An attempt to capture in conceptual grasp the meaning and content of Indian culture is to plunge ourselves into the depths of Indian history and to discern those characteristics that are unique to India and which bring us to the understanding of the genius, spirit and soul of India.
Geographically, India's boundaries have often been fluctuating, although the great land between the Himalayas and the Indian Ocean gives us a sense of unity of our dwelling, the land of our parents and the land of our birth; it is our sacred soil that we cherish and for which we have a passion of belongingness. But at a deeper level, our inner body is the men and women who compose our nation, and we realise that even our physical geography is a pulsating living power of the national soul that has its own line of development, its own temperament, and its law of being and becoming. We see teeming millions of our nation at work and in an ever-continuing labour, greatly determined by and determining environmental motives, a play of economic forces, and a gradual course of institutional evolution. We go deeper and witness those exceptional individuals whose lives and examples have moulded the national thought and character and shaped the course of events. At a still deeper level, we discover Mother India, Bhārat Mātā, protector and nourisher of her children, inspiring them and helping them in their battle and victory, and leading them to the gradual revelation of her intention and will for her children as also the children of other nations, working for herself and for the world in collaboration with the mother-souls of all the nations in a spirit of collaboration, mutuality and goodwill for the Supreme Good of all.
To understand India is to understand Mother India and to grasp and possess four of her essential powers that have been developing since ages, viz., the power of spirituality, the power of intellectuality, the power of vitality, and the power of skills, − skills of art and craft, and skills of emotional bonds and durable relationships, and skills of fruitful life and harmony.
We must not judge India and derive the concept of our culture from any superficial study or from the study of India of its latest phase under the British rule when it began to show signs of exhaustion after having sought and attained and worked and produced incessantly at least for preceding three thousand years. The period of decline has to be admitted, and we have to acknowledge that the decline reached a nadir of setting energy. But that period cannot give us basic clues to the real spirit and soul of India and its expressive power of life, its intellectuality and creativity.
The British rulers gave to us three words to describe what they understood to be the chief characteristic of India, namely, metaphysics, religion, and the sense of Maya or illusoriness of the world; and by metaphysics, they meant an abstract and clouded tract of thought; by religion, they meant a system of ceremonies and rituals, and by Maya, they meant dreaminess, unpracticality and inefficiency to deal with life. For a time, Indians submissively echoed their new Western teachers and masters and considered these three words to be the formula of Indianness. The British could hardly understand the spirit of Indian art and dismissed it as something primitive. Fortunately, Europe discovered in due course that Indian art had remarkable power and beauty. But in regard to other domains of life, the British imposed upon India the view that India could hardly be recognised as a civilised country, and, in their ignorance of the true account of Indian history, derided the Indian discovery of the Dharma, belittled the enormous developments of Indian systems of knowledge or Shastras, considered Indian sociology as an unintelligent basis of the rigid and oppressive caste system, and thought of India's political ability as of no significance other than that of series of quarrels resulting in failure to achieve the unity of the country. Their views were imprinted strongly on the subjects that they ruled, and even though much has been discovered by Indians themselves and others to contradict the earlier distorted opinion concerning India, and even though during the Freedom Struggle much was done to recover the sense of India's greatness, there is still unpardonable misunderstanding, among many Indians, of the real meaning of the Indian genius, obliging us to study deeply and formulate to ourselves in clearer terms what we ought to mean by Indian culture.
If we study Indian history properly, we shall find that her first period was luminous with the discovery of the Spirit; her second completed the discovery of Dharma; her third period elaborated into detail the first simpler formulation of the Shastra; none was exclusive, the three elements were always present; into the fourth period India had, even while getting exhausted, a kind of rejuvenation with the birth of a number of Indian languages and new religions of Bhakti and submission to Divine Love and Will.
Christianity had come 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. There was also in due course of time, 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 stage was an intense outburst and fresh creativity, not revivalism, but based upon a deep assimilation of the past, a new effort and a new formulation.
Nineteenth 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.
In broad terms, it can be stated that Indian spirit and Indian temperament have manifested themselves, broadly speaking, on five lines:
The master-word of Indian culture is spirituality, and this word has to be understood in its distinct clarity and fullness. For although the spiritual is associated with religion and morality and refinement of mental or aesthetic sensitivity, it still transcends them all and fulfils them all, and acts as a sovereign and liberating and integrating power. Although India developed a number of religions like a banyan tree and even gave place to religions that came from other countries, it still pointed to a distinct and higher power of spiritual development, which goes beyond belief or dogma and rituals and ceremonies and codes of conduct. It begins with experiential contact with reality or realities that lie above body, life and mind and supports union, growth or waking into a spirit, self, soul by the practices of inner aspiration to know, feel and to be, to enter into a greater Reality beyond and pervading the universe and to be into communion with It and union with It. It culminates not only into a turning and conversion but into a transformation of our whole being and our entire ordinary physical, vital and mental nature. Â· So distinctive is this spirituality of India that its entire domain constitutes the field of experimentation and verifiable and repeatable experiences and realisations and a well-developed discipline that has been acknowledged increasingly as a Science of Yoga.
To speak only of Indian spirituality is an incomplete and misleading description of Indian culture. For before the period of exhaustion, for at least three thousand years, India created abundantly and incessantly, lavishly, with an inexhaustible many-sidedness; it built republics, kingdoms and empires; it constructed philosophies and cosmogonies; it developed sciences and arts and poems; it raised all kinds of monuments, palaces and temples and public works; it organised communities and societies and religious orders, laws and codes and rituals, developed and systematised physical sciences, psychic sciences, systems of Yoga, systems of politics and administration, arts spiritual, arts worldly, trades, industries and fine crafts.We are struck with India's stupendous vitality, her inexhaustible power of life and joy of life, her prolific creativeness.
We have to remember, too, that India expanded even outside its borders; its ships crossed the oceans and the superfluous surplus of its wealth brimmed over Judea and Egypt and Rome. India's colonies spread Indian arts, and epics, and creeds in the Archipelago; Indian religions conquered China and Japan and spread westwards as far as Palestine and Alexandria. In the ancient architecture, sculpture and art, India laboured to fill every rift with ore, occupy every inch with plenty. This was because of the necessity of India's super-abundance of life, of the teeming of the infinite of the Indian soul.
Intellectuality is also an essential part of Indianness. This intellectuality is strong and at once austere and rich, robust and minute, powerful and delicate, massive in principle and curious in detail. It has been rightly said that India has been pre-eminently the land of the Dharma and the Shastra. India laboured to discover the inner truth and law of each human or cosmic activity, its Dharma, and it went father to apply it and cast it into elaborate form and detailed law of arrangement and rule of life. There appears to be no historical parallel for such an intellectual labour as we find during the period from Ashoka well into the Mohammedan epoch. Prior to the invention of printing and facilities of modern science, India produced colossal literature, which certainly dealt with philosophy and theology, and religion and yoga; but it also dealt with logic and rhetoric and grammar and linguistics; it dealt with poetry and drama; it produced works on medicine and astronomy and other sciences; in the fields of arts, the literature spanned from painting to dancing, of the 64 accomplishments, and all that was known and could be useful to life and interesting to the mind. There is also literature available to us of that period that deals with such practical minutiae as the breeding and training of horses and elephants, each of which had its shastra with its art, its apparatus of technical terms and its copious literature. India's intellectuality can be seen to have been marked by insatiable curiosity, the desire of life to know itself in every detail, and at the same time by a spirit of organisation and scrupulous order, the desire of the mind to tread through life with a harmonised knowledge and in the right rhythm and measure. Indian mind was powerful, penetrating and scrupulously intelligent, − combined of the rational, ethical, and aesthetic mind at a height of intensity.
As noted earlier, India has a tendency to pursue most opposite extremes to their highest point of climax, but this never resulted in disorder. Even its most hedonistic period offers nothing that at all resembles the unbridled corruption, which have a similar tendency that was once produced in Europe. The reason is that the Indian mind is not only spiritual and ethical but intellectual and artistic, and both the rule of the intellect and the rhythm of art are hostile to the spirit of chaos. In every extreme, the Indian spirit seeks for a law in that extreme and its rule, measure and structure in its application. In the ultimate analysis, the Indian mind returns always towards some fusion of the knowledge it has gained and to a resulting harmony and balance in action and in institution. The Greeks had also arrived at balance and rhythm, but they arrived at it by self-imitation; India arrived at balance and rhythm by its sense of intellectual, aesthetic and ethical order and the synthetic impulse of its mind and life.
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 with 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 the cultural continuity of India.
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.
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:
"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." *
* Sri Aurobindo: The Foundation of Indian Culture, Volume 14, Centenary Edition, p.409