Posted by: Titus Presler | February 22, 2011

Self and destiny undergo key transitions among young Indians, says writer

Two intellectual transitions in notions of self and destiny among India’s young people were highlighted by Anand Giridharadas in an interview on the Canadian Broadcasting Company’s program “Spark” last Saturday.

The self has moved to young people’s center of attention, Giridharadas said, whereas for previous generations family, clan and caste were central.  What the self needs and how the self is to be fulfilled are more important for India’s young people that what the family, clan or caste needs for its fulfillment.

Destiny is viewed by India’s young people as primarily their own responsibility, Giridharadas said, whereas earlier generations accepted that their destinies were shaped fundamentally by family, clan, caste and the concept of karma working through all of them.

A few  comments on this formulation and some of Giridharadas’s elaboration, with the proviso that I’m working on what I recall hearing in a radio interview while driving:

• Intellectual Constructs – Citing the changes as intellectual transitions provides a solid foundation for Giridharadas’s thesis.  He’s saying that young people are actually thinking about the self and about destiny today in ways that are different from how their parents and grandparents thought.  This is clear in a way that the citation of “attitudes,” “views” and “sensibilities” tends not to be.

• Two Transitions or One? – It’s an interesting question whether the transitions he highlighted are two separate transitions or are different aspects of a single transition.  It’s hard to imagine the prioritization of the self changing in the way he describes without the concept of destiny changing as well.

• Age, not Affluence, the Operative Variable – Significantly, Giridharadas went on to say that he found these transitions virtually universal among young people, whether educated or uneducated, whether struggling in poverty in villages or living the high life in the IT centers of Bangalore, Hyderabad and Delhi.  That is, the new views of self and destiny are not simply a function of higher economic status – which tends to be the analysis of such transitions offered by “development” specialists and mission observers alike. Giridharadas noted that he found affluent and poor young Indians sharing much more in terms of world view than either older and younger affluent Indians together, or older and younger poorer Indians together.

• Slide to the West? – “It’s better to be second,” Giridharadas commented about the question whether these transitions presage an inevitable replication of an essentially Western world view.  No, he thought, Indians have seen what rampant individualism and narcissism have wrought in the West, so the heightened priority on the self is likely to be moderated and softened as it emerges in India.  He did not address the equally important matter of whether religious involvement is likely to decline as young Indians feel they can shape their own destiny.  It’s hard to know how Hinduism will fare, but I was impressed by how the evening liturgy at Christ Church in Noida, an IT suburb of Delhi, was populated mainly by young men very much involved in their Christian faith and church.  In the area of women’s rights, he noted that strictures against divorce are likely to loosen, but “no one in India wants the situation in the West, where half the marriages end in divorce” (or words to that effect).

All this is the kind of careful analysis of culture and cultural change that should go into mission vision, strategy and planning. Giridharadas was not operating out stereotypes, nor was he rushing to half-baked conclusions, though he would doubtless hasten to note that he does not claim to be an anthropologist.

A young person himself, Giridharadas reports on India for the New York Times and is the author of India Calling: An Intimate Portrait of a Nation’s Remaking (New York: Times Books, 2011), based on his six-year sojourn in India as an adult who had grown up in the USA as the child of Indian immigrants.


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