Dialogue with Shree: Castes, Cows & Yoga

Shree is perhaps one of my best friends among HKU international students. He came from India and speaks fluent English with a recognizable Indian accent. It is his second year studying philosophy. It seems that he wants to be a philosopher, as he has the habit of asking unconventional questions, in the long tradition of Socrates. Before the present conversation, I informed him in advance of the topic that we would discuss. However, he still characteristically began with a half-serious question — would you kill a person who is diagnosed with an incurable disease? After dwelling on the question for about ten minutes, we finally managed to get into the main topic.

Y = Liyuan Ye / The University of Hong Kong

S = Shree


Y | Which part of India do you come from?

S | I lived in Bangalore, which is the IT capital of India. There is a lot of technology, work being done, but at the same time, it’s like Hong Kong in a sense, because there is a lot of real estate and business, but not for everyone, a lot of people are poor and don’t have houses. I lived in a street which is kind of secluded from the main street. It’s quite peaceful, kind of a middle class street. Most of the people on my street are from middle class family, are going to the similar kinds of schools and colleges as me, are educated and so on. However, just another street away, there are a lot of people who aren’t educated, and what happens is that these people from the neighboring street work as house help and do menial jobs for the richer families. So it’s quite a strange thing, from two streets with such glaring socio-economic disparity.

Y | Does the caste system play any role at all in your neighborhood? That’s one of the few stereotypical things I know about India, the other being cows on the street.

S | (laugh) Yes there are cows on the street. They are not inconvenient or anything. But the caste system, what’s the history behind it is that around 2000 years ago, Hinduism was (and still is) the major religion, it divided people into four castes, the priests, the warriors, the merchants, and the untouchables. That stayed until the 1900s, when Mahatma Gandhi and others tried to break them and they tried to associate with everyone. Now we have caste-based affirmative action system. But this is not a big part of my personal experience, because most people in India look alike and dress alike and so it’s not easy to distinguish whether a person is from a particular caste, and of course it’s impolite to ask what your caste is.

Y | (laugh) That makes sense. It would be very weird if you ask people in China nowadays which part of the feudal society your grandparents are from hundreds of years ago.

On Nationalism

Y | Nationalism is an interesting topic for me because I have been moving around places ever since middle school, from my hometown to Shanghai, then to the U. S., then to Hong Kong. I don’t have a very strong place-based identity; sometimes it feels like I’m floating around even, but it’s not necessarily a bad thing. But it feels strange to me when I saw people chanting U.S.A.! U.S.A.! in America, or radical Chinese people smashing Japanese stores over island disputes, and so on.

(some lengthy discussions about the problems of nationalism as a dichotomy between one’s country and the rest of the world, as an irrational attitude leading to wrong policies, etc. etc. ) what are the features of nationalism in India?

S | In India, nationalism has a religious component. Around 80 percent of the people are Hindu and we have the term “Hindu nationalism”. It has a historical angle to it. 2000 years ago India and China were two major civilizations and India was quite good in science and maths and so on. From around 1000 BC to 1000 AD, Hinduism was the only and major religion and India was doing quite well. From 1000–1700 AD, nations from what we would consider today as Afghanistan and Iran successfully conquered a large part of India and they were Muslims. Basically there was an influx of new religions in India…What Hindu nationalists think is that India was great before the “invasions” of other religions like Islam and Christianity, and they think the way for India to be great again is to go back to that Hindu culture from 1080. So it’s kind of a utopian thinking which never really works. But in fact it serves as a kind of cultural policing, basically trying to impose Hindu culture on minorities. Take Yoga as an example. It is an ancient Hindu practice. It has been shown to be beneficial and it’s fine if you do it. But they made it mandatory for all high school kids, and that’s not ok with a lot of minority religions because a lot of chantings, exercises and postures in Yoga violate religions. Whatever you have to say about other religions, you shouldn’t force them to do things that are against their religions.

Y | Yeah I quite agree. It’s an interesting point you made about history. I read a book about nationalism in summer titled Imagined Communities. One of the main points of the book is how nationalists promote an idea of historical continuity. However, it is intellectually incoherent because if you go back a thousand years and ask a person, for example, “Are you Chinese”, it would not make much sense to that person. The concept of nationhood as we know it now did not arise until the 18th century…. The book mentions also that all major ideologies have intellectual foundations laid out, Marxism by Marx, liberalism by Mill, for example, but nationalism, if we consider it as an ideology, does not have such foundation. The point I am arriving at is that, nationalism is maybe more a phenomenon than an ideology.

(some lengthy discussions about Marxism, ideologies, the rise of nationalism, etc. etc.) Is Hindu nationalism as a phenomenon widespread in India?

S | Yeah I think it is quite prevalent in India. Most people do not claim that they are Hindu nationalists but I think they are, because they have a lot of nationalistic assumptions. You live in a traditional Hindu culture, you don’t have a lot of communication with other cultures and religions, and it’s likely that you will have these views. It’s especially true in the current political environment. The party in government is a Hindu nationalist party. As you may have heard, Narendra Modi, the guy who is the Prime Minister, he has a huge following right now and people are basically fanboys of Modi. And if you are a fanboy of someone, you are going to think whatever he or his party represents is right. So most people support the mandatory Yoga policy and implicitly some sort of Hindu nationalism. Also, there are other factors such as the rivalry between India and Pakistan.

Y | But why do you come to be a non-nationalist? You studied in India for all your life before coming to Hong Kong last year, right?

S | Yeah.

Y | So the people around you, the version of history you are taught, your own family and culture upbringing…a hypothetical sociologist, looking at your case, would probably say that this guy would be a Hindu nationalist of some kind.

S | Until the age of 14 to 15 I was really nationalistic and basically I accepted what was told to me by my parents, teachers, society and so on. And I was really unhappy and miserable, as you can guess when you just do what other people tell you to do. So I began to question this idea that you should just do what your parents and society tell you to do. I began to question all of my beliefs and my idea of nationalism as well. I thought, well, I’m living in a universe, and on earth which is this tiny speck of universe, and this city which is a tiny speck on earth. It’s all so random. I could have been born anywhere else. And I would have the same opinion about that country: that this new country, say Australia, is the best country in the world, just as I had my belief about India at that point. And so I thought it was so strange for me to associate with something so particular. Of course, like most people, I accept that human beings are equal, but most people don’t follow that through and still believe that people in an artificial region X are better and more deserving of your kindness and love and whatever, than people outside of X. And if we think all human beings are equal, then why do we associate with people who live in a certain boundary?

Y | I see. For me, studying in different places, being exposed to different opinions, made me have a more sceptical attitude towards things. By the way, before that, I also had a strong nationalist phase. That was in primary school.

S | (laugh)

Y | Back at that time, my parents gave me four thick encyclopedia to read because apparently people believed that they were good for children. (laugh) I actually read all of them and one of them had a section on Chinese history. You know the hundred years of humiliation, right? So at the time I was so outraged by these historical events that I started banging my fist on the books. My parents were like “what’s wrong?” and I was like “China was being destroyed!”. Of course that was in primary school. I have become less expressive since then. (laugh)

On Philosophy

Y | All these discussions we had were premised on a critical attitude and a rational approach to figure things out. For example, we talked about how intellectually incoherent and practically problematic nationalism is. For people who are not so committed to this method of inquiry, however, they probably would not agree. My parents, for example, when I try to engage them in such a dialogue, they will just say “you have been doing debate too much!”

S | This is a very interesting question. Of course as human beings we feel things and most of our life is not rational. If I were completely rational I couldn’t even walk from this place [university street] to DeliFrance because I would have to calculate all the factors, which would take a lifetime, right?

Y | (laugh)

S | So of course we don’t use rationality everywhere. A lot of our life is irrational, falling love and so on. But these are internal psychological states which we experience in a first person world. So my first person world is different from your first person world, you cannot access mine and I cannot access yours, but when two people are communicating with each other, since they cannot discuss their first person world, they are committed to discussing their third person world, which is available for both of them to perceive through their senses or think about through their minds. To me it seems quite obvious that if you want to have any discussion at all, it has to be rational, because the very idea of discussion, what you want to do is to think about something and try to come to some conclusion; the only way we can do that is to be committed to rules of logic in the third person world, which is rational inquiry. Otherwise the discussion would not progress, because whatever I say you can say something completely unrelated.

Y | Personally I think a lot of our daily conversations are simply an exchange of information. I did this today, you did that today. I’m not saying it’s not valuable, but to have more depth, I agree with you that maybe rational discussion is a necessary component. But our views can certainly be biased here. You know, discussing and reading about philosophy is my pass time, and you are a philosophy major; maybe we both are too anti-social to understand the nuances of small talks. (laugh) Anyways, one last question, what has philosophy done to you?

S | (laugh) I stopped believing in God, I stopped believing in souls, I stopped believing in supernatural stuff.

Y | That’s radical stuff. (laugh)

S | (laugh) I started in general to think about things more clearly, I would say.