Dialogue January-March, 2005, Volume 6 No. 3
Is Indian Culture Obsolete?*
Swami Vivekananda Jayanthi is celebrated as National Youth Day. This should be an occasion for young and old to rejoice; it should be a joyous homage to that great soul who single-handedly awoke India from her deep slumber. But ceremonies apart, what do we really have to celebrate? And what does the youth of this country actually have to celebrate?
The Angry Young Indian
If I were to picture myself as a twenty-year-old Indian today, my answer to this question would have to be a harsh one. I would have to ask my elders how in fifty years they managed to bring the nation to such a state of degradation. I would feel both anger and contempt for the hordes of politicians and bureaucrats who have been dutifully bleeding this country white and have turned the daily life of honest Indians into a hopeless hell. But I would also ask the many good, honest, capable, cultured people of this country why they have done so little to stem the rot, why they have contented themselves with throwing up their hands in despair and pleading helplessness - or, at best, with giving fine lectures on every ill India is ridden with. I might even be cynical towards programmes such as the one which has brought us together tonight, asking what they achieve, if anything. And I may possibly be tempted to do like many of my friends: go abroad, leave this hell, and fly to some “heaven” across the seas, where you do not have to pay a bribe at every step, where you do not have to prove that you are “backward” before you can move forward, where your talents can be used rather than crippled - in a word, where you do not have to feel ashamed of your country.
This, as I have frequently seen, is what many, if not most, young Indians carry in their hearts. It is a justified, legitimate if bitter feeling, nurtured by scores of daily proofs.
But I have also seen that it often goes a step or two further, and our “angry young Indian,” as I will call him or her, may voice the following feelings (I am summarizing here voices I have actually heard over the years):
“See how Westerners live: their cities are modern and clean, people don’t dump garbage all around, trains and buses run on time, there is no corruption, no illiteracy, they are hard-working, they have discipline, a civic sense - while we Indians have none, we are lethargic, we have no courage to fight the system; hypocrites that we are, we will talk about our great culture while throwing our rubbish to the other side of the street or greasing palms at the least demand, and while crores of us still live in the most abject misery. All right, maybe we were great two or three or five thousand years ago, maybe our kings of old were better than the crooks and criminals who now rule us, but what good is that ancient culture today, except to attract a few foreign tourists? Today, it is the Westerners who are superior; they don’t talk as much as we do, but they have conquered the world with their abilities and hard work. They wanted to be ‘achievers’ and they achieved; they hunted after success and they succeeded. And if there is any hope for this country, it is only in adopting their methods, their science and technology, their management and trade - nothing else is going to bring us prosperity, certainly not our traditions which have degenerated into so much ignorant superstition: see the caste divisions, see the survival of sati or child marriage, see the countless barbaric customs still prevailing in our villages. Who wants to waste time glorifying all that? And what has our surfeit of religion achieved, except to make us weak, fatalistic, always ready to bow to everyone else? Are temples going to make the country prosperous? Will smearing ashes on our foreheads help us build the future? Let’s face it: culture is good for people who have nothing to do. The sooner we throw out those relics of the past and turn to healthy rationalism and progressive thinking, the better for all of us.”
That, with endless variations of course, is what most of our young people are fed with more or less subtly from their schooldays, and every day through our Westernized media. It represents fairly well today’s conventional thinking, or shall I say the “politically correct” view of India aired by self-appointed guardians of our thought. There is a certain amount of truth in those statements, and we will do well to admit it; but there is much blindness and facile thinking too, and we will have to confront it.
The part of truth is there for all to see: True, our cities are generally congested and unclean, because municipality officials and clerks think their only duty is to draw their salary. True, we have millions of illiterates, because our policy makers have failed to make education not only compulsory and free, but also stimulating and enriching, and because our educationists think their duty is done when they have spoken at a few dozen seminars while the average village school struggles along without electricity, sometimes without a roof, and quite often without teachers. Very true, it is revolting to have to give a bribe for the smallest certificate, to pay one’s admission to a College and often one’s way to a job, because we have come to accept that the dharma of those in power is to live off the fat of the land even more shamelessly than our British rulers ever did. True again, we are generally too sluggish to protest effectively against this state of affairs, ready to condemn it in private talk but willing to condone it in deed. And true also, Indian tradition has often become cluttered with meaningless minutiae or a convenient excuse for rigid and retrograde attitudes.
So far so good. But there is also an ignorant part in our angry young Indian’s diatribe, a hopelessly idealized view of the West, and a hopelessly distorted view of India’s heritage. Life in Western society is not as rosy as all that, and it has its share of corruption, poverty and illiteracy. But it also has far more essential problems - otherwise why should a number of Western thinkers speak with anguish of the West’s degeneration? Why do we constantly hear of some American snatching a semiautomatic weapon and spraying passers-by with bullets? Why do a hundred thousand U.S. students go to school and college every day carrying a weapon? Is it the West or India which invented manic depression, child abuse, the psychopath and the serial killer? Or even simply the “killer” instinct? Why is it that few Western economies can survive without massive arms sales, most of the time to Third-World countries, thus fuelling hundreds of wars around the globe while at the same time preaching peace and human rights? Do you know what is right now the hottest bone of contention in Europe? - the beef war between Britain and France. A few weeks ago, a British M.P. landed at a French airport brandishing a piece of beef from her country; not long earlier, her country’s prime minister proudly declared that beef was “central to British culture.” That was, in case you have forgotten, in defence of the “mad cows” - mad because they are fed waste from animal flesh. Which is madder, the cow or the man? And which is more refined? In France, some cattle is fed with recycled sewage. In that same country, supposedly the most cultured of the West, hunters organized in powerful associations and lobbies fiercely defend their right to kill; the law permits them to enter your property in pursuit of an animal, you have no right to stop them; every year they will sit in the path of migratory birds and shoot thousands of them in flight. Killing cranes or ducks or pigeons which have been tirelessly flying over country after country to their distant nesting grounds is the most refined of pleasures for those brutes who call themselves men and are proud of their “advanced civilization.” The other day, a Japanese woman killed her neighbour’s daughter because she was too much of a rival to her own daughter at school - maybe she thought that was what “cut-throat competition” should mean in practice? Japan is not the West, you will say - well, in any case, it is flaunted as a triumph of Asia’s Westernization.
I could go on with this sinister enumeration for hours. But every society has its aberrations, you may say again, haven’t we got quite a good number of them in India? We certainly do, and apparently more and more as Indian society clumsily tries to westernize itself, believing there lies the supreme panacea. But the instances I have quoted are not aberrations, they are the logical outcome of the selfish values of Western society, which is why those monstrosities are growing not rarer and rarer, but increasingly frequent, widespread, and insane.
Not long ago, an Indian observed the West closely and said:
[Its] institutions, systems, and everything connected with political governments have been condemned as useless; Europe is restless, does not know where to turn. The material tyranny is tremendous. The wealth and power of a country are in the hands of a few men who do not work but manipulate the work of millions of human beings. By this power they can deluge the whole earth with blood.... The Western world is governed by a handful of Shylocks. All those things that you hear about - constitutional government, freedom, liberty, and parliaments - are but jokes.... The whole of Western civilisation will crumble to pieces in the next fifty years if there is no spiritual foundation.1
This Indian’s birth anniversary we are commemorating today, and he spoke those words more than a hundred years ago, on his return from his first journey to the West. In case you find Swami Vivekananda too extreme, let me quote one of the Western thinkers I alluded to just before, a French historian of science, Pierre Thuillier, who wrote a few years ago a penetrating analysis of the maladies afflicting the West for all its talk of “progress”:
Westerners remain convinced that their mode of life is the privileged and definitive incarnation of “civilization”; they are unable to understand that this “civilization” has become as fragile as an eggshell. At the end of the twentieth century, political, economic and cultural elites behave as if the gravity of the situation eluded them.... Those who profess to be progressive clearly no longer know what a culture is; they no longer even realize that a society can continue to function more or less normally even as it has lost its soul.... In their eyes, a society is dead only when it is physically destroyed; they do not realize that the decay of a civilization is inner before anything else.2
Or what about the great French writer Andr_ Malraux’s observation, “I see in Europe a carefully ordered barbarism”?3 I could quote other Western thinkers to show that there was nothing extreme about Swami Vivekananda’s statement, though his prediction of fifty years may have been a little wide of the mark. But let me remind you that he criticized India’s own maladies equally severely, perhaps more severely than anyone else. Yet he saw too deeply to fall into the common trap of throwing out the baby with the bathwater, and he always kept his rock-solid faith in Indian civilization. Moreover, in America and Europe he met with many dissatisfied Westerners who were anxious to understand India’s message. Their number has been steadily growing since then, among scholars and common people alike. The so-called “New Age” trend of the 1960s owed as much to India as to America; a number of Western universities offer excellent courses on various aspects of Indian civilization, and if you want to attend some major symposium on Indian culture or India’s ancient history, you may have to go to the U.S.A.; some physicists are not shy of showing parallels between quantum mechanics and yogic science; ecologists call for a recognition of our deeper connection with Nature such as we find in the Indian view of the world; a few psychologists want to learn from Indian insights into human nature; hatha yoga has become quite popular, ashrams of various hues are not hard to come by, and gurus and lamas proliferate, some genuine, others less so; any bookshop will have a corner for “Asian spirituality,” even if much of what is on offer is in the manner of “yoga without tears,” “Tantric secrets unveiled” or “God-realization in ten lessons.” In France, Buddhism is at present the fastest growing religion (even as churches are alarmed at a decreasing attendance, some forced to close), and more than half of the French population is said to believe in reincarnation and karma. All that, however jumbled or cheap or distorted at times, reflects an undeniable need, which neither science nor Western religions have been able to meet.
The historian Will Durant, writing in the 1950s, anticipated this phenomenon when he wrote:
It is true that, even across the Himalayan barrier, India has sent us such questionable gifts as grammar and logic, philosophy and fables, hypnotism and chess, and, above all, our numerals and our decimal system. But these are not the essence of her spirit; they are trifles compared to what we may learn from her in the future.4
So, if we want to understand things at a slightly deeper level than that of the cliche ’s of the day, we must allow our anger, however justified, to subside, and start asking a few serious questions. The first must be: Would there be in the West such a steadily growing interest in India - I mean in her spirituality and culture, not in her political and bureaucratic systems - would there be such a search for deeper things, however clumsy and confused, if our modern world was as perfect as we are told? Shall we still say that Indian culture is just a bundle of superstitions? In 1920, Sri Aurobindo summed up the whole problem in the following words:
The scientific, rationalistic, industrial, pseudo-democratic civilisation of the West is now in process of dissolution and it would be a lunatic absurdity for us at this moment to build blindly on that sinking foundation. When the most advanced minds of the occident are beginning to turn in this red evening of the West for the hope of a new and more spiritual civilisation to the genius of Asia, it would be strange if we could think of nothing better than to cast away our own self and potentialities and put our trust in the dissolving and moribund past of Europe.5
The Tree of Indian Civilization
Now, let me ask you a simple question: If you have in your garden a huge old tree with some dead branches, overgrown with creepers and thorns, its foot hidden by weeds of all kinds, will you decide to fell it, even though it is still giving you shade, cool air and fruits? Or won’t you rather set to work, clear the weeds and creepers, chop off the deadwood, prune a few branches here and there, and give the tree a new youth?
The tree is Indian civilization. It needs to be cleared and pruned, not felled. “But is it needed at all,” you still ask, “isn’t it unsuited to our modern age?” I will answer with a truism: “modern” has no meaning - today is always modern, and yesterday always behind the times! When Indians living in Harappan cities invented the decimal system, they were modern; when, about the same time, they measured the periods of rotation of the planets,6 they were modern; when later they cast the Iron Pillar which still stands in South Delhi and challenges today’s metallurgists with its non-rusting properties, they were modern; when they pioneered discoveries in mathematics, astronomy, surgery, construction and agricultural techniques, they were modern. Now what is so special today that suddenly Indians can’t be modern anymore? Aren’t our bright students who migrate to the West quite successful there, even more so than the average Westerner? Withdraw overnight all Indians from the U.S.A., and that country will be paralyzed. So Indians can still be modern, efficient, hard-working - but abroad, not in India!
Our second serious question must therefore be: Why this terrible stagnation here in India? There is no time to detail here the historical causes up to Independence, so let me just say, rather sketchily, that from the time of the Indus-Saraswati civilization up to the Gupta period at least, that is three to four millennia, we find the Indian subcontinent bursting with vitality and creativity in every field, constantly adapting and renewing itself; the decline clearly began with the repeated waves of Muslim invasions, which increasingly exhausted that vitality, though without succeeding in killing it altogether. That made the British conquest ridiculously easy, and India’s torpor was to the best advantage of the new rulers, who were shrewd enough to encourage it, slowly and systematically destroying the remaining life in the country, its native industries, crafts, and educational system:
“English rule,” wrote Sri Aurobindo, “... undermined and deprived of living strength all the pre-existing centres and instruments of Indian social life and by a sort of unperceived rodent process left it only a rotting shell without expansive power or any better defensive force than the force of inertia.”7
That, in summary, was India’s condition at Independence. But there is no point blaming Muslim or British invaders when the country has had a full fifty years to rebuild and revitalize itself. India’s tragedy was the direction imposed upon it after Independence with a blind faith in a Soviet-type socialistic system, a corresponding monstrous bureaucracy grafted over an already mammoth colonial administration, a rigid five-year planning with a huge and ruinous public sector, an absurd degree of centralization and nationalization, and a constant interference in every field of life which gave people the impression that the government would do everything for them - which, of course, meant in practice that it did nothing except grow ever more unwieldy, inefficient, self-contained, arrogant, corrupt, unaccountable, oblivious and contemptuous of the man-in-the-street or the man-in-the-village. Thus have Indians come to surrender to this new and worse monster all sense of initiative, all courage to protest, their proverbial tolerance stretched to the extreme, their no less proverbial lethargy remaining their sole refuge. Thus have the many “good, honest, capable, cultured people” whom I mentioned at the beginning come to shun Indian politics as the dirty field it has indeed become, a “goonda-raj”8 in Sri Aurobindo’s words of 1935.
Blaming India’s present degradation on her ancient culture or civilization is not merely ignorant, it is dishonest. And it is plain to see that those who are fond of such self-deprecation are usually the very ones who profit from the present system. They will criticize village superstitions but will overlook the far worse superstitions of our perverted “socialism,” “secularism,” and other high-sounding isms. They will throw a fit at the least mention of sati but will not mind if thousands of young Indians commit suicide every year out of desperation. They will deplore the bane of poverty but will suggest no concrete action to stop the looting of the country at the hands of the ruling elite. They will condemn the caste system while raising one community against another even more systematically than the British did, and even though whatever perversion remains in the caste system would have long disappeared if they had done their duty and improved the lower classes’ economic condition and education.
What has all this degeneration to do with Indian culture or tradition? Indian culture is largely about dharma, which is doing one’s duty sincerely and with all one’s strength. Is that a crime? Ancient scriptures have thousands of pages on a ruler’s duties towards his subjects - and what do our modern rulers do? Step No. 1: perversely equate dharma and religion; step No. 2: declare that secularism demands that religion must be kept separate from politics; Step No. 3: therefore, dharma must be carefully kept out of politics! And not only out of politics, but out of education and public life as well - out of our brains, out of our lives. And indeed, that is exactly what has happened over the years: dharma has been uprooted. So it is no surprise if countless Indians have developed a mixture of disgust and hatred for all symbols of authority.
“There is no power in the universe to injure us unless we first injure ourselves,”9 said Swami Vivekananda, as always to the point. “Too much of inactivity, too much of weakness, too much of hypnotism has been and is upon our race.”10
The only way to rebuild India is to reverse the tide and get men and women of quality to reconquer the battlefield instead of running away from it. Quality means substance, it means “culture” in the true sense of the term. Indian culture has always been concerned with the quality of the human being, because it has always taught that life is not as it appears, that we have a divine something within us, that we essentially are that divine something. That is why, with all its faults, the Indian substance remains among the best in the world - early European travellers to India said it, Swami Vivekananda said it, Sri Aurobindo said it, others said it, and the slightest opportunity can still show it to the eye that looks deeper than the surface. This was Rabindranath Tagore’s advice to his fellow Indians:
Let me state clearly that I have no distrust of any culture because of its foreign character. On the contrary, I believe that the shock of such forces is necessary for the vitality of our intellectual nature.... What I object to is the artificial arrangement by which this foreign education tends to occupy all the space of our national mind and thus kills, or hampers, the great opportunity for the creation of a new thought power by a new combination of truths. It is this which makes me urge that all the elements in our own culture have to be strengthened, not to resist the Western culture, but truly to accept and assimilate it, and use it for our food and not as our burden....
But before we are in a position to stand a comparison with the other cultures of the world, or truly to co-operate with them, we must base our own structure on a synthesis of all the different cultures we have. When, taking our stand at such a centre, we turn towards the West, our gaze shall no longer be timid and dazed; our heads shall remain erect, safe from insult. For then we shall be able to take our own views of Truth, from the standpoint of our own vantage ground, thus opening out a new vista of thought before the grateful world.11
So if you want to revitalize the country, tap the real source of life and strength in yourself to start with. Keep the essence of this country’s long journey through time, keep the core of its experience; give it as many new forms, as many new expressions as you wish. No one says we should bring back the bygone past; that would be a foolish and fruitless attempt. “Our past with all its faults and defects should be sacred to us,” said Sri Aurobindo, “but the claims of our future with its immediate possibilities should be still more sacred.”12 Then, if you find some aspects of Indian culture outdated, first understand them, then get rid of them - chop off the deadwood. If you want a prosperous country, tackle the root causes instead of being brainwashed by the slogans of the moment - remove the weeds and creepers. If you want to imitate the West, imitate its hard work, its energy and self-discipline, not its crude greed and tragic lack of direction - don’t fell the tree. Preserve it, water it, nourish it, care for it - it is a magic tree, a life-giving tree, and its most important fruit is yet to come.
“Out of this decay is coming the India of the future,” said Swami Vivekananda, “it is sprouting, its first leaves are already out; and a mighty, gigantic tree is here, already beginning to appear.”13
1. Swami Vivekananda, Lectures from Colombo to Almora (Calcutta: Advaita Ashram, 1992), p. 64-65.
2. Pierre Thuillier, The Great Implosion - Report on the Collapse of the West 1999-2002 (Paris: Fayard, 1995), p.17-19. [My apologies to the author for taking the liberty to use the present tense in this extract, while his whole book is written in the past tense, being humorously presented as a “report” written in 2081 by a commission of inquiry on the West’s collapse.]
3. Andr_ Malraux, quoted by Pierre Thuillier, op. cit., p. 55.
4. Will Durant, Story of Our Civilization, Vol. I, Our Oriental Heritage (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1954), p. 633.
5. “A Preface on National Education,” in The Hour of God (Pondicherry: Sri Aurobindo Ashram, 1972, vol. 17), p. 194-196.
6. See Subhash Kak, The Astronomical Code of the Rgveda (New Delhi: Aditya Prakashan, 1994), chapter 6.
7. Sri Aurobindo, The Foundations of Indian Culture (Pondicherry: Sri Aurobindo Ashram, 1972, vol. 14), p. 4.
8. Sri Aurobindo, India’s Rebirth (Mysore: Mira Aditi, 3rd ed., 2000), p. 202.
9. Swami Vivekananda, Lectures from Colombo to Almora, p. 73.
10. Ibid., p. 105.
11. Rabindranath Tagore, The Centre of Indian Culture (Calcutta: Visva-Bharati, 1988), p. 31-34.
12. Sri Aurobindo, India’s Rebirth, p. 110.
13. Swami Vivekananda, Lectures from Colombo to Almora, p. 214.