How's that for a controversial title?!
So here's the thing, lately there's been a lot of idiocy from the pseudoactivist-Swine talking about the "portrayal of race in rpgs", to the point that some people on "tangency.net" have gone as far as suggesting that if you're a white gamer (apparently any other race is no problem), then you should never be allowed to play a PC of any other race.
Ignoring moronic drivel from ill-intentioned subversives who hate gaming, however, there are also a lot of gamers out there who probably feel nervous about it. They don't want to play a goofy stereotype, and at the same time they feel like they don't know enough about how to avoid playing a stereotype.
So now I'm going to give you some basic tips on how to portray a Bharata Kingdoms Human in an Arrows of Indra game:
1. First, the Bharata Kingdoms culture is incredibly inter-twined with religion; religion is real, gods are real and have shown up frequently (though no longer as frequently as in previous ages) and many people have miraculous powers granted by divine force. People think about religion on a daily basis and as something vitally important; they may have individual favorite gods but will pray to any god that may be of help in a given situation, and often in some situations will engage in small rituals of prayer "just in case". Priests and temples are very important, as is ritual, but people will also pray at home, or on the road, or just about anywhere. Some people meditate as well but usually that's reserved for siddhis and yogis who know how to do that.
On the other hand, maybe religion doesn't matter that much: in spite of the gods being clearly real, and magic being clearly real, most people are breaking little rules all the time; figuring that by bathing in a holy river at the right time or getting a blessing from a holy man at the right moment, they will be purified and made Holy again. Some people will try to 'game' the gods; cheating, stealing, gossiping, or worse when they want to and then later "paying it off" by gaining some god's favor with a temple donation. Religion is rigid and legalistic in all the kingdoms the previous Avatara Rama founded (and have become more so, and less authentic, in the thousands of years since Rama's existence on earth) and there is a growing discontent with that situation (which, ultimately, the new Avatara Krishna will hugely change); people aren't necessarily blindly faithful.
2. Caste is immensely important. People are highly conscious of caste, of maintaining their caste, and its role in social stability. Priests give lectures (as noted in the Bhagavad Gita) against the risk of caste-mixing, the production of "bastards" (since the proper institution of marriage is indelibly tied to caste) and the danger of social crime and chaos that will result. People believe that anyone of lower castes is literally a worse type of human: they are the product of a less auspicious reincarnation, which means they're getting what they deserve; they are literally less moral, more prone to crime and sin, and more spiritually ignorant, inherently. The sullying of Caste directly affects your "spiritual level" and Holiness.
On the other hand, there's no reason that needs to be the case on any individual level. On a day-to-day basis, castes interact all the time; and yes taboos are carefully maintained (particularly for Brahmins, and toward Dalits) but on the whole in any city you will have interaction every day with people of every caste and its not a big deal. As with religion above, any minor taboo-breaking can be easily resolved by some purification ritual down the road; obviously inter-caste marriage or things like that are more troublesome, but established laws make it clear that those happen too, there were clearly plenty of people willing to suffer a demotion in caste for the sake of love. Likewise, in the Bharata Kingdoms (unlike in later-period Indian cultures), caste was not as rigidly absolute: people did change castes in their own lifetimes. This was by no means common (particularly UPWARD movement to a higher caste), but it could happen, so there was not necessarily a fatalistic notion that the caste you are born in is the one you will definitely die in. On a day-to-day level, the function of caste is integrated into the infrastructure of the Bharata kingdoms to the extent that you probably didn't have to think about it constantly at all, and it only came up when something really unusual or shocking occurred.
3. Family is crucial, both in terms of immediate nuclear family and clan. Obedience of children to parents is absolutely required. Your father or your oldest living male sibling was the head of your family, and you would not question doing what he orders; likewise, your clan is the basis of your social-support network so the family as a whole must obey the clan's expectations. This affects everything in personal life: education, marriage, children, where you live, who you work with or for, whether or not you may travel, etc. People in the Bharata kingdoms are much more concerned with their family and obedient to family rules.
Or, then again, maybe not. Its pretty clear that there's all the same resentments, conflicts, bad blood, adolescent rebellion and general drama within families in the Bharata Kingdoms as in any other human culture. Of course, the society is much more rigid, conservative, and favors the family-heads than our own modern culture does, but that doesn't mean there's all kinds of cases of runaway teenagers, brothers who fight each other over money or women, mother-in-laws that make life miserable for their son's wives, and in-family feuds that last decades. Clans can be full of similar conflicts, rivalries, and power plays.
4. Law is enormously respected. The King's authority is absolute, other than having to fit within the dictates of religious rules. Citizens of the Bharata Kingdoms would be shocked at any ideas subversive of the social order, and don't question the way things are.
Or, then again, maybe not. There are several HUGE cities (by pre-industrial standards) all over the Bharata Kingdoms, and most of these have enormous crime problems. A large number of people flaunt the laws and engage in crimes and violence that would be shocking news in a modern city in our world, but are just daily events there. Entire Clans are dedicated to criminal activities. The countryside is riddled with bandits and local gangs that often are a law unto themselves and terrify the local peasantry.
And there are significant subversive movements in society; two of the major kingdoms (Kuru and Panchala) have been shattered by civil war and dynastic separatist movements, and the Kosala "Kingdom" has not been a real kingdom for a thousand years or more, having fallen into a patchwork quilt of decadent principalities and city-states. There are unusual religious cults all over the place, and of course now, there are several movements declaring one or more heroes the new Avatara, and every time there's been an Avatara it has led to a complete upheaval of society. Speaking of which...
5. The Avatara is a symbol of hope and a religious concept venerated by all. It has been predicted by astrologers that a new Avatara walks the earth, and everyone is hopeful in anticipation that he will be once again a great force for good that will restore morality, renew society, and bring peace in our time. There's some debate still about who the Avatara is (the candidates most supported are Krishna, Karna, or perhaps the emperor of Magadha), but aside from this question everyone is looking forward to what the Avatara will do.
Or, then again, maybe not. Particularly devout followers of the previous Avataras (Shiva and Rama) may ironically not be pleased to see someone new who will not just repeat what came before; Rama was as radically different as you could imagine from Shiva, and this difference has led to significant regional differences in the Bharatan religion (with some places favoring the "Vaishnavite" form of religion imposed by Rama, while those areas which were less touched by Rama maintain the "Shaivite" form), and whoever the new Avatara is will be bound to change things too. Priests are very nervous about popular movements that will favor the Avatara and devotion to that figure rather than orthodox ritualism. Rulers are nervous about the way kingdoms tend to get swept away in the wake of an Avatara's great acts. Common people are likely to be worried about the tendency Avataras have to create chaos and bloodshed as they adventure through the world. In other words, anyone who has a reason to be conservative and have an interest in the status quo will not be pleased with Avatara-movements.
6. Bharatans are very conservative. Particularly in matters of morality and things like sex; you will not see Bharatans (including many adventurers) going around "carousing" with booze and loose women. Modesty is extremely important and pre-marital sex or public drunkenness are severely shunned.
Or, maybe not so much. The western Balika kingdoms, which other regions see as semi-barbaric but are in fact the oldest Bharatan cultures, are much more relaxed about sexuality, for starters. But even outside those kingdoms, you are likely to find prostitution EVERYWHERE, and as much as it is publicly condemned trade in prostitution is quite common; particularly in people without the wealth to own a bevy of concubine-slaves. Concerns about sexual activity in general is more of a concern about illegitimate births, and while there are certainly sexual conservatives (prudes, you could say) all over the place, sex is still something that happens everywhere and in some ways with less of a guilt-complex than what you'd see in the west (or indeed, in later indian societies). Alcohol is also common throughout the Bharata Kingdoms, and while public drunkenness is seen as a serious problem, and condemned, people get drunk on palm wine or cannabis liquor or other alcoholic beverages on a very common basis. Also, as already explained in the Arrows of Indra rulebook, while gender-roles are quite rigid in some respects, it is also generally accepted that there is a "third gender" and in this Bharatan culture (unlike in later Indian cultures) third-gendered individuals are given a common role in society with relatively little prejudice.
So, I hope you're getting the point here: while there are cultural details that you might want to consider in roleplaying in the Bharata kingdoms, ultimately the key to playing Bharatan characters in a non-stereotypical way is to play them as human beings. While Bharatan cultural values are very different from modern 21st century western values in some respects, the actual PEOPLE are people with exactly the same types of aspirations, inhibitions, hypocrisy, idealism, or complexity as you'd find at any other time or place. You're not playing an alien. This isn't rocket science. The notion that "you couldn't possibly understand" someone from the Bharata kingdoms (or indeed any other ethnicity or culture throughout history) is just unadulterated bullshit. If you remember that first, and then operate your roleplay of your character from there, you'll do just fine.
(Originally Posted December 5, 2013)