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Globalization in the East: A Cultural Perspective

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Urbanization and Pollution in India

Urbanization and Pollution in India

Very often, as you stroll down a major Indian thoroughfare, you can see spiritual tourists from the West patronizing the corner-store rishis. Wide-eyed, glowing with excitement about “enlightenment” and “finding themselves”, they dutifully perform the rites and chants as prescribed by their eastern philosophers-for-hire. And when they have finished, they leave for their homes in the West full with thoughts of their “life changing experience” in India: a land of swamijis and rickshaws, a country of mystics and philosophers, an ancient civilization of enlightenment. That such a vision corresponds very little to the actual picture of India is immaterial. Even the fact that the world of Indian spiritualism is being quickly dismantled in favor of a “market-oriented” culture bears little importance. To the cultural imperialists descending from Europe and America, India exists as a spiritual haven, a land apart, which no amount of development can truly change.

But change is occurring – apparent to those with eyes for it, and faster than any observer from the 1990s could have dreamt. Already a tourist can stay at a Sheraton, dine at Domino’s, Pizza Hut, or McDonald’s, shop in a mall, use wi-fi internet, and find themselves beset by advertisements and eager entrepreneurs, supposing of course, they should want to. Bollywood now blares open sexuality on television and film screens, and many youth in India have embraced rock music, rap, alcohol, dating, and myriad other social cues from Western youth. Belief in religion persists, but its meaning has changed beyond recognition. And the growing ranks of diaspora, already large in the 1980s, have given rise to a new class of Indians, raised in the west with only a very vague connection to the subcontinent or its people.

“Globalization” is a polite term for “Westernization”, and any attempt to understand its impact on the East should start there. The United States, just as Great

A young lady unhelped by Globalization

A young lady unhelped by Globalization

Britain before it, came to India in order to trade goods; and having accomplished that they have begun to trade culture as well. For history to repeat itself, the US would only have to begin meddling in India’s domestic politics (something which, given the bitter controversy over the Indo-US nuclear deal, it already has). Much of the culture of the east – indeed, their way of life – is now being subsumed in the name of “advancement” and “progress”. The nature of such progress has grave implications for eastern philosophy and culture.

Reverence toward a western lifestyle dates back at least 200 years, and likely more. In the novels of Forster or Narayan, Mulk Raj Anand or V.S. Naipaul, one finds always the same underlying admiration for “British efficiency”, British ways. In A Passage to India, E.M. Forster has his main character state quite explicitly: “I admire them [the British]”, to which his companion replies, “Yes, we all do.” Within a generation India gained independence, and my parents grew up then consumed by the desire to live in America and raise their children there – a feat they were fortunate to accomplish. Their progeny, the generation now coming of age in India, still feels the pull to the West, but is increasingly coming to see their own country resemble the western paradise across the Atlantic – if, of course, they can pay.

The wealth of the Indian capitalist class rocketed skyward, the flood of American media became a roaring deluge, and India genuinely began its march westward only after the economic liberalization of 1991. In a few short years the rich former seats of empire were allowed, even invited, to sell their products and lifestyle to the masses of India. And the masses responded. What entered the Indian marketplace after 1991 (slowly, at first, but with ever-increasing sureness), were not mere products, nor even brands – it was a lifestyle: clean, hermetic, and wealthy above all. When one affected an English accent or followed an American soap opera, it was generally of a desire to share in the western grandeur bought by centuries of slavery. In doing so, many have found themselves compelled to abandon several nuances of their indigenous heritage.

Hinduism, in particular, has undergone a dramatic shift in the past twenty years, the effects of which are still being felt, and have not, to my knowledge, been the subject of any serious study. Belonging to the globalized era, the traveling swami makes his living in America by blessing newly-bought houses and condominiums. He performs a two hour ritual, for which he receives a generous compensation. His customers, a happy couple, chant verses of which they understand very little, smile, pay up, and promptly forget the occasion. They have jobs, after all, and money to make. Their belief in Hinduism has lost its philosophical edge, and has become instead a shell of ritual and dogma.

An Eastern Religion, Hinduism, finds itself in peril by western influences

An Eastern Religion, Hinduism, finds itself in peril by western influences

Spiritualism and materialism, if not totally irreconcilable, at least pull in opposing directions. And as India has increased in the latter as a result of globalization, it only stands to reason that the former should suffer. Culture and tradition, when considered secondary to material concerns, necessarily lose not only their vigor, but also much of their content. It is important to remember that much of the upsurge in materialism in India has resulted from the effects of globalization.

In a social context, as well, the effects of globalization on identity are readily seen. The “globalized” Indian youth find themselves inhabiting a nation far different from that of their parents, torn by pressures their parents never had to face. Many choose not to identify strongly with their eastern background, embracing instead their western surrogate home.

It is a common sentiment in America that “everyone does it our way now”. Though “it” is never quite defined, it is assumed to mean the relentless drive for profit and efficiency grouped under the heading “globalization”. In its wake lies the wreckage of countless alternative cultures. The indigenous American culture, the culture of southeast Asia, and many, many others are now extinct, their citizens left in a hopeless struggle to “catch up to the West”. Such a goal, now espoused by a majority of nations participating in so-called “globalization”, denies the validity of any other perspective. Most eastern philosophies are looked upon as quaint, even meaningful, but ultimately an impediment to “progress”. The machine culture cannot be reconciled with any philosophy that encourages introspection and considers the material world an illusion.

In time this has lead to a sort of identity crisis among the cultures of the east. In one fell swoop, over the course of only a few decades, they were told their nations are horribly backward, that their cultural and social norms are obsolete, and the surest ticket to prosperity is a swift and total emulation of the west. One can see echoes of this sentiment during the colonial era – the so-called “white man’s burden” of civilizing the “savages” fits remarkably well within the idea of showing them the path to economic “efficiency”. Such efficiency has had the effect of pulling many out of destitution, but it has perhaps driven more into poverty, has certainly increased the income inequality, and likely has had a destructive effect on eastern ideas of culture and identity.

What is needed now, more than ever before, is a truly eastern counterpart to the western model of society and economy. Many of the artists and filmmakers of east do well to produce works that speak to the essence of eastern existence, yet their works must still pass through an essentially western marketplace, and must aim, in the last analysis, at a western audience, for it is they who have the surest funds. It is a job not only for artists, but for policymakers, economists, and intellectuals of all shades.

If not, the future for eastern culture undoubtedly looks dim. One can imagine an acceleration of the processes already in effect, a further dulling of the eastern paradigm in favor of the western. When this happens, cultural globalization will have reached its logical extent – but at what a price!


Written by pavanvan

September 27, 2009 at 6:06 pm

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