India’s Ancient Culture
by Swami Krishnananda

Chapter 1: The Definition of Culture

According to history, India has always been considered as the repository of the earliest of cultures. Cultures are there in every country, but Indian culture is said to be the most ancient, historically speaking. So there is some point in trying to go a little deep into this ancient circumstance that gave rise to a kind of culture which we call Indian culture.

The word ‘culture’ is something which requires to be defined in an adequate manner. It is a process of purification. Culturing a thing implies analysis and purification. Indian culture or any culture – human culture, so to say – is the theme connected with the efflorescence, the development, the onward progress, the extent to which perfection has been attained by a group of people or an individual, to what extent there has been purification of the inner nature. Culture is connected with the inner life of a person, and whatever the inner life of a person is will decide the outer behaviour of the person because you cannot conduct yourself outwardly in a manner different from what you are inside. The way in which you speak to people, your physical gestures, your demeanour, your deportment, and your social concourse with people outside will be a manifestation of what you are within. In your social relations, which are culturally oriented, you express outwardly what you are inside. So the culture of a people, the culture of a nation, the culture of a country is the cumulative product, so to say, of the culture of the individuals constituting that particular nation or country, broadly speaking.

It does not mean that every individual thinks identically with another person. Every individual has his own or her own pattern of the general outlook of life, independently taken. Yet, apart from there being a difference in the minor details of the outlook of life by individuals, there is a general consensus of opinion, a broad-based outlook which decides a community, a large group of people, and so apart from individual differences which are practically negligible, we may say, there is a general consciousness which brings people together into a nationality, into a cultural background – that is to say, into a general outlook of life.

Culture, therefore, is a product of a general outlook of life. What do you think about yourself? What do you think of other people around you? What do you think about this world into which you were born? What is your general idea about things, the world and the individual included? Your reaction to the outer atmosphere of the world and people outside is your culture. You react in a particular manner in respect of conditions prevailing outside. Your reaction will show what kind of culture it is that you are endowed with, or that you are born into.

Something is happening in the world outside, in nature. Something is happening among people outwardly. There is a large country; there is a large world. There are people. Something is happening to them or they are doing something, and you react in a particular manner to these events taking place in society outside or to the world in general. How do you react? That reaction is the product of your culture. You will react in a particular manner in respect of natural history, and also social history. This is a very subtle point because though individual reactions in respect of particular events may vary from moment to moment, from person to person, general reactions are common, and they lay the very foundation of a community.

Thus, cultures can be individual and also collective. India is a country with millions of people inhabiting it, and each person has his own or her own ways of thinking due to the individual differences in their evolutionary stages, but commonly an Indian is supposed to think in a general and collective manner. There is some common background on which an Indian thinks, in spite of there being so many differences among individuals. That commonness of thought that we find in India among its citizens is the culture thereof. This is what we call Indian culture.

Before I go further into this subject, I request you all to read two books. You have to read them thoroughly from cover to cover. The name of the first book is Foundations of Indian Culture written by Sri Aurobindo. The second book of Aurobindo is The Human Cycle. The book was called originally Psychology of Social Development, and now it has been reprinted under a different title, The Human Cycle, and is clubbed with another book that he wrote. The entire book now goes under the title of The Human Cycle and Ideal of Human Unity. But this book must be read after the first book, Foundations of Indian Culture. This is a standard work which will inspire you not only by the elevated style of English literature, but also by the profundity of thought. It is a classic. There is another book which is also very inspiring and interesting: Eastern Religions and Western Thought by S. Radhakrishnan. There are many other books, but as you have no time to read too many books, I mentioned only the basic fundamentals.

I mentioned that culture is basically an outlook of life. What do you think about life? You would have noticed that generally when you think, you think in three ways. First of all, you think your own self. You look within and think about yourself. Every day you think about yourself for some reason or the other, because you are very important to yourself. You cannot ignore your existence. Right from morning onwards you think of yourself. That is the first thought. Then you think of other people. You look within at your own self, and you look without at the world outside. This without includes not only the world of nature, but also the world of people. Subjectively you think of yourself, and objectively you think of nature and history, as we may put it. By ‘history’ I mean the movement and performance of people. You look at yourself and you look at others, the others including nature as well as people outside.

Then there is a third way of thinking which generally is not a concomitant of your normal thinking. The mind gets so much occupied with one’s own self and the other people outside, due to its having to deal with the external atmosphere from one’s own point of view, that there is very little time left to think of the third item, though the third item also will come up one day or the other for insistent consideration, especially when you are totally dissatisfied both with your own way of living and the way in which people outside live. You are somehow or other not satisfied. There is something wrong somewhere. Something is wrong with you and something is wrong with other people also. The world itself does not seem to be satisfying.

As long as you feel there is some point in being satisfied with the conditions prevailing in the world, the third outlook will not arise in your mind. Why should there be any necessity to think of a third thing when you are perfectly all right, there is nothing wrong with you, and people in the world are also perfectly all right? They are all getting on well. What is wrong with them? The world is fine. If this is so, you will have only two ways of thinking: the within and the without, the subject and the object, as they are called philosophically. The subjective side and the objective side constitute the whole of human thought. But there is something which is neither a subject nor an object, which will speak in its own language one day or the other when neither the subjective side nor the objective side is going to satisfy.

In youth, when we are little boys and girls, budding adolescents, we are not quite acquainted either with the components of our inner psychological world or with the world outside. Even our own ways of thinking are new to us. Young boys and girls are not good psychologists. They are mostly carried away by instincts, emotions, and a kind of enthusiasm which spurts up not by the application of reason but by a combination of instinct and emotion. That is why young people are difficult to control. They do not want any kind of discipline because discipline is a rational application of certain principles, and rationality is set aside to a large extent when instinct and emotion become predominant. Students in schools and colleges are turbulent and very disobedient, and are not always subject to the rules and conduct of study or education because of rationality not yet having manifested itself properly into a state of maturity in them, and the natural instincts and emotions taking an upper hand.

But you will not be always a student. As you progress and have a better experience of the world, something will tell you that this kind of life is not fully satisfying. It is something like a drudgery which you have been passing through. There is some problem every day with you, and with others also. Something is not at all satisfying.

Something should be satisfying, but nothing in the world is going to be satisfying. You cannot complain against anything unless you have a solution for it. You have an idea that things should be like this; therefore, you say these things are not all right. So when you do not feel satisfied with your own self or the world outside is it because there is something you have placed before yourself as a standard, in comparison with which you complain against the world or against your own self. You have set a standard. That standard cannot be yourself because you are dissatisfied with yourself. That standard also cannot be the world outside, because that also is not satisfying. You have got a peculiar nebulous unarticulated ideal which seems to be calling you and telling you that it exists. This is the third way of looking; that is what is called ‘looking above’. Looking within, looking without and looking above, these are the three ways of looking by the mind of a human individual.

Philosophical thoughts, religious ideals or a spiritual encounter with life is connected with looking above. This ‘above’ is not actually looking to the skies. It is a logical aboveness. It is a circumstance which pulls you and attracts your attention. The words ‘within’, ‘without’, and ‘above’ that I used should not be taken literally as geographical locations. It is not that something is here and something is there and something else is somewhere else. The terms have to be taken and understood in their proper spirit, and not merely in their letter. The withinness is a conditioned limitation of the psyche, and the withoutness is a condition under which you look at the world of people. Both these conditions, being conditions only, do not satisfy you because of the fact they are conditions. You want to be unconditioned. Limitations are abhorrent. You do not like any kind of limitation. The world is limiting you, and you are limiting the world. You do not like the world, and the world will not agree with you. You are always at loggerheads. You want to find a solution for this kind of state of affairs by resorting to some principle which will not be a partisan, either on your side or on the side of the world. It will stand like an umpire in a game, not belonging to either party.

Cultural values are not subjective values. It is not just what you think because you want to think. Cultural values also do not mean just what other people think. It is something which people in general are expected to think for a harmonious way of existing. It is not my thought or your thought; it is the thought of human beings in general which they have to entertain for common welfare. Otherwise, if I have my own thoughts and you have your own thoughts, we cannot have a life of community, and there cannot be an integration of national spirit. There cannot be a country, as we call it. The whole country thinks in one way only: this is my country. So Italians say, Germans say, French say, Indians say, everybody says. This is my country. The person who says “this is my country” does not think merely from his or her point of view. He somehow or other transports himself or herself into a way of thinking which is in consonance with the general pattern of the life of the whole nation. It is a kind of universal, generalised form of thinking. Cultural thinking, or cultured thinking, as we may like to put it, is a thought that rises above both pure subjectivity and pure objectivity. Neither are you connected purely with what is happening outside, nor are you limiting your thoughts to yourself only.

Therefore, to be a cultured person is not an easy thing. You may study books in a school or college, you may be educated, but you need not be cultured. Education is not the same as culture. Education gives you information about things, but culture refines your personality. That is the difference. You may have a degree, but you may not be a refined person. You may have a degree in physics or chemistry or history, you may be well informed as to what history is, physics is, chemistry is. But if you do not know anything about yourself, you are not a refined person, a polished person, a smooth-going person. You do not attract; you repel, rather. That would be an uncultured person’s attitude. Therefore, education need not be considered as the same as culture.

But education is supposed to be a medium for making a person cultured, and if today’s educational system does not make a person cultured, so much the worse for it. We have job-oriented education, technological education; we have the arts and sciences, humanities and whatnot, but they are all connected with limited areas of thought. A person who is proficient in physics knows nothing of history, a well learned man of history knows nothing of chemistry, etc. They are aliens in their own psychological world. To be cultured is to be human, and to be cultured is to be able to rise above the purely subjective way of thinking or the purely externalised way of thinking. You should not condition your thought either to your own personality or to some group of people outside – a communal way of thinking, as they call it, a fundamentalist way of thinking. All these have to be transcended.

A cultured person is not an ordinary individual; a kind of super-individual is that person, super-individual because of the fact that this person has risen above the ordinary limitations of human individuality. What are the limitations of human individuality? Hunger, thirst, ego – physical instincts like hunger and thirst, and psychological pressures like egoism play a dominant role in our lives.

You have to eat every day. A very important point it is. You have to get a good meal at least once every day. This is a very basic need, physically unavoidable, and it cannot be ignored under any circumstance. Whatever be the conditions prevailing in the world, that you require a meal every day is first and foremost, and you are always keeping an eye on it. Secondly, you require to be recognised. An unrecognised person is not a happy person. Otherwise, you will feel you are nothing. There is what is called self-regard. You always feel that you are something, and you would not like to be treated as nothing. You are somebody, and you would not like to be told that you are nobody. You require to be respected. That is the ego working, and this instinct is stronger than even hunger. You may starve for three days without food for some reason, but you would not like to be starved of your self-respect. Rather, you would starve for days together for the sake of gaining self-respect. If you feel that your respectability is going to be enhanced under certain conditions which require you to be without food, you may have to work very hard to see that your self-respect is taken to its pitches, socially respectable to the highest point. If the highest self-respect can be gained by working hard, involving a little bit of starving, you would not mind it. When political electioneering takes place, for instance, people who stand for election and who wish that they be lifted up to a high position of respectability in social circles may have to run about here and there, sometimes even without being able to eat or sleep. You have seen this. Even without sleep, without eating, you can exist for some time, but without self-respect you cannot exist for even a day. Ego is a stronger instinct than other instincts. But a cultured person rises above this basic, crude, limiting condition to which he is subjected by ego and physical conditions.

A human being is a person who can recognise humanity in another person also. It is not that you want everything, and others do not want anything. The meal that you require and the self-respect that you are asking for are also craved by other people. A human being is an unselfish individual in the sense that he or she is capable of recognising the same human characteristics in other people also. You love others as you love yourself, and you would be able to treat others in the same way as you would like to treat yourself.

The basic factor behind a cultured person’s behaviour is that person is able to look at others, treat others, behave with others in the same way as one would wish to behave with one’s own self, or one would wish others to behave with one’s own self. In what manner would you like others to behave with you? You have some idea, a standard set: I would wish that others should treat me in this manner. That very manner is the way in which you have to treat other people. In a way, the world is a give-and-take policy. The world will give you exactly what you give to it. You cannot expect from the world what you are not prepared to give to it. If you ill-treat the world psychologically or socially, it will also ill-treat you in the same way psychologically and socially.

Why does it happen? It happens because you are a part and parcel of the world, both from the point of view of nature and of society. The physical body is constituted of five elements: earth, water, fire, air and ether. In that sense, you are a part of nature. Nature is constituted of five elements: earth, water, fire, air and ether. The same are the constituents of your physical personality, this anatomical physiological personality. You are one with nature as far as the basic building bricks of your personality are concerned – the same physiology, the same anatomy. Socially also, you are one with people. Some people say that man is a social animal. Maybe he is an animal; that is a different matter, but he is social. Sociality means the capacity to come in contact with people in a harmonious manner. Disharmonious relationships cannot be called social relations. That would be antisocial relations. The harmony that is necessary for the survival of people is the sociability thereof.

Why is it necessary for you to be social with other people? It is because in order to survive, you require the collaboration and cooperation of other people. You want other people to cooperate with you and help you whenever necessary, but why should they help you if there is no connection between you and other people? The necessary connection between you and other people for the purpose of a reasonably comfortable existence and even survival is the sociability that we are chalking out.

All these are a part and parcel of cultural behaviour, and whatever words I spoke to you today form a kind of base which is partly psychological, partly sociological, and perhaps to some extent it is even philosophical. Culture, therefore, is partly psychological, partly sociological, partly philosophical. Why is it so? It is psychological because you are involved in it, it is sociological because other people are involved in it, and it is philosophical because life is involved in something which is more than yourself and other people. A transcendent element controls the destiny of the whole world. That comes under the theme of philosophy. Cultural studies generally include psychological studies, sociological studies and philosophical studies.

In this course regarding India’s ancient heritage, the scheme that I will follow is something like this. Firstly, I have mentioned a basic factor: how we have to start thinking at all before we start thinking of culture. And I have also said something about what culture is in its essentiality. Now, inasmuch as we have used the words ‘India’s ancient culture’, it will also have something historical about it. So apart from the three factors I mentioned – psychology, sociology and philosophy – we may have to add a fourth subject now, called history. In connection with this particular subject, there will be India’s ancient history over and above psychology, sociology and philosophy. It is a very vast subject.

I will not be following any particular book though what I will be telling you will be in these books, especially Aurobindo’s Foundations of Indian Culture. My book will be in my mind only; I don’t have any book. Today I close and I thank you very much for being with me here, and I shall see you tomorrow morning.