Understanding Indian Culture and EtiquetteThe best way to illustrate the importance of understanding Indian culture and business etiquette is by using an ancient Indian story about a remote village where only blind people lived. One day the blind people heard that the next day an elephant would arrive at the village. They were very excited because they had never seen an elephant before. They only knew that this was a beautiful, special animal. The next day, when the elephant reached the center of the village, six blind people went out to meet the elephant. Unable to see him, they touched him and felt him with great excitement. Each one felt another part of the elephant; one touched the trunk, another the tusks, third the foot, fourth the ear, fifth the belly, and sixth the tail.
Judgment Indian CultureMost businessmen and tourists from Western countries such as Israel, Europe, the US, Australia, and Canada come from a Judeo-Christian culture. Of course, the vast majority are not religious, but the values of this culture are at the basis of modern Western culture. One of the main elements of this culture is judgment: the judgment of friends, parents, bosses, children, neighbors, and most of all, oneself. Judgment is not only done by you, but you are judged by others all the time, for everything you do. Therefore, you are generally unhappy, and inner peace is a rare commodity in this culture. The mind constantly thinks and judges so happiness tends to fade. India is not just a state in the modern Western sense of the word. It is a civilization, a very ancient civilization. This is different from a regular modern country. Belgium is a country. Not a Civilization. It is part of civilization. Canada is a country, Australia is a country. These are not civilizations but part of Western civilization. India is a civilization in itself, the Hindu civilization. It has a history that goes back thousands of years. It has an ancient urban history that goes back more than 3,500 years (developed towns of tens of thousands of inhabitants in the Indus valley). Much of what happens today in India is rooted in very ancient heritage. Many of the things you see in India are not always easy to see but do not rush to judge everything. This does not mean that one has to be indifferent, but there is an intermediate way between not being indifferent and being very judgmental. It is recommended to avoid being judgmental. It’s even more advisable to avoid condescending judicial comments if you are in the company of Indians, or in any business or tour. The concept of judicial and critical life you come from is very different from the Indian concept of life. This does not mean that Indians are not critical of themselves or of social problems inside the Indian society, but if you want to try to understand the Indian culture and life, imagine yourself as one of the blind in the ancient story about the 6 blind people and the elephant. Try to learn, feel, and “touch” this culture as much as you can, and this will be your key to better understand Indian culture. This is the first and most basic advice of etiquette in India.
Indian Gods as a Main Part of the Indian CultureIndia is a religious state. It’s not religious in the Western sense of the word but religious in the sense of faith, worship, and rituals. Indian people worship gods as a major part of Indian beliefs and customs. There are hundreds of millions of Hindu gods, but most of the religious faith and worship revolve around a small number of gods. For those who come from a culture of monotheism, Indian culture and faith look like idol worship or worship in front of stone statues. Do not rush to underestimate or judge Indian beliefs. Indian philosophy behind the daily religious worship of gods is very deep and also refers to one God from which everything begins. The gods, for the most part, are different incarnations adapted to human needs. As part of Indian business etiquette (or Indian tourist etiquette) it is not only essential to avoid patronizing judgment but rather strongly advised not to make derogatory remarks and instead to show respect to the Indian faith. The Indians themselves are very patient and open to the beliefs of others. Just enjoy what you see and be open-minded.
The Importance of Cows in Indian CulturesThe cow is a sacred animal in India and it symbolizes the land of India and fertility. It is considered to contain all 330 million Hindu gods in its body, and therefore it is sacred and forbidden to eat. You can see cows everywhere in India, on the streets, on the roads, and on the trails. They must not be harmed. This is a crucial part of Indian culture. There have been deadly confrontations over incidents of slaughtering a cow. It is reasonable to assume that no western tourist will take out a knife and slaughter a cow, but it is not only about slaughtering. No harm to the cow will be welcomed or understood. This is a critical part of Indian etiquette. When traveling or meeting with Indians, you must respect their culture, even if you are not in India. Just give up the beef dish in the restaurant.
Castes (or Varnas) in Indian CultureHindu society is divided into five different castes.
- Brahmins – The most senior caste, priestly people
- Kshatriyas – Rulers, administrators, and warriors
- Vaishyas – Atisans, merchants, tradesmen, and farmers
- Shudras – laboring classes and servants
- Dalith – Untouchables
Indian Etiquette – Stay Away from Political ArgumentsIndia is the largest democracy in the world. There are two major political camps there, and in recent years India has experienced a great change when Prime Minister Modi, who belongs to the Indian right wing, won the election.
The Significance of Time in Indian CultureOne of the most difficult things to practice in India is the attitude toward time. People who come from cultures that take every minute seriously, come to India and find that time has no meaning, certainly not like the one they know. Making an appointment with someone and finding out that he/she is late for an hour or two or more, and doing it nonchalantly, is certainly something that can upset the most peaceful people. The anger will turn into frustration when you find that he/she does not give it too much importance and worse than that, the indifferent attitude to time is characteristic of most people you meet. So the best advice at this part of etiquette for India it’s simple: In India, take time easily, whether you are a businessman or tourist. The reference to time in India is not as binding as it is in the West. For better and for worse. There is no reason to get excited about or angry about delays that you will surely experience when you are in India. The reference to the time dimension is much calmer and less stressful than the West. Adjust yourself.
Languages in Indian CulturesThe number of spoken languages in India is close to 1,000! Research shows that in some areas in India, and sometimes in a few dozen square kilometers, dozens of languages are used.
- The Indian money bill has 13 different languages (see the image below)
- The most spoken language is Hindi
- The two official influences of India as a whole are Hindi and English
- There is a group of 22 additional official languages uses by the various countries within India
Indian Street FoodPersonally, Indian Street food is my favorite food (after Israeli food). I eat Indian food almost every week. It is tasty, healthy, and nutritious food. In both India and Nepal, eating street-food is one of my favorites. But… I think the worst thing in this regard, is to eat animal products (meat, eggs, and milk). I know a number of people that their trip to India ended in two to three weeks of hospitalization in a local hospital due to food poisoning. It is impossible to maintain eggs or meat in proper conditions at temperatures of 30 or 40 degrees in the streets. There is simply no way. Such food is prone to trouble and the main danger is salmonella. I would not recommend not consuming street food because it is definitely part of the experience in India but be sure to pay attention to where you choose to eat and what you choose to eat. Here are some rules to help you maintain an optimal level of hygiene and significantly reduce your chances of getting stomach poisoning.
- Drink only bottled water
- Always wash your hands before eating
- Always clean your hands after eating
- Do not buy animal products on the street (there is no proper storage)
- Buy in places where there is traffic, such as places where food has not been able to stand for too long