By John Bishop
America is a developed country.
To take a crack at this term’s meaning I would propose that in a developed country the starting point, nuts and bolts of society, have been cultivated in such a way so as to produce a more advanced way of living. Ideally, these societal advances help individuals live more meaningful lives.
Technological advances for example can allow for more efficient work which then allows for more leisure and recreation. While such advances can bring about genuine good, my experience in India has heightened my awareness of a potential danger faced by citizens of developed countries.
I worry that many citizens in developed countries have lost sight of the nuts and bolts, the fabric that makes up human society. To explain this point, I think architecture provides an accurate corollary. Taking a walk through any major American city one comes into close contact with the marvels of modern architecture. Our sparkling 100-story buildings literally scrape the sky. These buildings were constructed through the application of physical principles which governed every phase of their formation. Architects study for years to learn the intricacies of these principles and their application. Just like our society, I’m sure architecture is becoming an ever more complex thing. As this study becomes more complex, I’m sure architects study smaller, more specialized fields.
What if modern architects, in their specialization, were to forget about basic principles such as gravity?
I worry that our society might be facing a similar problem.
In a way, everything in India is simple.
The simplicity of Indian society exposes the basic fabric which makes up human civilizations, both advanced and non-advanced. The Kolkata street markets provide a perfect example. Most everything a person needs to survive can be purchased within the space of a few city blocks. Such products as meat and vegetables are hauled in from villages every morning and sold in the city throughout the day. The economics lay bare before everyone’s eyes: things are simple.
The same can be said for families. Kolkata sidewalks are littered with makeshift leantos, often made with a few strings and large plastic tarps. A look inside many of these haphazard tents will reveal a mother sitting cross-legged on the pavement tending to her children. A basic building block of society, the family, is literally put on the streets for all to see.
Have western, developed countries lost sight of the importance of the family?
In addition to basic economics and the family, there is one other building block which we have maybe overlooked. After spending a five weeks walking the streets of Kolkata, I don’t think anyone would deny the religious nature of the Indian people. Religion is everywhere. Nearly every other block has at least one small mosque or Hindu temple wedged in-between the various small shops. Every couple of hours the Islamic call to prayer sounds. Sikh men walk around with Turbans on their heads, and crosses adorn the necks of the occasional Christian. It was this religious atmosphere which prompted Dominique Lapierre to remark in The City of Joy that, “Indian people have a deep sense of the sacred.”
Though this sense is expressed in many different religions, it is present everywhere in Kolkata. Not only do Indians have a deep sense of the sacred, their religious nature is expressed in their most beautiful buildings. The temples, mosques, and churches are undeniably among the most beautiful constructions on the city’s streets (Kolkata’s shopping malls pale in comparison). These places of worship sit at the heart of Indian society. Though it might be expressed in different religions, the “sense of the sacred” has a central influence upon Indian society.
I think that the average poor Indian’s willingness to express their “sense of the sacred” might have a lot do with their acute perception of life’s transience. The slums force one to realize that life is fragile.
I have had the blessing of picking up many dying men and women from Howrah train station and transporting them to the Missionaries of Charity “Home for the Dying.” These people know that life is utterly out of their hands. In contrast to luxurious amenities such as air conditioning which often cultivate an insular sense of autonomy, those who live and die in gutters have only the change in the weather. The poor seem to realize their dependence on things out of their own hands: their dependence on God.
In their poverty, many Indians readily express the interior impulses of their heart. The people of the slums are simple and perhaps less given to masking basic emotions. They’re just people, just human. They get hungry, thirsty, frightened, make families, and worship God. Such things seem to provide the fabric of Indian society. And whether we realize it or not, they may serve as the foundation of our western culture as well.
A Geeky footnote for the philosophically minded person: Several years back I read a couple of Richard Dawkin’s books including The God Delusion. At one point in this book Dawkin mentions this feeling of the divine, of some transcendent influence upon which humans are at least somewhat dependant. If I recall correctly, Dawkins gives several evolutionary explanations for this feeling. For all I know he’s probably right in regards to the biology; but for anyone who thinks the way I do, I would like to point out what I believe is an unwarranted conclusion. After giving sufficient evolutionary explanation, I have heard people argue that this “sense of the sacred” is disconnected from reality (in other words, in reality there is no God, we just have a biologically built-in sense that proved advantageous). If this argument’s conclusion were true then the reasonable person would disregard this intuitional sense. But here I would like to point out that the biological explanation neither affirms nor denies the corresponding metaphysical reality. Is it not plausible to think that perhaps God created this sense through the instrument of evolution? Given independant reasons for believing in God and providential human evolutionary development, it would actually follow that this sense of the sacred actually makes sense. If this sense does correspond to something that is real, would it not then command more respect in cultures who have strayed from, and even laughed at this intuition? Please do not interpret the last part of this reflection as a criticism of an intellectual study of God; all things have their place.
[Thanks to John Bishop for his guest contribution to Quiner’s Diner. Mr. Bishop, a college student, just returned from India where volunteered at Mother Teresa’s Home for the Dying.]