Video of the Day 23/11/09 — East vs. West: the Myths that Mystify

East vs. West — the Myths that Mystify

Devdutt Pattanik. TED. November 2009.

I endorse this presentation with some hesistance. Pattanik’s presentation is convincing, even brilliant, but there are limitations to the argument he makes.

It has been 30 years since the publication of Edward Said’s Orientalism. The book’s publication brought about the collapse of traditional Asian and Near Eastern Studies (the “Orientalism” referenced in the title) across the world of academia. Said rightly pointed out that boiling down an entire people or belief system into one easily digestible and cohesive whole is an exercise in the absurd. Such efforts do not build bridge divides, they create them.

The danger of Pattanik’s presentation is a fall into orientalism. While Pattanik does not go so far himself, it is an error his ideas naturally facilitate. When discussing the great differences between the Indian world view and the Western world view, it is very easy to forget that the similarities between “them” and “us” outweigh the differences. The Indian is not some mystical other.

Pattanik’s belief that Hindu mythology serves as an able explanation for all of India’s cultural quirks should also be taken with a grain of salt. It is worth remembering that the majority of Indians, even in today’s age of rising literacy, have not read the Ramayana. Furthermore, Pattanik seems to forget India’s recent history – contact between India and the rest did not end with Alexander. From 1605 to 1947 India was ruled by non-Hindus. Surely these Abrahamic peoples, as well as the institutions and ‘myths’ they brought to India, had some effect on “Indian psyche”?

With all of these caveats stated in mind, I encourage you to watch this video. He does get a few important things right. I have had the opportunity to work with and befriend many Indians in my life — in particular, my recent move to Hawai’i has allowed me to become well acquainted with the Indian expatriate community in my local area. And in dealing with Indians so often, it becomes hard to deny that there really is something different about their reactions and actions from that of your average American’s.

I believe that Pattanik outlined some of these unique cultural characteristics very well. In particular, I found his portrayal of the “relative” Indian spot-on. The word I hear every day – I swear every time I ask an Indian for an opinion – is “mostly.” By the audience’s reaction to Pattanik’s words, I do not think my experience has been unique.

This attitude has interesting implications for India’s foriegn affairs. India and the United States are growing closer to each other by the day. The writing on the wall points towards an alliance between the two sometime in the near future.* I am markedly less sure how stable such an alliance will be. The United States has enjoyed clear-cut alliances in its recent history. NATO and U.S.-Japanese alliance typify this kind of relationship. In the foresseable future it is doubtable that the Indians will ever have such open and unabashed relations with any nation, including the United States. But will the United States be able to accept this? Is America ready to be “mostly” an ally?

It is a good question. One worth further discussion, no doubt.

*A discussion which deserves its own post, but trails off the topic here.

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I would say not. I wish the US were ready to be that open-minded, but considering the attitude and culture of the US "mostly" 😉 an alliance with India can't be expected in the next 20 years. I totally thought of Shruthi. Do you find her an exception to the "mostly" thing? In some ways she is, because she wouls always tell me how much she liked math because there was on concrete answer that was absolute. *nostalgia*