In Indian culture, spirituality permeates life; spirituality is the pivot around which all other activities revolve.
Spirituality is indeed the master-key of the Indian mind; the sense of the infinite is native to it.
The culture of a people is the collective expression of their collective consciousness. The expression reflects their shared past. The three modes of expression commonly associated with culture are thoughts and ideas, art and literature, and outer actions and behaviour. The word culture is reserved for a level of expression several notches higher than civilization. A civilized society is an organized society with some evidence of mental activity. A cultured society gives evidence of a higher order mental activity, not just any mental activity. The hallmark of a civilized man is that he uses appliances. Wealth can precede a high level of mental development, and is enough to acquire appliances. That may make a person civilized, but not cultured. Those who have acquired wealth recently (the neo-rich) know it, and therefore, having acquired appliances, they hasten to acquire education. They decorate their houses with bookshelves, start reading newspapers and popular magazines, and learn to express, parrot-fashion, the fashionable opinion on current affairs. But all this only makes the person look cultured – for such a person, the proper term is ‘philistine’. Getting cultured is a much slower process than getting civilized. The hallmark of a cultured man is independent, original and critical intellectual activity with no aim other than the pleasure of the activity itself. Thus, culture expresses itself through mental activity which may not have any immediate utility. Such activity at the emotional level leads to fine arts, at the rational level leads to philosophy and science, and at the supra-rational level leads to ethics and morality.
In spite of these defining characteristics of the mental activity that leads to the birth and growth of a culture, the directions in which a culture may grow can be quite diverse. As an example, one may compare the ancient Graeco-Roman culture, the ancient Indian culture, and the relatively modern European culture. The Graeco-Roman culture was a predominantly intellectual culture, which gave us penetrating philosophies, great art and literature, remarkable science and technology, and enduring principles of politics, law and administration. Its central feature was harmony and balance. It tried to achieve a fine balance of the physical, emotional and mental life of man. However, it had one weakness, and that was inadequate attention to spiritual needs. The ancient Indian culture did not neglect the spiritual side of life, and it is to that that the credit for its survival should go. The modern European culture is a predominantly materialistic culture. It not only lacks the spiritual element, it also lacks the depth and refinement of the Greek culture. That is why, in spite of the enormous wealth, material progress, and military power that it has generated in record time, it is showing signs of decline, and is turning to Eastern wisdom for maintaining its vitality.
The purpose of culture is to lift man up from his animal existence, make him good, knowledgeable, and capable of appreciating beauty. The Indian culture does all this, and one thing more: it also gives man a life-long aim to work at – the aim of growing spiritually. Not that other cultures neglect spirituality, but it is only the Indian culture in which spirituality permeates life, in which spirituality is the pivot around which all other activities revolve. During its glorious period, India produced great religion, great philosophies, great literature, art and poetry, great science and medicine, and has also been great in its organization, politics, trade and commerce. But all these activities stretched beyond the mental level, and reflected the vital contact that the Indian mind has always had with the spirit. This has often been misunderstood, and our ‘other-worldliness’ has been blamed for many of our problems. The peculiarity of the Indian culture is that it has not placed worldly life and spirituality in two neat compartments, but has sought to spiritualize worldly activities.
The ideal of Indian culture has been a balanced pursuit of kama (desire), artha (the means to fulfill desire), dharma (right conduct, within the framework of which kama and artha have to be pursued) and moksha (liberation), which is the ultimate aim of life, for which worldly life is a vehicle and an aid. It was also understood that the emphasis on different aspects of this quartet would vary at different stages of life. This was embodied in the concept of the four ashramas, which divided life into four consecutive periods of about 25 years each. The first phase, brahmcharya ashrama, was meant to serve as a preparation for life. The principal activity during this phase was learning, and life was kept deliberately simple and austere. The next phase, grihastha, was that of family life. Kama and artha were concentrated during this phase, but had to stay within the boundaries of dharma. The next phase, vanaprastha, was that of progressive detachment from worldly activities and the bondage of relationships. The last phase, sannyasa, was that of total inner renunciation; the degree of outer renunciation varied considerably.
The flexibility of social institutions was embodied in the concepts of swabhava, swadharma and yugadharma. Swabhava means the natural inclinations and aptitude of a person. If a person is engaged in activities in keeping with his swabhava, he enjoys it, does a good job, and the society also benefits from his unique strengths. Swadharma consists of the requirements and obligations peculiar to the activities or position of a person. Thus killing is generally-speaking bad, but to a soldier in the battlefield, killing is a part of his swadharma. Yugadharma refers to the requirements of an era. Thus, a code of conduct framed in one era may become irrelevant under the altered circumstances of another era. Thus, each era (yuga) can have its own code of conduct or ethics (dharma). Thus the Indian culture was the creation of a mindset at once ideal and practical, rational and emotional, worldly and spiritual, and had the genius to synthesize and harmonize these opposing tendencies into a harmonious blend. The Indian culture has been the subject of lavish praise as well as hostile criticism. Replying to the criticism, Sri Aurobindo has emphasized that a culture cannot be judged from its outer appearance during its most decadent phase. The Indian culture has some intrinsic strengths, which have contributed to its survival in spite of repeated onslaughts. The crucial question Sri Aurobindo asks is “whether Indian culture has sufficient power for the fortifying and ennobling of our normal human existence”, and he answers it in a strong affirmative. He says, “the essential intention of Indian culture was extraordinarily high, ambitious and noble, the highest indeed that the human spirit can conceive”.
When India came under the British rule, India was going through one of the most decadent phases of its culture. The British rule made this sleepy nation collide with a wide awake, vigorous and dynamic civilization. The result was transplantation of many aspects of the western culture, and loss of confidence of the people of India in the value, vitality and validity of their own culture. The process has not stopped with political independence, and has in fact been accelerated in some ways because of television and the internet promoting a sort of superficial but glamorous global culture. What is remarkable is that Indian culture has survived the collision, and is re-emerging as the hope of a sick and tired civilization. The credit for this should go in a large measure to Swami Vivekananda, Mahatma Gandhi, Rabindranath Tagore, Sri Aurobindo and many other great men whom India was very fortunate to have in quick succession. These great men, through their life and works, recast the Indian culture in modern terms.
According to Sri Aurobindo, our attitude to other cultures should be that of critical assimilation. We should accept from the West the knowledge and ideas that are valuable and also compatible with the central principles of our own culture, and assimilate them into a larger whole. The ideas worth assimilating are European science, curiosity, universal education, discipline, liberty, equality and democracy. Noble and valuable as these ideas are at the mental level, it is only India’s spiritual culture that can give full meaning and practical form to these ideas. For example, take the ideal trinity of eighteenth-century Europe: liberty, equality and fraternity. When an effort is made to translate these ideas working from the mental level, “a society that pursues liberty as its ideal is unable to achieve equality; a society that aims at equality will be obliged to sacrifice liberty”, says Sri Aurobindo. And, the history of democratic and communist regimes respectively has proven him right. The reason is that ego drives the actions at the mental level – it may be a controlled, regulated and modified ego, it may be a collective rather than an individual ego, but it is ego all the same. As to fraternity, it is antagonistic to the very idea of the ego, and that is why what we achieve while working from the ego is only an amicable working association. On the other hand, fraternity based on the fundamental unity of individual souls is true brotherhood. From this brotherhood, both liberty and equality flow automatically. I will treat my brother as an equal, and I cannot make this equality conditional on my brother surrendering his liberty to me.
Each of the great cultures of the world has made a significant contribution to humanity as it stands today. Greece developed the faculty of logic and the sense of beauty; Rome developed organization, law and order; post-renaissance Europe has given us modern science and technology, efficiency, industry, and now the information age; India has given the world the insight that perfecting and satisfying the body, mind and intellect is necessary but not sufficient for fulfillment. Fulfillment comes only when the instruments that the body, mind and intellect are, work in light of the soul. It is this unique feature of the Indian culture that has made the world look repeatedly to it when extreme degrees of development of the parts of the being other than the spirit have left it with a feeling of something still missing. India has always supplied that missing element to the world.