The Heritage of Indian Culture
by Swami Krishnananda

Chapter 4: The Foundations of India's Cultural Vision

We may say that among the many nations of the world, it was India that first conceived of a proper blend between religion and secular life. Earlier we had occasion to notice that an excessive emphasis on the secular values of life to the detriment of the religious spirit led to the downfall of empires. We can give no other reason for their vanishing.

We have a very interesting twofold feature as an object of study in European history. The state and the church are two great examples of secularism and religion. The medieval ages, in Europe particularly, highlighted this peculiar irreconcilability between the king and the pope—the one getting impelled towards secular aggrandisement and power, the other insisting on clerical authority. There was a time when the pope was more powerful than all the kings. Religion took an upper hand, and the secular emperors were under the thumb of the pope.

When it is said that the church ruled the state, it is implied somehow that the world that is 'beyond' began to rule the world that is 'below'; the otherworldly values began to emphasise their authority over the phenomena of this world. But, this world is 'this' world, and cannot be 'another' world; and the other world is an 'other' world, and cannot be 'this' world. It is very difficult to bring them together. Hence, there was a conflict between the church and the state, due to which one of them had to fall. They could not move parallel, because there was no attempt on either side to bring about a rapprochement between the two values—religious and secular. The king was totally irreligious due to the pomp and authority that he wielded, but he had to work under the threat of excommunication by the pope, which was a great difficulty for the rulers of Europe.

Everything in its own place or context has a great strength; it loses its strength when it is out of place. When it is out of context, even an elephant loses its strength. When the proper placement of values missed its moorings and religion became a sorrow to the world led by the king or political administrator, a boiling point arrived. Even a mouse will assert itself when it is cornered from all sides. The papal authority was thrown out, and the kings of Europe asserted independence not only as secular heads but also as religious heads. They were the lords spiritual as well as the lords temporal. King Henry VIII was perhaps the first to overthrow the papal authority in England, and he announced himself to be the religious as well as the secular chief.

Today we find that there is a peculiar feature cropping up in the evaluations of life by the nations of the world, which cannot be called either secular or religious in a technical sense, but a kind of chaos which has arisen as a bubble rising to the surface of a vast tumultuous ocean. While the authority of the church has been thrown out by the power of the state, the state itself is insecure due to the existence of other states. Every finite is threatened by the existence of another finite, to read philosophical meaning into political situations.

In the Middle Ages, there was tension due to the preponderating authority of the church over the state; but now there is tension of a different type altogether due to the existence of other states, which are girding up their loins as forces with daggers drawn at one another, for reasons we all know.

Now, where lies the fault? Is it in religion, or in secularism? It is in neither. There was no mistake on the part of the rulers or the emperors, nor could we say that there was some mistake on the part of the pope. There was a mistake in the bringing together of a harmony between two values of life which are equally important. Man is a body, and also a soul. Though we cannot say that man is not a body, he is not merely a body. Man is also a soul, but not merely an ethereal soul minus a body. The Kathopanishad says, atmendriya-mano-yuktam bhoktety ahur manisinah: The individual is a complex of the spirit, the mind and the senses working together with the vehicle of the body. Therefore, human culture cannot found itself entirely on an otherworldly religious outlook of life—in which case, we have the example of the pope and the churchian rule which could not succeed; nor can we emphasise the body and the senses entirely—as we have the example of the fall of the Roman Empire and the Greek state, and many other such examples.

In India, we have a blessed example—God be thanked, and touch wood. There is a persistent current flowing even today under the tumult of the outer surface of life's activity here, an upsurge within the soul of the nation for bringing back into modern existence the values for which people lived in ancient times. The most scientific of all outlooks is that which was envisaged by the masters of India: the bringing together of the world here and the world hereafter.

The great teacher of Vaisheshika commences his Sutras with a famous declaration: yato'bhyudaya-nihshreyasa-siddhih sa dharmah. What is dharma? It is that by which we are prosperous in this world and attain salvation afterwards. Dharma is that cementing force by which we are prosperous here and also liberated afterwards. Abhyudaya in this world and nihsreyasa in the hereafter are assured to us by a proper inculcation of the values of dharma. Therefore, the criticism levelled against Indian culture by carping non-conformists that it is the negation of life is a misinterpretation.

India never negated life, nor did it affirm it as a reality in itself. It took its value in its own status; it called a spade a spade, as they say. Everything has to be recognised and interpreted from the point of view of its present existence in the level of evolution. The hunger and thirst of the body were not denied by the spirituality of India, and the existence of a need for mutual collaboration among people in society was not neglected. The great canons of the pancha mahayajnas enjoined upon every Grihastha, or householder, is a standing refutation of the charge against Indian culture that it is otherworldly, ascetic, and a denier of practical values. Who could be equal to the spirit of India's culture, which worships a guest as God Himself? This atithi devobhava principle is rarely observed in other countries, where an uninvited guest is not a welcome person; but in India it is the uninvited guest who is adored more than the invited one. The invited guest is the abhyagata, whereas the uninvited guest is the atithi; and the atithi, not the abhyagata, is the deva.

But the etiquette of secular observances may trample upon this great ideal which the Indian mind has enshrined in its bosom from a different point of view altogether—not purely social or make-believe, but on the basis of a spiritual recognition of values. Anything that happens of its own accord is God's action, and this is the basis of the inculcation of the principle that a guest who comes uninvited is to be adored and recognised as Narayana Himself. The idea is that events that take place without the intervention of our personalities—or more properly, without the intervention of our egoisms—should be considered as divine interventions. Who brought that man to our gate, when we did not invite or call him? Who could have pushed him to our gate, if not something that is super-personal? This great belief in the presence of divinity in all things working for the welfare of all beings in various ways—God testing man in various forms—laid the foundation for these courtesies which we extend while welcoming an uninvited guest. How could one who denies the world have such a policy in life?

India never denied life. It denied only false notions of life, an erroneous interpretation of life, and not life itself. Otherwise, how could India produce such great painters, musicians, architects, sculptors, masters of dancing, musicians, and literary geniuses if Indians were deniers of the world? Indians would be brooding, weeping, and sitting with slouched backs in a corner, contemplating an otherworldly value if this had been the truth. Every level of life was regarded as a divine level, on account of which, in his Ashtanga Yoga, Sage Patanjali strikes a balance among the various stages of evolution when he speaks of the importance of social virtues, and even bodily discipline, together with the necessity for mental abstraction and sense control, etc., for the purpose of ultimate communion with the Absolute.

The principles of Purushartha known as dharma, artha, kama, moksha are, in essence, the methods adopted for bringing together empirical and transcendent values. They are the foundation of India's culture, upon which are founded the principles of varna and ashrama. These Purusharthas together with varna and ashrama sum up the entire principles of India's culture. Everything can be read here in these few words. Through the fulfilment of these, life became complete socially, physically, psychologically, intellectually, and spiritually.

In the great messages bequeathed to us in the Chhandogya and Brihadaranyaka Upanishads we will find the beautiful blend they conceived between this world and the other world. Nothing was ignored, nothing was rejected; everything was absorbed, everything was remodelled, everything was divinised by the magical touch of the God-vision which saw a new significance in the various physical particulars of the world—even in what we may call the worst of secular values.

The material values of life, which are necessary for the maintenance of one's physical existence—socially, as well as personally—were taken care of firstly and primarily, under great restrictions and conditions. Even medicine has to be taken under a prescription by a physician; and the physicians were the great makers of the Dharma Shastras, who knew how one could take advantage of the beauties and the pleasures of life while not contradicting dharma. Dharmaviruddho bhutesu kamo'smi, says Bhagavan Sri Krishna: I am the desire which is non-contradicted by dharma (or, not contradicting dharma). But it was difficult for people to understand that dharma regulates the fulfilment of the desires of man—artha and kama, physical and vital. We were not asked to dry ourselves up in the heat of a false austerity. We were asked to fulfil ourselves and to blossom into glorious flowers, rather than to become dry twigs due to false notions of tapas or austerity.

Great masters and geniuses of India were glorious comprehensive personalities, and not rejecting individuals. Great emperors were brahmajnanis, and householders were geniuses of spirit—by which we are taught that it is not only possible but also necessary to see the One in the many. The necessity and the capacity for visualising the One in the many is the basis behind the inculcation of these canons known as dharma, artha, kama, moksha.

Man lives for the liberation of the spirit in the Supreme Godhead. That is perfectly so, and there can be nothing more glorious than this ideal. We live for that, we exist for that, and all our activities are directed towards that; but—and a very important 'but'—we have to remember that it is a graduated ascent. Nature evolves systematically, and whether it is the Sankhya or the Vedanta which is our philosophy, we are told that we cannot help conceiving the relationship of the world with God in terms of an evolutionary process. It is not one solid mass known as the world suddenly getting tagged onto another solid substance called the Absolute; it is a very, very fine adjustment which is brought about by a refining of consciousness gradually, systematically, from its lowest involvements in matter to its highest, blossoming in God-consciousness.

Thus, the existence of matter has not been denied, while it is also told that it does not exist at all, finally. Very strange! We shall realise one day that the so-called material world does not exist, but it cannot be denied when it is an object of direct experience by a level of our individuality which is on a par with this object of perception we call the material world. The experiencer and the experienced are moving parallel in the process of evolution. When we evolve, the whole world also evolves together with us, as far as we are concerned. Our world goes together with us, and the experiencing subject and the experienced object are on a single level of reality. Neither is superior or inferior to the other, and that is why there is a coming together between the two. The heavenly regions—Indraloka, Tapoloka, Brahmaloka, etc.—are not experienced by individuals because they are on a different level of reality altogether; and because we are in a material world and involved in a material body, we are experiencing a counterpart in the form of a material world. Therefore, this reaction between us and the world outside in a physical form is one stage of experience, which is artha and kama. We cannot deny it unless we deny our own self—which we cannot do, for obvious reasons. The world will cease to be only when we cease to be, and not before that. We cannot say, "I am, and the world is not," because both are on the same level, enshrined in a single level of reality, and they go parallel. The subject and the object are not on different levels; they are on the same level and, therefore, when we deny one, the other also goes.

But a mistake was made by enthusiasts of religion and enthusiasts of secular life by ignoring one side and emphasising the other. Whereas the secular emphasised the outer world, the religious emphasised the individual's visions of a super-world beyond the physical world, in spite of the fact that it was in the physical world; and that was a mistake. Religion is not an abrogation of the values that impinge upon us as solid realities as long as we are in them; it is an absorption of those values into our larger integrated personalities. Spirituality is an expanding of our personalities gradually, by larger and larger integrations, by which we absorb the world into ourselves by degrees, and do not reject the world in any degree.

Hence, one was not asked to reject artha and kama, but was expected to absorb them into one's life by means of experience under the condition of dharma. This was something very important, the lack of knowledge of which has landed most people, whether in the religious realm or in the secular realm, in a pit. Dharma is that system, that principle, that law, that rule, that method by which one brings together the subject and the object in harmony in any given level of evolution. Hence, dharma rises from the lower level to the higher level, until the highest dharma is nothing but moksha. But there are other degrees of dharma, and the law of the Supreme All-comprehensive Absolute operates even in the movement of a little atom, as well as controlling the workings of even such wondrous omnipresent realms as Brahmaloka. That law of dharma controls the operation of even a minute electron, and perhaps it also operates the law by which wind blows, driving a dry leaf in a particular direction.

Therefore, the consciousness of the existence and controlling power of a superior reality that transcends the present relationship between the subject and the object is dharma proper. Our relationships, whether physical or social, are to be interpreted, arranged, organised, and utilised in the light of a higher purpose for which this relationship is maintained. The regulative effect produced by that consciousness of the presence of a higher ideal superior to both the subject and the object is the dharma that controls both the subject and the object. If the higher principle is lost sight of, the subject and the object clash, and there is war. It may be a war between two individuals or a war between nations.

It is the absence of dharma that is the cause of rebellions, skirmishes, misunderstandings, fights, battles, wars. Where dharma rules, clash cannot be; there shall be only harmony. But clashes are everywhere—individually in the body, and also outside in society. While dharma has to operate and does operate both within the individual and outside in society, its very presence is lost sight of due to the emphasis of the demands of the sense organs in the body, the clamours of the physical system in many other ways, and the egoism of man, principally. So, while artha and kama are holy, sacrosanct in their own way, they are not permitted unless they are vehicles to enshrine this divinity of the transcendent presence beyond them. Unless and until they become temples of the worship of this deity that is superintending above both of them, subject and object, they become corpses, and not living values. Neither a human individual nor the society outside can have any sense in its existence. They are dead altogether if they are taken in their own outward forms and values and not seen in the light of that which is regulating them, controlling them, and expecting them to obey its own laws.

This is a very difficult concept to entertain in the mind. Dharmasya tattvam nihitam guhayam mahajano yena gatah sa panthah. The great men of the Mahabharata tell us that we cannot know what dharma is. Dharmasya tattvam nihitam guhayam: It is hidden in a cave, as it were, in the darkness of oblivion—perhaps in the cave of our own hearts. Unless we dive deep into our own hearts, we will not know what dharma is. Our conscience is the voice of dharma. The impartial voice that speaks deeply from within ourselves is the voice of dharma. It can speak inside us, and it can also speak from without by a consensus of opinion passed in a most impartial manner.

The important point is that in the light of India's culture, the secular values of life are not evil. Nothing is evil in this world when it is seen as a vehicle which carries a deep meaning within itself which is transcendent to its own outer form. Every nama and rupa is a vehicle for sat-chit-ananda. Sat, chit, ananda, nama, rupa are the five things that we see everywhere in the world. The Panchadasi says that the whole world and each individual particular object are nothing but a complex of asti, bhati, priya, nama, rupa. The first three are characteristics of Brahman; the other two are characteristics of the world.

But what is the world, if it is only name and form? Minus sat-chit-ananda, what is the world? What is a pot, if it is not clay? If we remove the clay from it, we will see no pot. Likewise, if we remove asti-bhati-priya, remove sat-chit-ananda, we will feel nothing is there. That is why the world is supposed to be non-existent in one sense. It is existent as the pot exists, and it does not exist even as the pot does not exist. This is a highly technical theme. The pot does exist because it is clay. What we call 'pot' is only in our minds; it does not exist. But the pot exists; we can carry water in it, as we know very well. We cannot say that we have purchased some balls of mud; we say we purchased pots. The bringing together of nama-rupa-prapancha with asti-bhati-priya into a state of harmony—Existence Absolute, Consciousness Absolute, and Bliss Absolute—is the wisdom of life. One who is bankrupt in this wisdom will be a failure, not only in spiritual and religious life, but even as an ordinary shopkeeper or in a clerical job. A person who is a failure in one thing will be a failure in another thing also, because it is an incapacity to adjust to circumstances that makes him fail, and that incapacity persists wherever he goes, notwithstanding the fact he has changed his profession.

Coming to the point, dharma, artha, kama, moksha are the foundations of the cultural vision of India. Moksha is the deity which is worshipped in this vehicle of dharma, artha, kama. When the deity is absent, we no more call it a temple; it is only an ordinary building, a dilapidated hut, a corpse with no sense. When nobody is living in a house, we do not value it; we do not even look at it. While artha and kama are the visible values of life, and moksha is the universal value of life, dharma is the cementing value of life. We know how important each one is in our life. Nothing can be regarded as wholly unimportant, because everything plays a role in the superstructure of a completeness called human life, which is an advance of the personality towards the fulfilment of existence, moksha—which is not cut off from dharma, artha, kama, but is the fulfilment that is attained as a transcendence, and not a rejection of them.

There is a difference between transcendence and abandonment. When a child becomes a youth, his childhood is not abandoned but transcended. Whatever value was present in the baby is also present in the youth, but the youth is not the baby. He is something different, far superior to the baby. Similarly, moksha is not this world, is not artha, is not kama, and is not even the so-called dharma; but yet, every one of these is present in it in a transfigured form—not in a particularised, isolated, objectivised form. That which we regard as an outside thing will be realised there as Universal Being. This world is not negated, but it will be seen there, experienced there, in a different way altogether. Our vision is corrected; things are not denied or abrogated from experience.

Thus, moksha is the highest dharma, and the way in which it produces its impact upon our practical life is the so-called dharma of our scriptures, our Dharma Shastras, our social laws, personal regulations, regimens, disciplines, etc. This is a very interesting vision which does not ignore anything in this world, and yet does not consider anything in this world as complete. Such a wondrous vision was bequeathed to the great masters of yore in India, on the strength of which they brought down this law of moksha into the practical daily existence of society and the individual through the application of varna and ashrama, about which we shall speak next.