Indian Culture: Past, Present and Future
The history of India would remain enigmatic, particularly, the remarkable phenomenon of the continuity of Indian culture through the millennia would remain a mystery, if we do not take into account the role that spirituality has played not only in determining the direction of her philosophical and cultural effort but also in replenishing the springs of creativity at every crucial hour in the long and often weary journey. It is true that spirituality has played a role in every civilisation and that no culture can claim a monopoly for spirituality. And yet, it can safely be affirmed that the unique greatness and continuity of Indian culture can be traced to her unparalleled experimentation, discovery and achievement in the vast field of spirituality.
Indian culture has recognised spirituality not only as the supreme occupation of Man but also as his all-integrating occupation. Similarly, the entire spectrum of Indian culture, —its religion, ethics, philosophy, literature, art, architecture, dance, music, and even its polity and social and economic organisation, — all these have been constantly influenced and moulded by the inspiring force of a multisided spirituality.
The distinctive character of Indian spirituality is its conscious and deliberate insistence on direct experience. It affirms that deep within the heart and high above the mind there is accessible to our consciousness a realm of truths, powers and ecstasies that we can, by methodised effort of Yoga,1 realise in the direct experience, can even hold permanently, and express in varying degrees through our instruments the mind, life and body. This affirmation has conditioned the entire development of religion in India and has introduced in the body of religion the recognition that direct experience of the spirit is far superior to dogma, belief and ritualism, and that dogmatic religion can and must ultimately be surpassed by experiential spirituality.
Consequently, the history of Indian spirituality and religion shows a remarkable spirit of research, of an increasing subtlety, plasticity, sounding of depths, extension of seeking. There have been systems of specialisation and also conflicting claims and counterclaims, but the supervening tendency has been to combine, assimilate, harmonise and synthesise. In the past, there have been at least four great stages of synthesis, represented by the Vedas, the Upanishads, the Gita and the Tantra. And, in modern times, we are
1. Yoga is a comprehensive system of concentration, passive and dynamic, leading to a living contact, union and identity with realities or Reality underlying the universe, with appropriate consequences in our nature and action, individual and cosmic. In recent times, Yoga is often misrepresented to be identical with Hathayoga, a system of physical and subtle exercises, which is only a specialisation, and a dispensable one, of the real and comprehensive system.
passing through the fifth stage, represented by a new synthesis, which is in the making.
It is impossible to describe Indian spirituality and religion by any exclusive label. Even in its advanced forms, it cannot be described as monotheism or monism or pantheism or nihilism or transcendentalism, although each one of these is present in it in some subtle or pronounced way. Even the spiritual truths behind the primitive forms such as those of animism, spiritism, fetishism and totemism have been allowed to play a role in its complex totality, although their external forms have been discouraged and are not valid or applicable to those who lead an inner mental and spiritual life. It is this complexity that bewilders the foreign student when he tries to define Indian spirituality and religion in terms and under criteria that are not born of the Indian experiment. But things become easier once it is grasped that the fundamental point of reference is not the outward form of a given belief and practice but the spirit behind and the justifying spiritual experience.
Indian scriptures and records abound with the statements and descriptions of varieties of spiritual experience. But there are three central spiritual experiences in terms of which all these varieties can be readily understood. The first is that of the individual in a state of complete detachment from all movement, dynamism and activity. In this state, the individual finds himself in an utter passivity and inactivity, but also of a complete luminosity and discrimination
between himself as an eternal witness (sakshin), free from the sense of ego and the activities of Nature in the universe. This experience is the basis of the Sdmkhya philosophy. The second experience is that of the eternal and infinite Reality above Space and Time in which all that we call individuality and universality are completely silenced and sublated, and the experiencing consciousness discovers itself to be That Reality (tat sat), one, without the second (ekam eva advitiyam), entirely silent and immobile, the Pure Being, so ineffable that even to describe it as Being is to violate its sheer transcendence. This experience has given rise to the philosophy of Advaita (non-dualism), in particular that only the Brahman is real, and the world is an illusion. The third experience is that in which the individual and cosmos are found to be free expressions of the Supreme Reality (Purushottama) which, although above Space and Time, determines Space and Time and all activities through various intermediary expressions of itself. This experience and some variations of it form the basis of various theistic philosophies of India. These theistic philosophies are those of qualified monism (vishishtadvaita philosophy), integral monism (poornadvaita) and dualistic philosophy (dvaita philosophy). Each of these experiences, when permanently established, gives liberation (moksha), and it is this which has in India been regarded as a high consummation of man's destiny upon earth. But, more importantly, the ancient ideal as given by the Vedas, Upanishads and the Gita, was to achieve an integrality of all these experiences, to combine utter Silence with effective Action, to be liberated from ego and yet at the
same time to be a free living centre (jivanmukta) of luminous action that would aid the progressive unity of mankind (l0kasangraha ).
This integral ideal was to be realised in its integrality not only by a few exceptional individuals but also by an increasing number of people, groups, collectivities, even on massive scale, through a long and conscious preparation and training. This great and difficult task was pursued with an increasing unfolding of its aim through the ages, and it has passed through two main stages, while a third has taken initial steps and promises to be the destiny of India's future.
The early Vedic was the first stage; the Purano-Tantric was the second stage.2 In the former, an attempt was made to approach the mass-mind through the physical mind of man and make it familiar with the Godhead in the universe through the symbol of the sacrificial fire (yajna). In the latter, deeper approaches of man's inner mind and life to the Divine in the universe were attempted through the development of great religious movements, philosophies,3 many-sided epic literature (particularly Ramayana and Mahabharata),
2. The date of the Vedic age is controversial, but according to a conservative hypothesis, its origins are dated 2000 B.C. The Purano-Tantric age can be regarded to have extended from 600 B.C. to 800 A.D. 3 Particularly, the six systems, Nyaya, Vaisheshika, Samkhya, Purva Mimamsa and Uttara Mimamsa and their numerous interpretations arid commentaries. These six systems are Vedic systems of philosophy. There developed also Buddhism and Jainism and their numerous philosophical systems which did not accept the authority of the Vedas. Similarly, Carvaka philosophy, the philosophy of materialism, which also developed during this period, was entirely anti-Vedic.
systems of Puranas and Tantras,4 and even through art and science. An enlarged secular turn was given, and this was balanced by deepening of the intensities of psycho-religious experience. New tendencies and mystic forms of disciplines attempted to seize not only the soul and the intellect, but the emotions, the senses, the vital and the aesthetic nature of man and turn them into stuff of the spiritual life. But this great effort and achievement covered all the time between the Vedic age and the decline of Buddhism. Vaishnavism and Shaivism flourished during this period, and although there were during this period conflicts of religions and claims of superiority of one system of religion or Yoga over other systems of religion or Yoga, there was fundamentally a large Catholicism and a spirit of assimilation and even of synthesis. Christianity came to India early in the first century A.D. and there came also several other influences, all of which were welcomed and given a place in the large and developing field of the Indian Religion. All this rich growth gave rise to a further development through the third stage. But it was arrested as it synchronised with a period of general exhaustion, and, in the eighteenth century, which can be regarded as the period of dense obscurity, the work that had begun seemed almost lost.
The aim of this third stage was to approach not only the inner mind and life of man, but to approach his
4 There are 18 Puranas. Each Purana has five parts: (1) Creation of the World, (2) Destruction and recreation of the world, (3) Reigns and periods of Manus, (4) Genealogy of Gods, and (5) Dynasties of solar and lunar kings. Tantras are called Agamas. We do not know the exact number of Agamas, but it is estimated that there are 64 of them.
whole mental, psychical and physical living, his totality of being and activity, and to turn it into a first beginning of at least a generalised spiritual life. Philosophers and saints such as Sri Chaitanya (1485-1533) and others of 15th and 16th centuries belong to this stage. There was also during this period a remarkable attempt to combine Vedanta and Islam or of establishing lasting communal harmony. In particular, the work of Guru Nanak (1469-1538) and of the subsequent Sikh Khalsa movement was astonishingly original and novel. The speciality of this third stage was an intense outburst and fresh creativity, not a revivalism, but based upon a deep assimilation of the past, a new effort and a new formulation. But the time was not yet ripe, and India had to pass through a period of an eclipse, almost total and disastrous.
Happily, the 19th century witnessed a great awakening and a new spiritual impulse pregnant with a power to fulfil the mission of the work that had started in the third stage. Great and flaming pioneers appeared, Raja Rammohun Roy (1772-1833), Dayananda Saraswati (1824-1883), Sri Ramakrishna (1836-1886), Swami Vivekananda (1862 -1902), - to name just a few of them, and through their work the entire country was electrified not only spiritually but even socially and politically. India became renascent, and there began to develop a capacity for a new synthesis, not only of the threads of Indian culture but also of world culture. Nationalism came to be proclaimed as the new spirituality and this nationalism was right from the beginning international in its spirit
and sweep. Not an escape from life, but acceptance of life, integration of life and transformation of life by an integral spirituality — this ideal came to be felt and expressed in various ways and through various activities of the renascent India.
Gradually, it has become evident that this new movement has to do not ^merely with India but fundamentally with the essential problem of Man and his future evolution. It is becoming clearer that Man is a field of interaction between Matter and Spirit, that this interaction has reached a point of criticality, and that this criticality demands a new knowledge, an integral knowledge of Matter and Spirit.
This is the task which Free India has begun to perceive as central to her real fulfilment. It is significant that we have in India a most comprehensive statement of this task in the luminous writings of Sri Aurobindo (1872-1950), who has been described by Romain Rolland as "the completest synthesis of the East and the West." Sri Aurobindo has declared that man is a transitional being, that his destiny is to be the spiritual superman, and that the present hour is the hour of his evolutionary crisis in which his entire life, his very body, must undergo an integral spiritual transformation, not indeed by an escape into some far-off heaven, but here, in this physical earth itself, by a victorious union of Spirit and Matter. This, he has declared, is not an issue of an individual but of collectivity, not an issue of Indian spirituality and culture, but of the entire world's upward aspiration and fulfilment.
It must be noted that in this task of universal importance, India, the East, has received from the West a collaboration of incalculable magnitude and value. For it is from France that The Mother (Madame Mira Alfassa [1878-1973]) came to Sri Aurobindo and made India her permanent home in order to collaborate with him and to fulfil this task of integral transformation. The work that she has done is not yet sufficiently known, but as we study the great account of Her work in "Mother's Agenda", we find in her the highest heights that Indian spirituality has reached, and we feel that the near future is bound to show the revolutionary effects of her work for humanity, for its lasting unity and harmony, and for its transmutation into super-humanity.
Indeed, the renascent spirituality of India opens up new vistas of experience and research. It transcends the boundaries of dogma and exclusive claims of Truth. It is not opposed to any religion, but points to a way to a synthesis and integrality of spiritual experience in the light of which the truth behind each religion is understood and permitted to grow to its fullness and to meet in harmony with all the others. The important thing is to turn the human mentality, vitality and physicality to the realm of spiritual experiences and to the human mould by an ever-widening light of the Spirit. In this perception, even scepticism, agnosticism and atheism have a meaning and value as an indispensable stage for a certain line of mental development. But here, too, the dogma and denial behind the doubt and atheism have to be surpassed,
and whether by rigorous methods of philosophy and science or by a deeper plunge into deeper experiences, a way can be opened to transcend the dogmatic refusal to seek and to discover. It is in this direction that we seem to reach a point where a fruitful synthesis of science and spirituality can be effectuated.
The renascent spirituality is all-embracing and is deeply committed to undertake all activities of human life and to transform them. It has begun to influence literature and art and music, education and physical culture. Even social and economic and political fields are being taken up, not indeed to cast them once again into some rigid formula of a religious dogma but rather to liberate them and to inundate them with a spiritual light and motive and to restructure them by a gradual evolution so that they may breathe widely and freely the progressive harmonies of Liberty, Equality and Fraternity. Thus is it that the old forms of society, casteism and all the rest, are being broken and there is a fresh search for new forms, plastic and flexible, to permit the highest possible perfectibility of the individual and the collectivity to blossom spontaneously and perpetually. In the ultimate analysis, it is through such a vast and potent change in the social milieu that the total man can be uplifted to his next stage of evolutionary mutation.
It is in this context that India needs to view the various social and political upheavals of the recent times. These upheavals have their own genesis in so far as that nature wants the human being to resolve by
finding out deeper resources which have hitherto been ignored and ill-explored. Contemporary humanity has reached a point where two conflicting ideals have to be harmonised, the ideal of individual perfection and the ideal of collective perfection. This conflict has presented itself throughout the history both of India and the rest of the world from time to time and different answers have been given at different epochs according to the needs and circumstances and possibilities of circumstances. In early times, the individual was subordinated to the collectivity; in due course of time, the individual began to gain some freedom against the demands of the collectivity; but it is only in recent times, particularly after the European Renaissance, that individualism has gained a great predominance; but even then, with the rise of collectivistic philosophy, the ideal of individual perfection had to suffer a great setback. With the collapse of the Communist regime in USSR, however, the pendulum has swung back again in favour of individualism. In India, the balance between the ideal of the perfection of the individual and the perfection of the collectivity was sought to be achieved by means of a profound sociological and psychological understanding of human development. A great stress was laid on the needs of the welfare of the collectivity, and the individual was required to subordinate himself through the system of duties towards the members of the family or of the joint family, to the guild and to the community, the state and the country, and even the humanity at large and to universal dharma. At the same time, the demands of individual perfection were sought to be met by erecting the ideal of the Shreshtha or of the
Arya; facility for integral education for all those aimed at perfection were amply provided for, and the system provided for the realisation of the individual's perfection, if he qualified himself for it by undertaking the life of renunciation, sannyasa. However, in due course, the system of these obligations broke down, and the subordination of the individual to collectivity became more and more prominent. During the last thousand years, various invasions, battles and the subjugation of the country under the heavy hand of foreign rulers crippled not only the ideal of individual perfection but even that of collective perfection. The weakening of the ideal of the individual and the collective perfection became severest under the British rule, and it is only recently that there has been some beginning, after the attainment of independence, of an uneasy and uncertain groping to gain freedom for the individual and collectivity. But, again, under the choice that India made for the road of socialism or socialistic pattern of society, the individual came to be subordinated, and in spite of the recent orientations towards liberalisation, it is difficult to say how this liberalisation will go beyond the economic sphere so that the real purposes of the ideal of individual perfection and the ideal of collective perfection can come to their own and affirm themselves powerfully. In the West, too, where individual freedom which flourished under the ideals of liberty, equality and fraternity, which were pronounced powerfully by the French Revolution, came under a great constraint because of the powerful rise of Nazism and Communism, and even though the latter have now
fallen to a great extent, and the ideal of individual freedom has come to be reaffirmed, it is mostly being advocated in the economic field, and that, too, in the services of the system that is being sought to be perfected for the life of standardisation, mechanisation and of a comfortable search and satisfaction of appetites for pleasure and egoistic domination.
What is happening in the West is bound to have a great impact upon India, and the central problem of India is whether India wants to become a province of western culture and whether, even while assimilating the best that the West has to offer, it can find from great resources of culture which are available in its heritage, a new solution of the harmony of the individual perfection and the collective perfection, and whether it can give that solution as a gift to the world which also needs it, and which will suffer if that solution is not made available to it.
But while dealing with this problem, India will have to resolve four important questions, namely, those related to (1) the conflict of religions, (2) the conflict of religion and science, (3) the conflict between science and philosophy, and (4) the conflict between asceticism and materialism.
It is evident that the conflict of religions cannot be resolved at the level of dogmas. For dogmas are themselves unquestionable, and if the unquestionables are in conflict, there can be no issue and no answer. It is only if we go behind the dogmas, as Indian religion has
always attempted to do, in search of the living experience which are at the core of various religions, that there can be a hope of the resolution of the conflict. Not, therefore, the synthesis of religions, but the synthesis of spiritual experiences seems to be the answer. It is significant that in modern India, we have today —as fully exemplified in Sri Aurobindo —a puissant and irresistible drive Jowards the synthesis of spiritual experiences.
The conflict of religions and science can be resolved only if science expands itself into an inquiry of the v invisible' actuality, and if religion enlarges itself and transforms itself into an impartial open search of the verifiable and repeatable spiritual experience. Here, again, there are signs in modern India which promise a new orientation initiated by scientists like Jagadish Chandra Bose. This orientation, however, needs to be pursued much more rigorously than has been done during the last several decades. We have achieved much in the field of science, but we have still not related science to spirituality, and we have not yet seen how science itself can be enriched by the knowledge that spirituality can deliver.
The conflict between science and philosophy has grown in the modern intellectual world and the credentials of philosophy have been severely questioned. The modern Indian philosopher, sympathetic to the Indian philosophical traditions, attempts to reconstruct the Indian philosophy in the light of the modern trends of philosophical and
scientific thought, but he finds himself in the grip of a most acute conflict and difficulty. There has, however, been one special element in Indian philosophy which promises to be a great aid in a possible resolution of the difficulty. For Indian philosophy has not really been merely speculative. This is not to say that speculation has been absent. There is, we might say, even a profusion of it; the pure reason has been at full play and has been allowed to arrive at its own independent conclusions, and it can even be said that Indian metaphysics has been as powerful as any metaphysical systems in the world. But, still, Indian philosophy has been primarily a darshan, a vision based upon spiritual experience and channelised into a metaphysical system by means of intellectual processes of reasoning. Even when intellectual speculations have been free both in regard to the premises and conclusions, still the conclusions have never been accepted as authentic unless they have been found verifiable in spiritual experience or confirmed by the records of spiritual experience, shruti. In other words, Indian philosophy has always recognised the claim of experience to be superior to that of mere intellectual reasoning, and it is interesting to note that the entire trend of modern inquiry seems to turn back to the primacy and superiority of experience over mere speculation and "fictions' of reasoning. It is then in the recovery of this Indianness of Indian philosophy that the future conflict of science and philosophy may be resolved in India, and this might probably benefit the entire movement of the world-thought.
But the conflict between asceticism and materialism will still remain to be resolved. And this is perhaps the most difficult issue concerning modern India in its search of the new future. It is true that the economic, social and political necessities of our modern life have imposed the necessity of a robust dynamism which is remote from the tenets of asceticism, but still the spirit of asceticism has been so deeply ingrained since the last two thousand years that at every turn we feel confronted with the ideas of the illusoriness of the world and of the escape of life as the very meaning of life. The present Indian scene is, therefore, divided and torn between the invasion of materialism and the persistent whisper and call of the gospel of the renunciation of world and life. This conflict can be resolved only if it is discovered that Spirit is not the negation of Matter, but that Matter itself is an expression of the Spirit, and that Spirit is unfolding itself gradually in Matter so that there would be a total spiritual transformation of material life, here itself, ih eva, in this earthly Earth. There is no need to renounce Matter in order to embrace the Spirit. Indeed, all life is an evolving expression of the Spirit, and therefore, a truly spiritual culture embraces all life and transforms it into spiritual terms. A spiritual manifestation in the physical life would be the only possible and acceptable solution to this conflict between asceticism and materialism. And it is in this direction that India needs to move forward and fashion itself for the new future and for the new role that it has to play in the comity of nations.
If we are to ask ourselves what specific things we should do, we may refer to a brief statement of Sri Aurobindo in which three important tasks have been identified. He has said:
"The recovery of the old spiritual knowledge and experience in all its splendour, depth and fullness is its first, most essential work; the flowing of this spirituality into new forms of philosophy, literature, art, science and critical knowledge is the second; an original dealing with modern problems in the light of Indian spirit and the endeavour to formulate a greater synthesis of a spiritualised society is the third and most difficult. Its success on these three lines will be the measure of its help to the future of humanity."5
Let us hope that we shall become aware of the implications of these tasks and rededicate ourselves in carrying them out in the service of Mother India.
5Sri Aurobindo: The Foundation of Indian Culture, Volume 14, Centenary Edition, p.409