Dr Jyotsna Bhattacharjee
The dictionary meaning of culture is that it is an intellectual and artistic achievement or expression. Actually it is a way of life of a group of people residing in a particular place and at a certain time. Culture is reflected in the customs and practices, which regulate the individual and collective lives. There are various aspects of culture-notably aesthetic, moral, social and spiritual. All the cultural practices are guided by a belief, which represents a particular way of looking at the world and provides meaning and significance to peoples’ activities and relations. Some people aim at wealth and power, and some aim at truth and virtue. All social customs are actively derived from the people’s particular view of the world. These aims of the people are regulated by a particular culture and it offers means to the people to pursue the goal. Beliefs belong to the realm of thought and it forms the foundation of a culture.
Religion is closely connected with the meaning and significance of human existence and therefore it is connected with culture. It has been said that “Religion shapes a culture’s system of beliefs and practice, and culture influences how a religion is interpreted. Diverse sects have diverse culture. Human civilization has not yet developed a culture which is wholly secular”.
It has been said that Indian culture originated in the indigenous civilization of the Indus valley, which was multi-lingual and multi-ethnic. Some of the elements of this period through its synthesis with Vedic culture continue till today. Radhakrishnan observed, “The cults of Shiva and Shakti may have come down from the Indus people. Worship of trees, animals and rivers, and other cults associated with the fertility ritual, may have had the same origin”. At that phase there was a temporary setback to the Vedic religion for a time. But it soon reinstated itself through the doctrines of Vedanta which stated that pure consciousness and bliss are all-pervading and one ultimate reality. The Upanishads, by asserting the oneness of this ultimate reality with nature and man, discussed the existential problems of human beings. Upanisadic thought can be termed as the basis of Indian culture.
Possibly the concept of ‘Varna’ was introduced to regulate division of labour. But later on it degraded to a rigid social system of caste, which has caused havoc in Indian society. Every aspect of one’s life had to be determined by the Varna customs. But Buddhism and Jainism were against these customs. They questioned the Vedic authority and put forward a different concept of ethics, independent of the Varna system.
Emperor Ashoka was greatly influenced by the teachings of Gautama Buddha and in his Rock Edict XII; the Mauryan Emperor exhorts the members of all sects to be tolerant towards their beliefs and practices.
The great Indian epics, particularly the Ramayana and the Mahabharata provided the continuity of this kind of socio-ethical tradition of Indian culture. These epics have clearly stated one’s responsibility to all living beings. The Dharma shastras of Hindu religion also stressed the need for harmonious integration of one’s rights with his responsibilities to others. It is an ethical doctrine that rights and duties go together. One cannot insist on his rights, if he does not realize that he has also obligations to others. This ethical theory was stated by the Hindu dharma shastras long back. According to Dr P R Kame, the word ‘dharma’ does not mean a religion, but a mode of life or course of conduct. Thus the Rigveda may be regarded as a divine revelation, but the Hindu religion with a large number of religious festivals centred around an equal number of deities, is more significant in the realm of culture than in religion. The “Dharma shastras”, by introducing the “common code of conduct”, propagated ethical practice, which are binding on all sections of the society. But these practices have nothing to do with religion. They aim at individual perfection by reconciling the conflicting claims of one’s personality to achieve harmony in his life in society.
The classical thoughts of ancient India gave birth to the philosophical traditions of Hinduism, Buddhism and Jainism.
Emperor Akbar rejuvenated the tradition of secularism and tolerance, ingrained in the Indian mind since the days of emperor Ashoka. The idea of oneness of nature and man with God has long been propagated by the ancient Indian philosophy.
This kind of idea is contained in the Bhagavad Gita, in which Lord Sri Krishna, in his dialogues with Arjuna, explains, “He, who sees me in everything and everything within me, neither loses the sight of me nor is lost beyond my sight, since he and I are one.”
Rabindranath Tagore, who was greatly influenced by the Upanishads, said in one of his verses, “Oh Lord, unveil the covers and let me recognize my real self within thy innate radiance”.
It is ridiculous to think that one religion is superior to another. Superficially, in the surface, every religion has some elements, which are conditioned by constraints and prejudices of the time and space of its origin, and influence the culture of that is, the “oneness of being”. In the context of the diversity of individual preference, the Bhagavad Gita clearly states that each of the apparently different paths of knowledge, love of God and disinterested action leads to the same goal. These paths to reach the goal are almost the same in all the religions of the world.
The Indian reformation movement was initiated by Raja Rammohan Roy and Iswar Chandra Vidyasagar. The European Renaissance did influence Indian reformation to a certain extent. The spirit of Indian Renaissance, rational inquiry, human rights, joy of living, was nothing new to Indian mind. These ideas were already incorporated in the Upanishads.
The Upanishads have forbidden accepting anything that is not amenable to reason. The very first verse of Isha-Upanishad states; “Enjoy yourself by ‘Tyanga’, do not get tempted by others’ wealth” The Taittiriya - Upanishad celebrates the joy of being, as it proclaims: “Everything is derived from joy, is nourished in joy, and finally returns to joy.”
However, the activities of the Christian missionaries helped spread education and medical care. This made a profound impact on the enlightened Indians. They did not fail to take note of the wide gap between the awareness of one’s responsibility to others and its ineffective realisation in social practice. This is obvious in the continuation of such evil social customs as caste distinction and treatment of the so-called untouchoblity. In the Mahabharata itself we can notice the evil practice in certain cases as guru Dronacharya’s refusal to accept “Low-born” Ekalavya as his disciple. Then Karna was often humiliated by the Pandavas, especially Arjuna, under the misconception that he was the son of a “low-born” charioteer.
Swami Vivekananda pointed this reality, when he said, “No religion on earth preached the dignity of humanity in such a lofty strain as Hinduism, and no religion on earth treads upon the necks of the poor and the low in such a fashion as Hinduism.”
Mahatma Gandhi explored the Upanishadic doctrines of ‘oneness’ and ‘truth’ through ‘Satyagraha’ which asserts the supremacy of truth over brute physical strength. Maintaining a link with the past heritage, the revival of Indian culture in the modern period reaffirmed the concept of ‘oneness’ by extending the claim that all religions point to the same goal. If we observe deeply we get the evidence that a uniform plan links every form in the manifold universe.
The ancient Greek philosopher Socrates was supposed to have said, “Know thyself”. In the Chandogya-Upanishad, the self has been explored in a number of ways. It is the knowledge of the self that holds the secret of how to transcend death. The “Katha-upanishad” observes, “A rare discriminating man, desiring immortality, turns his eyes inwards and sees the self”.
From time immemorial man has been perplexed by diverse events of the world. He faces conflicting conceptions of various duties at every step of his life and he becomes uncertain about the right path he has to undertake. His quest for truth leads him to ask questions - questions concerning the human condition, about one’s relationship with one’s self and with the world one lives in. In his search for the right path, he wanders through various conceptions, until the conflicting conceptions of his personality dissolve into the fullness of the impersonal, transcending the mortal barriers of existence. Then he is transformed into the rare discriminating man of the Katha Upanishad. Such a way of looking at the world and searching human relations accordingly is the distinctive feature of the cultural tradition of India.
Ancient Greece, which is the source of western philosophy, shared the same awareness of individual perfection as contemplated in classical Indian thoughts of Hinduism, Buddhism and Jainism. But unfortunately the intellectual development of enlightenment shifted its focus from attainment of perfection to individual comfort which led to adverse consequences.
In the name of modernism, the Machiavellian policy of removing ethics and morality from society is complete. A culture of rights devoid of any sense of commitment to society and awareness of responsibilities to others has pervaded all forms of human religion and such has been the end of our so-called development and progress. In this competitive and mechanical world, human image is lost in a maze of shallow senseless entity that lacks the intention to face reality in its entirety. In this intellectual vacuum, the notion of fragmentation and incoherence rules the roost and is presented as the dominant culture of this age.
We are facing a strange paradox today. While the diverse sciences in their various fields have started appreciating the idea of oneness of truth, the metaphysical thought is drifting apart to assert the relativity of truth.
To realise the oneness of being, we have to note that the path of eternal life is not external, but internal. Yudhisthira in the Mahabharata took his decisive journey to eternal life. Yet more than 2000 years after that final journey of Yudhisthira, civilization driven by the primitive instincts of selfish greed has circled back to the vulgar competition for material gain in which a few are enriched at the expense of others. Thus we are steadily lodging our battle against poverty and ignorance, not due to the dearth of material resources, but by making ourselves culturally bankrupt.
It is high time that we remembered our cultural priority. The individual must be aware of his/her responsibility towards others, responsibility arising not from an idea of duty or obedience to some law, but from a feeling of togetherness in a human situation. Morality alone is capable of balancing, the tilt in today’s culture of selfish ‘tights’. Theism, which effectively accounts for the inescapability of these ethical values, can provide a moral compass until a wholly secular culture is evolved.
In the context of communal state or group loyalties, it is necessary to realise the importance of ‘oneness’ underlying the various beliefs in the superstructure of Indian culture. Non-violence and tolerance are essential ingredients that form the basis of broader ethics capable of exploring ways to reduce social conflicts in India.
(The writer is a former Head, Department of Philosophy, Cotton College, Guwahati)