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.


  1. In the first part, the defenders of "Indian Culture" were pretty dominant and vigorous, I hope the trend to follow here too..

    I am no less an Indian by criticizing others who are morally uptight and know nothing about social and civil discipline..

    If alcohol-non veg are paap, so is molesting/teasing a woman..

  2. Good post Sujai. Bang on mostly.

    A few points abt the 'match-fixing' though:

    Its not usually easy to identify swindlers of money, they dont advertise themselves as such. I do know of parents avoiding certain lines of work (eg. small scale business) that are seen as more prone to corrupt practices. Parents prefer a son-in-law with a "decent" ie. secure govt job even if it makes less money.

    They actually do avoid matches from beyond their income category and in general the less wealthy class views suspiciously the more wealthy one working on the theory that its likely to be ill-gotten (except for "IT" sector jobs).

    Re. meat eating or alcohol, I do know NV families that try to marry off their kids to similar NV types and have problems with a Veg-only incoming spouse, so compatibility seems to be the key parents in general look for. Doesnt seem to be a bad idea if you're talking abt arranged marriages.

    Overall parents are risk-averse because they are, or feel responsible for, holding up the offspring family if they come to a bad pass. just a view from my corner of the world.


  3. @Jai

    What you said about alcohol and meat eating kind of proves what Sujai is trying to say. Indian parents don't think about compatibility between individuals at all when trying to find matches. Alcohol consumption and smoking still have stigma associated with them in Indian society. Smoking is not treated as some unhealthy habit but an indication of how morally corrupt a person is. Apparently, smoking corrupts women considerably more than it does men. That's another issue anyway.

    So they reject anybody who drinks/smokes and they rationalize by bringing up compatibility issues.

    Your points about economic status were bang on though.


  4. AV,

    I dont really disagree; I just think that if we had a strong "social drinking" background we would just as likely reject prospective sons-in-law for *not* drinking (oh the effrontery of refusing a drink) and rationalize it to his anti-social tendencies/ smug superiority/ whatever- but the basic issue could again be 'our habits' not being compatible with his.


  5. men can drink and smoke. Not women! Drinking/Smoking for men is not corrupt in this society.

  6. Too many words. Too little thought.
    Who said culture evolves consciously? “a bindi is not an expression of a value” – I think you’re mixing ideology with value. I can value my turds without having a definite ideology to back it up.
    Collective identities are identified by customs and habits (one definition of which is “customary practice”). Another meaning of “habit” is a garment/costume denoting an identity.

    “They have derived their eating habits from their religion, and not ecological or economic conditions.” – Are you sure about this? You presume that a particular set of economic and ecological condition can only support a single dietary habit. People eat what they can get and what they can afford.

    “Habits of couture”?! do you even know what couture means – it is reserved almost exclusively for designer clothing.

    Your point of mistaking values for ideology is valid, though. While vegetarianism can be an acquired habit – in my opinion, it does constitute a latent value system. It is na├»ve to assume that all our values are the results of our own conscious choices; much of it is derived. Read about the much discussed "christian ethics" to understand how institution embody much of our ethical system.

    “Indians have got their priorities all skewed up.” – Yes. And lazy and half-informed posts like this are not going to do anything to change that,

  7. funny link :)....wonder what our proponents of "Indian values" have to say on this.

  8. "Indians have got their priorities all skewed up." - because Indians are a billion strong nation of brainwashed morons ! (Damn and I am also one of them)

  9. -- If you are smoking and drinking then there is a good chance you are morally corrupt--

    Smoking and drinking are HARMFUL to health. And any person indulging in them freely, sans limit, is mentally weak.

    No wonder many cultures consider drinking and smoking as "haraami"

  10. Bhanu Prasad:

    "mentally weak" people need not be morally corrupt.

    If that is the case, then the religious people, whom I consider to be mentally weak, would all be morally corrupt.

  11. --then the religious people, whom I consider to be mentally weak--

    That's a weak argument to start with

    How can you say that they are mentally weak?.

    And by making above argument you seem to have accepted that smoking and drinking are for mentally weak.

  12. Sujai,

    Perhaps this may help explain the frustration.

    An excerpt:

    I should like to illustrate this contrast, if I may, by noting the typical answers one would give in these two parts of the world to questions designed to evaluate a person (This is the issue of the difference involved in ‘appraisals’ between our two cultures, touched on in the previous section.) In the following, answer ‘P’ would be typical in the West and ‘Q’ of Asia.

    Question: “What kind of a person is X?”
    P: “He is a friendly person”.
    Q: “He comes home every week to enquire after my health”.
    Question: “What kind of a wife is she?”
    P: “A caring, loving wife.
    Q: “She never eats until everyone in the family has eaten”.
    Question: “What kind of a son is he?”
    P: “He is a well-behaved boy”
    Q: “He prostrates at my feet every time he comes to see me”
    : “He always takes some sweets with him when he visits his aunt”, etc.

    I would like to put to you that answers marked ‘Q’ are very typical of Asia and often very irritating to Westernized sensibilities, because these answers do not appear answer the questions at all. The ques-tion was: not what someone does or does not do, but what kind of person that someone is. The for-mer may be relevant to answering questions about the latter, but they are not the same. Such would be the remark that one makes, if the Western culture is taken as the reference point.

    In the West, the action one performs is seen as an expression of one’s self (at times only). Where this assumption is present, there both action and language serve the same goal: one expresses one’s self in action and one’s thought in language.

    That both may do so imperfectly or even not at all is incorporated in the notion that there is no nec-essary relation between the self and its expression in action, or thought and its expression in language. The debates about which of the two is modelled after which or what was there first, become varia-tions of the same theme: one does not escape the theme by talking about linguistic actions and lin-guistic utterances instead of thoughts and propositions. Because moral or immoral actions could but need not express the morality or immorality of the self which performs them, one would want to dis-tinguish between a person and his actions.

    From --

  13. Idler:
    Thanks a lot for the excerpt and the link. This work was done in 1985. Hmm..


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