Indian Culture and Social Life
Friday, 16 May 2008, 11:02 am Column: Dr. Ravindra Kumar
Indian Culture and Social Life by Dr. Ravindra Kumar
Indian Culture is one of the ancient cultures of the world and due to certain unique features; it is still before us in its original form. Similarly, Indian social life has had an identity of its own and for centuries, it has taught many lessons to mankind. Many of these are not only important but worth adopting today. What are the unique features of Indian Culture? How it is still in its original form before us? And what are the lessons that Indian social life has taught to the human world which are important and worth adopting? Before discussing these questions, it would be better to know the meaning of culture.
Meaning of Culture:
Culture, that is ‘Samskriti’ as is evident, is derived from the word ‘Samskar’. It describes the behaviour of the inhabitants of a human society or a particular nation. It is culture that identifies the behaviour of the inhabitants of a human society or a particular nation. For example: In relation to India it is often regarded that its inhabitants are never reluctant to accept a stranger as a guest and are hospitable towards him. Indians are followers of disciplined, decent and most importantly non-violent life style. They are believers of the principle of human equalitarianism. So, the above mentioned features – honorable treatment to a guest, disciplined, decent and non-violent way of life and belief in the principle of human egalitarianism – are the basic characteristics or behaviors of people of India. When these characteristics are identified by the rest of the world, it becomes ‘Samskriti’, that is culture.
Basic Features of Indian Culture, Development in Various Faces and Impact on Social Life:
Regarding Indian culture I have said that it is one of the most ancient cultures of the world. Among other ancient cultures there are Egyptian and Mesopotamian cultures but they have now lost their original identity. Contrary to this, Indian Culture has still maintained its identity. And certainly, the reasons behind this identity are the basic qualities [behaviours] of the inhabitants of India which can be seen since the beginning till the present day and which have influenced the social life here. What are these qualities or traits? We will get to know them better if we examine them in the context of the present, keeping in mind the history of the past.
Human history is traced back to ten million years. In many Indian religious texts, there is mention of a period earlier than this. Moreover the period of human development is fixed to be between 40 and 12 or 15 thousands years ago. These arguments remain between scholars and archeologists. In all these periods, India had human life, that too in its own way. But here I do not wish to confuse you with the ancient history that is not very clear, nor do I wish to confuse myself at this juncture.
It is not so clear but there are evidences of inhabitance or of social life of people in India that goes back to 5000 years B.C. or more. This was the Stone Age and on the basis of evidences, it is said that the inhabitants of India, at that time lived in tribes. They were engaged in agriculture and cattle rearing. These evidences are based on excavation and surveys conducted at various sites. Excavations conducted at several parts of [present] Pakistan, Gujarat, Tamilnadu [especially Chennai] and West Bengal print these evidences. Besides these, two things are clear too:
• Indians lived a collected life; and
• They loved non-violence.
So, 5000 B.C., Indians had the qualities of collectiveness and non-violence. And these two, certainly, influenced the lives of people. On the basis of collectiveness, the people here faced difficulties collectively and also enjoyed pleasure together. And they were eager to progress on the basis of non-violence. Let me specify that agriculture and cattle rearing are the signs of love for non-violence and collectiveness in life.
We have with us more clarity, the history of 2500 B.C., which provide us the knowledge of the life style which includes their culture and social system. This period is known as the Indus Valley Civilization. Cities revealed at Harappa and Mohan-Jo-Daro or Kot Digi, Kalibangan, Kathiawad and Saurashtra and excavations in south and east reveal that collectiveness and non-violence were present in the life style and social structure of Indians in a much developed form. Besides, planning and uniformity are also clear. We find that the cities were developed according to a plan. There were provisions to cope up with natural calamities, those too with collective means. Cattle shed and grain-houses were there. Items of daily use were in advanced state. Indians had language, script and religious philosophy. More over excavations reveal that Indians had contacts with inhabitants of other parts of the globe too. In this context we may mention the names of the cities of Mesopotamia, Turkmanian towns, Bahrain, Assyria etc.
Scholars around the globe are quite familiar with many features of Indian social life style, which include Joint Family system; custom of arranged marriages and religiousness. All these have been helpful in development or progress by collective efforts, facing challenges unitedly, nearness and feeling of unity, even though for different reasons. But now the joint families can be seen disintegrating, the custom of arranged marriages is weakening and the feeling of religiousness too seems to have been tainted. I, however, would like to mention here that 65% of India’s population still lives in villages and a large part of village population still lives in joint families. In cities too there are joint families. In India the practice of arranged marriages is still prevalent that is the rate of divorce is comparatively low. Indian people are religious by nature. Why and what is being done by certain institutions to cause its decay is not the topic here, so I come back to the issue of culture and social life of the Indus Valley Civilization. As I have already mentioned, at this time collectiveness and non-violence were present in a larger degree than before. Besides, there were other qualities too which explain the culture and social life of India:
• Constant strive towards development;
• Orderliness, Planning and Unity;
• Religiousness; and
• Contact and Business with inhabitants of other parts of the world, are the signs of the unique concept of Indian Culture and society – ‘the whole world is a family’
With their advent in India, the Aryans brought many qualities to this country. They had intelligence, skill and knowledge. Aryans themselves were proponents of unity and religiousness. Here the Aryan Culture with above mentioned features mingled with Indian inhabitants and their culture and stratified the social life too.
Much is talked about many confrontations between Aryans and Dravidians which I do not deny. But I can say with certainty that the intermingling of Aryan Culture with Indian Culture did not alter the fundamental or basic features of Indian Culture i.e. the basic characteristics of Indian Culture remained unaltered. Collectiveness or non-violence, progressive outlook or other above mentioned features, they all remained as they were. Moreover, they entered in Aryans’ lives too. Besides, the way of life of Aryans was imbibed by the Indian culture.
From Aryan life style, tradition of rites, meditation, faith and rituals started in Indian lives. The stream of knowledge burst forth. A new era began. There was much more comprehensiveness. There was introduction of philosophy in which forbearance and tolerance were supreme; the kind of introduction which even today is important. In short we can say that Dravidian-Aryan Cultures became the Indian culture. From here began the cohesive outlook which later became one of the main features of Indian culture and social life.
During 326-25 B.C., Alexander fought battles on Indian land. He never realized his dream of victory although he did temporarily win some parts in North-West. Greek camps were established in these regions. It was natural that contact was established between Indians and Greeks living in camps. Even Alexander himself was impressed with many features of Indian life style. As a result Greek and Indian cultures influenced each other especially in the war, philosophy, poetry, sculpture, architecture, theatre and literature etc.
In 232 B.C., Emperor Ashoka died. After him, Shakas from Iranian area arrived in India. After that came Kushanas and then, from Central Asia came the Hunas. All of these brought their own culture and mingled with Indian Culture. They gave their best features to Indian Culture and social life. Today not only Greek but Shaka, Kushana and Huna characteristics or features are also present in Indian culture.
Arab too started to influence the people of India by establishing their rule and by living in many parts of Sindh and afterwards in rest of India. We may say that Arabs who brought Islamic culture to India became a part of the cohesive Indian Culture, which now is a permanent part of it. In Islam fraternity or brotherhood and internal equality occupy supreme position. Additionally it has faith in one Supreme Authority. These features affected the Indians and became a part of its culture as I have already mentioned. Additionally the art, language, rites, sculpting, dress and literature etc. brought by the Muslims [Arabs] too affected the social life of Indians. The cohesive Indian Culture opened its doors to that culture also. Today many palaces, buildings and religious places are evidences in support of this fact. But I would say that in spite of being cohesive, the Indian culture never lost its fundamental attributes or form which it propagated before the world in the beginning. Whatever cultures came in contact with it, they adopted its good features, became comprehensive, and kept living though many of its contemporary cultures vanished.
Many Europeans brought their culture to India in 15th and 16th century. Dutch, English, French and Portuguese are the main among them. We know that up to 1947, India remained under English rule. It was obvious that European culture especially English influenced the Indian social life. It happened. We can mention decency, punctuality and discipline in context of life style. Along with that, we can say that the fields of education, development and globalization too were strengthened by English Culture. Geographical unity, transport, communication and political awareness too prospered. Today, all this is present in the Indian culture and social life permanently.
In India, especially the north-east, there was the influence of Monghol Culture. Not only that many others too influenced it from time to time, no matter what the basis of contact was. The basis may be trade or interchange of opinion or any other medium. But we should understand that when thousands of years ago other cultures mingled with Indian Culture, it influenced other cultures and the lives of people also. It never departed from its fundamental principles because these principles or features have been welfaristic for all. They have the capacity of patronage. That is why other cultures have been preserved in India.
Indian philosophy, system and sacraments have had influence on many parts of the world. We can see this influence by the intermingling of Indians – Greeks after the attack of Alexander. And why only then, before that too we find several examples in this regard. Then Buddhist philosophy and other religious thoughts influenced not only Asia but all most all continents. These religious thoughts are the basis of Indian Culture.
In historical context we consider many great cultures of the world. May be they were more developed than Indian culture. In this regard I can mention the name of Egyptian Culture whose some of the monuments are still incomparable. But the question is where these cultures are today? No where. They have vanished contrary to this; Indian Culture is alive in its original form and continues to influence the social life of Indians.
From historical chronological point of view, we started discussion about Indian Culture from Stone Age. In that period we found non-violence and collectiveness in lives of Indians. At that time these great sacraments were principal or main subsequently, Indian culture has remained constant for thousands of years. Subsequently, it has constantly been towards development, religiousness, forbearance and tolerance or the concept of global familyhood. Now, the picture of Indian Culture that emerges before us after the factual analysis of history is that it is:
• Symbolic of Unity in diversity;
• Cohesive or coordinating;
• Forbearing and Tolerant;
• All welfaristic; and
• Symbol of non-violence.
Additionally, searching for truth and ‘Live and Let Live’ concepts are encouraged here. It has given directions to Indian social life and directed its inhabitants to treat on the path of religiousness so that they may be able to achieve ‘Peace’, the aim of life, through continuous progress and by having their existence safe. It has been leading the way in day to day life and establishing harmony between ‘Jnana’ [Knowledge] and ‘Karma’ [deed].
Recently we have bid good bye to the 20th Century. Whenever some one departs or leaves, it is but natural to recall the events associated with the departed. 20th Century is unforgettable due to many events. Remembering it we will find much that is welfaristic but also much that is unfortunate. But at the close of 20th Century, if we look at Indian culture, we find it giving the message of prosperity, happiness and eventual peace through its unique features, not only to Indians but to the whole humanity. Indian social life is influenced by these features of Indian Culture and today the world that is suffering from so many problems, facing a number of difficulties can learn a lot from it, can accept its call to consider the whole world a family.
I agree that today the social life of Indians does not seem to lead by the features or characteristics and message of their unique culture; it seems that Indians themselves are becoming indifferent to it. It too seems that probably their behaviour is being directed from somewhere else. But I am confident that this culture that is dedicated to all will remain in existence, move forward and not only inspire the social life of Indians but step forward for the welfare of the entire human world.
Dr. Ravindra Kumar is a universally renowned Gandhian scholar, Indologist and writer. He is the Former Vice-Chancellor of the University of Meerut, India.