Indian Identity and Cultural Continuity
The history of India is so long and complex and the continuity of Indian culture so enigmatic and astonishing that it is difficult to bring out in a brief compass those quintessential elements which distinguish India's identity and the real secret of her continuity through millennia. To many, who are not acquainted with Indian modes of life and thought feel so baffled that they might even declare that there is no such thing that one can trace from the confusing multiplicity and variety any single central thread by means of which Indianness can be understood or defined. To them, India still seems to be somewhat primitive which places together polytheism, monotheism, monism and nihilism, or else allows itself to be a field of battle between various conflicting philosophies, sharply criticising each other, and yet forgetful of the differences and compromising with a curious sense of tolerance, or to allow itself to be a perplexing scenario of endless castes and classes, lumping them all together in a framework that is neither capitalistic nor socialistic and yet sharing virtues of neither but vices of both. To them, it seems strange and inexplicable as to how India has managed to survive through vicissitudes of tides and ebbs and how, in recent history in which the degeneration became extremely marked, she has been
able to rise with some kind of rapidity and even surprising boldness in a mood that can challenge the great, rationalistic, scientific, progressive and well-structured modernity of the West.
But all this enigma can be more easily cleared up if we can go back to the Vedas and try to understand that these records of ancient people contain not only wisdom but also quest of knowledge that had borne fruits in the form of great discoveries of the psychological being and had even attained lofty levels of perfection. For the Vedic seers were discoverers and they had discovered not only the triple world of matter, life and mind but, as the Angirasa's legend tells us, they had even opened the gates of the fourth world turiyam svid and found there the key to divine perfection. They had discovered oneness and multiplicity and found the wideness in which varieties of experience can find their culmination in a rich harmony and unity.
What we call Indianness was shaped by the Vedic quest, and this quest arrived at an affirmation that:
1) beyond the body, life and mind, there is a spirit, — vast, universal and transcendental which can be attained and realised and in realising which one finds oneself liberated in peace and delight that cannot be diminished or annihilated; and
2) that this realisation can come, — not by neglecting body, life and mind, but only when these powers or at least some of them are greatly developed, cultivated, sharpened and perfected.
The Vedic quest also provided another element of
Indianness, and that is its insistence on rta, the law of life and the law of development of individual and of the collectivity, a law which is, in a sense, eternal or the sandtana, and which is yet so supple that for each stage of life, each epoch of time, each nation, each collectivity and each individual it provides its own specific rhythms that govern their specific and unique development of life. This is what has come to be developed in due course as "sandtana dharma, yuga dharma, rdshtra dharma, kula dharma", and even swddharma. The profundity and depth of the concept of dharma, which is not religion, but which is a complex principle of guidance that can lead individuals and collectivities from lower levels to higher levels, and which in reaching culminations widens itself into freedom to the infinity of the spirit.
Another element that the Vedic quest provided to the Indian identity was that what is important in the human quest is not specific doctrine or thought-formulation but the search for or an orientation towards the highest which can be experienced, realised, and verified, repeated and made permanent. This is what explains how the Indian consciousness can permit various thought-formulatfons and philosophies and religions and yet maintain the spirit of mutual understanding, synthesis and even comprehensiveness in which contraries can meet and confess to each other their uniqueness, limitations and needs for all and the totality.
Finally, a further great element of Indianness was
the highest aspirations that insisted on reaching social, political, economic and collective perfection that can be measured in terms of togetherness of people, upliftment of all, and widest embrace of the universal brotherhood. We still hear the last hymn of the Rigveda, samgacchadwam samvadadhvam and we feel unfailingly that this call of the Veda defines best the Indian identity.
It is remarkable that these essential elements of Indianness have inspired the complex structure of Indian religion and spirituality, Indian philosophy and ethics, Indian sociology and polity, Indian art and literature, — indeed, every aspect of Indian life. In every field of culture great and noble ideals have been erected, and even the practical applications have been quite effective, and even when there have been failures and periods of decline, there have been sudden revivals and creations of new institutions and forms which have not hurt the fundamental continuity.
Indian psychology is profound and its receptivity of external influences has been so sympathetic that by some kind of alchemy of identification the best of the foreign has been received and assimilated. The secret of India's continuity can be traced to the original reservoirs of ancient wisdom, to renew itself, to advance further and create novelties that are not entirely novel.
India is today at a critical stage where external influences are rushing from various directions with great speed, attractiveness and power. It is even feared
that these influences might penetrate so victoriously that they might succeed in wiping out Indianness of India and may bring about a rupture in the continuity of its culture. Some, indeed, believe that India will be greatly profited if these influences succeed, since India will be renewed, it will become modernised and will be able to sit with pride in the company of the modern and developed countries.
But those who understand the depth and the truth of India cannot feel reconciled that this attitude, — particularly, when the progressive and developed countries of the world themselves are increasingly experiencing in their life the strangulating effects of uncontrollable mechanisation, depersonalisation and dehumanisation and are now looking for the liberating wisdom and knowledge which India possesses in its depth, even though in its outer life, it is, in many ways, in a state of degeneration and agony. We have, therefore, to look at this problem very closely so as to dwell upon this very important subject of Indianness and cultural continuity of India.
Let us, first of all, emphasise the fact that as we look deeply into the new consciousness that is fundamentally vibrating among the children and the youth, is manifesting itself through flashes of their amazing talents, genius and dexterity, we find that there is a sound basis to feel confident that the present stage of degeneration in our country can be reversed and remedied. We have, however, to stress that we have to create conditions under which that new
consciousness is allowed to be liberated from the clutches of ignorance and imprisoning modes of social structures and uninspiring ideals that are constantly being bombarded on the minds of the youths. Let us also admit that while recovering the ancient wisdom, we must stress the need for new creation. What has been golden in India's past is so refashioned and chiselled that it can bear the burden of a new quest and a new accomplishment.
The country needs a new polity and a new economy, but not imitative of foreign polity and foreign economy; for our goal will be to uphold all and serve and glorify all the millions of souls of our country. The secret of this upliftment of all is not visible in any current political or economic philosophy or practice. We have to realise that there is something precious in our own national genius that can absorb all that was precious in India's antiquity and in the western modernity and yet develop something fresh and new. We need to develop new philosophies and new forms of critical knowledge; but we do not need to imitate western philosophy and western criticism; we can assimilate all of them, but we have to go still farther, and that can come only when we understand the essential soul of ourselves. Let us at the same time declare that not everything that is foreign is necessarily injurious. The western ideals of progress, — those of liberty, equality and fraternity, — if received rightly and assimilated properly, can ensure the rejuvenation of our individual and collective life. The west can teach us secrets of modern science, and if we can learn these lessons rightly but in accordance
with Indian spirit, we can recover and even refashion our own national intellectual, moral, and spiritual resources and capacity. The message of individual freedom, productivity and prosperity flowing upon us from the West, if received rightly, can help us in developing among us not only the most needed work ethos but also enable us to apply the secrets of the Yoga of works and stimulate a new Yogic research which may lead us out of the bewildering egoistic dynamics of life that has brought us to a great crisis.
Let us, however, not be overwhelmed by a number of those ideas that are coming upon us which imply some kind of economic barbarism. Let us not fall prey to the invasion of vulgar sensuality; and let us not ape those life styles, which are injurious to our body, mind and soul. Our own culture has a great deal to teach us in regard to sacredness of human relationships. India can tell us how stability and dynamism of life can be blended harmoniously; India can also counsel us that the spirit of sacrifice is much greater than the seeking of all that is merely pleasant. Long ago, we were told to chose shreyas rather than preyas, and this ancient prescription needs to be heard by us with great attention and earnestness. India had discovered long ago how to liberate ourselves from egoism and yet not lose but rather greaten our capacities for dynamic action. We need to receive that knowledge once again and make it active in the present difficult conditions of modern collective life. We do not need to worship selfish selfcentredness and narrow competitiveness in self-assertion. India has been constantly teaching that
the world is vast and that everybody has a place in it which one can have, if only takes pains to discover one's own capacities, inner nature and soul.
The task is great and difficult, but living in difficult days we have only to accept heavy and onerous responsibilities. Hence, we need not fear but aspire; for during the last hundred years and more much has been done and achieved, — not by*the so-called leaders of political and economic life,— but by those who have had the courage to scale once again the ancient heights of the spirit and develop the vision that can look into the far distant future. By the aid of the heritage that we can receive from them, we can confidently move forward. We can reaffirm India's Indianness, we can change, even radically change, and yet we can maintain the cultural continuity without any disabling rupture.
Sri Aurobindo has given an inspiring message for the renascent of India in the following words: "India of the ages is not dead nor has she spoken her last creative word; she lives and has still something to do for herself and the human peoples. And that which must seek now to awake is not an anglicised oriental people, docile pupil of the West and doomed to repeat the cycles of the Occident's success and failure, but still the ancient immeasurable Shakti recovering her deepest self, lifting her head higher towards the supreme source of light and strength and turning to discover the complete meaning and a vaster form of her Dharma."1
1 Sri Aurobindo: The Foundation of Indian Culture, Volume 14, Centenary Edition, p. 381