Cerebral Fodder

November  2005


India to Amerindia


by Jayant Deshpande


first published in

NEW Quest, No.159 (Jan-Mar) 2005

a quarterly journal of participatory inquiry

devoted to politics, culture, literature & society


Standing atop this sprawling, craggy mound of lava rock called Hanuman Hill, I look down on the sprawling city of Pune, snugly fitted into the fingers of plain that form a crude glove thrusting in between the hills that dot the landscape. Housing developments creep up their barren slopes.


Were it not for Pune, though, the scene might resemble the view from Tukaram's memorial atop Bhandara Hill, near the old village of Dehu in Maharashtra, not far from Pune: brownish hills and ridges strewn across a sun-baked, sun-washed, semi-arid plain. An almost primeval solitude prevails there that reminds me of the Great Basin of the American West. A solitude that envelops and engulfs the wonderful sculptures in stone rising from the plain.


I've seen many pictures of Ayers Rock (known by the local aborigines as Uluru) in central Australia. This magnificent, sprawling mound of reddish rock sits like a colossus in that vast and timeless setting. An island of tranquility and, for the locals, a sacred spirit. Surrounded by a vast desert plain. A sacred outcrop.


To me this rock has affinities with Bhandara Hill, also an island of rock, a sprawling mound made sacred by the memory of Tukaram. It too is surrounded by a plain. As one goes up the road to the top, one gets a clear view of the plain, to the distant horizon on the east and the south. Stone relics, mounds and ridges flank the north and the west. A sizable hill, notched at the top, stands out boldly from the western ridges. The deepening, warm, reddish-orange glow of sunset bathes the silhouetted ridges. To the south, the crests of Gokul-Vrindavan (rising above Shindewadi, near Katraj) and Singhagad can be spotted.


An exhilarating sense of freedom pervades the place and washes over even the casual visitor. Not only is the view scenic, but during the cooler months, beginning in November, the air hints at the alpine. One gets the strong feeling of being somewhere else, not on the arid Deccan Plateau. Bhandara Hill is rent with the power of suggestion. That’s how bewitching it can be. The mind wanders about in a trance, especially as one enters the place gouged out of the side of the hill, where Tukaram, the 17th century Marathi bhakti poet would sit for hours and meditate—the place warkaris call ‘Tukaram’s Kapaat’.


A landscape can be a metaphor for music, giving it a spatial dimension. In his book, Scenes in America Deserta, the art historian, Reyner Banham recalls his experience when driving in the Mojave Desert and Death Valley in California. He speaks of how the eye sweeps the alternating sequence of talus slopes and mountains on either side in a stately adagio rhythm as one moves in a car on the sandy salt pans in between these elevations from the plain. This insight added to my own experience when I explored that region many years ago.


The geology may be different, but where the Deccan Plateau hugs the Western Ghats, a similar experience is possible in the arid summer months.


As the Sahyadri ranges in the Ghats gradually yield to the broad expanses of the the Deccan Plateau, the vistas on offer bear a striking resemblance to those in the American Southwest; they even have a certain affinity with them. Not only because of the dry air, similar landforms and the magical quality of the sunlight, but also because the way of life of the Native American (American Indian, or Amerindian) has some affinities with his counterpart in India: the adivasi. Both impoverished, but rugged and resourceful; possessing a rich, inner life full of myth and folklore. To the Amerindian the landscape bears religious significance, and he doesn’t share the European notion of property, that is, of ownership and demarcation. The entire landscape belongs to him, and he to it. He has no use for fencing off large tracts of land to denote ownership. (This is at odds with modern thinking that property rights are essential in conserving the bounty of nature).


Apart from the Hispanic presence, the Amerindian accents  are the strongest in Arizona and New Mexico. With such a background one wonders why the white American felt a strong urge to abandon it in favor of his European origins, and tried to connect to the classical civilizations of Eurasia. The Amerindians could have given him the spiritual connection he sought. How ironic that these Indians, whose ancestors are traced to Asia, were abandoned in favor of ‘real’ Asians when it came to spiritual life. The past is revealing: the ancestors of the Amerindians—meaning all the natives of the Americas—were nomadic hunters of Asian Mongoloid stock who migrated chiefly over the Bering Strait land bridge into North America. These migrants shared certain cultural traits with their Asian contemporaries, including the use of fire, the domesticated dog, and particular rites.


America’s cultural imperialism also means, paradoxically enough, that other cultures are to be taken seriously only if they are far from home, not if they are in their own backyard as Amerindian cultures are. Almost all the interest in its own Indians has been shown by a concerned minority, and it seems like too little, too late. The large Hispanic community fares much better, as it slides into the American mainstream, unencumbered by the reservations that Amerindians inhabit.


American bohemia, and even a portion of the disillusioned bourgeoisie, has raised Taoism, Confucianism, Buddhism, Hinduism, Zen and Islam to cult status. Many of them have converted to these faiths out of conviction, and in the case of Islam, in fairly large numbers. Witness the Black Muslims. The Amerindian is conveniently ignored, as though his faith didn’t exist. America has no use for him except to fence him off on his reservation and pay lip service to his rituals and festivals for the benefit of tourists.


It could be argued, of course, that the Indians have preserved their sanctity—perhaps even their sanity—only because of these reservations, and only in this way can they meet Americans to express their uniqueness. Yet the reservations go against the Indians’ notion of property and is sectarian besides.


The Amerindian never really became, or had the chance to become, an integral part of the American consciousness. They’ve become mere icons, clichés; exotic objects to be admired from a distance. To be parodied, caricatured. Without a human face. The white man had a lot to give, but did he give it?  Did the Indians take it? The Indian brought much to the Americas: animal husbandry, cultivation of certain plants, the wheel, the plow.


Americans dare not adapt to the Amerindians’ world-view for fear of being thought primitive and backward. To them the Indian has nothing to offer in spiritual terms; the Great Religions will take care of that. Even the African American saw fit to embrace Christianity, and in modern times, Islam. He did not embrace the Indian and learn from him, nor share his misery, in spite of his own persecution and impoverishment.


That the Amerindians and all other Americans are worlds apart in their attitudes and behavior must be the most puzzling thing about twentieth-century America. So close, and yet so far. One might almost be forgiven for thinking that the Amerindian doesn’t really exist. He is but a phantom, a phoenix rising occasionally from the American landscape to upset the supposedly ‘real’ white ‘natives’.


By plumping for the Amerindian—in America—it is easy to be seen as a sentimental primitivist. After all, didn’t the Maya, the Aztecs and the Incas in Latin America achieve more? Were they not also under siege by the Europeans? Did they not also have to bear the brunt of the white man’s onslaught? Yet they all suffered in some way; their cultures were suppressed or wiped out, whether in the north or the south of the Americas.


Indeed, how unfortunate the word ‘Indian’ has become, and still is. It can mean either those from India, or North and South American Indians, the aborigines of the Americas. The latter should really be known by their specific tribal name. The confusion serves those who belittle or ridicule India as a land of primitives since Amerindians have already had similar myths built up around them. So the pejorative connotation often sticks. Only when these Indians are called ‘injuns’, as in old Westerns, is the distinction clear. What an accident of history. Could Columbus, who set out to discover India, ever have imagined the consequences of calling the natives he saw (in the “New World”) Indians?


So where does India stand? Americans appropriate ideas, icons and images from Indian philosophy and culture in a casual manner to satisfy their craving for the exotic and to achieve commercial success. If an Indian from India does that in America, he’s considered too ethnic, too obscure. If he appropriates things American, he’s told to stick to what he knows best and leave Americana to the natives. Who are the ‘natives’, anyway? Nobody wants second-rate imitations of American patois. So what’s an Indian from the East to do?


Years ago, in her lively book, Karma Cola, Gita Mehta explored the clash between the stereotyped spiritual East and the hedonistic, material West. She played with the mutual parody this suggests. American TV sitcoms like Dharma & Greg make clichéd, mock fun of Indian spirituality as something out of tune with mainstream American life and culture. Words like karma, dharma, guru, yoga, maya, pundit, gifted to the world by Indian civilization, have long since passed into the English lexicon, and are now bandied about with great ease by Westerners as though they were icons or trademarks. What is commonplace here rises to the status of a cult there, like the Hare Krishna movement.


That is the uneasy truce between the world’s two largest democracies. America appropriates but does not assimilate. Today, while it is under siege, it simply can’t get India off its mind. Yet America loves to ignore India’s importance and cultivates a certain unfairness towards it. It is a kind of shared secrecy—India is obviously aware of this duplicity.


It might be fair to say that America, the nation-state, exploits both Indians and Amerindians, but in different ways. And so in a sense India has a spiritual kinship with the Native American Indian.


The writer, Raja Rao, who later settled in Texas, once said that America, with its vitality and inventiveness, has the makings of a classical civilization. But after years of aggressive involvement abroad to secure its economic interests and thus its extravagant lifestyle at home—which is now in question—and its recent military adventures, one begins to wonder.


With an overwhelmingly youthful population, India may currently be heaven for the American ‘outsourcers’. But it will likely be hell for the teeming hordes of young folk who’ll be competing for a piece of that foreign pie, and for the limited berths on home soil—only a fraction stands to get its share; the rest will be left with compromise and despair. Civil society may have to face severe challenges in India in the coming years.


India is an emerging society. And it may well be at the crossroads of all the crises now facing mankind. Though it is plagued with all kinds of problems arising from its past, and those associated with the painful process of transition, it is still a unique classical civilization whose legacy continues to be expressed and felt by its people in all walks of life. That, finally, is what India will continue to give to the world, in a plethora of forms, and in myriad ways. A pluralism without limit.