The Real and Imaginary India

The internal (and eternal) battle between expectations and reality in travel fought in the holy land of India


There is the India of the Imagination. The one every traveler carries with him in his mind as he enters the country. The one that has been formed through studies, the media, exposure to movies and documentaries, and above all, through the ever-present creative imagination.

Then there is the Real India. The one of flesh and blood, real everyday life, bare fact. And no two countries can be more different than these two. Never have my expectations been so misaligned with reality as when the two Indias finally confronted one another within me with an unavoidable fieriness.

This inner confrontation led me to reexamine the relationship between expectations and reality in travel, forcing me to clarify their interplay in the forming of one’s understanding and experience of a country. First, I examine this relationship. In the light thus gained, of a deepened awareness of how expectations and our imagination converse with reality, I then proceed with painful honesty to self-analyze, so to speak, my India-experience.

Expectations and Reality in Travel

In most countries I visit, there is a process whereby expectations are slowly and smoothly adjusted, replaced, or transformed to accommodate reality. The usual process I go through is one whereby expectations cooperate with reality to create a new mental map of a country’s character and soul. Some expectations, preconceived ideas, and creations of the imagination are completely discarded after the first contact with the new country and culture, never again to return once it turns out they were utterly distorted or had no relation to the real. Some others are seen through the new light of actual experience and have part of their truth retained by this newly transformed vision. Still other expectations turn out to have been accurate, conforming with reality, and thus remain intact, if not enriched and solidified.

Expectations and our natural urge to imagine a country before we visit it are unavoidablenatural, and even necessary. Unavoidable, because every one of us – in an age of globalization and mass media – has been, in a way, “in contact” with a culture or a country prior to our visit. Natural, because it is in our nature to bind together the disparate pieces of information we have accumulated over the years into a meaningful mental portrait of a country. Necessary, because we must read about a country before visiting it. Without any prior knowledge of the culture we are about to explore, we cannot meaningfully navigate within its geographical, historical, cultural, and spiritual dimensions. Visiting a country without preparation makes us blind to its treasures and deaf to its language – we become aimless drifters.

Although expectations and our imagination are a given, a conscious effort must be made to put them aside and see the new country with fresh eyes. This is difficult, if not utterly impossible, because our mental maps have been created over a lifetime. Irrespective of our efforts to make “objective” observations, our new experiences will still be filtered and interpreted through our already functioning faculties of comparing, connecting, and analyzing. Furthermore, no country stands alone in a vacuum. It is understood, historically and culturally, in terms of our already existing knowledge of the world and of the region in which it is situated. No mental exertion can force our mind to stop making these connections and comparisons automatically. Seeing with fresh eyes then becomes an exercise in being more present, more truthful to one’s actual fresh experiences. Still, it is always an exercise – and one that can never be successfully completed. Our already formed expectations do not allow full access to reality – if, that is, there exists a reality outside our deformed vision, or if there is a reality that can ever be conceived as existing beyond our subjectivity. Mindful of this, a prudent traveler ought not to be so much preoccupied with discarding everything he has already mentally formed about a country, but rather focus on adjusting and modifying it to accommodate the real. The harmonious marriage of the Real and the Imaginary country is a crucial element in the endeavor of truly capturing its soul. It is on the battleground of the constant struggle between the Real and the Imaginary that a traveler’s final experience and understanding of a country takes place. The intrepid itinerant does not shy away from this constant struggle.

Let the stage then be set in the land of India, the land that gave birth to the great war epic, the Mahabharata, so that a new synthesis and understanding may be revealed.

The Two Indias 

The India of the Imagination: The India of the Ancient Indus Civilization, the India of the Vedas and the Vedanta, of Shankara, Ramanuja, Ramakrishna, Sri Aurobindo; the India of the Buddha, Nagarjuna, Dharmakirti, Padmasambhava; the India of the great Moghuls, the palaces, the Maharajas; the India of exotic dances, otherworldly music and festivals; the India of the holy Ganges river and the world’s most ancient and most colorful holy towns – Varanasi, Vrindavan, Pushkar, Omkareshwar; the India of the Taj Mahal and a million colorful temples and gods – Shiva, Vishnu, Krishna, Kali; the India of gurus, yogis, sadhus, sanyasins, fakirs; the India of the nineteenth century Renaissance – Syed Ahmad Khan, Ram Mohan Roy, Vivekananda, Tagore, Gandhi; the modern India with nuclear power plants, the next “superpower” along with China, the largest democracy on the planet; the India of great natural beauty – the Himalayas, the tea plantations, the Kerala canals; India the ancient, the wise, the culturally diverse.

Ever since Alexander the Great first set foot on the fringes of this expansive and mysterious subcontinent, is there a single educated person in the West who has not dreamed of visiting, at least once, this Eternal India of the Imagination? If one were to select an archetypal “country of the imagination,” India, ahead of all others, would be the instant and natural choice.

The Real India: The India of filth and incessant noise; the India of disorder, disorganization, malfunctioning buses, trains, and roads; the India of beggars queueing in the hundreds for a free bowl of food handed out by charities; the India of fake gurus, feigned sadhus and tourist fakirs; the India of castes, religious fanaticism, racism; the India of discordant extremes – rich and poor, materialism and spirituality, deep philosophy and ubiquitous superstition, the privileged well-educated and the illiterate masses; the India in which people die from drought in the sweltering plateaus, while others are drowned by floods in the river basins; India the “superpower”… without electricity, highways, sewage systems, and not a single trash bin to be seen anywhere.

How can a transformed vision be accomplished in the light of the Real? Can the glorious India of the Imagination retain a modicum of its former glory after one has experienced the Real?

The Battle

Let the two Indias strike one another mercilessly in a fierce struggle waged in the depths of my being. Let whatever truth there is of India come to the fore so that its soul may be captured. Let the battle begin!

For every true struggling sanyasin, a thousand fake ones appearing to cloud the scene. For every rare natural or architectural gem, ugliness and filth triumphant. For every great philosopher or sage, thousands of ignorant masses fanning statues to keep them cool abounding. For every slight and faint glimpse of beauty and harmony, a mighty rushing river of repulsiveness and disharmony overwhelming the landscape. For every glimmer of hope for a better future, countless indications that India can only become worse …

But this is not all. The battle gives rise to puzzles that mystify and confuse our rationality: How could a country of such childish superstitions ever have given birth to a Buddha or a Shankara? How, in a land that boasts a four-thousand-year-old civilization, do people still sleep in filthy streets and wear no shoes? Is religion the only true contribution of India to human civilization? Are Buddhism and Hinduism India’s greatest achievements? Yet, these two cannot so easily be added to India’s full credit either! For Buddhism was to attain its greatest heights in lands other than India, and the deep philosophy of Hinduism, the Vedanta, was to reach its full bloom with the figures of Vivekananda and Sri Aurobindo, who had Western, not Indian education, and who expressed their ideas in English – a foreign language!

Even the supposedly “golden age” of the Moghul Empire, upon closer examination, crumbles to pieces. For the great Moghuls were not so great after all, caring only for their self-preservation, leaving the rest of the country and its infrastructure in permanent disarray. Their art was the result of their obsession with self-aggrandizement; there was nothing noble and classical emanating from their colossal palaces and castles. Even the Taj Mahal (a Persian phrase, meaning “Crown of Palaces”) was built by a Moghul emperor with Persian roots, who had invited mainly foreign artists and craftsmen; it was not the organic and natural expression of a new civilization or of an advancement in the arts.

As for the ultimate ideal of yoga, which, as Sri Aurobindo says, consists in “integrating the inner with the outer existence,” and creating in the real world works of beauty and harmony and perfection, India seems to be far from it. It is in the small island of Bali, thousands of miles away from India – where Hindu culture was supplanted many centuries ago – that this sought-after harmony of inner and outer worlds is to be found and experienced. Mother India herself has failed to reach the ideal she has set for herself – an ideal she spent millennia developing and formulating.

The Resolution

The battle has been decided: The Real India has utterly crushed the India of the Imagination! Nothing remains standing from the old, glorious dream. The India of the Imagination has proved to be as elusive as a Himalayan yeti.

It dawns upon me that no marriage of the two Indias is now possible. Their fierce struggle has separated them forever. They remain apart, not like two faces of one coin, but like two different coins of two different countries. So, here I am, pondering upon this strange and utterly new phenomenon in my travels: the impossibility of reconciling the experience of a real country with everything I knew and imagined about it before my visit. India, as it seems, is the only country for which the interplay or dialogue between reality and imagination cannot lead to the creation of a new synthesis, a new mind-map deepening my understanding of the country. Expectation and reality have turned out to have been so disparate, so irreconcilable, so unwilling to truly converse with one another that, after traveling around the country, I remain with these two separate Indias in my mind. Yet, the most puzzling of all is that, although the Real has overwhelmed the India of the Imagination, it has not managed to supplant it! Mysteriously, the two are still equally present as separate, parallel entities in my mind and psyche.

But where is this India of the Imagination? How did it ever come about and how does it subsist if little reality seems to correspond to it? And how is the true soul of India to be finally captured? Now that the debris of the fierce battle has settled, a clearer vision may appear. These two questions may be tackled with some assurance.

It seems that the India of the Imagination exists in another domain, dimension or sphere of Being, separate and distinct, as if the Real has barely touched it. There are two sources of the India of the Imagination. The first is connected to the Real India with a thin thread. As it turns out, a big part of the glorified India of the Imagination was the result of the active imagination of the Europeans (mainly the British), who built upon the wealth of the exotic that the real country presented to the senses of those who visited it. A part of this idealized image is therefore a mixture of a little bit of truth and … a lot of Eastern spices. The overwhelming majority of mankind had never actually seen or extensively traveled to India until the last decades of the twentieth century (even today, India receives very few visitors for its enormous size). Carried away by India’s remoteness and mystique, influenced by novels and travelers’ exaggerated descriptions about India, intrigued by bits and pieces of philosophical ideas, yoga, and stories about gurus and holy men performing miracles, the human imagination has created a vision of this place that does not faithfully relate to the real.

Yet, this India of the Imagination is not just “a figment of the imagination”! There seems to be a second, more solid foundation, on which it stands, one that goes beyond the distortions to which the Real India was subjected. Imagination itself resides in the mind. This gives us a hint that the India of the Imagination must also be searched for in some immaterial domain. Just as the civilization of Ancient Greece is not only to be found in the few temples on the Acropolis, but in the legacy of philosophical, aesthetic, political, and practical ideas of a world that moved in thought, and is, therefore, eternal and unaffected by the passage of centuries, likewise, atemporal India is to be found in those intangible elements that are not easily visible. India’s thought has been characterized throughout the millennia by a single-minded obsession with the Spirit. India, more than any other place on earth, has delved deep into the spiritual aspect of Man to discover dimensions of Being and truths that go beyond both matter and mind. In spite of (or because of!) the disappointing realities of everyday life, the ailing economy, the backwardness in so many fields (that have frustrated and angered almost all great minds of India too, including, above all, the great Vivekananda), India has concentrated on and managed to advance in the spiritual field.

Therefore, when we explore the heart of what constitutes and sustains the India of the Imagination – and the main elements that run through most of its features – we discover this permanent theme of Spirit. Buddhism and the Vedanta have explored the world of Spirit to an extent that can barely be approached by other systems of thought. The many systems of Yoga and Tantra are nothing but ways of forcing the body and mind to seek the Spirit in both Man and the Universe. The holy Ganges and Varanasi, the yogis and sanyasins, the many gods and exotic festivals – to repeat a few of the elements referred to earlier that sustain the India of the Imagination (although these specific ones are also connected to what is beautiful and positive in Real India) – are nothing but the most obvious expressions of India’s complete preoccupation with the world of the Spirit. This persistent and uncompromising pursuance of Spirit occurs in a dimension of Being that lies beyond the physical and visible world – even though it is connected to the visible with a thin thread.

In the end, there are, and always have been, two Indias that exist simultaneously side by side yet stand apart: The one, the Real, in Space and Time; the other, of the Imagination, residing independently in the human mind. It is in this India of the Imagination, which emanates mainly from the India of the Spirit, that the visitor must try to discover the real soul of India. For this India of the Spirit does not simply exist as a country on earth, but has always existed atemporally in the deepest recesses of the human soul, forever luring travelers, explorers, and pilgrims to the real land bearing the name of India.

© 2024 Nicos Hadjicostis