Bombay — For just one rupee, about 13 cents, visitors to the Prince of Wales Museum of Western India here in Bombay can get an eyeful of India's ancient and glorious past.
Encased in glass on the ground floor is a potter's kiln, a huge trough-shaped structure built over a stone foundation. Over 100 small and big pots could be baked in the kiln at a time. Its date: 1300 BC.
Nearby is a larger cabinet of artifacts of the Indus civilization. Date: 2500-1700 BC. In yet another exhibit are Mesolithic stone cutting tools found in India as far back as 8000 BC.
India has one of the world's oldest civilizations. It predates the great age of Greece, the foundation of Rome, the flight of the Israelites from Egypt, the birth of Christ Jesus. Indian civilization was already some 3,000 years old when Alexander the Great dropped by around the 4th century before Christ.
It is a land bearing the imprint of 20 centuries of feudalism. And the signs of its past still ar very present today.
Travelers to India cannot help being struck by how much is still done by hand. The building of roads is done by hand; the smashing of stones to make those roads is done by hand -- women's hands as well as men's; and the mixed concrete to build India's modern skyscrapers is carried in large metal containers on the heads of women scurrying along barefoot.
But these outward signs of primitiveness and poverty can be deceptive.
Although India is one of the poorest countries in the world -- in per capita terms earning just $180 per year -- its gross national product is, in absolute terms, among the largest.
Though 80 percent of the population depends on agriculture and lives in the countryside, India's industrial production is the tenth largest in the world.
The reason India still appears so ancient and primitive is precisely because 80 percent of its people live in rural villages.
Village life in India seems to carry on unchanged and largely unchanging. It is the strong fabric of Indian life. It imposes obligations and duties.
Built on that small social structure is the weightier joint family system. Even in the cities parents, grandparents, young children, older married brothers and sisters, and in-laws will not just coexist together, but live harmoniously together.
"For better or for worse they are your family. You respect them and you take care of them," says an Indian accountant on the occasion of an Indian family's Sunday dinner in New Delhi.
Another Indian volunteers the claim that in India not one in 10,000, whether they be untouchables or the affluent middle class, resort to divorce.
The other thing that dominates Indian life is religion. It has become a bulwark against communism.
Two Indians travelling together by car -- one from the south, the other from the north -- are agreed on what brings 652 million people eating different food and speaking more than 1,600 languages and dialect together. "It is our religion," they say. Some 83 percent of Indians are Hindus.
Indian village life is not only holding its own in terms of maintaining traditional values.It also has resisted urbanization, making India the only country in the world that has not achieved a net urban growth in the last 20 years.
Indians prosperity depends on those villages. For that 80 percent of the population is responsible for nearly half of the total Indian economy.
George Beier, senior economist of the World Bank, terms it a "unique economy." he adds that "what makes it so astonishing is that a country that has a rural economy like India is self-sufficient."
India produces practically everything it needs and imports sparingly. Remarks a Western diplomat in New Delhi:
"The great success story of India since 1947 is that it has evolved steady growth. It no longer is a major food importer. This speaks volumes for the profound changes overtaking the rural sector. One cannot help being impressed." To this diplomat, India "bestrides Asia like a colossus."
Asked if he could accept this characterization, Mr. Beier of the World Bank, who is very optimistic about India, replied:
"India is so poor yet highly developed that it is almost completely developed. India made a decision to become self-sufficient in certain areas such as cement, steel, railroads -- the biggies -- from the earliest days of planning. And they have been very adamant about it. The capital output ratio, that is the amount of dollar investment it takes to produce capital goods, is also very high.
"If you set out to become a potential colossus," he declared, "this is the way you do it."
"It is a potentialm colossus; it has not reached that stage yet," cautions Ramashray Roy of the Center for the study of Developing Societies in New Delhi. He is one of India's leading political scientists.
"Population-wise, talent-wise, economy structure-wise it is a potential colossus," concedes Dr. Roy. But there are serious economic and political difficulties that he feels give rise to caution, if not concern.
Among them: internal political squabbling; the inability to move essential supplies like diesel oil, salt, and sugar, which contributed to the fall of the Charan Singh government in the last election; major deforestation; and the disintegration of the national political system in the far northeast, particularly in Assam.
Dr. Roy sees a real danger in Indians feeling that Indira Gandhi can somehow wave a magic wand remove these problems. He doubt Mrs. GAndhi is the panacea and warns that if she does not have appropriate economic policies for dealing with these problems she will be in trouble. Then, he says, "Rhetoric is out. Symbols are out.
"If we cannot handly whatever political discontent arises, then all of the energies of the government will be turned to maintaining law and order, which means tremendous advancement of law and order machinery. This, in turn, means diverting resources from development activity to activities maintaining law and order. To that extent you will lose face in the external world because you cannot control you own house."
Nevertheless the most noticeable thing about India on returning nine years after an earlier visit is that India appears a far more powerful force in South Asia than it was at the turn of the last decade.
"Immense economic muscle has come into India's possession," says a leading New Delhi intellectual.
This is having several side effects. One is the surge of patriotic ardor.
In several places in India there were official patriotic slogans on the side of the road -- "One religion. One nation. Let us be proud of it." And, "India is our country. Let us help to make it strong." Yet another: "Be Indian. Buy Indian."
Another effect of creeping success is a significant change in Indian psychology.
According to Girilal Jain, editor of the Times of India in Bombay, fatalism, almost endemic to the Indian psyche, is beginning to retreat. He tossed out several examples.
One: If a crop fails or the rains don't come, the villagers no longer accept the dismal news as their fate. They immediately start trying to plant a new crop or make some kind of adjustment that will help mitigate the setback.
It is diffucult to ascertain to what extent modernization and success will weave changes in the Indian social fabric. But some reassessment of fundamental principles would seem to be under way -- at least if an article in Seminar, a leading intellectual journal in India, is any guide.
In an article entitle "Our Vanishing Ethics" Nayantara Sahgal, novelist and political commentator, notes that where the rules for living apply universally to all members of society, the moral choice is the same for everyone.
Christians, for example, have their Ten Commandments. In Mr. Sahgal's view the Commandments do not vary from Christian to Christian and there is no mistaking what the basic Christian ethic means.
"Conscience," he adds, "is the prime motivator of Western society . . . [but] no universal rules of conduct govern Hindu society. What to do and not to do during the lifetime in which the Hindu happens to be presently placed depends on who and what he is, his age, and station."
Mr. Sahgal believes a Hindu is ruled by duty, which takes the place of conscience.
"Caught between abstractions on the one hand and ritual on the other, the Hindu has nothing he can call a living faith, certainly no sounding board for moral behavior. Instead he has obedience. From chldhood he is taught to obey -- his parents, his teacher, his elder, his ruler, his boss.
"And in this vast framework of obedience any hypocrisy, any lie, can and does flourish, for lifelong obedience is certainly not the climate of man's growth, nor can it produce anything but corruption behind the scenes.
"Character is connected internally with conscience and outwardly with responsibility. Until these two are acknowledged and joined, there is no escape from the rampant immorality that no longer takes the trouble to disguise itself."
He concludes: "Emotionally and psychologically we have tended to avoid the whole question of values. We have steered clear of the collision course, the stark choice. It may now be time to define our values, to do without the luxury of detachment. Somewhere we must realize we cannot eat our cake and have it. All contradiction cannot forever be contained.
"We have to choose, and perhaps only then come to maturity as a nation. But the kind of maturity we achieve will rest on how the dominant Hindu culture we are heir to will look at the issue of good and evil, for all workable ethies flow from a clear and categorical distinction between the two."