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A worthy treatise on the essence of India

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December 2010
A worthy treatise on the essence of India

As a magazine serving the Indian diaspora, we publish a lot of articles that explore, identify, and celebrate our Indianness. But what does it mean to be Indian? Admittedly, “Indian” is a vast phenomenon encompassing well over a billion people in the global community, as well reaching across a few millennia in time.

When the diversity within a people is seemingly endless, how can anything about them be generalized? Still daunting, how can one peg the very crux of such a culture and a nation?

And yet, this may just be possible because all that we know to be India or Indian arises from a single ancient source—its Vedic past. Even Indian Muslims, whose ancestors came from other lands, have seen much cultural integration with the continuous civilization that existed before, through, and since the Mughal dynasties. One area where this is quite evident is Indian classical music, which was founded in the ragas and talas from the Vedic times, but has, as its core, instruments like the tabla, which arguably has Arabic roots. Thanks to the osmosis of such influences, all Indians—regardless of their myriad ethnicities, languages, customs, outlook, and even religions—are colored, more or less, by a continuous civilization stretching back over 5000 years.

While most of us are superficially aware of our grand ancient heritage, as children many of us tuned out when our elders talked too much or too often about it; and more so, when we saw India finding itself as a Third World country in the community of nations. The inherent problem facing a culture steeped primarily in spirituality is that its footprint is not easily evident on the material plain. The massive poverty in India may well be attributed to the corruption of a philosophy that emphasized interior growth over exterior riches. But interior growth could never have meant accepting squalor and subjugation, which the masses of Indian poor regularly experience and accept.

That may explain why a slum-dweller in Mumbai who hardly understands a word or two beyond his own vernacular mother tongue, and who may barely have a pair of clothing to call his own, and a globe-trotting, wine-sipping Indian American flying business class and living the fabled American Dream, both share, equally, an ancient heritage as a common denominator.

In all the years we have been publishing this magazine, rarely have we attempted to nail down the essence of such a complex, diverse, and ancient culture. We often publish personal perspectives based on identity and roots, but haven’t attempted to ask the ambitious question, “What are the broad, significant, and lasting aspects of the Indian heritage?” It is in this context that the cover story in this issue (“The Crux of India’s Heritage”), is particularly meaningful, and a landmark one for us.

Dr. Paul R. Fleischman, the author of the cover story, is an American psychiatrist who sees himself a lifelong pilgrim of India, ever since his exposure to the culture and the country first began through a college course, and later continued through several visits to India. Winner of the distinguished Oskar Pfister Award from the American Psychiatric Association, Dr. Fleischman has been a prolific student of India, its history and its culture. Not only is he now a full-time Vipassana meditation teacher, he is also author of several books based on Eastern spirituality, such as Cultivating Inner Peace, Karma and Chaos, and The Buddha Taught Nonviolence, Not Pacifism. He brings to bear his eminent professional knowledge of psychiatry to comment on the wisdom of these spiritual traditions, and particularly their revelations about the inherent unity between the human psychosomatic structure and the universe itself.

Out of his deep interest and study, Dr. Fleischman has come up with ten gems of the Indian heritage, which makes compelling reading for anyone interested in the crux of the Indian ethos.

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