Swami Vivekananda can teach us about cultural differences between India and the west

My Swami Vivekananda blog continues to gain reactions – he shows us how rich, diverse and deep is Indian culture and thought. He was the multitalented, multifaceted teacher, Hindu monk and spiritual guru, born in 1863. With his extremely popular and respected speeches of all times starting with “Brothers and sisters of America”, he introduced Hinduism at the parliament of world religions in Chicago way back in 1893.

Through study of his quotes, we can gain special insight into the cultural (thinking) differences between India and the west.

This learning comes with no judgement, no sense of one culture being better than another – it is offered in the spirit of understanding.

SV – “Truth can be stated in a thousand different ways, yet each one can be true.” 

This goes to the heart of cultural difference – the west treats truth as an “absolute”, meaning there is no room for difference or “relative” truth as stated in India.

This can show up in business activity, where the westerner sees the plan as fixed and set in concret(absolute), while the Indian sees it as just a plan, capable of change (relative).

SV – “All knowledge that the world has ever received comes from the mind; the infinite library of the universe is in our own mind.”

Here the west takes a materialist and scientific view of knowledge, seeing the role of the mind to gain knowledge from the external world.

SV – “Bless people when they revile you. Think how much good they are doing by helping to stamp out the false ego.” 

In the individualistic culture of the west, from a young age we are trained to “stand up for ourselves” so the likely response from a westerner when reviled is to defend or even to attack. “The best form of defence is attack” is a common western phrase.

SV – “Things do not grow better; they remain as they are. It is we who grow better, by the changes we make in ourselves.” 

This internal view is very different from the west, where growing better is generally reflected in possessions, honours and achievements – in external things.

SV – “The world is the great gymnasium where we come to make ourselves strong.” 

The big picture view of the world from the west is that it was put here for our benefit – so use it. At its worst, this has led to pollution and climate change. At its best, it is the basis of many innovations that benefit us all.

SV – “Do one thing at a Time, and while doing it put your whole soul into it to the exclusion of all else.” 

Multi-tasking has been highly fashionable in the west for decades and technology is the great enabler of it. But when you see a person totally focused on one task, you see how effective we humans can be.

SV – “All differences in this world are of degree, and not of kind, because oneness is the secret of everything.”

The concept of “oneness” is very foreign and strange to many westerners. They see differences as being of kind, and view the world through the lens of the individual, which is the opposite of “oneness”.

SV – “We are what our thoughts have made us. So, take care about what you think. Words are secondary, thoughts live and travel far.”

Thoughts are seen in the west as a totally private thing and secondary to what we do and say. Without words, a westerner could view thoughts as a waste of time.

SV –“Neither seek nor avoid, take what comes.”

This is a remarkably different view of life from how the west sees it. A westerner will strongly seek to either possess the attractive that comes or repel the negative that comes. In other words, far from “acceptance”, westerners take an activist approach to whatever life presents. It’s like a constant struggle.

SV – “In a conflict between the heart and the brain, follow your heart.”

“Think it through” is a much repeated piece of western advice, where the brain is given vast superiority over the heart.

SV – “The great secret of true success, of true happiness, is this: the man or woman who asks for no return, the perfectly unselfish person, is the most successful.”

For many westerners this is a strange concept. Happiness is seen as something the individual must find and keep for themselves. Many would see virtue in sharing and being unselfish, but they would see it as folly to be “perfectly unselfish”.

The above are just my interpretations – offered in the hope that they give useful understanding of cultural differences. We can learn from each other. What do you think?

Author: Stephen Manallack

Former President, Australia India Business Council, Victoria and Author, You Can Communicate; Riding the Elephant; Soft Skills for a Flat World (published by Tata McGraw-Hill INDIA); Communicating Your Personal Brand. Director, EastWest Academy Pty Ltd and Trainer/Speaker/Mentor in Leadership, Communication and Cross Cultural Communication. Passionate campaigner for closer western relations with India. Stephen Manallack is a specialist on “Doing Business with India” and advisor/trainer on “Cross-Cultural Understanding”. He is a Director of EastWest Academy Pty Ltd which provides strategic advice and counsel regarding business relations with India. A regular speaker in India on leadership and global communication, his most recent speaking tour included a speech to students of the elite Indian university, Amity University, in Noida. He also spoke at a major Federation of Indian Chambers of Commerce and Industry (FICCI) global summit, the PR Consultants Association of India in Delhi, the Symbiosis University in Pune and Cross-Cultural Training for Sundaram Business Services in Chennai. He has visited India on business missions on 10 occasions and led three major trade missions there. He provides cross-cultural training – Asia and the west.

4 thoughts on “Swami Vivekananda can teach us about cultural differences between India and the west”

  1. Steve, Thank you most sincerely for this wonderful summary of key quotes from Swami Vivekananda. They are of immense help in remembering what is improtant.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Very good analogy Stephen, Swami Vivekananda have been inspiration for many … one more quote I can not forget having equally deep meaning ” We are what our thoughts have made us; So take care about what you think. Words are secondary. Thoughts Live; They travel far”

    Liked by 1 person

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