How Natural History and Geography Shaped the Indian Psyche and Modern India
India is one of the most complex, perplexing and diverse world cultures to study and understand. The state of India today (its identity, nation, politics, economy, etc) can be traced back to its cultural DNA or psyche, which was in turn influenced by its geographic and natural history. For instance, why are Indians at the top of global professions, such as finance, technology, law, management, business? Or why is the physical environment and social settings in Indian so disorganised and often messy? Why are Indians (arguably) the most spiritual people in the world? Why aren’t Indians pulling its weight in global affairs and the economic sphere in modern times? The answers are self-explanatory as you read along.
It is challenging to summarize any nation in a ten-minute primer, let alone a complicated one like India. So, please bear with me as there will be many simplifications and generalizations to make this possible.
Here is the start of this epic story. The Indian subcontinent was a standalone landmass that smashed into Eurasia some 40–50 million years ago. This continental shift across oceans occurred at such a rapid pace (in geographic scale) that the crumple zone between the two plates gave rise to Himalayas and the tallest peaks in the world. This seismic event anchored the once-isolated landmass to a massive Afro-Eurasian continental plate, creating favourable conditions for the emergence of its early civilizations and subsequent interactions with the rest of the old western world — in several critical ways.
Firstly, the life-giving river systems of Ganges, Indus and Brahmaputra originate from Himalayan glaciers and flow down to the Indo-Gangetic plains. Similar to the Nile of Egypt, Tigris and Euphrates of Mesopotamia and Yellow and Yangtze of China, the Indus River spawn early forms of agriculture and one of the earliest civilizations (circa 3,300BCE), not only in India but anywhere around the world. Secondly, the height and treachery of the Himalayas made it a natural tall wall that fortified the end of the old Western world of Europe, Africa, Central and West Asia. For most of history, this boundary divided the old West and the Eastern civilizations (China, Japan, Korea, Southeast Asia) into two separate cultural, political and religious melting pots.
The geography of India is best understood with analogies. First, surrounded in the south by the Arabian and Bay of Bengal seas, east by mountainous Burmese jungles, north by the Himalayas and northwest by the Thar desert and Hindu Kush mountains, the Indian subcontinent is practically an island. A self-sufficient island that is well-endowed with natural resources, fertile soil and generous rainfall (explaining why India was world’s largest economy from 1CE to 1500CE, accounting up to a third of global GDP and always amongst the most populous country in history).
Not just an island but one with an in-bound military harbour (at the northwest gate). Being abundant, India is very inward looking and rarely crave the riches of the outside world (even up to today). Other than a few aberrations in history, Indians did not send a single troop to dominate the world. Unfortunately, the reverse cannot be said to be true. Many empires from nearby Persian (Darius I, Cyrus the Great), Turkish and Mongol (Genghis Khan) to far-flung Greek (Alexandra the Great) and British, coveted Indian’s wealth and abundance. The island did not remain with a single harbour, as the British in more recent times occupied India from multiple landing points along its shores (Bombay, Madras, Calcutta).
It is an island with unique plateau peninsula characteristics. The subcontinent is essentially shaped like a floating crocodile, with its head facing Central Asia, an elongated torso and tail pointing to the Indian Ocean, arms extending into East and West Asia and lumpy horizontal scales declining into the sea. The peninsula section of the land has an average elevation of 300–1800 metres and is surrounded by green low lands that extends to the seas and the Indo-Gangetic plains.
On the surface, India appears to possess the geographic logic of an uniform civilization like China. In reality, however, India’s geography is the root of its unparalleled diversity of cultures, languages and religions and general lack of centralization, polity and unity (the Indian nation is a relatively modern concept). This is perhaps best illustrated by the contrast with China, which, in its equally long history, has leaned towards a more homogeneous culture and centralized polity.
There are at least two good reasons for this. Firstly, the geography of India did not provide for a “central plain” that massive populations could gravitate towards, amass and flourish. Such a fertile heartland could serve as a melting pot to homogenize diverse identities and cultures into a common consciousness. The Chinese Central Plains, located east-ward in the “heart of the chicken” (shape of China) and served by major rivers (Yellow, Yangtze, Wei, Han, Huai), was the necessary heartland for integration and assimilation. The arable fields of the land bred the majority Han Chinese and provided a strategic capital for the Chinese nation. The closest to India has is the Indo-Gangetic plains, which is an inverted V-shaped lowland that runs from today’s Bangladesh (in the east) across the foot of Himalayas to modern day Pakistan (in the west). This was the birthplace of the Indus valley civilizations (Mohenjo Daro, Harappans) and later on, the Ganges civilizations to the east (after Indus river dried up). (For reasons which shall reveal themselves later in this story, India was pregnant with spiritual thinkers). The Indo-Gangetic belt and its contemporary Jerusalem-Arabia corridor became the twin religious capitals of the world, giving birth to Indian religions (Hinduism, Buddhism, Jainism, Sikhism) and Abrahamic religions (Judaism, Christianity, Islam) over the course of two millenniums. While this was an economic and cultural hotbed, it was not central (i.e. too isolated from the rest of India peninsula) and not “circular” enough to be a base for national integration.
Secondly, India is criss-crossed by key East-West heading mountains and rivers. The Vindhya and Satpuras mountain range geographically separates the Northern India from the South as it runs across central India. While the Vindhya and Satpuras did not prevent cultural percolation over the centuries, it was a formidable barrier against cross invasions, political unions, gene pool mixture and national integration between the north (Aryan) and the south (Dravidian). The northwest was frequently invaded through the Khyber mountain pass in Hindu Kush mountains (in modern day Afghanistan), while the buffer of the northern lands and natural hilly obstacles shielded the south from outside invaders. The north often had political unions (perhaps because of the plains) while the south was usually fragmented with smaller kingdoms and culturally distinct.
Rivers were the highways of ancient times, either integrating or dividing societies depending on its characteristics and direction. The east-west bound rivers of the plateau-peninsula India, unfortunately, played a heavy hand in fragmenting Indians. Furthermore, throughout political history, “vertical” territories are seldom natural countries because stark weather disparity creates remarkable cultural differences between northerners and southerners. The “vertical island” of India was, hence, partitioned many times over throughout the peninsula by divisive mountain ranges and river flows. This “deck of cards” dealt to India could, at least partially, explain the diversity of languages (1,635), religions and cultures, plurality of society and politics and weakness of national identity — all persisting till modern times. Therefore, India more closely resemblances continental Europe, both in pre-Roman and medieval times (fragmented states) and the modern age (forged unitary states of EU and Republic of India) than China.
By contrast, the natural terrain unifies the Chinese nation. The blistering Gobi Desert, vast Tibetan plateau, harsh Mongolian steppes, and chilly Manchuria grasslands drove the population core to the bountiful central plains. By connecting the deep inland to the coastal plains, the major rivers of Yellow and Yangtze (begins from Tibetan plateau and flowing eastwards towards the East China Sea) contributed to political and cultural unity. The lack of physical barriers surrounding the plains (which is the heart of Chinese dynastic empires and seat of imperial power since Zhou dynasty in 1000BCE) necessitates the creation of an enlarged empire by ruling over vast territories in the north, west and south as buffer states.
While both are undoubtedly intertwined, the question is whether Indian psyche is the expression of Indian religions or vice versa. I would argue the Indian psyche pre-dates and gave rise to its religions. Read on to find out why as we continue this epic story.
Around 74,000 years ago, a cataclysmic event happened, which many scientists believed to have reduced a million humans to mere thousands and caused a genetic bottleneck. This was the eruption of the Toba super-volcano (in Sumatra, Indonesia), the most powerful volcanic explosion in the last two million years and most deadly catastrophe faced by the human species. Millions of tons of volcanic ash was spouted into the atmosphere, triggering a 6–10 years global volcanic winter (temperatures drop by 3 degree Celsius) and possibly a 1,000 year long cooling period. The ecological impact was long-lasting, immense and wide, devastating wild life and vegetation around the world.
However, India bore the brunt of the volcanic ash, as prevailing winds blew it in the direction of the subcontinent in the near-west. The settled ash covered much of India, sometimes as thick as several metres, causing mass extinction of humans, animals and plant life.
According to scientist Stephen Oppenheimer, India was re-populated from both the west and the east following the Toba event. This movement was unique and advantageous because the modern advancing humans did not have to battle and compete with earlier human species and fierce beasts of the animal kingdom. Yet, it meant that the new inhabitants had to rely almost exclusively on foraging and plant life rather than hunting for survival. The volcanic ash fertilized the land, so plants returned fairly rapidly, while animal life took longer to recover.
I believe that the Toba event has three major and counteracting influences on the Indian psyche. Firstly, the re-populated humans did not face resistance from earlier human species and wild creatures, unlike their peers in Europe and elsewhere who had to fight with the Neanderthals (which went extinct around 40,000 years ago). So, earlier Indians had no impetus to hone their fighting instincts and skills. That may have bred the notion of non-violence (ahimsa), a deeply embedded principle of Indian culture and general lack of aggression of the Indians. This neglect of military affairs could have led to the fall of Indus Valley civilization which was invaded by the fiercer horse-riding Aryan warriors from the Northwest (this is controversial as other have theorised that Indus civilizations collapsed on its own after the river dried out). Secondly, the fragility of ecology and animal populations in the early days could have promoted a key feature of Indian philosophy: the unity of all living beings and sanctity of animal life. It is unsurprising hence that vegetarianism took root in India and has been part of daily life for many since.
Thirdly, the new human populations would have a higher quality of life relative to the rest of the world, thanks to safety from aggressors, tropical shelter and abundance of food in the lush, uninhabited territory. In other words, it is likely that early Indians had risen up the Maslow hierarchy of needs earlier than other peoples. After practicalities of sustenance and security were taken care off, Indians would wander barefooted across the land and venture into the spiritual space. Over the ages, Indians have developed their spirituality and abstract thought by constantly seeking internal happiness, searching for eternal truth and mastering the mortal body; whilst ignoring the distractions of the external environment. The Indian pursue of enlightenment and relief from cycle of birth and death (Moksha in Hinduism and Nirvana in Buddhism) can be partly accomplished by renouncing the material world (Sansar). Its culture of asceticism, antimaterialism, and fatality actively discourages the pursuit of material wealth.
There are ample evidence of Indian’s wisdom, knowledge and abstract thought. The ancient text Rig Veda (written in Sanskrit circa 1200BCE) was highly advanced in its day and is still read by western physicists for its physics, astronomy and metaphysics theories. The world’s first university Taxila (in modern day Pakistan) was founded in 600 BC and schooled 10,500 students and taught 68 subjects. Many have traced the origins of mathematical theories such as algebra, concept of zero, decimal points, trigonometry and calculus to India.
This could explain why Indian is the only global society that places thinkers, priests and gurus (e.g. Brahmins as the highest caste) at the apex of the society ahead of rulers, warriors and the rich. India is truly the land of gurus and mother of spiritual religions. In fact, Indians are amongst the most abstract people in the world. Today, Indians are world class thinkers and leaders of abstract fields such as technology, finance, science, legal, medicine, business and management. Because of this innate ability to seek internal bliss, Indians are comparatively more detached from the physical world. There is, hence, high tolerance for the disorderly, incoherent and simulating environment we see in India today. The downside is that infrastructure, engineering and manufacturing are weak links of the economy.
The principles of non-violence, sanctity of animals, vegetarianism, anti-materialism and deep introspection are the hallmark of every major Indian religion, namely Hinduism, Buddhism, Jainism and Sikhism. Together with the diversity and inward-looking nature of society, these principles have formed the core tenets of the Indian psyche and pervade the Indian society from ancient times till today.
(The influence of Toba eruption on Indian culture was inspired by Gurnek Bains’ “Cultural DNA — The Psychology of Globalization” with short excerpts directly from the book. Read the book if you like to delve deeper.)