India’s Ancient Culture
by Swami Krishnananda

Chapter 2: The Evolution of Culture

To recapitulate, I mentioned that a qualified, educated person may not be up to the mark in culture, because the human individual encounters the world as an object of perception and activity. There is a kind of irreconcilability seen between the subjective side and the objective side. The world does not always behave as we would like it to behave, and we also do not always behave in the manner in which the world is behaving. Nature and human society, which are the objective side of our experience, do not always seem to be going hand in hand with our whims and fancies, our requirements, our needs or our outlook of life. The world has its own way, as we have been seeing, and we do not feel competent enough to put ourselves in a state of harmony with the ways of the working of nature and human society. This is a kind of conflict that we have been noticing.

When we started contemplating on the meaning of culture, we found it necessary to define the basic features of culture. Culture is a kind of refinement of personality, and in this refined position that the personality assumes, the human individual to an extent rises above the limitations of his or her individuality so that the conflict apparently seen between the individual and the world is diminished to a large extent. The more you are an individual by yourself, the more is the chance of your conflict with the world outside. Your assertion of your personality and individuality comes in conflict with the assertion of the world, which also maintains its own personality, we may say. So either the world has to rise to the level of your way of thinking or you have to rise to the level of the world’s way of thinking.

Somehow it has been observed that we are not outside the world; we are part and parcel of nature, as well as human society. I am only repeating briefly what I told you yesterday. We are, on the one hand, physically part of nature. Anatomically and physiologically the same earth, water, fire, air and ether are constituting our physical bodies. We are inseparable from nature on the one hand, and on the other hand we are also inseparable from human society, because every person is a unit of human society. So whether you look at the whole circumstance from the point of view of nature or from the point of view of human society, you cannot stand outside either of them. Therefore, it is incumbent on the part of an individual to bend a little and burnish one’s personality by scrubbing the ego a little bit, and lessen the self-assertive instinct by which one rises above the limiting conditions of individuality. Limiting conditions of individuality are nothing but the ways of the working of the human ego.

The status of culture is that heightened position which a person maintains above oneself. You have to rise above yourself in order that you may be regarded as a truly cultured person. Culture requires you to be in a state of harmony with the conditions prevailing in life. A cultured person rarely comes in conflict with conditions prevailing in life. The malleable, flexible, harmonious, affectionate, very considerate behaviour of a person, which is the characteristic of true culture, makes the person a super-person, a super-individual. An educated person differs from a cultured person almost in the same way as a politician differs from a statesman. We have many politicians, but statesmen are very few. A statesman is a person with a wide vision of things who also looks to the future of the nation, not merely the present, and knows what is good for the nation for all time to come, not only for the present moment. But the politicians are thinking of the present moment only; they have got a very narrow outlook of conditions prevailing today, and they do not bother about tomorrow. A statesman is a highly cultured person, from the political point of view at least.

In a similar manner, generally speaking, true culture raises the dimension of the very outlook of the person above the individual human personal viewpoint. That is to say, culture raises you to a level which is able to bring about a rapprochement, or a reconciliation, between yourself and the world. There is no more conflict between yourself and other people, and no more conflict between you and the world outside. A cultured person does not come in conflict with anything. He is a cementing factor even where there is some conflict or disharmony. These were some of the ideas that I tried to place before you yesterday as a brief statement of what culture is.

Now we are expected to move in the direction of what our curriculum describes as India’s ancient culture. You have to bear in mind every day what you heard yesterday because whatever I will be telling you will be a continuation from what was told the previous day, and it may be difficult to go on repeating the same thing again and again. So please remember the brief outline of our discussion yesterday, the essentials of which I repeated today for your memory.

I mentioned also that India has been considered as the repository of the most ancient of cultures. Why are there different cultures? Every country has its own background of some culture. India somehow or other, by a freak of nature or by some circumstance, happened to be the soil on which the earliest of cultures rose. What kind of culture rose?

In the beginning, every person is like every other person. There is not much of a difference between or among people from the point of view of the basic instincts or physical nature, etc. Hunger and thirst, the need for security, and the urge for survival are common features in all individuals. Primitive man, in the earliest of stages of the anthropological development of human nature, is said to have lived mostly under the pressure of the basic needs of the physical personality, if we are to go along the lines of the evolutionary process of nature, which seems to have risen gradually from mineral to plant, plant to animal, and animal to man, etc. This way of thinking has been accepted both in the East and the West.

There has been evolution, and in the process of evolution the succeeding stage is supposed to overstep the limitations of the previous stage. It bypasses, it overcomes the conditions prevailing in the previous stage, and the succeeding stage is an improvement on the earlier one. For instance, human nature is an improvement on animal nature. But natural evolution has been seen to work in a peculiar way. That is to say, the succeeding stage has some little remnant left as a tail end, as it were, of the previous stage, so that the earlier instincts are not completely destroyed or overcome in the succeeding stage. We sleep like a stone, we breathe like a plant, we have passions like an animal, and yet we are also human beings over and above these previous conditions characterising the lower species. The earlier instincts are not completely overcome.

A person becomes completely human only when the earlier instincts are subdued thoroughly. Animals and plants have a localised consciousness of themselves. The plant bothers only about its self-survival. The animal is also concerned only with itself. The saying “Every man for himself and the devil take the hindmost” aptly fits into animal nature. There are also human beings who think like this: I mind my business and you go to hell. If this kind of outlook is also seen in some human beings, we may conclude that even at the human level there is sometimes the remnant of the earlier stages. Culture is buried deep as a potential in such stages of life, but it has not manifested itself even by a little modicum.

When evolution progresses further, the animal man becomes a little bit more refined in the sense that he recognises the necessity to live in a society. There is a primitive tribal culture, for instance, which is a way of living in groups of people with common instincts and common needs. The totally independent animal life, primitivity, is later found to be unsuitable for even survival of oneself because there is a threat of nature’s working on one side, and there is a threat of other individuals on the other side. So it became necessary in the process of gradual evolution to protect oneself from the onslaughts of nature. A habitat, a kind of house, was found to be essential; otherwise, wind and rain and sun and cyclone will beat upon your head, and nature may not allow you to even exist. A little bit of security from nature was found to be necessary, and security from other people was also necessary because while one person recognises the existence of another person as a human being, mostly, under pressure of circumstances, a human being may not bother so much about the welfare of others when it comes to the question of one’s own survival. Everyone has this instinct of survival of one’s own self, and when you are cornered from all sides and pressed to an extreme, you may not mind guarding yourself somehow or other, even at the cost of others. This is the animal working in man.

Human society developed as a further stage in the course of history, where group culture arose as a development superior to the purely individualistic and personal animal-like life. Mutual cooperation was found to be a necessity for the survival of everybody. I support you and you support me, and if you have any difficulty I help you, and if I have any difficulty you help me. What you lack I give to you, and what I lack you give to me. This is cooperation. Human society arose on account of the necessity felt by individuals to have a cooperative system for the sake of survival itself because no person is complete in himself. Everyone is terribly finite. Everyone lacks immensely something or the other. This lacuna, this lack, this need, this finitude is attempted to be made good by the cooperative spirit maintained by a large number of people, and you have a community; and this community behaves in a particular way for their mutual welfare, for their good. This is a primitive culture in the sense that it is a basic instinct of survival, extending itself to the other people also in the community. The community culture requires that everybody should survive. Perhaps in a purely individual state of affairs it was like animals roaming in the forest, and the question of social culture did not arise.

Now, there can be a group culture, a community culture like a tribal one, and yet it may not be up to the mark from the point of view of what is called human nature. We have to define human nature in a proper way. I mentioned it yesterday briefly. A human being is one who is in a position to recognise the same humanity in another person also. The great dictum, which India’s culture placed before us in this respect, is in a Sanskrit passage. Ᾱtmanaḥ pratikūlāni pareśāṁ na samācharet (M.B. 5.15.17): You would not mete out to another what you would not like to be meted to yourself. That is to say, you would not behave in respect of another person in a manner which you would not like to be meted out to you by another.

Culture starts from this recognition of it being imperative to behave and conduct oneself in respect of others only as one would expect others to behave with oneself. If you are hungry, you must know that others also can be hungry. If you are thirsty, you must know that others also can be equally thirsty. If you are exhausted, you must know that others also can be exhausted. If you would like to live long, you must know that others also would like to live long. And if you do not want to die, others also would not like to die. If that is the case, how would you behave with others? You will adjust yourself in society in such a manner that you will give the same concession and the same freedom to other people as you are trying to give to your own self. Do you know how much freedom you want? Are you not exercising freedom? Yet a lot of concession is given by each one to one’s own self. You would be very miserly in giving concession to other people. You would be very strict on others, but very liberal on your own self. To the extent you are liberal to yourself, to that extent you must be liberal to others also, and if you find it is necessary to put a limitation on one personality, it will be equally applicable to others also. It does not mean that you can control others and you do not want to be controlled, that all limitations are for others only, and for you no limitations.

Culture as a human requirement rises to the status of a freedom that is granted equally to all people, and culture becomes a harmonising principal operating among a group of people; that group may be a little community or it may be a country, a nation. There is national culture. The Indian nation has an Indian culture, a European nation has a European culture, etc. The difference in cultures of nationalities arises on account of various factors such as geographical location, inherited tradition, and the needs of people under the conditions they are placed. These are some of the factors, among many others, that define the difference among cultures.

Now, having taken note of the roots of human culture being connected with human needs, we have also to go a little deep into what these needs are. Cultures arise on account of the needs of people. The basic needs, of course, are very clear, as I mentioned: hunger and thirst, and security. You have to eat in order that you may live, and you have also to be protected from any kind of onslaught from outside. Towards this end cultures move, but this is not a refined form of culture because this definition of culture limiting itself to bodily needs, physical survival, does not take into consideration the other needs of people, such as mind, feeling, understanding, and spirit. You may be happy when you are granted the freedom to physically live comfortably with all security that is required, but physical comfort and security does not touch the whole of human nature because we have other needs like self-respect, as I mentioned yesterday, which is not a physical necessity. You require to be recognised. The asking for recognition is not a physical need, it is a need from the mental state of the person. The mind has a hunger, as the body also has a hunger. The mind asks for a peculiar diet of its own, as the physical body also asks for it. It aspires. The body has a need, but the mind has an aspiration. It longs for certain things in a realm which is not necessarily physical.

So culture becomes more and more refined when it becomes more and more psychological and rational. Tribal culture confines itself to purely physical needs, but higher culture takes into consideration the needs of the psyche because human aspiration, human longing, when it rises to a certain stage in evolution, begins to dream of possibilities, expectations, realisations, etc., beyond merely the physical level. These people are the philosophers. Yesterday I touched this subject. A philosopher is a dreamer of the higher realms of experience rising above the limitations of the subject and the object, visualising some vast domain of attainment and achievement which rises above the circumscribed location of the perceiving subject and the world outside. The world which is physical and social is also limited to that particular aspect only, and the human individual, the perceiver of the world, is limited in a different way. There is a possibility of rising above both these conditioning factors, subjective and objective. The mind dreams of universal possibility. It hopes to achieve a condition of living which may rise not only above the subjective and the objective sides of ordinary living, but may positively achieve a super-physical and super-individual reality above this world of physical and individual nature.

In India, culture is said to have started from the time of the Vedas. You must have heard that there is a group of scriptures called the Vedas. The Vedas, which are the scripture of the fundamental religion of India, consist of records left by persons who dreamt of realms above the Earth, visualised possibilities of experience and attainment far above the limitations of the human person. Philosophically, there is  the need to look above. I am mentioning again what I said yesterday that there are three ways of looking at things. We look within and look without and look above. We look within into our own selves as individuals, we look without at the world of society and nature, but we also look above into the starry heavens and wonder at the firmament of far-reaching potentialities and profundities. We would like to touch the stars and rise above the conditions of the world and of our own physical personality.

It is said that there are two great wonders in this world: the starry heavens above and the moral law within. We cannot understand what the starry heavens are. They remain a mystery for us. What exactly is it that we are gazing at in a clear night sky? What are these that are twinkling before us? How are they hung up in mid-sky? How do they exist at all in that manner? That is a wonder for us. The other wonder is our own conscience saying that we must do the right thing. It may not be easy for us to know what exactly is the right thing, but we know very well that it is necessary to do the right thing. The conscience will not tell us that the wrong thing should be done. Whether or not we know what is right and wrong, we at least know that it is good to be right.

The mystery behind the very consciousness of it being necessary to be righteous, and the mystery of the heavens, are said to be the greatest mysteries. The contemplation on these mysteries makes one a philosopher above the psychologist, the physicist or the sociologist. The physicist studies the components of matter; the sociologist studies human behaviour in society; the psychologist studies the functions of the mind. But why do they function in that manner? Why should physical matter behave in the manner it behaves? Why do people in society conduct themselves in the manner in which they behave? And why are you thinking in the manner you think? There is a way in which you think. All people think in some fundamental manner, but why should you think in that manner? Can there not be any other way of thinking? The question “why?” is the subject of philosophical studies, and “how?” is supposed to be the function of science. Science studies the how of things, and philosophy goes into the why of things. Science cannot tell you why the electrons move in that particular manner around a nucleus. They tell you how they move, but why should they behave in that manner? They gyrate in a manner of their own. Why should people behave in the manner they behave? Why should people ask for the things they ask for? Psychology and physics have their own limitations. Psychology is limited to subjective phenomena; physics is limited to objective phenomena. Philosophy is supposed to be a science and an art which will endeavour to lift you up above the limitations of both psychology and physics, as well as sociology.

The Veda Samhitas consist of records of these stalwarts of yore who lived in India several centuries back. ‘Samhita’ means a collection of hymns. Basically they are prayers offered to the gods in the heavens. Any kind of prayer is a hymn. The Vedas are classified into certain books known as the Rigveda, Yajurveda, Samaveda, Atharvaveda. The earliest history of mankind is found in the Rigveda Samhita, the great collection of hymns and prayers written in ecstatic metrical poetry.

These great Masters seem to have been great poets also. They did not just scribble down in a slipshod manner whatever they thought. It is a wonder that such metrical poems could be composed by those ancients who are said to have lived in this country some thousands of years ago. The metre of the Samhitas is a wonder. A metre is a set formula according to which words are arranged in rhythm and in a given manner. This Rigveda Samhita particularly is a great wonder to linguists and historians. Even the number of the letters of the Samhita has been counted. About ten thousand hymns are in the Rigveda Samhita, and the total number of words in the whole book is counted, and that number has not varied right from the ancient times of its origin till today. In those days there was no writing on paper. Knowledge was communicated from the mouth of the Guru to the ear of the disciple. The whole Veda was committed to memory. For centuries the Veda Samhita was preserved through memory only, and not by printed book or written script. So you can imagine such a huge tome being kept in memory for centuries. Even today in India we have some Vedic masters, though their number is diminishing gradually almost to extinction. Especially in southern India we have got some pundits who can recite the entire Veda by heart. They may be half a dozen, but still they are there.

The Rigveda Samhita is a great wonder. As a scripture it is a wonder, as a book of prayer it is a wonder, as a poem it is a wonder, and as a mystical guide to understand life as a whole also it is a wonder. The Vedas are said to have been edited by a great Master called Krishna Dvaipayana Veda Vyasa. It appears that one day students went to the great master and said, “Please teach us Vedas.” And the answer was anantā vai vedāḥ: Infinite is the Veda. It was not easy to explain the meaning of the Veda because its profundity is infinite.

Experience, whatever the experience be, has many phases of ascent. An experience can be purely subjective from your own point of view, an experience can be purely objective from the point of view of the world outside, and an experience can be supernatural from the point of view of a connecting link that is there between the subject and the object. The connecting link arises because of the fact that you cannot know the world at all unless there is a medium of connection between you and the world. You are aware that the world is there because there is some link connecting you with the world. The world has not entered your eyes. For instance, the mountain is far away. The knowledge of the fact that there is a mountain in front of you arises not because the mountain has entered your eyes, and not because you have gone and hit your head against the mountain. It arises because there is an invisible link between you and the world. It is invisible; the whole point is that. If this invisibility had not been there, if the link between you and the object were visible, there would have been a tremendous transformation of your personality. You would not have been a human being afterwards. Fortunately or unfortunately, this link has been kept a secret by the Creator of the world, and no one knows what is there between you and me. If this is known, neither I will be what I am, nor you will be what you are. That is a different subject.

So experience can be subjective, it can be objective, and it can be something beyond the subject and the object, which we call transcendental. Therefore, the Vedas can be studied from various points of view as an adhyatma vidya, or the subjective science of spirit; as an adhibhautika vidya, or the objective science of the world; as a divya or adhidaivika vidya, or a science of the gods superintending over the whole of creation; or as a karma vidya, or the action that you perform in this world. It also deals with the way in which you have to live in this world by performing action. Adhiyajna is the name that is given to this aspect of Veda. The adhyatma is the science of the inner spirit. The adhibhuta is the science of the objective world. The adhidaiva is the science of the gods in heaven. The adhiyajna is the science of action in the world. And adhidharma is another thing, the manner in which you can righteously live in this world. These are Sanskrit words; it is better you note them down. Adhyatma is the science of the subjective spirit, adhibhuta is the science of the objective universe, adhidaiva is the science of the celestials in heaven, the gods, adhiyajna is the science of action in the world, the performance of action, and adhidharma is the science of righteousness.

The Vedas, therefore, are difficult to understand. They cannot be easily translated because most of the English translations or Hindi translations, and so on, are translations from purely the linguistic and grammatical meanings, but the profundities are not given. We will continue this next time.