While in India in 1993, I had a discussion with a Muslim I met outside the Taj Mahal, and among the things he said to me was "The right hand is good, the left hand is bad". When I asked him why this should be so, he replied, "Because our Holy Koran says it is". Upon my request for further elucidation, he explained: "Well, the right hand is for eating with, and the left hand is for toilet purposes".

Unwilling to let such gross unreason go unchallenged, I then said: "But if you wash both hands with soap and water after answering the calls of nature, they will both be clean, and there will be no question about one hand being better than the other".

With this conversation still fresh in my mind, I went into a restaurant and ordered a right-handed chapatti (Indian unleavened bread). The waiter looked puzzled and asked what I meant. I said: "A chapatti made with just the right hand". "No such thing!" he retorted; "we must use both hands to make chapatties!" "Ah, but I thought the left hand was bad and only to be used for toilet purposes", I said. "We wash both hands", he said sullenly, but I wasn’t convinced, and abandoned my idea of eating chapatties.

I went to another restaurant nearby and sat on the verandah, and while waiting for the food I had ordered, I observed an old man pull down his pants, in full view of everyone, and squat over an open drain across the narrow street from where I was sitting, and calmly and unconcernedly do his thing, using a can of water that he had brought with him to clean himself afterwards! This must have been his regular spot! And people were passing by within arms-reach of him! But this is not unusual in India; in fact, the country is just one big open toilet, where people do it anywhere and everywhere: on the streets and in the fields, just wherever and whenever—so it seems—the mood comes upon them. Beautiful beaches and other scenic spots are befouled, and one really has to be very careful where one is walking! I got the impression that they consider themselves invisible while doing it, as they seem oblivious to everything going on around them. One can see rows of men along busy highways and railway lines in the early morning, separated from each other by just a few meters, hard at it, with traffic streaming past (women work the night-shift, apparently, as they are seldom to be seen); indeed, some of them gaze up at the buses and trucks as they go by, and smile! It’s quite remarkable to people unfamiliar with such habits, but to the natives it’s normal, of course. Perhaps they feel claustrophobia inside an enclosed toilet, or maybe they just like to be close to nature and see the sky and hear the birds sing while doing it.

Mahatma Gandhi’s exhortations to dig latrines obviously went unheeded. Even in the major cities of India, people urinate wherever they feel like, and government attempts to rectify this by building urinals have been in vain. Never, anywhere, have I seen so many public urinals as in Delhi, and never, anywhere, have I seen so many people peeing anywhere—anywhere except in the proper place, that is. Consequently, many visitors associate the acrid odor of urine with Delhi; it’s omnipresent, even in the tourist areas! Not just this, but many urinals are avoided because some people use them to defecate in!

Indians seem to have a fixation with—let’s not be squeamish about words here—shit, leaving it around for all to see, as if it’s something lovely. Cow-dung is at least useful and forms an important item of their home economy, assiduously collected while still fresh, and put to numerous uses, like plastering walls and floors; much of it is mixed by hand with grass or straw and cakes of it are then stuck onto any available surface to dry, with a handprint visible in every cake. It is then used as fuel for heating and cooking and burns without much smoke or smell while giving off quite a bit of heat. Cow-dung also forms part of their traditional pharmacopoeia—another reason why cows are so highly prized in India. If only they would find use for their own excrement instead of leaving it lying around; someone could make a fortune from it. India really is a shitty country!

Most people in the West would not remember—or would only dimly remember—the days when many houses had no flush-toilets but only an ‘out-house’ in the back garden, with a bucket that had to be emptied into a pit now and then. Now we just press a button or pull a chain and our waste-matter goes gurgling out of sight so conveniently. We’ve come a long way.

Now, the whole world—or most of it, anyway—is under the conviction that the right is somehow better than the left. Why do I say this? Well, just look at how we shake hands: except for the Boy Scouts (though why they should be contrary, I don’t know), everyone offers their right hand for others to shake, and some people would be offended if they were offered the left hand. But I can think of no good or logical reason why the right should be regarded as in any way better than the left; it is just a matter of convention and we are stuck with it, because to change it now would be almost impossible, and what would we change it to that would not also be—or soon become—a thing of convention? There are so many things we are stuck with that have no foundations in reality, but to change them would be very difficult. Another example is our dating-system, which is really relevant only to Christians, yet the whole world conforms to it. Such things should be regarded as what Buddhism terms ‘relative truth’ and as useful for the purposes of communication; but they have nothing to do with ‘ultimate truth’—that is, to things that are as they are, or to the principles of life, that do not change. There is no need to change them; rather, we should understand them as what they are: just social conventions, which are useful as such. We have lived with them for a long time already and can continue to do so, as long as they don’t cause inconvenience or trouble.

Buddhists also think of the right as better than the left, as shown in the way that Buddhist monks dress, with the right shoulder bared in the case of Theravada monks (monks of other sects also dress with something distinctive about the right shoulder); then there is the way they circumambulate stupas or holy places: always clockwise, with their right side towards the object of veneration. Once, when I was in Budh-Gaya—which is the place where Siddhartha attained Enlightenment and became the Buddha, and where there are always people circumambulating the stupa, chanting, reciting mantras, prostrating, telling their rosaries, or sitting quietly in meditation—I saw a Western monk going in the opposite direction. When I asked why, he said that one doesn’t always have to do what everyone else is doing, but can do whatever one wants. Well, in principle I agree with this, of course, but I feel that to deliberately try to be different, instead of letting one’s natural differences flow out, is an expression of ego, and therefore defeats the whole purpose. He knew the custom, but while he didn’t see anything intrinsically wrong with it, he just wanted to be different; or maybe he just wanted to see what would happen if he went the other way around. I don’t know what—if anything—happened, but while I was there, I didn’t see anything extraordinary take place, and he wasn’t struck by a thunderbolt for his ‘impiety’.

There is nothing wrong with convention as long as we understand it and as long as it’s useful, or at least, not harmful. If we decided to shake hands with the left hand instead of with the right merely to go against convention and to demonstrate our ‘independent thinking’, we would not be arrested and charged with committing a crime, but it would create unnecessary confusion and would serve no useful purpose. We can be—and many of us are—bound by convention, or we can understand it and follow it accordingly. To offer one’s right hand to someone to shake rather than the left means that we are being mindful, to some extent, and mindfulness is always good. To make a point of giving something—anything—with one’s right hand rather than with one’s left probably means that one is aware of what one is doing, whereas to give with either hand, not much caring which, would indicate unawareness or even sloppiness. Better still if we would give with both hands as that would indicate much more awareness of what we are doing, and the person to whom we are giving might feel honored to be made the object of such special attention.

Manners are another form of convention, and though there are certain manners which not everyone would agree upon or share—for example, the custom, in some countries, of burping loudly after meals to indicate satisfaction over the food—many things are generally accepted without question, and courtesy and politeness would facilitate one’s passage in most parts of the world, whereas roughness and rudeness would cause doors to close in one’s face.

Back to India, though, where I have been many times and have traveled widely: it is a place to really tax one’s patience, and though one does, at times, meet friendly people, I have found myself becoming suspicious and thinking, "What does he want?" as one meets so many people there who are not friendly. And very often, it turns out that one’s suspicions are justified. It is not good to feel like this, I know, but what is the alternative? If one did not, one would be ripped-off on every side. And after nine times in India, I know no-one there who I consider a true friend. Then—it might be asked—why do I keep on going there? I don’t know; sometimes I think I must be mad, or masochistic, or maybe I have to pay some ancient debt to that land and its people.

It is common to be verbally abused in India; Indian people are very good at that. But to be apologized to is something quite rare. Once, I was sitting quietly alone at Ajanta Caves when a group of Indian tourists came by and, for no reason that I could think of—as I had done or said nothing to them—they began to abuse and make fun of me. I sat there, and did not respond, but after they had gone, someone who had been standing nearby listening to their abuse, consoled me by saying: "Don’t worry, they do this to Indian monks, too; my brother is a monk, so I know".

Another time, I was sitting in a crowded bus in Benares, minding my own business and bothering no-one, when a little girl sitting besides me threw up, and some of her vomit went on my clothes; instead of apologizing to me for the befoulment, however, the girl’s mother scolded me for not getting out of the way! Amazing people!

In India, it is so easy to become a Maharaja or a Mahatma; the beggars will call you such and more in hope of getting something. Indians—it is another generalization, of course, but as a generalization, not inaccurate—can be so obsequious and ingratiating, bowing and touching your feet and calling down the blessings of heaven upon you. When they don’t want anything from you, but you want something from them, it is another story; any little power or position they happen to get goes to their heads and they become arrogant tyrants. Many times, while looking for a hotel room, I have been turned away with the single, rudely-uttered word, "Full!"—no such thing as "Sorry, we have no rooms available right now".

I experienced ill-manners so often in India that one day, when someone wheeled his bicycle into me in a crowd and apologized, it was so unusual that I almost laughed aloud, and felt like asking him to bump into me again, just so I could hear another apology!

There is something positive about being verbally abused—and I always try to perceive and point out the positive in anything—and it is that, having been on the receiving end, one knows how it feels and so has an incentive—if one is needed—to restrain oneself from doing the same thing to others. Rude people are good teachers of manners—just as good, in fact, as polite people who set a positive example for us—in that they show us what not to do.

In rebelling against the past, we must be careful not to discard the good with the bad. Some traditions and conventions might be obsolete and no longer valid, but not all; many things, having passed the repeated tests of time, are still good and shouldn’t be changed just because they are old. Things should be investigated carefully and intelligently.

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