India is a country in South Asia with a very ancient and very diverse culture as well as diverse terrain. It is the seventh-largest country by area, and as of 2019 India is also the second most populated country in the world with 1.31 billion people. India also has the largest youth population in the world, with approximately 600 million people under the age of 25. By 2022, India is expected to overtake China in terms of population to become the most populated country on earth. In terms of government, India is considered to be the world’s largest democracy. With so many firsts, Indian culture is very rich and interesting to explore.
Before we explore India as a culture, we must define the term. Human culture is the collection of customs, institutions, and achievements of a particular group of humans who are bound by certain common values. Culture is what makes a group of people who they are and it is a very broad term that includes everything from personal behavior, values, to religion, worldview, habits, preferences and many more things. India’s culture is very varied. The country consists of 29 states and 7 territories where a large number of ethnicities, each with their own customs and often language. There are two official languages in India- Hindi and English, with the Indian Constitution officially recognizing 21 additional regional languages; however, Hindi is the official language of the government. Even though Hindi is the official government language, the majority of people in India do not speak it. With such tremendous diversity of language come some difficulties in communication and recognition of the complex nature of Indian society.
In terms of religion, India is considered the birthplace of Hinduism, which is the third largest religion on Earth after Christianity and Islam, as well as the birthplace of Buddhism. Close to 80 percent of the Indian population are Hindu, 13 percent are Muslim and the rest are made up of Buddhists, Sikhs, Jains, Christians and Parsis. Many Hindus are vegetarian and the cow is considered to be a sacred animal, to be protected and respected.
Prior to my research on India, I thought of India as this beautiful country with rich culture and values. Growing up, I watched Indian movies which were full of song and dance, full of beautiful embroidered ‘dresses’, full of beauty. I simply assumed that everyone is a dancer, that Indians love color, love to meditate. However, movies never showed the other major side of Indian culture – their love of the game cricket or their shocking poverty that forces hundreds of millions of people to survive. Besides this, I really knew very little about India. I chose India because something about this culture is mystical. It is a culture of meditation, worship of many gods and is a culture with a belief in reincarnation and karma, as well as the human goal of ending reincarnation because to be reborn on Earth is to reenter a world of suffering. It is almost as if Indians simply accept their place in life and hope to have a better life the next time they are born. These are very interesting philosophical ideas which have always interested me.
Many things about India interest me. Let’s start with family. India is a very patriarchal society. Indian women typically are subordinated to men, regardless of religion. But, Indian culture despite its great variety, is still very much divided into social classes, or castes. These castes have been around for a very long time and persist today. From the top to bottom we have Brahmins- the priestly, academic caste, followed by Kshatriyas- the administrators, warriors; followed by Vaishyas- the artisans, tradespeople, farmers and merchants; followed by Shudras who are manual laborers; and lastly the Dalits, or the untouchables, who are street cleaners and people who perform menial, dirty work. People tend to marry others of same or higher class. This old system of social division is less powerful today but is still very discriminatory. For example if a woman is from a higher social class, she has an access to a higher education and therefore, power. But in general, many Indian women and particularly of low castes, don’t go to school. Indian families give preference to male children over female children, in part because of the earnings power of working men. Very often pregnancies with girls are terminated. Girls are viewed as a drain a family’s income, because once they get married, they will become a part of their husband’s family. Having a boy means he will one day marry and will bring home a wife who will perform work in the home. In addition, Indian weddings tend to be very, very lavish because the girl’s family has to give to her future husband’s family many gifts. Such expenditures mean that money is tight and a woman may never get even a basic education.
Indian families believe in being authoritative with children. Physical punishment is welcomed and parents are to be honored and cared for even into old age. They are not to be questioned. The eldest male is typically the head of the family and family decides everything, including who their child will marry. Arranged marriages are still the dominant way in India today, with the love marriage slowly gaining popularity. Family involvement in all aspects of life of its children, including arranging marriage, is all about family honor, a tradition that can be seen all over Asia. Honor of the family is everything. Therefore, to defy parents is a great sin. The entire family can lose face in the community due to actions of one family member. Sometimes girls who run off with boys they like, against the wishes of the family, are killed by the family. This concept of honor killings is still widespread across India. Women’s rights are very limited. Following traditional Hindu law, women were not allowed to inherit real estate.
Outside of the family, a number of interesting customs exist: the left hand is considered to be unclean, so you should not pass anything with the left hand, nor eat with it. To me this is interesting – because I am a lefty. Many Indians still eat with their fingers and not western utensils. The concept of privacy is close to non-existent in India, unlike in America. So is personal space very much not respected, and given India’s population density, this is not surprising.
Socially, there are many problems in India. Given the sometimes shocking poverty, it is not surprising that sometimes even small children are forced to work to survive. Child labor is popular in India and slavery still exists. Poverty sometimes drives parents to sell their children.
From the point of view of communication, Indians are very verbal and talkative people. They prefer face-to-face meetings over email or text messages. Also, because India was ruled by Great Britain as its primary and most treasured colony from 1858 to 1947, Indians took many things from the British, including their legal system, their infrastructure, architectural style, education system and even communications styles. As an effect of British colonial influence, Indians shake hands with each other, but it’s not common for male to shake hands with female because of religious influences. When this kind of situation arises, just kindly wait for female to offer you a hand shake first. Indians are also very proud of their country’s long and rich history, its food and their love of cricket, a game brought over to India by the British. In India, cricket stars are considered to be gods. With respect to body language, Indians wobble their heads left and right as a sign for “yes” and when they nod, it means ‘no’. Speaking is a process which requires thought. One should not speak without thinking, should not openly scold anyone else in public, should respect elders when they speak. India is quite hierarchical with respect to communication.
When it comes to education, Indian system has been making significant progress in recent years. India’s literacy rate grew significantly over the last few years. In 2011 India’s literacy rate was at 74.04% (82.14% for males and 65.46% for females). As of 2018 and according to UNESCO:
15-24 years 91.66 92.99 90.17
15 years and older 74.37 82.37 65.79
65 years and older 45.38 61.67 30.29
Following independence from Great Britain in 1947, India’s first prime minister, Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru (in office 1947-1964) attempted to create the country’s first modern mass education system. This proved to be very hard to do given India’s tremendous socio-economic problems following independence. It is true that even today India has a very high rate of poverty and although this rate has been decreasing as the country becomes more industrialized and tech-saavy, close to 30% of Indian children under the age of 5 remain underweight and nearly half of Indian children are have undernutritious diets. In 2001 the government launched Mid-Day Meal Scheme to lower the rate of hungry kids in schools. Its role is to serve a minimum of 300 calories of energy and 8-12 gram of protein per day to a child in every Government aided primary school. Administered jointly by the state and federal government, education policy in India is set at the federal level. At the federal level, education is run by The Ministry of Human Resource Development, the federal agency that is responsible for the education sector. The MHRD develops performance targets, and implements thrum across the country. “While Hindi and English are official languages in India, instruction in schools is conducted in variety of local languages”. In private schools, however, English is the preferred language of instruction. As a general rule, private schools provide a much better education than the government schools, even though not regulated by MHRD. People with money prefer for their children to receive a western-style and quality education in private schools. Between 2010-2011 and 2014-2015 enrollment in private schools increased by 16 million, while public school enrollment dropped by 11.1 million.
Interestingly enough, India does not have a mandatory pre-school (18mos – 3y.o.) system in place. All pre-schools are private and use the Montessori system of education. This means that only families with some means can afford to send their very young to school. The quality of primary school teachers, most of whom are women, is often low and the teachers do not have proper teacher training, having only 2 years of relevant education. Amazingly enough, the low educational outcomes in primary schools are likely due to high teacher absenteeism! Teachers often do not show up for work and this is due to extremely low salaries.
Disability is a subject that Indian parents are not comfortable with. When we look at causality of disability and the beliefs of Indians, disability is often thought to be caused as a punishment for past bad deeds. A form of retribution by a person’s karma. Parents are reluctant to report disability of their children because they are ashamed. There are many cases of children and adults with disabilities being ostracized, abused or even abandoned at birth. The educational system in India is not prepared to deal with disability and does not have special education. Lacking special education, the system in India is inclusive. At least on paper. Most adult Indians have never attended school with people with disabilities. The integration of the disabled into the general education setting is progressing very slowly, in part because there is not a specially developed curriculum for children with disabilities. Nevertheless, primary school enrollment of children with special needs has increased considerably during the 2000s: from 566,921 in 2002–2003 to 2.35 million in 2012–2013;
With respect to early intervention services, there is one law in India which has proven to be successful:
Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan is Government of India’s flagship programme for achievement of Universalization of Elementary Education in a time bound manner, as mandated by 86th amendment to the Constitution of India making free and compulsory Education to the Children of 6-14 years age group, a Fundamental Right. SSA is being implemented in partnership with State Governments to cover the entire country and address the needs of 192 million children in 1.1 million habitations. The programme seeks to open new schools in those habitations which do not have schooling facilities and strengthen existing school infrastructure through provision of additional class rooms, toilets, drinking water, maintenance grant and school improvement grants. Existing schools with inadequate teacher strength are provided with additional teachers, while the capacity of existing teachers is being strengthened by extensive training, grants for developing teaching-learning materials and strengthening of the academic support structure at a cluster, block and district level. SSA seeks to provide quality elementary education including life skills. SSA has a special focus on girl’s education and children with special needs. SSA also seeks to provide computer education to bridge the digital divide.
After learning a great deal about India and its culture, my work with Indian families will be greatly impacted. I will be introducing a number of ideas to my work given all that I now know. Most importantly, I am going to not assume anything about Indian families because of how amazingly diverse Indian culture is. From religion to language, I will approach every family as an opportunity to learn about them and understand what matters to them before speaking my mind and before making recommendations. This means that I will do a lot of listening. I am also going to be open with families about disability. Even though in America our views on disability are not very deterministic, as I understood it many Indians see disability as a divine punishment. My job will be to convince families to try hard to give their children a better chance at a meaningful life. Disability does not have to define anyone and with a lot of effort, sometimes the effect of a disability can be minimized a lot. But this takes effort and a family who is willing to accept the challenge. Besides this, I am going to be a source of education for families, because to enlighten means to educate. Whatever ideas I propose, I have to back them up with facts. An educated family is more effective when it comes to managing a child’s disability. I am also not going to assume that Indian families know what services are available to them. As a culture, India prefers to shun its disabled as if they don’t matter. As a result, many people probably do not even know that there are many government and private resources available to help them deal with their family member’s disability. Lastly, I will consult the entire family and specifically the head of the family, usually a male, about all decisions. In a patriarchal society, the power of decision lies with the man. This cannot be discounted. At the same time, in America this practice is often softened so I will be appealing to more than just one head of a household.
In the end, India is such a huge and diverse country that like America it is one out of many. Strong family bonds, large families, strict understanding of social class, value of education, strive for success and many more things which make India a very unique culture. Add to this list a sense of hierarchy, a belief in karma and reincarnation, and you have a very unusual view of disability. It is unfortunate that disability is a topic that is poorly understood but times are changing.
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