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The Heritage of Indian Culture
by Swami Krishnananda

Chapter 1: The Vision of India

We are here to consider some of the general features of our life which direct and decide our human relationships, and consequently, the solidarity of mankind. Human relation is the primary consideration in the organisations of the world which go by the name of 'nations' or 'governments', or even lesser bodies than these. We have come to learn through practical experience that our daily needs in life are social, and our conduct is also related to this. In academies and universities this peculiar relation among people is called 'Humanities', which is a deep subject that covers a vast range of studies into the psychology and sociology of human behaviour.

The behaviour of a person, or the conduct of a body of people, is generally known as their culture. Students of history and the humanities are acquainted with the great cultures of the world and with the behaviours of human minds through the passage of time, which are imposing and enlightening for students of anthropology as well. When we read about the history of the cultures of the world, we seem to be reading through a drama of human activity, such as the plays of Shakespeare or Kalidasa where human conduct and a psychological manoeuvring are portrayed in such an interesting manner that they seem to touch our hearts and, incidentally, also guide us in our day-to-day affairs. History is a great lesson for us even today. We do not study the history of mankind merely to amuse ourselves with a story of ancient times. It is an instruction to us at the present moment in regard to our own social conduct.

The knowledge we have gained from the study of ancient cultures—beginning with the Babylonian or the Assyrian, the Egyptian, the Greek, the Roman, the Chinese, the Indian, and the later offshoots of these major organisations of human behaviour—gives some insight into human nature. I would like to regard culture as the behaviour of human nature. It is the upbringing of the social unit that man is which speaks in the language of the culture of that person. We generally say that so-and-so is a cultured person. Though at that time we may not be actually defining 'culture' in an academic manner, we have in our mind some idea as to what culture is. We associate goodness, politeness, humility, servicefulness, and a capacity to understand and feel the circumstances and the position of other people when we conceive of the structure or character of culture. Great historians such as H. G. Wells, who has written an outline of the history of the world, and those who have made studies in this line such as Arnold Toynbee, have covered an area which may be said to constitute every minute detail of psychological conduct.

We are surprised that many of these cultures have died and even the remnants are hardly visible these days. We have to dig into the bowels of the Earth to find out if there is any remainder of those ancient cultures of antediluvian times. Cultures perish. They do not seem to survive the passage of time, the reason behind which should also become an interesting subject of our studies. Students of culture and history have very carefully come to the conclusion that when cultures cannot accommodate themselves with the requirements of the passage of time, they become moribund and die out.

The world moves through the passage of history; we may call it the passage of time. After living some years in this world, we have seen how time moves. Do we not feel the necessity in our day-to-day existence to adjust and accommodate ourselves with the requirements of time? Do we stick to our old dogma which was valid twenty years ago? It must have been a valid ideal, no doubt, but that validity has become out-dated under the circumstances that prevail today.

Thus it is that the great teacher Acharya Shankara mentions in one of his commentaries that dharma, which is the law of life, is relative to place, time and circumstance. It is not a rigid procrustean bed into which every person is tied, whatever he be and wherever he be. Hence, cultures seem to be relative adjustments and envisagements or outlooks of mankind under certain geographical and social conditions.

We gather from an interesting reading of mighty histories of the ancient past—such as the history of Greece, or a more interesting dramatic history written by Edward Gibbon under the title The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire—that these are not merely stories told to us, but are tremendous lessons of mankind's cultures telling us why they perished.

India also had its own culture, and it has its culture even today. It has been a surprise to many students of history that how, under the vicissitudes of time and the onslaughts of inimical forces, India's culture should still be able to show its head above the surface of the Earth, and not be buried under the debris of the ground as other cultures met their fate. A great student of India's culture was Sri Aurobindo, and we had many other stalwarts of this type, who opined that if India is alive today in consonance with the basic requirements of its own ancient culture, it is because of the spirituality of its outlook. Here, we have to strike a very cautious note when we speak of the spiritual outlook of India—about which we may have time to think over more deeply later on—because we are likely to suddenly jump to the conclusion that spirituality means a God-seeking mentality of man, which consequently also implies, perhaps, a kind of indifference to the values of social and practical life. These are matters which require very deep consideration in our own personal, social, and political interests.

The Roman and Greek cultures were mighty, no doubt, but they no longer exist for a single reason—namely, their incapacity to accommodate themselves with the requirements of the passage of time. When the times required them to change their ideals and ideologies, they refused, and they were crushed by the iron hand of nature. Nature does not respect persons. Nature has no friends, even as nature has no enemies. Nature has a purpose; this is something very important to remember. Nature loves only its purpose and nothing else, and it also loves those people who are in a position to help in the fulfilment of its purpose. Those who adamantly cling to an ideal which was once in conformity with certain activities of nature in the interest of the fulfilment of its own purpose, but which are now not required, will be shunned.

Diet is a necessity for the human body, but it does not mean that the body should be given the same diet under every circumstance, at every time. The conditions of the body will tell what type of diet is necessary, or whether any diet is necessary at all under those conditions. So, while nature requires that everyone should exist, and does not desire that anyone should perish, the intention of nature is not the perpetuation of individual forms, but of ideals and ideologies. This is, again, a deep theme that is hidden behind the outer history of mankind's formations. Human history, when it is studied in a philosophical manner—not as we study it in high schools, but in a deeper sense—becomes a study of ideals and ideologies, rather than the activities of kings and queens or the dates of wars that took place, etc. History does not mean the story of kings and queens; it is something else from the point of view of nature or the universe as a whole. If kings and queens were the only important things, they would not have died. But they were not important. They were necessary as certain vehicles or instruments for the fulfilment of a purpose which was more impersonal than themselves.

But cultures such as the Roman, to give only one instance among many, stuck to the personalities and the ideals of certain persons and groups of individuals rather than having the flexibility that nature expected from them in the interest of the larger purpose, which was not merely Roman. Nature is not Roman or Greek; it has a wider eye. Therefore, anyone who cannot see through the eyes of nature will not be permitted to live. This is something very important to know. There is no use of our looking at things, and then insisting that those visions should persist always. We are saved only if we are in a position to collaborate with the ideals of nature.

These cultures which are not seen today have died out because nature does not want them. They clung to forms, and nature does not want merely forms, just as we are fond of motorcars because they are necessary for some purpose but if the purpose is not served by the possession of the motorcar, it has no value. The vehicle itself is not important; only the purpose it serves, or is expected to serve, is important. So, when an individual or a group of individuals—or a culture, as we may call it—cannot serve the purpose that is the great intention of nature as a whole, it is cast aside. It is given an exit order, as the director of a drama closes the curtain on an actor whose role has ended.

All great men have gone, and no one can remain. No one can remain because all these 'someones' or 'anyones' are forms projected by the intentions of nature for the fulfilment of its own super-personal purpose. We are unable to understand this philosophy of nature. We think that nature's affection is for the body itself, and we think that life is nothing but the possession of buildings, lands, currencies, etc. But life is not the possession of buildings, lands, and currencies; these are, again, like motorcars. Our buildings, lands, and monies are vehicles which we are permitted to have, provided that they fulfil a purpose—or rather, the purpose which is the intention of nature. Otherwise, we will be dispossessed of these ideals. Our money will go, our property will go, our land will go; everything goes, and even the body may go, because the world is a large visualisation in the Supreme Eye of God, and it is not a house built for any person. Hence, cultures which were rigid, adamant—egoistic, we may say—and were not prepared to understand the requirements of the movement of time, had to receive a blow or a kick due to nature's requirements, and they are no more. We can only read about them in books, but cannot see them today in their original form.

We are thinking of pinpointing our attention on certain cultures which are existing today, and have not died out like the Roman or the Greek. A great example before us is the culture of India, which has not died in spite of the tortures to which it was subjected through the histories of times. Students of Indian history know the troubles and the difficulties through which people in India had to pass. It is a wonder that they have not perished. One of the reasons behind this persistence of the culture of India is its accommodating capacity, which does not reject the ideals of the past and does not ignore the ideals that may advance in the future, and also does not turn a deaf ear to the calls of the other cultures of the world that are existing even today. The vision of India may be said to be an impersonal vision, which, by chance, or by the grace of God, or by a miracle, we may say, it has been able to entertain.

Today, people in India are a medley of various problems and memories of the past, hopes of the future, and so on. In spite of these, there is nevertheless a little candle flame burning in the corners of the country, which cries out in the language of the ancient culture. One of the reasons is, as I said, the accommodating capacity of the culture.

You would be wondering what is this accommodation, and where comes the necessity or the ability to entertain such a view. The ability to accommodate oneself with other peoples' ideas and ideals is not merely a charity that we extend to others. It is not a condescension in a grudging manner of the attitudes of other people, but is an understanding and an affection one feels for the outlooks of others. When I agree with you, it does not mean I grudgingly, somehow or other, do not mind your ideas; that is a different thing, a negative accommodation. A positive accommodation is an appreciation of your point of view. I get on with you, not because I somehow or other have to tolerate you; that is not the reason. I get on with you happily because I see in you a value which is dear to me also. This is a great vision indeed, and hard to entertain in one's mind.

Most people cannot see any meaning in the outlooks of their enemies, and some of the meanings which their own friends recognise in their own lives are also incapable of accommodation. I may have my friends, though I may not be able to appreciate all of their ideas and ideals. But if they are my enemies, I totally hate them. This is usually the tendency of man's mind. But the culture of Bharatavarsha has been entertaining an outlook of a different nature altogether. Hatred was not its policy, and I do not think even today India has a policy of hatred. Rather, there are people who think that its affection for other cultures is its weakness. It may turn out to be a weakness when it is expressed in unintelligible or unintelligent manner, but the essence of it is not a weakness. It is a strength and a goodness. Even goodness has to be expressed in a good manner, because wisdom is the law of life, finally, and it is not ethics or a mere outward conduct that is to support our existence. The morality and the ethics of life is necessary, of course, but the wisdom of life is greater. This includes ethics and morality, and transcends them. We may call it an interpretation of their significance, rather than merely their outward forms.

Thus, to come again to the point which I mentioned earlier, the culture of India has been an accommodating outlook. We may think that Indian culture is Hindu culture. Here, again, I have to divert a little regarding the word ‘Hindu'. There is no such thing as ‘Hindu', really speaking. The Hindus are not ‘Hindus', because that word does not exist in the culture of India. It was coined by people who came from outside India, for designating the land which they saw and the people which were living in the country. The Persians and the Greeks were the people who came first from outside India, and they had to cross the river Sindhu, which we call the Indus today. They had no idea as to what sort of land extended beyond the river Sindhu. The Persian language requires the pronunciation of ‘S' as ‘H', so ‘Sindhu' was regarded as the name of the country, and the people and their culture ‘Hindu'. Thus ‘S' becoming ‘H', ‘Sindhu' becomes ‘Hindu'; and in Greek ‘H' becomes ‘I', ‘Hindu' becomes ‘Ind', and ‘Ind' has become ‘India' and ‘Indians'; and ‘Hindu' still persists.

So, what the name of this country was before these people came, and what their culture was called before they entered India – this is a different matter. I am just mentioning to you that the name of this country is not ‘India'; it has come to be called so by these accidents of history, and the people in India are not ‘Hindus'. Hence, there is no such thing as ‘Hindu' culture, or even ‘Indian' culture, in general parlance.

It was a culture which was associated with a vision of perfection. Even today, people sometimes call it the vision of the sanatana, or the Eternal; and the culture or the law that is associated with this eternity is oftentimes called, even now, as sanatana dharma. But today it means something different from what it originally meant; it has become a sectarian doctrine opposed to other doctrines. Names are great problems these days. We cannot give any name to anything, because the moment we designate a thing by any particular name, it sets itself in opposition to things which have another name. It is our laboured intention to discover a non-opposing culture that is India – the Bharatiya samskriti, or we may say, the culture of India.

The culture of India, therefore, is such a comprehensive vision of the values of life that it is something which transcends the outlooks of ordinary Indians. We may say that the culture of India is not Hindu religion, if by ‘religion' we mean what Hinduism is in our minds at the present moment. If Indian culture was identical merely with Hinduism, it could not accommodate other religions; but we live peacefully with other religious cults and faiths.

In India during the medieval times, ambassadors came from the court of Queen Elizabeth; and during the reign of Shivaji, ambassadors from European countries came. They were greeted and taken care of with such affection that they left with a tremendous encomium of the government of India that prevailed at that time. We should read these histories with great caution and care. There was no antipathy to the views of other people, because somehow in the blood of the people in India was ingrained a kind of tolerance – born of an understanding that truth is multifaceted.

Now, the multi-formed vision of reality should naturally take into consideration the forms it takes in other cultures and other views of life. The prophets of the religions which reign supreme in the world these days naturally told the great truths, but do we not think they differ from one another? We think that one religion is opposed to another religion because of the divergence of the codified instructions in their respective gospels, and the consequent conduct which people adopt in their own countries on the basis of these gospels of their own prophets. The geographical conditions and the historical circumstances of the times required a gospel of the type which was delivered by those great men during those hours. The religious preachings of the prophets – it may be Buddha, or Christ, or Mohammed, or anyone – were like prescriptions of a physician to the diseased humanity. When we are ill with a particular disease, a particular prescription is given to us; but if we are ill with some other disease, the same prescription is not given. And to another individual, the same prescription is not given. Something like this has been the reason behind the divergence of the instructions of the prophets of the religions reigning supreme today, and it would be foolhardy and idiotic for people to think that they represented a complete truth for eternity without requiring any kind of change whatsoever, needing no amendment at all.

It is difficult to believe that the prophets themselves believed this. If Acharya Sankara, Jesus Christ, Buddha, Mohammad and Zoroaster had a conference in a room, it would be difficult to believe that they would disagree with one another. They would have been so happy to meet each other in that conference. Each would be smiling at the other and embracing one another in the commonness of the vision that they had in their own selves, but manifested outwardly with certain limitations, as would be required under the geographic and social conditions. But the followers of the prophets spoiled the religions. They cannot smile; in fact, they frown at other faiths, which was not the basic, fundamental viewpoint or standpoint on which India stood, right from the time of the Vedas.

There was, somehow, for reasons which we cannot easily know today, a great spirit of accommodation and tolerance in the minds of people here. This is why, in spite of social problems and political onslaughts, and ignorance of various types which is prevalent in illiterate and dogmatic circles, there is a spirit prevalent in us. The outward forms shake, but the spirit is stable even now. Thus it is that there is a hope which India is raising aloft as its banner, to whose light people turn their visions for guidance even at this moment of time, when the international situation may be said to be in a state of turmoil.

Whenever people think of yoga or the religion of God, they remember India. It is something very mysterious. Why should they remember India, and not any other country? It does not mean that India contains only religion, and nothing else. That it contains something more than religion, is the reason. Religion is not adopted by India as a cult or a bifurcated pattern, along the ruts of which it has to drive its vehicle of daily existence. To the vision of India – which would be the proper way we can describe the culture of India – the religious piety of the cults and the faiths was not merely an aspect of the vision which it held aloft, but a permeating influence which converted the whole of life into religion.

I read a very interesting line in a great work of Sri Aurobindo which I liked very much. He says, “People generally complain that India's fall is due to its religion, but I say India has failed because of the lack of religion.” India has somehow or other got into a quagmire, and run into a blind alley, and maybe it had to pass through a period of test where it had to blink a little bit to the totality of the vision of religion which it entertained originally during the time of the Vedas and the Upanishads, and turned a blind eye due to the little repercussion which it had to bear during the vehement movements of the tempestuous winds that blew over its surface during the passage of time. It is difficult to maintain the vision of God throughout one's life. Even a prophet cannot maintain it, and for a large country like this to maintain this concentrated vision of totality of its religious attitude perpetually, in every walk of life, for all times, would be a terrible job indeed. It failed many a time; it could not understand. “Many times, Homer nods,” as we are told, and India also nodded. Everyone nods when great men nod.

But even with this nod, India is not asleep. It awoke. Now and then it recovered from its slumber. It got out of its bed of complacency, and could remember the foundations of its outlook. Today we are in the year 1980, which is not a happy year, not a happy day. We are not living in happy circumstances either socially, politically or internationally. Notwithstanding all these problems, do we not think we have a ray of hope in our hearts? Are we weeping and crying that we are in hell? Though oftentimes it appears as if we are in hell, and are likely to cry out, “Hell! Get thee behind!” as Christ said to Satan, yet even the most depressed melancholy individual seems to have a little ray of positive hope. From where has this hope come? This is the foundation of our great culture, into whose mysteries we shall have time to dilate a little more.