A culture different from ours
When we visit another country, we take our luggage, our knowledge, our references and our way of life with us, including patterns of behavior for both times of wins and celebrations, as well as for times of losses and suffering. They are expressions of feelings, values, beliefs and habits through language, acts and attitudes that are cultivated and repeated for generations.
When we arrive at a place whose culture is new to us, we realize the aesthetic beauty of around and we can take immense pleasure in something that we perceive as different and beautiful. But there is something more profound than aesthetics, in which lies in the bigger picture of each culture that may not be so easy to capture. Local culture has its values, priorities and social importance, which is something we cannot see—at least not on a single visit. And it may be something we don't usually give much importance, since we are impregnated with our own culture and our pattern of behavior, which include our clothes, our language and our attitudes. And we just want to stroll and relax.
This is what often happens when visiting India. Leaving the western world, one sees many beautiful and different things upon arrival. The traveler admires them, fantasizes about them, buys them and takes them home. A different beauty is appreciated, yet the heart of the place and its people is not understood. In order to do so, one has to let go of concepts and expectations for now, abandoning judgments, comparisons and demands, to try to see without prejudice—something that is very difficult to do. It is only then that one can blend with the India around us.
But this is a mysterious encounter, since there are many things seen that are not evident and we cannot decipher or understand them necessarily as they are: their history, their past, the obstacles and the solutions found. In short, a life built up to the present. When what we see is very different from what we are used to seeing, it is hard to decipher. This is how the mystery cannot be understood, but only interpreted, according to foreign standards, thereby remaining unknown, hidden.
For Western eyes, many things are different in India. Indian history is not studied in Western schools; we know little about what happened there. The ancient philosophy studied throughout the Western world is Greek, just as Greeks are known philosophers. When looking at India, it is always in a comparative study, referenced and "fitted" by Western thinking. Yet, how can we understand what they say and do if the reference is always foreign? That leaves judgment or interpretation, but little understanding. The point-of-view has already been compromised. Even when we want to help or collaborate, the reference is foreign, and ill-suited to local needs! After all, what kind of help is this that determines what one should receive and react?
This not only happens when we visit India, but it also happens when meeting anyone from a culture different from our own.
India is the birthplace of the culture of the Vedas. We find Indians of different religions, all of them welcomed in the country, but the origin of these various religions, whether Christian, Jewish, Islamic or Zoroastrian are from outside India. Sikhism, Buddhism and Jainism, however, were born in India and have many points in common with the Vedas. The original culture of India has been the Vedic culture for thousands of years.
Within the cultural tradition of the Vedas, what is most different and unique about India is the exclusive millennial dedication of families to memorizing and studying the meaning of the Vedas. Culture and its preservation are based on those who keep the Vedas alive. The Vedas have a holistic view of the human being, and all its subjects, such as those of self-knowledge, health, science, the practice of yoga and pranayama, dance, theater, music, architecture and many others, are all connected to each other and covered in the Vedas.
Around temples, there have always been communities that supported the activities of the temples, in addition to rigorous study and teaching of the Vedas. Today we have this ancient practice still alive in South India. In the vicinity of the temples, teachers and students come together for classes in areas called Agraharam, where it is possible to hear Vedic chants practiced from an early age, throughout the day whenever we pass by.
Near the temples, we can find an atmosphere of tranquility, dedication and harmony, where teachers and students sing the Vedic mantras for the peace of all mankind. They are concerned with preserving peace in the whole community, across the country and in the world. The strict vegetarian diet and its daily practices focus on respect and non-violence towards any person, animal or element of nature, contributing to the peace and harmony of all. They see themselves as responsible for the tranquility and well-being of all; they offer prayers and rituals for everyone, not for themselves and their families exclusively. In protecting knowledge and with a lifestyle of dedication to all, these teachers and students have preserved the knowledge that has given structure to living culture across the country for thousands of years.
When we visit South India and see an Agraharam, an apparent and deliberate separation may strike us, as if these scholars and caregivers of the temples were arrogant and had an attitude of superiority over others. However, that is not the case. The Agraharams exist so that these scholars devoted to the divine can live a simple life dedicated to the studies and practices necessary for the peace and well-being of all, so that the whole community can enjoy their chantings, rituals and prayers. While they set an example and think of everyone, the other groups that make up society are also inspired to contribute to their tasks, so that everyone can benefit. As Sri Krishna says in Bhagavadgītā 3.11:
Parasparam bhavayantah sreyah paramavapsyatha.
By contributing together, everyone achieves the greatest good.
And when everyone does their part, their dharma, everyone is blessed with well-being. Each inspires the other to fulfill their role, since the maintenance of dharma depends on all members of the community. Scholars, fulfilling their role with a view to the whole community, inspire everyone else to fulfill their roles as well.
All this complexity of Indian society may not be seen in some visits. The visitor may be led, by one’s own prejudices, to conclude that there is injustice and social disorganization, when in fact there is a different social structure that works.
In order to be able to truly see others and help, if necessary, it is essential that I can see them with their eyes, forfeiting my judgments and simply beholding a vision of others—that which is different—without letting my gaze be compromised and imprisoned. What is common to all human beings at their most basic level are the universal values, the dharma, but human expressions are infinite and all are valid and possible, as long as there is respect, sincerity and non-violence.
May each of us be able to protect the dharma and be prepared to welcome the forms of expression with surprise and delight at the mere variety that exists in the universe—the very forms of Ishvara.