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The Crux of India’s Heritage

December 2010
The Crux of India’s Heritage

What exactly defines Indian culture? Does it contain some unique value? Who speaks for Indian culture? Are its authentic spokespersons limited to Sanskrit-chanting Pandits in Varanasi? Can Muslims, Parsees and Sikhs define Indian culture? Can people of Indian descent born in Georgia or New Jersey speak for Indian culture? Can a person without any Indian blood speak for India? Can a person who has never been to India be an expert on Indian culture?

The great German Sanskrit scholar and anti-Nazi protester, Heinrich Zimmer, wrote many books about Indian art and civilization, and in the 1950s became the most important spokesperson in the West for the artistic and literary traditions of ancient India. Some of Zimmer’s many books continue to be used in American and German universities, and Joseph Campbell, the celebrated American scholar and Indologist, called Zimmer his guru. But Heinrich Zimmer never saw India.

There has been a long history of non-Indian foreigners who become entranced by, and immersed in, Indian culture. This list of foreigners goes back to the dawn of recorded history. Alexander the Great is the first well-known Western tourist to visit India, about 300 BC. Over the next millennia, the Chinese, with their interest in Buddhism, as well as Arab and Persian intellectuals, all visited India and became not only recorders of Indian culture but admirers of it as well.

Although the British became notorious for imperialistic oppression of India, the Raj was also filled with numerous Europeans who became devotees of the sub-continent. Annie Besant, the Theosophist; Charles Freer Andrews, Gandhi’s intimate co-worker; Verrier Elwin, the anthropologist and folklorist; Sir William Jones, the scholar who brought Sanskrit to the attention of the Western world; and Mark Twain the traveler; form just a short list of the many Westerners who became admirers of India’s great ancient heritage.

Today many Indians, both in India and around the world, have become uncertain about how to define their culture and their identity within it. They may be highly familiar with one aspect of their culture, yet may have lost contact with other aspects of it. Some feel a need to adopt a chip-on-the-shoulder pride in everything Indian. Others want to distance themselves from their ancestral land, which they imagine to be a place of wife-burnings, farmer-suicides, and Naxalite violence.

For all the confusion about what makes someone Indian, and about what defines Indian culture, and for all the NRIs who become uncertain whether and to what degree they are Indian, there is someone else who is genetically non-Indian, but who nevertheless feels Indian on the inside. 

I grew up in an America that was completely ignorant of the planet outside of its own boundaries. Post-World War II America was proud, self-satisfied, and parochial. The only time that I heard India mentioned in my childhood was when one of my parent’s friends, a successful surgeon, visited India.  She showed us photographs of large caves that had been chiseled out of solid rock in order for people to meditate in them. I was totally fascinated by this image, although I had never heard of meditation.

I owe my knowledge about and life-long passion for India to the University of Chicago. I majored in psychology there and was told that I had to take a year-long course in non-Western Civilization in order to study what aspects of psychology were universal, and what were merely cultural artifacts. I immediately signed up for Chinese civilization. But that course was taught in an antiquated manner, based on textbook memorization, and after a few lectures I dropped the course. For one reason or another, Russian civilization, Latin American civilization, and the others did not appeal to me.  So I stumbled into the Indian Civilization course when it was well into a few classes. 

I came to the lecture hall late and sat in the back. I was already several lectures behind. Many words on the blackboard were from previous lectures and made little sense to me. I had never heard of the language, Sanskrit, the topic of the lecture. I felt a wave of frustration and alienation sweeping over me, as I could not understand what was being said in the lecture. I stopped trying to listen and just sort of zoned out. But surprisingly, the lecture soon flowed up to me from the podium at the bottom of the large semi-circular hall. Suddenly I began to realize I was hearing concepts I had intuited or imagined all of my young life, but had never heard in public before, or had never before found any outside corroboration for. By the time the lecture had ended, I had become a devotee of (or, you can say, addicted to) Indian civilization. About 45 years later, this interest has not dimmed. 

I can vividly recall my first impressions of India. The year was 1970, and I was a medical student at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine in New York City, which, at the time, was offering fellowships for two students every year to study in a foreign country. The trend amongst the medical students at the time was to go to London, Paris, Tel Aviv or Rome to study advanced medical and scientific techniques. On a whim, I wrote an essay explaining why it would be important for me to study Ayurveda in India. It was a shot in the dark. Besides, I didn’t really want to go to India. It was very far away and strange. I owe a debt of gratitude to the Albert Einstein College of Medicine Fellowship Committee for being free-spirited enough to give an eccentric student a small pile of money to study Ayurveda in India. 

When I arrived in Bombay in the wee hours of the morning, ceiling fans were rotating in the heat, and men in blue uniforms left over from the Raj were officiating at the airport. Some medical students had come to receive me and as they drove me through the streets of Bombay in the early morning, my eyes glided over men in turbans, bullock carts hauling turpentine canisters, ornamental arches over the windows of apartment buildings, milky colored cows ambling across the very lightly trafficked streets, lines of women in electrically multicolored saris waiting to fill metal pails with milk, and I immediately felt that the strangest of places was my place, that I belonged here, that I knew it very well and that I had come home. 

To embrace the wonder of Indian culture is not the same as to overlook its problems or to romanticize its deep shadows. By no means does everything in India appeal to me. On my most recent trips I have been particularly offended by growing pollution by plastic bags and garbage, by the air pollution that affects even smaller cities, and by the noise pollution that renders the famously meditative country an ear-jangling cacophony.

Many of the things that I do admire about India cannot be said to be absolutely unique to India. As noted earlier, cultural exchange between India and the West goes back at least as far as Alexander the Great, and has become a flood in recent centuries. Take, for example, Gandhi’s invention of Satyagraha. Those whose knowledge of Gandhi is limited to the Attenborough movie often think of Satyagraha as an essentially Indian idea. But as Gandhi himself emphatically informed us, he was explicitly guided by the essay “On Civil Disobedience,” by the American, Henry David Thoreau. So when I talk about my admiration for and identification with Indian culture and civilization, I am not referring to something that is precisely and clearly separated from all of world culture and civilization. 

I’ve identified ten features of Indian civilization that I believe are relatively potent, if not absolutely unique, in India, and are of great importance to me personally. These ten features of Indian culture and civilization might also provide people with a way of feeling pride in their cultural inheritance without having to turn a blind eye to India’s many problems, and without having to boast about things in India that are not really very important.

It is reverence for the following ten features of Indian culture which makes a person Indian on the inside, regardless of their appearance. 

1. Cosmic insight: credible knowledge about creation  

India is the only culture whose traditional knowledge about the nature of the universe bears any resemblance to a scientific understanding. Of the many truly awesome insights that came out of ancient India, we must count the relatively high level of accuracy of descriptions about the world’s origins and nature. These descriptions hold up remarkably well when they are compared to our contemporary insights from physics, cosmology, and other basic sciences.

In terms of time, almost all other civilizations and people right up to the 20th century use time scales that are based upon individual human life and the cycle of generations. It was only in ancient India that the real dimensions of time were glimpsed. The “Kalpa,” or day of Brahma, lasts about four billion years, remarkably similar to our current estimate about the duration of life on earth. The cycle of all Kalpas, however, lasts about three hundred trillion years. In modern cosmology, we think of the Big Bang as having happened approximately fourteen billion years ago, and given the fact that many cosmologists today think of the universe as a series of Big Bangs, or as a multiverse, ancient Indian cosmology begins to seem prescient. 

Traditional Indian knowledge also understood that the universe is dynamic and changing. Albert Einstein himself originally conceived of the universe as static. A dynamic universe that is growing and expanding only entered Western cosmology in the 1920s when Edwin Hubble discovered that some of the so-called stars were actually entire galaxies, and that all the lights in the sky were racing away from each other in a cosmic expansion. But this seems to have been known to ancient Indians. As far back as the Buddhist Suttas, (approximately 500 years BC), the universe was understood to be a hubbub of constant change of gigantic proportions and of very long time scales. These insights were apparently reached by the Buddha directly through his own meditation. He envisioned a universe without beginning or end, but with cycles of expansion and contraction, an idea championed today by cosmologists Steinhardt and Turok, from Princeton and Cambridge Universities.  

Along with time, space, and dynamism, ancient Indian science had insight into the fact that the universe consists of atomic and sub-atomic particles that eventually collapse into vibrational waveforms. The particle-wave duality of light is one of the great discoveries of 20th century physics. Two thousand five hundred years ago, Indian seers had already described the human body, and all matter, as consisting of tiny particles, “kalapas,” consisting of even tinier particles, “uta-kalapas,” which consist of even tinier oscillations and vibrations. It appears that the deep reality-based meditations of ancient India revealed to ancient Indian civilization many of the discoveries that Western science considers to be new. 

In ancient India, the universe was already understood to be a matter-energy combination in which vibrations became particles of matter, in which particles of matter built up the compounded world, in which the compounded world was a shifting arena of incessant change, all located in a vast, dynamic, and unthinkably timeless format.  The Suttas, Vedas, and Puranas overlap and share different aspects of these stunning revelations. The fundamental coordinates of reality in ancient India dramatically differed from the fairy-tales of all other civilizations, and can be viewed as having essential, if not precise, accuracy. 

2. Microcosm and macrocosm: the innately intertwined individual and the universe

One of the tenets of Indian civilization is that the human mind and body are a microcosm that reflects the macrocosm of the entire universe. Throughout classical Indian culture, there is recognition of the continuity between the individual person and the world. This attitude forms the essence of Upanishadically derived Vedanta, one of the great philosophies of Hinduism, in which the individual person learns to see him or herself as containing, or contiguous with, the soul of the universe. The Buddha’s teaching of Anatta, or no individual soul, was still related to the Vedanta in that the individual comes to understand the impersonal and changing universe by deeply examining his or her own mind and body. Similarly, in Hatha Yoga, with its Samkhya philosophy, the same belief pertains: by coming to deeply intimate terms with one’s own mind and body, one comes to terms with ultimate realities. In these world views, religion is not about fawning in front of an external power source, but about deep psycho-physical self-knowledge. The Buddha’s Dhamma, Hindu Vedanta and Yoga are not all the same, and they contain some contrasts to each other, but all are quintessentially Indian and all share the attitude that the body and mind are the best and truest laboratory for the spiritual life.

3. A reverence for contemplation and revelation

Correlated to the idea that the individual mind and body form a gateway through which one enters universal truths, we find in India a traditional reverence for quiet and contemplative activity. For example, in the midst of a raging and multifaceted cultural and political revolution, Gandhi spent one day a week in silence; he spent time every day spinning and worshipping.  Similarly, in the midst of a whirlwind life that had him travelling to every corner of the inhabited world, Rabindranath Tagore remained a devoted meditator. Although Nehru disassociated with organized religion, and was a man given over to political action, I hear in his prose the traditional, highly valued contemplative streak. 

In India, contemplation was never passivity for its own end. Traditional Indian contemplations and meditations were based upon a faith that they were the doorways to revelation of ultimate reality. Quiet hours are valued because of the valuable life force that contemplation can kindle. Quiet activity is not an absence or a withdrawal, but is a way to nurture valued spiritual experience.

4.  The fusion of the ethical and the divine

Possibly the greatest discovery of ancient India, or in any case its most influential realization, was “the fusion of the numinous and the ethical.”  This phrasing comes from the writing of Mircea Eliade, a mid-20th century scholar who spent much of his career at the University of Chicago. Eliade highlighted the differences among forms of religious thought. He emphasized how so much of religious life of Middle Eastern faiths revolves around the wish to gain power and security through affiliation. The devotee feels helpless, but gains control by bribing, cajoling, or appeasing some divine power. Morality either does not enter into this religious stage, or is included only as one more way to seek favor or to demand protection from the Power Source. 

In mature religious development, however, ethics and divinity are not simply related but are understood to be the same thing. At this level of religious development, the devotee experiences the divine through ethical activity, rather than seeking favors or forgiveness from It. Here, the ethical is experienced as intrinsically connected to the divine. Such a fusion of the two is first clearly locatable in ancient India. We hear it formulated in Upanishadic writings, in Jainism, and in Buddhism. In these religious worldviews, ritualistic appeasement and bribery disappear from the pinnacle of religious practice. Self-purification becomes the broadband, high-speed access to what is holy or sacred in life. 

Of particular note is ancient India’s emphasis on the emotion of peace, or equanimity, as central to purification. Equanimity is seen, in ancient Indian thought, as the true measure of one’s spiritual attainment. A person can be deeply at peace with themselves only if they have already relinquished hate, fear, passion and other unsettling psychological states. India has always been the land of people like barefooted Jain munis, who continue today to be witnesses to inner peace as they walk along truck-infested highways.

As a measure of the fusion of the divine and the ethical, ancient India used the fusion of the ethical and the equanimous. Peaceful psychological states are the best measurement of the truly ethical life, and the ethical life is the holy life. The holy = the ethical = the peaceful.

5.  Blending of the sacred and the mundane 

For most people, including many Indians, ancient India is associated with asceticism. Certainly asceticism is given a high value throughout many ancient legends and religious practices. But it is important to remember that from the first, ancient Indian culture and spiritual life emphasized as well the continuity of spirituality with daily life. This is most famously remembered today when people think about the Bhagavad Gita with its emphasis on Karma yoga.  This is a worldview in which community service and worship of the deity are the same thing. Here we have not only a fusion of the numinous and the ethical, but an emphasis on social action as the most important form of the ethical.(This attitude is emphasized but is by no means unique to India) Gandhi’s reverence for the Gita with its emphasis on Karma Yoga brought ancient India alive in the twentieth century. 

East Asian Buddhism is emblemized by a statue of the cross-legged Buddha, sitting still. But this iconography of an immobile Buddha actually came about as a later development. Original Indian Buddhism was free of any image of the Buddha. It represented the Buddha as a physically and socially active teacher, who is concerned with reaching out to his fellow human beings. He is described as walking over thousands of miles, speaking and teaching with vigor and commitment. He is not portrayed as remote, aloof, passive, or self-centered. Meditation is the Buddha’s formative activity but compassionate social action is the Buddha’s expressive activity.

We find marbled through all of Indian culture these continuities. Social and spiritual ideas flow through the veins of almost every activity. In architecture for example, the Jain temples of Mt. Abu combine a riotous sensuality with a subterranean asceticism. In Hatha Yoga, for example, Indian culture combined heightened awareness of bodily life to spiritual rather than sensual ends.

It is characteristic of India to reduce the boundary between the sacred and the profane. This is also well-expressed through India’s classical music forms which paradoxically combine sensual entertainment with exquisite other-worldliness. North Indian classical music with its fusion of Hindu and Muslim roots is highly ornamented yet leads the listener upwards towards an auditory sense of divinity that has no final form. 

6.   Spirit of the people

Many years ago, after a long absence from India, I met my dear old friend, the Gujarati poet Makarand Dave, at an obscure spot in a small and impoverished city in the interior of the sub-continent. Because I had not returned to India for a number of years, the boney people, the worn and tattered clothing, the not-infrequently misshapen limbs, the gaunt cattle and buffalo, all struck me with heightened impact because I had not yet regained my desensitization to them as comes with residence in India. I expressed to Makarandbhai my anguish over the plight of India’s hundreds of millions of very poor people. Makarandbhai, who was a world-class poet, and familiar with conditions in Bombay, New York, and California, agreed with me. But then he suddenly added out of the depths of his Indian gnosis, another dimension. He told me:

“The poor people of India are like shrubs on a windy mountain top.  The wind constantly beats them down. They grow deformed and crooked and it looks like they will never be able to survive. But whenever you come back to this mountaintop there will always be shrubs poking their heads up towards the sunlight in spite of the wind.  The poor people of India are shrubs in the wind. They can never be beaten down and defeated.”

When we think of ancient India and what is great about Indian culture and civilization, our minds tend to run to the great architecture, the great literature, the great intellectual life. But India is also its unlettered villagers. The spirit of India is also carried in the wind-bent shrubs. Every time we see a poor woman carrying on her head for miles a brass pot filled with water while she moves along swiftly, despite her heavy burden, with the grace and regal posture of a New York City ballet dancer, we are reminded that the common people of India are constantly signaling to us with a special élan.  Ancient India, carried forward and brought into modern times by the poor people of India, contains some irrepressible nobility, some undefeatable endurance. This spirit can also be found in Guha in the Ramayana, and still emanates today from many a Kutchi goat herder, from many a Rabari camel trader, or from many a Tamil farmer planting rice under the hot sun. Of course, I do not mean to imply that poverty of itself is valuable or virtuous. 

7.  The sacred geography of Bharatavarsa

India is not merely a place. India is a sacred geography. When we read the Ramayana and follow Rama in his quest to rescue Sita as he travels down the spine of the Deccan, we are traversing a physical land and a sacred space. When we take a bus up the unending switchbacks that leave us feeling nauseated and terrified, as we climb from New Delhi up to Badrinath in the high Himalayas, we are going sightseeing but we are also entering into the realm of the sacred origins of the Ganges. Hardly a nubbin of countryside rock in India lacks its worshipper. The great triangle of the sub-continent that extends south from the Himalayas to Lanka is one gigantic holy land whose place names echo with spiritual legends, whose hilltops are jeweled with temples, and whose rivers express the deeds of mythic gods and goddesses. 

The India that we see today is an excoriated and depleted relic of the ecological richness of India a mere hundred years ago. Surely all of India represents an ecological disaster zone. In spite of that, India retains a specially haunting natural beauty that seems to call us into different dimensions of reality. The Ganges is polluted but when we stand on its banks in Hardwar among hundreds of thousands of pilgrims, and watch thousands of gallons of water sweeping past us at high speed as the river reunites the snows of the Himalayas with the fertile Gangetic plain, it is hard to doubt that the Ganges is a sacred river. When we stop at a chai shop at a dusty road in a little village of Nowherepuram, and look up at a sagging electric wire to see an iridescent, electric fly-catcher, it is hard to doubt that somewhere above us and around us are colleagues of Jetayu and Jaambavaan. The sacred geography of India reflects and echoes the culturally inculcated spiritual perceptions of the land.

8. A nest for human kind: all are welcome

How many times have I heard in English, or translated from Gujarati, or translated from Hindi, someone tell me that, “Guest is God”?  At its best, India culture has been welcoming. In fact, one of the difficulties of defining Indian culture is that it has been absorptive and elastic, constantly filling itself with new attitudes and beliefs, and constantly expanding to hold more features. Most of the things that we consider Indian, like the Taj Mahal, are combinations of many streams of culture. India has welcomed not only cultures but people, starting with the Sanskrit-speaking Asian Aryans, and including in more recent times Jews, Parsees, refugees from Sindh, Punjab and Bangladesh. When Westerners ask me why I have gone to India so many times, one of the ways I answer them is to try to explain the multiple layers and colors of India’s internal cultural diversity. There is no one real people of India. Instead we should say, “the peoples” of India. Even within one linguistic zone there is ethno-cultural variation, for example, the way that the mountain peoples of Kerala’s Western Ghats differ from the fishing peoples of its coastal villages. 

After Rabindranath Tagore had founded the school at Shantiniketan, had won the Nobel Prize, and had become world famous, he started a university which he called Viswa Bharati, whose motto was: “Where the whole world meets in one nest.” Tagore’s welcoming spirit was a continuation of the Buddha’s “Metta,” an embracing loving-kindness that welcomes everyone into its fold, as well as of the Hindu axiom, Vasudhaiva Kutumbakam (“The whole world is my family”)

It used to be a cliché that India had absorbed the Dravidians, the Aryans, the Turks, the Persians, and the Moghuls, but had been unable to absorb the British. Recent reevaluation of this cliché has reminded us that many British did indeed dive into Indian culture and lived the rest of their lives in their new motherland. Gandhi’s friend and follower, C.F. Andrews is an example of this. Another example was W.W. Pearson, who was Tagore’s secretary.  Recently the great scholar, Ramachandra Guha, has written a definitive biography of Verrier Elwin, an Englishman who had originally come to India as a Christian missionary intent on converting the heathen, and who instead got converted to being a follower of Gandhi, and who became a preeminent collector of tribal literature and art, and who in 1947 surrendered his British passport and became an Indian citizen.

9.  A land of great beings

I still cannot get over the words that were chiseled into many stone pillars scattered over India, carved in numerous scripts, well over two thousand years ago, by which Emperor Ashoka brought words of Dhamma to the far edges of his Empire. Ashoka’s ancient words are devoid of the primitive or archaic, and sound modern, universal and timeless. Of particular note is his emphasis on non-harmfulness, social service, compassion, and the desire to create the good world here on earth. “Liberality to friends…not injuring living beings…avoiding disputes, purity of heart, loyalty…no one should disparage other sects to exalt his own…self-examination…” As has been pointed out by scholars who have critically examined in detail the few surviving paragraphs of Ashoka’s political will, the great King of ancient India should not be misconstrued as a Buddhist. He was a humanist universalist. He does not refer his beliefs to the Buddha, but to the Dhamma, which means the empirical truth or universal law, unrelated to religion or theology.   

India is full of great beings, some of them historical like Ashoka, some of them probably mythical. For me, some of the greatness of India is captured by the fact that the great beings have not ceased. India is not a world that once created great beings and now has dried up. My reverence for India and my sense of being a participant in its universal culture derives partly from the influence of the four great Indians of the 20th century.

Gandhi was a complex figure whose life encompassed many successes and failures. Praise of Gandhiji is a cliché, but India is more remarkable for its abandonment rather than its loyalty to him. His economics of village-based agrarian cottage industries was abandoned immediately. His pacifism was left behind during armed clashes with Portugal, China, Sri Lanka, and Pakistan, as realpolitik swept away his dreams. His opposition to affirmative action was swept aside. Nevertheless, he remains a great symbol of self-sacrifice in service of peace.

Tagore’s poetry captures the sense of relationship that every human being contains between our individual selves and the faceless eternal cosmos.  Tagore alone has been able to create convincing and moving poetry in which the author is positioned as a man, a woman, a child, a beggar, a warrior, a sadhu, and a lover of life. His poetry locates us in the coordinates of eternity, while it inspires us to embrace the moment. 

Nehru, who jokingly called himself “the last Englishman to rule India,” might less modestly have referred to himself as Ramachandra Guha does, “the Great Man.” Nehru was a prose poet, an historian, a tactician and a freedom fighter. How could anyone have given up so much wealth and opportunity to spend nine years in prison? Nehru knew when to attack with force, such as in the case of Goa or the Chinese border, and he could also choose to be a Gandhian, such as when he respected the U.N. borders with Pakistan despite India’s superior military strength and probable victory from all-out attack during Partition. Nehru cast an air of dignity over all he did and seemed to remain an ever youthful crown prince.

Babasaheb Ambedkar parlayed his plight from a Mahar, shunned in school, to becoming the chief architect of the Indian Constitution. No one, not even the British, dared to confront Gandhi with such strength as Ambedkar did over the issue of affirmative action. Without Ambedkar, India’s freedom would not have extended to all the people of India. Yet he was free of violence in word and deed, and his most fiery weapons were constitutional law and spoken language.

10.  The ability to evoke and express universal truths

Individual personalities and long-standing cultures share an indefinable,  malleable quality. It is understandable that at times human communities retreat into a defensive huddle and project a rigid stereotype of their own cultural identity, but such a stance short-changes the complexity and richness of a great culture like India. To me it seems that the greatness of Indian culture is marked by its ability to evoke and express universal truths. Paradoxically, the gem in Indian culture is that it is incompatible with the views of its own chauvinistic proponents. After Bengali-born, Shantiniketan-educated Amartya Sen won the Economics Nobel Prize in 1998, he returned to writing philosophy. In his book The Argumentative Indian, he points out that the Rig Veda is intrinsically anti-authoritarian, and based more on questions and suggestion than on answers.  Chauvinism isn’t Indian. 

Indian culture is a sumptuous offering to people of all backgrounds. Like an ancient mosque of lacey arches and towering minarets that contains no one image, so that the supreme object of worship can never be visually defined, but resides in the ineffable realms of beauty, stillness and reverence, so the richness of India cannot be reduced to domestic behavior patterns or quaint convictions.

India has a long history as a host, a nest, a light. I feel lucky to have received its glow. Although I may only see its deep inside from the outside, I believe I am correct to construe its essence as the giving of gifts. From the first Sanskrit scholar who awakened me even before I could comprehend him, to my doctor professors and colleagues in Bombay, and to my Vipassana teacher S.N. Goenka, India has been generous to me. What can be more Indian than to be a stranger and a beggar who receives alms while skirting the edge of the feast?

[Paul R. Fleischman, M.D. trained in psychiatry at Yale University, was in private practice for over thirty years. He is the author of "The Healing Spirit,"  "Cultivating Inner Peace," "Karma and Chaos," and "An Ancient Path," and other books. For a full version of this article, please visit our website at www.khabar.com]

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