Monday, November 23, 2009

Indian values are actually habits II

Eating certain food, dressing up in a certain way, doing certain things at certain times, following a daily routine can all be classified as regular habits. Few of these are cultivated consciously by the individual because he/she has certain idea of what he/she wants to be and they may even be based in values and principles. However, most of our regular habits don’t have a bearing on one’s values or principles. Many of them are mere imitations of one’s parents and relatives, conveniences of certain geographies, and rituals of certain cultures, traditions and religions. These habits are easily inherited while some are indoctrinated by the parents, by the society, by the school, by the organized religion. Normally, wearing chudidaar or a bindi is not an expression of a value or a principle but something you do just because everyone around you has been doing it.

However, some of these habits are so common amongst a group of people that they actually become one’s identity. This is true for many cultures, religions, and nations across the planet. Wearing chudidaar and bindi, in addition to being a regular habit of dressing, also becomes an identity for Indian women. Many Muslims wear a white cap or burqaa as an identity. We can easily identify certain wear with a nation, region or a religion.

That way religion and caste convert even a dietary habit into an identity. You will see two people living in the same geography, living in the same climatic and ecological condition, being in the same economic class, living there for many centuries and yet, having completely different dietary habits – like Muslims not eating pork and Hindus not eating beef. They have derived their eating habits from their religion, and not ecological or economic conditions. Within the same religion, like Hinduism, two castes living in the same geography, same ecological and economic conditions for many generations may have completely different dietary habits – one being vegetarian and other being non-vegetarian. Here we are deriving our dietary habits from our identity called caste.

Though these habits of cuisine and couture are derived from our identity it is very easy to confuse ourselves into thinking that they are actually based in a value or a principle. An Indian vegetarian does not eat meat, not because he has made a conscious decision at some point in time not to be responsible for inhuman treatment of animals, but because he is just sticking to his identity of caste. And yet, many Indian vegetarians rationalize their dietary habit as if it is a virtue when in fact no such thought process has aided him. If that was the case, we should not be seeing dietary habits strictly along casteist lines in India – but we do.

This phenomenon of converting a practice into an identity and then into a value worth upholding for and fighting for is not unique to Indians. Many other cultures, especially those that have gone through post-colonial inferiority complex or feel they have something to prove to others, exhibit the same phenomenon. For example, some Muslim women living in the West hold onto hijab as a demonstration of identity; and it is no longer considered a symbol of oppression.

Can we write off all habits as mere reflection of a culture, tradition or identity? Can’t they be based in values and principles?

A habit could indeed be an expression of a value and principle. Values may induce certain habits in a person. For example, a person who decided not to discriminate people based on caste may stop using those words in his vocabulary that have origins in caste based discrimination. Over a period of time, it may just become a habit. Here, this habit is clearly cultivated by this person based on a principle.

If some habits are indeed based in values, how come I have a big problem when all habits are seen as values?

That’s because many of our habits are not based in values. Some habits may be based on deep rooted prejudices, may be out of tune with the zeitgeist, and may be based in superstition and blind belief. And if we start treating all our habits as values, we run into problems of rationalizing even our prejudices, hatred, and xenophobia into values. For example, Indian villages actively promote prejudice against lower caste people and this prejudice results in many local habits, such as using a different utensils to serve them, forcing them to use different wells, and make them sit on the ground while you sit on the chair. Can we now convert our habit of serving them in a different utensil into a value? I have recently witnessed this habit being practiced even in a city like Bangalore where a tenant verifies which caste other tenant belongs to, and then go about practicing this, serving them in different utensils.

Also, there could be some habits which are specific to certain geography and if we were to make them a value, then we run into danger of justifying them in another geography where that habit could be out of place or even dangerous. For example, some North Americans hunt and eat deer which is quite a legal thing to do, but this cannot be extended to India.

The problem with equating our regular habits into values is that once they become values, we hold onto them no matter what – even those that are born out prejudice or those that are merely inherited. Going to temple regularly, not eating non-vegetarian food, holding fasts, not touching people with their feet, and other myriad habits and practices are all considered extremely important to most Indians, no doubt, and they have may some significance scientifically, morally, or economically. But then they start to believe they are their actually their values.

This particular phenomenon of equating regular habits to values clouds Indians from placing their priorities. If your son is a regular temple visitor you are quite happy even if he is the most corrupt officer in the government. While choosing a life partner for your daughter you are more concerned if he drinks alcohol or not, than finding out if he swindles people of their money. When trying to find out about a future son-in-law few parents have asked me questions like, whether he eats meat, or whether he drinks alcohol, and when I told them that he doesn’t they were quite happy. They are not really concerned if he is ethical, morally upright or has integrity. (Ahem, what are those things? Can you repeat those words?)

Here’s an interesting case that took place in an Indian court.

Ridiculed, British intern breaks down in court

"How many of your room mates smoke?'' "Do you drink?'' Pamela could take it no more. Hurt and humiliated, she broke down in the over-crowded court, pleading for privacy in the trial. This is no scene from a film, but what a 23-year-old British national living in Ahmedabad, went through at a metropolitan magistrate's court which was hearing a case on Tuesday of how she was allegedly molested by a plumber…

Her effort to get justice turned out to be another ordeal as she was humiliated in the open court and ridiculed when defence lawyer Sanjay Prajapati asked her whether she smoked or drank when the trial began on Monday…

At one point Prajapati said, "If I were a woman and behaved like her, one man would go to jail daily.''

The intended effect is very simple. This is how many Indians reason. If you are smoking and drinking then there is a good chance you are morally corrupt. That line of thinking does down well with most average Indians.

Indians have got their priorities all skewed up. Practices like corruption, cheating, swindling, stealing, and even maiming and inuring the other people are considered petty infringements compared to losing one’s caste by eating out a non-vegetarian plate or tasting alcohol even by accident. Again and again, we equate our dietary habits to values and then measure one’s morality.

Wednesday, November 04, 2009

Indian values are actually habits I

This is a hypothetical conversation between two Indians A and B.

A: We all deeply respect our father. Many others in our society respect him too. He has lot of values and he is a very principled man.

B: So what are his values?

A: Oh, there are many. For example, he never eats meat, no matter what.

B: Really? So how does he go about implementing his values?

A: He does not even touch meat or consume anything that has animal produce. Even when he is traveling abroad he will make sure he eats only vegetarian food though the people in those countries are predominantly non-vegetarian. He even avoids cheese in those countries because sometimes these foreigners use animal fats in their cheese.

B: So, did he become a vegetarian at some point of time in his life after realizing the inhumanness we extend to the animals?

A: Not really. He was a born vegetarian. He is born into a family which has a very long history of being strictly vegetarian.

B: So what you are saying is that he doesn’t eat meat because his parents didn’t eat meat. Isn’t that a habit he just inherited from his parents? How come it is a value?

A: Well. You don’t understand. He has many other values - not just that one.

B: Like what else?

A: He doesn’t drink alcohol. Not even touch it.

B: Let me guess. Your father’s parents don’t drink alcohol. Is that right?

A: Yes. Hear me out. It is a principle he holds onto no matter what. And he really scorns people who eat meat or alcohol and avoids their company. He ensured none of his kids even sniff the smell of alcohol. While growing I was tempted to drink alcohol but he is such a strict man - he forbade me from drinking alcohol. I thank him for that.

B: According to you that makes him principled?

A: Yes. Very much so! If you hold onto your values in all trying circumstances, then you are principled. Many things he does are actually his principles in action. He goes to temple every day and that is not something his parents do all the time – therefore you cannot say he inherited that from his parents. Also, he does many pujas, reads scriptures daily in the morning, and fasts twice a week.

B: Whatever you have told me are his habits, things he does on a daily basis, as a routine. How can you call them values and principles?

A: Look. You are only saying that because you don’t have his values and principles. I know that you drink alcohol and eat meat – and therefore you are not able to appreciate his values. He holds onto his beliefs no matter what.

B: Can you please elaborate?

A: Like when my sister married out of caste, he did not accept the marriage and eventually boycotted her. Even when she got a kid, he refused to embrace the grand kid. He is very determined and he did not waver from his stand. For this all our relatives grew immense respect for my father – they said he is the only true person in our caste. Most others would have succumbed to emotional pressures and relented to embrace the grand kid. Not my father. His values are pretty strong.

B: So what are your values? Eating food on time? Or taking a shower daily?