Religions and Culture in India

With the emergence of an independent and awakened India, its culture is becoming more humanist, pacific, universal and inclusive, bereft of political or religious ideologies.

By Dr. Rao VBJ Chelikani

It would be interesting to understand a phenomenon that occurred very often in history in different parts of the world. We can produce a formula out of it: the higher the sophistication of a culture or civilisation of a nation, the lower would be its capacity to defend itself.  Why did the mighty civilisations, so easily, succumb to physically dashing small groups of invaders? Histories of the rise and fall of many civilisations and their cultural decay and disappearance, right from the Indus, the Chinese, the Greek, the Roman and the Egyptian empires, and a host of other civilizations appear to conform to this formula. In course of time, the elitist system that dominated the society had been the curse of Indian culture, since it could not fight back the invaders, and ignored them when they remained as immigrants, without trying to integrate them into the Hindu way of life. Had the Indian culture been religious, probably, they would have fought against them or converted them. In the face of a strong external challenge, the host culture reacted conservatively in favour of stability and isolation, instead of dialogue. Though culture has been the ‘raison d’etre’ of India, it did not evolve in a continuum; there have been frequent ruptures and regressions. The caste-system was, sometimes, explained to be one of such local responses to the external aggressions. It had happened several times to India to be a victim of trans-aggression, invasions, loot and plunder, vandalism, massacres, destruction, and annexation, without massive mobilisation to defend itself. The resistance was not ferocious; most of the people submitted themselves, as it was their fate. In spite of these repeated aggressions, the successive local regimes had not cultivated and trained people in any new martial values, arts and techniques, unlike the contemporary Chinese, Greek, Roman and Ottoman civilisations.

  1. Religions in India

India has always been an inspiring spiritual force, while, at the same time, leaving many religious practices to thrive. In the course of time, there emerged several religions or schools of thought and practices, such as a Vedic religion, a Brahmanical religion, Itihasic or Puranic religions, which are called Sanaatana dharmas. In those times, there was no religion called ‘Hindu religion’ or ‘Hinduism’ since people called themselves by their sectarian names, Vaishnavites or Shaivites or Bhagavataas, Pashpataas, etc. Further, people within each group called themselves by their caste, occupation, language and regional names. Later, Jainism, Buddhism, and Zoroastrianism joined the mainstream. We gave shelter to the Jews also who practised Judaism reproducing their ancestral tribal mode of life, untouched by the social evolution among the Jews in other parts of the world. The fact that the influence of the Asian religions like Confucianism, Shintoism, and Taoism was not quite visible can be understood by the fact that their spirit is the same as that of Buddhism. There had been no composite Hindu community at the time of Aurangzeb and till the end of the 17th century, except disparate communities such as the Marathas, Rajputs, Sikhs, Brahmins, marked by regional or caste identities. It is only with the influx of outside missionary religions like Islam and Christianity, the search for clear religious identities and ideologies came to the forefront.

i). Religious Conversions:

In the past, almost all the religions and their sects have been passionately indulging in adding numbers, either they believed that more numbers would make their truth more truthful or the numbers would make them politically more powerful. Among all the factors that have been leading to the religious conversions, the change of heart has not been a prominent factor.  Finally, across the history, each religion trying to force itself on others had waged wars, killing more human beings than any other war for land or for gold. Further, the British Indian state did not openly patronise any religion, probably because of the rude shock they received at the time of the mutiny of their local sepoys in 1857.

Very often, when two religious groups come into conflict, as in the communal conflicts in India, it is always due to rigid and un-enlightened ways of practising their rituals. Further, above all, there had always been plenty of politics in religious establishments, just as we have, at present, militant Islam in the Middle East, militant Christianity in Central Africa and militant Buddhism in Asia causing a lot of human suffering. Some pockets of ethnic cultures like that of the Africans and the Nagas in India, having converted themselves into a foreign religions, are practicing the same with a kind of militantism that is not to be found in the countries where these religions are born.

Proselytism or the zeal to convert somebody into some other religion in order to save his soul, is wearing out across the world, and is, now, limited only to a few desperate fundamentalists and a minority of extremists. With the availability of public services from their welfare state representatives, the poor, the illiterate, the ignorant and those who are physically and mentally weak are no more amenable to religious conversions, as there is an increasing sense of self-respect and self-confidence in them. However, though the conversions are reduced, the demography is having its impact. Further, New Age religions and new ‘gurus’ are emerging, which are rather philosophies for a better quality of life on this earth, rather than for the other world. Further, the new secular cultures are stimulating tolerance among diverse religious practices, without interfering with their core beliefs. Most of the people are, now, willing to keep religion as a personal affair. The Occidental civilisation had gradually transformed its Christian religion into a way of life with many moral, ethical, social and humanist practices.

The Asian culture in India has been, always been very resilient in a more subtle way, since those who crossed through the North-Western mountain passes or those who touched the shores of the Western coast got absorbed, body and soul, over a period of time, into the mainstream society. But, in some regions or places in India, those who are following Islam could not be absorbed completely into Indian cultural melting pot. Many builders of new India, such as Bal Gangadhar Tilak, Bipin Chandra Pal, Lala Lajpat Rai, Rabindranath Tagore, Gandhi, K, A. Abbas, Maulana Azad, Sarojini Naidu and Jayaprakash Narayan had vociferously pleaded for more efforts to integrate all the Muslims. Instead of provoking, by involving them more in the economic growth process, we can achieve their emotional integration.

“The inner strength of Indian culture is proved beyond any contest by the fact that India won its freedom without recruiting an army and without waging any war against any religion.”

Finally, the inner strength of Indian culture is proved beyond any contest by the fact that India won its freedom without recruiting an army and without waging any war against any religion. The struggle for independence consisted of a series of insistent negotiations and dialogues rather than bloody battles, between two cultures in a mutually-respected legal framework. Since independence, our political leaders being busy in power politics and groupism, have not made any significant efforts to strive for emotional integration of different parts of India during these seventy years. The North Indian border regions, from West to East remain partially un-integrated into our age-old cultural mainstream and without which we cannot claim to have cultural democracy in our country.

  1. What is Indian Culture?

Each culture expresses a certain meaning of life and ways of living it. It is a process of refinement of human behaviour, as it is understood in chemistry, when different chemical elements interact and produce something new, which renews the process afresh instead of allowing it to stagnate. Just like an agriculturist who cultivates land, man cultivates his social and natural environment in order to harvest a fruitful life. Yet, such a claim and efforts do not, automatically, guarantee the quality of the results.

Across the centuries and across the regions in India, there have been three distinct streams of thought that had been developed in parallel. There has been a constant cultural philosophy, profound theological beliefs, and passionate religious practices, besides a track of ascetic, meditative and spiritual pursuit in the forests. These diverse tracks have been co-existing and people have been shifting from one track to the other.

i). Three Cultural Phases:

There have been three defining periods in Indian cultural history: the great fusion of fundamentally different Aryan and Dravidian cultures; mostly violent co-existence with Islamic invaders and immigrants, and access to Occidental culture and modernity due to British colonisation. Even during these defining periods, the Indian culture continued to be an inclusive and synergistic culture in concepts, values, and practices. A similar process of maturation has been taking place, among the European societies too, after many fratricidal religious conflicts. They are adopting, apart from observing some religious rituals and social celebrations, quintessentially humanisticway of life. The European cultural process is similar to the Indian, and, now we can observe that both Asian and European cultures are in the forefront for forging a universal culture.

ii). Four Cultural Dimensions:

Any culture has four dimensions: It is, first of all, a personal way of refining the process of satisfying one’s basic bodily urges. Secondly, it is a way of constantly revisiting and transcending the three basic insecurities that haunt a human being i.e. fear of the other, fear of nature and fear of death. Thirdly, it is a matter of personal inspiration, imagination, experiencing, expressing, and sharing of aesthetic sensibility and creativity in life. Fourthly, it is cultivating the art of living together with others and evolving appropriate norms in relationships. But, unfortunately, it often happens in history that man does not live in all the four dimensions of life in just proportions, all the time. Among them, often, one or two traits would dominate and dictate the life, as a beastly man or a religious man or an artist or an economic actor. The wholesome quality of a culture depends upon the right mix of the above four ingredients in one’s life.When there is free communication, sharing, transmission, and stimulation of those expressions among all those who are living in the same group, then it becomes a democratic culture.

iii). Its Eight-Fold Path:

India has been in the forefront of this eclectic exercise: Firstly, it has never claimed that it has something that others do not have. They never claimed to be the only people chosen by God, nor their land to be the holiest. This has been made amplyclear by people like Tagore, Vivekananda, and Gandhi in the face of such claims aired by others around the world. Secondly, it is modest as it is conscious of its weaknesses and not being perfect, and hence, it does not manifest any missionary zeal or any imperialist tendencies. Thirdly, since it does not claim to be unique and exclusive, it has no problems to recognize, respect, and co-exist with other cultures. Fourthly, we ensure ourselves that we remain in thoughts, attitudes, and behaviour inspired by what is true, beautiful and good as universal values, so that we remain, to that extent, open to be in harmony with other cultures also. Consequently, we make ourselves tolerable. Fifthly, such a temperament is nurtured by non-violent and pacific attitudes among the individuals and in their social ethics. Sixth, it is individualist as it demands self-exploration for personal growth, rather than any missionary work. Seventh, it is credible for others, since it allows others to empower themselves in order to bring out the best in them. Eighth, over and above different collective beliefs, rituals and superstitions that every group entertains, the Indian culture allows every individual resident to distance himself from his such links and to carry out his own personal inner exploration, outside the group.

“Each culture expresses a certain meaning of life and ways of living it. It is a process of refinement of human behaviour, as it is understood in chemistry, when different chemical elements interact and produce something new, which renews the process afresh instead of allowing it to stagnate.”

Making conscious efforts to live in unity between the self, the society and the external world of cosmic dimensions is both a material, cultural and spiritual mission. Such holistic values vibrate as attitudes and temperament in all those who reside in India, and those who emigrated to other countries. So far, most of those who crossed into India, with their earlier norms, values, and conduct, gradually, got absorbed into the mainstream culture and, at the same time, did bring something to the Indian culture to renew itself. That is the reason why so many visionaries, thinkers and ‘gurus’ could thrive and deliver their messages from the mainland to the entire mankind. With the emergence of an independent and awakened India, its culture is becoming more humanist, pacific, universal and inclusive, bereft of political or religious ideologies.