The year must have been 2011. I was doing an ERP Implementation project for a company in Bogota, Colombia (A little bit of self-promotion doesn't hurt).
Colombians are very warm, friendly and nice people. Since our civilizations share the same timeline, they are very inquisitive about India.
For them India is a mystery. They see cows walk on the road and their mouths water, wistfully looking at all that food going waste. They see religions co-existing peacefully and they want to know how we do it. They want to know how a religion like Hinduism can have 33 Crores of deities and can still claim to be a religion. How do you decide which god to pray?
Curious, these guys...
We were having lunch, Danny, Rafa, Diana and Me.
"Tell us something about India", Rafa asked
Every time people abroad ask me that question, my heart swells with pride. I suddenly become, in a small way, an ambassador of the country. I have to carry the burden of 120 Crore people. It is not a mean task.
"We have about 28 states in our country", I begin. "Each state has a plural population that believes in different religions and have different ideologies. Also each state has its own cuisine, language, culture, dance, music and even martial arts."
They are impressed.
"The definition of a nation is one which has its own language, culture, cuisine, dance and music. By that definition, India is a country where 28 different nations co-exist peacefully", Danny points out.
This is a new line of thought.
While having Mysore Dosa for breakfast accompanied by 'Madras Filter Coffee' and reading a Malayalam news paper in a restaurant in Mumbai I never thought that I was doing something different. While sitting in a restaurant in Hyderabad having Paradise Veg Biriyani for lunch along with with Rasgolla for dessert I never felt that I was straddling multiple cultures. While haggling for a rickshaw in Bhubhaneswar using Hindi and sign language, I never felt anything abnormal, because interacting with people of different culture and view point was par for the course in India. While having Rajastani Thali while sipping Punjabi da lassi or while watching Film Fare Awards or while laughing at comedy programs in Tamil, Malayalams or Hindi TV Channels, it never crossed my mind that what I was doing was something amazing.
I am a Vegetarian, but still eat food in the same table where people are eating meat in adjacent seats. I pray at a the serene surroundings of Vadakkumnathan temple in Kerala but I also think of the majesty of god and the universe while drawing a cross on my chest when I am in front of a church or while praying at Hazratbal mosque in Srinagar.
I am equally a fan of Toms, both Hanks and Cruise. I dig old Amitab Movies. I love Rajani and Kamal, Mohanlal and Mammotty, Shobhana and Tabu, Sridevi and Kajol, Hema Malini and Sharmila Tagore, and Rekha and Waheeda Rahman...
I enjoy listening to MS Subbalaxmi Classical Songs, Kishore Kumar singing 'O Saathi Re', Yesudas singing 'Bhaja Govindam', Lata Mangeshkar singing 'Mein Tulasi Tere Aangan Ki', Shalmali Kholgade singing 'Daaru Desi', Pankaj Udhas singing 'Chithi Aayi Hai', 'Ekla Chalo Re' by Amitab Bacchan or listening to the majestic voices of Balamurali Krishna or Pandit Bhimsen Joshi as they sing 'Mile Sur Mera Tumhara'
By being able to easily navigate multiple cultures, appreciate multiple art forms and enjoying multiple cuisines I was proving that Indians are highly flexible, that we are open minded to accept differences of opinion and that we are 'normally' leading a kind of awesome life in an amazing country, that many people in other parts of the world can't imagine living.
I felt proud of being an Indian. Very, very proud
"It is amazing to me how these different cultures stayed together for over 5000 years", says Danny,
"What is it that keeps India united? No other country has been able to achieve this unity in years, Look at Korea, look at Soviet Union, look at Europe that has split multiple times in the last 100 years. Czech, Slovakia, Latvia, Lituania, Yougoslavia, Boznia....Examples abound of people who couldn't handle cultural differences, despite speaking same language in some cases and who violently split leading to death and destruction. Still India races along on its own track as it were. Peaceful and progressive. How has India managed this awesome achievement of staying together over so many centuries and have grown together? Despite 5000 years old, now you are being touted as the '5000 Year Young Civilization'. You have the second largest number of Muslims in the world and we read only positive stories about Muslims in India. How does the majority and minority co-exist peacefully in the country? By any stretch of imagination, you must be imploding by now. But you continue to grow, progress, evolve and modernize.What is your secret?", Danny asks.
How do I respond to this question? How will you respond?
"The country of India is bound by the ideal of 'Vasudeva Kudumbakam', which, loosely translated, means that we are an integral part of a universal family. There is an over-arching set of ideas and ideals that hold India together. These include plurality, respect and tolerance to other people's views, discussion and debate, space for opinions that you may not like and opportunity for people to grow and prosper.
Since we are a part of a universal family, we accept and integrate people with different and opposing views just like any family does. We give space for dissent and difference. We allow people to air their strong negative opinions so that those opinions are not bottled up and explode later. In our view differences of opinion are like drops of water that falls into an ocean. Each drop may be different, but when it falls into the Ocean, it integrates into a universal whole.
We also instinctively believe in the concept of Maya, which loosely translated means that there is nothing real in this world. By that I do not mean physically real. For example,Rafa here is physically real. But his mother sees Rafa differently from the way his girl friend does. You Danny as a customer see him differently from me who perceives him as his project manager or Diana who looks at Rafa as her colleague. The Rafa at home is different from Rafa in the office or Rafa in the club in the evening. Who is the real Rafa?
There is no real Rafa. Rafa is in the eye of the beholder. The idea of Rafa is closely integrated with each individual's perspective of Rafa.
This is the idea of Maya.
There is a story of Gautama Buddha.
Two fighting neighbours came to Buddha for justice. The first person came and passionately explained why he was right and his neighbour was wrong.
'You are right', said Buddha to the man.
Next came his neighbour. He also passionately explained why he was right and the first man was wrong.
'You are right', said Buddha
A disciple who was watching the exchanges couldn't hide his curiosity. How could both of them be right, the disciple asked Buddha, only one of them could be right.
'You are right', replied Buddha
This is the idea of Maya. The idea of Maya tells us that there are no absolute positions especially when it comes to differences between individuals. Absolute positions lead to inflexibility and that in turn lead to disagreement which finally end up in disaster.On the other hand, since there are no absolute positions, it is very easy to design a Win-Win solution to most of the issues that we encounter in life.
The idea of Indianness is also based on the concept of Karma, which loosely translates into Work. It tells us to commit good acts, thoughts and deeds since only good will come out of good. It tells us to avoid sins because sin will definitely lead to retribution. Since we believe in the idea of Seven generations (Saath Janam), punishment for our sins have a lot of time to catch up.
In the end, India is defined by the principles of individual engagement enshrined in Bhagavad Gita which tells us to do our work without looking for rewards (Nishkama Karma)
Since India is based on a set of great eternal ideals, the country of India will survive as long as these ideals survive. These have survived for over 5000 years, so I guess it will last forever."
There was silence all around. People, including me, were trying to digest the import of what I mentioned just now.
Diana had a question.
"If India, as you say, is based on the idea of universal family, how do you define the idea of India as a Nation?"
My answer to that question was:
"I have already discussed the ideals of India. In addition the idea of India include Plurality, Integrity and Unity in Diversity (Physical and of thoughts and ideas) and respect for different views. The ideals and ideas together make the concept of India as a nation. My idea of nation is one where each individual (irrespective of gender or religious beliefs or her caste or his personal lifestyle choices) is respected, is free to debate and discuss and has the potential to grow and prosper. Her religious beliefs are her personal choices. As a country, we should enable every individual to become strong, both morally and ethically. A country becomes strong only when an individual becomes strong and when an individual has the ability to fulfill his god given potential without fear or favor.
We are blessed that we have this freedom in our country. We cherish it with all our heart. ", I concluded.
What is your answer to the question raised by Diana. How do you define the idea of India as a Nation?