Home to over a billion people, India accommodates incredible diversity in terms of culture, language, geographic regions, religious traditions and social stratification. While the descriptions that follow are not intended to be indicative of every Indian person, there are common themes and principles that contribute to the values, attitudes, beliefs and norms of the dominant society.
Indians generally place great value on harmony and unity with others, keeping a strong nexus with their community and relatives. The unification of community and family provides an interdependent support system that an individual can rely on daily. Indians can almost always trust in their social ties for assistance in virtually any activity. Isolation or seclusion can therefore seem daunting to them, as group loyalty and assurance of inseparability provides security and confidence.
The concept of face also informs the way in which Indians behave and perceive their interactions with one another. The notion of face refers to one’s reputation, dignity and honour. By complimenting a person, showing them respect or doing something that increases their self-esteem, you give them face. Similarly, people can lose face, save face and build face. For example, criticism or embarrassment causes individuals to lose face. Indians may act in a deliberate manner to protect their own face, as well as the face of their collective group. Indeed, a person’s actions can reflect back upon their family, company or community’s reputation. With the preservation of reputations in mind, Indians may speak indirectly in order to avoid conflict or the potential loss of face.
Fatalism refers to the idea that events are predetermined, to the extent that one is unable to change them. Within Indian culture, a sense of fatalism partly stems from the social structure and stratification of society as well as religious ideas – notably ‘karma’ (the aftermath of actions that affect a person’s future life and lives) and ‘saṃsāra’ (the cycle of rebirth). Fatalism plays a large role in the perspectives adopted by Indians, as they will often contemplate how their actions will impact their future whilst being quite accepting of the outcome. This is not to be interpreted as Indians having an unwillingness to take responsibility for life circumstances; rather this sense of fatalism usually translates into an acceptance of the events and trajectories of an individual’s life. Some of India’s youth are challenging this perspective by asserting their free will to chose their job, partner and destiny. Indeed, as social mobility becomes more possible, there is a growing belief that one has the ability to change their circumstances.
Hierarchy and Stratification
The longstanding tradition of the caste system has played a central role in establishing hierarchical relationships in Indian culture. The caste system is a social stratification system that was once enforced in law. It is inherently unegalitarian, splitting society into various categories. Under the caste system, every relationship entails a hierarchy that must be observed in order to maintain harmony in society. Though it is no longer legally enforced, its social assumptions remain influential on many Indians' conceptions of identity. Many people continue to be acutely conscious of the social order and their position relative to others.
Although often classified under one term, the ‘caste’ system actually represents two different overlapping systems of stratification. The ‘varṇa’ system stratifies society into four broad categories (varṇa) that are sometimes described as of clusters castes1. These are the Brahmins, Kshatriyas, Vishyas and Shudras. Each varṇa is considered to indicate a different level of ‘purity’ - with the Brahmins being the elites. Within each varṇa, there are more specific ‘jāti’ categories that specify the social community one is born into. The jāti system is often referred to in terms of vocation/employment. In India, there are over 2000 jāti categories. They are allocated and stratified into the varṇa system depending on the relative level of impurity of a person’s social standing. For example, occupations considered ‘dirty’ – such as cleaning or handling cow leather – are situated within the lower varṇa class.
Some view the caste system as static because it has persisted for thousands of years. Certain cultural practices continue to perpetuate and encourage social stratification through, for example, marriage and reproduction practices (see ‘Marriage and Dating’ in Family) and upward mobility within the caste system remains difficult. However, efforts have been made by various jātis to alter the social order and challenge the system itself. The social order is continuously under negotiation and it is now becoming possible to gain high status through adopting certain elements of the lifestyles of those in more ‘pure’ castes. For example, some jātis argue for social stratification to be based on other factors that are more relevant to contemporary India, like economic status.
Discrimination based on caste (varṇa) is outlawed in India and prejudice is not often explicitly shown. Nonetheless, the caste system still impacts conceptions of individuals’ social standing, whereby each person has a specific function within a setting. Questioning or deviating from one’s expected role is still relatively rare. Thus, when interacting with someone from India, it is important to bear in mind that the caste structure systematically determines the occupation of many Indians. Inquiring into what caste (in the sense of varṇa) someone belongs to is arguably inappropriate, but asking about one’s occupation is generally welcomed.
Pride and the Indian Identity
The ‘Indian identity’ has evolved continuously over the country’s long history, along with changes in political and religious institutions within and outside of India. In India’s more recent history, the presence of the British Raj (1858-1947) had little impact on the ethnic composition of India, yet it brought about vast changes in the country’s economic, political and cultural spheres. India’s achievement of independence in 1947 was accompanied by the Partition of India and Pakistan. 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.
The Partition reflects the complexities in Indian identity with respect to religion. One temptation is to conflate Hindu identity with Indian identity and vice versa. This correlation has been made since British colonisation; however, it seriously misrepresents the culture and diversity of India and its people. 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. India’s diversity involves vast inequalities among people on various levels. These inequalities shape the everyday experiences of Indians.
Nonetheless, they generally express a sense of pride in the distinctiveness and diversity of their culture. This pride comes from various sources, such as the technological advancements in infrastructure, science and engineering as well as agricultural expansion. Moreover, a great amount of pride stems from India’s rich artistic cultural exports of music, literature and cinema. These contributions to world media often symbolise the vibrancy of Indian culture.
The buzzing cities of Mumbai, Calcutta and New Delhi contain a melting pot of rapid economic development and technological innovation, with the most notable example being the continually expanding telecommunications sector. Such cities are demonstrative of India’s rise as an economic and political powerhouse on the world stage, paired with the diaspora of Indian people throughout the globe. The large metropolitan cities contrast against the hundreds of thousands of villages and small towns that each contain their own distinctive microsociety. Moreover, regional diversity comes with an immense linguistic diversity, with great variation in language throughout India.
India has one of the largest populations in the world, and public and private spaces are often densely populated. This plays a part in how the idea of privacy is understood, as it is rarely available, sought after or indulged in. For example, several generations often live under one roof. However, the large population size has not led the average Indian to think of themselves as ‘one among many’ and certainly has not diminished their aspirations. Instead, diversity is celebrated, and a competitive, inventive and entrepreneurial spirit is encouraged. In this sense, Indians are often some of the most adaptable and creative people, tending to visualise big possibilities for themselves, their people and country.
1 See ‘Hinduism’ in Religion for more on information on the caste system.