different deities of indian culture

The Fluidity of Culture

Languages, cuisines, dances and religious texts may seem like all that culture is. I don’t think that’s true. Although I do believe that they set the stage for what culture can look like, it is not the culture in itself. On scouring through multiple Wikipedia pages and falling through the rabbit hole that is the internet, I realized that people use history to define culture. I don’t think that is the right way to go about this.

Let’s take Hinduism. It is a polytheistic religion with different rules that people follow. Some can’t eat non-vegetarian food at all, some can’t eat it on particular days. Even with this perception of restriction on non-vegetarian food by religion, the fact is that the population of people who consume non-vegetarian food is greater than those who don’t. So is it in our culture to not eat meat? It shouldn’t be. But, that did not stop from riots happening. 

Some years back, after Prime Minister Modi came into power, a law was passed that banned the production and sale of beef in India. Mind you, this is just production and sale and not consumption. Around the same time, a civilian vigilante group – Bharatiya Gau Rakshak Dal (Indian Cow Protection group) was formed.

These folks, who were predominantly vegetarian and had no idea about the different kinds of meats started to create riots across the country which even led to the death of quite a number of people. They were lynching people who were carrying a black polythene bag (indicating that it either has meat in it or sanitary napkins in India) while claiming that the lynched individual was carrying beef of an illegally killed cow in the packet. Surprise, surprise it wasn’t beef – just mutton, or even fish at times.

These folks who claimed to be offended at the individual carrying the meat claimed that what the individual was doing was against our culture. The father of our nation – Mahatma Gandhi – proudly said, if they slap on one cheek, show them the other. Shouldn’t ahimsa (non-violence) be in the core of our culture then? At least it is what we are taught in schools. 

What I am trying to say that culture has so many levels that it pushes people to prioritize some elements as more important to the culture than others.

What does that mean for culture?

I think that shows that culture can be different from individual to individual. This is not just exclusive to South Asia. Let’s take North American as an example. In the past decade, people have created the culture of saying, Happy Holidays, instead of Merry Christmas. This came into effect because not everyone celebrates Christmas during the holiday season.

Jewish folks celebrate Hannukah, Kwanzaa is celebrated by people with African Heritage, Winter Solstice for Pagans and Chinese New Year’s is also celebrated. So what would be the culture for North Americans? Just having a good month of vacation and eating fatty foods I guess. Although the language, cuisines, and religious texts form the basis of this, the culture of holidays during December is much larger. 

On the other hand, America also has a comparatively very high incarceration rate of black people. Here is a table that shows this:

Race, ethnicity% of US population% of the U.S.incarcerated populationNational incarceration rate(per 100,000 of all ages)
White (non-Hispanic)6439450 per 100,000
Hispanic1619831 per 100,000
Black13402,306 per 100,000

2010. Inmates in adult facilities, by race and ethnicity. Jails, and state and federal prisons.

So does this mean that it is in their culture that crime is committed by predominantly black people? No! It goes to show that bad choices of the past still count. Black people were historically forced to reside in communities that were either near toxic plants, polluting their water, or were disallowed from living in the same places as the white people. Clearly their culture is no longer separatism, but, it is still a very current problem that the nation faces.

So how is it Fluid?

Well if you notice – there were a lot of historical practices, for example, homophobia – that were based in religion, but, that is no longer the case. The culture developed to account for people’s feelings in a community as a whole. I would truly like to believe that humans have gotten better. In the past, practices like Sati were very openly claimed a part of our culture, today it is criminal. Sexism was a worldwide phenomenon and now the world looks up to powerful role models like Angela Merkel and Michelle Obama to make decisions to give direction to gigantic communities.

Culture has so many levels that it pushes people to prioritize some elements as more important to the culture than others.

Culture is constantly growing, evolving and including more humans than ever. The old method of looking at culture as a set of rules has become really outdated and honestly, harmful for humans. 

Sub-Culture Communities

I have talked about culture based on regions and religions – let’s talk about sub-culture seen through the last couple of decades. Let’s take up one of the most defining moment for culture through music – the rock revolution. Many equate rock to artists like Elvis Presley, The Beatles, and Rolling Stones. Many forget that rock started through the blues.

Blues was a genre of music that originated in the black community during slavery as a way to keep morale high. And yet, some of Elvis’ most famous songs are derived from black artists and while his rendition of them cross over into pop, it was virtually impossible for a black artist to do that. After listening to the original version of many Elvis songs, I really do believe he wasn’t that great an artist, but, that is my opinion.

There were also other sub-cultures that make for wild stories. In the mainstream media, I believe the source of the WILDEST stories is the big screen. Be it Hollywood divorces or Bollywood scandals, the cinema probably has the world’s largest fan following. The red carpet looks to extravagant marriages (like the one between Priyanka Chopra and Joe Jonas), these events have become a new form of culture. What’s interesting is that because the followership of cinema is so large, the influence it has on everything that we do is also quite impactful. It has the power to change the direction of culture.

Poster of the movie shubh mangal zyaada savdhan

A very current example that comes to mind is Shubh Mangal Zyada Savdhan (a disconnected sequel to a classic Bollywood movie) that is displaying India’s first homosexual relationship with some A-list celebrities and trying to normalize non-traditional sexual orientation.

So what’s the point?

I can talk about culture and its impacts on our life for days without a break and keep giving you examples, but what is the point? The point is to combat an argument that has held in courts. The argument is simply “but it’s not a part of our culture”. This statement is repeatedly brought about by people trying to oppose the change in the world. Most times this change requires a large cultural shift. Take the story of Black Pete for example. Black Pete or Zwarte Piet. He was the helper of Sinterklaas, or as the rest of the world calls him, Santa Claus. 

Sinterklaas or Santa Claus with Black Pete

As the name suggests, the helper has a black skin tone. His duty was to punish the bad children while Sinterklaas rewarded the good ones. Now as you can imagine the picture it paints, a good and rewarding white man vs the bad black man who punished. Even though the thought alone is enough to make me wince, this culture is still very prevalent in Europe – minus the punishing children part.

People in Europe were so against changing the black character, they changed the entire personality of Pete. They display him as friendly and helpful instead of being the punishing cruel person they have shown him in. To this day people put on blackface in Europe during Christmas and celebrate it with Black Pete. The personality changed, the role changed but they just couldn’t get rid of the character because it has become so ingrained in their minds. The argument that arises in favor of blackface in Europe is – it’s part of our culture. 

So do we not change and adapt to what is humane in the modern world or do we stick to what we believe is old traditions and call it the importance of culture? As much as I appreciate culture for it acting as a catalyst to spread diversity, I also think that in many parts of the world,  the word culture has held people back from actually growing and developing as good humans. 

It is really important to understand that culture IS fluid. There is no arguing that, but, if someone claims that something is not a part of their culture as an argument to oppose a change in the community, it is quite pointless because this new thing can be their new culture in a while and they would just be people who are uncomfortable with some new practices.

Keep reading more content like this through my other blogs here.

If you enjoyed this blog, read about how the Millennials and Gen Z have become what I call the Generation of Experiences

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  1. Pingback: Why Shine a Light on Color? | Minyamum Blog

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