“If we seek to understand a people, we have to put ourselves, as far as we can, in that particular historical and cultural background. One has to recognize that countries and people differ in their approach and their ways, in their approach to life, in their ways of living and thinking. In order to understand them, we have to understand their way of life and approach.” - Jawaharlal Nehru
As an adoptive mother of two Indian daughters, the significance of knowing their birth culture and passing this knowledge on to them has become more important each day as they grow and develop. I feel it is also paramount for the adoptive parent or parents to understand and appreciate the culture from which their child came.
The preceding quotation by Jawaharlal Nehru expresses the approach that hopefully we all should take when viewing cultures other than our own. I hope you enjoy reading this article as much as I enjoyed researching and writing it. It gave me a new perspective on the wonderful, mysterious, and intriguing land called India.
THE LAND. India is the seventh largest and second most populous country in the world, roughly one third the size of the United States. It has a population of over 800 million. The population density is over 470 people per square mile, as compared to 58 people per square mile in the United States.
India’s claim to fame includes (but is not limited to): the world’s greatest mountain range bordering the country on the north, the wettest city in the world, and the longest beach. The lower ranges of the Himalaya Mountains embrace the northern states of India with the mountainous regions extending from Assam in the northeast to the Chinese-Pakistan border on the northwest. The Great Indian Desert, or Thar Desert, covers the westernmost parts of Gujarat and Rajasthan. India’s holiest and most important river, the Ganges, flows northwest to the southeast, parallel with the mountains, through one of its most fertile agricultural areas.
CLIMATE. India’s climate ranges from sub-freezing Himalayan winters with ice and snow to year-round tropical heat; from 28 inches of rain in a single day to 4 inches in a year. March to May are the hot summer months, June to September are the rainy monsoon months, and October to February are the cooler winter months.
HISTORY. Indian history can be traced back over 5000 years. The most extensive early Indian civilization was that of the Harappans, which developed and flourished in Pakistan and Northwestern India around 2500 B.C. Archaeological remains reveal that the Harappans built two-story brick houses, public and private baths, and well-planned streets, and made cotton textiles and metal implements. Harappans were engaged in long distance trade with places as far as Mesopotamia in the Near East. They practiced agriculture and grew wheat, barley, and legumes, and raised cattle, goat, sheep, and pigs.
Around 1500 B.C., a distinct population arrived from the west who are typically termed the Indo-Aryans. These people spoke Sanskrit, a language distinct from that of the indigenous Dravidians. The roots of the classical Indian society date back to this time period. This was the time that the Rig Veda-the earliest of sacred texts, was collected and written. The Rig Veda includes 1,028 hymns to the gods and is the first composition in an Indo-European language.
During the third century B.C., King Asoka ruled India. His reign of 37 years established the largest area under one rule until the British arrived. Asoka’s legacy to India is the concept of moral and social responsibility, not only to human beings but also to animals and plants. Gautama Buddha’s teachings heavily influenced Asoka, and he was the first Hindu ruler to embrace Buddhism. Asoka built pillars where crowds gathered, inscribed with proclamations explaining the idea of universal law. The lion pillar of Asoka survives as the official emblem of the Republic of India, and is found on every Indian coin and currency note.
The Gupta period flourished from the 4-6th century A.D. This was the golden age of science, literature, and arts. Institutions of learning existed with subjects like rhetoric, metaphysics, medicine, and veterinary science. Arab, Turk, and Afghan Muslims ruled different parts of India successively from the 8th to 18th centuries. The Portuguese and Dutch traders established trading posts which evolved into larger pockets during the 15th and 16th centuries, and it wasn’t until 1858 that the political entity– India– was finally brought into one single fold under the political control of the English.
After World War I, Mahatma Gandhi led the continuing Nationalist movement. He organized a series of passive-resistance campaigns and advocated civil disobedience to British rule. In 1947, Gandhi’s activities led to the partitioning of the peninsula into Hindu India and Muslim Pakistan. The partition brought about religious riots, killings, and mass migrations. Gandhi attempted to stop the violence, but was assassinated on January 30, 1948.
On January 26, 1950, India became a parliamentary republic in the British Commonwealth and Jawaharlal Nehru became Prime Minister. When Nehru died in 1964, Lal Bahadur Shastri succeeded him. Upon Shastri’s death, Indira Gandhi, Nehru’s daughter, was chosen as Prime Minister in 1966. She was defeated in 1977 by Morarji Desai. However she was reelected in 1980. Indira Gandhi was assassinated by her own Sikh guards on October 31, 1984, and her son Rajiv Gandhi was made Prime Minister. He subsequently won a national election held in December 1984. Since Rajiv Gandhi’s assassination in 1991, the reins of political control in India have been vacillating between short-term leaders.
RELIGION. India is the birthplace of Hinduism, Jainism, Sikhism, and Buddhism. The majority of Indians– more than 80%– are Hindus. About 10% of the people are Muslims, 2.6% are Christians, 1.8% are Sikhs, and 0.7% are Buddhists. The remainder belongs to various tribal and other religions.
HINDUISM. Hinduism embraces a wide variety of beliefs held together by an attitude of mutual tolerance and by the conviction that all approaches to God are equally valid. The essential spirit of Hinduism can be expressed as the oneness of all life.
Two great epics, the Ramayana and the Mahabharata, inspire ethical teachings of Hinduism. Both stories are about the unending conflict between the dharma and adharma. Dharma is a moral code, righteousness and duties and responsibilities according to one’s nature. Adharma is simply to behave against one’s dharma.
The 24,000 verses of the Ramayana glorifies an ideal world where righteousness triumphs. There are ideal heroes who exemplify moral qualities. The Mahabharata, which consists of 100,000 verses, is an epic vision of the human condition: It contains intrigue, romance, moral collapse, and dishonor. There are no heroes, and most of the characters eventually die.
HINDU GODS. The scriptures say there are 330 million devas or gods. They symbolize natural phenomena and evil forces, and some humans are deified. The gods appear as pairs, for the male aspect needs the female, his shakti (consort), to be complete. Each god also has a vahana, a creature considered the vehicle on which they ride. In their many arms the objects they hold are the symbols of their power. These are also clues as to recognizing the deity.
The most important Gods are Brahma, Vishnu, and Shiva. Together they embody the cycle of creation, preservation, and destruction.
LANGUAGE. The constitution lists 15 official Indian languages: Hindi, Urdu, Bengali, Marathi, Gujarathi, Oriya, Assamese, Punjabi, Kashmir, Tamil, Telugu, Kannada, Malayalam, Sindhi, and Sanskrit. English is also an official language. As the names of the language indicate, the country is divided into states on a linguistic basis. Hindi is being promoted as a national language, however, it is useless in South India, where there is often opposition to its use.
Hello or Goodbye = namaste
Welcome = a-I-ye
See you later = Phir mi-len-ge
Yes = jee haan
No = na-heen
Please = kri-paa ho-gee
Excuse me = Jee-ksha-maa kee-ji-ye
Thank you very much = Ba-hut dhan-ya-vaad
You are welcome. = Ko-e baat na-been
You have been very kind. = Aap ne ba-hut kri-paa
Pleased to meet you. = Ap se mil kar khu-shee hu ee
How are you? = Kyaa haal hai
Very well thanks, and you? = Teek hoon, aur aap
Congratulations! = Mu-baa-rak ho
Happy Birthday = Janam-din mu baa-rak ho
Happy Anniversary = arsh-gaanTh kee ba-dhaa-ee
THE FAMILY. The basic social unit of India is the family; it takes precedence over the individual. In most families, aunts, uncles, and other relatives live together. The elderly are respected and are cared for in their old age by their families. Indian families share their sacred moments and celebrate its most important events as a unit. Births, marriages, and deaths are all family events.
MARRIAGE. Marriage is very sacred and divine to most Indians. A marriage is considered to endure beyond death. In traditional families, conventional dating and divorce are rare. India has one of the lowest divorce rates in the world.
FOOD AND ENTERTAINING. To an Indian, social interaction is as necessary as air. Hospitality and graciousness are the mark of a good Indian host or hostess. When invited to an Indian home for a meal, it is customary to bring sweets, flowers, or fruit.
The proper table etiquette in an Indian home varies according to the kind of home. The right hand should be used for eating and for giving or receiving objects. Men, elderly people, and children usually eat first with the guests, and the women eat after the guests have finished.
Regional variations are expressed vividly through food. What a person eats does provide some insight into who a person is. Religious restrictions make their way into the diet. Also, weather and geography influence what is available to cook.
Indian food is known for its spices. The popular concept of curry powder is not of Indian origin, but of British influence. The equivalents to curry powder are called masala. Most Indian cooks make the mixture fresh, in a combination suited to the meat or vegetable being served. Some combinations can be bought ready-made. These include chaat masala, sambhar masala, or garam masala, and they contain from five to twelve spices roasted and ground together.
DANCE, MUSIC, AND DRAMA. With nearly 6,000 motion picture theaters containing an audience of 5 million people daily, film making is the fourth largest industry in India. The arts of dance, music, and drama should be viewed as interrelated. Dance has held an important place in religious, ritual, and traditional life since ancient times. A distinguished feature of traditional dance-drama is the use of mudras (formalized hand gestures). These mudras are accompanied by movements of the body and feet and by facial expressions. For more than 2,000 years, India has been the home of a highly-developed tradition of formal music and one of the main centers of musical influence in Asia.
ATTIRE. Many women in India wear the Sari– traditional long and colorful draped dresses. Indian women also wear pants, over blouses, jackets, and full long skirts. Indians can see from the way a woman is dressed and how a Sari is draped which part of India she comes from, and therefore what language she speaks.
Single and married women wear a “dot” on their foreheads known as a bindi. Traditionally the bindi is red, however, many women wear colored bindis. The urban woman may coordinate the color of her bindi to her Sari.
GREETINGS. Namaste (bending gently with palms together below the chin) is generally used. Indians do not usually shake hands or touch women in formal or informal gatherings. However, when greeting someone of the same sex, touching is much more acceptable. Persons of the same sex may be seen walking down the street holding hands or walking arm-in-arm. But physical demonstration of affection in public between sexes, even between husband and wife, is considered improper.
GESTURES. In India it is custom to take off your shoes once you enter a home. However clean they may be, feet retain their impure quality. To raise feet and place them on a desk, for example, is a mark of disrespect. It is equally uncouth to push something, especially an object worthy of respect, with the feet. Apologies are essential if your feet or shoes touch another person. Whistling is very impolite. Women should never wink or whistle, as such behavior is unladylike. Backslapping is inappropriate.
INDIAN FESTIVALS. The family is strengthened and united by the celebrations and rituals that mark important life-cycle events. The Indian festival calendar is a lunar one, and dates for most religious festivals are fixed according to the new moon or full moon days. They are not set until the end of the previous year.
January Pongal – The harvest festival, Tamil Nadu. Republic Day – January 26th.
February – Arrival of spring, according to the Hindu calendar.
March-April – The Hindu Solar New Year begins and is celebrated all across North India and in Tamil Nadu.
May-June – Buddha Purnima is celebrated on the full moon, and it commemorates his birth, enlightenment, and death.
June-July – The Rath Yatra is a festival that marks the journey Krishna took from his childhood home with the cowherds of bokula to the city of Mathura, where he killed his evil uncle.
July-August – The coming of the monsoon season is an event in itself, and is marked with special “monsoon parties” in Goa.
August-September – Krishna Janmashtami – The blue-skinned god Krishna’s birthday is a public holiday and is celebrated all over India.
September-October – The same ten days during this lunar month are celebrated all over the country, but in different ways, commemorating different mythological events. In the north, the period is called Ram Lila. It celebrates Rama’s victory over the demon Ravana. In the south, the festival is called Dusshera. It celebrates the victory of the goddess Chamundeshwari over the buffalo-headed demon Hahishasura. In Calcutta, the same festival is called Durga Puja.
October-November – Diwali or Deepavali, the festival of lights, follows Ram Lila. This marks Rama’s triumphant return at the throne after his long exile. Little clay oil lamps are lit outside each house to guide him home and to welcome Lakshmi, the goddess of wealth.