The Path to India, Part 2:
Finding cultural differences from the East to the West

Posted March 2, 2007

Editor’s note: This is the second of a three-part series inspired by Hillier’s trip to India during January interterm.

It is possible to have your world outlook changed in a matter of moments. It is possible to shatter your stereotypical views in a matter of seconds. It is possible to have your life changed in an instant, and on my recent trip to the West Bengal region of India; I experienced this type of inner transformation.

Without trying, and without knowing how it happened, I came back from this trip realizing how much I lacked in cultural knowledge and understanding of other countries and religions.

As Americans we pride ourselves on our pluralistic society where people from many different backgrounds can coexist in a progressive and modern environment.

This, however cultured as it may sound, does not give Americans too much grounding when it comes to other countries. This is because as Americans we are used to experiencing a myriad of different cultures and celebrations. We don’t have just one, we have many. And, in America, our diversity is one thing that makes us stand-out.

One incident in particular during our trip highlighted this cultural difference. During an evening bonfire gathering in the Himalayan city of Kalimpong, we were pleasantly surprised when the Indian men, who had driven us up the winding road into this town, pleasantly sang us a traditional song. It was moving to see such an open form of kindness from people we had just met. Later they asked us to sing them a traditional American song. We crouched around each other in a circle and soon realized that, other than famous pop songs or “Take me out to the ballgame,” we couldn’t think of a traditional American song to sing. The moments past and we finally decided on that classic song that we all love to sing at the opening of a Dodgers game, however we all felt a little shaken to realize that our culture was so diverse that there was no American song that we could sing that wasn’t an anthem or pop song.

This realization was just one among many, that opened our eyes to the differences between the Indian culture and that of our own country. These cultural differences constantly caught us off guard and gave us a glimpse into a different world.

Religion was the topic of this trip, and we spent most of our time in India visiting various religious sites in Kolkata and the Himalayas. We studied the Hindu, Sikh, Buddhist and Jain religions and listened to lectures from their religious leaders and scholars. Coming from America, where Eastern religions are not as prevalent, it was interesting to study the moralistic guidelines of these various religions. They opened our eyes to a new way of thinking and also showed us the many moral strands that seem to unite all religions.

In times where many people are still killed and threatened due to their religious backgrounds, it was amazing to see such religious similarities.
One experience a few of us witnessed shocked us at first, and revealed our ignorance of other religions and their traditions.

Upon our much anticipated arrival into Kolkata, while waiting for our luggage on the baggage conveyor belt, we observed two men grab their bags and immediately pull out two knives from them, and attach them to their belts. Fear was our first reaction, and as our eyes raced from the weapons to the men, we felt afraid and confused. Later we realized that these men were Sikhs who had chosen to follow a strict path within that religion. Sikhs who choose this path must follow five steps of personal discipline in a demonstration of their dedication. One of these five steps is to wear a sword to symbolize dignity and to display the willingness to fight for injustice and the protection of the weak. The knives were simply symbols and not weapons, however that was a new concept for us.

Despite this, these religions were all searching for the goodness in people. Whether this goal was attained by recognition of the karmic cycle of life or though following various steps to enlightenment, all four of the religions we studied had a universal goal, and that goal was moralistic integrity.

Buddhists find this on the path to enlightenment while Jains find it in the recognition of equality for all living things. Even western religions like Christianity search for this ultimate moral perfection through the ten commandants. Although the faces of god and personal fulfillment appear to be so different from the outside, taking a trip to India was a way to see the inner workings of these beliefs and this revealed a more universal face of religion - a face of peace and goodness.

While the American culture may not have a song that unites us all, we do have diversity among us that can give us little piece of the world through the uniting of many cultures under one roof. Although a trip to India can still shatter a person’s world outlook, it is nice to come home and see so much culture in my own country, and I feel lucky to have had the opportunity to take a trip into the East and see some of what India has to offer.

Katherine Hillier can be reached at khillier@ulv.edu.

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