Mark Twain described India in 1897 as the land of dreams and romance; of fabulous wealth and fabulous poverty; of splendor and rags; of palaces      and hovels; of famine and pestilence; of tigers and elephants; the cobra and the jungle; the country of a hundred nations and a hundred tongues; of a  thousand religions and two million gods.

 India is no less fabulous, paradoxical and complex today, over a century later.

 Poor, rich, clean, filthy, spicy, plain, primitive, highly advanced: India is all those things and finds no contradiction in this. Furthermore, it is those things  all the time and in full view. Nothing is hidden in India. People are everywhere. The landscape is seldom empty of movement. India is intensely alive  and its people are friendly, industrious, optimistic, intense, and striving for a better life, often against great odds. They are also deeply spiritual and deeply practical. This is what strikes you - not the dirt, the poverty, or the apparent chaos.

Indians are hardworking, ambitious people who have managed to create the world’s largest democracy in the fifty or so years since the British left in 1947. At that time, since their own resources had so long been plundered and exploited, India made the decision to produce all they need themselves. India today runs on Indian oil and electricity, eats rice, millet and vegetables grown on Indian soil, drinks Indian beer, and builds with materials manufactured in India.

One characteristic of India of which one is immediately aware is that spiritual life is pervasive, woven into the fabric of everyday life. India is 82% Hindu over-all and, while Hinduism is a religion it is also a way of life. For example, you can be an atheist or are not identified with any religion and because you are Indian, you are Hindu. The Hindu philosophy teaches acceptance of one’s fate so that when one is reincarnated it will be to a better life, respecting the extended family as the most important social unit, and struggling through life to remove the ego that veils the soul.

Hinduism and its offshoots, Jainism and Buddhism, are not missionary, and this has made it possible for India to incorporate a multitude of religions into its culture. Muslims, Hindus, Christians, Jews, Jains, Sikhs, Buddhists and Zoroastrians have managed to live together in relative harmony for centuries. It does seem the desire of Indians to preserve a unified India, especially after the long occupation of the British and the preceding empires that besieged this land for several centuries.

In the West, there is much greater need to find rational answers and orderly structure, and to be able to say this is this or that, one or the other, black or white, modern or primitive, religious or secular. One is uncomfortable with ambiguity and complexity, which is perceived as disorder. In India it appears that one can contain many realities at the same time. Poor is not the opposite of rich; it is one end of a single continuum. Secular is not the opposite of religious. Death isn’t the opposite of life. It is all part of the great cycle of being over which, Indians will argue, we have little control. As is often the advice: Accept everything, be open to everything you see, and then you will understand India.

In the end, the words that come to mind are “inclusive” and “alive”. India is, finally, not about contradictions and paradoxes so much as it is about an inclusive culture that values and acknowledges all it contains. It contains great poverty and great wealth, sophisticated cities and villages that have not changed for centuries. It contains the key to success in the age of information technology in its ambitious, educated workforce. It is a deeply spiritual culture as well as one that is exceptionally pragmatic and realistic. It is marching full speed ahead in the 21st Century, with all bullocks, goats, camels and elephants on board!

That said, India is, in the final analysis vibrant, alive, beautiful and open. It changes you, makes you think, makes you feel. Come as you are. Return enriched.