Global Review had the pleasure and honour to have an interview with Dr. Vijay Kumar Roy about Indian culture and society. Dr. Vijay Kumar Roy is an Indian poet writing in English and Hindi. He has authored and edited more than a dozen books on English poetry, Hindi poetry, Indian English Poetry, Indian English Fiction, Peace Literature, Comparative Literature and English Language Teaching. He has contributed various research papers, poems, book reviews to different national and international journals, magazines and anthologies of repute. He has been honoured with Lifetime Achievement Award by Indian Institute of Oriental Heritage, Kolkata in 2015. He is an academic, and editor-in-chief of Ars Artium (http://www.arsartium.org/index.html), an international research journal of humanities and social sciences published from New Delhi. The Social, Cultural and Spiritual Dimensions of Modern Indian Poetry in English (2017) and Realm of Beauty and Truth: A Collection of Poems (2016) are his recently published books, besides Premanjali (2009), a collection of poems in Hindi, and The Melodies of Immortality (2012), an anthology of poetry in English.
Global Review: Dr. Roy, if people speak of Indian culture they mean the Hinduist culture. However culture is changing as times are changing. And there is the influence of other cultures, in India, the Arab and the Anglo-Saxon culture. What do you think are the key elements of Indian culture?
V. K. Roy: Indians always believe in the culture of “Vasudhaiva Kutumbakam”, a Sanskrit phrase, which means “the world is one family”. This is the true meaning of ‘Hinduist culture’. Embracing all as our own has been the oldest concept of Indian culture. There is no such thing as otherness for Indians. You will not find the word ‘Hindu’ in the oldest Indian scriptures – either in the Vedas or Upanishads, because this word has its origin from the word ‘Sindhu’; the people who lived near the river Sindhu were termed as Hindus. This is geographical nomenclature that is associated with the way of living. In all Indian scriptures you will find the word ‘manushya’ (human), never ‘Hindu’ because they were the first scriptures on the earth written by the sages and seers. It means being the oldest way of living, Hinduism suggests oneness; it does not suggest differences.
Today, India is known for a home of diverse cultures. Though there are several reasons for diversity, but today this is the true beauty of India and we are proud of it. You are right by saying that culture changes in the course of time. This is well known that India was invaded many times due to its vast glory, and being called a “Golden Bird”. But among all invasions, India was worst inflicted by the Mughals. The forced and ill-willed tax-system, destruction of ancient places of worship and forced conversions changed the social-cultural fabric of India. Besides these, Muhammad bin Bakhtiyar Khilji, a Turkish invader, destroyed the Nalanda University in 1193 AD which was an ancient seat of learning. He not only destroyed it, but burnt its rich library that took three months to burn about nine million books. He also destroyed Vikramshila University in around 1200. The last invasion by the British affected Indian culture a lot, still people believe that there are few good signs of development left over by them, Indian Railways system is one of them. The key elements of Indian culture are peaceful coexistence, respect for all traditions, cultures and religions, freedom of worship, and freedom of thought and speech.
Global Review: How has traditional Hindu culture changed during the British colonialism? Was India becoming more British? Samuel Huntington claims in his book “Clash of civilizations” that globalization has impact on the upper and middle class while the ordinary people don’t speak English and have not what he calls “CNN culture”. Is there one Indian culture or are there different Indian cultures due to class or caste differences or regions as India is more a continent than a country?
V. K. Roy: Yes, there had been change in Indian culture during British colonialism and its influence is easily observed today. But it did not mean India was becoming more British. Though it is true to say that some Indians have better command over the English language than the British have and this is also true that English language has got more emphasis throughout the country than the first language, but we find it in the upper class and middle class people only. Ordinary people understand English to some extent but they do not speak due to lack of exposure to it.
Yes, India is more a continent than a country. In Addis Ababa and Mizan in Ethiopia, and also in Dubai some people talked about the same thing with me due to the vastness of India. In Saudi Arabia also my colleagues from Egypt, Sudan, Jordan, Morocco, Tunisia, Canada, Australia and Syria sometimes talk about the same thing. There is not a single culture in India. Like thousands of languages spoken in different parts of India, we have different cultures due to class, castes, regions and religions, but there is one thing common in all that is Indianness. This is a wonderful thread that binds all together and helps us in continuing peace and brotherhood. This is really amazing for non-Indians.
Global Review: There are many traditional festivals in India as Diwali, Holi, Navaratri, Pongal, Ganesh Chaturthi. Are they still celebrated by the broad masses and what are their meanings?
V. K. Roy: Yes, all these festivals are celebrated by the broad masses. Besides some other stories available in different ancient Indian scriptures regarding origins of Diwali, it is widely believed that when Lord Rama returned to Ayodhya from his fourteen years of exile, people of Ayodhya celebrated that night with lights. From that time Diwali is celebrated. It is celebrated in almost all parts of India as a festival of prosperity, wisdom and light. Holi is celebrated as a festival of colours marking the spring season. It symbolizes the eternal love between Lord Krishna and Radha. Navratri is celebrated for nine sacred days identified with nine incarnations of the Goddess Durga for welfare of human beings. It is celebrated particularly in northern parts of India. Pongal is a harvest festival celebrated in Tamil Nadu. It is celebrated for four days and this is the most famous festival of the year in Tamil Nadu. Ganesh Chaturthi is a popular festival of Maharashtra state of India in which the birth of Lord Ganesh is celebrated by the masses. This is also celebrated in some other parts of India as well.
Global Review: Who are the most important authors in India and what are they writing? Are modern Indian authors still relying on traditional Indian literature, myths and eposes?
V. K. Roy: As you have already stated that India is more a continent than a country, so it is difficult to name all Indian writers but some of them among well-known living legends credited with empowering Indian English literature are: Anita Desai, Nayantara Sahgal, Shashi Deshpande, Ruskin Bond (of British descent), Vikram Seth, Amitav Ghosh, Shashi Tharoor, Manju Kapur, Arundhati Roy, Aravind Adiga, Kiran Desai, Amit Chaudhuri, Shobhaa De, Anita Nair, Githa Hariharan, Namita Gokhale, Upamanyu Chatterjee, Meena Alexander, Chetan Bhagat, Amish Tripathi, Pankaj Mishra and Vikram Chandra. There are also some popular and much sought after writers of Indian origin. They are: Sir V. S. Naipaul (Indian descent), Sir Salman Rushdie (British-Indian), Rohinton Mistry (Indo-Canadian), Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni (Indian-American), and Jhumpa Lahiri (Indian-American). These writers have brought out various distinctive themes in their writings besides Indian culture, tradition, myths and eposes. None of them stick only to “traditional Indian literature, myths and eposes”. Various new Indian English writers have emerged whose writings deal with contemporary issues of India and the world at large including spirituality, universal values, peace and brotherhood.
Global Review: Is Indian dance and theatre still influenced by Hindu traditions or are there modern more Western forms of expression? What we see in the Bollywood movies: Is this traditional Indian dance and music or already pop culture?
V. K. Roy: You will find everything in it. There is influence of Hindu traditions, Western forms as well as pop culture. Though there are eight recognized classical dance forms in India: Bharatanatyam, Kathak, Kuchipudi, Odissi, Kathakali, Sattriya, Maipuri and Mohiniyattam, and there are many folk dance forms in different states.
Global Review: There are some, but not many influences of Indian culture in the Western world. The Beatles were influenced by Indian culture. Ravi Shankar became famous in the Western world during the psychedelic hippie era for his Sita play. Indian sects Bhagwan Rajneesh (Osho) and Hare Krishna (ISKCON) won some supporters. Today Bollywood movies are also shown on Western television. There are also some Indians in Western cartoons as Sally Bollywood or Abu, the greedy retailer in the Simpsons. Or Raj, the shy Indian in the academic nerd community of “The Big Bang Theory”. Yoga is still very popular in the Western world. Modi wants to revive the Hindu culture and to export it in connection with a charm and soft power initiative. However, China is systematically establishing Confucius institutes worldwide and is famous for Traditional Chinese medicine. If you compare Indian with Chinese culture, which culture could become a soft power in the age of globalization?
V. K. Roy: I cannot predict about any particular culture to dominate the future world because every culture gets influenced by other cultures through contacts. This process has produced a mixed culture, though this can also be understood in the context of religion. We see in all parts of the globe that at the places of worship priests and some other people offer religious books of particular religions freely to those who come in contacts with them. The reason behind them is that they want to spread the messages of their religions and this leads to conversion, but you will never see any Indian in India or abroad to do so, therefore, other religions spread throughout the world but not the oldest one, the Hinduism.
When we talk about the medicine, we must remember that Indian Ayurvedic medicine is the oldest medicine in the world for treatment that does not have any side effect. In the same way, Yoga is the oldest way to keep one’s body, mind and spirit fit. Gradually physical exercises and physical therapy spread in present forms. In the age of globalization, people are aware of these facts, and first they test then they accept. So it is better to keep the future culture in the womb of future itself.
Global Review: India is also the land of the Kama Sutra. Some Westerners, therefore, think that Indians are real sex acrobats and sex machines. However Indologists claim that India is still a very sexual restrictive and repressive society. In the last years there were large women protest against sexism and rape. Is the Kama Sutra an upper-class book or has it influenced the Indian masses?
V. K. Roy: Maximum portions of the Kama Sutra describe the theory and philosophy of love. This is the first and oldest book of its kind written between 400 BCE and 200 CE by Vatsyayana. It is believed in India that during that age people liked to remain unmarried and become sages and seers. They did not like marriage. So a king told Vatsyayana to write a book to attract the youth to marriage that resulted in writing Kama Sutra. This is the fact that India is still a very sexual restrictive and repressive society. There is no such thing as this book is for the people of upper-class, and there is no influence of this book to the Indian masses. Those who are interested in gaining knowledge they read it.
Global Review: India is also well known for its spirituality. Is there no secularization of Indian culture and Hinduism? Modi’s BJP is promoting Hindu nationalism and is very popular? Is this strengthening the still existing caste system? How important are castes in India and are there no classes or social layers which are more important?
V. K. Roy: Yes, of course, India is well known for its spirituality. It is a land of rishis and munis, Vedas and Upanishads – the oldest scriptures in the world for the whole mankind. Indian culture is more secular. You will not see the Hindus propagating their belief for the sake of conversion. Yes, Modi’s BJP is very popular these days due to certain reasons. Promoting nationalism has come out through media, but it cannot help a political party in the long run. Maximum population of India believes in secularism and they want to live with peace and harmony. They believe that it is secularism that protects both believers and non-believers. There are few people who are unable to digest the growth and development of underprivileged and downtrodden. This tendency has again brought to light the casteist politics for the sake of vote bank. Caste system cannot be ignored here but there are many people who avoid it, particularly the youths of India. There are still social layers in India and their influence cannot be ignored.
Global Review: Why do you think communism became not so important in India compared to the rest of Asia as China, Indochina, North Korea? Is the caste system or Indian culture preventing class struggle?
V. K. Roy: Yes, you are right. Communism could not become important in India due to lack of revolutions for this, and people had already seen a state like West Bengal which was ruled by a communist party for more than twenty three years (1977–2000) and there is no sign of considerable development there. It is the diversity of Indian culture that prevents class struggle.
Global Review: The Bhagwan (Osho) sect became very famous in the Western world. Bhagwan was a very political person at a young age, had sympathies with the RSS and the nationalist National Indian Army, then discovered socialism, but became a critic of Mahatma Gandhi as he claimed that socialism was praising poverty and asceticism. Bhagwan also criticized the repressive Indian sexual morale. He came to the conclusion that India needed capitalism, birth control and sexual liberation. How important became Bhagwan’s ideas in India?
V. K. Roy: In India he is known as Bhagwan Ranjneesh and Osho. His followers are many in number in almost all cities and towns but after his demise his movement almost ceased in India. There are no more programmes or speeches of this sect held in India. There are some magazines published by his mission to spread his messages. His ideas and discourses published in magazines and his books deal with great logical and scientific arguments that are received with great honour.
Global Review: What do you think about Hindu nationalism? Is it good for India? Gandhi and Nehru in Congress Party supported a nonviolent, pacifistic, socialist, all-Indian, universal and anti-caste policy. Gandhi even wanted to put Mohammad Ali Jinah or a Muslim as new prime minister of all India in order to prevent the partition of India. However, the Muslim League, GB and the Hindu nationalists prevented this. The Congress Party held to the Non-Alignment, anti-caste, universal, pacifist and socialist policy for the next 30 years, only with the exception that after the Chinese aggression in 1962 they had closer ties with the Soviet Union. However Modi, born in the RSS and associated with other Hindu nationalistic groups replaced the Congress. Modi started his Hindu nationalism by burning down Christian churches and destroying Muslim temples. He was banned by the USA for entering the land of the free. But when he became prime minister, made a neoliberal economic policy, was moving towards the USA against China, everything was forgotten and he is seen as a welcomed guest of the USA. However his new identity policy is promoting a Hindu-Buddhist society, excluding Christians and Muslims, on the other side promoting World Yoga days and World Laughing Days to create the soft power of an ever peaceful India. While Modi is still promoting a neoliberal military strong India, he is stirring up the divides within the Indian society. As Hinduism- Buddhism are no religions which want to conquer the world as Christianity was and many sections of Islam still do, Hinduism-Buddhism is perceived by the West as not that dangerous. But the exclusion of Christians and Muslims in India can split and destabilise the country. Is the model of the Congress Party better than the Hindu nationalist BJP?
V. K. Roy: You are right in present context, but only one person should not be blamed for all incidences. Hate speeches of some public figures are also responsible for them. There are some anti-social elements who do not like the thread of love, peace and brotherhood in society. In a so vast democratic nation, it is not possible for the government to keep a vigil on every follower of a political party. The truth is that in every society there are some constructive and destructive people, but destructive people become active when they are under someone’s umbrella. Media is also guilty for these incidents that gave more coverage to them and escaped from other important things. When you go back to the history of India and read the destruction of many public buildings including Nalanda University, Vikramshila University and many temples by the Mughals as well as forced conversions and sex slave made by them, and numerous atrocities and massacres carried out by different foreign invaders then you will think that Indians have experienced the worst kind of persecution in the world and then also they are the best peace lovers in the world who tried to forget everything what happened to them for centuries. What are the facts that we all should accept with free will. Yet, one thing is clear that communalism cannot work in India in the long run due to cultural diversity, and because communalism is the root of many evils and particularly in this modern age when everyone needs job and peaceful coexistence for their betterment.
Everyone in India has constitutional rights as well as duties that should always be respected. So there is no question of ‘split’ and destabilisation of the country. A government is formed for only five years; if it does not stand on the expectations of the masses then change is inevitable. People have seen the Congress Party for several years in power, so of course, they feel their model better but in some cases the BJP has also won the hearts of some people.
Global Review: How do the Indian media look like? Which are the most important television stations and newspapers? How many Indians have access to social media and the internet? And what about the education system–how many Indians speak English?
V. K. Roy: The Indian media have liberty of expression. DD News, NDTV 24×7, CNN-News18, Times Now and Republic TV are popular Indian English news channels. There are many other news channels in Hindi and other regional languages. The Times of India, The Hindu, The Telegraph, The Indian Express, Hindustan Times and The Economic Times are famous English language newspapers, besides many others in English, Hindi and regional languages. The exact number of people who have access to social media and the internet is difficult to say, but these days its use is observed in great number from big cities to small villages. Facebook and WhatsApp are known to almost everyone in India.
India had the education system of Gurukula in which pupils used to go to the Guru (teacher) and it was up to the guru to accept the pupils for teaching. After acceptance, pupils were taught everything including mathematics, science, philosophy and metaphysics in the midst of nature. When the guru was satisfied with his teachings then pupils were allowed to leave the Gurukula. This kind of system was also known for establishing excellent teacher-student relationship as well as academic and social integrity. The modern education system of India was introduced by Macaulay in 1830s (when India was under British rule) in which English, science and mathematics were given focus whereas metaphysics and philosophy were overlooked. Such education system lacks the mode of spiritual development as well as good teacher-student relationship. The modern education system has also given the way to materialistic development.
When we talk about the English language, then it is obvious to record that English is the second language in India which is taught in every school, college and university both by public sector and private sector. India is known as the second largest English speaking country in the world and more than 125 million people speak English which is just after the USA.
Global Review: India’s government is portraying India as the world’s biggest modern democracy. On the surface this might be true as it is a democracy, Bollywood and the Indian Silicon Valley Bangalore, but still you have the caste system, arranged marriages, widow burning, child labour, slums, many illiterates, Hindu nationalism and Hindu fascism as the RSS or Maoist communist insurgents as the Naxalites in the Red Belt. Will India modernize or been stuck in its social antagonisms? Is China the better model?
V. K. Roy: This is the most pertinent question. I don’t think the term “the world’s biggest modern democracy” has been propounded by any Indian. It is used by all other nations due to the vast population of India. You are right to say that Bollywood and Silicon Valley Bangalore have given other identities to India whereas there are several other unsolved issues before the government. Widow burning is not prevalent in India. It was abolished through a movement led by Raja Ram Mohan Roy more than a century ago. There are many plans and schemes through which the government is committed to solve all issues. There is no scope of Hindu nationalism and Hindu fascism as the RSS or Maoist communist insurgents in India. India is already modernized that can be seen in all fields. In the case of development, many Indians believe China as the better model but in other fields India has its own important place.