The Indian concept of time - Intercultural Insights
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The Indian concept of time
June 22, 2017
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The Indian concept of time in the business world

The Indian concept of time is comprised of three complimentary aspects:The Indian concept of time

  • Traditional ideas of time related to Hindu thought.
  • Determinism specific to the context and the given moment.
  • India’s absorption of foreign ways of thinking, and particularly British ones.

Traditional perceptions of time vary significantly between those generally prevalent in the West and those found in India. In the West, time is seen as being linear, with history being seen as a continuous process: it is cumulative, much like man’s footprint in the world.

For the Indians however, time is seen as being cyclical, following a recurring cycle of four ages, involving the appearance, degeneration and end of the universe before a new era begins, identical to the previous ones. The phases of this cycle are seen as being extremely long: at 1,728 million, 1,296 million, 864,000 and 432,000 years respectively. The final phase, which the world is currently believed to be going through, is seen by Hindus as involving an erosion of values and an increase in corruption. This is believed to be the precursor for the destruction of the universe followed by its regeneration and the start of a new cycle.

  1. The mythological conception

Faced with this mythological conception of time in which the scale of human existence pales into insignificance in comparison to this infinite cycle, we consequently understand why the Indians seem far removed from the problems of time and the meaning of their own actions in daily life.

As a result, the colonists consequently spoke of encountering a fatalistic and  indolent people, tied down by the inertia of their values, the “burden of their mentalities” or the “Empire of never-changing customs”. Some travel guides point out that the Indian national language uses the same term to refer to “today” and “tomorrow”, kal, as an indicator of India’s otherworldliness and timelessness. Nothing could be further from the truth, as demonstrated by the almost electrical and communicative energy to be found in the major cities or by India’s high economic growth rate. Indeed, achieving salvation outside this world only has meaning when related to life here in this earthly realm. Detachment and the quest for freedom only exist as interludes and  goals during an existence devoted to the pursuit of activities just as prosaic and material as they are spiritual.  The result is that for the vast majority of Indians brought up believing in the reincarnation cycle, the renunciation of society and of worldly things is nothing but an abstract ideal pertaining to a later and hopefully more enlightened existence.

Hindu spirituality therefore has little impact on behaviour and time management in a practical sense other than a characteristic which is often encountered in the country: the capacity to relativize in crisis situations and to stand back and put things into perspective. Because unlike Westerners, for whom time is a rare and non-renewable resource, the Indians see the calendar as an advantage. In India, taking your time is more often seen as doing things properly or acting with discernment. There is therefore no point in trying to force things along, especially as, due to the cyclical nature of time, opportunities you don’t take up today will inevitably present themselves again. Which brings us to the notion of the quality of time which, in business, is itself linked to your shared relationship with your colleagues in business. The Indians generally seek to establish cooperation with their different partners over the long term in order to build up all the right conditions for a relationship based on mutual trust and confidence. With this in mind, it’s important to understand that you should never seek to hurry things along or push for decisions if a particular matter seems to be stalling for some unknown reason (and the reasons can be many and varied, for example if the stars are not aligned properly!). Such an attitude would have the opposite effect to what you’re looking for and could actually sow doubts in the minds of your Indian partners or even make them suspicious as to your real intentions.

  1. A variable calendar

The second aspect of the Indian approach to time is derived from the South Asian perspectivism which makes the calendar something variable rather than set in stone. Here, you will encounter the word “polychronic”, often used to describe the extreme versatility related to context. This point offers an excellent demonstration of the statement by the Indianist anthropologist Louis Dumont that India is a culture in which there are never any absolute truths, just momentary positions. When it comes to negotiations for example, this unusual state of mind dictates that any commitment is always combined with a combination of highly specific variables. Such a commitment can therefore become inapplicable very easily. This can explain the incredible last-minute about-faces and the incessant fluctuations in the long and difficult negotiations between Dassault and the Indian state concerning the sale of Rafale aircraft, which has become a textbook example.

In other words, everything is relative, nothing is set in stone. The Indian mind-set is a constant game of chess, a game which they invented in its original form known as shataranj. For this reason, the Indians attach little importance to contracts and rarely honour them to the letter. In practice they will often ask for subsequent modifications to agreements, new delivery deadlines, an extra discount, etc…, Frequently encountered practices which admirably express one of the watchwords of the Indians’ daily vocabulary: “to adjust“, or in its Hinglish version (a combination of the words Hindi and English, the local pidgin English): “adjust karna“, which literally means “make the adjustment”. Hence, one extra piece of advice for those dealing with the Indians: it is vital to organise your work in such a way as to be able to accommodate possible fluctuations and to manage the inevitable last-minute changes.

  1. Openness to foreign ways of thinking

The third and final aspect of the Indian approach to time results from the country’s historical openness to Western ways of thinking and doing things. This acculturation actually began with colonisation, before intensifying when liberal methods were more enthusiastically embraced in 1991, and exposure to globalisation increased. The influence of the Anglo-Saxon business culture on India is more notable in the private sector, where it is supported and driven by the courses issued by international training establishments such as the IIM and IIT (Indian Institutes of Management & Technology). An aspect of work as important to Westerners as punctuality, something traditionally so absent from the Indian mind-set, has now taken on a whole new significance. A real process of change concerning working methods is therefore underway, which can only facilitate international cooperation.

However, as intercultural collaboration involves a permanent state of compromise, when differences between the Indian and Western concepts of time cause problems, the foreign partner is advised to rein in his impatience. He’ll succeed better in the long run by heeding the local adage: “Every European coming to India gains patience and loses it if he already had it”.

Gaël de Graverol, Akteos consultant, leader for intercultural training

About author

Gaël de Graverol

Gaël de Graverol

A doctor in Social Anthropology and Ethnology, and a graduate of the École des Hautes Études en Sciences Sociales in Paris - (School for Advanced Studies in the Social Sciences), Gaël de Graverol is an associate member of the Centre d’Études de l’Inde et de l’Asie du Sud (centre for the study of India and southern Asia - CEIAS- CNRS). He has taught courses in the anthropology of southern and eastern Asia at the EHESS and in Indian civilisation at the Institut National des Langues et Civilisations Orientales (national institute for eastern civilisations and languages) and at Paul Verlaine University in Metz. He is also a lecturer and intercultural trainer for India and the Indian world.

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