Cultural Patterns of South Asia

Lesson Transcript
Instructor: David Wood

David has taught Honors Physics, AP Physics, IB Physics and general science courses. He has a Masters in Education, and a Bachelors in Physics.

After watching this video lesson, you will be able to describe the various cultures of countries in South Asia and realize ways in which they are different from each other. A short quiz will follow.

Culture of South Asia

South Asia is a highly populated area that includes eight countries: Afghanistan, Bhutan, Bangladesh, India, the Maldives, Pakistan, Nepal, and Sri Lanka. South Asia is one of the most diverse parts of the world, and so summarizing their culture in a single lesson is an incredibly difficult task. It's pretty much the definition of a cultural melting pot. But there are still things we can say about culture in the area, and we can talk about some of the differences between these countries.

The culture of South Asia is completely entwined in language, ethnicity, and religion. There are hundreds of languages, ethnic groups, and many popular religions. These things, along with Western influences, especially from the old British Empire, produce a patchwork of local cultural variations and differences. So to really understand the culture of South Asia, we first have to look at languages, ethnicity, and religions.

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  • 0:01 Culture of South Asia
  • 0:55 Religion
  • 3:00 Language & Ethnicity
  • 3:58 Dress, Cuisine & Sport
  • 5:29 Lesson Summary
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Religion is a big part of the culture of South Asia. There are many practiced religions: Hindu, Islam, Buddhism, and Sikhism, especially. All four of these religions were born in South Asia and go back for thousands of years, with connections to ancient civilizations in the area. The religions are separated along national borders. When the British gave India its independence, it was split into two countries: India and Pakistan. India was the area that was mostly Hindu, with some Buddhists, and Pakistan was the region that was mostly Islamic. To this day, over 90% of Pakistanis are Muslim. But this has produced a lot of tension between the two countries.

One of the big cultural patterns in the area is the contrast between egalitarian ideals and caste systems. Egalitarian ideals say that everyone is of equal value, and nobody is born superior to anyone else. The caste system is basically the opposite. The Hindu faith is the reason that, historically, India had a caste system, which gave people a social standing at birth. Some people really hated this caste system, and those people formed the Buddhist faith, which is more egalitarian. And then, there is Islam, which came from the West. Islam is generally egalitarian, like Buddhism.

So, there is a clear cultural distinction between egalitarian Muslim countries like Pakistan, Afghanistan, the Maldives, and Bangladesh, egalitarian Buddhist countries like Bhutan and Sri Lanka (though Sri Lanka is more religiously mixed), and Hindu countries like India and Nepal. While the caste system is less strong in India these days, these cultural roots are still there. Their society remains hierarchical, and subordinates tend not to contradict superiors in the workplace.

The various religions have a big impact on how people live. The days they celebrate come from the religions, how patriarchal the country is, and even down to the cuisine: Islam, in particular, has strict guidelines in what can be eaten and how food can be prepared. Even artists only produce art that aligns with the religious values of the country; artistic free speech that involves going against Islam is frowned upon.

Language & Ethnicity

Language and ethnicity are even more complex and diverse. People identify their ethnicity in terms of the countries that exist today, in terms of caste, and in terms of the ancient tribes and ethnic groups that lived in the area. There are hundreds of groups, and the details aren't always well-documented - censuses don't always provide enough information.

In terms of languages, there are two main groups: Indo-Aryan languages and Dravidian. Indo-Aryans are in North India, Bangladesh, Pakistan, Nepal, Sri Lanka, and the Maldives. Dravidians are more in select areas: mostly Southern India and parts of Sri Lanka and Pakistan. But then there are lots of smaller language families, just to make things even more complicated. The most common languages in South Asia are Hindi and Bengali in India, Bengali in Bangladesh, Punjabi, Pashto, and Sindhi in Pakistan, and Dari and Pashto in Afghanistan. But there are a ton more to get your head around: 780 in total!

Dress, Cuisine, & Sport

Traditional dress in India involves silk saris for the women and dhotis, lungis or panches for men. Pakistanis wear the salwar kameez, and something similar is worn in Bangladesh. Sri Lanka's dress has more in common with India.

In terms of cuisine, across South Asia, the cuisine tends to involve heavily spiced and usually very hot food. This is the food people eat every day of their lives. In many places, meat is a big part of people's diet, including the Muslim countries, though many Hindus and Buddhists are vegetarian for religious reasons. So while the spices are common throughout South Asia, the thing you're spicing isn't always the same.

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