Inclusivity and evolution are inherent traits of Indian culture
The term culture is varyingly understood, often encompassing different manifestations of human intellectual and other expressions, particularly of ideas, beliefs, customs and social behaviour. At a more granular level this conception incorporates different art forms, languages and literature, traditions and values and even religious norms and practices. At times, urbane lifestyles and discerning tastes of material subjects are also considered archetypal of what culture embodies.
India, with its near continuous history of more than 5000 years as an evolving civilisation, has a dynamic and living culture. It is justifiably proud of this unique heritage which is often considered a key element of its own national identity. However, there are questions as to what is the true Indian culture and which hue in this multitude of cultural-chroma can be said to be quintessential representative of the Indian civilisation. But this begets some more queries, as to what is civilisation, what is the wider domain of culture, how has it evolved in India, how inextricably is it linked to our religious thoughts and practices and most importantly what is nationhood itself. For capturing even a glimpse of the vibrant Indian culture, behoves conceptual appreciation of these integral institutions. But first, what is culture?
The connotation of the word culture is vast and cannot be restricted to a singular definition. However, it can be understood as the collective values of a society, manifested through its numerous institutions as well as, in the disposition, attitudes, manners of its individual members. Those in turn find expression in various material objects, abstract ideas and beliefs of individuals and society.
Thus, culture includes certain aspects of collective institutions, such as morality, religion, spirituality, law, custom, art etc. which are not restricted to an individual and which are handed over from generation to generation. Evidently, the institutional elements of culture are evolutionary and dynamic.
Culture also includes intellectual and knowledge elements pertaining to languages, literature, human learning, social norms, customs and behaviour. Human and social aesthetics are another key aspect of culture, encompassing within it, the numerous manifestations of tangible and intangible art forms, viz, music, dance, sculpture, painting and architecture etc. The new-age theatre and cinema are as much a reflection of the modern culture as are the cave paintings of a prehistoric society, of which we know so little. The Bhakti and Sufi movements were the embodiment of the spiritual elements of the medieval culture, as were the imposing forts and grand palaces of this age, a reflection of its societal and corporeal cultural constituents. The Sangam literature was the manifestation of the human intellectual and socio–ethical elements of a culture at its zenith nearly two millennia ago. Folk art and traditional lifestyles are also as much indicative of the culture of a society as is urbane lifestyle and transient tastes. Thus, our habitat, cuisine, costumes, physical objects, apart from performing arts and architecture, are all reflective of the material or tangible elements of culture, as are religions, customs, festivals, traditions, social practices and ethics, philosophy and law, reflective of non-material or intangible elements.
But Culture in itself is never static or an isolated mass of homogenous attributes. It is pervious and dynamic, with fresh waves of socio-cultural influences sprouting pristine cultural milieus. Inclusivity and evolution are its inherent and integral traits. It is this very indispensable characterisitc which is reflected in Mahatma Gandhi’s words, “No culture can live if it attempts to be exclusive.”
But given its transient nature, what is that abiding essence which provides continuum and sustenance to a culture, to maintain its integrity over epochs? At the very core of the myriad cultural manifestations, lies the element of goodness of the civilisation and its people. It is the enduring element. Narrow canons of the self, do not restrict it, nor is its domain limited to a specific society. It is all encompassing and its ethos best exemplified in the aspirational Upanishadic hymn, sarve bhavantu sukhinah (may all be happy).
Indeed, its universality extends even beyond the human dominion, to all the sentient beings and in its noblest manifestation, endeavouring even for the sustenance of the biotic world and the abiotic realm. Civilisations may somewhat assimilate this element as ethics and law, while religion may perceive it as the principles of morality or the essence of spirituality. But goodness, irrespective of its classification, is the only and truly the eternal soul of any culture, bereft of which, its external trappings no matter how seemingly glorious and glitzy, are a little more than a lifeless mass.
The writer is an IRS officer and author of the book, ‘Indian Heritage, Art and culture’. Views expressed are personal.