Friday, May 22, 2009

Giving Thanks

When I was staying with an American family for few days at Varanasi, it amused me a bit whenever they said thanks to each other in the family. For example when they sit for breakfast, they will say thanks to each other for everything they have done for each other. Even when one needs a spoon, then she has to ask, ‘a spoon please’ and when it is given then ‘thanks’ will automatically come on her lips.

After a day or two, when we were talking on various cultural and social issues of both India and America, I asked why they behave so formally by often giving thanks to each other. Even the husband will says ‘thanks honey’ when he receives a glass of water, etc. For this my friend’s wife said, ‘in our culture, only very close people say thanks to each other. By saying such a word we appreciate their service and love for us. But when one’s boss give instruction to do a work and when his subordinates does it, the latter won’t expect any thanks and the former often won’t say thanks for it. Whereas among close relatives and friends when we say “thanks” it is not a word of formality, but an expression of closeness’. This really surprised me. Because in India rarely a husband will say thanks for the wonderful food served by his wife, or wife for the best gifts given by her husband.

But in our culture we use difference means to express our love and affection. Though nowadays in the city children have begun to say thanks to parents, and even husband and wife to each other (and even good morning in the homes), yet in our traditional culture we express our love and affection through our actions and reactions. For example, a husband (or the guests or others) to appreciate good food says, ‘today my stomach is really filled; I ate up to my nose (in Tamil) etc.’ In the same way, instead of asking whether the food is tasty or not most of the time the women will say, ‘is there enough salt; I hope it is not too hot, etc’. In response, the guest (or family members) will say, ‘perfect. The food is very tasty today. How did you cook it? What is the masala that you added today, etc.’ (Immediately the woman/cook will start to give the recipe as well as the method of cooking).

So, though there is nothing wrong for us to offer ‘thanks’ to others and even to God to ‘appreciate the here and now,’ yet as Vaswani rightly said, ‘Some people even say "thanks" automatically, without so much as looking up at the person they are giving thanks to, or even meeting her eyes’. Because ‘Normally, the act of saying "Thank you" puts a certain distance between the giver and the receiver.’ (“Appreciate the Here and Now,” 18 Feb 2009, 0800 hrs IST, J P VASWANI, ‘Speaking Tree,’ Times of India, from website.)

There is nothing wrong with learning new manners which we think good for us. But instead of preserving the best (old) values which we have we began to imitate others just for the sake of aping some aspect of their culture which best serves their purposes, then artificiality cannot be avoided. At the same time, considering the influence of multiple cultures in our global village, even if we don’t like it we cannot avoid the influence of other cultures on us. So at least when we try to imitate certain new manners let also understand the ‘value’ which is behind them.

For example, I have observed that most westerners look into each others’ eyes when they exchange their love, care and concern, while we Indians rarely do so. Even while we talk (or argue and fight) we most of the time avoid eye contact. I think this is part of our Indian mannerisms. Rarely will a doctor look at a patient while checking her. She will mostly look at the report or old prescription rather than having eye to eye contact with the patient. When we go to the temple to worship, most of the time we close our eyes while stand before the deity (thankfully in our iconography, the eyes of the deities will remain wide open as ‘darshan’ means not only that we see the deity, but also that we are seen by the deity). Even in romantic scenes in films after some initial eye contact both the boy and will girl will talk (mostly sing and dance) without looking at each other very much. Even in romance the girl is expected to be shy (and not directly look at the boy), whereas the boy can express his love openly. This is even endorsed by Tirukkural, as the boy (man) says, ‘Yaan nookunkaal nilam nokuum; nokkakaal thaan noki mella nahum’ (when I see her she will look at the earth and when I don’t see she will see me and laugh gently).

As the life of the people cannot be divided in water tight compartments like cultural, social and religious, etc., what Vaswani says about the historical background for Thanksgiving Day in America make sense for us to understand their social world view (of thanksgiving). This could also be one of the reasons for the lack of such practices in our civilization. Though there might be several bhajans and poems of thanksgiving in our religious and secular literature, I cannot remember any of them immediately. Whereas in the Bible one can see several poems (particularly in the book of Psalm) and prayers of ‘thanksgiving’ to God. It would be interesting to collect all the ‘thanksgiving’ poems and bhajans in our Indian literature.

Though Vaswani has written with a positive note that, ‘Every day in India is a Thanksgiving Day for we have to thank God for all that we are and all that we have, every day of our lives!’, yet considering the corruption, lack of civic sense, lawlessness in every level, ‘We cannot, indeed, confine our thanksgiving to any single day. Ideally every day, every moment of every day should be an occasion of thanksgiving. The spirit of thanksgiving should so infuse our life that it should transform our life into a constant remembrance of His infinite mercy on us.’

In spite of all the shortcomings that we have, yet I am thankful to God that I was born in India. But if we Indians begin to adopt all the best things from other cultures, it is also important for us to understand the ‘value’ behind them. In the same way, not giving up the best traditions among us will help us to ‘appreciate the here and now’ in our life, too.

Gurukulam, May 13, 2009.

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