‘Cows Works’: Socio-Spiritual Light Bulbs in India

Santafe.com - July 30, 2012

"...we were not prepared for a world utterly different from any either of us had experienced before"

I do not have to remind anybody that not all higher education takes place in a classroom, but I will anyway. It’s just too important to lose track of.
Recently my now-wife and I had a mind blowing and transformational experience, and the teacher was India. We had gone there to get married; both of us are pretty seasoned travelers, and we figured it would be fascinating, of course. But we were not prepared for a world utterly different from any either of us had experienced before.
 What I loved most about our experience in India is that it demonstrated, in ever-in-your-face, living color that so many of the rules, laws, regulations, restrictions, dicta, fiats, got-to’s and can’t-do’s that we embrace in Western culture as critical to maintaining order and, indeed, to our survival, are actually neither necessary, nor, in many circumstances, even desirable. They are only cultural preferences. They happen to be our (American and German, in this case) cultural preferences, so we fall in love with them and grant them the status of wisdom, inarguably common-sensical, and “better than”. (Jingoism is not the worst thing in the world, but we should be aware of it when it pops up for us—all that “Consciousness” stuff, you know…)
Stopping at red lights, for example, is like choosing the green chile chicken chowder rather than the stuffed poblano at Del Charro’s in Santa Fe. It is simply a preference that we have. In this case, in the United States, the “stopping at red lights” thing is supported by laws and punishable by penalties. But stopping at a red light is not inherently right, correct, better or morally superior. It is an idea somebody had to reflect the value that nobody should get hurt in complex traffic patterns. The Indians share that value, and have found an alternative way to achieve it. With the exception of huge intersections in Delhi, and maybe a couple in Jaipur, drivers that I observed (and drove with) in India did not choose “stopping at red lights” from the menu. I did not see one collision, and, stunningly, I did not see one case of anything resembling “road rage”, or even annoyance. In any major American city, there would have been street brawls by the score.
But in India, traffic flows like salmon schools, and does not stop, and I came to understand quickly that beeping, which in American cities means “Look Out, Jackass!” means something completely different. All trucks have a sign on the back that says “Blow Horn”—it lets the other guy know you are nearby, and is considered a courtesy, albeit a collectively cacophonous one. I could easily argue that the Indian salmon school requires much more conscious awareness and consideration of each other than a more rule-bound sto- and-go system. And it works. It just does.
In Friday rush hour Jaipur traffic, where a thousand lanes were trying to funnel through the Pink City’s inner gates, we saw a little girl, maybe four years old, with her two-year-old brother hoisted on her hip, casually negotiating a street crossing, through the traffic jam. In the U.S., there would be child abuse sirens and a flock of lawsuits at the ready. But this kid was collected, had done this forever, and was not the least bit daunted by her charge of bringing junior home. To send an American suburban kid into that maelstrom would be morally wrong, and he would get run over in five seconds. But these kids grew up with this. It works. It just does.
Trucks dump large loads of trash in the street, in a manner that would be unbelievably not OK in the U.S., even less so in Germany. But it is, effectively, a re-cycle system. People go through and pick out whatever is useful, and cows, dogs, pigs, and anybody else go through and eat what is edible. Finally, there is just plastic and styrofoam, and somebody comes by and scoops it up and moves it out. Literally tons of what we would call “trash” finds perfectly respectable uses. Again, we would have a thousand laws that say this is simply impossible, and will create all manner of sanitation issues, and fines would be levied, more laws passed. But it works there. It just does.
I can’t tell you how huge it was to “get” that, deep in my gut. We add huge moral charges to what in many cases are just differences, not issues that need to carry a moral charge.
So here was my light bulb: “Chaos” is often simply an “order” that the observer does not, or cannot perceive or appreciate. I think that when my ego or personality is threatened, or at least well beyond its level of familiarity, THAT is when I am inclined to call it “Chaos”, and mean it in a negative way. Moral overtones waft into consciousness. Good stuff to think and write about…
By the way, my German brother-in-law, Markus, pronounces “chaos” the German way (Kaos), so that it sounds more like “cows.” So when, after a particularly colorful auto-rickshaw ride, he announced “Cows Works”, I had to smile, and, especially for India, I liked his pronunciation better…