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, ever. So, when I saw many foreign women came to Kumba Mela and stripped down to nothing, I got so mad. Their photo somehow, unsensored, 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 unappropriately 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 traditonal
Yes, this is very true. 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 say the real 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. Many Hindus do eat beef and kill cows. I have seen it with my own eyes, Hindus in the slums of Chennai hang dead cows upside down and skinned in small huts and sell this meat to the other slum dwellers. I had Hindu classmates who told me they used to eat 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, many Hindu farmers herd their cows over long distances to slaughter them. Many don't believe me, so if you are skeptical, visit this PETA site But I am warning you, it has several disturbing photos.

7. India is full of poverty and illiteracy and disease.
In some ways this is true, but in more ways it is untrue. India has a very different sense of hygiene and cleanliness that say, the US, but in middle class and rich homes it is decent. 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. But in the special case of Tamil language, the written and spoken are totally different. One would not speak as he would write and the written is not spoken (somewhat like Latin).

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 necesarily 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.
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 travelling 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 certian parts of certian 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 page has been visited times since it's inception in December 2001. Revised January 2004, December 2007, November 2009.



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