What India Hands to the World

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Yoga. Mantras. Bollywood. Henna tattoos. Once unique to India, each of these has now become commonplace in households across the globe. As a first generation East Indian American, I've had an opportunity to contrast the world my parents experienced with the one I inhabit. When my parents first settled here in the 1980s Indian cultural influences were not this prominent, but the increases in America and around the globe have been dramatic.

Any gym is bound to teach a yoga class. Popular exercise regimens such as Pilates have been influenced by ancient Indian spiritual exercises. During a recent study abroad trip to Goiania, a medium sized city in the Brazilian countryside, I was surprised to encounter yoga classes, and many of my Brazilian classmates wanted to learn Yoga from me.

Bhangra, a North Indian folk dance, has been incorporated into gym workouts. Sarina Jain, the Indian American creator of The Masala Bhangra Workout, says she’s "the first to bring Indian dance to the U.S. fitness industry at a global level.” The DVD has been named one of the five hottest workouts by America Online.

Meditation, similarly, has become widely popular. This ancient Vedantic technique to reach inner peace has been popularized by Indian gurus who have spread the practice throughout the West; one transcendental meditation organization claims to have taught more than 50,000 students across the United States, Latin America and Africa during the past two years alone. The bestselling book (and then film) "Eat, Pray, Love" has further popularized the use of meditation to tame the mind. Julia Roberts, who plays the protagonist in the film, even identifies herself as a Hindu who regularly meditates.

Other Vedantic influences on daily life include reciting mantras, and the popularization of words such as “guru” and “pundit” to describe people with expertise. The idea that all of your actions, whether good or bad, produce consequences that shape your future is a common theme in many cultural value systems, but the term "karma" captures that concept in one word and has become used throughout the English-speaking world, as well as elsewhere.

Billions of people around the world also value the concept of ahimsa — non-violence — as popularized by Mahatma Gandhi. His ideas strongly influenced Martin Luther King Jr. Ahmisa also explains why many Hindus and Jains are vegetarians The belief that what you eat affects your behavior, and that a vegetarian diet can help tame the mind, has been popularized worldwide by Indians, who are known for their exquisite vegetarian cuisine.

Worldwide, flavorful Indian spices and seasonings have increased the appeal of vegetarian food. India produces over four million tons of spice, and exports around 180 spice products to over 150 nations. The Indian Spice Board is currently planning to set up three promotional centers in, respectively, Dubai, Chicago and Europe.

Spices are also of special interest in the alternative health community, where they are viewed as anti-inflammatory agents, that can help the aging brain and play a role in cancer prevention. Turmeric and several other spices are part of the Indian Ayurvedic system. Ancient Indian epics like The Ramayana reference Ayurveda, a holistic approach to health that fuses the forces of mind, body, senses and spirit. Today, about thirty companies are leading the way, with a million dollars or more per year in business to meet the growing demand for Ayurvedic medicine. The larger Ayurvedic medicine suppliers have also moved into the businesses of toiletries —soap, toothpaste, shampoo — which use traditional herbal ingredients.. For example, L’Oreal has been reported to be looking into purchasing an Indian Ayurvedic skin care brand, and companies like Estée Lauder have created their own Ayurvedic spa treatments.

But even more wide-spread is India’s music and dance scene. The sitar, first popularized in the US by Ravi Shankar, has been used by artists from the Beatles to Janet Jackson. The most powerful Indian cultural export, though, has long been its film industry, nicknamed Bollywood, which is generally believed to produce the largest number of feature films in the world. Bollywood makes more ticket sales than Hollywood does, though revenue figures are much higher for the latter Sometimes dubbed in local languages, these films, filled with colorful costumes, dances, music, and love stories are watched in Kuwait, Nigeria, Russia, Scandinavia, the Caribbean and even Fiji.

Through television, Brazil has been particularly touched by India. Brazil’s 2009 Emmy Award-winning telenovela (soap opera), Passage to India, introduced Indian culture there on a broad scale. As an Indian traveling through Brazil, almost every person I met asked whether I watched the show. Even in Cavalcante, a remote area, a truck driver knew that the cow is considered sacred in India, and was newly aware of the Indian custom of arranged-marriage.

Another result of the show's popularity has been that Brazilians are now fascinated by Indian clothing. I noticed malls consistently had at least one Indian themed store selling kurti tops – Indian style blouses which are popularly worn over skinny jeans or tights. I also saw men wearing t-shirts with pictures of Indian Gods and Goddesses, and saw them printed on swim suit cover ups. Of course, you rarely see Indians wearing this kind of garment, since, many consider these displays on clothing to be somewhat offensive.

There are many other aspects of Indian culture that have spread on a global scale. From curries to computer programs, self-realization to the arts, and well beyond, we are seeing its influence. The popular Indian art of using henna to create beautiful body designs and patterns only temporarily affects the surface of the skin. But the influence of India is likely to leave a permanent — and positive —impact on the world.

Photo from Travelscope

Sheela Bhongir is an undergraduate student at California State University, Northridge studying Urban Studies and GIS. She is working as an intern on Legatum’s new map of the world project.


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