A matter of respect

Theres always an argument when we compare culture of India with that of the West.

The general perception is “kids in India are taught to respect more than those in the West”. I dont agree; in fact have beliefs to the exact contrary. I believe Indians respect age while in the west, individuality is respected. Indian kids are taught to bow and touch the feet of elders. How many children actually know the reason behind that action? Very few (I didnt)! Still, kids grow up touching elders feet and then they pass on the tradition to their kids, minus the reasoning*. Dont get me wrong here – I dont have anything against age-old customs and am sure there would be valid reason behind the action. What Im against though is respect with too many “where” clauses.

Lets take some examples:
In India, if you meet an elder (outside of the workplace) whos not related to you, you would probably address them as Uncle/Aunty. In the west, you would address them by their first name. By placing elders on a pedestal, we cage them in our expectations. Elders in India are expected to conform to a typical image set by the society. We start setting standards for what an elder should or shouldnt do. In the west, everyones privacy is respected and what they do in their life is no-ones business but theirs.
An example: A person in their fifties remarrying in India would raise quite a few brows in India, whereas in the west, no-one interferes.

Indian society tends to set the norm for “when” people should do “what”. Out here, if youre 30 and still single, your relatives would be very worried and would express their concern at every possible opportunity they get. If you married for a few years without kids, people would be curious about “whats going on”. And you get asked over and over again till you come up with something that satisfies their expectations … for the time being that is.

I once attended a session on cross-cultural sensitivity and was delighted to know that in America, its considered rude to ask someone whether theyre married. Wow, I wanna go to the US of A!

We tend to judge people by their profession and tend to look up to people or look down upon them based on what they do. So, a driver, a steward, a cleaner would be treated like an untouchable, someone inferior whereas an executive as an equal or superior. In the west, people arent judged by what they do, no work is considered low. Its nice to see people interact freely with people they meet in their daily lives with no hang-ups about what they do. People are not afraid to take a break from work or to try a different profession after a few years.

In the west, basic courtesy is shown to even people you dont know. People wait for pedestrians to cross streets, people give way to others in lifts, corridors, even on busy roads. If someone snicked against your arm by mistake, most people would be courteous and apologize.

People are disciplined and respect queues, rules, protocol. Often, youre delighted when strangers smile and say Hi as they walk by. In India, there is major havoc on this front too. Rules are broken without much thought, we jump queues, push our way through anything and everything: buses, lifts, roads, malls, restaurants. Look around consciously and you will see even the so-called-“educated””creme of the society” honking on roads, driving on high-beam, parking in reserved slots, grabbing seats for the handicapped in buses and trains.

Lives are lived selfishly, oblivious to the existence of other people around. We feel pride in saying we are religious but if you go to any popular temple, youll see people pushing other people aside to pay their respects to The Almighty, to reach Him, to touch Him. What about the divinity that lives in each one of us: in you, in me and in the person you pushed aside to speed up your “darshan”?

Then, thinking of all this, arent people in the West more respectful than we are?
Is touching elders feet any good if we dont have an iota of respect for people we work with, live with, travel with? Arent we in shackles of other peoples expectations? Is respect for an elder any good if we cage them with our expectations and refuse to treat them as individuals?

I guess each one has to figure that out on their own!

* http://www.swaminarayan.org/faq/charansparsh.htm

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9 Responses

  1. This is your best post till date :). But don’t write off India so soon. People are are trying hard to learn to mind their business not only in big cities but also in small towns.

    Respect provides security to our elders. That’s why neighbourhood uncle’s and aunty’s are confident and comfortable in calling up for help. Isn’t it great that society is providing love and affection of people around and not lonliness?

  2. Liked your writing, but couldn’t resist sharing my thought, on this provocative topic.. :P..

    There are many small things we are taught as kids and most of the times without proper reasoning, for example respect your elders, for example one and one sums up to two, for example nothing is zero…Those are things we accept and grow up with and when we learn to reason them ourselves, we appreciate that we had been thought those small things…because those are the things which hold us together, which in the long run help us to comprehend the complexities of life. I think that touching feet to show respect, calling uncle/aunty are such small things..these are nothing more than mere gentures of an individual society and are as unique and different as foods, clothes and physical features. We could have shaken hands to show respect as we could have called zero as “one”..

    I appreciate the respect people in western countries have for different professions, their courtesies, their endless thank you’s’ and sorry’s’. But hey you know what? They are taught to do that as kids, probably without a reason too..and they do that just as we touch someone’s feet even without respecting them..

    But where I completely disagree with you, is your saying that we are selfish, we don’t wait for people or stop to apologize? Well its probably because of our population. Do you think if you wait for people to cross the road on a office day at Connaught Place, you will ever reach office? If you are in New York City, you will not find cars waiting for you to cross the road and if you do, please be informed that the state law requies them to do so. I don’t know how closely have you watched people here, but their selfishness is one thing to talk about. Let me not elaborate on that because my comment is becoming bigger than the blog. One last thing, which you have not mentioned, but in my opinion is the best quality of the westerners, is their belief in the power of one. I have hardly heard an American say anything bad about their country, their people.

    As a part of my job, I get to interact with a lot of teenagers here and as far my judgement goes, I would always like my kid to be brought up the way we are back in India.

  3. when i was a child i was taught to touch the feet of my elders whenever i meet them…my grandma..grandpa…and every elder ther is…

    before my evry exam i used to touch the feet of my parents and my granny…in hopes tat their blessings would help me clear tat extra tough paper…

    I do not kno if tat works…but I m sure that if u bow down to ur elders…u help in reducing ur ego and gain a lot of love from them…

    I must say…India is a gr8 nation…the gr8s had once trodden this lad of all religion…if only we understand this…if only we know owr own gr8ness…we would have a better day everyday…

    Pailagu sir…:)

  4. hear hear truth and but nothing! this is the primary problem with us in general…stereotyping all and sunder!! it is true and very ingrained to expect all the time…expect gratitude, morality, wealthy, legacy!

    i liked reading your pieces….profound! elucidating! lucid!

  5. Well said Manik!!
    I agree we Indians r a rude,selfish,uncaring,and live a life full of double standards.We may start our day with prayers and talk of compassion and ‘punya’but on our way to a ‘Satsang’ we would never stop to help a person who has been hit and is bleeding.we just slow down to have a look(as the other50-60 people around) ,curse the system and society and move on to sing Bhajans set to the latest chart-topper tune to impress the Lord.

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