What’s this India I hear so much about?
I haven’t been writing, editing, or conducting research much as of late. This has probably gone unnoticed in the vastness of the cyberspace, but in the spirit of blogging I thought I’d answer a question that no one asked. I recently learned that my wife and I will probably be moving to Bangalore, India later in the year. This has kept me physically occupied with home repair and boxing up the house. In my non-labor moments, my mental faculties are largely devoted to understanding the country in which I will be living. I’ve never been there before.
India is a harder nut to crack than one might think. Yes, there is the obvious. At 1.2 billion people, it has the world’s second largest population and is screaming up on China for number one. It’s the seventh largest country by land area. It’s the birthplace of that most excellent yoga that keeps all the twisty people twisty. It’s home of tandoori chicken and naan bread, both of which I love.
However, that’s all superficial. I must sadly admit that–until recently–my in-depth knowledge has come from three sources:
1.) The Jungle Books by Rudyard Kipling
2.) A junior high school field trip to see the film Gandhi, which I had been under the impression was six hours long, but, according to Wikipedia, is only a little over three hours long. I guess that, just as kids think everyone is taller, a kid’s perception of Oscar-winning motion picture run times is greatly distorted.
3.) A ton of reading about the Indo-Pakistani rift and its strategic implications as a graduate student studying International Affairs with a focus on Strategic Studies.
With respect to number 3, the amount of study of this region was not commensurate with the fact that the Indo-Pakistani border region is generally voted “Most Likely Point of Origin for Global Nuclear Winter.” I’m not suggesting that the relationship between India and Pakistan is any more dysfunctional, unstable, or rooted in irrationality than other relationships between nuclear powers. However, the adjacency of the two countries is a problem from the perspective of strategic stability. When alarms went off in the U.S. or the U.S.S.R. back in the day, there was at least a little time to evaluate and communicate. Being next-door neighbors makes the Indo-Pakistani conflict particularly troubling. That said, they’ve had some pretty big strain tests on their relationship without blowing up the world, so that’s a positive sign.
So why does this country, which should be so front and center in the global consciousness, remain so mysterious? One way we know countries is by those grand competitions through which nations–friends and enemies alike–interact. In this domain, India really hides its light under a bushel. India has won 26 Olympic medals in 23 games, this is fewer than either Kenya or Jamaica–and both of those countries did it in fewer games. Yesterday, in a post about a book by Nobel Prize-winning Hungarian, Imre Kertész, I may have mentioned that Hungarians have won 12 Nobel Prizes–that’s more than India by a large margin. Now, while India has had its problems, it’s 100 times more populous than Hungary, and has a history of publishing scientific literature in English (an undeniable advantage in this domain.) Depending upon which country Rudyard Kipling is counted toward, India has either eight or nine Nobel Prize wins. Of course, it would be ridiculous to think that India doesn’t have the human capital to excel in such domains. While I realize it may not be a representative sample, I think almost every Indian I’ve met in person has had an advanced degree and has been smart as a whip. So it’s certainly NOT true that this is a country that undervalues education. With a third of the world’s population, statistically speaking, they must be home to physical and mental specimens of humanity that are as impressive as any, but somehow either the will or ability to convert that human capital into winners on the global stage is missing.
I do know a little more about India. It’s the birthplace of both Hinduism and Buddhism, as well as a bunch of other religions. As a martial artist, I’ve heard that many believe most Asian fighting systems could trace their origins back to India. I don’t know how much truth there is to this belief. Martial arts always evolve into optimization with the local conditions and culture, and, therefore, a lack of superficial similarities doesn’t discount the possibility of such a connection. One of the origin myths the Indo-centric martial arts is the story that Bodhidharma brought a fighting style to China that would be the stepping off point for most of the myriad Asian martial arts. The current consensus among historians seems to be that this part of the Bodhidharma story is not true (See: Meir Shahar’s The Shaolin Monastery.) However, that being said, there is an odd but clear connection between this most pacifistic of world religions, Buddhism, and some of the world’s most kick-ass martial arts. Whether one is talking about China’s Shaolin monks or Japan’s legendary warrior-monk Benkei, it’s clear that some exceptional martial arts have developed in tandem with the spread of Buddhism. Of course, even this just creates more questions, namely: Why should a pacifist religion have legendary fighters sprouting up anywhere near it?
I’m looking forward to getting to know more about India than that it’s huge and its Chicken Vindaloo is scrumptious. It’s a country with a long and intriguing history. I want to see its jungles, its deserts, its mountains, and its beaches. I want to visit its temples and learn from its sages. I’m eager to see its vivid colors and smell [at least some] of its pungent scents. At some point I expect to have some awesome posts about my time there, and hopefully some bold pictures as well. In the mean time, please forgive my slacking.