The Essentials of Indian culture

Indian culture has borne the brunt of stigma and repeated censure as successive creeds have tried to destroy it.

The Essentials of Indian culture

The 25-page booklet- The Essentials of Indian Culture in English, by the late Shri Prof S.K. Rāmachandra Rao, with its quiet and accessible language, struck a chord with me. Social media was not the rage yet and finding anything in the popular media with empathy towards Indian culture was rare.

Thanks to the colonial legacy, alienation from our languages, and the searing pace of modernity, for a section of us, Indian culture continues to be synonymous with social evils, obsolete beliefs and sadly nothing else. This essay by a highly respected scholar is a much-needed primer to connect with our past and should become a part of our school textbooks.

Prof Rao’s preface reads,

“I have chosen to write on Indian culture because I find that it is widely misunderstood……To be an Indian in reality, one must recognise and appreciate the values that this culture has upheld all along the country’s history…………relevant more now, in view of increasing globalization in all walks of life.”

Indian culture here refers to all that is manmade or that came to be in South Asia and within this, India identified itself as Bharata-varṣha. Given that ours is “the only ancient culture in the world that has survived uninterrupted till our own day”, it is imperative that we know its essentials.


“It is important to note that all the ancient records point out that from the very beginning the country was multi- racial, multi-cultural and multi-lingual……………The Rigvēda repeatedly refers to the composite character of the society and to the pluralistic population, nearly ten thousand years ago.”

Prof Rao lists the variety of people belonging to different cultures and backgrounds, mentioned in the Vedas, who were in India, “even during the early years of the dawn of Indian history”.

After reading the now dying Aryan invasion theory in our textbooks and that multiculturalism is an imported ideal of the medieval age, reading this is indeed heartening.

“Diversity yes, but we have caste!”, is a constant apology amongst us for being Indian.

Varṇa or the “so-called caste system is incidental” to the continuous influx of peoples and their social amalgamations and assimilations. Division of society, like varṇa, was part of the social organisations of ancient civilisations all over the world.

“Whatever be the role of the four classical varṇas….there are at present three thousand castes in India …..( 2,378 of them were enumerated as early as 1901 ), ……But all of the come within the orbit of Indian culture.”

In India, our heroes were/are saints from all castes who strove for social unity and condemned discrimination. Permeable caste boundaries and non-discriminatory laws are something we are proud of in today’s India, and will hopefully, help us drop our self-disdain.

The much-maligned dharma śāstra manuals were attempts to provide general guidelines to the varṇas,

“It is wrong to imagine that these dharma śāstras were either uniform or mandatory. No single author of dharma śāstra ever claimed to be an undisputed lawgiver; and no dharma śāstra (there are in fact several of them) has ever been binding or universally accepted.”


The Mahābhārata says: “put yourself in the position of others (‘ätmaupamyena’) and then act. This, in brief, is dharma”.  This nobility called dharma-“the law of life itself,” is at the very heart of Indian culture.

“The source of dharma is the scripture, i.e., the Veda, which is based on “intuition”, unlike the dharma śāstras which depend on reason and are liable to change as per changing social mores.

…. much of what is significant and magnificent in Indian culture can be said to have flowered out of this ancient pool of wisdom that the word ‘veda’ really means.”

We learn here that the Rigvēda, which has nourished our culture, was the culmination of an already existing mature culture. To understand dharma, Prof Rao asks us to know the āśramas (stages of life), the puruṣārthas(pursuits), the ṛṇas (obligations) and ṛta.

The three stages of life (āśramas)

To the Vedas, youth, maturity, and old age are not merely inexorable processes of life with no objective. They are purposeful stages assigned with commitments.

“Chändogya-upanishad (2,23) describes the duties in the three stages of life as  “offshoots or branches of dharma” (‘trayo dharmaskandhä’): totality of obligations and privileges of a householder, hermit, and student.”

The three puruṣārthas

Literally meaning whatever is sought by human beings these are not specific to any āśrama or varṇa but common to all. The Vedas say the three human pursuits of artha(wealth), kāma(pleasures), liberation from worldly ills (mokṣa) must have dharma as their foundation.

In this context, dharma refers to, human values like compassion, truth, charity, forgiveness, self-restraint, and so on.

“…. dharma is, in other words, the inner light of clear conscience, mindful of the welfare of all, minimizing ego-involvement and selfishness in institutional behaviour.”

Originally, the puruṣārthas are only three-dharma, artha, and kāma. Mokṣa is left completely up to the individual. Dharma is more concerned with the business of living, and less about mokṣa, unlike popular belief.

“…………The one who seeks mokṣa is beyond the stages of life and outside society, and his conduct does not fall within the scope of the dharma śāstras.”

The three ṛṇas and ṛta

The Titariya Samhita says that by simply being born we incur the three basic debts, the ones owed to the ancestors (pitr ṛṇa), the sages (rishi mokṣa), and the gods (deva ṛṇa).

“By studying and understanding the cultural context in which he is born, one discharges the debt to the sages, by continuing the family line by having children of his own, one discharges the debt to the ancestors and by honouring and worshipping the elemental and environmental forces air, water, sky, earth, rivers, and mountains etc (which are in fact the luminous ones, the devas in the Rigvēdas) one discharges the debt to Gods.”

The texts say that by simply fulfilling these obligations, a person has done everything that needs to be done and need not do anything more.  The aim of dharma is to move us from, “self-gratification to duty fulfilment.” Interestingly, the dharma śāstras say that the pursuit of mokṣa at the cost of fulfilling the debts is not ideal.

“It is in this sense that art, austerity, penance, creativity, and entertainment are considered “surplus” or extra (ucciṣṭa) in the Atharva-Veda ……. they become valid and relevant only when the debts are discharged, or as forms of discharging the debts.”

Traditional Indian arts like sculpture, painting, music, dance, and drama are directly or indirectly connected to the acts of worship and the traditional artist considers his works as a discharge of ancestral debts(pitr-ṛṇa)

If a person’s fulfilment of the three purposes of life (dharma, artha and kāma) is devoid of obligations then what remains is a creature of animal instincts and passions, not his humanness. “Samskāra” (literally meaning rendering whole) is the transformation of the animal man to human man through “addhā vidya – right education, correct knowledge and proper understanding”.

The word ṛta means “cosmic law and order or an orderly occurrence” and is synonymous with dharma – “that which is right, immutable, pervasive, and capable of supporting”. This essay does not elaborate on ṛta , but it certainly instigates us to look it up.

Are these concepts relevant to us now? Prof Rao’s answer is emphatic,

“……………In fact, what the Rigvēda tells us is relevant to all mankind and for all times. There is nothing that is partisan or parochial in it. It is this universal appeal that has made Indian culture open, broad- based and all-inclusive. The dharma that is espoused by Rigvēda is meant to contribute to common human order and universal welfare.”

If the āśramas give us a structure, the puruṣārthas, ṛta and ṛṇas attempt to add meaning, which is necessary for our sense of fulfilment. Any topical rights-based discourse is incomplete until it embraces the vision of dharma – of pursuits balanced with duties.

If we strive to live in harmony with the rhythms of nature, while considering the welfare of ourselves as well as others, we have reached the Vedas.

The Upanishads

Collectively called “brahma vidya”, the famed Upanishads are the culmination of the Vedic vision of “ekam sat”- the one reality manifesting itself in all beings. It is through the aforementioned “addhā vidya that one can acquire the knowledge of the self – the spirit that is independent of the body.

“All the different philosophical systems in the country are rooted in the Upanishadic lore.

Kumarila Bhatta (about 600 A.D) rightly points out that even the so-called heterodox Buddhism and Jainism are derived only from the Upanishadic source. The purpose of all philosophical systems and religious approaches, … is to help withdraw man’s passionate interest in worldly objects and affairs and to this extent he points out, all (of them) are valid and authentic.

 Here we have a clue to the spiritual orientation of Indian culture, its reverent and tolerant attitude to other cultures.”

We are rightly proud of this lofty spiritual ideal but are quickly disillusioned when we conflate it with reality. The rishis offer a direction- being rooted in our own ethos will pave the way to belong to the whole world.

The Epics

The two great epics of our country are essential to us because they illustrate the subordination of 2 human pursuits, i.e. artha and kāma to dharma.

Valmiki describes Rāma again and again as the very embodiment of dharma.”

The Rāmāyaṇa is “truly the mirror of Indian culture,” and is an exemplar to all classical literature in the country. The Mahābhārata expands on the challenges that dharma faces from artha and kāma in both personal and public life. Its crowning glory the Bhagavad Gita, asks us to rise above the life’s vagaries and unpredictability by relying on, “the beyond” (sāṃparāya) “the Supreme spirit,” which is within every being’s heart.

“This faith in the Supreme Spirit, called by whatever name and visualised in whatever form, is the most important and enduring detail of Indian culture.”

The Agama Tradition

This popular version of the Vedic tradition has prevailed in the country for over a thousand years now. The Agamas focus on the theme of man’s relationship with the beyond. Art literature, dance architecture, entertainment, sport, and folklore are all directly derived from this Agama tradition.

“It is especially concerned with worship in temples, procedures of icon making and temple building, religious observances and practices, yoga, mantra and tantra.”

Sādhus and Saints

Numerous saints have lived among the masses and tried to turn them towards “the beyond – to the ever-living presence of the Supreme Spirit”. As bards, poets, minstrels and magic workers, these saints gave Indian culture, its mass appeal by adding “variety” and giving it a “composite” character.

“There are still a large number of these saints, working among the people, in all parts of the country. They are in fact keeping Indian culture alive and intact.”

This is especially relevant now as derision for sadhus has become fashionable. Cultural values were/are spread among the people at the grassroots not by any central agency in India but by these ‘saints and bards, many of them exotic and outlandish, itinerant and unassuming’.

“‘Vrātyas’ were the forerunners of the siddhās, yogis and yatis who existed right from the Vedic era. Patanjali too refers to them as fallen from the Vedic orthodoxy, but highly revered both by the elite and the populace………Such free-spirited, extraordinary savants have been the living torchbearers of Indian culture.”


Prof Rao’s conclusion is a quote from the Bhāgavata, which describes culture as the primordial tree, which has but one direction, two fruits, three roots and four flavours. The one direction being prosperity, both material and spiritual. The two fruits being pleasure and pain, the three roots represent the three forms of indebtedness to gods, ancestors, and sages (ṛṇa), the four flavours refer to the four common human aspirations (puruṣārthas)

In words that are difficult to improve, he says,

“Such is the great tree under which we have lived for thousands of years, generation after generation, and day after day. There have been attempts from the outside to mutilate this tree, uproot it; and there have been diseases from within, threatening to make the tree dry up and die. But this is the tree of life, with an uncanny power to renew itself and remain for ever.”

The essay aptly concludes with these eternal lines from the Vedas,

May we move from falsehood to truth,

from darkness to light and

from death to undying life.


The Essentials of Indian Culture by Professor S.K Rāmachandra Rao – Publishers: “Bhojasmruthi”, V.Si. Sampada, Bangalore

About Author: Neela Ranganathan

Neela is a student of Karnatic music and is interested in learning and reading more about Indian culture. She has degrees in Architecture, English Literature, and Habitat design.

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