Dialogue  April-June, 2012, Volume 13 No. 4

Indian Identity and Cultural Continuity (A Philosophical Perspective)

The present paper attempts to understand the notion of ‘Indian-ness’ or ‘Indian Identity’ in terms of its cultural continuity from the hoary past to the eventful present. It is a philosophical task to understand a culture, to evaluate its ideas, practices and norms of living and then to undertake an inter-cultural dialogue for mutual understanding, mutual appreciation and mutual supplementation. This is possible if one is steeped in one’s own culture and is also sympathetically exposed to other cultures.

The East-West Center at the University of Hawaii, with its avowed objective of promotion of such dialogues, has contributed quite a lot in this regard under the able direction of Late Professor, Charles A Moore. His following very perceptive remark is worth notice. He writes, "Understanding is a very complicated matter. Genuine understanding must be comprehensive understanding. It must include knowledge of all the fundamental aspects of the mind of the people in question. Philosophy is the major medium of understanding, both because it is concerned deliberately and perhaps uniquely with the fundamental ideas, ideals and attitudes of a people, and also because philosophy alone attempts to see the total picture and thus includes in its purview all the major aspects of the life of a people"1. Concerning Indian philosophy he writes, "....there are very significant ideas and concepts there – no matter how old they are – to which the rest of the world may well turn for new insights and perhaps deeper wisdom"2. He further writes, "As said before philosophy is our concern here. But philosophy is not merely an (or the) indispensable medium of understanding and of knowing a people or a culture. Philosophy is also and more basically, of course-

* S.R. Bhatt, Former Professor & Head of Philosophy Department, University of Delhi, India. E-mail:-Srbhatt39@gmail.com

the search for knowledge, for truth, for wisdom. In this respect, India provides the basis for a potential philosophical renaissance, if only the rest of the world, especially the West, will search out the new insights, the new intuitions, the new attitudes and methods which might well at least supplement if not replace or correct and at least enlarge-the restricted perspective of the Western mind"3.

In fact Professor Moore is echoing what the Yajurveda averred long back as "Sa prathama samskrti visva vara" i.e. "It is a culture which is primeval and yet worthy of preference by the world because of its perennial relevance"4.

A question is often raised, more by Indian scholars than by non-Indian scholars, as to what is meant by the expressions ‘Indian philosophy’, ‘Indian culture’ etc. They argue that philosophy, as a discipline of knowledge, does not admit of geographical confinements. Likewise because of heterogeneity there is no such thing as Indian culture. This in fact raises the problem of ‘Indian Identity’ in particular and ‘Identity’ in general.

Any attempt to understand an entity or a phenomenon is to identify it in terms of its differential properties that constitute its very essence. However, in view of the dynamic and constantly changing character of every existence there cannot be absolutistic or static determination of an identity. The notion of identity, whether that of an individual or that of a collectivity, defies neat and precise categorization. The identity of an individual has some ostensivity and therefore it can be demonstratively referred to but the identity of a collectivity does not admit even this type of reference. And yet our mind tries to look for and discern identities for practical purposes. Though experienced intimately and made use of in worldly behaviour identity eludes determination in thought and language. It provides a basis for all empirical activities and yet its conceptual apprehension may not be adequately available. Thus there is a paradoxical awareness of an identity. We know what it is but we cannot clearly define or describe it through concepts and words. This is because the reality has a natural way of breaking down whatever walls of separation human mind may erect between concepts.


The questions as to what is Indian-ness or what is to be identified as Indian or what is Indian Philosophy etc. are characterized by the same vagueness and relativism that pertain to other collectivities. In spite of this Indian identity is so profoundly and vividly unique that there is some kind of demonstrativeness about it. Our perception of what makes an ‘Indian’ may be different but none of us who is an Indian would deny the label of that identity and on this logic none else would refuse such an ascription to an Indian. We may disagree over notions of democracy, socialism, secularism etc. but may not do so in regard to Indian-ness. However, it must also be conceded that there is such a spatio-temporal vastness and wide variety about India that this identity cannot be seen in rigid and fixed terms.

India is a geographical unit with changing boundaries at different periods of time. Initially having a habitational reference Indian-ness soon transcended geography to spread far and wide with the stream of emigrants who zealously preserved, propagated and practiced all that India stood for. As a consequence, Indian-ness becoming quasi-geographical assumes a cultural overtone. It may appear to be naïve but it must be made clear that Indian-ness is not to be confused with Indian nationality or Indian citizenship or even Indian ethnicity, though their evolution as concepts in actual practice has been so closely interspersed that they have often slipped from one to another. Thus Indian-ness is a matter of psychology, a unity of race and culture, of a view and a way of life.


Indian identity is embedded in the multi-faceted Indian culture, which has been eternal bedrock of India’s glorious past, adventurous present and bright future. In order to discern Indian identity one has to look precisely to the diverse cultural and sub-cultural traditions, which have evolved over times, in which the Indian people have been born and by which their general human sensibilities have been refined and shaped.

India being multi-lingual, multi-racial, multi-religious and multi-sub-cultural, there cannot be any fixed parameters of Indian identity. There are many elements, which have contributed in making of Indian identity. There is a generic identity and many specific sub-identities, each having one’s own unique nature and features. So only an organicismic approach to Indian-ness can enable one to understand it properly and fully. One may argue that for an identity there must be common habitation or culture or way of living or pattern of thinking or language or race or religion etc. but none is attached to Indian-ness in an indispensable way. The simple reply is that in practice we do understand what is meant by being an Indian and it is a matter of common sense and logic that there is a consciousness of some principle of unity, howsoever vague and varied it may be, which enables us to apply this single individualizing appellation to a vast variety of ideas, practices and human beings.

Indian-ness is characterized by inclusive pluralism in which there is accommodation for each individual or unit. It has basic openness which is at once both centripetal and centrifugal. It is not a ‘melting pot’ but a unity-in-multiplicity ideally based on the principles of cooperation and sacrifice regulated by the spirit of duties and obligations rather than demands and rights. Unfortunately this base is dwindling very fast in modern times and there is an urgent need to revive, revitalize and consolidate it.

It has to be reminded that the Indian culture possesses inherent vitality and resilience, which has enabled it to survive the onslaughts of time and foreign invasions. This is due to its openness and catholicity to accommodate and absorb the diversity. It has displayed a remarkable symbiosis of two sensibilities of belongingness to the whole and of being a part of the whole, of relatedness and of self-identity. It advocates a communitarian or participatory mode of living implying distinctness of its members along with solidarity with the whole enjoying an individual existence and yet partaking and sharing experiences with the whole. It is an inclusive social pluralism in which every individual becomes a person.

There is an unbroken spirituo-material culture of India which is uniquely its own which it is sharing with the outside world for more than three thousand years known in history, which is multifarious and manifold, which is living and has vitality to live. Because of its organicismic nature and character it displays a unity-in-multiplicity and becomes conducive to self-identity and self-preservation as well as group solidarity and group-cohesion. It has a vitalizing and animating force of its own and yet it does not deny nourishment and nurture from extraneous sources as well by incorporating and absorbing them as its own. Both the variety and continuous identity are the assets of Indian culture. This diversity is not to be looked at in terms of fragmentation of time as ancient, medieval and modern or in terms of associating these time fragments with racial or denominational segregations. Such a fragmentary and divisive approach to integral Indian culture is not only a superimposition and a distortion but it also strikes fatally at the roots of identity and continuity. The very ideas of identity and continuity are at stake if Indian culture is taken to be disjointed pieces of multiple contributions from heterogeneous sources. Equally suicidal is the approach to confine India to the present and to negate all past inheritance.5

In the background of the foregoing analysis it will be meaningful to present a brief outline of the pivotal bases of Indian culture and philosophy which constitute a ground for Indian identity and a justification for cultural continuity both in India and abroad, and which may provide our existence meaning and worth. On account of centuries of extension in time and vastness of space the sources of understanding Indian culture are many and varied. Beginning with the Vedic and Sangama literature of the hoary past they include Ramayana Mahabharata, Sutra literature and their expositions, literary compositions in different languages, writings of saints, vast storehouse of folk tales, exhibits and remnants of art, architecture, music, dance, paintings, sculpture, natural sciences, mathematics etc. One can go on enumerating and enumerating and there may seem an unending line. In spite of such diversity there is a fundamental unity running all through spatio-temporal expansion. Indian identity and cultural continuity has to be understood in the context of what are termed as ‘People of Indian Origin’, ‘Non-Resident Indians’ etc. In fact in some respects these people have preserved and enhanced Indian culture in a purer form than what we find in India itself.


Ever since the dawn of thought right from the Vedic times the Indian mind has undertaken a search for ideals of life.6 For this it constructed elaborate systems of epistemology and logic, metaphysics and morals, social and political philosophies, language and hermeneutics, science and technology. This search for ideals of life implies that the seekers were not satisfied with the present life they were living day to day. This dissatisfaction was not so much due to historical and natural circumstances that conditioned the society of the time but it was generated by a search for a deeper meaning of life than could be found in the day-to-day experience. It was due to a keen and critical sense of peace, perfection and beatitude developed by the people. The questions that they tried to grapple were: what is human life? What is its meaning and purpose? How is human being to plan the life so that the summum bonum of life can be attained?

The ideological perspective and goal oriented approach, which was discernible in the minds of Vedic people, continued to hold its sway, and the same is reflected even in the contemporary thinking. In the classical Indian thought four main values of life (purusarthas) viz, dharma, artha, kama and moksa were prescribed.7 Artha stands for material prosperity and kama stands for psycho-physical satisfaction. Both of them jointly are known as preyas. Dharma is regulative of both and is a means to moksa. Moksa, along with dharma, comes under sreyas. It is spiritual realization. Though the ideals of life admit of a distinction between preyas and sreyas, there is no incompatibility between the two as there is no bifurcation between matter and spirit. Preyas provides the material base and sreyas constitutes the spiritual summit of the same process of self-realisation. Since matter provides the arena for self-realisation, the preyas has a natural claim of being first catered to. But one should not remain entangled with preyas forever. After the necessary gratification of the preyas one should make a passage toward sreyas. Another thing to be remembered is that all the demands of matter do not constitute preyas and hence are not to be gratified. Only those demands are to be regarded as preyas that are not incompatible with sreyas. Preyas thus is the proximate value and sreyas is the ultimate value.8 The ancient Indian thinkers established the asrama-vyavastha in order that there may be well-organised and balanced pursuit of both preyas and sreyas. The word asrama is suggestive of points of beginning and departure and stoppage.9

In this context we may fruitfully make a mention of the Upanisadic theory of Pancakosas i.e. five dimensions of individual’s personality as physical (annamaya), vital (pranamya), mental (manomaya), intellectual (vijnana-maya) and spiritual (anandamaya). 10 An all-round development of individual means fullest development of all these aspects in a proper proportion. In the modern context we can understand and appreciate this theory by reinterpreting it in a more meaningful way. The first and the foremost kosa is the gross physical body and the natural surrounding which are to be catered to by means of physical sciences and technology. The second one is that of vital breaths for which hygiene and medical sciences are helpful along with yoga. For the next two social sciences, humanities, fine arts and mathematics are to be resorted. For the last one we need higher spiritual pursuits in the form of contemplation and meditation and gradual withdrawal from hectic worldly activities.


From the above-described view of life an appropriate way of life has also been prescribed. A way of life is the way man plans his life for realizing an ideal whatever it is. It is called yoga or marga. Many yogas or margas have been recognized by the ancient thinkers of which karma i.e. the way or action, jnana i.e. the way of knowledge and bhakti, i.e., the way of devotion, are prominent.11 Human being is a complex of cognitive conative, and affective elements and therefore a good way of life must have a balanced view of all these three. For the realization of the ideal life the whole person has to rise up and strive.12 So all these three aspects, though distinct, are to be integrally united.


After having discussed the traditional Indian view of life and the way to realize the same, we may briefly refer to the relationship between individual and society. The Indian thinkers always try to avoid the extremes of individualism and totalitarianism and emphasise a middle position13. They entertain no incompatibility between the individual and the society and advocate a harmonious relationship between the two. The society is conceived of as a whole comprising the multiplicity of individuals as its parts. The society expresses itself only in and through the individuals and the individuals, in turn, derive their being and living only from the society. The two are regarded to have organicismic relation and mutual appreciation.


The organicismic relation, which binds the individual and the society, is also regarded to be the characteristic of the relation between the individual and nature. Individual being exists in and through the nature and nature provides the needed nourishment to it. Nature has instrumental value because of its benevolence in serving us in infinite ways selflessly. But it is also an object of worship and devotion for the same reason.14 So we have to respect and love nature by maintaining its cleanliness and by preserving its purity. The usability of nature should not be misunderstood as misuse of nature otherwise as a consequence it will lead to environmental pollution and ecological imbalance. Nature helps us only if we help nature. Of course, nature allows us to transform it but this also has to be done in accordance with the laws of nature. This is the approach to nature, which has been handed down to us by the Vedic thinkers.15


No account of Indian culture can be complete without a reference to traditional Indian scheme of education. The ancient Indian system of education is theoretically most compact and sound and practically it is most viable and useful. Its theoretical worth is on account of its broad, comprehensive and healthy vision with regard to the nature and destiny of human beings and the cosmos in their inter-relationship. Its practical utility is due to its flexibility to suit the needs and requirements of different ages and societies. It only provides a broad format to which content can be provided as per the requirements. Herein lies its perenniality and eternal relevance. Just as the Vedic wisdom is eternal, the Vedic mode of seeking wisdom is also eternal. It is really a matter of pity that we do not know what the Veda means and what is the Vedic vision of reality, life and education. Here is not an occasion to go into the details but a brief outline is called for.

The Vedic seers find an abiding and enduring place for values of existence in the very heart of reality. The description of reality as sat, cit and ananda implies that all existence (sat) and knowledge (cit) culminate in bliss (ananda), which is the ultimate value. In the human beings because of their finitude and imperfection the values are only partially reflected. But every individual is potentially perfect and has the capacity to be perfect. So the ultimate end of every individual ought to be the fullest efflorescence of the value-essence lying hidden or dormant in him/her. It should be made clear that this realization of perfection is not a mere utopian dream because the Vedic seers firmly believe that every individual has come forth from perfection. This is one of the implications of the famous Upanisadic Santipatha. "Aum Purnamadah Purnamidam Purnatpurnamudacyate etc."16

The values are realizable and they are to be realized through proper endeavour and that is why this process of value-realisation is called purusartha. But this is not possible until and unless all impediments in the process of growth and perfection are removed. Here comes the role of education. Education is preparation for life. But life is not mere livelihood. Similarly life is not mere catering to the needs of either matter or spirit. There is no exclusive "either-or" between general and technical education. No human being is merely a professional being, whether an engineer or a doctor or a scientist or a technician. He/she is above all a social and spiritual being. Hence the fullness of education must comprise all the facets, physical, vital, mental, emotional, intellectual and spiritual. The true and adequate system of education must aim at the total person. It should produce human beings and not living machines17. This is what Indian culture stands for.

Indian culture has been a source of inspirations for a way of life, which is integral and holistic, synthetic and accommodating. That is why it could survive the onslaughts of time and transcend the limits of space. Pt. Nehru very pertinently remarked that wherever in this wide world there goes an Indian there also goes a bit of India with him. In this age of cultural pluralism the Indians settled abroad may integrate themselves in the societies in which they live and yet they may preserve and promote their distinct cultural identity. Continued adherence to Indian culture in no way hinders their dynamic interconnectedness with their fellow beings belonging to different cultural groups. In fact the Indian culture has sufficient built-in mechanism of flexibility and receptivity to suit the conditions of its locale and time.

As Bhisma says in the Mahabharata, dharma needs to be modified according to the circumstances, demands and exigencies of time and place.

Dharma bhahuvidha loke sruti bheda mukhodbhavah

Kula jati vayo desa guna kala svabhavatah

Etad dharmasya nanatvam sampad apjad vibhedatah

The Indian culture is alive to the fact that human situations impose on people the necessity to find ways and means to respond and adjust constantly to a never-ending sequence of events and circumstances affecting their welfare and happiness. Sometimes this generates tensions and conflicts within and outside an individual or groups of individuals in any given place and country. So there is a need to cope with negative forces for better livelihood for progress and for harmonious human relationship. But all this adjustment is possible remaining wholly within the ambit of Indian culture.

References and footnotes:

1. The Indian Mind, pp. 2-3.

2. Ibid, p 8

3. Ibid, p.9

4. Yajurveda, 7.14.

5. No grateful nation should disown its past. But it should not carry the deadweight of the outlived traditions. A discriminative awareness of what is living and what is dead is required.

6. "Udvayam tamasaspari svah pasyanta uttaram. Devam devata suryamaganma jyotiruttamam." Yajurveda, 20.2.

7. "Dharmam samacaret purvam tato artham dharma samyutam Tatah kamam caret pascat siddharthah sa hi tatparam" Mahabharata, Santiparva, 167.27.

8. "Sreyasca preyasca manusyametah, tau samparitya vivinakti dhirah". Kathopanisad, 1.2.2.

9. Mahabharata, Santiparva, chapter 61. Also Manusmrti, chapters 2-6

10. Taittiriya Upanisad, Bhrguvalli, 2-6.

11. See, Bhagavadgita, chapters 3,7,12.

12. "Uttisthata jagrata prapya varan nibodhata," Kathopanisad, 1.3.14.

13. "Madhyamam abhayam," Satapata Brahmana.

14. "mata bhumih putro’ham prthivyah," Atharvaveda 12-1-12

15. "Samudra vasane devi parvatastava mandale visnu patni namstubhyam padasparsam ksamasva me." Visnu Purana

16. First and the last verse of Isopanisad.

17. ‘Manurbhava janaya daivyam janah.’ Rgveda, 10.53.6

Dialogue (A quarterly journal of Astha Bharati)

                                               Astha Bharati