It is that time of the year again in India when the stark reality of a ‘cultural difference’ stares one in the face. Whether you notice it or not is another thing.
Today is Dussehra or Dasera – the day to celebrate the victory of good over evil. Mind well, it refers to an internal victory, as the good and the evil forces reside within us. Today, people across the nation burn effigies of ‘Raavan‘ or ‘Ravana‘, the ultra-villain who, though highly educated, committed heinous crimes of abduction, torture, genocide, etc. on people in general and the devout in particular. He was hence considered the epitome of evil You can read stories galore of his dastardly crimes in the scriptures of ancient India.
The reason to write about this character in a mediation blog has to do as much with the basic filter of Generalization as with the need to be aware of the cultural nuances of the society one lives and operates in. It was on a Dussehra day a few years back that I became aware of how deeply the cultures influence their adherents.
It was late in the evening, 8pm sharp. I was at the Babulnath temple, on a hillock in south Mumbai. The aarti started and (as this is a Shiva temple) at the end of it was loudly recited the Shiva Tandava Stotram, a hymn sung in glory of Lord Shiva, composed by Ravana, who was his greatest devotee. When I descended the hillock a little later, I crossed the seaside where, on the beach-front, a huge effigy of the very same Ravana was erected and had only just been set to burn.
The contrast in the treatment of this very person is impossible to miss and, at least for the western mind, difficult to comprehend. The reason to mention ‘western mind’ is that I had then been recently warned to be careful about carrying with me a copy of my book if I were planning to go to Germany – the reason being that it was published by an organisation which had a Swastik sign as part of its logo and it is close in resemblance to the Swastika of the Nazis which is a banned symbol in Germany.
Come to think of it, the Swastika sign was not created by Hitler, justed used by him. In India, it has great traditional significance as the Swastik, considered as very auspicious, is used in several places and especially on days of great religious significance like Diwali and Dussehra since times immemorial.
As against this, the Shiva Tandava Stotram was composed by the very same Ravana who had abducted the wife of Lord Rama and committed such heinous, dastardly crimes that his effigy is burnt even till date. And yet, the Indians sing the hymn composed by him with as much devotion as the fervour with which they burn his effigy!
Sometimes, it is truly unfathomable to figure out another from a different cultural background on the basis of one’s own ‘open-mindedness’, however wide that be! You can ONLY be aware that you can never be sure that you ‘know it all’. This ‘being aware’ is sometimes probably the most crucial skill-set you may need to have before embarking on any cross-cultural negotiation.