Notes On Culture
The first Europeans who set foot in India were astonished at the kind of diversity they noticed…indeed, it is also the first thing every foreigner notices upon his or her first visit to India even to this day. And it is also what every foreign travel book on India repeatedly mentions as a common theme. These first Europeans simply couldn’t fathom how such diversity could exist in the first place, and how it could coexist in peace. It was their bafflement which led them to label India a subcontinent, a label we unthinkingly take pride in. The word “subcontinent” is actually a reflection of the confusion these Europeans felt when they tried to make sense of India.
Any other nation that has even 1/10th the kind of diversity we have would have imploded by now. And this brings me back once again to the Indian Spirit which has prevented such an implosion.
And this Indian Spirit is unarguably the Hindu Spirit. It pervades everything in India no matter what it’s called. To my mind, a good way to understand its all-pervasiveness is to examine some key/salient ways in which it finds expression.
We can begin with the name. The name “India” has been historically and even today celebrated and revered as Bharata or Bharat, a short form of Bharatavarsha. I would like to lay stress on the words celebrated and revered for an important reason. Perhaps India is the only country whose name signifies both Space and Time. The word “varsha” at once means a “geographical territory” (as in Bharatavarsha) and a “season” (as in varsha rtu). In other words, this signifies that in this land we find unity in Space and Time as well as this is the land which has transcended space and time. As we shall see, this quality of transcending space and time informs pretty much all facets of Indian life—both philosophical and the secular (secular as in “worldly life”). This is also reflected in how Indians perceive their country—as sacred. Perhaps no other culture worships its physical geography as India does. This is a direct continuation of the ancient conception of the Indian landmass. They elevated physical geography into the spiritual, which is why we find innumerable places of pilgrimage in India. I shall deal with this in a little more detail in a bit.
Now we have four key philosophical and cultural conceptions, which are India’s unique gifts to mankind. They continue to play a huge part even today. Indeed, they are deeply embedded in the nation’s civilizational consciousness whether we’re aware of it or no. These are Rta, Satya, Dharma and Rna. Rta simply means the cosmic order. The simplest way to understand Rta is to think about all of creation—the cosmos, planets, the solar system, our earth and everything on and inside the earth—water, sea, air, plants, birds, animals, humans, marine life, etc. The concept of Rta holds that there is a certain order, which sustains such a complex system and that humans must not interfere with or tamper this Cosmic Order.
From this, we can derive the definition of Dharma, which is the human expression aimed at sustaining Rta. Put in another way, Dharma is a system, a set of principles and precepts aimed at ensuring that there’s least damage done to the Cosmic Order because of human intervention. This is the reason there are many different types of Dharma, and not all these types are universally applicable or applicable till eternity. This is also why the derivation of the word “Dharma” is “dharanaat dharma ityaahuhu.” That which protects, supports, nourishes and sustains.
The concept of Rna is closely associated with Rta and Dharma. Rna simply means “debt.” Indian philosophy recognizes three debts: to the Gods (Deva Rna), the Sages (Rishi Rna) and the forefathers (Pitr Rna). The idea behind Rna is that one owes a debt as soon as one is born and that by doing good work, one can discharge these debts.
Let’s take the case of say the municipal water supply in most cities and towns in India. As is their wont, the water supply ceases abruptly, with no warning and it ceases for over two weeks. What we typically do is to crib and complain to the folks in charge and go back home and buy water from private parties till the day the (government) water supply resumes. The Government says that a water pipe has broken somewhere and nobody has bothered to fix it. Clearly, folks in the water supply department are in the wrong. And they don’t care. Now let’s see this in the light of Rta, Rna and Dharma by asking a series of questions, working backwards.
Q: Why didn’t the govt folks fix the water pipe?
A: Because they don’t care.
Q: Why don’t they care?
A: Because they lack a sense of accountability.
Q: Why do they lack a sense of accountability?
A: Because they lack a sense of duty.
Q: Why do they lack a sense of duty?
A: Because they’ve lost, forgotten, or are ignorant of the concept of Rna, or debt that one owes during one’s lifetime. When this debt is discharged according to an individual’s ability, it ensures that the society and by extension, the country as a whole is decent, ethical, harmonious and prosperous. More importantly, it is a relatively strife-free society. Much of the problems plaguing the social and public life in independent India is because we’ve done our best to erase this rooted cultural trait of Rna. An imbalance in the discharge of Rna creates societal and other disharmony.
Q: Why have we lost, or why are we ignorant of Rna?
A: Because we’ve lost or forgotten the concept of Dharma, which is what governs Rna among other things.
Q: Why have we lost, why are we ignorant of Dharma?
A: Because we’ve lost the concept of Rta or the cosmic order that sustains everything in the universe, and of which Dharma is a subset. The foundation of Dharma rests on the principle of causing the least damage/imbalance to the functioning of the cosmic order.
And now, when you work forwards, starting at Rta, you’ll see how, when these values are imbibed till they become second nature to an entire civilisation, you create an ethical and harmonious society. This is something far greater than passing strict laws can accomplish. Instead, we have an educational system that teaches our children that these concepts are barbaric superstition.
Indeed, one of the greatest triumphs of Indian culture and civilisation was its stress on duty than rights and laws. A society based on rights and laws is a negative way of looking at things.
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