The Heritage of Indian Culture
by Swami Krishnananda


Chapter 3: The Meaning of Culture and Civilisation

Life, ancient as well as modern, is generally calculated and assessed in the light of what we regard as civilisation and culture. We usually, and often, speak of India's civilisation as highly advanced, and its culture as superb in every way. But a cultural or sociological study of history is not the proper way of getting a little deeper into the basic impulses that make culture the essential value of life. Why should anyone be cultured? Unless this question is answered, it is difficult to say what culture is. It is another way of asking, "Why should anyone be good?" We are very fond of saying that we have to be civilised, cultured and good, but have we found time to think of what consequences would devolve in our lives in the absence of this value?

A highly comfortable life of physical satisfaction and social security, with friendliness among the constituents of a society in the manner it is interpreted at any given moment of time, may be regarded as a highlight of civilisation and culture. But we speak of cultures and civilisations, and accept the presence of a multitude of these, implying thereby a simultaneous acceptance of the validity of these multiplicities, and meaning thereby that every culture is relevant to that particular circumstance of society which upholds it as its ideal. It does not mean that the whole of humanity has one culture, one civilisation, one way of thinking. Even the way of giving a friendly greeting differs from place to place, what to talk of other things.

Hence, when we speak of an ethical, moral or cultural society, we oftentimes speak tongue-in-cheek, not being able to assess the basic foundations of these efflorescences which appear outwardly as necessities in the form of culture, civilisation. A comfortable, happy life need not necessarily be a civilised life. Who can say that horses or elephants are not happy? Each group has its own standards of judging happiness, satisfaction, and even security. Animals in the jungle have a satisfaction of their own which is commensurate with the type of understanding with which they are endowed in the state of their evolution. Thus, the judgement of culture and civilisation also has something to say in regard to the stage of evolution.

There are various types of people in the world. Anthro-pologists generally classify humanity into races. This is only a broad classification of human beings, and it does not mean that we have given a clear-cut idea of the varieties of the outlooks of people. It is a peculiar classification based on the physiognomy or bone structure, and the appearance of the face—the nose, particularly. This kind of anthropological classification is not the same as a cultural classification. The anthropological evaluation, if it is applied to people in India, will not find one kind or one set of people throughout the country. There is a geographical impact upon the structure of the body, and many other factors which differentiate the way or conduct of the day-to-day life of people.

Why go so far? In India there are very obvious and interesting differences even in religious practice, as between the South and the North, for instance. In a state such as Kerala, it would be a horror for a person to enter a holy temple wearing a shirt—and much worse, a turban. It is not only irreligious, it is unthinkable, horrid behaviour to put on a coat and worship a holy deity in a temple. But if we go to a temple such as Kedarnath, we will find the pujari wearing a turban and a coat, and it is not regarded as unholy or irreligious. Now, why should this peculiar distinction be made in the conduct of a person—whether it is religious or otherwise—from place to place? It differs not merely from place to place, but from circumstance to circumstance. Perhaps this particular example that I gave has some connection with the circumstance of living—the climatic conditions particularly, and so on.

The dharma of a particular individual or a group of people is the culture, to mention it in a broad outline. The necessity of a person or the need of a group of people under a given set of circumstances, in the light of an ideal that they hold as their religious deity, may be regarded as the determining factor in the expression of culture or civilisation.

In India we have various linguistic states. In one way, we may say each state has its own culture—though not in essence, at least in details. In essence, we have one single culture from Kanyakumari to the Himalayas, which is why we always speak of Bharatiya samskriti, Indian culture; but in minute details, we differ. Hence, when we speak of culture or civilisation, we have to take it in generality as well as in particularity.

Sometimes differences arise among people due to their behaviour, which may appear to be perfectly recognised and valid from their own point of view—from the standpoint of their own culture and civilisation—but may be odd in another atmosphere. Our dress in India is an incoherent cynosure in a country like Britain, for instance; and to us, British or European dress looks something quite different from the way in which we would like to dress ourselves. Now, does dress make a culture, does language make a culture, or does the way of worshipping of God make a culture? What is culture?

If we go threadbare into this problem of culture and civilisation, we will find that it is not one, two or three things, but it is everything that acts as the warp and woof in this fabric of one's life, and a total adjustability of the human group may perhaps be called for in the expression of a culture. When a person speaks sweetly, behaves politely, and expresses a generous feeling of charitableness, one feels that the person is cultured or civilised. We generally speak of a person as cultured when there is a charitable expression on the part of that person in regard to others in feeling, in words, and in outward conduct. But while we may regard this standard of judgement of culture and civilisation as something very beautiful, almost approximating perfection, we have to go a little deeper into the causes that motivate the behaviour of a person in this manner.

Why should one be impelled to speak sweetly to another? Though we may accept that speaking sweetly is a part of cultured behaviour, what is it that prompts a person to speak sweetly to another person? If it is selfishness, exploitation—to utilise that person in some manner by hooking that individual—then sweet speaking would not be a part of culture. It would be a dramatic, deceptive attitude, and we cannot regard sweet speech as a part of culture. Therefore, merely speaking sweetly is not a part of culture; there is something else behind it. Even a charitable act cannot be called culture unless there is some living force behind it, because we may express a gesture of charity with a highly selfish motive. Outward actions can bear the garb of holiness, intense culture, piety and civilisation, but they may have a peculiar axe to grind, which the individual alone will know. Thus, culture is not any kind of external gesture—neither dress, nor even language.

Sometimes people base their culture on their religion, their scriptures. There are scripture-oriented religions whose adherents interpret everything in their lives from the point of view of that particular sacred text. If something is not mentioned in that text, it would not be a holy attitude. The moment they discover a statement in the text concerning a particular behaviour, it becomes sanctioned. So, the book becomes the guide. These are some of the religions we have in the world. But there are other religions which are prophet oriented. They may have no books, but they have a leader, and whatever that person says is valid and final. There is a final validity of a particular conduct, whether it receives its inspiration from a prophet or a book, and this final interpretation of the validity of the behaviour of a person or a group of people makes it impossible for mankind to have one culture and one civilisation, because it does not appear that we have only one book as our guide or only one man as our leader. Sections of people have different leaders—religious, political, and social—and different texts are regarded as holy in their own parlance.

So, how do we come to know whether a person is cultured or civilised? Civilised nations today are those who have up-to-date gadgets of physical amenities. From the point of view of the interpretation of culture as possession of the highest material instruments of action, India cannot be regarded as highly cultured because there are other countries that are more technologically advanced. If technological advancement is the sign of culture and civilisation, India lags behind. But would we say that culture is technological advancement? Certainly not! Nobody would say 'yes' to this, because something lurks within us and tells us that whatever be the might and force of the technology that we have in our hands, it may not be the criterion of our culture. We may be boorish in our outlook, notwithstanding the fact that we possess immense material wealth and tremendous technological power.

Also, wealth cannot be regarded as a sign of culture. An utterly poor person who has not even a morsel to eat may be highly cultured, and the wealthiest man may not be so. Therefore, when we study the philosophy and psychology of culture and civilisation we are in deep waters, and we would not be able to receive an immediate answer to the standard by which we can recognise the presence of culture or civilisation. It is certainly not any kind of external possession, nor does it appear simply an outward behaviour, because political tact sometimes appears to be highly cultured behaviour while it is only diplomacy, which may suddenly become a turncoat and assume a different colour. Therefore, diplomacy is not culture.

A lot of study on this subject has been made by students of history, sociology, anthropology, and cultural values. One of the most recent studies was made by the famous British historian Arnold Toynbee, who has written twelve volumes on the subject of history as a movement of the culture and civilisation of mankind. There seems to be a curve of the movement of culture and civilisation. It is not moving in a straight line, and it is not even a parallel movement. Sometimes it looks like a cyclic movement. For instance, the culture of Krita Yuga, Treta Yuga and Dvapara Yuga may not be the same as the culture of our age. What we regard as the standard of perfection today might have looked very odious and meaningless to a person living in Krita Yuga. Because his outlook of the whole of life is so far removed from ours, our conduct may not resemble his idea of perfection.

Bringing together all these facts into the arena of proper judgement, we may safely conclude that neither culture nor civilisation is a utilitarian value; it is not a pragmatic approach to things. It is not that we can regard it as highly worthwhile today, change it tomorrow, and completely destroy it the day after tomorrow. Have we not seen cultures perishing, and new cultures rising? Why should a new culture arise, as if the old one was meaningless?

The whole of humanity appears to have been striving after a sense of values and a mode of living which would approximate itself to the norm of true culture and civilisation. From this point of view, we should say that we have not yet reached the perfection of culture and civilisation. We are still on the way. Nature seems to be experimenting with various forms of culture and civilisation; and when she finds one form of it to be inadequate, she throws it out as a potter would a broken pot, and manufactures a new one, giving a new shape to it. So we have had cultures and cultures, civilisations and civilisations, ways and ways of living since the Palaeolithic Age—or from the time of Adam and Eve, we may say—and we do not know how many cultures have come and gone. Today we are seeing with our own eyes a few of them, at which we blink and stare with anxiety, with suspicion, with wonder, and sometimes with satisfaction.

We are likely to be satisfied with our own mode of living and grin at another's mode of living as something very odd. Now, the oddness of another's behaviour arises on account of its incompatibility with the standards that we have set as the norm of perfection, from the point of view of an ideal that is in our heads. Everyone has some ideal, and this is the final deciding factor in the expression of values. Our daily behaviour among ourselves—externally, verbally, and even in our feelings—seems to be guided, unconsciously though, by something which we are enshrining within our own bosoms as a highly noble ideal, perhaps the most noble ideal. The goal that we wish to reach, though we might not have reached it as yet, is that which gives form to our behaviour today. What we actually seek as the object of our quest is the force that gives colour to our behaviour in our day-to-day life; and our behaviour, when it has a connection with other people in our society, appears as our cultured attitude—or our uncultured attitude—as we may call it.

Therefore, the norm of perfection, or the ideal that we hold as dear, is the reason behind our varieties of behaviour and the nomenclature we give to it as culture. Thus, it appears that the whole of humanity does not regard one single thing as its ideal—otherwise, there would be only one mode of behaviour, one conduct, and there would be less of friction among people. The battles, skirmishes and wars that we hear of, and the differences of opinion we are confronting every day, can be accounted for only by the differences of the ideals and ideologies of people. It does not mean that everyone is aiming at the same thing.

This is not a great credit to the so-called civilisation of this era. Inasmuch as we are supposed to be pursuing different ideals, naturally we should have different civilisations and different cultures. Then there cannot be world peace, and the talk of it becomes a will-o'-the-wisp. When I totally differ from you in the ideal that I hold as the norm of perfection, how can I be your real friend? I may adjust myself with you for the sake of social existence, but adjustment is different from friendliness. People cannot be really friendly in this world if their ideals are variegated, as they are today. If we have hundreds of cultures and religions with hundreds of ideologies behind them, propelling them, then there is a lurking differentia in the attitude of people, and one cannot eat at the same table as the other. This predicament explains, to some extent, the present stage of evolution of mankind. It is not true, therefore, that today man has reached that state of culture and civilisation which makes him feel that he is the crown of creation, made in the image of God Himself. If God is the original of this kind of reflection, it would be a poor definition of God indeed. How could this distracted behaviour of man be regarded as a reflection of God's Perfection?

The reason why man is distracted in the pursuit of his ideals—as divided rivers flowing hither and thither, though all of them are aiming finally at their union with the ocean—is the pull which is exerted on man's conduct by the senses, which look upon their respective objects. We have intellectual cultures, and these are sometimes identified with humanitarian cultures; and some cultures, no doubt, are purely sensuous, which interpret human values only from the point of view of what the senses perceive.

Unless culture and civilisation ultimately become a light that is shed by the spirituality of values, it cannot unite mankind. In language, in scriptures, in food, and even in intellect, mankind is not one. Then, what is it that can make man one? Everything seems to be different. Is there any common denominator or common factor that can bring humanity into a single body of a focused aspiration for higher values? If man's instrument of action is food and clothing, technology, language, scriptures, or the stage of intellectuality that one has reached, mankind cannot be brought together into a single force. This is because the only thing that is common to all beings is the spirit, and everything else is different. The intellect is different, the mind is different, the senses run after different kinds of objects; therefore, desires vary. Hence, there cannot be a common platform for all mankind to come together into a single forum of action unless mankind feels a need to root its activities on the spirit rather than the intellect, the mind, the senses or their objects. But it does not appear that we have reached that state. It does not seem that man is able to interpret his life from the point of view of the spirit which is in all things, because the spirit cannot be seen with the eyes.

Today, our culture has become sensory because we value it only from the point of view of perception through the eyes. A thing that is not seen with our eyes is not easily accepted. Though it may be intellectually conceded, philosophically accepted, metaphysically regarded as highly praiseworthy, it has not become a part of our day-to-day life because life is different from mere intellectual acceptance or emotional reaction. Our outlook of life has to be compatible with our longings of life in its wholeness. Until that time is reached, we will be segregated, isolated cultures.

Now, with the introduction we proposed in an earlier session, we have been trying to understand and study the standpoint of India's culture, particularly; and from one standard of judgement at least, it appeared to us that there is some peculiarity in the culture of India which is not discoverable in the cultures of the past that have vanished from our sight today. There were great and glorious cultures in ancient times which are now subjects of archaeological unearthing, and are no longer visible to our eyes. This peculiarity, which appears to be the reason for the survival of the culture of India in spite of the vicissitudes which it has undergone in the passage of history, gives us some indication that there is something which can be identified with a common denominator of human culture. If it had been merely a passing wind, it would not have stood the test of time as it has.

We have in India today, in its essentiality, the same culture which was there during the time of the Rigveda, for instance. It has not changed. We have not changed even a whit in our outlook of life through these centuries that have passed since the Rigveda was composed, or, as historians say, since the Aryans ruled India, thousands of years before Christ. That outlook of life, that ideology, that interpretation of values, that interest in life seems to be the very same impulsion from within us today, at this very hour, in spite of other distractions that have taken possession of us due to historical reasons. We are not, in detail, the same persons that our ancestors were many, many centuries back. We are not, in detail, living the same kind of life as our Vedic seers lived. We neither eat the same food, nor put on the same kind of attire; perhaps we do not speak the same language, and our outward day-to-day behaviour in family, society, etc., is not the same as that which prevailed during Vedic times. Nevertheless, there is a basic fundamentality of conduct and outlook, as we should rightly put it, which persists and continues even today, and this samskriti of the Veda has managed to permeate into the veins of people with such intensity that it has not left us even now. The citizen of India, even today, has the same outlook as in ancient times, and would like to place the same norm or standard before himself to judge whether a particular attitude is right or wrong.

Now we come to another difficult subject: the rightness or the wrongness of an attitude—which has very much to do with cultured or civilised behaviour. This subject we shall take up next.