It's a fascinating country, India: "The world's largest democracy," with a population of 1.12 billion, and now the world's customer service department. It is a place of vast contradictions that embraces (in a mixed economy) the individualism of a free market, yet retains vestiges of a pre-capitalist caste society. How many Indians will touch an untouchable to this day?
On the 15th of this month India celebrated its 60th anniversary of independence from the United Kingdom. As an American I tip my hat and say congratulations. A free and flourishing India is not only morally right, it is important to the world's economy. And India is, along with Israel, America's natural ally in the war against Islamic totalitarianism.
I believe that independence is good, but I also think India's association with the British Empire was the best thing that ever happened to it -- another paradox in this land of contradictions! The infusion of western values that came from Britain accounts for India's progress and is the foundation of its freedom.
"East is east and west is west, and never the twain shall meet," wrote Rudyard Kipling, but in India today the two very different cultures do meet. I once read an anecdote about an Indian VIP who was taken to a concert in New York City of the three B's -- Bach, Beethoven and Brahms. After the concert he was asked which he liked best. He said he liked the piece at the very beginning the best. After some confusion his American host realized the Indian thought the orchestra tuning up was part of the show and liked that best.
In India you can find individuals on the cutting edge of the Information Revolution, but you'll also find ghastly superstitions and mysticism. Now, mysticism is everywhere in the world, from Malibu to Melbourne to Madrid to Marakesh; but it is noisier and more bizarre in Mumbai. You don't find fakirs lying on a bed of nails in Montana.
Along with the mysticism in India you can find many who subscribe to the philosophy of Ayn Rand, a philosophy of reason and reality that is the opposite of mysticism. I was fascinated in the 1980's to read announcements in The Intellectual Activist of all the cities where Leonard Peikoff's taped lectures could be heard. After the USA, the country with the most lectures by far was India.
When Leonard Peikoff's Objectivism: The Philosophy of Ayn Rand was published in 1991, I could hardly put it down and I took it to work with me as a temp legal proofreader. This being New York City, I was surrounded by liberals, of course; they reacted to the sight of the book with revulsion, as if I had done something wrong merely by bringing the book to work. I was not part of the politically correct group. But there was one Indian woman at work, an immigrant with a heavy accent whose eyes lit up at the sight of the book and we had a very nice conversation about our favorite philosopher. To the liberals, Ayn Rand represented an enemy to be scorned; to that Indian woman she represented the best within, the hope of aspirations fulfilled by the use of reason and productiveness in a free country. (I suspect that the Indian woman was the only one in the office besides me who had actually read Ayn Rand.)
What are we to make of a country where one can find both Objectivists and Hindus? A country where one can find computer programmers and women who decorate fire hydrants with flowers in some fertility ritual because they look like phallic symbols? A country that has a thriving international commerce and poor people who defecate in the gutter?
I think the contradictions in India are the same as the rest of the world -- the struggle of reason vs. faith, individualism vs. collectivism, freedom vs. statism -- but the mysticism is purer, which is to say more backward and less tempered by the west's philosophic heritage of reason. The crisis is similar to that in the Islamic world, but India seems to have benefited from its Hindu religion's syncretism. Unlike the more dogmatic Islam, Hinduism, from what little of it I understand, has a tradition of bringing in outside ideologies and working with them.
Looking at the struggles in non-western civilizations reminds me how much we owe to the medieval scholastics led by Thomas Aquinas, who integrated Aristotle with Christianity. They made this world real to Christians and made all the subsequent achievements of science and civilization, the Renaissance and the Enlightenment, possible.
Hindus must have their limit of how much reason they will tolerate before they lash out in mindless force. Hinduism is certainly no guarantee of freedom. India seems to be in a precarious position: will it move forward in the direction of reason and freedom or backward to its mystical past?
Ultimately, the fate of India and the world rests on the fate of America. American leadership allows the best elements of the rest of the world to work for peace and international trade. If America succumbs to religion and statism, there is no hope for the rest of the world.