Where did Alexander the Great’s conquest stop? Which land did Rome’s Pliny the Elder decry as the “sink of all the world’s gold?”. Which land was the source of all the world’s diamonds till the 18th century? Which land birthed Hinduism and Buddhism, influential throughout East and South-East Asia? India. Oh, where did the decimal system come from? India. Cultural contact between India and the world is ancient, and this essay examines its latest iteration in the United States. My thesis is that there is a direct connection between historical Western perspectives of India and today’s Indian cross-cultural osmosis evident in American hipster-neohippie urban culture.
These ancient cultural links raise the question: “Does India influence Western culture today? How?”. What do we make of Slumdog Millionaire’s success? Does it matter that Indians disliked the film? How do we resolve contradictory Western depictions of India as an emerging power and a source of poverty-chic films? Wasn’t India an uncivilized land to be civilized by the West only a century ago? What changed and why? What is India’s place in Western pop-culture today?
The story starts with the Silk Road, and indeed Pliny the Elder’s complaint that India was the sink of all the world’s gold. That was two millennia ago. India was a source of exotic goods and diamonds found nowhere else, a sort of fabled land. This remained the case as long as geography separated India and the West. Fast forward to the modern era, when the West’s time came to rule, and India withered away, it became yet another uncivilized Oriental land to be civilized, and to serve as a source of wealth. This Winston Churchill quote, besides others, is an extreme example, “I hate Indians. They are a beastly people with a beastly religion.”
Indian cross-culture in the United States
Perhaps the “uncivilized” nature of India only served to reinforce its image as a place of spiritual sustenance, with ancient, mysterious wisdom. Everyone knows about the Beatles and the Maharishi but no one knows about Ramanujan and Hardy. Everyone knows about the Kamasutra but no one knows about the Arthashastra. Everyone knows about Slumdog Millionaire but no one knows about Pather Panchali. Everyone knows about Deepak Chopra but no one knows about Anna Hazare. Everyone knows about Buddha but no one knows about Aryabhatta. You know about Goa, but you do not know about Nalanda. You know about slums, but you do not know of Taxila. You know of the caste system but you do not know of the Kerala school of mathematics. You know about Gandhi’s ahimsa but you do not know of the Indians who died fighting the West’s World Wars. You know about India’s rising GDP, but you do not know of the stagnant Indian GDP and famines during British rule. You know about Bollywood, but you do not know of Ajanta and Ellora. You know of yoga but you do not know of dharma. Why is this so?
The Roots of Cultural Osmosis
Why would one culture adopt practices from a supposedly inferior, uncivilized culture? Why do people in status-obsessed New England practice yoga and go to kirtans? Why do neo-hippies in West Los Angeles say “Namaste”? What drives cross-cultural adoption, and why are only specific elements of a culture adopted? After all, we live in an Internet-drenched age. Everything is out there. Then why does the West cherry pick Indian culture, as described above?
If you’ve followed successive artistic movements, or even pop-culture, you’ll see how every successive movement is a reaction to the previous movement. Every movement seeks to weave its own identity, to distinguish itself through symbols. We humans are, after all, hairless apes, and we react to displays of symbols. Our present cultural iteration, hipsters, are a reaction to our technology drenched lives. Hipsters love vintage, they love anachronisms like hand-deckled paper, they love ‘artisan’. That is the core of culture and identity. You set yourself apart from society through symbolism to be seen and perceived by society. And this is why current, urban American culture cherry-picks Indian culture. To distinguish itself and create an identity.
Why this is so
What does “cross-culture” mean? Western culture picks only those elements of Indian culture that appeal to it. Western culture has its own status signifiers that draw on other cultures to fulfill them. Only those facets of Indian culture will be picked that appeal to Western sensibilities. Knowing about Taxila, or Nalanda, or Pather Panchali confer no status or identity in urban, hipster-hippie society. No one cares. On the other hand, going to yoga or meditation or saying “Namaste” is an instant signifier of identity. They signify that you have some sort of ‘wordly consciousness’, and that your personality goes a little deeper. Yoga has the associated tacit meaning that you care about your body and image, but not in the grungy, sweaty gym workout kind of way, but in a holistic, spiritual sort of way. You aren’t just working out, you’re gaining an identity.
The Beatles’ visit to India exemplifies the need for Indian spirituality to provide identity. They flew into a custom-made, tailor-built retreat where they hoped to gain spiritual enlightenment and peace. Take the Kamasutra. The Kamasutra’s fame reflects the confluence of two trends in the West, sexual liberation and exoticized India. I’d wager more foreigners have read the Kamasutra than Indians. Why not read the Arthashastra instead of the Kamasutra? Because the Arthashastra conveys no identity. It does not feed off any cultural trend in the West. It cannot be used as symbolism. Sting can talk about tantric sex, but what good would it do him to discuss the intricacies of statecraft learnt from the Arthashastra?
Why is Satyajit Ray’s ‘Pather Panchali’ virtually unknown? Isn’t it the most beautiful, heart-rending Indian film of all time? The entire Apu trilogy is a work of art. There are other, more contemporary, films such as some of Aamir Khan’s. Why do these not reach the fame of the Oscar-winning trashy (for lack of a better word) fare of Slumdog Millionaire? Would Pather Panchali make the same waves as Slumdog Millionaire were a modern equivalent were to be released today? I suspect not. Ray’s genius feeds no American sensibilities. Americans get nothing out of the simple, contemplative, heart-rending depictions of rural Indian poverty and life. Ray’s artful cinematography is not exoticized, is not full of dance and music, and is not an easy-to-consume, packaged delicacy for the Western palate. It is raw and real. Slumdog Millionaire is sugary, happy, escapist fare designed to play into the cherry-picked cultural notions the West has of India. It was directed by Danny Boyle, not an Indian. Both Ray and Boyle depict poverty, but the manner of it is vastly different. SM has slums, injustice, inequality, gangsters, deprivation, want, and finally a facetious rags-to-riches story.
Why do you not know of the Indians who died fighting in World War II? Because there is nothing to gain identity-wise, or social-symbolically, from knowing that ~2.5 million Indians fought in Burma, Malaysia, Egypt, Tunisia, and Italy, for what was a Western war. But yes, you know of Gandhi and his ahimsa, because Gandhi is cool. Hippies can say ‘peace’ and identify with him. Invoking Gandhi conveys in a social context that you have a larger worldview, that you transcend the boundaries of Western thought, and that you have some sort of profound belief in non-violence. It is a social signifier.
Is this Cultural Appropriation? Is it Morally Good or Bad
I prefer the term “cultural osmosis” to “cultural appropriation”. Cultural osmosis is nothing new. India is as guilty of it as any other culture. Bollywood film plots continually recycle Hollywood. Or go back in history. Look at the Indo-Greeks. The Greco-influenced Buddha statues are a prime example. In today’s India, everyone wears jeans. Strictly speaking, that’s cultural osmosis from the American Wild West. Every culture adopts aspects of other cultures that suit it. That is perfectly natural. Whether this is in moral good taste due to historical circumstances and historical context is up to you. I think the cross-cultural osmosis described here is perfectly natural.
What makes Cultural Osmosis Fascinating?
We’ve reached a cultural tipping point where Indians hang out at malls while Americans rush to yoga class. It’s all about how cultures recruit aspects of other cultures. From cross-culture, you learn what drives different cultures, and what they seek. Understanding cross-culture let’s you understand culture in general. You are no longer swept up in the mainstream throng, but you put yourself outside it and see why you, and why others behave the way they do.
It is fascinating to see cross-culture adapt. Yoga in the United States isn’t yoga. It’s yoga and pilates combined to give you poweryoga. Or, it’s yoga and acrobatics combined to give you acroyoga. Chai in the United States isn’t chai. It’s chai-tea lattes with cinnamon, something you would never dream of finding in India but is perfectly at home in Cambridge or Seattle.
What does Indian cross-culture teach about the West?
This is the thesis. There is a direct connection between historical Western perspectives of India and today’s Indian cross-cultural osmosis evident in American hipster-neohippie urban culture. For me, there are two historically discernable Western perspectives:
- India is exotic.
- India is uncivilized.
The first one is apparent in today’s hipster-neohippie urban US culture in that only yoga, meditation, spiritualism ad nauseum make it over to the West, as we’ve discussed. As far as the West is concerned, that is the wisdom India offers. It is not the wisdom of India’s rich tradition of philosophy, logic, metaphysics, ethics, morality, statecraft, education, society, mathematics, civilization, and art. These do not enter the popular consciousness. Today’s hipster is unaware that the decimal system was born in India, is unaware that the concept of zero, of “nullness”, was dreamed up by an Indian mathematician, Aryabhatta, but goes to yoga class and drinks chai-tea lattes. India is exotic, and satisfies needs for identity and symbolism that Western society does not.
Two, India is uncivilized.Today’s US culture prefers Slumdog Millionaire to Lagaan and Pather Panchali. As simple as that. For me, there is a connection between this and the Christian messianic drive to convert uncivilized peoples and redeem them, and this view of the East. Such views of other people are apparent in concepts such as “Manifest Destiny”. You can’t justify colonizing a people unless you truly think you are their betters. To do that, you need to ignore their millennia old culture that predates yours in civilization and achievement. After all, if Slumdog Millionaire was set in Paris or London or New York, it would be laughable. The Londoners, Parisiens, and New Yorkers would hate it. But you could do it. You can make a film about gangs and pregnant teens and gun-violence and ethnic violence and classism and social inequality. And it would be true. But it would reek of bias. Because that’s not what London, Paris, and New York are about. Slumdog Millionaire is not what India is about. It’s what the West wants to conceive of India as, in a long tradition with links in its Christianity-influenced past. This is why Deepak Chopra, Osho, and the Maharishi are famous today in the US, while the Indian scientists who built the moon mission Chandrayaan-I in all of $65M are not. It’s the latest iteration in the historical Western view of India.
While this might come across as passing judgement on Western culture, I’ve tried to stick to a factual account of what I’ve observed. No moral judgement is intended in this essay. I am no historian, and you are welcome to disagree and comment below so. Also, note that when I say India, I mean South-Asia, since before 1947, there were no nation-states. It was and is a contiguous culture across South Asia, nevermind those lines in the sand. It’s just that today folks understand “India” much better than “South-Asia”.