Why do we need to look for cultural similarities between two civilizations, who for all intents and purposes are miles apart, both literally and figuratively? The answer perhaps lies in the fact that the presence of these similarities indicates that despite the vast variation in human life and culture, we are still driven by the same motivation and towards similar conclusions. Sure our wording, phrasing, and rituals may be different but at the very core of things, we all are similar people."
Gaurav Bisht describes the wondrous similarities in what is usually perceived as two starkly different cultures.
Before we get down to the nitty-gritty, first we need to understand what these two terms stand for, Ancient Hindus refer to the Hindus that populated the Indian peninsula back before the birth of Christ. Their birthplace Is often said to be the Indus valley civilization. On the other hand, Native Americans refer to the original inhabitants of the Continent of North America, before Christopher Columbus set foot there. Both are civilizations that were the original inhabitants of a land to which many have laid claim, many times with genocidal force. Both have persevered through the ages, but only just.
Both cultures developed independently across vast swathes of time and space and yet there are many similarities they share. Hinduism while acting as one religion or way of life allows for many different sects and rituals. It is a polytheistic religion, kind of an umbrella under which the entire pantheon of gods and gurus, all with various schools of thoughts and beliefs come. You could either or not believe in idol worship, for example, the Nyaya school which holds logic above all else does not believe in idol worship, you could either believe or not in the sanctity of the Vedas, for example, the Shaiva tradition which holds the Shaiva agamas higher than the Vedas or even in the belief in god itself; ancient Hinduism also had sects that were nastic or atheistic.
Similarly, the Native Americans are not one homogenous people, but spread across the continent are small pockets of people whose beliefs and rituals sometimes intersected sometimes not. There were 100s of different tribes spread across America but all were grouped together as one once Columbus entered the scene. They were all red Indians to them. But that was not how the native Americans saw themselves, they were the Sioux, the Appalachians, the Navajo, and many many more.
There was a marked difference between gurus and holy men in ancient Hindu customs. They were considered village heads and held informal positions of power and respect. They also played a very important role in people’s everyday lives. This same role was performed by shamans in native American culture. They were considered to hold deeper connections with the world and its spirits be it the belief in the soul of animals and plants or their belief in supernatural phenomena. The Hopi tribe had the Honan Kopicha a legend about a beaver that is worshipped so as to avoid its fury in the dead of the winter. Hinduism also venerated the life that all living being shared, while also having legends about malicious spirits that roam the earth. Think chudail and rakshasa, both evil spirits whose legends still float about in kid’s stories.
Both cultures also share hints of animism, and the worship of wildlife, although native American customs put them at a much higher place than the ancient Hindus. So while they worshipped and feared beavers, coyotes, and eagles, we have the holy cow, who is considered a mother to this day. But not just that there are many more animals who have a special place due to their connection to deities. Like Indra’s white elephant Airavat and Garud, Vishnu’s bird companion.
Coming to more material aspects, there is a huge price that is put on property or land in both cultures. The Native Americans believed in the holiness of the land they were born on and their dependence on it was firmly understood. No one person owned the land and it more or less belonged to the tribe and was fiercely protected. Being hunter-gatherers, they understood the delicate balance of their ecosystem and swore to preserve it. Ancient Hindus were not too far off. While not being as dependent on hunting as the Americans, there was still the shared belief that there is a unity, a singular life force that flows through us all, a Parmatma and it was to be respected. The land ran down through families being passed on from generation to generation, mostly being given to the men in the family, and since agriculture was the majority occupation, accompanied prestige and power.
We come next to the women, who were thought of as equal in native American civilization yet were mostly delegated housework and gathering while the males went out on hunts. A similar picture is painted on the other side where women were kept to the housework while men acted as the providers. Familial roles were well divided with both civilizations being predominantly patriarchal. Marriage customs were pretty similar as well; inter tribe marriages were strictly frowned upon and so were inter-caste marriages.
Both civilizations were pretty open to foreigners, much to their peril. While Columbus came with the intention of claiming the land and brought with a whole host of new world diseases, diseases that would result in massive death rates even outside of open conflict. Ancient Hindus saw warfare between different groups of people too. Although both civilizations persevered, they serve as stark reminders of human’s greed and folly.
And finally, we come to the notion of reincarnation a similarity between both people although in different contexts, while Hindus believe that a soul has to take on a set number of bodies, both human and animal before it can finally ascend to heaven the native Americans think of time as a circle with no beginning and end. Their concept of reincarnation is through the theory that souls are permanent and just flit between body to body. They don’t have a concept of hell or heaven. His earth is the only place that’s ever been.
Coming across this essay prompt, the first question that arose in my mind was why? Why do we need to look for cultural similarities between two civilizations, who for all intents and purposes are miles apart, both literally and figuratively? The answer perhaps lies in the fact that the presence of these similarities indicates that despite the vast variation in human life and culture, we are still driven by the same motivation and towards similar conclusions. Sure our wording, phrasing, and rituals may be different but at the very core of things, we all are similar people.