Cultural Hints and Etiquette
BASED ON INFO FROM LEADING GUIDEBOOKS
People in India are getting more and more used to the ways of foreigners but much of what is written below still applies.
Cultural differences extend to all sorts of little things. While allowances will usually be made for foreigners, visitors unacquainted with Indian customs may need a little preparation to avoid causing offense or making fools of themselves. The list of do’s and don’ts here is not exhaustive: when in doubt, watch what the Indians around you are doing. Quite a lot of this etiquette applies to Ananda Marga as well, and there are often good reasons. If you like, I can talk about it in more detail during the tour.
Eating and the right hand rule
Eating can be a quite sensitive point. It is often done with the fingers, and requires a bit of practice to get it right. Rule one is to eat with your right hand only. In India, as all across Asia, the left hand is for wiping your bottom, cleaning your feet and other unsavory functions (you also put on and take off your shoes with the left hand), while the right hand is for eating and so on. (makes sense for Hygiene!)
Quite how rigid individuals are about this rule tends to vary, with Brahmins and Southerners being the strictest. While you can hold a cup or utensil with your left hand, and can usually get away with using it to help you tear your chapatti, you should not eat, pass food or wipe your mouth with your left hand.
In general do not pass anything to anyone or point at anyone with your left hand. In general you should accept things with your right hand. It is also a social norm in Ananda Marga, which prescribes giving and receiving with the right hand while touching the elbow of the right arm with the left hand.
The other rule to be aware of when eating or drinking is that your lips should not touch other people’s food. Don’t for example take a bite out of a chapatti and then pass it on. When drinking out of a cup or bottle to be shared with others, don’t let it touch your lips, but rather pour the liquid directly into your mouth. This custom also protects you from diseases like hepatitis. Although in the west it is not considered sociable not to share your bottle, during the tour we will follow the Indian rule. Keep your own water bottle and try to learn the pouring method, which takes some practice, especially in a moving train. It is customary to wash your hands and feet before and after eating. This is similar to half bath in Ananda Marga…
Temples and Religion
Religion is taken very seriously in India; it is always important to show due respect to religious buildings, shrines, images and people at prayer. When entering a temple or mosque, remove your shoes and leave them at the door (socks are OK in summer protect your feet from burning hot stone ground or from cold in winter). Some temples, especially Jain ones, do not allow you to enter wearing or carrying leather articles. At a Buddhist Stupa or monument you should always walk around clockwise (i.e. with the stupa on your right). Hindus are very superstitious about taking photos of images of deities or of the inside of temples;
If in doubt do not do it. Never take photos of funerals or cremations. In general, if you want to take a (close up) photo of people ask their permission first.
Indian people are very conservative about dress. Women are expected to dress modestly, with legs and shoulders covered. Trousers are acceptable, but shorts and short skirts are offensive to many. Men should always wear a shirt in public and avoid wearing shorts (a sign of low caste). These rules are doubly important in temples and mosques.
In general Indians find it hard to understand why rich tourists would want to walk around in old and torn clothing, dress shamelessly like prostitutes or dress like the lowest ranks of Indian society, who would dearly love to have something better to wear. Being well-groomed and respectably dressed (and you don’t have to go over the top) vastly improves the impression you have on the local people and reduces sexual harassment too. (Really you don’t want to be stared or leered at) An Indian dress fits in with most Indian values, although lunghis are not regarded favorably on men away from beaches.
Other Possible Obstacles
Kissing, or embracing, hugging between member of the opposite sex are regarded as part of sex; do not do them in public. It is not even a good idea for couples to hold hands. Unlike what we are used to in many western countries in many parts of India it is normal for men to hold hands as a sign of friendship.
Be aware of your feet. When entering a private home, you should normally remove your shoes (follow your hosts example); when sitting, avoid pointing the soles of your feet at anyone, at the altar or at the Guru’s photo. Accidental contact with one’s foot is always followed by an apology.
Within Ananda Marga
Some Dada’s and Didi’s might ask you for a donation, and sometimes they have the feeling that all Westerners are really rich. Please remember they gave their everything and are often struggling to keep their project running. It is good to keep some money to donate, but decide on the limit beforehand. In the places where we stay, we will give donations on behalf of the tour. If there is any problem let me know.
In India the father or elder brother normally arranges the marriages of younger siblings. Parents want their child to have a good life, and a Westener is often seen as a good catch. So don’t be shocked if you are asked to marry someone’s son or daughter, even if they don’t know you. In India it is not considered bad to ask this. Just say no in a polite way and let me know if you feel bothered. (If you like the idea, please act on it after the tour 🙂 )
Cleanliness is one thing our Guru emphasizes, so you might be surprised that the standard is not always what you would expect. The reason may be that some of the workers (read Dadas) never learned this as a child, too much work, or the mind is in such a blissful state that these things do not seem to matter. I feel we shall have to improve (a lot) on this point but realise that everything needs time.
In India it is common to have servants, and although Baba did not really like to see this, it is very much ingrained and quite often seen in Jagrtis. He told us only to serve the Supreme; you can have or be an assistant, but not a servant. The work may be the same but the attitude, treatment and respect are completely different.
Use of Water
As mentioned above in most of Asia the left hand is used to wipe your bottom. After passing stool, while pouring water from behind with the right hand, you clean the area with the middle finger of the left hand. Just keep pouring water and using your fingers till it is clean. For most people from the west this is really difficult to do, but the sooner you get used to it the better. And you have one complex less. Besides toilet paper is often not available; the diameter of the toilet pipes is narrower and there is often no flush system. So even if you can get it, toilet paper tends to clog the drain quite easily, and then your host has to somehow unblock it again… In any case, you probably (hopefully!) clean those areas when taking a shower without even thinking about it. So really it is not that big a thing, just an irrational complex.
And washing with water cleans much better than toilet paper; it is more hygienic, and cools the lower chakras at the same time. In Ananda Marga water is used for this reason after passing urine as well. (It is all part of our 16 points) Some people still like to use paper to dry themselves. Of course afterwards you should, as when you use paper, wash your hands with soap. Rub the soap in the right hand (your clean hand remember 🙂 ), put back the soap, and then clean the left hand with the right. Do you know how much forest is cut down just for toilet paper? My experience was that after getting over my initial aversion, I feel much better using water and actually feel kind of dirty and uncomfortable if, for any reason I can’t use water to clean afterwards.
Westerners have an ambiguous status in Indian eyes. On the one hand, you represent the rich guy, whose culture dominates the world, and the old colonial mentality has not completely disappeared: in that sense, some Indians may see you as “better” than them. On the other hand, as a non-Hindu, you are an outcast with low moral values.
Your presence is in theory polluting to an orthodox or high caste Hindu, while to members of all religions, your morals and your standards of spiritual and physical cleanliness are suspect: in that sense Indians may see themselves as superior to you. Even if you are of Indian origin, you may be considered to suffer from western corruption, and people may test you on that.
Nonetheless, as a traveler in India, you will constantly come across Indian people who want to strike up a conversation. English not being their first language, they may not be familiar with conventional ways of doing this, and thus their opening line may seem abrupt and at the same time very formal. Excuse me good gentleman, what is your mother country?” could be one. It is also the first in a series of questions that Indian men seem sometimes to have learnt from a single book in order to ask western tourists. Some of the questions may baffle at first (“What is your qualification? “Are you in service?”, some may be queries about the ways of the west or the purpose of your trip or the cost of your plane ticket, but mostly they will be about your family and your job.
You may find it surprising or even intrusive that Indian people should want to know that sort of thing, but bear in mind that their culture is different to yours. For one thing these are subjects which interest them. Secondly, they are considered polite conversation between strangers in India, and help people place each other in terms of social position. Thirdly your family, job or even income, are not considered “personal” subjects in India, and it is completely normal to ask people about them. Asking the same questions back will not be taken amiss – far from it. Being curious does not have the “nosey” stigma in India that it has in the west: taking an interest in other people’s lives is totally up front and considered quite normal.
In general men are not supposed to talk casually with women (outside their family naturally) and Indian woman would not entertain such conversations. So if, as a female visitor, you do hold such conversations with men, you should realize that they may get a very different impression from what you intend. It can get sticky and uncomfortable. Some think that western woman sleep with anyone very easily… In any case never allow any man to touch you or sit close to you without a very good reason. Some will try! Initially you may feel flattered by such attention but mostly it turns uncomfortable very quickly. If you need help to get rid of unwanted attention please ask. Telling you are married may also help to keep things pleasant. And… do dress modestly! Cover your shoulders, don’t show cleavage etc etc. You probably know very well what gets the attention of men…
One of the things we may find shocking is the poverty. You will see lots of beggars, as there is no system of social security, so for people who don’t have support from their family it may be the only option left. However most beggars do it for a profession, because it is easier than working. Ttourists make especially good targets, so you have to be firm and sometimes hard. Very often they are working for syndicates, who take most of the money. And of course if the business is good it will only encourage more people to take it up. As people have soft heart for babies and children they are also used a lot and sometimes even mutilated just to make people feel pity and give more money. It is really hard!
Also during the trek you may find children asking for sweets, school pens, rupees etc, please do not give them anything; you will spoil them and create really bad habits. If you want to give anything it is much better to donate to the local school or go through a trusted agency.
The only way to solve this problem in the long run is to dedicate some (or all) of your time to help change society. In the short term we should help a person to arrange their basic necessities if they are genuinely in need. If you want, you can give food items, but don’t give money, because this encourages others to take up begging as well, and often the money gets used for alcohol or goes to the crime syndicates. (Even with food items one has to be careful. I common scam is to be approached by a mother with baby, they will insists not to give money but buy milk powder for the child. If you buy it, the moment you turn your back, it will be sold back to the shop owner who then also takes a cut) Probably 90% of the wandering ‘Sadhus’ (India’s holy men) are dressed up beggars, who just use the orange robes just to take advantage. We really should not support this.