Is India really Collectivist? A comparison with Japan, a truly collectivist nation.
Collectivism can be defined as ‘The practice or principle of giving a Group, priority over each individual in it’.
Indians are ‘perceived’ as being generally collectivist. This article explores the truth behind this perception. Joan Robinson, the famed economist says ‘Whatever you say about India, the opposite is also true’. This is a classic statement on the diversity and complexity of India.
It is simply not possible to use Aristotelean Logic (Two outcomes – Yes or No – Black or White – Individualist or Collectivist) to understand India and most attempts to categorise India into two polar buckets would warrant Joan Robinson’s quote. The biggest mistake one could do in trying to understand India is to view it through dichotomous lenses.
To explore and understand whether India is collectivist, I would like to use for comparison, a truly collectivist society – Japan.
Japan is a classic ‘collectivist’ society where the Group takes precedence and priority over the individual.
The concept of WA.
‘Wa’ means group harmony and is one of the most fundamental concepts of Japanese society. It is a ‘collectivist’ value in which the fabric of harmony is to be maintained across the group and the responsibility for it lies with everyone who is part of the group.
Japan is a mountainous country with less than 20% arable land and in times gone by, strict cooperative discipline between farmers was crucial to ensure optimum irrigation to grow rice and other crops. It is believed that Wa arose out of this deep necessity.
Wa is also a core concept in Shintoism and is described as ‘Kind and Beneficial Harmony’. One of the core moral and ethical traditions of Shintoism is that group solidarity always takes precedence over individual behaviours.
In the seventh century, Prince Shotoku Taishi issued Japan’s first constitution and it was decreed in Article 1 that Wa would be a core value. Wa became an ingrained part of feudal Japan and continues till today.
Let us look at the following video. It depicts the famous shibuya crossing in Japan. Note how the pedestrians cross together, as one body.
The Japanese are highly collectivist, in that the ‘Group’ is always more important than the ‘Individual’. Children are taught at a very early age to be very conscious of how their behaviours would impact others. The maintenance of group harmony is prime.
Now let is look at a typical road crossing in India.
Do you see any difference between the two? Glaring I am sure!
Indians do not gel as a group and tend to follow their own paths.
So then, are Indians ‘Individualist’?
Individualism, as opposed to Collectivism, is defined as ‘The practice or principle of the individual being more important than the group and has the rights to act and speak free of collective control’ (Within legal limits of course).
While the western way of ‘Individualism’ is creeping into India through extensive exposure through the media and education, and Indians are moving away from their own roots, the majority of India is certainly not Individualist as defined above.
So then what are Indians?
It is necessary to introduce the following terms to understand Indians.
1) Spiritual Individualism
2) Regional Collectivism
3) Community Collectivism
4) Social Collectivism
5) Familial Collectivism
6) Collective Face
Let us have a look at each of these.
The roots of Indian behaviour lie in ‘Hinduism’ – the predominant religion of India. (It is a misnomer – a term imposed upon the subcontinent by the British who could not fathom how the diverse philosophies, theologies and practises could exist together).The ‘Lotus’ flower is a consistent symbol in Hinduism and it represents one of the core aspects of Hindu thought.
A lotus blooms and maintains it’s beauty and purity even in the murkiest of ponds.
A human is expected to be like a lotus – not to be affected by the filth in her/his surroundings and to bloom spiritually from within.
Here lie the roots of spiritual individualism – You change and improve yourself. You do not try to change the world and you follow your own path, with regard to others of course – individually rather than collectively.
This also complements and arises out of the belief in ‘Karma’ in which the individual alone is responsible for her/his karma, the effects of which are incurred over several lives. You can see this kind of ‘following of the individual path’, reflected in the road crossing video embedded earlier in this article.
This is also a deeply psychological reason as to why Indian traffic is random with each driver following her/his own paths.
In Hinduism and Jainism (Two of the world’s most ancient religions that collectively constitute 81% of
India’s population), people pray individually. It is between you and your God. This is quite similar to the Protestant idea of ‘It is between me and my God’, however in India, Binary Aristotelean Logic and exclusion are not dominant, and a priest can act as a conduit but this is a matter of choice. Typically, a priest might be engaged to perform ceremonies and certain rites, but the prayers are individual and not collective.
The only instances where you might find collective praying is when Bhakti (devotional) sessions are specifically organised by groups and even then, the communication with God is individualist.
For ages, Indian ascetics have gone out into forests and the mountains to meditate and realise God– individually. You will not find Hindu monasteries.
In stark contrast, Muslims and Sikhs who collectively constitute around 17% of India’s population, pray collectively within their communities and are rather collectivist in their behaviours. In fact, Sikhs are highly collectivist, but their collectivism differs highly from that of the Japanese in that it is not about etiquette but about familial and community collectivism.
Quoting Joan Robinson again – ‘Whatever you may say about India, the opposite is also true’ as a reflection on India’s diversity, there are several factors and parameters that come into play while defining regional behaviours.
Thus, Punjabis are highly collectivist (Most of them are Sikhs). They have also been at the crossroads of many battles and wars in India which has been a major influence towards forming collectivist behaviours.
Sikhism was also based on Collectivist principles along with Spiritual Individualism. The Founder of Sikhism, Guru Nanak, chose aspects from Islam and Hinduism and incorporated them into Sikhism.
Collectivism from Islam and Spiritual Individualism from Hinduism were both incorporated into Sikhism, this making it a unique blend in the cultural kaleidoscope of India.
The states of Andhra Pradesh, Maharashtra and Gujarat exhibit high social collectivism, in that they love to form groups and celebrate. This is again not collectivism in it’s conventional sense, but a celebratory collectivism and is very much a temporary phenomenon, lasting as long as the event being celebrated.
Most of the other regions of India do not exhibit conventional collectivist behaviours. (This is an indicative statement and not all encompassing. The complexity of India is too high to be covered in this article).
This is a temporary phenomenon which arises as a response to events – either religious ceremonies specific to a community, or political/social events which impact/threaten the beliefs of that community. For a specific response, the people of a community can come together and behave as a group for the duration of the event, after which they lapse into Spiritual Individualism.
This is perhaps the most common and intense form of collectivism in India – the unity of the family. In Sanskrit, the word for family and the world is the same – ‘Samsaar’.
Hence the family is the world and takes precedence and priority over other aspects of life. Families are closely bonded and will usually stick together through thick and thin.
In Hinduism, there are four stages of life. Bramhacharya or Celibacy is the first, when the individual gains knowledge through study and skills for a profession. One is expected to abstain from worldly pleasures in this phase.
Then comes Gruhastha or family life, which is usually the longest period of one’s life. There is great emphasis on marriage and progeny to value the purpose of creation. Dedication to one’s family is the defining behaviour of this phase.
At the eve of one’s life, one retires to the forest in preparatory abnegation, and this is called Vanaprastha. Eventually, the individual is expected to renounce all material things and bonds and work towards liberation. This is called Sanyas.
This is changing though, with western values permeating the fabric of Indian culture.
This is an extremely interesting phenomenon which often deceives foreigners and causes an ‘appearance’ of ‘Collectivism’. It is an illusion.
India is arguably the most diverse country in the world, yet Indians share a common heritage and national identity. There is a suppressed sense of pride in Indians and they want their country to be counted among the best in the world.
Centuries of colonial rule, resulting poverty, and exposure to achievements of the West have caused Indians to suffer from an inferiority complex towards foreigners and this, as psychologists will tell you, usually results in over-achievement.
Colonial rule and exposure to the West have also diluted their cultural identities and Indians are perhaps the most culturally confused people on earth today, and they barely know it.
Centuries again of exposure to the material achievements of the West through media and education have made Indians want to emulate western societies. With the deeply spiritual value system of the past fading, and the evolving trends of the west taking over, Indians are in a state of flux and have developed high Xenophilia (Love of things foreign) and a sense of relativistic inferiority towards foreigners.
While Indians can have an inferiority complex towards foreigners, they do not suffer the same with each other. Hence the term ‘Relativistic inferiority complex’.
This phenomenon allows Indians to overachieve in foreign environments and influences. Indians often seek approval and recognition from economically developed countries. Whatever developed countries do, Indians want India to do it better and prove to the world that India is capable too. But Indians are acutely conscious that India is not yet as economically and organisationally developed as other countries. India’s demography, diversity, enormity and the fact that India only became independent in 1947 are ‘real’ factors as to why India is not as developed, but typically, Indians do not seem to realise that the US and European powers had centuries to develop. Their ‘cultural psychology’ equipped them to develop economically and scientifically. India on the other hand has traditionally been a ‘spiritual’ land with humanity and God at the forefront of thought.
Faced with a foreigner, a group of Indians will be collectively polite, awed and even eager to please, which gives rise to an ‘appearance’ of collectivist behaviour to the foreigner’s eye. Indians will display a collective face and certain (aforementioned) common behaviours towards the foreigner for the duration of her/his presence.
As soon as the ‘foreign body’ is removed from this environment, the group falls back into it’s old behaviours of spiritual individualism, regional, community and familial collectivism.
The Indian Crab:
Indians, in self deprecatory wit, often refer to themselves as ‘Indian crabs’.
It is said that when crabs from the Indian Ocean are captured, there is no need to put a lid on the container. If a crab tries to escape, the other crabs pull it down.
There are many statements used in jest such as ‘Indians are individually intelligent but collectively not’. This is because ‘Group’ behaviours to Indians based on a culture of ‘Individual Karma’ has not been easy to assimilate.
Sports in India:
Indians typically do not perform well collectively and this is reflected in India’s national obsession – Cricket. Whenever the team clicks as a ‘team’ they become world beaters but Indian cricket has historically been saved by individual heroics and plagued with a lack of team work and consistency.
So often you find a star studded Indian team losing when team effort matters most. An Indian team might have 3 of its players in the top 10 yet lose. The term ‘snatching defeat from victory’ is used rather often.
Indian Hockey is another classic example. India were world beaters when the rules of the game
favoured the individual. Players like ‘Dhyan Chand’ were legends when the game favoured individual play. But once the rules were changed, India failed and is yet to recover. Watch a Hockey game and you will see a brilliant player taking the ball all the way to the goal post single handed, not passing it to a team member to increase the chances of victory.
Lately you will find Indians doing well in individual sporting events like shooting, wrestling, boxing and badminton.
Indians are not collectivist in the conventional definition of the term.
Spiritual individualism of yore has turned into material individualism, however this is not the same kind of individualism that you find in the west, since Indians are very family oriented and could also be regionally and community collectivist (On a temporary basis). This is compounded by the fact that Indians present a deceptive ‘collective’ face to foreigners.
Behaviours though are slowly changing and the western type of individualism is permeating India – especially among the youth.
The Japanese on the other hand are highly collectivist and attuned to group behaviours.