Dialogue  July-September, 2006, Volume 8  No. 1


Understanding India

Govind Chandra Pande

India is not merely a geographical expression but a geo-cultural area of continental dimensions. Its heartland extended from the Himalayas to the sea but to the Northwest and the East its creative influence radiated into Central Asia, East Asia and Southeast Asia. In thinking of India it is necessary to keep in mind not only its vast extension in classical times but also its long history, which stretches back to Neolithic time and covers atleast six thousand years. While like any other history, the History of India is also full of vicissitudes. There is an indubitable continuity, which marks the Indian tradition. Renowned archaeologists like Marshall, Wheeler and B.B. Lal have brought out this continuity from the days of Harappan Civilizations. The Vedas are generally ledged traditionally to be the source of this tradition and their age goes back to remote antiquity, which on all accounts exceeds 3 thousand years but is most probably much more.

Indian culture is not the culture of any particular race, tribe or ethnicity defined nationality. Nor is it a culture, which identifies itself with any single religious tradition. Prof. Suniti Kumar Chatterjee has shown that atleast four distinct ethnic streams have blended in the making of Indian culture. These have been designated as Arya, Dravid, Kirat and Nishad. The Sanskrit language, which was the coine of vast Indian ecumene has significantly drawn from all these sources and inturn influenced the Dravidian languages. The pervasive influence of Sanskrit on all modern Indian languages knits them together in what has been called a language area. Thus although India is multi-ethnic, multi-lingual and multi-religious, it has a unique culture in which all these differences are retained as harmonious part of larger unity. This larger unity in and through the differences may be described as a historic task. It is incomplete today but the spirit of India, the spirit of reconsideration and harmony, has been at work from Asoka to Akbar to Gandhi. Ekam Sadvipr Bahudhvadanti. Truth is one but diversely spoken of by the seers. This may be described as the mula mantra of Indian Civilization.

Culture is defined as the quest for realizing ideal values and civilization as the fabric of its supportive body politic. Culture and Civilization are existentially inseparable of social existence. That aspect of society, which is primarily concerned with utility, the satisfaction of interest and security is looked after by economic and political organizations. Vrt and daa nti form the twin aspects of artha. Today the state in India seeks to govern all aspects of life or indirectly and aptly illustrates the old aphorism rj klasya kraam, sarv vidy daa nti pratihh. In older days the state neither sought to do so much nor could it actually do so. Even so in India over the ages justice and law have been regarded as ethical in character and superior to the mere fiat of the state. Today this concept of natural law, revealed law or prescriptive tradition has been virtually jettisoned in favour of law as the voice of the untutored and capricious demos. The age of great leaders has passed; the people have still to reach a coherent vision in which tradition is updated without being lost. Confronted by the massive and ever growing achievements of the Western civilizations, the people in India have a dual task, namely viz. to match the West in development process and at the same time to be true to their own cultural Self. In this task the Western myth of modernization or globalization as inevitable and irreversible historical trends needs to be critically examined. In China which is another example of a living continental civilization the continuity with the past in the realms of culture and scholarship had been maintained in the midst of the most far-reaching political revolution. One example will suffice to illustrate this. The Chinese script, which links together the past and the present of China has been retained with simplification of some characters. This has enabled the vast Chinese world to be knit together in one language. In India on the other hand Sanskrit in being increasingly discarded by sheer political fiat and the influence of some Westernized intellectuals.

If we turn from the crisis in politics in civilization to the cultural tradition we may highlight some of its leading values. The most fundamental science, which have been cultivated in India over the millennia is that of adhytma vidy and yoga. Ayantu parmodharma, Dharmo yadayoge ntmadaranam. The Supreme value is to gain a vision of self through the praxis of yoga. When Alexander reached India the first person he went to meet was a Shramana, Kalanos. From Krishna, Kapila and Patanjali, Buddha and Mahavira to Gorakhnath, Gyandeva and Kabir to Sri Aurobindo runs a living tradition of yoga, which Vivekananda has described as a science no more no less.

Ahis is another fundamental value in the Indian tradition Ahis Paramo Dharma. From Buddha and Mahavira to Gandhi, its practice has helped to shape the charcter of the Indian people. The Greeks marveled at the fact that the Indians do not seek to conquer any lands beyond their territories. War itself was regarded as a species of dharma, not any kind of deception (Sung-tzu). But war and politics inevitably involve violence and also the ability to meet the deception and treachery. In this context the ahimsa practiced by the common man or the state can only mean the avoidance of unnecessary force. Krishna and Bhishma or Kautilya have tried to indicate a policy, in which soul reconciles morality and utility. The neglect of the tradition of daa nti has been unfortunate.

Dharma is the Indian word, which is partly parallel to culture. It has two aspects pravtti dharma and nivtti dharma. Pravtti dharma seeks to harmonize moral values with the strategic pursuit of interest. Its basic principle is moderation or maryd. But man does not live merely by the goods of this world. Navitten tarpaiyo Manuya, reyaca preyaca viviktamete. The pursuit of ideal values of truth, goodness and beauty requires unhindered freedom for the intellectual, the artist and the man of action. No fiat of the state or the fear of public opinion should hamper the pursuit of scientific or philosophical knowledge or the expression or creation of art and letters. Freedom to pursue the truth in any form has been a keynote of the Indian tradition. Socrates and Savo Narola would not have had anything to fear in India. Nivtti dharma, the other aspect of dharma consists in the totally dedicated pursuit of jna and yoga. Just as the scientist or the artist needs to be supported by the society, so that they can pursue their goals, the yogi also needs such social support. The monasteries and ramas gave such support earlier. Today the situation is poised on the brink of disaster. The unfortunate prosecution of the ankarchrya of Kanchi is an illustration.

Apart from adhytma vidy, yoga, dharma and ahis it is the Sanskrit language, which has been the prime vehicle of Indian culture and the repository of its literary and philosophical achievements. The present structure of education, however, is far more inimical to Sanskrit, than under any government in the past, over the millennia. Sanskrit has been dubbed as a dead language or the language of the Brhmanas. Languages are not living organisms. They are highly formalized symbolic structures, which enable men to give expression to their thoughts and feelings. Languages may go into disuse but they may be reused as has happened in Israel. Sanskrit happily is still creatively used by quite a few persons and has produced masterpieces even in the 20th century. Nor does languages belong to a class. It is like water and air available to all equally except that all cultural leaning requires suitable education.

Indian culture is not dead and finished. Consequently, it cannot be defined or fully determined. But no culture can survive educational deracination as planned by MaCaulay. In some respects independent India is executing MaCaulays project. Most people perhaps do not know that many bright graduates of today have never been exposed to any literary classics in any Indian language.

There is a widespread feeling in India that education should be immediately job oriented and that jobs can be had only by those who have acquired scientific knowledge and technical skill. There is no doubt that everyone should have a viable means of livelihood. This requires an appropriate man power planning, a planning which takes into account also the long term needs of society which require the development of not only positive language and research but also plumbing of the uncharted sea of knowledge. Progress does not become on following some fixed patterns of knowledge and skill, illustrated by other countries. It depends ultimately on revolutionizing knowledge. The West is forging ahead by a continual revolution in knowledge. India is simply lagging behind and lagging more and more. It must also be remembered that the positive knowledge and technical skill are not sufficient to guide any civilization. The model of West is palpably defective. Civilization cannot survive, nor can man fulfill himself without high moral and spiritual values. If even the liberal arts cannot be pursued in a society, it only shows how misguided that society is. Let us hope and pray that those who are politically guiding us, their real task is to prevent the derailing of the country from its immemorial moral and cultural traditions. Just as a man discovers himself by the courage to follow his ideals and not by falling a prey to easy temptations, to discover India, our larger Self, we have to have the courage to act on our cultural traditions, instead of experimenting with half-baked ideas drawn from other cultures. Even in the most objective aspect of culture, mainly positive knowledge and technology, India has not yet succeeded in generating adequate creative energy. In the realm of policy, it is fighting with itself for surviving. Turning with a fear to the creative voice of culture, can India be discovered through slavish invitations?


 Dialogue A quarterly journal of Astha Bharati

Astha Bharati