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Culture and Religion

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 their 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 and relations.

Religion is closely connected with the meaning and signification 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 a 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 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 Siva and Sakti may have come down from the Indus people. Worship of trees, animals, and rivers, and other cults associated with fertility ritual may have had the same origin. At that those there was 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 the ultimate reality with nature and man, discussed the existential problems of human beings Upanishadic thought can be termed as the basis of Indian culture.

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 Sushtras 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 Emperor Akbar rejuvenated the tradition of secularism and tolerance, ingrained in 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 right of me nor is lost beyond my sight, since he and I are one.

Rabindra Nath 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 my innate radiance”. Many Indian scholars believe that if one can recognize his true self, he will understand that there is a close relation between self and the God..
The activities of the Christian missionaries helped to spread education and medical care. This made a profound impact on the enlightened Indians. They did not fail to take the note of the wide gap between the awareness of one’s responsibility towards others and in its ineffective realization in social practice. This is obvious in the continuation of such evil social customs such as caste distinction and the treatment of the so- called untouchability. In 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 to 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.” It is obvious that Vivekananda noticed both the good and bad aspects in Hinduism. Perhaps every religion has something good and something bad in them. We should accept the good points and reject the bad ones.
Mahatma Gandhi explored the Upanishad doctrines of “oneness” and “truth” through Satyagraha, which asserts the supremacy of truth over brute physical strength. Satyagraha is a technique of ahimsa. He said that Satyagraha, translated in English, means soul force or love force.

Truth, according to Gandhi, is God and Satyagraha is agraha of satya and thus it means holding just to truth. Therefore, it demands a deep sympathy and rigorous love for truth. Satyagraha is essentially based on love, and it appears to Gandhi almost like a religious pursuit. It rests on a religious belief that there is one God behind everything and being and as such the same God resides in every one of us. This, according to Gandhi, is the basis of love, and unless one has this basic love for mankind, he cannot practice the technique of Satyagraha maintaining a link with the past heritage.

From time immemorial man has been per flexed 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.

We are facing a strange paradox today. While the diverse sciences in their various fields have started appreciated the idea of oneness of truth, the metaphysical thought is drifting apart to assert the relativity of truth. To realize the oneness of being, we have to note that the path of eternal life is not external, but internal. Yudhisthira in the Mahabharata age 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.

About the author

Ankur Kalita

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