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April 6, 2008

The Multiple Faces of India

By Siv O'Neall

Traveling in India is a fascinating and mind-changing experience. You are charmed by the friendly and beautiful people, even though underneath it all there are many aspects of the lives of poor Indians that are difficult to accept with equanimity. Nevertheless you are bound to fall in love with the country even though the harsh reality is so visible everywhere.


Originally posted in Axis of Logic

Traveling in India is a fascinating and mind-changing experience. You are charmed by the friendly and beautiful people, even though underneath it all there are many aspects of the lives of poor Indians that are difficult to accept with equanimity. Nevertheless you are bound to fall in love with the country even though the harsh reality is so visible everywhere.

For our third visit to India we had chosen to visit only Tamil Nadu, very different from the north that we had visited twice already, and completely different from Sikkim where we went last October, a northern state between Nepal and Bhutan (and formerly an independent country with a king), right in the lower Himalaya mountains.

Tamil Nadu is a country of multicolored temples, vast rice fields, huge loads of sugar cane or hay pulled by skinny bulls with colored horns, palm thatched huts where people live in one-room houses and seem perfectly happy with their lot.

I don't believe there are many countries in the world that can stand up to India in terms of variety, color, movement and joie de vivre.

Oxen are used as draft animals, rather than camels and horses in the north

Sadly though, India is also outstanding when it comes to the enormous number of beggars and street children, incredibly hardworking women not just in the rice fields but also in other cruelly hard jobs such as in road construction. The ubiquitous poverty is visible to anybody on their first visit to the country. There seems to be much less begging and true misery, however, in Sikkim where we were last October as well as in Tamil Nadu. Sure, people work hard but they seem to earn a fairly decent living.

Women working in a rice field

The majority of the dwellings of the poor seem very rudimentary, at least to Westerners, but nevertheless there are smiling, happy looking people everywhere, friendly and seemingly full of love for each other and for others. How is this apparently contradictory state of things possible?

Thatched roof huts and happy people are seen all over Tamil Nadu

Well, first of all, they live for the sake of living and loving – people, nature, their gods and their sacred rituals. They live in close communion with nature, with the earth, with their temples, with their families and with everything living. They were not taught to hate. They were not taught to own more than their neighbors, to accumulate, to climb to pinnacles of power. They were taught to help each other out in need, to be in peace with their inner selves and with the universe. I am mostly referring to the Hindus, since that is by far the majority religion.

Holy temple elephant and worshipping Hindu

The role of religion in the lives of Hindus

Almost all Hindus depend totally on their religion to go through their lives with equanimity. They worship at the temple or the shrine, regularly, and in masses whenever there is a sacred ritual taking place. It's a common ritual to touch the floor with their foreheads and Hindus frequently in temples and before shrines stop to make the sign of worship – bowing and putting hands together before the image of a god or a symbol thereof, for instance a holy Nandi (bull). The joined hands are placed higher and higher to indicate increasing respect and veneration. Hindu men often prostrate themselves on the floor of the temple in veneration of the specific god the shrine or the temple is devoted to.

The worshippers assemble in front of the Brahmins who are the only ones allowed into the sanctum sanctorum, the innermost often small and dark place that surrounds an idol.[1] The Brahmins are the highest caste in the age-old Hindu caste system. They are the keepers and interpreters of their religion, the representatives of the god of the temple. In the sanctum sanctorum people give flowers or other offerings and receive the imprint of ashes on their foreheads. Candles are often lit in front of the idol and the worshippers make the sign of veneration, hands together and heads bowed.

Worshipping the elephant god Ganesh with candles and garlands of flowers

In many temples non-Hindus are not allowed into the temple proper. But what is common for everybody is that whenever you are inside a temple you must not wear your shoes. You just leave them at the entrance before crossing the gateway to the first open-air temple court. Being barefoot is to ensure that nothing is in the way of your communication with the earth, or you can also say so as not to soil the sacredness of the temple. But you can get your feet fairly sore from walking on hot stone or burning hot sand, going from one section of the temple to another.

Without this close communion between the people and their sacred symbols, it seems that the lives of the Hindus would be empty of much of the essential values that make them such trusting and fulfilled beings. The outstanding feature of Hinduism is the message of living in peace and harmony with all people and with nature. There is no hate message, only acceptance of the Other.

Of course there is a mixture of religions in India and you very often see Muslims in the streets and there are mosques as well as Hindu temples and sacred shrines in the towns and villages. Many men are now dressed in Western garb, but practically all women are dressed in saris or salwar kameez (tunic, pajama and long scarf), if Hindus, and long black robes if Muslims, burkas or not burkas. Children wear western dress, but school children normally wear uniforms: for girls dresses and often scarves around their necks, tied in the back; for boys shirts and long pants.

Happy students in the Sarva Seva High School, financed by PARTAGE, France

What is remarkable about the mixture of religions is that, contrary to the impression we get through the media, there doesn't seem to be any tension between the members of the different religions, certainly not in the places where we have been and where religions were always mixed. Beside the Hindus and the Muslims, there are Sikhs (offshoot of Hindus) and Buddhists (another offshoot of the Hindus, particularly in the north). In Tamil Nadu, in the south-east, where we went for our latest visit to India, there is also a fair number of Christians and we saw several big churches. In India as a whole, Christians are a small minority however.

One of our guides remarked judiciously that there is no problem between people of the different religions. It's the governments that create the problems. There is certainly a lot of truth to that.

Kapalishvara Temple, dedicated to the Hindu god Shiva in Chennai (Madras)

Schools in India

All children are, according to the law, supposed to attend school, but in many poverty-stricken families the parents don't have the money to buy school material and uniforms. For the many charity organizations that particularly aim at getting children to go to school, the first problem is getting the parents who depend on the income of their children from begging or working to accept sending their children to school, even though it is paid for. Charity organizations set up schools where there aren't any and manage against high odds to give a very large number of children an education, literacy first of all, that they wouldn't have received without the organization helping out. Sometimes the children go back to being street children because the family needs the money they make to put food on the table. In cases of such great poverty, solutions are not easy to find.

Indian ecological farming

The caste system

The definite down side of Hinduism is of course the cruel caste system. It was declared illegal in 1949, but nevertheless continues to shape people's lives. The Dalits (or Harijans), the untouchables, the outcastes, are still banned from many temples and their children often don't attend schools, for multiple reasons, the lack of schools in the neighborhood being one major reason. They are also still considered unclean by the people of caste. As an example, there was a hunger strike in one boarding school recently because the food was cooked and served by a Dalit woman. A casteless person must not touch a person of a caste, or vice versa. Therefore the expression the British colonials coined of untouchables. The law says that all people have equal right to education, health care, etc. but the reality says otherwise.[2]

However, some progress is being made and inter-caste as well as inter-religious marriages are on an increase. The parents are outraged, but the young usually win. Also there are Dalits who manage to get an education and who fight for the abolishment of castes, in practice, and for social and legal equality.[3]

When I talk about eager and smiling Indians, I must exclude the hard working Dalits who live their lives without hope for any improvement of their lot. I have seen the dead eyes of road working Dalit women, carrying heavy burdens on their heads, supervised by men who took it very easy, sitting or lying around on the ground, watching the women do the work. I wouldn't know if those men were also Dalits. They might have been Sudras, the lowest caste of lowly working people and servants.

"A new 113-report from Human Rights Watch[4] flays the Indian government for how it deals with Dalits. The report is titled 'Hidden Apartheid: Caste Discrimination against India's Untouchables.' The word 'apartheid' is a running theme of the report, intending to drive home the idea that the Indian government actively helps, as co-author Smita Narula says, 'in maintaining a system of entrenched social and economic segregation.'

Narula notes the recent words of Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, when he compared untouchability to apartheid, but she challenges him to start protecting Dalits by providing them with equal access to education, health, housing, property and freedom of religion. Another issue is equal treatment before the law: of the many crimes committed against Dalits, most go unreported, and the ones that go to trial almost always end in acquittals." (HUMAN RIGHTS: HRW says India has failed to uplift Dalits)


Poverty in India

I have heard many people I know say that the economic situation in India has improved a lot. The poverty crisis is being solved. I tell them that it's not so. The rich are getting richer, according to the gospel of the free market and neoliberalism, but the poor are also getting poorer, the same as in most of the world at this time. Certainly the GDP in India is far higher than it ever was before, but it doesn't mean that even a majority of people live better. The percentage of poverty stricken people in India is above 50%, and the number of people living in extreme poverty is two hundred million – out of the one billion population.[5]


Peaceful street scene in Chidambaram; nothing disturbs a holy cow


At the rate that neoliberalism is taking hold of the world, there doesn't seem to be much hope for improvement in the lives of the poor people in India. Small farmers all over India commit suicide because they can't provide food for their families. Dr. Vandana Shiva, New Delhi, is playing an important role in the fight for the poor Indian farmers.[6]

GMO seeds are sold to the farmers mainly from the giant multinational corporation Monsanto, promising giant harvests, less work and great wealth. However, the truth has been very different. The government, in cahoots with Monsanto of course, pushes the farmers to buy seeds that are not adapted to the existing ecosystems and the result is disaster – crop failures and starvation.[7]

The rude conditions of life as a farmer lead to an ever increasing flight to the cities, swelling the numbers of people living in huge shantytowns under horrible living conditions on the edges of all the big cities. These slums keep growing as conditions get increasingly unlivable in the farming areas.

The beggars in the streets of all the big cities in India (Gangtok, Sikkim excluded) are ever present and the scenes of leprosy victims or just miserably poor beggars are hard to take. Since a leper is considered as being punished by the gods and unclean, they are considered untouchables and cast out by their families. Only charity organizations can do anything at all to relieve the miserable lives of the victims where their only means of survival otherwise is by begging.

Lepers depend on charity for survival

In Varanasi last October, we went to a charity leper village run by the DEVA Institute[8]. They also offer schooling to street children in different villages and help to mentally handicapped children, autistic and other, in their headquarters in Varanasi. They also sponsor other activities, such as helping young women develop some form of independence from their families or in-laws. Young married women usually live with their parents-in-law and have very little freedom. They are taught sewing and other practical chores and they get gynecological instruction from a physician who visits regularly. But maybe the most important aspect is the fact that they are not kept imprisoned in the house of their mother-in-law who makes all the decisions for them. They get out to meet with other young women and people who care. They talk and laugh and sing. They are very visibly happy to come several times a week to the Annapurna Center, situated a few kilometers from Varanasi.

The most moving scene in the context of the DEVA Institute was probably the leper village in Varanasi, where perfectly healthy children accompany their sick mothers and where every family has their own one-room house and so can live an almost normal life, cook their own food and clean their own home. They get weekly medical care and medicines which can arrest the progress of the disease. The French director of DEVA who introduced us to the more or less handicapped people hugged the patients as if they were his children and family. It was wonderful to see since they are used to considering themselves unclean and untouchable.

India – its charm and its deep problems

The cheapest way of traveling, but they do pay a small fee

India, the country full of charm, India the country of beauty, India the country of friendliness, but India the country where the severe poverty is visible everywhere, where the inequality in people's lives is the most extreme we have ever witnessed, where hunger and disease are considered as the normal conditions of life, where the government is not concerned enough with protecting the suffering millions, only with making deals with the giant multinational corporations so as to increase the wealth of the wealthy.

But at the same time as the country is politically on such a devastating track of ignoring the weak and the poor, there is the beneficial absence of hype and artificiality that seem to make up the very substance of the western world. There is a sense of uncomplicated reality in the lives of the people we see in the cities and in the countryside. A simplicity that wins out over all the hardship that is so clearly the lot of the hard-working people. People take life as it comes without hyped-up dreams of luxury and change. They take care of their daily chores without complaining and without looking aside to see if their neighbors are getting a bigger house than theirs.

I have to make it clear though that I am not talking here about the yuppies and business people in the big cities who make loads of money and live the good life, the same as in every other industrialized country in the world.

A solution is possible

The problems of India are of course also worldwide. Here, as well as in the rest of the world, it would be perfectly possible and not very difficult at that, to feed the millions of hungry and suffering people. All it would take is a world-wide policy of feeding the hungry and providing decent health care, instead of digging in ever deeper in the politics of the free market which does nothing but render the desperate situation in the world ever more desperate.[9]

The Empire and Big Money have cast the die and decided that the poor are important only as a source of cheap labor, that constant war is what makes the world go round and what accumulates money for the capitalists. The pretexts are the 'clash of civilizations' and the 'war on terrorism', fabrications that are constantly repeated whenever a diversion is needed to cover up some monumental scandal or lie.

Multibillionaires make choices for everyone and they believe they can go on indefinitely ignoring the 99% of the world's population that have less and less say in the running of the world. Democracy has become but a word without any meaning, elections are entertainment that make the gullible and ignorant feel that they participate in world-changing decisions.

The day Big Business has destroyed the ecosystems of the earth, it will already be too late to save the little that is left. The big corporations are busy destroying the conditions for healthy agriculture in India and in the world and this is the moment to stop the destruction. Today – not tomorrow.

[1] Hindu Temples (the Siv & John O'Neall travel site)

[2] The Caste System

[3] SITUATION OF THE DALITS IN INDIA – "The Dalits represent 18% of the Indian population, that is approximately 170 million individuals living without dignity. The Democratic Indian Constitution written by Ambedkar (one of the few Dalits having had access to education : see article) abolished untouchability (art.17 of the Constitution), forbade discrimination (art.15), set the goal for social justice and equal opportunity by introducing special measures (seat reserved in political representation, quotas in education and public service). But, 50 years later, these principles are still only rarely applied."

[4] India: 'Hidden Apartheid' of Discrimination Against Dalits Government Fails to End Caste-Based Segregation and Attack

[5] Interviews" target="_blank">http://www.kamat.com/kalranga/bhiksha/">Interviews with Poverty - Last Updated: March 09, 2008

The statistics portray a ghastly picture: over 50% living in poverty with two hundred million of them in extreme poverty (must earn during the day to eat dinner).

[6] The Suicide Economy Of Corporate Globalisation

"The shift from farm saved seed to corporate monopolies of the seed supply is also a shift from biodiversity to monocultures in agriculture. The District of Warangal in Andhra Pradesh used to grow diverse legumes, millets, and oilseeds. Seed monopolies created crop monocultures of cotton, leading to disappearance of millions of products of nature's evolution and farmer's breeding.

Monocultures and uniformity increase the risks of crop failure as diverse seeds adapted to diverse ecosystems are replaced by rushed introduction of unadapted and often untested seeds into the market. When Monsanto first introduced Bt Cotton in India in 2002, the farmers lost Rs. 1 billion due to crop failure. Instead of 1,500 Kg / acre as promised by the company, the harvest was as low as 200 kg. Instead of increased incomes of Rs. 10,000 / acre, farmers ran into losses of Rs. 6400 / acre."

[7] See Siv O'Neall: The World According to Monsanto - A documentary that Americans won't ever see


[9] UN rapporteur calls for biofuel moratorium "Using land for biofuels would result in "massacres", he said, predicting a reduction in the amount of food aid sent to developing countries by richer ones.

"It's a total disaster for those who are starving."

See also: Empire of Shame - A Conversation with Jean Ziegler (translated by Siv O'Neall)

"He explains why, at the time of the French revolution, the idea of providing enough food for all human beings on Earth was still a utopia, a dream, but how today that would be a technically possible thing. But it is impossible because of the way the wealth in the world is captured by a few people, whom he calls the Lords of the Economic War."

Submitters Bio:

Siv O'Neall was born and raised in Sweden where she graduated from Lund University. She has lived in Paris, France and New Rochelle, N.Y. and traveled extensively throughout the U.S, Europe, and other continents, including several trips to India. Siv retired after many years of teaching French in Westchester, N.Y. and English in the Grandes Ecoles (Institutes of Technology) in France. In addition to her own writing. She has been living in France for 30 years, first in Paris and now Lyon. In addition to her political activism and writing, her life is filled with friends and family, music, animals, reading, traveling and much more.