Monday, April 9, 2012

India Revisited

Last week I promised I would give my assessment of India.  I've taken a lot of time to assess my overall perceptions, and here is what I've come up with.

Disclaimer: 1.) There are a lot of generalizations in this post, and there are many exceptions to each.  2.) I've only experienced one region of a very large and overpopulated country.  So I acknowledge that my perceptions have some major limitations.   

In many ways, India is very much like my father; vibrant, crazy, gregarious, old (haha had to throw it in pops - love you!), incredibly unique, dichotomous, and rather difficult to understand.  Like my father, many in India seem to struggle with prioritization, and seem to invest their time and money in some of the most frivolous affairs (by typical western standards - they are in no way frivolous in their eyes).  They have an incredibly strong sense of family and familial stewardship, but perhaps little regard for environmental and public health.  They are both incredibly devoted, extremely intuitive, and reverent.  They always show great regard and care for sacred things.  Yet somehow, both are rarely bothered by the material disarray and filth they are surrounded by otherwise.

They are both passionate about politics and quick to share their opinion on how to 'fix' things on levels both large and small, often by principle, with diminished attention to practicality, context, or unintended consequence.  They both love ceremony, symbols, and things of the eternities, and they love to speculate and expound on those things.  They love to teach and counsel others about the things they've learned/know.  This brings them great satisfaction.  They cherish familiarity and tradition, which gives them a quality of constancy, but also makes them resistant to any idea, product, person, or movement that does not fit in with their current religious, social, or economic schema.  I love my father, and I admire all the work he has and is putting into his own personal development in the last 10-15 years.  Likewise, I see India doing the same, with great help from the upcoming generation.  I'm excited to see where they both will be in another 15 years.

True to their dichotomous nature though, I see some stark differences between India and my father.  For one, India seems to have a vanity problem.  I was often shocked by how beautiful, colorful, and well dressed the women were as they walked the filthy littered streets lined by dilapidated buildings, litter, and homeless beggars.  How out of place they seemed as they emerged from what can best be described as a shanty in gorgeous sarees and jewelry laden ears.  The men are not much better.  They strut, fix their hair, and check themselves out all the time.  Interestingly, in Hindi, they don't even have a word to describe vanity in the superficial looks sense.  The closest synonym is pride.  For two, India has an character problem.  I met men, admired by their community, who would cheat, swindle, and lie to a stranger without even batting an eye.  This is probably my biggest problem with India.  Honesty is only valued once a social relationship is established.  Before that, you're nothing but a possible quick dollar, and lying is just a part of doing business.  I suppose one advantage to this is that it makes forming good social connections essential, but only doing good business with those you're familiar with means social segregation is prolific (something India has always struggled with).

Oh, and there is one more thing I should probably address.  I have a problem with Ayurveda.  I know, it's been around for thousands of years and has been 'proven' by the test of time, but really?  If it's so well proven, why does India still exhibit such poor health?  Where's the fruit of this claim?  I'm sure Ayurveda does have benefits, but lets use that nifty tool called the scientific method to weed out which elements might be harmful or outdated instead of ascribing the nutritional needs of an extinct society to the one we live in today.

Example 1 - a scientific study

"An NCCAM-funded study published in 2004 found that of 70 Ayurvedic remedies purchased over-the-counter (all manufactured in South Asia), 14 contained lead, mercury, and/or arsenic at levels that could be harmful. Also in 2004, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported that 12 cases of lead poisoning occurring over a recent 3-year period were linked to the use of Ayurvedic medications."

Example 2  - a personal story

I don't know how many people I had to explain this to, but unless you're lactose intolerant or perhaps anorexic, ghee is not 'healthy,' nor will it ever be 'healthy.'  I don't care how clarified it is, it's still butter.  And in fact, it's actually more calorically dense and higher in saturated fat (a major contributor to cardiovascular disease) than plain ol unclarified butter.  Like butter, it's not bad if eaten in moderation, but the idea that consuming ghee will make a person healthy is just a bit ridiculous in the context of today's dietary demands.

But this is the mentality of India, and it reaches far outside the realm of ghee.  Being such an old society, they are trapped by the "don't know better" bug.  That's the illness that convinces them that the way they've always done things is the best way to do things, simply because that's how they've done it for so long.  For example, I met several people who would rather buy a gemstone and exercise faith in it's healing powers than put the work into educating themselves on what's making them sick in the first place.  Granted, maybe their faith will be strong enough and they will be healed, but wouldn't it be better to know what's making you sick, adapt the causal behavior, and THEN have the faith to be healed?  Wouldn't it be easier to exercise that faith if one knew where to direct it?  Alas...many just stick to the stone.

This is why I have such a problem with Ayurveda.  It bothered me how often people would grab some random root extract and tell me "it's good for __insert organ here__."  Well, how is it good?  What does it act on?  What are the effects?  How do you even know it acts on the primary organ of action?  If my pancreas isn't producing enough insulin does it make it start producing more?  What if my pancreas is OVERproducing insulin?  Wouldn't taking something that stimulates my pancreas be bad?  What if my pancreas isn't producing insulin because of some tumor blockage?  Wouldn't stimulating that also be bad?  Unfortunately, these questions are not asked.  Why?  Because someone saying something like "it's healthy for you" is just accepted blindly, with no need for further explanation or even credentials.  And trust me, just like here in the States, there is a WHOLE LOT of BS going around about what's good for you.  I don't think it's intentional deceit, but perhaps more of a 'blind leading the blind' kind of a problem.  

For example, a friend of mine was looking for something to soften up her stool but didn't want to use any 'harsh chemicals' or 'manufactured laxatives.'  She purchased an Ayurvedic stool softener (aka a laxative), was informed that it was 'all natural' (therefore good right?), and took it that evening.  The next couple days she was plagued with rather violent cramping and diarrhea.  Does that seem healthy to you?  I'm pretty sure some milk of magnesia or exlax would have been far less harsh on her system.  But natural is always better right?  Ha...yeah right.

That being said, I don't think people should shun Ayurveda.  There are benefits to be had.  But perhaps I do see some of it as outdated and largely untested.  I really struggle understanding why people would prefer to ignore the science of nutrition and trust the 'all natural' Ayurveda as the end-all authority on their health.  Ayurveda is an intricate and involved method of medicinal nutrition that was formed (strictly from observation - not scientific method) at a time when food was scarce and calories coveted.  Of course ghee had health benefits back then - it kept starving people alive.  Of course the laxative was good - it was the only way to treat constipation.  That being the case, we have increasingly different medicinal capabilities and nutritional needs, and I don't understand why some cling so religiously to such an archaic and isolated system.  Just because it's old and was around for a long time?  Well, blood letting and arsenic laced medicine was around for a while (and apparently still is).  Or hey, the caste system is really old - maybe we should go back to that because it existed for so long.

Sorry, I'll cut back on the sarcasm, but you get my point.  To me, basic nutrition is beautifully simple, and something I can testify to in my own experience.  Whole grains, lots of fruits and veggies, lean proteins, unsaturated fats, and moderate caloric intake.  It's not complicated.  Though sometimes I think it's the simplicity that discourages people, as can be manifested in fad diets and diet programs.  It's as if they can't believe achieving health could be that simple - so they put themselves through some strange or complex regimented program to help them achieve the health they desire.  When they don't achieve that health, they become frustrated, and continue to search, often from bad sources, for the next cure-all.  But it's all there already, just waiting to be read and understood.  If you're wondering why you should eat whole grains, read some papers on it.  If you're wondering what the big deal about monounsaturated fat is or perhaps what's a good source of the stuff, look it up from a reputable source. is a good one.  Read those nutrition labels, know what you're putting in your body, and for heavens sake, educate yourself on the whole organic vs processed war going on.  It is not a battle of good vs evil or healthy vs unhealthy. Both sides have their own agenda so do yourself a favor and empower yourself to choose wisely for your own personal needs.  And remember, there's a whole lot of money at stake, so read some studies (not just a blog), check the sources, and make your own conclusions.

Wow, sorry for the tangent.  But I guess it's time to wrap this up.

Conclusion: India is a fascinating country full of amazing and wonderful people.  Like my father, I have truly gained an understanding and love for those people and the way they view the world, even if it is so different from my own perceptions.  And though I disagree with many of their methods, I still have a respect for how adaptable they are to their rather volatile way of life.  I'm grateful for the chance I had to get to know so many wonderful souls.  It was a great experience, and the trip was worth ever penny, tear, and muscle ache.  Namaste.

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