Traffic in Varanasi. This photo was taken from our rickshaw. Eventually we had to get out and walk because a protest broke out, stopping all traffic in all directions.

It is common for westerners in India to be amazed at the utter chaos and yet the seemingly laissez-faire attitude of the Indian drivers.  One of our Indian drivers remarked about the traffic:  “In India, nothing is impossible because I-M-Possible.”  He chortled over his cleverness, and repeated that saying many times in our nine day trip.

On a road trip from Agra to Jaipur I fell asleep only to wake up when we slowed down for a pothole the size of a Volkswagen Beetle.  To my surprise, we were surrounded by a herd of camel that were walking along with the traffic.  Camels of all color and all sizes surrounded the car, and there was a man and his son calling out behind them to keep them moving.  Another time I looked up from reading my iPad to see a naked man walking slowly across the highway [1].  Even in New Delhi, it is common to see cows wandering through the city streets as business people are driven to work in traffic that is six lanes deep on a three lane stretch of road.

Later in our travels, a fellow tourist in Nepal noted that people in the West (he was German) drive based on rules while people in India drive based on relationships.  It took me a while to figure this one out, but after spending a lot of time in India as well as encountering Indian drivers all over Asia, I believe I understand what is meant  by driving based on relationships. Drivers communicate with other drivers using their horn.  There are often no signs, road markings are not followed, and essentially nothing is illegal or if illegal it is not enforced.  If there is an accident, the drivers need to work it out together.

The rules make life more predictable and fair, but also not as warm and empathetic.

To give you a taste for it, I will share an interesting story about an Indian man who needed to be in the US on a long term business trip, requiring him to have an international driver’s license.

Ten years ago, when I was heading for America for the first time, an international driving license, I was informed, was essential if I intended to use a car there.  So off I went in pursuit of one.  After making a few inquiries, I soon realized that in order to get an international driving license, I first needed a local one.  This took me to the office of the road transport authority and into a maze of queues.  I was rescued by a tout or middleman sitting on a scooter, parked under a shady neem tree.

Tout:  What do you want?

Self:  A driving license

Tout: Do you have a learner’s?

Self: No.

Tout: Problem, big problem!  Everything has to be organized.  Medical, age, proof of residence . . .

Self:  How much time will it take?

Tout: How much can you pay?

Self: I need it urgently.

Tout:  For getting it within a week, it’ll cost you Rs. 600 (approx. $15)

Self: No, I want it today.

Tout:  Rs. 2,000 ($50).  Four hours only.

Self:  Done.

Tout:  Sign these papers, get a photograph taken under that tent, wait for the driving test over there under the tree.

Self:  I do not have a car.

Tout: It is just a formality, Sir.  He’ll ask if you drive; you say yes.

Self:  When will I get the license?

Tout:  In four hours.

The longest it took in the whole deal was getting the photograph taken.  The rest of it was a cakewalk.

Armed with my new license, I went to get my international driving license.  The person in charge gave me a piece of paper and asked me to learn everything on it well for I was to be “tested.”

At the examination, I could only remember two of the thirty-six odd signs.  The examiner was totally disgusted with the outcome of the examination.  “Very bad, very bad,” I was told.  “I am going to sign your license, but you must go home and learn all the signs.”  I thanked him for signing the license and apologized profusely for not being able to learn all the signs.

Driving in India implies getting from one point to another.  How you do that is your own problem.  Rarely is anyone trained to park, overtake, or drive in one’s lane.  The lines on the road are for decoration.  They don’t mean anything to the drivers.  The rear view mirror is also rarely used; most of the time it is kept folded.  With so much chaos in front of the vehicles, drivers hardly bother to see what is happening in the rear.  In fact, the three things you require most on Indian roads are — Good Horn, Good Brakes & Good Luck. [2]

If you can still grab onto something, there’s more room.  This is a common sight in India.  People will hang on for hours to get to their destination.

This idea of driving based on relationships is an unusual one, but think of it this way.  Every move you make as a driver in India is negotiated with the others around you, not based on road signs, laws governing right of way, etc.  If you want to get where you need to go, you have to communicate with those other drivers and watch their actions to understand their intentions.  You can’t go on auto-pilot following the rules without taking into account the actions of all the rest of your traffic community.  It is all about the unpredictable things you will encounter and deal with.  People are just glad to arrive alive at their destination with no personal injury or damage to their car.  They don’t wish each other ill in the process, knowing they are all just doing their best.

Contrast this with Western driving where anyone not following the rules is considered a danger to self and others, a person to be dealt with sternly.  It’s simply a different mindset.  When a driver acts rashly or unpredictably, that person doesn’t deserve the same privilege you do of being allowed to drive, a privilege you believe you have earned by following the rules.  Again, if neither of you had been given any instruction or passed a driving test to be there, you might be more forgiving of their errors.  Perhaps we would have more defensive driving, watching out for each other, and less road rage.  For some, the rules give a false sense of security.  We believe that if we follow the rules, nothing bad will happen to us.  Conversely, if something bad does happen, it must have been deserved.  A rule must have been broken.

Typical traffic in India: cars, tuk-tuks, motorbikes, rickshaws, pedestrians, all jockeying for space to move toward their destination.

On another forum, someone mentioned having been a temple worker but being frustrated that there was so much emphasis on making minor corrections.  I made a similar observation when attending the Atlanta temple.  In returning my rented temple clothes, a female locker room attendant took me to task for not pinning the sash together in some way I had never seen before.  I mentioned it to my mom later (she was a worker in the temple at the time), and she defended the practice saying you couldn’t return the ceremonial clothes without properly pinning it together.  What was I thinking?  Didn’t I know anything?  I assured her this was the only temple in the dozens I had attended that had this expectation.  She was incredulous and still felt their practice was the ideal one.  We love our rules and the sense of control they give us.

I have also noticed that some wards are more observant than others about ensuring the sacrament prayers are read exactly correctly, even taking up to 18 tries in one prayer attempt in a sacrament meeting I attended two months ago.  For a time, the instruction was to let the prayers go without perfection, but this has reverted to a requirement to read them letter perfect again.  Just this week, there was a slightly horrifying “Ask Angela” in the Deseret News in which a married father of teenage boys wants to know how he should approach a recently re-activated single sister whose clothing doesn’t meet his modesty standards to correct her behavior.  Fortunately, Angela Trusty, author of the column, advises him not to approach this woman at all lest he drive her away and instead to teach his sons to govern their thoughts. Unfortunately, she also suggested a passive-aggressive Relief Society activity to give modesty advice to all the ward women so this sister will get the point without being singled out.  Uh huh.  God bless Utah.

Me with my daughter in Old Delhi, navigating traffic in a rickshaw.

I recently finished a book called Misreading Scripture with Western Eyes about the ways that Westerners interpret scripture through our own cultural lens without realizing that the people in scriptures did not live in a culture that resembled our own.  One chapter talked about the issue of relationships and rules, which accords with my own experiences living in Asia.  Westerners tend to view all relationships in terms of rules or laws or contracts; these are somewhat superficial relationships and the laws place limitations on them to protect both parties by spelling out obligations.  In the ancient world, the rules existed but they were only the visible part above the surface, not the entirety of the relationship.  They did not limit the relationship, and relationships had obligations that ran deep.  Most Westerners assume that the Bible delineates natural and spiritual laws.  We take a very legalistic or rules-only view on the book when these cultures did not view the world through a legalistic lens.

Once we define relationships with rules, Western readers typically assume that rules (in the form of laws) must apply 100 percent of the time; otherwise, the rule is “broken.”  Likewise, rules (in the form of promises) apply to 100 percent of the people involved and apply equally; otherwise, we consider the rule to be unfair.  Since God is both reliable and fair, surely his rules must apply equally to all people. . . . In the ancient world, rules were not expected to apply 100 percent of the time.  Israel did not keep the rules and God complained about it, but we often gloss over the reality that the rules had been broken for centuries.  The covenant, however, was broken only when it became clear that the relationship was over.  The end came when the relationship, not the rules, was broken.

The book goes on to cite another example of what happened in a meeting of the Convention of Indonesian Baptist Churches the author visited, and his conversation with the leader there.

“I thought this meeting was for pastors only,” I remarked to the conference organizer.

“It is,” he replied.

“But there were women in the audience,” I pointed out.


Now I was confused.  “But your laws say pastors must be male!” I exclaimed.

The convention president calmly replied, “Yes, and most of them are.”

Goodness.  His answer represents a fundamentally different view of law.  To the non-Western mind, it seems, a law is more a guideline. [3]

It goes without saying that our rules focus colors our approach to practicing our religion.  After my experiences in India, though, I started to question some of my natural assumptions about rules, relationships and keeping score of right and wrong.  Cultural habits are hard to break.  But nothing is impossible.  After all, I Am Possible.



[1] Sadhus are a fairly common sight in India.  These are men who’ve entered the fourth and final stage of life and are preparing for death by renouncing all their worldly goods (and often their clothes) and even their family relationships.

[2] The Holy Cow and Other Indian Stories by Tarun Chopra.

[3] Misreading Scripture with Western Eyes: Removing Cultural Blinders to Better Understand the Bible by E. Randolph Richards and Brandon J. O’Brien