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Updated: 19 Sep 2016
Cultural Hints and Etiquette
based on the leading guidebooks
People in India getting more and more used to the different ways of the foreigners but still much applies of what is writting below.
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 offence or making fools of themselves. The list do's and don'ts here is hardly exhaustive: when in doubt, watch what the Indian people around you are doing. Quite a few of this etiquette applies within Ananda Marga as well, and there are often good reasons. If you like I can explain them during the tour in more detail.
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 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, shaking hands 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 with your left hand, or point at anyone either. In general you should accept things with your right hand. Which is also a social norm in Ananda Marga. To give and receive with 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 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 it directly into your mouth. This custom also protects you from things like Hepatitis. Although in the west it is not considered sociable not to share your bottle, during the tour, we'll follow this rule. Keep your own water bottle, and 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. Half bath in Ananda Marga...
Temples and Religion
Religion is taken very seriously in India; it's 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 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 the inside of temples;
If in doubt desist. Never take photos of funerals or cremations. Or in general, if you like to take photo (close up) of people seek their permission.
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 shorts (a sign of low caste). These rules go double in temples and Mosques.
In general Indians find it hard to understand why rich tourists should walk around in old and torn clothing, dress shamelessly like prostitutes, or imitate the lowest ranks of Indian society, who would dearly love to have something more decent to wear. Staying well-groomed and dressing respectably (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) Indian dress fits in with most Indian values, though lunghis are not regarded favorably on men away from beaches.
Other Possible Obstacles
Kissing, or embracing, hugging between 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 it's normal for men to hold hands as a sign of friendship.
To keep the unity in the group, and keep the focus on our inner growth, we like to discourage any unnecessary close contact, imagine that you are brothers and sisters within the same family. So... no kissing, hugging, embracing or massages even when only with our own group. Please respect this! If you find it difficult to accept maybe this tour is not what you are looking for.
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 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 often are struggling to keep their project running. It is good to keep some money to donate, but decide on the limit beforehand. In the places were we stay, We'll be giving already on behalf of the tour. If there is any problem let me know.
In India the father or elder brother normally arranges marriages. The parents want their child to get a good place in life, and the West is often seen as such. 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 keep it for after the tour :-) )
Cleanliness is one thing our Guru emphasizes, so you might be surprised that the standard is not always what you'd expect. The reason may be that some of the workers (read Dada's) never learned this as a child, too much work, or the mind is in such a blissful state that these things don't seem to matter. I feel we'll have to improve (a lot) on this point but realise that everything needs time.
In India it is common to have servants, although Baba didn't really like to see this, it is very much ingrained, and quite often seen in Jagrtii's. 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 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's clean. For most people from the west this is really difficult to do, but the sooner you get used to it the better. And one complex less. Beside toilet paper is often not available, the diameter of the toilet pipes is less 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 open it again... In any case you probably (hopefully!) clean those areas when taking shower without even thinking about it. So really it's not that big of a thing.
And washing with water cleans much better than toilet paper, it's 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. (all is part of our 16 points) Some people still like to use paper to dry themself. Of course afterwards you should, as with paper, wash your hands with soap. Rub the soap in the right hand (your clean hand remember :-) ), put back the soap, and clean the left hand with the right. And do you know how much forest is cut, just for toilet paper? My experience was, that after getting over my initial aversion, I feel better using water, and actually feel kind of dirty if, for any reason I can't use water to clean afterwards.
Westerners have an ambiguous status in Indian eyes. In one way, 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 and with low moral values.
Your presence is in theory polluting to an orthodox or high cast 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 better than you. Even if you are of Indian origin, you may be considered to suffer from western corruption, and people may test you out 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 the 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, the cost of your plane ticket, but mostly they will be about your family and your job.
You may find it surpricing 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, even income, is 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 entertain such conversations with man you have to realise that they may get a very different idea than 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 closely next 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 clevelage etc etc. You probably know very well what gets the attention of men...
One of the confrontations, is the poverty. You'll see lots of beggars, as there is no system of social security, some people who don't have support from the family it is the only option left. However most beggar do it for a profession, because it is easier than working. Especially tourists make 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 if the business is good it will only encourage more to take it up, as people have soft heart for babies and children they will also be used more and more. Sometimes even mutilated just to make people feel pity and collect more money. It's really hard!
Also during the trek you'll find children asking for sweets, school pen, rupees etc, please do not give, you will spoil them and create really bad habit. If you want to give there it's much better to donate to the local school or go through a trusted agency.
The only way to solve this problem on the long run is to dedicate some (or all) of your time to help change society. On the short run we should help with the basic necessities, if someone is 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 it gets used for alcohol or goes to the crime syndicates. Probably 90% of the wandering 'Sadhus' India's holy man are dressed up beggars, just using the orange robes to get an advantage. We really should not support this.
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