I spent six weeks in India on a study tour in 1977. Like China and Japan, it has had an advanced culture for over 3,000 years. My main impression was the wonderful bright colors on the streets, in women’s saris, in markets in pyramid piles of colored dye. The streets are crowded with honking cars, bikes, rickshaws, and animals. The spirituality of the people is evident in photographs and statues of deities seen in taxis, shops, homes, and numerous temples. I sat next to a man on a plane and commented on his beautiful emerald ring. He told me his guru, Sai Baba, manifested it for him from the either. When I was in the holiest of cities, Varanasi, I could feel the intense devotion of the people who came there to be purified of their sins in the holy Ganges River or bring family member’s ashes.
I saw cows wandering in the streets in the capital of New Delhi, because Hindus are not supposed to kill them.[i] Elephants can also be seen, hired for weddings, political rallies, and store openings. A young man told me about his babysitter when he was a kid, an elephant who was partial to kids because one had rescued him from a cruel master with a whip. The elephant would pick up the kids with its trunk when they got too near the stream.
The contrast between the rich with their cars and the poor with their donkeys, or the beggars on the street crying, “Ma, Ma,” was striking. A poverty rate of around 25% drags down the country, as around 250 million people earn less than a dollar a day.[ii] One of the SpeakOut teens said, “I would build houses for poor people and secondly the beggars are so bad. I would like to stop begging.” (Naba, 13, f, India) Caste is alive and well, as seen in marriage advertisements, caste-based social clubs, political parties, or higher castes not going into restaurants run by lower castes. I put on my sari incorrectly, a mistake as I was told it made me look like a street sweeper (code for outcaste). The government has set aside reserved places in educational institutions and government jobs for lower castes and tribes. Called Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes, they make up around one-quarter of the population.
India, the country with the second largest population (1.1 billion), is the world’s largest democracy. A Deli high school teacher told her assembled students and their elected leaders, “India, with all its diversity, is truly the first nation of the emerging world, where, despite all odds, democracy rules. Nehru called it ‘the star of freedom in the East.’ Our greatest resource of hope, according to Professor Amartya Sen, is our tradition of questioning, self-criticism and debate.”[iii] In 2020 India’s population will be 34% youth (defined by the Indian government as ages 15 to 35). The average Indian will be 29 years old, compared to age 37 in China and the US, or age 45 in Western Europe and Japan. It’s more socially diverse than any other nation, according to Ramachandra Guha, with its Hindu fundamentalists and Maoists, its tribal people and urban sophisticates.[iv] India has many languages (18 recognized ones, with Hindi as the official language), religions (the birthplace of four major ones), ethnicities, and castes.
[ii] “India at a Glance,” World Bank, September 24, 2008.
[iii] Speech by Paramita Roy, Deli school, 2011.
[iv] Ramachandra Guha, “A Nation Consumed By the State,” Outlook India magazine, January 31, 2011.