India has a rich culture and heritage. Culturally, India has always been united in the sense that its people belonging to different races, speaking diverse languages, professing different faiths and following a variety of social ways have consistently acknowledged the primacy of spiritual and ethical values in human behavior.
It is undeniable that Indians have always honored men of peace—saints, mystics, religious teachers, scholars, philosophers and far-sighted statesmen committed to peace and human welfare, not military heroes or men of wealth or social eminence.
The caste system is rightly condemned as pernicious and reprehensible, but the point to be noted is that in the social hierarchy the highest place is assigned to the priest and the scholar, not to wealthy men.
The people of India are peace-loving, genuinely devout and God-fearing, tolerant of all points of view, full of charity and sympathy.
Among most people in this country, the guiding principle of conduct is “Dharma”. Everyone, high or low, rich or poor, prince or subject, is bound by it.
The faith of the Indian people in spiritual and ethical values is also fully reflected in the Constitution which they adopted after independence. The Constitution is based on secularism. It has profound reverence for all faiths and religions and does not elevate one religious faith over others. It recognizes no distinctions based on religion, race, sex or caste because, as spiritual beings, as free men, all are equal. It guarantees freedom of religious worship and respect for all languages.
Indian Culture and Religion.
Indian civilization has always been based on religious and moral values. Herein lays its unity and its strength. Foreign invasions have not been able to obliterate it. The multiplicity of forms which these beliefs have taken cannot obscure the unity underlying them. This diversity is most amazing. Some people are monotheists, others polytheists, some advocate meditation and contemplation as a means of realizing the ultimate reality, others favor idol-worship, and observance of ritual and ceremonies. We have all kinds of religions and modes of religious worship.
The contrast between Upanishadic teachings and the practices of superstitions people with their beliefs in magic, ghosts and witches, charms, sacrifices and astrology is staggering. But whatever the forms, there is a broad unity of outlook. Indian philosophy and ethical systems have always derived their inspiration from religion.
India is a land of Unity in Diversity.
An Indian may travel thousands of miles in his country and witness amazingly different social practices and customs. He will not understand the language of the people, but he will not feel a stranger. Everywhere he will see and hear things which bind him to the people and make him completely at home. India has experienced revolutionary political and economic changes during recent times, but the past is still very much with us. We have not repudiated our cultural and social heritage. It still binds us. Indian culture has preserved its fundamental character through the ages, never stagnant, always receptive to new ideas and ideals but fundamentally the same.
India’s greatest cultural achievement is the recognition that there are several ways of achieving the truth and that we must all undertake this journey in a spirit of humility and tolerance.
Communalism is alien to our culture. Why then does it persist in this country?
Hindus and Muslims do not constitute two nations and do not represent two ways of life. Their differences are by no means of a fundamental character. They share a common heritage and a common way of life. Their forms of religious worship differ, but they both believe in God, in divine dispensation, in charity, fellow-feeling and sympathy.
Communalism is confined to a small minority. It has no future. The present-day caste system is a dividing factor. Its rigidity is most disturbing. It will, sooner or later, disintegrate and disappear. The caste system in its present form is not an integral part of the Indian social system but is a perversion of the system as it really operated in the past.
As Dr. Radhakrishnan has repeatedly emphasized in his books, the caste system was originally designed to unite the heterogeneous population of the country on the basis of classes formed according to their temperament, accomplishments and occupations. The classification was framed to ensure greater co-operation and harmony among all groups. Its rigidity came much later. Untouchability came with rigidity.
Equality between the sexes was universally accepted in the Vedic age.
The deterioration in women’s status occurred later with the spread of ascetical or puritanic ideals. The Hindu way of life, as interpreted by Dr. Radhakrishnan and other modern philosophers, has nothing in it which is incompatible with its spiritual values, which impairs national unity or which is not in consonance with our democratic aspirations.
Indian culture has both unity and diversity because it is a composite culture evolved through the centuries by the joint efforts of all people living in this vast subcontinent. No culture can be considered pure “in the sense of being unaffected by other cultures.”
“Pure cultures” are a myth.
Where the impact of other cultures has not been very marked, a culture degenerates and becomes static, feeble, stagnant. Indian culture is rich and dynamic because it has always been in contact with other cultures, constantly influencing and being influenced by them. It is a culture to which Dravidians, Aryans, Greeks, Persians, Arabs, Europeans and many others have made some significant contribution.
The people of India are as racially mixed as their culture.
Six races in nine variations came from outside the country to constitute its population. The first race to move into this country, the negroid race from Africa, has made little contribution to Indian culture or language, but the next arrivals, the Austrics, whose descendants are to be found among the lower groups scattered in many parts of the country had a fairly advanced culture. They were agriculturists and fishermen. They cultivated rice and vegetables, tamed animals and knew the art of spinning and weaving.
The Hindu idea of the incarnation of God in the form of tortoise and fish embodied in the Puranic mythology probably came from the Austrics. Far more decisive and pronounced was the influence of the Dravidians on Indian culture. The Dravidians had a highly developed culture of their own before they came into contact with the Aryans.
The Indus-Valley civilisation is a Dravidian achievement.
They had a highly developed language from which modern Dravidian languages grew. As distinguished from the fair-complexioned Aryan invaders who were nomads and rural people, the Dravidians were town-dwellers, living in well laid-out cities; they were skilled craftsmen and agriculturists who had domesticated many animals. According to some historians, the Aryan social organization into castes and guilds owes its inspiration to the Dravidians. Dr. Suniti Kumar Chatterjee has pointed out how great was the cultural influence of the Dravidians on the Aryan mind. “On the spiritual and religious plane”, he observes, “the Dravidian mind was profoundly moved by faith and a mystical sense, and the ideals of Yoga and personal mystical contact with the power behind life were well-developed. It was among the Dravidians that the great gods of post-Vedic Hinduism with both their cosmic and personal significance and appeal, like Siva and Uma, Vishnu and Sri, had their origin. The ideas of a great mother goddess, who was the source of all life, who was both nature and the conscious force behind nature, and of a father-god who represented the inactive ultimate reality as a power in repose, appear to have been brought in their germs to India from the original East Mediterranean homeland of the primitive Dravidians and then elaborated in the country, by contact with other races and cultures possessing similar ideologies.” The puja as a mode of worship is a Dravidian contribution.
The Aryan had a highly developed language, Sanskrit, in which poetry and drama, philosophy and religion, of the highest order have been expressed, which for its richness and music has very few rivals. As they settled down in the rich Gangetic valley and established cultural contacts with the already well-settled people, they produced religion and philosophy which is even now the marvel of the world, philosophy and religion of a most imaginative and profound character. They speculated on the nature of Godhead, origin of the universe, relations between man, Nature and God and the best way of realizing spiritual perfection. They developed a complex social organization based on caste and the four stages of life, both governed by well-defined moral codes, disciplines and duties. They had infinite intellectual curiosity. They welcomed all earnest seekers after the truth. Buddhism and Jainism were powerful reformist movements within Hinduism, which met with no intolerant opposition or persecution from the orthodox. Every other invader from the North made some contribution to indigenous culture and was absorbed in society, leaving no traces of foreign origin behind.
Hindu View of Life
The following are the characteristics of Vedic or Hindu culture:
- Hindu culture is not something fixed, static, unchanging, but is constantly developing, adapting itself to changing conditions, assimilating new ideas, responding to fresh challenges.
- An important feature of Hindu culture is its catholicity, its tolerance of doctrinal differences, its liberal approach to the problems of knowledge and truth. It regards all manifestations of the ultimate reality known by numerous names as equally entitled to worship. Brahmanism, Buddhism and Jainism have an equally honoured place in Hindu culture.
- Hindu culture is essentially spiritual and ethical. Man, according to it, is a spiritual being with a soul and a passionate awareness of the spiritual nature of the universe. Modern science and psychology do not understand that man has not only repressed desires and impulses which constitute his drives for action but has also a soul, mind and consciousness. Through knowledge and discipline, he controls his desires and subordinates them to his will. Hindu culture attached the highest importance to various kinds of discipline—physical, mental, moral and spiritual—through which man understands his own nature, the nature of the universe and the nature of Godhead. The nature of the ultimate reality, this limitless eternal being, can be apprehended not by a rational process or analysis but by meditation, contemplation, intuition.
- This universe is organized on the basis of justice. No evil remains unpunished, no good remains unrewarded. Death is no escape from punishment for a wrong done. The doctrine of Karma and transmigration of souls is not a doctrine of fatalism, but a doctrine of the ethical design of the universe.
- Hindu culture does not regard the acquisition of wealth or the enjoyment of senses as the principal aim of life. The real aims are righteousness and spiritual freedom. It does not condemn acquisition of wealth and pleasures of the senses, but it demands that, lest they should degenerate into greed and sensuality, they should be kept in restraint by moral and spiritual principles.
- The greatest end of life is the achievement of spiritual perfection—a state in which man’s ego is dissolved and he identifies himself with all beings of the universe regardless of sex, race, religion or nationality, a state in which he neither is above pleasure and pain, neither elated by success nor depressed by failures.
- Man should always be guided in his actions by “Dharma” or moral principles and by duty. Hindu culture has no place for individual rights in its scheme of life but only for duties—duties towards parents, teachers, and others. Hinduism lays great stress on sacrifices which consist not in the performance of certain rites but in identifying our interests with the well-being of all others.
- Hinduism envisages the organization of social life in four castes and four stages or ashrams. Originally, the caste system was based on a person’s temperament, his acquisitions and his vocation. It assumed a hereditary character much later. Everyone is required to perform the duties of his office and station in a disinterested manner, leaving it to God to reward him for his just actions. The duties of man in each period of life are laid down in the sacred books and commentaries. The first period is that of building up physical, mental and spiritual strength and discipline, the second that of a householder always animated by a sense of duty and sustaining people in other stages, the third that of renunciation, meditation, contemplation and the last that of giving mankind the benefit of intellectual and spiritual maturity.
This is the Hindu view of life—a view which prevails even today and determines the lives of millions of persons. Hindu culture has lived through the centuries and is as dynamic as ever because, despite all its aberrations, it has a universal appeal even for today.
The secret of the imperishability and longevity of Hindu culture lies in its intellectual humility, tolerance and its true understanding of the nature of man, in its realization that man is not merely a social animal but also a spiritual being, not only a rational being trying to analyze and understand the world but a being with a soul, mind and consciousness, who through various disciplines can develop extraordinary powers of comprehension. Modern science and psychology and modern sociology and political science cannot answer all the questions posed by life because they take a very poor view of man’s potentialities.
Contribution of Islam to Indian Culture
The contribution of Islam and Islamic countries to Indian culture is of an outstanding order. The Muslims settled down gradually to a life of peaceful co-existence with other communities. All religions have two aspects. One aspect of religion is its intellectual beliefs, its sacred book or books, its prophet or prophets, its organization. The other aspect is its spiritual experience, its mystical faith and its emotional response to the Divine as Love or Beauty. This aspect unites people of different faiths. Sufism is the mystical and devotional aspect of Islam. It is akin to neo-Platonic philosophy and the Vedanta. The essence of Sufism is that God can be reached through love, devotion and prayer, and through the service of man rather than through the performance of religious rites and ceremonies, pilgrimages, worship of tombs and the like. This is also the attitude of Hindu saints and mystics and of all simple unsophisticated people whose minds are not confused by religious metaphysics and intellectual subtleties. Hindu and Muslim masses and Hindu and Muslim sages found much common ground between the two faiths despite differences over dogma. The Bhakti movement reflects Sufi influence.
Islam with its belief in monotheism and equality of all men greatly influenced the Hindu mind. Hindu and Muslim scholars studied each other’s religious writings and greatly profited by them. Under Akbar a brilliant attempt was made to secularize politics and achieve a synthesis of various religions. The attempt failed but the fact that it was made is highly significant.
Kabir’s sayings are as popular today as when they were first uttered because they have a universal appeal. Hindus and Muslims honoured him.
The impact of the West on the Indian Culture mind was profound.
The British brought with them not only a new religion but also a new way of life based on science and technology, economic liberalism and political freedom. The Indian intelligentsia was immediately drawn to the new culture because its own culture had long ceased to be inspiring. The new culture also enjoyed the prestige of being the culture of the ruling class. Many people were converted to Christianity.
But even those who adhered to their own religion had to examine afresh the foundations of their beliefs and practices and reinterpret ancient dogmas to give them a more modern look.
Brahmo Samaj – Hindu Reform Movement
Swami Dayanand, the founder of the Arya Samaj, launched a vigorous reform movement to cure Hinduism of the evils which had crept into it. He preached monotheism, abolition of the caste system, widow remarriage, the increasing use of Hindi and Sanskrit, conversion of non-Hindus to Hinduism and return to the Vedic religion which, according to him, had been corrupted by later religious beliefs and practices. The Brahmo Samaj also took to reforming Hinduism and Hindu social practices.
Raja Ram Mohan Roy, a profound student of both Eastern and Western learning, condemned the caste system, Sati and infanticide, inequality of women and untouchability and urged assimilation of the new learning to achieve a happy synthesis of the wisdom of the East and the West. The impact of the West on Indian political thought was equally profound. It introduced new political ideas—ideas of nationalism, Swadeshi, Parliamentary government, the rule of law and personal freedom. British jurisprudence introduced the principle of individualism in the Indian legal system hitherto based on the family and other forms of corporate life.
Indians forgotten the Rich Social and Cultural Heritage of India
Western rationalistic philosophy made many intellectuals skeptical and compelled the educated classes to bring their social order into conformity with their new way of thinking. Western culture has also produced a number of adverse effects on the minds of the educated people. Under its influence many people have forgotten the rich social and cultural heritage of India, neglected the development of their own languages, taken to Western ways of living—Western fashions, tastes, dress, amusements and the craze for sensation and excitement—and have created a big gulf between themselves and the illiterate people in the countryside brought up on traditional ways.
The best minds of the country have assimilated Western culture without repudiating their own. A new synthesis is being achieved. While it is recognized everywhere that we must increasingly use science and technology and rationalize production to raise the standards of living of the people, reform our social structure to make it modern and lead a democratic way of life, it is also felt that we can achieve this only when we have combined these borrowings with our own values of Indian Culture. It is India’s destiny to give mankind such a synthesis.