Friday, 22 May 2015

India Has No Excuse

I was shocked to read recently that China's GDP is 5 times that of India's. Five times! Not 20% more, not 50% more. Five times more!

How? How did a country with roughly equal population, and that started off at roughly the same level in the 1950s, end up doing not just slightly better, but so much better?

Why couldn't India achieve something comparable? If India's GDP could have been just three times what it is, can you imagine how many hundreds of millions of people could have been lifted out of poverty and into the middle classes? When you look at it that way, you have to conclude that a crime of incalculable proportions has been perpetrated on the Indian people.

I often hear Indians claim that India is poor because it was looted by its British colonialists for two hundred years. But the example of China shows that up as a mere excuse. The British left India two generations ago. Since then, if we compare India and China as two independent countries in charge of their own destinies, the British are nowhere in the picture. If China could progress so much in the same time, what's India's excuse?

Besides, being looted is hardly an excuse when one looks at countries like Japan and Germany, which were both utterly devastated and left in ruins after the Second World War ended in 1945, with a significant portion of their able-bodied men killed or turned into invalids. Yet in less than twenty years, both countries had not just restored their industrial strength but had also established themselves as manufacturers of quality. Being knocked down is no excuse for staying down.

There are those who will blame Nehru (who died way back in 1963) or the socialist policies of the Congress party. These excuses might be valid in a dictatorship. In a democracy, where people have a right to judge the performance of their government and to regularly reward and punish political parties based on their assessment, where does the buck stop?

I can only conclude that Indians' expectations have been too low for too long, and that they have suddenly woken up and realised that the rest of the world has passed them by. The one comparable country in terms of civilisational past, size of population and parity two generations ago, is now five times their country's size.

The blame lies with the expectations, attitudes and will to action on the part of Indian citizens.

Friday, 24 April 2015

When Worlds Collude - 8 (What Is It About The Germans And Kal Ho Na Ho?)

What do the Germans see in the title song of the Bollywood movie Kal Ho Na Ho? The movie is a love triangle in which one of the vertices is played by Shah Rukh Khan, who, unknown to the other two, is dying of a heart condition. Before he dies, he brings the other two together.

A bit maudlin and overdone in true Bollywood style, but surprisingly, Germans seem to like this movie so much that I have seen not one but two re-picturisations of the title song with German actors. In the second, India's former foreign minister Salman Khurshid, German ambassador to India Michael Steiner, Steiner's wife Eliese and well-known Indian writer Madhu Kishwar play the lead roles.

This is the original.
Shah Rukh Khan, Preity Zinta and Saif Ali Khan in the three main roles

This is the first fan remake that I saw. The guy playing the Shah Rukh Khan character also manages to get his trademark arms-spread-wide gesture down pat.

A fan remake by three regular German folk

And this is the latest from the German Embassy in New Delhi starring ambassadors and former foreign ministers.

The German Embassy remake "Lebe Jetzt" ("Live Now") with a relatively well-known cast


Two Assertions About The Indic Civilisation Face A Genetic Lie Detector

The Neo-Hindu resurgence is in full swing, and one of its accompaniments is a new civilisational narrative that is meant to restore pride among Indians in the glory of their ancient past. It is a narrative that has been taken up with enthusiasm and propagated by some of the most educated Indians. Obviously, a story of "Who we are as a people and how we came to be" is capable of being quite popular, especially if it glorifies the society concerned and blames its negatives on external players and forces. As with all narratives that have a political imperative, a scrupulous adherence to the truth is not an essential concern for those who want to believe it. But to those of us to whom the truth matters, evidence counts for more than feel-good stories.

I want to focus on two particular assertions that are increasingly heard as part of this Neo-Hindu narrative, because we have recent genetic evidence to challenge them.

Assertion 1: The Aryan Invasion Theory (AIT) has been debunked

What this assertion implies is that there was only ever one race that inhabited the land that is India, and all its traditions (especially what are known as its Vedic traditions) originated within this land. There was no external Aryan race that brought Vedic civilisation to its original Dravidian inhabitants. Indians are, and have always been, a single race. The entire theory of two races is a European colonial fantasy to divide, demoralise and enslave Indians, and this fantasy has now been exposed as such, thanks to a wealth of evidence.

Assertion 2: The rigid caste system observed in present-day India is similarly a European colonial creation

This assertion implies that the original Indic civilisation (which was a "Vedic" one, of course) only had four broad categories called "varnas" that represented a sensible division of labour. Within the varna matrix were hundreds of localised subcategories called "jatis", which represented job roles that were not rigid and oppressive, but afforded social mobility. The word "caste" is a European one derived from the Portuguese "casta". The British ethnographer Lord Risley exploited jati labels in the 1901 census of India and classified Indians by their "caste". Over time, the British emphasis on these caste labels created a society that was rigidly stratified in a way that the original system was never meant to be.

Neo-Hindu intellectuals like Rajiv Malhotra have been in the vanguard of the "dharmic" identity resurgence, and have expended much ink in making these assertions. Like the lady that doth protest too much, Malhotra's book "Breaking India" tries very hard to discredit both the Aryan Invasion Theory and the notion of a rigid caste system that evolved independently of mischievous external parties.

As it turns out in the light of recent genetic evidence, both these assertions are at best half-truths. At worst, they are outright lies.

As the T-shirt says...

In 2013, Priya Moorjani et al published a paper called "Genetic Evidence for Recent Population Mixture in India" (the download link is on the top right of that page), which studied a sample of 571 people of the subcontinent belonging to 73 distinct ethno-linguistic groups (71 Indian and 2 Pakistani). It's important to note that classification of individuals into these groups was based on the conventional categories of Indo-European (Aryan) and Dravidian, in addition to their jati (caste) labels. The genetic analysis of these groups is detailed in their paper and requires a sophisticated understanding of statistics to follow. However, the conclusions are clearly explained.

1. Virtually all groups in India, including those considered to be isolated, have experienced an admixture of two distinct racial groups in the past. There are no "pure" groups today.

2. This admixture took place over a period of time, between 4200 years ago and 1900 years ago.

3. The paper calls these two original racial groups ANI and ASI (Ancestral North Indian and Ancestral South Indian). The ANI group has links to Central Asia, the Middle East and Europe, although the paper takes care to explain that it has no immediate links to Eurasians and hence may have separated from the Eurasian group 12,500 years ago. The ASI group does not have links to any group outside of India, with the closest group being in the Andamans. Hence the ASI group is probably indigenous to India.

4. Present-day Indo-European groups in India (i.e., North Indians) have a higher proportion of ANI genes than ASI. Present-day Dravidian groups (i.e., South Indians) have a higher proportion of ASI genes than ANI.

So far, the data seems consistent with the Aryan Invasion Theory in that the ASI group indigenous to India seems to correspond to the Dravidians, and the ANI group with links to Central Asia seems to correspond to the Aryans. However, it isn't that straightforward.

5. The dates of admixture are more recent among Indo-European groups than among Dravidian groups. A plausible theory is that Indo-European groups received a second infusion of ANI, making the effective date of the admixture appear more recent. This is backed up by the fact that many North Indian genomes have long stretches of ANI interspersed with stretches that are a mosaic of ANI and ASI, pointing to a more recent admixture on top of an earlier one.

6. "Upper" and "middle" caste people's genomes show multiple waves of admixture compared to "lower" caste genomes. The paper does not offer an explanation for this, but my theory is that lower caste people were less mobile and had fewer opportunities to interact with outside groups, perhaps as a result of social restrictions.

On a matter that can be seen to have a major bearing on our understanding of caste, the paper makes a further surprising claim based on the genetic evidence.

7. An abrupt shift to endogamy (the opposite of cross-breeding) occurred around 1900 years ago. Some groups stopped receiving gene flows from neighbouring groups 3,000 years ago.

Why do I say the two assertions of the Neo-Hindu narrative are at best half-truths?

Consider the evidence from the Moorjani paper.

The Aryan Invasion Theory

The genetic evidence neither supports nor debunks the theory of a violent invasion. However, it very clearly points to an admixture of two distinct racial groups. To the extent that "Aryan" refers to a link to Central Asia and "Dravidian" refers to being indigenous to India, the theory that two races (whether or not we choose to call them Aryans and Dravidians) intermixed to produce today's Indians remains valid. Also, while present-day North Indians and South Indians are not themselves purely Aryan or purely Dravidian, they contain both genes in different proportions. North Indians are more Aryan than Dravidian, and South Indians are more Dravidian than Aryan. It's not a clear racial divide, but a difference in degree. Hence this fact can be used to argue both for sameness and for difference, depending on one's starting position.

Genetic evidence is of course useless in determining whether a violent invasion occurred, or which group was first associated with "Vedic" civilisation. Hence these questions remain unanswered. However, it is wrong to make the blanket claim that the Aryan Invasion Theory has been debunked, with the implication that Indians were always a single race with a completely indigenous civilisation and culture.

The Rigidity of Hinduism's Caste System

The genetic evidence is emphatic that all intermixing between caste groups (indeed, the samples were classified by jati) stopped abruptly 1900 years ago. In other words, the caste system became rigid, affording no mobility, long before Europeans (or even Muslim invaders, for that matter) set foot in India! The Portuguese word "casta" therefore only described an existing system, and Lord Risley only documented its rigid segregation. Neither he nor the British Raj was responsible for that rigidity. Whatever else may or may not be purely indigenous, the evil of caste-based segregation originated entirely within this land.


Personally, I identify with the Indic civilisation and recognise it to be a great and unique one, neither superior nor inferior to other civilisations, just different. I also believe the Indic civilisation has had a distinguished past and has great potential to make continuing contributions to the world. However, I am open to the possibility that not everything that is considered Indian may have originated within this country, and that some unique social evils could have originated here. We should be willing to give credit where credit is due, to accept negatives in our society, and seek to progress by accepting good ideas from any source and rejecting bad ones, however deeply steeped in tradition.

I particularly reject dishonest and non-evidence-based narratives. They bring no glory at all, and I expect educated and intellectually honest Indians to forge their civilisational identity based on verifiable truths instead.

Monday, 13 April 2015

When Worlds Collude - 7 (The Surprisingly Universal Appeal Of Swati Tirunal's Tillana in Dhanashree)

Once a long time ago, I heard a very catchy Carnatic music number, and the tune has stayed with me ever since. As I began to understand and recognise ragas, I identified that number as being in Bhimpalasi (Hindustani), known as Abheri in Carnatic.

Very recently, I learnt from my prodigiously knowledgeable friend, Seshadri Kumar, that it was not in Abheri at all, but in a closely related raga called Dhanashree. Kumar also mentioned, tongue in cheek, that it was from "the composers known collectively as Swati Tirunal". Swati Tirunal was the Maharaja of Travancore who has several compositions to his name. It is rumoured that many of the compositions attributed to him were in fact composed by musicians under his patronage.

In any case, the song is known as the "Dhanashree Tillana". A tillana is a rhythmic piece that has for its lyrics special syllables that resemble the sound of percussion instruments. Tillanas are popular accompaniments to dance performances for both these reasons.

What amazed me when I searched for this song on YouTube was its worldwide popularity. It has been performed as pure music and as dance accompaniment, using a variety of instruments, in both traditional and fusion forms. A sample of that variety is what I want to cover in this post.

As a baseline, let's start with a fairly standard, yet high-quality traditional rendition.

 This is by that doyen of Carnatic music, the late MS Subbulakshmi

The lyrics go as follows:

PallavigItta dhumiku takadhIm krtatatOm nAc rahe gOri tAdhittai tai tattai tirataka 
Anu Pallavi: bAja pAyala kahum jhanana jhanana bAja pAyala kahun jhaNana jhanana jhanana nanana tOm jhaNana jhanana jhanana nanana tOm jhaNana jhanana jhanana nanana
Charanam 1tAna gAvE takata tai ta tai taitta taitta tana tadhAm dhImna kiTa taka dhI  dhImna kiTa taka dhIm dhImna kiTa takadhIm hata tOm hata tOm hata
Charanam 2: padumanAbha tumhAri lIlA-kyA kahUm mai sAvarO  tApa sankaTa caaraNaya yAyO sOha mArO tumaharO
ChiTTasvaram:  tadhim tadhIm dhirana udanita tAni tAni tadhIm tadhim dhiranA nA dhittOm tata kata tari tattAra tara tAni dhIm alari kalari takata dhatAra tataka mAm tAni tanika tAm tAmta dhIm dhIm dhIm tanana alari tAm tAmta takatari alari tOm tOm tOm takanaka tani udari

Only the underlined text represents real words - a very South Indian rendition of Hindi! The rest are percussion sounds.

This tillana seems to be quite popular with Indian fusion groups.

This one has great instrumentals

The vocalist predominates here

Surprisingly, it seems to be popular with Western fusion groups too.

Students at a string camp in Florida fuse Dhanashree Tillana with "Wood vs Fire"

It gets better. Here's a church chorus performing the tillana as background music for an Indian dancer.

Even more incongruous than the sight of a Presbyterian church chorus playing a song in a Hindu-traditional style is the fact that Amasong is a lesbian/feminist chorus

It isn't just the Americans. Here's an all-Russian performance in St Petersburg.

The dancer, violinist and tabla player are all Russian

A Latvian couple's interpretation:

Larisa Podskochayaand and Alexey Furdak (who calls himself Gaura Nataraj)

More Russians:

Eleonora & Angelina Ukhanova

Among the few real words among the percussive lyrics is the phrase "nAc rahe gOri", which means "the fair-skinned woman be dancing". How apt for this piece to be performed by Caucasians!

And here is a jugalbandi (a term that Wikipedia defines as "entwined twins', but which I prefer to think of as a "joining of voices") of the Bharatanatyam and Kuchipudi styles of dance.

The dancer on the left in red performs in the more energetic Bharatanatyam style. The one on the right presents the more relaxed and graceful Kuchipudi.

I don't know if it was Swati Tirunal or one of his court musicians who was responsible for the Dhanashree Tillana, but whoever it was certainly hit upon a composition of universal appeal.

The Elegance Of An Indian Dance, In Motion And Stillness

I have generally favoured India's classical music over its dance, and within the realm of music, favoured Hindustani (North Indian) music over Carnatic (South Indian). But over the years, I have had occasion to watch snippets of classical dance as well, and I have gradually begun to appreciate one particular dance form.

The style I am talking about is Kuchipudi (pronounced koochi-pooDi), native to the Telugu-speaking state of Andhra Pradesh in South India. It's entirely subjective of course, but I find that Kuchipudi dances are more graceful and pleasing to the eye than any other classical Indian dance form, Bharatanatyam and Kathak included. Interestingly, the accompanying music for Kuchipudi is based on the Carnatic style, and I find I can appreciate this more when it accompanies the dance than when it is played by itself.

A recent piece I had the pleasure of watching was a short invocation to Ganesha performed by Sandhya Raju. The raaga of the accompanying song is 'naaTa' or 'naaTTai', a uniquely South Indian one. (I am not aware of any Hindustani equivalent to 'naaTTai'.)

At just under three and a half minutes, this scintillating piece leaves the viewer wanting more

Around 55 seconds into the piece, the dancer momentarily holds a pose, and this struck a sudden chord with me. I have had a passion for maps since my childhood, and can recognise most countries' maps with a fleeting glance. The pose she held reminded me strongly of the southern coast of India. Sure enough, when I took a snapshot of the screen and compared it to the Indian map, the contours lined up perfectly.

A little work with The GIMP, and I had created a minor, but pleasing work of art.

Now that's a dance form that captures an element of Indianness

Monday, 6 April 2015

The Three Hinduisms

It's not easy to describe what Hinduism "really" is, and I believe this is because there are three very different Hinduisms. If we take the allegorical example of a house, the different versions of Hinduism are to be found in different locations within that house. We have:

Attic Hinduism - the stuff Hindus want to keep out of sight and never talk about
Living-room Hinduism - the stuff Hindus practise on a day-to-day basis
Coffee-table Hinduism - what Hindus want other people to think their religion is all about

Hinduism is a very old set of traditions that have evolved over millennia, not just centuries. It had no single starting point, no known founder, no single holy book. It's a religion that has developed by adopting different ideas and practices from internal and external sources over centuries, many of these being mutually contradictory (although Hindus would like to imagine that there is a single underlying unity of thought that makes the entire agglomeration consistent in spite of its superficial contradictions). Hindus themselves have a very tenuous idea of what their religion is all about, and when asked, often respond with generalities like "Hinduism is a way of life".

The fact is that Hinduism is an earthy religion that was associated with an agrarian lifestyle, so it was probably not far from the truth at one time to assert that it was a way of life. Hindu religious rituals were closely tied to the day-to-day activities of a society living in an agrarian setting. There are propitiations of deities that are deemed to control the weather, ensure the success of crops, and ward off disease, there is worship of agricultural implements and useful animals (the cow), there are harvest festivals, fertility rituals and more. The phrase "way of life" is relatively meaningless today when so many Hindus live in urban apartment blocks, pursue a modern-day profession and obtain their groceries from a supermarket. The connection to the land and an agrarian way of life is largely broken today, and consequently the bulk of Hindu ritual (the "way of life") makes no sense anymore.

Some philosophical ideas (i.e., Vedanta) that bear little relation to the literal narratives and rituals of day-to-day Hindu practice have been repositioned as the philosophical underpinning of the religion, and although these philosophies are talked about, they do not form the basis of day-to-day Hindu religious practice for the simple reason that they are antithetical to ritual, and ritual is the tangible lifeblood of Hindu religious practice.

Attic Hinduism

Many aspects of Hindu thought, belief and practice have begun to be left behind as times change. Indeed, some of these have become downright embarrassing to modern Hindus, to the extent that they are often angrily denied. Perhaps the most controversial deal with sex, violence and unfair treatment of fellow humans. Criticism from other cultures and philosophies have doubtless influenced the evolution of Hinduism over the centuries. The ideas of non-violence in Buddhism and Jainism seem to have softened Hinduism's literal sacrifices into symbolic ones (although Kali temples to this day conduct bloody animal sacrifices); Muslim and Victorian disapproval turned Hindu society from one that was relatively relaxed about sexual behaviour to one that is extremely prudish today; modern society with its liberal ideas of individual rights and the equality of all has placed traditional gender and caste roles under an uncomfortable lens.

Attic Hinduism - a bunch of R-rated and X-rated material, and a set of politically incorrect ideas that are increasingly hard to espouse in public

A lot of authentic Hindu thought is therefore being actively denied today by those who claim to be Hinduism's most loyal spokespeople. Quite often, there isn't even the acknowledgement that these ideas were part of Hinduism. For example, the ideas that the lingam and yoni are meant to represent the male and female sexual organs, that beef may have been eaten by Hindus at some stage, or that brahmins were not always vegetarian, are hotly contested. The Tantric school of thought is a set of earthy ideas and practices that have been consigned to the attic and never mentioned again. The system of caste is being repositioned as an originally egalitarian division of labour that has been lately misinterpreted as an oppressive and rigid hierarchy.

Attic Hinduism is something Hindus would not want their children asking them about, because honest answers would be embarrassing. It is not discussed even with other practising Hindus. Any discussion about it is marked by dishonesty, obfuscation and outright denial.

Living-room Hinduism

When a family claims to be Hindu, what it means in practice is that the members of the family follow certain dietary and hygiene rules, perform some daily rituals like reciting prayers, lighting lamps, making offerings of flowers to idols, and the like, familiarise themselves with mythological stories about gods with human foibles, and observe festivals and auspicious events that occur during the course of a year, with specialised delicacies for different occasions.

Living-room Hinduism - The part of Hinduism that one can touch and feel, yet not what Hindus would want projected as its exclusive face

This is the face of Hinduism that Hindus do not mind showing to their children and to fellow practitioners, if not to outsiders. It is practical Hinduism, which is a tangible experience. It has distinctive colours, sounds, smells and tastes. It is taught to children without reservation and passed on through generations. Living-room Hinduism seems largely harmless, although some of the elements of Attic Hinduism do seep into it, such as the casual caste discrimination and patriarchal values that permeate Hindu society.

Living-room Hinduism doesn't actually have a whole lot to do with Coffee-table Hinduism, although the devout would strenuously insist that the two are one and the same, or at least entirely compatible.

Coffee-table Hinduism

Coffee-table Hinduism - a set of abstract ideas that fail the evidence test, but (apart from that) are relatively benign and inoffensive

Hindus will tell you that, at its heart, their religion is neither polytheistic nor idol-worshipping, because what Hindu philosophy really believes in is the existence of a single supreme consciousness, and that all of creation, including all living and non-living things, is simply a manifestation of that supreme consciousness. A human being is simply a temporarily deluded part of that supreme consciousness which does not realise its true nature and is trapped in an illusory existence. That piece of the supreme consciousness that represents an individual (a "soul") needs to embark on a journey of self-realisation over multiple incarnations, the aim of which is to one day reunite with the supreme consciousness.

There are four paths that the soul can choose from. Gnyana Yoga is the acquisition of cognitive knowledge about the nature of the self and of the supreme consciousness. Raja Yoga is the set of meditative techniques that alter one's state of consciousness to be able to perceive the supreme consciousness. Karma Yoga is the detached pursuit of righteous action that gradually casts off all ties to the illusory material world. Bhakti Yoga is the joyful embrace of love for all manifestations of the supreme consciousness, with the adoption of any harmless practical expression of that love, such as service, song or ritual.

When all is said and done, though, it is only the singing, chanting and ritualised form of Bhakti Yoga that crosses over from the coffee table to the living room.

Hinduism and Political Reality

The political reality of India today sees Attic Hinduism being denied ever more aggressively, Living-room Hinduism practised more loudly and ostentatiously, and Coffee-table Hinduism hypocritically proclaimed as being the philosophical underpinning of Living-room Hinduism, even though they could not be more opposed on the issue of ritual.

The Journey of Hinduism's Soul towards its Nirvana

Setting aside the ultimate desirability of a rational world order where all truth claims that fail the evidence test are discarded, a few things need to happen for the reform of Hinduism and its evolution into a respectable faith.

The existence of the attic must not be denied. There must be an honest acknowledgement of all that has come before, with a secure acceptance that not everything that is old is necessarily gold. The violence and unfairness must be repudiated, and the undue prudishness about sex rejected as well.

[I remember a conversation with an older gentleman a few years ago, where he made a conventionally critical remark against modern films, with "all that sex and violence". "Yes", I agreed mischievously, "too much violence and not enough sex". He was embarrassed into silence.]

The rejection of violence may seem a no-brainer, but it is in fact a complex issue when it comes to diet and the eating of animal flesh. There are no easy answers, but a workable solution is what is adopted in most democracies - an attempt at humane breeding and slaughter, and no imposition of diet on anyone.

Unfairness in Hinduism is manifested as casteism as well as sexism. Sexism is perhaps easier to roll back, since women are increasingly aware of their rights, and feminist arguments are gradually winning converts. I'm relatively sanguine about the improvement in Hindu society in terms of gender equality. However, casteism is still entrenched, especially in less urbanised settings. It will only begin to retreat as urbanisation increases.

It would be asking too much to demand the end of Living-room Hinduism, and I hardly believe that to be necessary. Living-room Hinduism is what makes even the atheists among us culturally Hindu. All that singing, socialising and eating is the stuff of good old human interaction. A little ritual is harmless social bonding, as long as it isn't taken too literally.

As for Coffee-table Hinduism, it is a philosophy that is far more accepting and inclusive than any Abrahamic faith, its unsupported mysticism notwithstanding. It's probably not a bad set of ideas to teach to Hindu children as a means of connecting them to their heritage, because it does not in any way disrespect or denigrate the billions of other humans with whom they share the earth.

Friday, 6 February 2015

The Indic Identity - What It Is And What It Isn't

My exploratory thoughts on what an Indic civilisational identity could look like attracted some appreciation but also some critical comment.

I would like to expand on one set of related comments, which is that the Indic identity should more properly be called the "Dharmic" identity, which is a name that has recently come into vogue (I suspect, thanks to the influential writings of Rajiv Malhotra).

Fundamentally, I disagree with this.

First, I disagree on a personal level because an atheist like myself simply cannot believe the mystical ideas that are axiomatic to the dharmic worldview - an all-pervading supreme consciousness that underlies all of creation itself, the immortal atma or soul, karma or the law of cosmic consequences, and so on.

Hence the "dharma" part of the Dharmic identity is completely alien to me. Some well-meaning Hindu friends have attempted to tell me that one can be an atheist as well as a Hindu, since Hinduism is a very broad church. Well, it's heartwarming that a certain worldview accepts mine, but honesty prevents me from reciprocating. The metaphysical aspects of the dharmic philosophy make no rational sense to me, and so I cannot accept them.

Second, the Dharmic identity is too narrow to serve as a civilisational identity. It could be one possible cultural identity, because civilisational identities can and should go deeper. 

In order to explain this statement, we will need to step back a fair bit.

A course called "Careers, Roles and Identity" that I enrolled in at management school turned out to fundamentally alter my worldview and show me new ways of looking at things. The definition of Identity that I learnt here has revolutionised my personal philosophy. Identity, I learnt, is "the meaning you give to the situation in which you find yourself".

This is revolutionary because it turns the whole notion of "Who am I?" on its head. Who I am turns out to have nothing much to do with any objective attribute of myself, except what I think is important, - which then makes identity entirely subjective. Two people may have had almost exactly the same social, cultural and economic background as well as near-identical life experiences, yet they could form very different identities simply because they looked at these situations and events differently.

My theory of shared identities builds on this model. It deals with how we view ourselves in relation to other individuals. We subjectively evaluate (1) our similarity of appearance (which is influenced by race or genetics), (2) how we see ourselves in terms of a group narrative or community history, and (3) the set of ideas that we agree on. This is our mental model which makes us feel that we "belong" to a group, and also the extent to which we feel we belong.

Genetics can be thought of as "hardware" and cannot be easily changed except through generations of cross-breeding. However, genetic identity is based on a subjective view of our racial appearance and what it means to us. This explains why family, tribe, clan and ethnic group tend to be such powerfully emotive grounds for a feeling of belonging, even in the case of individuals with whom we may have had no prior relationship. At the same time, since genetic identity is subjective, loyalties to family, clan or ethnic group cannot be deterministically predicted.

Received history can be thought of as "firmware". It is largely immutable, although secure and enlightened individuals can consciously revise the model of their own group history, perhaps even identify with another group's narrative.

Thoughts, ideas, theories and ideologies are "software". They are much less "fixed", although many may endure for life.

Together, genetic identity, shared community history and one's current set of ideas and ideologies form one's mental model. Again, secure and thinking individuals constantly revise and refine their mental model of themselves and the world.

The model I propose is that the more immutable aspects of one's identity (genetics and received community history) can be called civilisational identity. The more mutable aspects (various ideas, philosophies and ideologies) can be called cultural identity. The boundaries can be somewhat blurred, but the distinction is nevertheless useful.

(Click to expand)

Western civilisation, for example, could be thought of as being made up of a Caucasian racial identity, a shared Hebraic/Hellenic historical identity and commonly held ideological beliefs such as a belief in democracy, the rule of law, individual rights, etc. (I will explain the terms Hebraic and Hellenic in a minute.) Two Caucasian individuals with the same cultural background would tend to see themselves as the same people, especially in contrast to other individuals who do not share either or both identities. Other ethnic groups may share specific ideas and philosophies with individuals belonging to Western civilisation, but there is a natural limit to such self-identification, mainly because of differences in racial and historical background. African-Americans, for example, cannot exclusively identify with Western civilisation even after generations of cultural conditioning, because the racial part of their identity, based on their genetic hardware, draws them back to their African roots. Besides, many of them have a community narrative based on the experience of slavery, which prevents them from identifying completely with their Caucasian compatriots.

The example of African-Americans brings us to the important concept of hybrid identities, especially in relation to the notion of authenticity.

Authenticity is a key concept that I want to address, because cultural purists (usually from the right of the political spectrum) have a simplistic idea of identity. To them, hybrid identities are marked by confusion and are therefore inauthentic; only "pure" identities are authentic. But such simplistic ideologies are dead at the starting gate, because there are no pure identities. All identities are combinations of genetic, historical and ideological views of oneself. They are all subjective and are hence software. The ideas underpinning them have evolved and grown through interplay over millennia. Therefore purity of identity is a chimera. Not only is it a chimera, any "pure" culture is, ipso facto, stagnant and dead. All living cultures are malleable and fluid. As they cross-pollinate through ideas, hybrids form all the time. By definition, all these hybrids are authentic. It is "pure" cultures that are inauthentic, and this is also by definition, since pure cultures only exist in the imagination.

Typically, the cultural make-up of an individual draws from multiple groups of related ideas. Religion and language are two of the two most powerful markers of self-identification, along with gender identity.

Cultural layers can coexist in spite of inherent contradictions (e.g., religious faith and training in scientific rationalism). Also, like any software, any strand of cultural identity can be modified or even removed completely.

The "dharmic" identity has a genetic basis, being associated with people from South Asia and to a lesser extent Southeast Asia. It also has a unique historical narrative (although one with parts that are in dispute, such as the Aryan Invasion Theory) and a set of core metaphysical and abstract philosophical beliefs. It could conceivably form a civilisational identity, but it is unlikely to be a good one.

The first problem, of course, is obvious when one looks at the social reality of the Indian nation-state to which this identity is proffered.

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There are people who are part of the Indic civilisational identity who would feel left out of a purely Dharmic cultural identity. These include not just Indian Christians, Muslims and atheists, but also people, mostly Muslim, from other South Asian countries.

Besides, the Dharmic cultural identity is not inherently egalitarian towards all the individuals that it includes.

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Women, the so-called "lower" castes, non-Hindus and non-Indians could all feel like second-class members of this group because of entrenched biases in the social culture that is enmeshed with the core dharmic philosophy. It is hard to separate out abstract philosophy from social prescriptions when the two come tightly bound in a single cultural package.

It is far more powerful to adopt the Indic civilisational identity as a basis of a shared identity, since many more individuals can accept this, and undesirable elements of culture can be dropped without one's core identity being threatened. Some individuals, of course, will also have a dharmic cultural identity, with the specialised characteristics of their particular faith shaping this identity more finely. but they will not be "more equal" than others who share their civilisational identity, which is the problem when a common dharmic identity is sought to be imposed on all.

See diagram below (click to expand).

As a contrast, it is useful to look at the Western identity. It is simpler than the Indic one, but it is not monolithic either.

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Western identity consists of a shared civilisation identity (Caucasian genetics and European history, in the main) but with two mutually opposed cultural identities, the Hebraic and the Hellenic. The Hebraic culture refers to the Judeo-Christian tradition that underpins the two major religions of the West, Judaism and Christianity. The Hellenic culture refers to the rational schools of philosophical thought that originated with the ancient Greeks. The tension between the Hebraic and Hellenic cultures is reflected in the separation of church and state in the modern West. Western society reflects Western identity.

Similarly, although the (Han) Chinese appear to have a monolithic identity, there have been many cultural influences that have shaped their identity/identities. They share a racial identity and a historical narrative (e.g., the invasion and subsequent repulsion of the Mongols, the "century of humiliation", etc.) The two sets of indigenous cultural ideas are Confucianism and Taoism. The former emphasises duty, hard work and the importance of social structures and hierarchies. The latter emphasises oneness with nature and an ability to "go with the flow". These are quite distinct philosophies. In addition, Buddhism is a third influence imported from India, which stresses compassion and the renunciation of desire as the means to a fulfilling life. Finally, Communism was a twentieth-century import from Europe, and a version of this philosophy endures to this day.

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Civilisational and cultural identities need not result in constant conflict. The world sees shifting alliances based on shared (or not shared!) values. This implies that groups of people with no common civilisational identity could ally with one another based on shared cultural identities. Opposition to a common group that is more alien to two parties than they are to each other could also lead to political alliances.

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To find one's place in the world, one needs to establish an identity that is self-confident yet respectful of others on equal terms. The model of the Indic civilisational identity described above, which layers cultural identity above civilisational identity, provides the maximum scope for individuals to engage effectively with one another to form groups and build bridges, to find commonality where it occurs and to be respectful of difference when none is found.