Is India the answer?

March 30, 2009

Vishnu

This is quite a stretch, but since the heaviness of global warming birthed its own little counterculture I’m finding an inundation of all things Indian—as in India. As in back to the hippiesque Hindu spiritualism of art, music, writing and living. I’m not talking about that corny new age spiritual crap that we used to make fun of back in the 80’s every time the mere mention of “Swami” popped up on a self-help book. I’m talking about a deeper, more homegrown desperation for something so old and enlightening that we hope it saves us if only we could grasp its essence.

For starters, I strolled into Barnes & Nobel yesterday to buy, among other things, a book. Any old fiction book would have done. It was one of those days. But I came upon a display table with a corporate manufactured sign above it that said: “Treasures from India.” Among a rather large collection of items were Pulitzer Prize winning and New York Times bestselling novels like The Interpreter of Maladies, by Jhumpa Lahiri, and The God of Small Things, by Arundhati Roy. There were books on Hinduism and Buddhism, Ghandi’s autobiography and other spiritual goodies like Indian mediation cards. I bought the Lahiri book, caving into the new craze, wondering why there was this slew of material coming out of New Delhi.

A couple days before that, I noticed Devendra Banhart’s Little Yellow Spider and Carmencita. If anyone knows anything about the lovely Devendra, you’d know that he’s heavily influenced by Hinduism. In fact, his parents named him after a spiritual leader they were following at the time of his birth. That he was able to slip his Hindu leanings into his music and get a record contract confirms my point.

Even in myself, I’ve noticed a subconscious gravitation towards Indian culture. I rented Ghandi last week. I listen to Lata Mangeshkar’s Vaishnav Jan to repeatedly. I predicted Slumdog Millionaire would win the grammy for best picture. I have this strangely pressing desire to go to India and ride the Darjeeling Limited and sip sweet lime.

I won’t even mention Bollywood or Indian fashion making its mark here. From bindis and tikkas to saris and antique Indian jewels, we are appropriating Indian style like the Russians appropriated blue jeans.

And heck, ask yourself why places like Whole Foods are marketing Hindu gods like Shiva and Shakti, prayer candles of the Buddha and yogi incense.

I know these are rather superficial examples. But still, I insist. I feel something deeper.

Expanding culture in a superficial way is one thing, taking bits and piece from one country and adding it to another creates an amalgamation of unique global style. Like the time we all went nuts for anime, or when everyone started wearing the Arabian Yashmagh’s and didn’t even know why. But this new Indian invasion isn’t as one-dimensional as the Macarena. It’s not just about adding flair. It’s not just a book on a shelf or a movie with a picturesque landscape of the Taj Mahal. There’s an underlying message attached to our passion for India and it’s an ancient and spiritual one that seems to offer an answer to our modern day moment of truth.

The fact is, we feel like we’re at a make it or break it moment in time. Like this is our last chance. The fall of Rome, so to speak. We’ve lost our faith in religion, in government, in business. We’ve lost our hope that the planet will be here forever (or at least that humans will be here forever- the planet probably isn’t going any where). Most importantly, we’ve lost the privilege to be ignorant and naïve and wasteful. And I think that’s where India comes in. It gives us the possibility that, if we do fuck up, we can come back again.

In a recent study on faith in America, Hinduism was up compared to Christianity, which remained the same. This may very well be due to an influx in Indian immigration, or more likely, people are converting. Hinduism, after all, accepts and addresses issues which Christianity does not, namely Evolution and the interconnectedness of all things. More importantly, it gives us the opportunity to reincarnate. And that is what we’d all like, isn’t it? The chance to come back and do it all again? I keep thinking of Bill Maher’s comment in his film Religulous that Christianity’s belief in human superiority to animals and other living things has only been detrimental to the environment.

The religions of India seem to address our global concerns in other ways as well. Think karma. Think vegetarianism. I know this is a stretch. But how many people now are pushing for less animal consumption based on environmental issues. It wasn’t long ago that PETA implored congress to impose a “sin tax” on the sale of meat because, as they state, “meat is the number one cause of global warming, a looming environmental disaster that threatens the United States.”

Before I start chanting om and change my name to Vidyadevi, I’m kinda wondering how India itself is reaping rewards from its own ancient wisdom. I mean, let’s get real. The country is in shambles, facing pressing problems such as “significant overpopulation, environmental degradation, extensive poverty, and widespread corruption.”

According to the CIA World Fact Book, the following environmental issues alone are contributing to the problems India faces: deforestation; soil erosion; overgrazing; desertification; air pollution from industrial effluents and vehicle emissions; water pollution from raw sewage and runoff of agricultural pesticides; tap water is not potable throughout the country; huge and growing population is overstraining natural resources…

Look, I undertstand how we need hope. I get that we are trying as hard as we can to change and do good for our survival. Most of us, anyway. But I just think that glamorizing and devoting ourselves to the ephemeral spirituality of a culture that is running itself into the ground really isn’t the answer. Sure, we can appreciate India’s art, we can pray to all gazillion of their gods. We can read their literature and eat their food. But we cannot get so wrapped up in thinking that India or Hinduism or possibly even reincarnation is the answer, so much so that we neglect our reality.

Global warming and all the other insanity of this country incites us to find our strengths and our ability to recreate ourselves—not become something else entirely or fall prey to some cyclical trend. Sure India has a lot to offer in the way of answers. But it’s not “the” answer. I personally don’t know what the answer is, or if, indeed, there is one. Like the snake eating its own tail, we seek the eternal return. But is it possible?

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