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Namaste: Introducing HuffPost India

08/12/2014 6:54 AM IST | Updated 15/07/2016 8:24 AM IST
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NEW DELHI -- Greetings from India, where we're launching our latest international edition, in collaboration with The Times of India Group and its digital arm, Times Internet (TIL).

India has always held a deeply personal significance to me. When I was 17, I studied comparative religion at Calcutta's Visva-Bharati University, founded by the writer and artist Rabindranath Tagore. In between studies, I traveled across the country, falling in love with it -- a love affair that has continued to this day. And in recent years, as I've become increasingly interested in how we can bring more well-being and wisdom into our modern, technology-besieged lives, India has become even more fascinating to me.

Beyond its 1.24 billion people, India is vast in every way -- its history, its colors, its food, its spiritual traditions, the stories of its people, its contradictions, and in terms of the challenges it faces. Telling those many stories, and creating a platform for Indians to tell their stories themselves, is one of the reasons I'm so excited about HuffPost India. As Patrick French writes in India: A Portrait:

With its overlap of extreme wealth and lavish poverty, its mix of the educated and the ignorant, its competing ideologies, its lack of uniformity, its kindness and profound cruelty, its complex relationships with religion, its parallel realities and the rapid speed of social change -- India is a macrocosm, and may be the world's default setting for the future.

Without question, India is facing huge and unique challenges. While it has vaulted from the world's 10th largest economy in 2005 to the third largest in 2011 -- and is on pace to overtake China as the world's most populous country by 2028 -- 400 million Indians are mired in poverty, and the country is home to 40 percent of the world's malnourished children. Corruption is endemic at every political level, while nearly a quarter of Indian men have committed an act of sexual violence, and, last year, 92 women were raped on average each day -- and this only includes reported cases. (Some activists say as few as 10 percent or even 1 percent of rapes are reported.) Over half the country's population -- 620 million people -- do not have a toilet at home; as UNICEF's Maria Fernandez put it, "Urban or rural, poo is all around us, in our playgrounds and outside our offices." As Jean Drèze and Amartya Sen write in An Uncertain Glory: India and Its Contradictions:

Inequality in India takes the terrible form of a massive disparity between the privileged and the rest, with a huge deficiency of the basic requirements for a minimally acceptable life for the underdogs of society. The basic facilities of a usable school, an accessible hospital, a toilet at home, or two square meals a day, are missing for a huge proportion of the Indian population.

During this time of massive transition -- according to the World Bank, India is in the midst of the largest rural-to-urban migration so far this century -- traditional support systems have been weakened, and the pressures are immense. Right now, an average of 371 people in India commit suicide each day -- that's 15 every hour. "The [multinational corporate] culture has brought about long working hours, lesser time spent with family, more distractions and more reliance on technology," Johnson Thomas, director of the suicide hotline center Aasra, said. In other words, increased stress and burnout, along with less connection to coping resources like family and friends, are having a devastating effect.

This isn't dissimilar to what's happened in the West, except here in India it's happening much more quickly and on a much more massive scale.

And just as in the U.S., hyperconnectedness and overdependence on phones and devices is having a negative impact on Indians' sleep, resulting in what's been termed "junk sleep" -- sleep that, because of constant interruption or the presence of distractions, prevents us from enjoying the necessary benefits of deep and REM sleep. The problem is especially widespread among India's young people. "While it has become common to see pre-teens flaunting cellphones and iPods gifted to them by doting parents," wrote Anisha Francis in the Times of India, "electronic gadgets top the list of causes for 'unhygienic sleep patterns'..." According to one survey of Indians in 25 cities across the country, an astounding 93 percent of respondents reported being sleep-deprived.

But India has unique resources to meet all these challenges. When people talk about India's strengths, they often focus on aspects like the tech sector; its educational commitment to science, engineering and computers; and its growing middle class. Less discussed is what you see all around you when you're here: how, on an everyday level, Indians organically and effortlessly use the tools and practices of their ancient spiritual traditions. The amazing extent to which these traditions are woven into the fabric of Indian life will go a long way toward helping India meet its many challenges.

For several decades now, many of these traditions and practices have been making their way into Western culture. From the widespread adoption of meditation to the rise of yoga, what was once seen as "alternative" has now become firmly entrenched in the American mainstream.

India's spiritual traditions are now at the center of a global conversation about what it means to live a good life. The Bhagavad Gita, the fifth-century-B.C. section of the Hindu epic Mahabharata, draws attention to three different kinds of life: a life of inertia and dullness with no goals and achievement; a life full of action, busyness and desire; and a life of goodness, which is not just about ourselves but about others. It's that second life that much of our modern lives seems to be based on, but more and more people across the globe are realizing the emptiness of that approach to living. To thrive, we need to combine it with the third kind of life.

Some of our most innovative business leaders have drawn on principles that can trace their origins back to India, finding that yoga, meditation and renewal are a much-needed counterpoint to a Western workplace culture fueled by burnout, stress, sleep deprivation and exhaustion. Consider the book that Steve Jobs asked to be given out at his memorial: not a business manual, not a book about tech innovation but The Autobiography of a Yogi by Paramahansa Yogananda, one of the people who helped popularize meditation in the West. As Yogananda wrote:

Intuition is soul guidance, appearing naturally in man during those instants when his mind is calm. Nearly everyone has had the experience of an inexplicably correct "hunch," or has transferred his thoughts effectively to another person. The human mind, free from the static of restlessness, can perform through its antenna of intuition all the functions of complicated radio mechanisms sending and receiving thoughts, and tuning out undesirable ones.

Jobs had spent time in India and was particularly taken with the role of intuition in the everyday lives of Indians. "The people in the Indian countryside don't use their intellect like we do, they use their intuition instead, and their intuition is far more developed than in the rest of the world," Jobs said. "Intuition is a very powerful thing, more powerful than intellect, in my opinion. That's had a big impact on my work."

And this power of intuition and mindfulness is increasingly, and conclusively, validated by science. Last October, I traveled to Dharamsala for a small gathering with the Dalai Lama organized by the Mind and Life Institute. During my stay, it was impossible not to notice just how deeply a sense of gratitude is embedded in daily Indian life, with every meal starting with a simple prayer, even in the midst of poverty. People think of the Dalai Lama as a spiritual leader, and he is certainly that, but listening to him and many of the monks present, it was fascinating to see the way they are looking to science (specifically neuroscience) to convince a skeptical, secular society of the power of contemplation and compassion to change our lives and our world.

A huge part of India's potential lies in its ability to rediscover practices rooted in its own past, and to incorporate them into every part of life, including politics. Prime Minister Narendra Modi was elected this past May on a platform of tackling India's infrastructure needs and soaring inequality and poverty. But political leadership is about improving lives in every way possible. So last month Modi appointed India's first minister for yoga, Shripad Yesso Naik. India already had a department within the Health Ministry focusing on Ayurveda and yoga, not only conducting new research but raising awareness around these practices and their benefits. But Naik's appointment takes this commitment to the next level, positioning India to be an even stronger global leader on well-being. "This is our system and it has not received enough prominence," Naik said. "We will take it to the masses."

When I met with Naik over the weekend in Bangalore at Sri Sri Ravi Shankar's ashram, where he was celebrating the 10th anniversary of the Sri Sri College for Ayurvedic Sciences and Research, he told me he'd like to see "a yoga teacher in every village, and yoga taught in every public school." But yoga, the way he talked about it, is very different from the reductionist notion of yoga as exercise. What gives it its power, he said, "is the connection with the mind and all the wisdom that goes back 5,000 years, making it possible to prevent disease and offering specific asanas [postures] for different ailments."

Prime Minister Modi himself has long been known as an avid yoga practitioner (he apparently practices for two hours a day) and has spoken about how, by helping us look inward, yoga can bring about outward changes. "Yoga should not be just an exercise for us, but it should be a means to get connected with the world and with nature," Modi said in a September address at the United Nations General Assembly. "It should bring a change in our lifestyle and create awareness in us, and it can help fighting against climate change." In the same speech he called for the creation of a World Yoga Day.

The embrace of these principles can be seen at every level. Hasmukh Patel, the district police commissioner from Surat, Gujarat, is using yoga to increase the effectiveness of the 3,500 officers under his command. The program allows officers to take a 10-day intensive meditation and yoga course, all while receiving full pay. The school of yoga used is Vipassana, which means "to see things as they really are" -- a pretty good skill for a police officer. "As a police officer," Patel said, "I deal with injustice. I used to get angry but after meditation I didn't. ... [T]he main impact is reduction in reaction, anger, fear and improvement in concentration, better and focused decisions."

There's certainly been no shortage of news stories in the U.S. involving police officers who could have used better and more-focused decision making.

Technology has disrupted just about every aspect of Indian society, and there are over 240 million Internet users in India -- more than there are in the United States. Traveling by train in India used to entail hours of waiting in lines. Now Indians can buy their tickets on Irctc.co.in -- in fact, it's the country's biggest e-commerce platform. Farmers, even in the most remote villages, can use their cellphones to find commodity prices in real time. Anyone with an Internet connection can take a Stanford programming class on Coursera or a philosophy class from Yale. And now a homegrown MOOC called Swayam will offer courses from IIT Mumbai and other universities. And Indians are overwhelmingly using mobile: Of the more than 100 million Indians using Facebook, more than 84 million access it through a mobile device.

Even as India modernizes, it's taking its ancient wisdom along. This is true even in the world of business. Many leaders are stepping up to make changes in the workplace that can alleviate burnout and help employees tap into their full potential. Nearly a third of employers now offer some sort of stress-relief program, including yoga, tai chi and awareness programs.

And practically everyone I've met on my trip here has some form of spiritual practice, and what's more, they are eager to talk about it -- and tweet about it! Devendra Fadnavis, for example, the chief minister of the state of Maharashtra and a member of India's ruling party, the Bharatiya Janata, tweeted recently about his goal of encouraging yoga and other holistic health initiatives "to build a Healthy Maharashtra"; the film director and actor Karan Johar spoke about how meditation is often "the most peaceful moment of the day," adding, "All of us want to be in this state -- call it what you will, meditation or search..."; and Barkha Dutt, who in 20 years as a journalist has traveled to conflict regions from Kashmir to Iraq, said yoga is key to helping her center herself in the face of work that can be depressing. "The downside of the kind of work I do is that you are exposed to so much death, violence, conflict and tragedy," she said. "This scars you in ways you are not conscious of immediately.... So, more than physical rejuvenation, I need something that helps me de-stress."

And now, a little about our HuffPost India leadership team. We are delighted to be partnering with Satyan Gajwani, whom I first met five years ago. He became CEO of Times Internet (TIL) at age 27 and met his wife Trishla Jain while they were students at Stanford. Puneet Singhvi leads Times Global Partners, a division of The Times of India Group that helps digital companies grow in India, and brings years of international experience in mobile and sales. We are delighted to have our HuffPost India team led by KK Sruthijith, our editor-in-chief, who joined us from Quartz India.

We'll hit the digital ground running with stories that look at many aspects of Indian life and culture, including Narendra Modi's first six months in office, the ways low oil prices are helping the Indian economy, the country's record on climate change, an interview with the Bollywood director Farah Khan, and some of the best Indian travel apps. Since HuffPost India hopes to open up the conversation on how we can live lives with less stress and more fulfillment, our launch day will include, among other stories, expert advice on how to cope with rush-hour stress on the Delhi Metro, the reasons so many Indians are sleep-deprived, interviews with young Indian tech workers who traded fast-paced city life for jobs in hill stations, and 11 yoga poses you can do at your desk.

And while HuffPost India will be reporting on all the challenges India is facing and all that is dysfunctional and not working, we'll also be relentlessly telling the stories of what is working. To start with, we are spotlighting organizations that are tapping into Indians' collective creativity and compassion to improve the lives of individuals and communities.

There's the Ugly Indian Project, a group that invites people in Bangalore to clean and beautify the city -- and then, of course, post photos of the results on social media. We have a story on Raahgiri, a movement to reclaim the roads in and around Delhi for pedestrians, to reduce traffic jams and pollution. We also look at how Indians are using social media and technology in creative ways, such as using Facebook groups to find housing in Indian cities without brokers, and "vigilante" apps like Pothole Watch, which lets users geotag photos they take of potholes on Indian roads.

And we profile Rwitwika Bhattacharya, a 27-year-old Harvard-educated Delhi native whose nonprofit helps parliamentarians identify the key issues for their constituencies.

We kick off the HuffPost India group blog with posts from acclaimed actor Manoj Bajpayee on his advice to his daughter; lifestyle blogger MissMalini on India's rising cultural influence around the world; Arnab Ray on the political battle underway in Delhi; YaleGlobal Online editor-in-chief Nayan Chanda on the potential Bangladesh border deal; lecturer in psychology Tanu Shree Singh on the challenge of raising boys to respect women in a patriarchal culture; environmental activist Sunita Narain on Delhi's pollution crisis; radio personality Anant Nath Jha on Delhi's notorious traffic; member of Parliament Baijayant "Jay" Panda on the power of technology; Chapal Mehra on gay rights in India; Ph.D. student Raza Habib Raja on his Pakistani roots and his love of India; and actor Rahul Khanna on his relationship with his grandfather.

Clearly, India faces significant challenges going forward. But it's in looking back to its ancient traditions that have been exported around the world that so much of the wisdom and strength needed to meet those challenges and build the future will be found. And I'm thrilled that HuffPost India will be there to chronicle this story and -- just as important -- help Indians tell their stories themselves. Please join me in welcoming India to the HuffPost family.

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