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Pop Culture
Samosas, Sannyasins, Sitar: India and the Germans

In Germany, the color festival Holi is becoming increasingly popular.
In Germany, the color festival Holi is becoming increasingly popular. | © Creative Commons

The Beatles were not the only ones to be drawn to India in the 1960s, driven by curiosity about the spirituality of the East, the ways of life and modes of thought. People are still seeking and finding inspiration and enlightenment in Indian culture. Certain elements are now an integral part of everyday life in Germany. A snapshot.

By Helge Denker

There were almost 151,000 Indians living in Germany at the end of 2020. Not very many when compared with other immigrant groups. Nevertheless, there is an upward trend with the last 10 years having seen a threefold increase in the number of people with Indian citizenship living in Germany. One of the reasons is the Green Card initiative that brought several Indian IT professionals to Germany.

Between religion and common pop culture

However, the influence of Indian culture on popular culture in Germany did not start with immigrants.  Spiritual movements such as Hare Krishna already had a presence in Germany at the end of the 1960s. The movement, founded by Abhay Charan Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupda in 1966, was a spillover from the US to Europe, bringing the familiar saffron-coloured clothes and the popular Hare Krishna chant to pedestrian zones in Germany.

The influence of the Bhagwan/Osho movement in the1970s and 1980s was even stronger. Osho, or Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh, was an Indian philosopher and founder of Neo-Sannyas. He made a name for himself in many large German cities, thanks primarily to the popular Bhagwan discos and restaurants. The brightly illuminated locations offered many partygoers a welcome alternative to the traditional, rather dimly lit bars and clubs. They enjoyed tremendous popularity also among the non-religious.

Bhagwan’s followers, the sannyasins, were dressed in striking red and often wore a chain with a picture of their guru, Bhagwan, around their necks. At their peak, there were between 30,000 and 40,000 sannyasins in Germany, many of them belonging to the educated and well-heeled sections of society.

The combination of western psychology and eastern spirituality continues to be sought-after in Germany today and the demand for Osho’s teachings remains undiminished.

Yoga, meditation, ayurveda: ‘Made in India’ thrice over

Be it an interest in new spiritual paths or be it the lure of the other, one thing is certain: other cultural influences have also found their way from India to Germany and can no longer be erased from everyday life. Examples include ayurveda spas and yoga retreats for which stressed city dwellers spend a great of money in order to detox and decelerate.

The triumphant progress of yoga, meditation and ayurveda in Germany was accompanied by the achievements of the early anthroposophists at the start of the 20th century. In Germany, Rudolf Steiner founded the school of anthroposophy, a science that seeks to understand nature, the mind and human development.  It includes meditation exercises. Anthroposophy still constitutes the theoretical foundation of the Waldorf method of teaching.

This was followed by the yoga boom, a combination, rooted in Hinduism, of slow-paced gymnastic exercises and breathing techniques. The philosophical doctrine that comes from India means ‘union’ or ‘integration’. The goal is self-awareness. In Germany, yoga is often understood as comprising solely physical exercise – devoid of religion or any related philosophical thought. The art as practised is based on a modern form that emerged in the mid-19th century and that today is also associated with the adoption of western esoteric ideas, western psychology, physical training and scientific assumptions.

In late 2019, UNESCO declared yoga to be an ‘intangible cultural heritage’.

Ayurveda is the latest hit to be exported from India to Germany. The traditional art of healing is taught as a form of curative treatment on the subcontinent. In the West, Ayurveda is usually used for wellness purposes, which, in turn, arrived in India as a tourism trend. It emerged in mid-2nd century BCE. The suitcase word comes from Sanskrit and is made up of ‘ayus’ (life) and ‘veda’ (knowledge). The combination of experience and philosophy that focuses on the physical, mental, emotional and spiritual aspects that are important for human health and fighting illness goes down extremely well with Germans.

Holi, the colourful Indian spring festival

Self-awareness and spiritually invigorating massages for body and soul are one thing – the magical diversity of the subcontinent, the other. Both add to India’s popularity and appeal, also as a holiday destination for Germans. According to the German company Statista, there were 72,560 arrivals from Germany in 2020, and the numbers are growing.

If you haven’t travelled to India yet, there is ample opportunity in Germany as well for you to get a whiff of daily life in India. At Indian festivals, for example. For many years now, the colourful festival of Holi that heralds the arrival of spring has become mainstream in Germany’s large cities too. In its original form, the festival of colours lasts at least two days, in some parts of India it can go on for ten days; it is traditionally celebrated on the first day of the full moon in the month of ‘Phalgun’(February/March). The festivities in Germany are not quite so prolonged, nor are the organisers quite so rigid about the dates. However, red henna and coloured powder now belong to the range of products on offer in Germany as well.

Indian cuisine: The country’s most popular ambassador

India’s best-known ambassadors with probably the strongest influence on everyday life in Germany are not writers, musicians, artists or politicians – but the cooks in Indian restaurants. In the 1970s, curry, dal and pappadum became popular in Germany, initially in the large cities and then in virtually every small town. The ‘exoticism around the corner’ with its spices, Yogi tea and mango lassi appealed to the Germans, especially once the food had been neutralised and adapted to the German palate.

India in films: Not without cliches

Looking at India in films, the first thing you notice are the loud colours of Bollywood. With much song and dance, and with all the sorrows and joys of love, they have conquered a large fan community in Germany too and are screened regularly in local cinema halls. German audiences are also excited by more serious works, such as Slumdog Millionaire, Lunchbox, Monsoon Wedding and Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, which is not completely free of cliches. Two acclaimed film festivals have established themselves in Berlin and Stuttgart; their primary focus is on the many different aspects of filmmaking in the world’s largest film industry. Every year they present a carefully curated selection of the latest independent films in different languages and traditions, and with regional references.  

Less compatible than films from India is traditional Indian music – there are few overlaps with western listening habits. Even at the height of their popularity, the Beatles did not succeed in integrating Indian music into western culture. In 1968, the British band travelled to the north Indian town of Rishikesh to attend a course in transcendental meditation taking place in the ashram of Maharishi Mahesh Yogi. The visit changed the attitude of the West to Indian spirituality and promoted an interest in meditation. George Harrison – influenced by Ravi Shankar – introduced Indian elements such as playing on the sitar to Beatles music (Norwegian Wood, Within You Without You). Yet despite Harrison’s popularity and his benefit concerts for India and Bangladesh, where he performed with Indian musicians like Shankar, Indian music did not succeed in achieving a breakthrough in Germany.

In contrast, India’s historical and political influence in Germany is much stronger. Keyword: non-violent resistance. Used successfully by Mahatma Gandhi against England, the colonial power, which did use violence at times, non-violence has been playing a significant role for the anti-nuclear movement since the1980s. The rejection of violence as a political tool continues to be widespread among sections of the Green Party in Germany and starts gaining significance when it comes to the topical issue of whether military deployment in Ukraine, for example, is justified, or at least whether it can be justified or not.

Bridge between eastern and western wisdom

Indian culture does have an influence – albeit limited – in Germany. Be it in the form of spiritual inspiration, festivals, or food, films and music. Much of it, however, ‘diluted’ and adapted to the West. If you want to experience the real India, you need to embark on a journey, just as Hesse’s Siddhartha did.