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The Meaning of Culture
by Swami Krishnananda

(Spoken at a conference on September 4, 1997)

A deliberation on cultural values implies a presupposition that it is essential that life is to be characterised by what is known as culture. It appears to be a hypothesis taken for granted that life has to be adorned by a specific feature, a quality, a description, a presentation which goes by the name of culture – a term which has been defined in many ways.

Culture, ordinarily speaking, is what we may regard as appropriate behaviour in the context of prevailing conditions. This definition also may look like an enigma, something which requires a further elucidation. A cultured behaviour is expected of people, generally speaking. We all know that it is good to be cultured and to behave in the midst of people in a cultured manner, but what kind of behaviour can be regarded as cultured? Which person do you consider as a cultured human being? Though we do not usually go into the analysis of the meaning of what a cultured behaviour should be, we seem to be having in our own minds some idea, some accepted norm of what a cultured behaviour should be.

Generally, culture is associated with conduct, the manner in which we relate ourselves to the atmosphere or environment around us, including human society. A cultured behaviour may be an acceptable social behaviour of course, but there is perhaps something more in culture than a merely humanly conceived social behaviour. We may be good people in the eyes of our friends, in the light of the accepted norms of behaviour standardised by our own species, but we may not be cultured when we are not in the midst of human beings. We may not be cultured even in regard to our own selves. Though behaviour implies an outward relationship with people like our own selves, it also implies an inward relationship with our own selves. There is a behaviour which is expected of us in our relationship with other people, but there is a behaviour expected of us in regard to our own individuality also. I have to behave in a particular manner with other people, but it is necessary for me to behave in an appropriate manner in regard to myself also.

A human behaviour is supposed to be a cultured behaviour – humane, we may call it. In the context of the consideration of the meaning of culture there is, therefore, a necessity to investigate the foundations of this feeling that it is required of us to be cultured in our relationships. Why should we be cultured in our relationships? Why should we behave in a set pattern, and not be free to behave in any manner whatsoever as our impulse at the given moment of time may direct us?

These days, latterly, there seems to be a development of thought among the intelligentsia of society that social behaviour is the most appropriate behaviour, and social culture is the standard culture expected in human society. It is necessary to live, and it is possible to live only if we are in the midst of a cooperative and coordinated society; and the social psychology that seems to be at the back of this prescription goes by the philosophy of life. To be serviceable is good. To be cooperative with other people is good. To regard others as one regards one’s own self is good. To be friendly is good. To be unfriendly is not good. To be sweet in behaviour is good. To be bitter is not good. These are some of the facets which this modern prescription of good behaviour takes, but prescriptions cannot always stand on firm ground unless they are fixed firmly on a kind of unchanging route which will condition even the changing behaviour in the context of the movement of human history, in the absence of which it would be difficult for us to understand and appreciate why we should behave in a particular given manner at all.

Why should we not behave in any manner we like? Why should we not be given entire freedom to behave totally unconditioned by restrictions of any kind from outside? Let everyone be free a hundred percent. We know very well that it is not possible to give unlimited freedom to all people, inasmuch as unlimited freedom would be the aspiration of everyone, and if everyone is to exercise unlimited freedom – 'everyone’ is the word to be underlined – then there would be a total annihilation of the very aspiration for freedom.

The presence of freedom perhaps implies the presence of a restriction on the exercise of freedom. This is so because of the fact that other people in the world also expect to be granted the permission to behave freely from their own point of view, and it is impossible that two people can be free unless each one is conditioned by a restriction placed upon each of them by a common aspiration which is at the back of this expectation of freedom itself.

The cooperative spirit that is expected in human society arises due to the fact that there is a common aspiration which seems to be masquerading in the hearts of humanity. It is not true that society, in the sense of a makeshift of arrangements among people, is the be all and end all of existence because though it is true that we may accept that people should live in a spirit of cooperation among themselves, who is to prescribe this mandate of cooperation that is expected among people? Which man, which person, which individual can order all people that there should be cooperation among people? It is a peculiar sense that is engendered by our very nature that seems to be calling for this kind of cooperation, a spirit of sacrifice on the part of everyone, a spirit which cannot be regarded as the effect of an order coming from somebody else, because nobody can order anybody else in this world. Who can order, who is the person to make a judgment on the behaviour of people? Which individual can be regarded as the king or the ruler of other people, inasmuch as anyone and any person in the world can be equally a king?

An invisible yet very persistent spirit seems to be speaking not merely in the midst of people in the world but within every individual in the world, calling for the bringing to the surface of conscious behaviour a reality that is, at present, submerged as a subconscious or unconscious longing, which can become a reality in our day-to-day life only when it becomes a content of our conscious behaviour. An unconscious acceptance of orders, ethical norms, etc. will not be a reliable way of living on a permanent ground because anything that is accepted unconsciously will require a conscious and intelligent acceptance on the part of oneself, because we do not live unconsciously in this world. All life is a conscious behaviour.

Most of our ethicality, morality, goodness may be said to be an effect that follows from an unconscious acceptance of the pressure that comes from outer conditions prevailing in the world, a behaviour that we accept as something forced upon us; but it is up to us to ascertain from within our own hearts and minds if we would behave if we are totally independent and alone to ourselves, free in every way, in the manner in which we are expected to behave, and do behave, in the midst of a large society which restricts us from every side in our behaviour. A good behaviour can be said to be that behaviour which is what we manifest in our lives when we are totally alone to our own selves.

Religion is supposed to be the way in which we think and conduct ourselves when we are alone to ourselves. It is not what we do in the temples and churches, and in the midst of people, because mostly we are a little bit unnatural in the midst of people. We become entirely normal and natural to ourselves when we are alone to ourselves. What is our behaviour when we are unseen, unknown by people? What is the culture that emanates from our personality when nobody sees us and it is not possible for anyone to know what we do? What kind of thought is generated in our minds at that time? What behaviour would we like to manifest in our nature?

Now, this norm that we may impose upon an individual, namely, the normalcy of conduct when one is alone to oneself, may be said to be the real nature and the standard behaviour of a person, which is to permeate and percolate into one’s outer behaviour also in society, which means to say in essence that there is a supernormal conditioning factor in our normal life also. There is a transcendental element present even in our aesthetic expectations and our physical life. Also, in a different manner, more textually presented, even a normal, social or even a political behaviour seems to be having its root in some unknown content which transcends society and outer behaviour. The externality of conduct seems to be rooted, though unconsciously, in an internality of pressure, which finally is a transcendent call – transcendent because of the fact it is not visible to the eyes and yet remains as a persistent call, keeping everyone restless from birth to death and never allowing any possession, any status, any acquisition to be a final fulfilment of this inner call.

Restlessness is the characteristic of all life. Everyone is restless. No one fulfils one’s aspirations throughout one’s life, even until the end of it, because of the fact the transcendent call has not been allowed to manifest itself in a conscious life, which is essential in order that our social life, outer life, and even our personal life, individual life, may become actually a divine life.

We should imbibe these truths that have been presented to us to put into practice in our daily lives so that our behaviour becomes not merely cultured but becomes divine in its content, because there cannot be a culture which is of standing value unless it is backed by and rooted in a divine content – which means to say, unless God is at the beck and call of our daily behaviour and God comes first in our considerations. That means the transcendent rules even the intellectual and mental behaviour of the individual, what to speak of the physical life of a person. The invisible seems to be the final reality, and all visible values assume a meaning and vitality to the extent they are vitalised by and charged with this transcendent element.

Our life is an ascent rather than a horizontal movement. It is a growth like the movement of a tree that rises from a little seed and sapling until it becomes a vast enveloping environment, giving shade to all people. From an individual conduct and aspiration we move in the direction of a social enlargement of our lives, until it culminates in an inclusiveness perhaps encompassing all creation and, at the same time, vertically ascending to the spirit of godliness, the centrality of creation. The width of creation simultaneously gets enlivened by a soul that is inherent in it. The universal Subject and the cosmic expanse of creation blend together in an experience which is evidently the final aim, whether it is felt consciously or not, of all projects in life, adventures, participations, performances of duty, and life itself in general.