Tag Archives: NRI

Questions of Identity

A version of this Post was published at Andhra Cultural Portal on December 24, 2014


aadhar_idindia

Read this article to learn about another type of “identity crisis”

Hi, I’m Nilambari and I’m here to share my ideas on a few subjects from Carnatic music and Kerala to Cinema and Historical math & science . Born a Mallu but having lived variously in Andhra, Karnataka, and Tamil Nadu, I am fairly comfortably multilingual and enjoy exploring languages (such as Telugu) and the cultural nuances transmitted through them.

While I enjoy our classical musical tradition (Nilambari is one of my favorite ragams), it must also be said that I do enjoy other forms of melodious music. However, rap or heavy metal is not my cup of tea or more correctly filter kaapi. I enjoy movies too but am a bit picky and choosy about the kind of movies I will watch. In general, I have a very high level of curiosity on most subjects which stems from a wish to understand what is at the root of the various topics that interest me. I will try and share with you my thoughts on various areas that pique my interest and hope you will enjoy the journey and be a fellow traveler.

Today I start with sharing a few thoughts on the question of identity with reference being only to the geographical territory of India. A great ancillary read for this essay is Why India Is A Nation.

Below is one of the popular links from a movie, which glorifies the legacy of our mathru bhoomi’s Sanskriti, and my own native Kerala.

Now, let’s start…

What is identity?

To me, identity is intimately connected to geography and language. I believe it is good for both to be in agreement so that the identity formed is secure right from childhood. When I say agreement, I believe that if one is a Malayalee for instance, it is good that the formative years or childhood years are spent in the geography that is the birth place of Malayalam and the resulting culture. This means that a Malayalee child is better served if s/he spends childhood in Kerala. In earlier times, that was indeed the case for the large part of the population of India. However, post independence, the need to earn a livelihood meant that many people left their land of birth to look for livelihood options elsewhere and eventually ended up making a life in their karma bhoomi and not janma bhoomi. Their children were born in the new home. The parents carried the culture and language of their janma bhoomi and hence had a secure identity. Their children however, being born in a new place did not have it easy. They spoke the language of their parents at home and followed a culture that was passed on to them from their first generation displaced parents. At the same time, the children were exposed not only to the culture of the new place, but also various other influences some of which will be discussed below.

A child born to immigrant parents learns to adapt and interact seamlessly when moving between the inherited culture and the lived culture. The negative, though, is that over time a sense of rootlessness about intrinsic identity starts creeping in. Added to this sense of confusion is the acquiring of English skills as a pre-requisite to a “good education”. The newly immigrant parents working hard to fend for themselves and their small families generally gravitate to schools offering English as the medium of instruction since they believe they are providing for a bright future for their child. They believed that “English opened doors“.

The small and nuclear family is one of the first departures from the culture of their original land. Immigrant (not extremely poor), reasonably educated parents are most often found staying as a nuclear family without the traditional Indian joint family support structure. This forms a significant break with the parent culture since the joint family is an absorbing and cushioning medium for the shocks that life deals out to people. It must be understood here that the entire family is coping with the changes that the move away from the homeland forces individuals to make.

It is inevitable that in time, the parents also adopt certain ways of the local culture into their own lifestyle thus beginning to modify the primary identity. This adoption happens either through necessity or through own volition. For instance, if a Malayalee lives in say a place like New Delhi, s/he is forced to make certain eating habit changes. For example, coconut oil is an essential ingredient in Malayalee cooking for that is the oil that is geographically abundantly available in Kerala. However, the Malayalee in Delhi would not be able to cook with coconut oil since it is not widely available and even if one can procure it, it is rather expensive and cannot be an everyday option. Thus, it becomes an adaptation out of necessity. So, a dietary change has already happened in the displaced Malayalee household.

coconut

The parents with fond nostalgia for the coconut oil of their culture adapt to the locally available oil for cooking. The children, being used to the local oil right from birth either begin to consider coconut oil as an exotic indulgence or even begin to dislike it. Thus, there is a subtle shift away from the original culture. This is highlighted as an example to say that there are multiple small shifts away from the original culture that eventually becomes a blend of various ingredients locally available in the new place adapted to the original one.

Indeed the cross fertilization makes for an interesting study and does shape the individuals of the first generation immigrants differently from the origin culture. In many ways, it exposes the children of such displaced parents to pluralism early. The child learns to navigate between different worlds and this is a precious skill that stands her/him in good stead in adult life. The flip side of course is that a certain rootlessness begins to make itself apparent in the child which can create disorientation regarding a secure identity. This rootlessness starts getting accentuated when the child begins schooling thereby getting introduced to English to add to the mother tongue and the local language exposure. Soon, the three language formula in Indian schools and the insistence on English in urban, upmarket schools starts working on the child. The thought processes start getting framed in English–another step away from the parent culture.

While the child usually does follow and speak the mother tongue at home, more often than not, reading and writing in the mother tongue is not learnt. Thus, another link to parent culture via literature in the mother tongue is lost to the child. Access to the local culture and language is also alienated as a result of the imposition of English. English literature and English discourse starts replacing original or even local culture and discourse. Slowly, the narratives favored by English speaking peers and intellectuals start to seep into the mindset and psyche of the child. The result is a growing alienation from the roots and a growing disdain for the original culture. This happens because English language discourse hardly respects the regional language’s intelligence or culture.

As the child grows and as English replaces the original tongue as a medium of expression, the child begins to inhabit a world rather divorced from the reality on the ground. Thoughts, ideas, ideologies and worldviews begin to resemble what the English narrative propagates. The result of this slow indoctrination is that the child becomes confused about his/her identity. At home, parents still live according to some of the customs remembered from older times from their land of birth. The child on the other hand picks up some amount of the old homeland narrative, but increasingly also believes in the English narrative that is shaping his/her thoughts. This rootlessness created as a result then leads to a quest for identity for a small minority. Most go through life without resolving this confusion which leads them to commit many blunders along the way. The few who address the problem start out with a directionless, general quest. However, they finally find out the reasons for their restlessness and then work towards correcting that imbalance. If they are persistent, they eventually work back towards their original roots.

However, sometimes the journey back to roots can also leave one dissatisfied because the root culture has also been exposed to the vagaries of time and has changed complexion. Those who eventually retrace their steps back to their roots then look for those elements in the root culture that can be adopted by them. In a way, the displaced seeker has a much wider angle view of his/her original culture and is able to see the distortions and changes that have happened to the original culture. A person still immersed in the original culture is more prone to accept changes without much questioning thinking that change is the only constant in life.

In conclusion, displacement from original culture has both positives and negatives. The positive is that for those who understand that they are grappling with a rootlessness, it is a rather enriching journey to get back to the roots. They have the wider exposure to be able to appreciate better their own traditions but for those who do not understand or study this restlessness that they experience, they live a life where they are continually trying to grasp at an identity that will neither be wholly theirs nor be fulfilling. It’s a privilege to be born and to spend your life in your homeland. However, if you are displaced, see it as an advantage to understand your mother culture better. Make sure you recognize your restlessness as actually the manifestation of rootlessness. Be a seeker and find your true identity. Love your motherland and the language and culture that defines it; for ultimately you are defined by it whether you like it or not.

Before I end, here is an excellent talk by Shri. Rajiv Malhotra who touches on some other aspects of identity especially among the urban youth of India who today are going through some very confusing times as a result of the shrinking of the globe and the pervasiveness of a global culture.

I Leave you with a montage that certainly defines who I am. Until we meet again…

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uqqPlgpNsMM

[Reprint Post] On Achara

Sarv Agamanam Acara |Prathama Parikalpate

Acara Prabhavo Dharmo |Dharmasya Prabhur Achyutaha

In the Vishnu Sahasranama, it is stated that “Achara leads to Dharma, and Dharma is the path to Krishna”. As such, individuals must first master good conduct as the stepping stone to understanding and embodying righteousness.

Indians (and our globe-trotting Andhras are no exception) have managed to give themselves a bad name internationally. Indian culture’s popularity, through yoga, bollywood, and cuisine, is at an all time high, but the popularity of Indians and India are beginning to approach a low. Much of this obviously due to bad press (some deserved, and quite a bit unfair)—

this blog post will thus focus on the part that is deserved

—and discuss ways you can do things about it. That’s right, I’m talking to YOU—currently lounging on the sofa or somewhere else, in between generous helpings of hakka noodles and God knows what else. And the way you can tackle it is through Achara (pronounced “Aachaara”).

The beauty of Achara is that 1/3 of India’s problems can be solved if India’s citizens follow it, another 1/3 can be solved if they follow Bharatiya Dharma (patriotic/national duty), and another 1/3 through good leadership and administration.

Of late, there has been some misunderstanding about Achara. The Manusmriti is often selectively cited to emphasize that Achara is somehow the highest Dharma coming before anything and everything—but such people represent a flawed understanding. They hide behind this to justify their emphasis of kalpya or ritual aspects of Achara, as though Purva Mimamsa were the only and highest darsana (philosophical view). But this is not the case, and it is certainly not Vedanta, which the Gita embodies.

Achara is not the highest dharma—how could it be? Was it Acharam for Yudhisthira to say “Ashvathama attaha…kunjaraha”? Was it Acharam for Bharata to angrily scold his mother for her conspiracy against Rama and disown her? Was it Acharam for Dhristadyumna to kill a learned Brahmin like Drona?

No, of course it wasn’t—but it was Dharmam, because all these actions were intended to ensure that Dharma and Rta (the cosmic/just order) were protected. Krishna made Yudhisthira speak a lie because Drona could not be defeated in battle and had to be removed to ensure the victory of the righteous Pandavas over the evil Kauravas. Bharata had to scold his mother and even disobey and disown her so she would come to her senses for the sin she had committed by overturning Rama’s birthright as firstborn  heir to the throne. It was appropriate for Dhristadyumna to kill Drona, because Drona had taken up arms and sided with Adharma, thus neither his status as a learned brahmin nor his identity as beloved guru of Arjuna could be allowed to protect him from the consequences of his actions. Thus in all these cases, Achara was broken, but Dharma was protected.

What then is the highest dharma, you ask?—Sacrifice.

No, not Yajna (that’s a different type of sacrifice)—but Tyaga (which is self-sacrifice).

Don’t get me wrong. Achara is very important. In fact, it is the building block of Dharma. The foundation that allows individuals to grow ethically and then morally, and allows societies to have a stable and just order. But Achara has, all too often, been an excuse for some sections to get lost in mindless ritual. Ritual without reflection is mere robotics.

Sri Ramana Maharshi asked of what use it was to be a lettered man if it means merely a becoming a gramophone—mindlessly and brainlessly chanting mantras and performing yajnas without improving himself. Developing Atma-vichara (self-reflection) and Viveka (ability to discriminate between right and wrong) is thus the critical first step to liberation from samsara.

Our own people, of course, stupidly gas their heads up with the hot air of caste pride and pompously ask “which dharma?”. But regardless of age, such buffoons are nothing more than spiritual children in aged bodies.

Why do we say “Aham Brahmasmin” rather than have each individual chant varna (caste) over and over? This is because one’s birth, body, and even caste, is temporary—fleeting. At the end of each life, our merits and demerits determine the nature and birth status of future lives—and those who misbehave today could find themselves taking birth as even animals.

Thus, while varnashrama dharma historically has had  a place in guiding one’s duty to society, Sanatana dharma at its highest levels is about the essentials of morality. These are the divine qualities, or gunas, of Pavitrata (purity), Karuna (compassion), Saamyama (self-control ), Yuktata (justice), Satya (truth), Tyaga (self-sacrifice) and above of all Bhakti/Prema (Divine love). This Prema is what makes possible love for the rest of society and willingness to engage in Tyag to safeguard it. This is because if the Tyagi is willing to even sacrifice himself for a greater cause, then he is willing to restrain his pleasures to avoid hurting others.

It was Bharata’s brotherly love for Rama that made him sacrifice not only only the ill-gotten Throne that had come to him, but also willing to sacrifice his own life to ensure the Kingship of Ayodhya was Rama’s alone.   He even refused to crown himself, and took up residence as a hermit-ruler at Nandigram rather than from the palace at Ayodhya. This is because, pleasure without conscience is one of the greatest dangers for the souls of men and women. And Tyag is, thus, one of our highest ideals—and the highest Dharma.

This self-sacrifice is not the mindless behavior of lemmings—giving themselves up for the slightest cause (or as masquerade for atma-hatya)—but rather a studied, difficult, and frequently reluctant one. This is because it weighs the interests of the individual against the needs of society. In fact, the most brilliant and insightful dialogue in the arbitration comes from Rajarishi Janaka himself, who says “it is easy to to die, but it is often harder to live for your loved ones”. Thus, it is critical that individuals properly study dharma to understand when the former or latter is more appropriate.

The famous story of Maharishi Dadhichi is an example.

File:Story of Vritra.jpg

The King of the Devas, Indra, was once defeated by the Vritrasura and pushed out of Heaven (Svarga). The demon Vritra had been given a boon that prevented him from being killed by any weapon then in existence—especially one made from wood and metal.

Indra went to Lord Vishnu in despondency, and Vishnu told him that it was possible to defeat Vritra, but such a weapon could only be made from the bones of Sage Dadhichi. Indra went to Dadhichi’s ashram in Naimisharanya and asked if the Sage would be willing to grant the Devas his bones to restore Dharma. Dadhichi selflessly gave up his life so that a weapon—the Vajra— could be fashioned from his bones to defeat the Asuras. This is an example of Tyaga, self-sacrifice for the need of society.

So what then is Achara?

People think that it is great evil that begets the horrors and disasters of the world, but the reality is that it is the little evils, the petty injustices that occur so frequently that aggregate over time and cause destruction.

It is the dismissive cavalier remark that breeds resentment. It is the mean-spirited mockery that builds hatred. It is the thoughtless messiness that causes disgust. Because most people seek to avoid conflict, the frustration that brews from such incidents is typically not blown off at appropriate intervals, but all at once, in a disproportionate and destructive display. That is why the 4 main elements of Achara should be observed.

MARYADA PURUSHOTTAM RAM

1. Maryada/Saujanya (propriety/etiquette/courtesy) *Rama was called “Maryada Purushottam” for precisely this reason

  • Polite and Proper speech-i.e. not abusing people for their caste, race or vulnerability
  • Respectable behavior in public-i.e. respecting laws, customs & etiquette of a place
  • Courtesy to others, especially elders and pregnant women.   Chivalry/gentlemanliness/ladylike behavior.
  • Consideration for others and their feelings (i.e. respecting queues when possible)
  • Respecting those who are elder to you. Your knowledge or intelligence may be greater than theirs, but their wisdom exceeds yours by sheer anubhava (experience). So don’t let ahankar from your college or Veda Patashala studies blind you to their buddhi. Even if they’re wrong, respectfully tell them so . This is maryada

2. Praja dharma (societal duty as citizen worker, businessman, ruler, or priest/teacher)

  • Not just being a receiver but also being a contributor to society
  • Being a good citizen by paying one’s taxes
  • Looking after one’s parents/relatives in old age/need
  • Following proper rituals as appropriate for one’s station/occupation (Kulachara)

3. Dama (temperance/self-restraint–distinct  from and more basic than self-control)

  • Restraining one’s greed and animal urges. (greed is the root of sin)
  • Care not to cause unnecessary harm to People or Animals or Nature

4. Saucha (cleanliness)

  • Not making a mess of one’s self
  • Keeping one’s home and streets clean

In short, Achara is good and right conduct. It doesn’t mean being a mahant or mahatma or even a tyagi. It just means behaving well and being a responsible citizen of society (something our NRIs should also remember).

It means showing due courtesy to others (respect to elders and elder siblings, consideration for the weak and vulnerable, concern for the distraught, and fulfillment of basic individual functions to society), it means having good clean habits, it means not littering in public and making a nuisance of yourself, and it means not breaking the law of whatever society of which you are a part.

It also means having a sense of civic duty. As much as Hindus love to criticize the morality of the West, they cannot contest the reality that the sense of civic duty in Europe and America far exceeds that in India. In fact, this is one of the main flaws of Modern Indians. But this was not always the case.

Accounts from Greek visitors to Ancient India show how orderly and clean Indian military camps were, and how rare theft was. Chanakya’s writings in the Arthashastra itself are proof of how a premium was placed on civic cleanliness—with fines for littering, etc. Indians may take personal hygiene (barring deodorant…) very seriously, but public hygiene today is a severe problem. Thus, along with good manners, societal duty, and self-restraint saucha (public and private) is exceedingly important.

Achara is the key to Good citizenship and Civic Duty–ideas that are all too often lacking in India and Indians.

Thus, in that sense, Achara could never be the highest dharma—but is rather the basic, or elementary dharma—the foundation of dharma. Because dharma itself is subtle (sukshmam), achara must first be mastered. Then and then only can we realize when it should be bent or even broken in favor of the higher needs of Dharma.

Therefore Achara is the way to Dharma, but Dharma is the Path to Achyuta (Narayana).

Link to Vishnu Sahasranama youtube video with meaning in English.

References:

www.hinduism.co.za/dharma.htm