India is home to over a billion people, accommodating incredible cultural diversity between languages, geographic regions, religious traditions and social stratifications. In recognition of this large demographic diversity, the following descriptions are not intended to represent every Indian person. However, there are common themes and principles that contribute to the values, attitudes, beliefs and of the dominant society. Generally speaking, Indians tend to have a strong sense of pride in the distinctiveness and diversity of their culture. For example, the country’s agricultural expansions and technological advancements in infrastructure, science and engineering are sources of pride. Moreover, a considerable amount of pride stems from India's rich artistic cultural exports of music, fine arts, literature and spirituality (especially the practice of yoga).
Geography and Space
India’s geography and climate is incredibly diverse. Northern India is characterised by the snowy mountain range of the Himalayas and the Great Indian (Thar) Desert. Meanwhile, tropical jungles, rainforests, coastal plains, islands and beaches distinguish the south. Nature plays a vital role in India – especially rivers such as the Ganga (or ‘Ganges’) in the north and Godavari in the central and southeast. Both provide irrigation for farmlands, a method of transportation and are considered sacred to many followers of Hinduism.
As India has one of the largest populations in the world, public and private spaces are often densely populated. This influences how the idea of privacy is understood, as it is rarely available, sought after or indulged in. Generally, there is a very large cultural tolerance for crowding. For example, several generations often live under one roof, and it is not uncommon to find animals such as cows or dogs freely roaming public streets and villages.
The buzzing cities of Mumbai, Kolkata, Chennai and Delhi contain a melting pot of rapid economic development and technological innovation, with a notable example being the continually expanding telecommunications sector. Such cities demonstrate India's rise as an economic and political powerhouse on the world stage. This is also represented by the of Indian people throughout the globe. The large metropolitan cities stand in contrast to the hundreds of thousands of villages and small towns, each containing distinctive microsocieties. Indians can often determine where someone is from based on their accent, language, style of dress and mannerisms. Indeed, it is common to find people having a sense of regional pride and identity towards their place of origin.
Ethnic and Linguistic Composition
Although India does not officially recognise or categories in the national census, it continues to be one of the most ethnically diverse populations in the world. Broadly, the of India can be broken down into main groups on the basis of their linguistic backgrounds, the two largest being Indo-Aryan and Dravidian. For example, many people belonging to Indo-Aryan live in the northern half of the country. Indo-Aryan languages commonly spoken include Hindi, Gujarati, Bengali, Marathi, Urdu, Odia and Punjabi. Meanwhile, people belonging to Dravidian generally live in the southern half of the country. Dravidian languages commonly spoken include Tamil, Kannada, Telugu and Malayalam. These labels of ‘Indo-Aryan’ and ‘Dravidian’ usually serve as a helpful way to categorise the origins of Indian diversity, although they don’t necessarily reflect people’s personal identity. For example, people are unlikely to describe themselves as ‘Indo-Aryan’ or ‘Dravidian’.
Within these broad language groups, there is vast linguistic diversity accounting for 22 major languages and hundreds of regional or local languages. Most Indians tend to be bilingual or multilingual, speaking an official language along with their regional language(s). English is considered to be a subsidiary official language that is often reserved for governmental and commercial purposes. People who do not share a common first or native language will generally communicate in either Hindi or English. It is important to be considerate of the linguistic diversity of India as many Indians consider their language (particularly their regional or local language) to be a source of identity.
The ‘Indian identity’ has evolved continuously over the country’s history as political and religious institutions have changed within and outside of India. For example, the British Raj (1858-1947) brought about vast changes in the country’s economic, political and cultural spheres. India’s independence from the British in 1947 was accompanied by the partition of India and Pakistan into the Republic of India and the Islamic Republic of Pakistan respectively. This led to mass violence that continues to be a source of trauma and sadness for many Muslims, Sikhs and Hindus that reside in the Punjab region in northwestern India.
Partition reflects the complexities in Indian identity with respect to religion. One temptation is to correlate Hindu identity and values with the Indian national identity. This correlation has been made since British . However, such a view tends to misrepresent the religious and cultural diversity of India. While it may seem like a useful device for describing a unified national identity, such generalisations perpetuate significant tensions among various groups in Indian society.
Earnest efforts have been made throughout the 20th and 21st century to instil a sense of nationhood and move beyond deep tensions and inequalities. Although tensions occasionally surface and at times have resulted in violence, social legislation has sought to empower traditionally disadvantaged segments of society such as ‘Untouchable' castes (see ‘Social Structure and Stratification' below), tribal populations, women and people with disabilities through affirmative action programs.
Social Structure and Stratification
India has a highly stratified traditional social structure, often referred to as the ‘caste’ system. The term ‘caste’ comes from the word ‘casta’, which was used by Portuguese observers to describe the of Indian society. The is an ancient institution that is generally believed to be unique to the Indian subcontinent. Although often classified under one term, the actually represents two different overlapping systems of stratification.
The large-scale is known as the ‘varna’ system. This classifies society into four broad categories; brahmin (priestly caste), kshatriya (nobility caste), vaishya (merchant caste) and shudra (artisan or labourer caste).1 The varna system was viewed by some members of society as the ideal social structure. Over time, particular castes in the bottom tier became stigmatised as ‘less pure’ compared to higher castes, and interactions between them were limited. The idea of the ‘dalits’ (‘untouchables’) was a modern addition. This category, thought to be outside of the , was understood as the lowest rank and ‘least pure’ members of Indian society.
The small-scale , known as the ‘jati' system, comprises over 2,000 jati categories that determine one’s occupation or vocation based on their family of birth. These occupations or jatis are ranked, with some considered to be caste-neutral (such as agriculture or non-traditional civil service). The jati system is particularly noticeable in the daily social organisation of Indian culture. For example, it explains why it is common to find people following the professions of their parents, grandparents and so on.
The (s) is no longer legally enforced, and discrimination based on caste is outlawed. In the latter half of the 20th century, Indian governments have assigned jati categories into one of four general classes based on economic, social and historical criteria. To address inequalities among jatis, the government has established affirmative action programs, which reserve jobs, education scholarships and other benefits for historically disadvantaged or persecuted castes.
Many people do not explicitly adhere to the , particularly in urban areas and large cities. However, social assumptions of the caste remain influential on certain aspects of Indian life. For example, the continues to inform marriage through the practice of arranged marriages, which are usually carried out through existing (often caste-based) networks (see ‘Marriage and Dating’ in Family). The is more strictly adhered to in rural areas.
Although upward mobility within the remains difficult, efforts have been made by various jatis to alter the social order and challenge the system itself. The social order is continuously under negotiation, and people from ‘lower' jatis have been known to challenge the social structure by adopting certain elements of the lifestyles of those in more ‘pure' castes. Some examples include abstaining from ‘polluting' or ‘demeaning' occupations, following vegetarianism and avoiding alcohol. Meanwhile, some jatis have been known to emphasise that caste position should be determined by other factors such as economic status, land ownership and political power.
Although open discrimination based on caste is extremely uncommon, everyone maintains a subtle awareness of the social structure. People continue to be conscious of the social position of themselves and those around them. Questioning or deviating from one’s expected role is still relatively rare. Thus, when interacting with someone from India, it is worth bearing in mind that the caste structure often systematically determines one's occupation and social standing from birth. While it may be inappropriate to inquire into a person’s caste (in the sense of the large-scale varna system), it is socially acceptable to ask about one’s occupation or vocation.
Collectivism and Harmony
Indians generally place a high value on and unity with others, keeping a strong nexus with their community and relatives. A unified and interdependent community or family provides a support system that an individual can rely on daily. Community groups are often informed by one’s jati. Many community groups, especially in rural areas in the north, have their own regulating system of self-imposed rules to help maintain order and . Such systems are often seen as necessary due to economic hardship or the unreliability of official services. The regulation of rules does not necessarily come from the upper caste; in some cases, lower caste members may lead the community depending on the area.
Indians can almost always trust in their social ties for assistance in virtually any activity. Isolation or seclusion can seem daunting, as group loyalty and assurance of inseparability provides security and confidence. Indians tend to be conscious of how their behaviour may reflect on their family or community. Many tend to emphasise humility and the preservation of their own and collective reputation, dignity and honour. For example, Indians may speak indirectly to avoid conflict and maintain social . People are also expected to uphold their duties, responsibilities and obligations. Indeed, it is common to find Indians abroad sending back to their family in India to provide financial support.
Karma, Acceptance and Personal Choice
Many Indians tend to have a sense of acceptance towards one’s life position or a belief that, due to actions in one’s past life, good or bad personal circumstances are deserved. This attitude partly stems from religious ideas such as ‘karma’ (the idea that one’s actions will affect their current or future life) and ‘samsara’ (the cycle of rebirth).
The interplay of these social, cultural and religious factors allows people to be accepting of life events and trajectories. However, this is not to be interpreted as Indians being unwilling to take responsibility for life circumstances. Many often contemplate how their actions may impact their future and make decisions accordingly. Some of India's youth are challenging a perspective by asserting their free will to choose their vocation, spouse and other life factors. Indeed, as social mobility becomes more common, there is a growing belief that one can change their circumstances.
Modesty and Conservativeness
Indians tend to be quite conservative in most aspects of life, particularly in rural areas. This is especially noticeable in people’s behaviour and dress. Many will avoid speaking loudly or using excessive hand gestures, and it is not uncommon for strangers, friends and some family members of opposite genders to avoid physical contact. It is also preferable to wear clothing that covers the arms and legs; very few people wear revealing clothing. Clothing is usually traditional, but it is common to see Western-style clothing throughout the country for men and in urban areas for women.
Adaptability and Light-Heartedness
The large population size of India has not led average Indians to think of themselves as ‘one among many’ and certainly has not diminished their aspirations. Instead, diversity is celebrated alongside an inventive and entrepreneurial spirit. In this sense, many Indians are very adaptive and creative, often visualising big possibilities for themselves, their people and country. Problems are usually managed in a cheerful, cooperative and innovative manner, along with a light-heartedness towards situations that might otherwise be understood as frustrating. For example, strangers readily help others during mundane tasks such as looking for directions or parking a vehicle.