enormously more rapid and intrusive, and its impact incalculable. India may finally graduate to a ‘developed’ nation, with a few of its old customs and traditions relegated to the role of flower pots or museum pieces; or she may splinter into several contending nations, some of which would soon fall victims to the expansive affections of our neighbours.


Or she may find that there is still something worthwhile in her old value system and try to apply it to her problems. Problems which are now no longer hers alone: perhaps no country is now untouched by the riddle of peaceful coexistence in the face of rising intolerance and fanaticism. India’s solution, if she has one, is to insist on our common human roots, but roots which, like the cosmic tree of the Upanishads, are above, while our branches spread below. Without some divine source, human life can have no meaning; that, perhaps, might be in the end what Indianness is about.


* Michel Danino is the author of The Lost River: On the Trail of the Sarasvati (Penguin India, 2010) and Indian Culture and India’s Future (DK Printworld, 2011). For two decades, Michel Danino was active in the preservation of Shola forests in the Nilgiris, Tamil Nadu.