Notes On Culture
It is said that there’s nothing original that a human being can say that’s not already present in nature. It follows that even the best human “originals” are just superlative imitations. So it is with this piece. The idea here is to simply present the contemporary echoes of past masters who have captured the true spirit and essence of India’s civilizational and cultural genius in various facets of human endeavor. One of the most concise renditions of this spirit and essence is provided[i] by the Rishi D.V. Gundappa, brilliant for its simple lucidity.
What is the character and nature of the people of India? What are their life-ideals? These are primary and basic questions that need to be asked in our public life… [according to the ideals of our people], the world is just an instrument; the otherworld is a possibility, that is, it’s something that needs to be attained. A thirsty man needs water. What is required for water is a utensil. Thus, the utensil acquires a value because of water. In the same manner, worldly life acquires a value because it enables the attainment of the goal of reaching a higher world. And politics acquires a value because of worldly life. This is the chief tenet.
Therefore,an India governed by political ideologies fashioned in the Western cast and mould is destined to lose its defining character, which is primarily spiritual, accommodative, and inclusive. It is this spiritual character that has made India the most resilient of all of world’s surviving ancient civilizations: contrast India with the fate of the other ancient civilizations and cultures which started out roughly around the same time. And this spiritual character is fundamentally and wholly Hindu no matter what it is called: Dharmic, Sanatani, Vedantic.
As the tragic history of the last seventy plus years shows, this defining character has accelerated in its erosion with each passing decade. Needless, an enduring method that has been used to accomplish this erosion has been to instil a lasting sense of self-alienation and self-loathing using the medium of formal education. The outcome: at least three generations of cowardice resulting from a complete obliteration of cultural self-confidence.
To understand some basic contours of an India before Nehruvian secularism, it is essential to grasp the roots: that is, the spirit of India’s core ideals as seen in D.V. Gundappa’s earlier note about the basic character and nature of the Indian people. This spirit and these ideals are informed by a spirituality rooted in Vedanta, or the Upanishads. In turn, they reflect themselves in every facet of human endeavor of Indians even today in howsoever a diminished form, frequency, and fervor: in classical music, temple architecture, sculpture, classical poetry, literature, epics, painting, drama, cinema, and more fundamentally, in the attitude towards food.
In all this, there’s an element that’s fundamentally feminine in the sense of possessing the innate traits of beauty and proportion and the capacity to nurture, nurse, and sustain. In an oblique manner, it isn’t a mere coincidence that the notion, codification, and practice of Dharma was something that originated in and is unique only to India: the numerous meanings of the word “Dharma” include “to uphold, to support, to nourish, sacrifice, study, charity.” This innate feminity becomes transparent as daylight when we consider just two of the numerous allusions, analogies and representations given to Dharma: Dharitri (Earth) and Gau (Cow). Both give birth. Both are cradles. Both nurture and nurse. Both sustain. Indeed, an extraordinarily moving Kannada folk ballad delineates this exposition of Dharma using the cow as a brilliant metaphor. I’ve provided just a few (translated) extracts here:
Upon extracting I became milk, and became curd upon hardening, I became butter when curdled
I became fine ghee when heated
What good have you done to anyone, O Human?
Upon defecating I became dung,
Upon patting I became dung-cake
Upon burning, I became the sacred ash for your forehead
Applied without patting, I became manure
What good have you done to anyone, O Human?
I seek dirt and grass on the wayside and on the streets and
Munch on them, return home and give elixir.
And drinking it you betray me.
What good have you done to anyone, O Human?
I am unaware if this poem is still taught in Kannada schools or is prescribed for teaching Kannada as a language. At any rate, it is clear that our downfall is directly proportional to the systematic erasure and near-total disappearance of these nourishing and sustaining blocks of Sanatana culture. And we have any number of committed people still desperately groping in the dark to understand why our languages are dying out. Let us state it loudly and clearly: our languages are dying because these foundational and fundamental blocks of our civilization have either been ignored or casually dismissed for far too long. We cannot rejuvenate Sanatana civilization by slaughtering Sanatana languages.
In any case, all these aforementioned themes gave a sense of idealism and nobility even to warfare[ii] in India. Perhaps one of the best and most profound writings on the subject comes from the eloquent pen[iii] of the towering scholar of the last century, Dr. S Srikanta Sastri who deserves to be quoted at some length.
The culture of India, like the country itself, is indivisible and timeless. Just like its indivisible geography that stretches from Kashmir to Kanyakumari, from Vishweshwara to Rameshwara, from Bindu Madhava to Sethu Madhava, Indian culture too represents this indivisible continuum from the Rishis of the Vedas all the way up to Ramakrishna Paramahamsa… Indian culture gives immense importance to individual freedom. Differences of opinion exist among various schools of Indian philosophy on the subject of the nature of the relationship that exists between an individual, the Supreme Being and the material world. However, all these schools also universally recognize the fact that the individual, based on his/her nature and temperament, is free to lead a life of his/her choosing. It is because of this that there is no scope for totalitarianism in Indian culture… In other ancient cultures, only specific facets of their respective cultures flourished excessively and because it wasn’t balanced by a corresponding development in other facets, they died out in the course of time; or they reached a pinnacle and then perished due to a lack of further development.
The spiritual outlook that lies at the heart of Indian culture is the reason it’s still alive and flourishing in the world. It is also the reason every single facet of Indian culture—food, social mores, business ethics, philosophy, aesthetics, investigations into the nature of truth and beauty—holds a special distinction. Not only does Indian culture embody universal values, it has also infused its unique value system both at the level of the individual and the society.
Indian culture is thus like Atman, the Self: timeless and imperishable.
Another equally towering scholar, Acharya P.V. Kane echoes the same view[iv] when he talks about “what the foundation of our culture and civilization has been throughout the past ages:”
Ancient sages laid the foundation by insisting…that there is and must be harmony between man’s spirit and the spirit of the world and man’s endeavor should be to realize in his actions and in his life this harmony and unity. The Upanishads teach that man gains by giving up (by renunciation) and exhorts man not to covet another’s wealth (Ishopanishad I: ‘tena tyaktena bhunjeetha maa grdhah kasya svid dhanam.’)…there are certain values of our culture that have endured for three thousand years, viz, the consciousness that the whole world is the manifestation of the Eternal Essence, restraint of senses, charity and kindness…Many young men have in these days hardly anything which they believe as worth striving for whatever the cost maybe, and hence they have nothing to practice as an ideal. We have to preserve a religious spirit among common men and women, while getting rid of superstitions…opposed to all science and common sense…It is not the age-old principles of Hindu religion that are at fault, it is modern Hindu society that has to be reorganized…
Social reforms and politics have to be preached through our age-old religion and philosophy. If a large majority of our people and the leaders throw away or neglect religion and spirituality altogether, the probability is that we shall lose both spiritual life and social betterment…
Indeed, Dr. Srikanta Sastri’s insight that Indian culture is akin to the timeless and imperishable Atman, and P.V. Kane’s observation about specific values that have endured are reflected in myriad ways even today in both positive and destructive fashions.
There’s renewed interest in preserving ancient Indian art forms, literature, poetry, language, and valuable primary texts on numerous subjects. Tireless efforts are also ongoing to bring back invaluable stolen artifacts[v] and where possible, to bring such criminals to justice. Numerous initiatives to re-study various aspects of India’s past purely from a “native” perspective shorn of ideology have made an impact. Equally noteworthy are some parallel efforts to rescue and revive[vi] the unique and grand temple traditions.
But the best of the spiritual and cultural treasures of India are found beginning from the foundational Vedic era, the Itihasa and Purana eras and roughly up to the end of the Classical Period, or the 13th century CE. At the risk of making a sweeping statement, it can be said that almost everything that the India of today takes pride in was produced during this period: from the spiritual and philosophical lore of the Vedas to Ramayana, Mahabharata, Puranas, Asthadhyayi, Arthashastra, Ayurvedic texts, Panchatantra, Brihatkatha[vii] and Kamasutra to the timeless works of Kalidasa, Banabhatta, Bhartruhari to the Gupta, Chalukya, Rashtrakuta and Chola temples and artifacts, to the classical music and dance traditions patronized and sustained by innumerable royal dynasties and local patrons. It’s neither an accident nor a coincidence that India has the largest number of UNESCO World Heritage sites. Or the fact that the UN announced
But the question remains: is there enough Sanatana spirit left in us to finally heed Sri Krishna’s exhortation to “cast off the timidity of the heart” and embark on a generational project to thoroughly reracinate ourselves? Or think about this question in a different manner: on November 7, 2003, UNESCO proclaimed that our Vedic recitation methods (like Ghanapatham, etc) as a Masterpiece of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity. While the intent behind this is laudable, it is simultaneously a matter of shame because it indicates the onset of an impending civilizational, cultural and spiritual loss: that these traditions have all but vanished from our active life.
Think about that.
[i] Upasamhaara (Epilogue): Jnapaka Chitrashaale: Vol 4, DVG Kruti Shreni: Kannada and Culture Department, Government of Karnataka, 2013, Pg 210. Emphasis added.
[ii] Read, for example: Warefare in Ancient India: Uma Prasad Thapliyal, Manohar, 2010, Page 20
[iii] Samskruti Mattu Nagarikate: Bharateeya Samskruti: Dr. S. Srikanta Sastri, Kamadhenu Pustaka Bhavana, 2015. Emphasis added.
[iv] History of Dharmashastra: Volume V, Part II: P.V. Kane, BORI, Pune, 2007, Page 1707. Emphasis added.
[vii] The complete text of the Brihatkatha has been lost. It survives in the form of adaptations like the Kathasaritsagara.
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