One of the richest men of India graced the evening aarti (ceremony) in Varanasi one evening. Not unlike Obamas visit to India, several private planes landed in the days before his arrival to ensure he would have all the comforts to which he’s accustomed, as well as the security preparations to keep him safe. Aarti time was even changed to fit his schedule. Of course, he was also giving some money to repair some damaged ghats and beautify the city.
Varanasi is famous for it’s discomforts, unappealing poverty, illness, garbage, shit, decomposition, and stench, to say nothing about the ease by which terrorism can be done here. Kings like this man have to worry about that kind of thing though it may be nothing to us. The filth of this city gets inside of all new comers, especially those most sure of themselves. Standing before the fires that consume over 10 000 bodies a year can have it’s effect. Doubt is sure to arise in the mind of the firmest ego. In this regard, I can understand why someone with the means would take all precaution: I’m sure he has no more time for doubt than he does for illness.
I asked one Varanasi man what he thought of this; being visited by such a king? “Go away man, we don’t need your money and show. They just come and disrupt our lives, demand special favours, just so they can show how great they are. Go away from here.” Time and again I hear this kind of attitude in Varanasi. Whenever there’s some initiative to clean the place up, or fix it or preserve it I’m usually just reminded that Varanasi people don’t want change. While the cities of India are surging ahead with change, most people in Varanasi are happy doing things like they’ve always done them. Let them fix things, let them push their initiative, as soon as they go things will go back to they way they’ve always been.
I can see the argument for such conservatisms in India much more clearly than I can in Canada. The family and community structures are much more intact here. Their lives are like iron, hard, but solid and dependable from birth to death. Family is their insurance, the community is their support.
The caste system is often spoken of in deplorable terms, but if you think in terms of structuring a community, you need all four castes to work together. An of course, the outcome of any cohesive group is that there will be people who don’t belong (outcastes and foreigners). A self-sustaining community needs a diversity of castes: labourers to build and maintain infrastructure, farmers and merchants to supply our goods, teachers and knowledge seekers to preserve and promote wisdom, as well as leaders and protectors to facilitate the smooth harmonious flow of people and goods. The outcastes forever challenge us. Those who think differently, act differently, have different norms, languages, gods. As much as their ways challenge us as individuals, they pose even greater challenge to the community.
What we’re seeing is a breaking down of the social structure in India. The west went thru this after World War II. By the time the 60’s rolled around everyone was freely completing their desires without fear of social recrimination. But of course there are still strong social taboos here that still make it necessary to underground to complete ones desires. The growth of urbanization along with massive need for itinerant works who leave their families and villages to find work where they can. To the western eye who sees them with their wife and children along with, a brother and his family it might seem as though family is still abundantly present, but from the Indian perspective this is the first stage of a broken family; broken home.
This is all old news in the west, but over the years of coming to India I’ve seen the changes that I have been a part of. As a foreigner, I’m an outcast here, if it was not for the weight of the currency from my home country, it’s likely I would be treated as more of an outcast than a king, but because of the weight of my western currency I am given the power of a king. As tourist outcasts we all arrive with this power. With this power we can change the society to suit our own needs just as the richest man in India did when he came to Varanasi. Of course, compared to him, you and I are poor people, our advantage is numbers and long durable work. In other words, our comforts were not flown in for us alone, but over the years of so many of us coming and bringing our own values with us we have gotten out way. We can have a croissant with jam for breakfast along with a cappuccino and a cigarette in any mildly touristic town in India, even if the locals have never found a taste for it.
We have created small unsustainable economies in the tourist sectors. The people, the real rulers of the land, are relying on us outcaste tourist for their prosperity. We’re nice enough rulers, we give good tips and are generally pleasant enough as people, but we’re still outcastes; we don’t belong as a part of their society. So whenever we bring our good ideas and insist that others adopt them, we are introducing foreign elements into the culture. We might not insist on the supremacy of our values without words or actions, but this supremacy shines with the power of our currency and the sophistication of our lifestyle.
Many people are of course overwhelmed buy the shine of modern sophistication and pride exuded by western people. Imagine yourself a villager, still no electricity or running water, never a day in school (learned from the land), some ox cart road for so many miles before there’s even a decent road, maybe watched TV a couple of times on the way thru the village to make trade. Then bring into the picture a shiny young American with a 300mm zoom lens and a million dollar smile.
“Oh maharaja, what can I ever do to get some of what you have?”
The funny thing is that for the passed 1000 years Hindustan (Hindu India) has had what would be considered outcaste rulers (the Persians followed by the Mughals). Perhaps this division between government and society helped to give Hindu society strength, because now that they’ve had over 50 years of self rule, traditional Hindu society is facing it’s most daunting challenge: materialism. They were fine so long as they were in opposition to the outcastes, but now that we’ve come back as friends offering the material comforts so long denied to the typical Hindustani they have no shame in dropping their traditions. But these traditions are what have held the people (the society) together through all the changes and upheavals of rulers and empires.
All ancient traditions are the same in this long-term view of things. It’s not a conservative resistance to change, it’s rather an understanding that the truth of a place (or a person) lies beyond all the changes. So let them come, they will go too. It will look like change has happened, but in the end everything will be just as it’s always been.
War and materialism will leave its mark on every society (every person even), but behind the marks of suffering and the cloaks of prosperity lies the same wisdom that cannot be lost for it’s preserved in every heart, in this way traditional culture, traditional society remains preserved and ready to support people thru the changes of war and materialism. The change is merely the appearance, the truth is that the same heart is beating now as has been beating since the beginning.