New Vocabulary, Not New Values
By Sadhvi Bhagawati
“What this country really needs,” the middle aged father from Delhi was saying in the evening satsang, “is leaders like Pujya Swamiji and yourself to give new values to our youth. They are not interested in the values of our generation. They need new values and you can bring that to them.” While the compliment was flattering, and the truth of youth’s waning interest in their own culture certainly undeniable, something pierced me sharply about what he said. Some great error had been committed. Suddenly I responded, “It is not new values they need. It is simply a new vocabulary.”
I have lived in Rishikesh for the past 15 years and have witnessed a great shift in Indians’ mindset, particularly the younger generation. While they are ardently patriotic, while they are prepared to fast with Anna Hazare, to march for kilometres waving political flags, while they join Facebook groups with names like “Yuva Bharat”, “Bharat Swabhiman” and “Bharat Nirmaan Sena” despite all of this tenacious and fervent commitment to India and her future, they are not, in most cases, convinced by the culture. In fact, night after night, in the evening satsangs and question-answer sessions in Pujya Swamiji’s jhopadi following Ganga Aarti, Indian youth ask questions that evidence their dissatisfaction or disinterest in what we call culture, or values or sanskaras. “Why can’t we date before marriage? Why do we have to live in a joint family? I believe in God but I don’t believe in temples or puja. Why can’t my parents understand this?” They are turning from vegetarians to non-vegetarians, from teetotalers to drinkers, , from virgins to promiscuously “cool” young adults at alarming rates. “What’s wrong with our children?” many parents bemoan in the satsangs. “They have gone completely astray.”
I have watched this carefully. My academic background is psychology from Stanford University, hence I have a predisposition to analysis. Further, I came to India at age 25, having grown up in Los Angeles, in the heart of American upper class, “modern” culture and was so enraptured by the grace, the truth, the divinity and the depth of traditional Indian culture that – despite protests from every single person I knew back home – I stayed. So I have seen both worlds, up close. I have seen hip American culture where acceptance is based on how you look in a black mini-skirt, with how many times a week you’re seen drinking coffee past 2 am in the local “hot spot”, with how many drug-filled dens of decadence you visit on a particular Saturday night. And I have seen the results. Fifteen-year olds killed in drunk driving accidents, cocaine-induced pregnancies and abortions at seventeen, anorexia and bulimia stealing the minds and lives of Ivy-League students, third marriages by the age of twenty-five, a country where the most commonly prescribed medicines are anti-depressants, anti-anxiety medication, sleeping pills and Viagra.
There is much to be emulated about Western culture. There is a commitment to excellence and perfection unmatched by most other countries. Punctuality, reliability, fulfillment of promises, adherence to contracts, integrity and honesty are all attributes which other countries, especially India, would benefit by adopting. However, tragically, these are not the values being adopted by many metropolitan Indian youth. Rather, it is the illusion of sophistication, the allure of glamour, the myth of material enjoyment that are seeping into Indian culture.
It is not that India needs new values. Indian culture, values, ethics and traditions form, in my opinion, the very foundation of a successful, meaningful and fulfilling life. If you ask a random person in Los Angeles, stepping out of her Mercedes car, “How are you?” chances are you will get a litany of things that are wrong. My back is hurting, the housekeeper didn’t show up, the store ran out of my favourite cereal, there was too much traffic on the freeway, etc. If you ask the same question to an elderly village woman in the Himalayas carrying pounds of firewood on her head, back to cook the family’s one meal a day, chances are your question will be answered with “Sab Bhagawan ki kripa” or “Ganga ki kripa.” This is the fruit of culture: deep satisfaction despite the ups and downs of daily life. Objectively God’s kripa certainly seems to have showered significantly more upon the woman in the Mercedes. Yet, she needs a pill to go to sleep, a pill to wake up, a pill to make it through the day. The woman in the Himalayas sleeps and wakes with a smile on her face.
Indian culture is one that feeds first and eats second. I cannot count the number of times a family that doesn’t have the means to feed itself has begged me to come home for a meal. Or, if I continually refuse a meal, at least a cup of tea or “cold drink.” That I vehemently explain, over and over, that I don’t drink “cold drinks”, that even before coming to India I never drank Coke, is taken by them as mere social nicety. It is inconceivable that I, an American, don’t drink Coke. Hence, despite my protests they send the eldest child to the market to spend ten or twelve rupees on a cold drink. That those twelve rupees were the funds for dinner is irrelevant. They are as happy watching me try to graciously drink a Coke as if they were eating thalis full of food. This is Indian culture. Abundance is not measured by a bank balance. It is measured by whether one feels that one’s cup is overflowing. If my instinct is to share, to give, if I feel that I have more than enough and hence I want to feed others, I am rich, even if my feet are bare. If I feel that I don’t have enough and my instinct is to hold and to hoard, then I am poor, regardless of what the bank statements say.
India does not need new values. The values are what have kept India strong and united despite thousands of years of invasions. The values are what have kept Indians’ minds and hearts independent even when their country was colonised and oppressed. However, today what is needed is a new vocabulary. The youth of today are being raised differently than any generation prior to them. Information is at their fingertips. Everything has an answer. If you don’t know it, Google it. Modern science and technology have rendered that which was inexplicable, enigmatic and impossible a decade ago child’s play today. So we cannot expect them to accept “because I said so” or “because God made it that way” or “because it doesn’t look nice” or “just because” as reasonable motivation for doing anything. Whether it’s lighting the diya on the family mandir, being a vegetarian, giving daan, abstaining from sex before marriage or meditating, we are going to have to provide them compelling reasons and answers. Fortunately there are compelling, scientific, rational reasons for all of these. However, most of us don’t know them.
Most middle-aged Indians today would never have dared question or disobey their parents. Therefore, their children’s rebuttals and incessant mantra of “why?” seem insolent and disrespectful. They assume their children are intractable, when really they are simply bringing the new culture of questioning from school to home. The youth of today are being raised and primed to ask, to wonder, to question, to investigate, to discover. They will not be appeased by the same answers that kept their parents’ generation in check. However, that doesn’t mean they’re off the track or in need of new values. Rather, what we need is to find the vocabulary with which to give them the same values, but in a way that makes sense to their inquiring minds. For example, I have heard innumerable parents exhort their children to believe that the cow is holy and therefore they must not eat hamburgers. “But why is the cow holy?” they ask, typically quite sincerely. “Because it is,” or “Because our scriptures say so,” or “Don’t be insolent” are the common answers. When there is an answer for everything today, the lack of an answer to this makes them naturally and understandably suspicious.
However, there are scientific, rational, pragmatic reasons to be vegetarian, regardless of whether one believes the cow is holy. The fact that the meat industry is the single greatest contributor to world hunger as well as environmental destruction is quite compelling. The wastage of grain, land, water and energy used in the production of meat is enough to convince most.
This is just one example but it illustrates the fact that it’s not the values which need to be changed. The values are correct. It’s simply our method of explaining them, transmitting them that needs to be updated. This of course puts greater responsibility on parents. They need to find real answers and not rely on the age-old tactics of “because I say so.” They need to make sure that their spiritual and cultural practices are real and true and not simply ritual. A young child recently said to Pujya Swamiji, “I don’t ever go in the temple. I don’t believe in temples.” When questioned further the child explained, “My mother and my father go into the temple every morning and every evening. They spend so much time in the temple, lighting this, doing that. But whenever they come out of the temple all they do is fight. I don’t want to spend my life fighting so I am avoiding temples.” So, we need to make sure that the values we are trying to pass onto our children are ones that we have truly, not merely superficially, adopted in our own lives.
India is, in my opinion, the richest country in the world. I am not referring to the GDP/GNP if all black money came back, but rather to the depth of culture, values, ethics and tradition. There is nothing in Indian culture that is not compatible with modern technology, science or industry. There is nothing backward or old fashioned or obsolete. The values and ethics of centuries ago are just as valid and just as applicable today as then. However, we have to put in a little effort to adapt the vocabulary and the method of transmission to today’s youth. Otherwise, if we hold tenaciously to the vocabulary of yesterday, which is unconvincing to today’s youth, they will continue to turn more and more to Western culture, depriving themselves, their families and future generations of one of the world’s richest treasure chests, a treasure chest of not only information but also inspiration.
(The author American-born, Stanford graduate, Sadhvi Bhagawati Saraswati, PhD moved to India in 1996. She was officially ordained by Swami Chidanand Saraswatiji into the tradition of sanyas and lives at Parmarth Niketan Ashram in Rishikesh, where she serves Swamiji’s humanitarian projects, provides seva for the Ashram, teaches meditation, gives discourses and counsels individuals and families. firstname.lastname@example.org)