Learning from India
India, they say, is contradiction. It is a cliche that helps us fail to understand Indians. We say things are a “contradiction” when they are not like how we want them to be. Or, in this case, not like us. As is the case in many of my journeys into the Majority World, my short stay in India reminds me that the way I think is the way a Northern European thinks, or, more precisely, a Manchester Boy.
It was my gracious host Vivek who alerted me to the fundamental difference between my culture and his. Mine, striving for uniformity, is white anglo saxon, a secular rational world with a sprinkling of Christianity dragged from The Middle East by the Romans, never really taking root in any profound way. Vivek’s world is a complex collage of ideas and religions, of cultures and languages, of meaning and a long long history.
We were discussing Maslow, who’s cliche is the “hierarchy of needs” he identified and is the bedrock of American marketing. At the top of his hierarchy is “self actualization”. “This is the bottom of ours” remarks Vivek. It is a moment of light conversation, marketing communications is not a deep subject, but it is a punctuation mark for me. I remember hearing the same comment from a Chinese student in San Jose. Imagine, for a moment, that the elemental need is not for food and sustenance but for spiritual awareness. For enlightenment. Imagine a people who are self actualized by the narratives into which they are born and for whom the symbolism of their philosophies and religions mean far more to them than the symbols of material status?
Maslow was describing the psychology of the displaced. A culture that worked hard to create the freedom to own. America is nothing if not a reaction against Old Europe, a place where the spiritual roots of its people were co opted by the powerful elites that controlled its economy: Emperors and Popes. In Maslow’s world the first task is to get fed, the final task is to get enlightened. In India it is the opposite.
Does this justify the endemic poverty? Clearly not. But it does open one’s mind to the conversation we need: between a secular culture and a spiritual one. This is not to say that religions all represent a spiritual life, in fact they tend not to, they are material elites and power structures in and of themselves. But it does begin to explain the significance of Ghandi. Of all Indians it was Ghandi who understood how to bring down a secular regime, you do it by sucking the life out of materialism. By doing so he left truth and humanity in full view. The British were defeated not by war but by peace. They remain defeated.
As I leave I have a lot to think about. I realize that a lot of the work I am involved in is a kind of commercial warfare. I wonder what a marketing campaign based on peace would look like? I wonder what a brand that was not material and not interested in status would be like? I wonder if the powerful narrative of commerce, for it has always been powerful, is a way of starting a shift in consciousness from aggression and competition to engagement and collaboration. Oh, wait! Isn’t that what the social media age is ushering in? As usual, nothing is new. But in this new media age the cultural shifts are profound and we in the west need to really dig deep into our assumptions and prejudice. Our way of being is being challenged by six billion of our fellow humans.