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Nov 25

Written by: Jennifer Kumar, Cultural Adjustment Coach
Wednesday, November 25, 2009

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Myths about India
Author: Jennifer Kumar

This page details some myths about India had by myself before going to India or foreigners in general.

Before reading, would you like to contribute your own myths to me, so I can improve this list? Feel free to contribute myths of India and America in the box to the right. Feel free to post and repost multiple times if you have more than three entries. I appreciate your participation!

1. I thought most Indians were vegetarians.
This is not really true at all. It is true that it is MUCH easier to find fully vegetarian eateries in India, but most people are non-vegetarians. The communities which are more well known for vegetarianism are Hindu Brahmins and Jains. However, a majority of Hindu functions require people to eat only vegetarian food, and those who are non-vegetarians eat much less meat than foreigners, maybe only once or twice a week.

2. India is mostly Hindus.
Yes, I feel odd to even have thought this. It is true India is one of the few Hindu majority countries left, but there are others of the Buddhist , Jain, Muslim (so much so, Hindus are beginning to worry of loosing their majority), Christian and Jewish faith.

3. Indians speak the language called "Indian."
This was not my myth, but many Americans I discussed India with have asked, "So, now that you lived in India for two years, can you speak Indian?" I hate to respond, because after I start saying, "No, I mean in the place in India I lived, they spoke Tamil, but there are 15 national languages in India, each with a different or slightly different script..." People start thinking something weird because they start looking at me funny. I guess in America, since we only really speak English, no one here thinks a country could or would have so many different languages!

4. Indians are hippies and pagans and take drugs.
Believe me, I never thought that! But why did so many westerners come to India in the sixties? And Indians are NOT hippies, pagans or druggies. Yes, there are some bad people in every country who take drugs, smoke and drink, but in India, such people are considered those you do not want to deal with if you are a person of a good reputation. Indians are not pagans. Hindus are not pagans. Paganism is not the same as Hinduism. I am not sure quite how, but I will do research on this. Another thing I really want to comment on here, is this past year Hindus celebrated Kumba Mela, a holy festival that I think happens once every 12 years. Many holy men do bathe nude in the Ganges, but women are not supposed to do this. Very old Indian women sometimes may go in without a sari wrapped tightly on their chest, but girls and women do not go nude in public, even they do not wear bathing suits, in most cases. So, when I saw many foreign women came to Kumba Mela and stripped down to nothing, I became mad. Their photos somehow, uncensored, were printed in India Today and other newspapers, which frustrated me even more. Not all foreign women in India are like that, I sure am not like that. I suggest foreign women do not go to India and strip down to nothing. Many foreign women have gotten treated very inappropriately and illegally for several reasons. This is a very touchy topic, but all I want to say here is that there are good and bad things and people in all countries and cultures, one should be culturally sensitive and act accordingly. So, if you are a woman, don't go alone (if possible), do not go out during heavy festivals or elections and if possible travel with trusted [male] friends.

5. Indians are very traditional
Yes, this is very true. A majority of Indians follow arranged marriages, in most communities and religions be it Hindu, Muslim, Christian. Hindus especially have many rituals and follow many detailed traditions. Some traditions are confused and have been transformed into superstitions. Most superstitions may not seem practical, but every thing in India is done for a reason. For instance, once my friend told me not to hang towels on the top of the door because bad spirits would come into the house. I think a practical reason behind this tradition is not really to worry about bad spirits, but to keep the house clean! But over the years the superstition has been assumed with this idea, and the idea is more believed than the practicality behind it.

6. Hindus DO NOT eat beef or kill cows.
Yes this is a myth. There are some Hindus do eat beef and kill cows. I have seen it with my own eyes, Hindus in the slums of Chennai were hanging dead cows upside down and skinned in small huts and sell this meat to the other slum dwellers. I had a Hindu classmates who told me her family occasionally ate beef because mutton (goat meat) had become too expensive and beef was cheaper because it was more of a taboo to eat beef. In addition, over the years banning of cow and bovine slaughter is becoming illegal in Kerala, where farmers herd cows and bovines in horrible conditions to slaughter there. There are scant articles about this online, one can find it through a Google search. This was news when I lived in India in 2000. Additionally, I know Hindus who wouldn't eat beef in India, but do eat beef (and this is cow meat), once they leave India. In America, it is possible to find Hindus eating beef in McDonalds or Burger King, sometimes by accident (thinking a cheeseburger is made only of cheese) or intentionally as their dietary habits may change once they arrive here.

7. India is full of poverty and illiteracy and disease.
Indians have good hygiene. Even the poorest who must walk miles for water, somehow take a bath everyday. Because many areas are hot and dusty, houses are also cleaned up to three times a day. Even as I visited the poverty stricken in the slums, I came to find out, in the middle of the city, in their eight foot by eight foot mud hut with banana leaf roof, that space was very clean. It was just outside the home that was not clean. It is common to see lepers as beggars (with no noses, toes, feet, fingers or hands), to see people using the toilet on the road, and to see people throwing garbage on the roads in front of their houses in big piles where the cows and dogs and people come and rummage for a few good scraps. It is also not good to walk on sidewalks (this is where people use the toilet) nor is it good to walk on the railway tracks (for the same reason). It is a general rule of thumb to look on the ground as you walk, not only for human or material waste, but for uneven roads or anything. Do not walk on water logged roads. You do not know what is mixed in the water, and many times the drainage covers are removed and you can't tell because the water is too high. People fall into these and die. About Illiteracy -- yes the rate of uneducated people is very high. It is decreasing. And, though some people who don't know anything about India may believe many are illiterate or not highly educated, those who do know about India experience Indians as highly capable, university degree holding professionals, especially outside India, so this contridiction also exists. Ironically, the state of Kerala, with the highest literacy rate, has some of the dirtiest public areas, so literacy and public cleanliness do not always go hand-in-hand.

8. Poor kids in India are dirty, naked, have snot running down their noses and have flies on them.
This is the image Americans get of poor Indian children from our media. Just like Indian media typifies American girls as scantly clad and half-naked (which is not how most American girls really are), American media, with the aid of non-profit organizations raise money for India's children by generating the worst possible pictures of them. As I have first hand experience working in slums, children are not like this. Yes, several children in any slum walk around naked, but they are not necessarily dirty, snot-nosed or incessantly crying. And these poor kids do eat daily. They may not eat so much as a middle class person, but they do eat, none the less. As for seeing pictures of children in slums crying, won't any baby or child cry being away from it's mommy? (Not due to poverty, as young children and babies do not know what poverty is.)

9. Poor people are poor because they don't have a job or have any money.
Sundraveli's Home This is not a myth just of India but of any place, I believe. I will tell from visiting numerous inner city slums in Chennai that the slum dwellers DO have money, even enough to live in a better home. Though families of 6 - 8 persons live in 8 ft by 8 ft homes, they have a 20 inch television, a stereo with CD player, a mixer, a grinder, and a motorcycle. Some even had DVD players, VCRs and movie cameras! So, they do have money, it is just a misuse of this money that keeps them so poor and in debt. I feel most poor people in this world are in this situation. But unlike US, Indians have to do with what they have as the government does not have a welfare system.

10. Poor people are against the world.
I am not sure how it is outside India, but inside India, people accept their place in life, maybe partly due to karma and dharma. Anyhow, these poor people are so generous and nice. For the first two months of visiting the slums two days a week, many families kept trying to give tea to me. Initially, I said no, because I was worried to get sick by taking unboiled items. Then, I refused because I knew they were poor and when they made tea, they used their last money to buy the milk and I felt guilty. Then after time passed, the slum people started saying things about me, and my friend told me they were saying I did not like them because I wouldn't take their treats and tea. So, finally after she told them how to boil the milk, I did drink the tea, which was amazingly tasty!

11. There are lots of snake charmers and mystics in India.
This is not true. I think the places snake charmers are, they go there for the reason foreigners go there and will give many tips. In my two years in India, I did not see one snake charmer or mystic. I had, however, seen a few fortune tellers, but that was about it.

12. Elephants, cows, and monkeys have free reign all over India.
This is partially true. There was a time our car got stuck in a traffic jam 30 miles outside Bombay in the country side, and the person riding on the elephant past the shoulder of the road WAS indeed traveling faster than we were, and we were in a car! Many temples do have elephants, and in festive occasions, some temples bring out the elephants on the streets to greet and bless devotees, even in cities. Kerala is the most famous place for Elephants, they even have a week long festival where they decorate elephants. It is really famous. I have yet to see this, or Kerala for that matter! Cows do lay in roads, even in city centers. There are certain parts of certain cities that do strictly enforce the no-cow zones! Monkeys, yes there are monkeys in India. I did not see any in Chennai, but I had seen them in Kanchipuram and in North India, especially in Shimla. There were so many in Shimla, in fact, the YMCA had a sign which stated "Beware of the Monkeys!" Many foreigners go there and leave the window open and the monkeys come in and cause havoc, some even bite the humans.

Written December 28, 2001.

This article was written in December 2001. Revised January 2004, December 2007, November 2009. 


Thank you for reading and spending your time on Alaivani.com.




Copyright ©2009 Jennifer Jayanthi Kumar


15 comments so far...

Re: Myth Busters: Myths of India (2001)

"a holy festival that I think happens once every 12 years"
This is partly true. Kumbh Mela occurs 4 times every 12 years and rotates in 4 places across Bharat.
The Maha Kumbh Mela occurs once in 144 years that means on completion of 12 Purna Kumbh Melas. Maha Kumbh Mela occurs at Prayag only.
The places where Kumbh Mela occurs is Prayag, Haridwar, Ujjain and Nasik.
Kumbh Mela is celebrated because there was fight between Good and Evil in past lasted 12 days (equivalent to 12 human years) for Amrit (Immortality Nectar). While that fight few drops fell at above for locations and since then Kumbh Mela is being celecrated.
So that is the brief about Kumbh Mela.
I think Kumbh Mela is celebrated to gather all Hindus across the Bharatvarsha for the sense of unity and brotherhood to keep the Rashtra (Nation) and Dharma safe and sound.
Whatever it is, but it's the largest gathering pilgrimage on the earth, I guess and I'm proud of it.

Jai Hind

By संदीप नारायण शेळके (Sandeep Shelke) on   Thursday, November 26, 2009

Re: Myth Busters: Myths of India (2001)

Thank you for teaching us about that, Sandeep.

Maybe it's in order for us to share proper etiquette for attending this holy festival. Some Westerners have the wrong idea about attending. If people come misbehaving, unfortunately that misbehavior is focused on, rather than the true meaning of the festival. The reason for celebration has a deeper meaning than misbehavior of the people, thanks for teaching us about it.

By admin on   Thursday, November 26, 2009

Re: Myth Busters: Myths of India (2001)

I must say that your observations are almost perfect and that too you picked up in 2 years.


By Joe Zachs on   Friday, December 04, 2009

Re: Myth Busters: Myths of India (2001) -- Thank You!!!!

Hi Jennifer,
Came to read this post today.
I am an IT company director based in chennai and often travels to USA.
The myths/Questions you have answered has been pointed to me countless times by my american colleagues and friends.
Thanks for answering them impartially and with clarity .

Now i can direct those who ask these questions to this post!!!!!!

Keep writing!!!!!!


By Deepu Nair on   Friday, December 04, 2009

Re: Myth Busters: Myths of India (2001)

Joe Zachs. Thanks for stopping by. Your blog brings up some interesting insights as well. I am looking forward to reading your entries!!

Deepu, Thanks for stopping by and your feedback. I would be interested to know if I missed anything? I keep learning new things from different people with different perspectives. How do Americans that come to Chennai prepare to come to Chennai? Do they stay long periods of time or short periods? I plan on writing a culture shock India book with a different twist on these myths plus others.

Now, I have to uncover myths Indians have of America! ;)

By admin on   Friday, December 04, 2009

Re: Myth Busters: Myths of India (2001)

good to see the genuine effort to break free of stereotypical notions AND share your insights. yes. every people have wrong notions of the 'other' - guess that's the basic rule of defining one's own identity.

By kochuthresiamma p j on   Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Re: Myth Busters: Myths of India (2001)

Thank you, Kochu... You are right, absolutely! Good point. Without the other, there is no "me". To identify oneself we identify others and compare. Wow! What a nice insight! Thanks for your support.

By admin on   Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Re: Myth Busters: Myths of India (2001)

Wonderful efforts Jen!
You have understood the way most usually an Indian look life at.
And this is quite astonisihing for the other side of the world to look at.
the real aspect of life is ME, my FAMILY, etc

By Sudhir Agarwal on   Friday, January 15, 2010

Re: Myth Busters: Myths of India (2001)

What a nice thing to say, Sudhir. I believe I have a lot more to learn! Thanks for spending time on my website!

By admin on   Friday, January 15, 2010

Re: Myth Busters: Myths of India (2001)

I must say that overall I am really impressed with this blog.It is easy to see that you are impassioned about your writing. I wish I had got your ability to write. I look forward to more updates and will be returning. San Francisco Dentist

By John on   Friday, March 26, 2010

Re: Myth Busters: Myths of India (2001)

I just stumbled upon your blog and wanted to say that I have really enjoyed reading your blog posts.Any way Ill be subscribing to your feed and I hope you post again soon...

By bonus casinò virtuale on   Monday, March 29, 2010

Re: Myth Busters: Myths of India (2001)

I just wanna thank you for sharing your information and your site or blog this is simple but nice article I've ever seen i like it i learn something today.

By Johnsmith on   Monday, April 05, 2010

Re: Myth Busters: Myths of India (2001)

Jenny, this is an interesting artice. I learnt a lot from this article...I have never gone near a slum till I came to Bangalore. In Bangalore there was a slum area close to where I lived and I had the opportunity to walk through the slum many times and was suprised to see the number of things they had in their small room especially tv...I thought tv could never be found in the slums. Very interesting.

Glad you got to see this article, Sufi. Hope you are well.
Seeing the ways different people live can surely give us new perspectives on things we never thought of before, huh? :)

By Sufi on   Wednesday, April 07, 2010

Re: Myth Busters: Myths of India (2001)

Do people really think all those things about India? It's a bit depressing! The only point I question is about the Hindu majority. There are more than 850 million Hindus in India -- I don't think they have any worries about losing their majority. Not real worries, any way.

Jennifer's response: Mariellen. thanks for reading it. I wrote this 10 years ago... I have found depending on the person and their openness to other cultures these myths still live on! Ironically I have American friends who've also visited India a number of times who make these myths a self-fullfilling prophecy! So these myths need to be busted for even those who have been to India- weird, huh? Have you come across any myths I hadn't talked about?

By Mariellen Ward on   Thursday, November 18, 2010

Cross Cultural Lifestyles (India/North America)

This article is great, because it debunks some age old American myths that Americans have regarding the people of India. The segment that I found to be most enlightening was that of Religion which states that: The 3 main Religions of the people of India: Hindu, Muslim, Christian and they are all very traditional.

Additionally: "Poor people are poor because they don't have a job or have any money.
This is not a myth just of India but of any place, I believe." This concept I complete agree with. Also, that most people who are broke, will stay broke even if they come across a sum of money.

Personally, I would rather visit India as a tourist and see the beauty of the land; than for example one of the Washington DC Attractions .

By Washington DC Attractions on   Thursday, July 05, 2012

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