Indian Culture and Its Message
The exact dates of the antiquity of Indian history are difficult to determine, but the earliest records of this history are surprisingly available to us with almost the same precision as they were composed in those ancient times. And these records are voluminous and consist of four anthologies or collections. Their generic name is Veda, which literally means "Book of Knowledge". These four Vedas are: Rigveda, Yajurveda, Samaveda and Atharvaveda. This is not an occasion to dwell upon the contents of these anthologies, but if we want to give a quintessential idea, it can be summed up by stating that it insists on the quest for the truth and for the comprehensive truth; it declares that the truth is discoverable, that discovery of that truth gives meaning to human life and that human life becomes truly purposive when truth is practiced in all circumstances of life, even though it may mean battles with untruth, falsehood, and ignorance.
This message goes farther and lays down that the first task of the human being is to become truly human. This, however, is only a transitional stage, since the ultimate destiny is to transcend all the limitations of untruth, bondage, incompetence and suffering. To rise from the human to the divine is, according to the Veda,
the highest endeavour and it must be pursued, not arbitrarily or occasionally, but whole-heartedly and with the rigour of scientific discovery and invention that build knowledge upon knowledge. In one short sentence in Sanskrit, Veda declares: "manurbhava, janaya daivyam janam " — become first the mental being and then become the divine being.
This is the message for the individual. The Veda also presents a collective ideal and enjoins upon all who want to listen to this message that they should strive to march together, to commune among themselves in harmony and arrive at a common mind and common understanding. Collective unity and collective harmony form, according to the Veda, the goal that humanity must endeavour to achieve.
History of India can best be understood, in its internal psychological aspects, as a great human effort to follow these two ideals of individual and collective perfection.
Consequently, a concept that grew up and upheld the march of Indian culture was that of Dharma which is mistranslated as religidn. For Dharma really means the law of ascent, and it has three applications: perennial and for all; temporal for nations and smaller collectivities; and variable for each individual. Perennial law of ascent is determined by descent of the ideal of eternal perfection. This is called, in Sanskrit, Sanatana Dharma, since it is unchanging and it exercises relentless pressure of immortal reality. But there is also
the law of the ascent determined by the aspiration of nationalities, collectivities and individuals. This law is temporal and variable. It varies according to the stages of free growth of aspiration. In Sanskrit it is called Rashtra Dharma and Swadharma. A subtle and complex relationship between that perennial and these temporal and variable movements has been the secret of the ethical and spiritual content of Indian culture. And it has been the underlying cause of the continuity of that culture, which historians have found to be astonishing and perplexing.
Broadly speaking, Indian culture has passed through three important stages, and now we are entering into the fourth stage. The first stage covers a long story from an indeterminable antiquity to 600 B.C., during which a balanced structure of society and human life was constructed under the ideals presented in the Veda. In the ancient Upanishads and in ever-living epics of the Ramayana and the Mahabharata, we have glimpses of that society and its ideals, its heroism and its law of harmony and dharma. This was the stage when the people of India, covering the entire land from the Northern Himalayas to the Southern Indian Ocean, created one common culture.
The second period covers a long period, roughly, from 600 B.C. to 800 A.D., during which Buddhism arose, and, while the old still continued to live and even develop, new elements came to occupy the Indian experimentation. Great experiments were conducted in democracy and democratic monarchy, and the first
imperial kingdom of India under the leadership of Chandragupta Maurya and his teacher and prime minister, Chanakya, came to be built up under the shock of the invasion of Alexander, the Great. Hinduism and Buddhism clashed and clasped each other, resulting in confusion and yet enrichment, impelling wider understanding and mutual assimilation. There came about hardening of certain institutions coupled with opulence and richness; Indian spirituality inspired and supported art, architecture, sculpture, literature, philosophy and various sciences and arts to such a degree that there was nothing in the cultural domains which was not attempted and was not brought up to a high level of achievement.
A few invasions from the North-West marked the chequered history of Northern India. This was a period of great tide but also from certain points of view a beginning of decline, although t>f a slow decline. The people of India had lived and created with untiring energy for nearly 4,000 years and had passed through infancy, early manhood and had even reached adulthood. Signs of exhaustion had begun to appear.
And this was followed by the third period during which invasions from North-West became frequent and a new force of Islam entered into India. Two great efforts were made to arrive at a harmony between the old and powerful Indian culture and the religion and power of Islam. These two great efforts, the one started by Guru Nanak and the other started by Akbar,
reaffirmed the Indian tendency of synthesis and harmony. Once again, while this period was marked by political instability for several centuries until Akbar and some of his successors infused stability to a certain extent, it was clear that great leaders like Rana Pratap and Shivaji, through their unyielding spirit and battles were preparing for the reaffirmation of the old Indian values and images that had the power of revival and resurgence. The opulent and prosperous India did not suffer greatly; but in many ways there were serious signs of advancing decline. Sciences, which were developing with tremendous force and vitality, stopped suddenly in the thirteenth century to develop and grow; philosophical inquiry continued but not on original lines; and fresh vigour came to be infused in the country with development of a number of new languages derived from old classical tongues. Excessive religionism and outer ritualism and ceremonies of worship began to cloud the true spiritual motive that had been the inspiring force of the Indian vitality. Tendencies of irreligionism, selfishness and battles for small ends began to multiply. As a result, during the 18th century and early 19th century, there came about a collapse of Indian culture, although not any total disintegration.
The spiritual lamp continued to burn even in the midst of darkness that grew darker when the British triumphed in establishing its rule. By the year 1857, however, the first Battle of Independence heralded the advent of the new age, and Indian spirituality reasserted itself.
India had begun to enter into its fourth stage of development. First of all, the Indian mind was obliged to reconsider its own past in the light of the new situation that was created by the influx of the European science, literature, critical thought and the Christian missionary work. Although the first reaction was that of imitation, there came about also in the next phase a reaffirmation of all that was Indian as also impulsion to fresh creativity in the field of spirituality, literature, poetry and art. Bankim Chandra Chatterjee and Tagore, on the one hand, and Dayananda, Ramakrishna and Vivekananda, on the other, gave a new impetus not only to a new awakening but also to creation of new forms of culture on the basis of the original motive and power of the Indian spirituality.
The political struggle for freedom assumed a powerful figure of nationalism drawing its force of sustenance from the ancient religio-philosophical culture, and the idea of the national freedom came to be seen as an extension of the Indian goal of spiritual freedom. India came to be worshipped by millions of people as an eternal Mother India. Under the inspiring call of worship of Mother India, programmes of swadeshi, boycott, passive resistance and national education came to be developed, and the movement which had begun with the dominant minority turned into a mass movement, and India became free in 1947.
We are today passing through a new phase of cultural development that is filled with promise of actual renaissance that will, if properly inspired and
guided, retain the ancient Indian spirituality as its soul but will also create a new body, new currents of life and expression and the powerful mentality capable of highest criticality as also of a new synthesis of the disciplines of knowledge of the East and the West, and of science and spirituality. The life and work of Sri Aurobindo, the foremost philosopher and mystic of our times, illustrate that promise and its progressive fulfilment.
Let us underline that the master-key of India has been its spirituality. This spirituality was not negligent of material development, creative arts and crafts, activities of productivity and prosperity, and robust intellectuality. But at a later stage, India neglected matter, and while it continued to heap the treasures of the spirit, it registered bankruptcy in terms of material prosperity, creative vitality and intellectual capabilities. From this great experience of Indian culture the major lesson that can be learnt is that exclusive pursuit of the spiritual motive is injurious to the highest purposes of culture. This lesson also teaches us not to give up spirituality but to develop greater spirituality, a more balanced and integral spirituality that accepts all life and transforms it for purposes of dynamic perfection.
Indian culture has also underlined certain other important messages that can be derived from her cultural experience. And first among them is the affirmation that the entire humanity is one united family, vasudhaiva kutumbakam, and in spite of various
divisions or differentiations, rigorous efforts should be made to ensure the realisation of actual human unity.
A second message imparted to us by the Indian ethos is that it is through the unity of humankind that economic problems will ultimately come to be resolved; for so long as there are national rivalries and asymmetrical relations among nations, there will always remain the fear of the outbreak of war, huge expenditure on national defence and public spending on manufacture and sale of weapons of destruction. One united family of the entire humanity alone can ensure lasting peace and consequently lasting prosperity of all the nations, rich or poor, whether advanced or backward.
The third message is that economic stability can rightly be ensured only when there is equitable sharing of production. Ancient Indian culture had built up a system of sharing of the food production as also of other aspects of prosperity, so that the emphasis in social and economic life was centred on providing work for all, suitable to each one's capabilities, interests and needs of the psychological growth, as also leisure to grow inwardly and to enjoy simple but rich life. India had also built up a remarkable structure and system to embody this ideal, and even though that structure and system may be difficult to revive, it may be possible to reaffirm the truths lying behind that structure and system and incorporate them in the new structures and systems that are now being attempted to be built up for the fulfilment of three progressive ideals of our times,
namely, liberty, equality and fraternity.
A fourth message is that while modern idea of democracy has stirred the entire humanity to awaken each individual to develop himself or herself so as to arrive at powers of self-determination, the Indian experience shows that it is only through processes of integral education that tygher powers of self-determination can be fostered so as to unite the law of individual development and the law of social development for purposes of individual and collective perfection.
Fifthly, India perceives that humanity today stands arrested because of the imbalance between the structural hugeness and development of technology, on the one hand, and retrogression in the intellectual, ethical and spiritual abilities, on the other. It further perceives that this crisis has reached a point of climax, and it can be resolved not by increasing development of external paraphernalia but by inward perception of the inmost realities and by releasing the moral and spiritual forces.
Finally, the Indian message is that the time has come when a new psychology has to be created among the peoples so that various instruments of power, — political, economic, social, cultural and religious, — are utilised not for division, opposition and domination, but for the generation of unfailing goodwill and sincere collaboration.
We may also add that if India has to be of service to the future of humanity, three tasks have to be accomplished: firstly, the old spiritual knowledge contained in the Veda and the Upanishads has to be recovered in all its splendour, depth, and fullness. For, it is in that knowledge that we have the key to the solution of the contemporary problems of evolutionary crisis, which is at the root of the critical problems of social, political, economic and environmental complexities. The second task is to channelise its ancient spiritual knowledge in new forms of philosophy, literature, art, science and critical knowledge. The third task is to formulate a greater synthesis of a spiritualised society, — a task which is most difficult and yet which is most urgent and imperative.
For accomplishing these three tasks, we, who belong to India, have to play the role of torchbearers and of standard bearers. India invites all her children to turn to her soul and power and to generate a new dynamo of action that would transform the entire world of confusion and disorder into a new world of clarity of wisdom and ideal order of harmony.