Paragraphs on Cultural Continuity Of India!
India, in common with China, shows a remarkable cultural continuity from the very ancient times to the present day.
Other ancient civilisations—those of Egypt, Greece, Mesopotamia—were great, but in their case there is an almost complete break with the past.
The sense of continuity, however, is not to be equated with an inflexible unchangeability. Indeed, if Indian culture has flowed over so many centuries, vibrant and alive, it is because it has shown a noteworthy ability to absorb and assimilate new ideas and influences.
When we talk of India’s culture, we take into cognizance the intellectual influences of various movements and cultures which seem to have been woven into a fabric of many hues. It incorporates cultures which were present in prehistoric India, those that had a temporary contact with the country, those which came from outside and continued in India permanently, besides the revolutionary movements that erupted in the country s intellectual sphere.
“If we study the cultural history of India, “we find that whenever any new movement of thought originated here or came from outside, it resulted temporarily in accentuating the existing differences. But soon the Indian mind set into motion its process of seeking unity in diversity, and after some time the conflicting elements were harmonised to lay the foundation of a new culture.”
Nearly 5000 years ago, there flourished a civilisation known as the Indus Valley civilisation, though it extended far beyond the limits of that valley not much is known about this culture even now, but what has come to light shows that some beliefs and practices of that culture are reflected m Hinduism.
The worship of the figure of the mother goddess by the Indus Valley people is reflected in the Shakti worship of later years. The culture also perhaps bequeathed the god Shiva to Hinduism which also inherited from that hoary past the practice of worshipping the pipal tree and certain animals and rivers.
The decay or destruction of the Indus Valley civilisation did not quite leave a vacuum in India’s cultural history. Historians suggest that links existed between the Harappan culture and the Dravidian culture of south India. There remains a pocket of Dravidian speech, the language Brahul, spoken by people in the highlands of Baluchistan.
Again, much research has not been done into the Dravidian culture but there is some evidence to show that as far back as about 2000 BC this culture was highly developed. Agriculture and engineering were advanced; rivers were dammed for irrigation; trade by sea and land took place; and the Dravidians had a script, numerals and calendar.
About 1500 BC immigrant Aryans were laying the foundations of a new culture in the north-west—the Vedic culture. The Aryans were not much advanced m material civilisation, but their religious consciousness was of a remarkable order compared to other ancient peoples. They neither built temples nor prayed to images; even as they worshipped various forces of nature, they seem to have been conscious of a basic unity in the diversity of phenomena.
The simplicity of the Rigvedic belief evolved over time and the later Vedic period (c.1000-600 BC) brought the passion for speculation on ultimate causes, the search for the absolute, the doctrine of transmigration, and the search for release from the cycle of rebirth.
The Aryan expansion was rapid in the period 800-550 BC. The influence of pre-Aryans on Aryan culture probably began to take effect during this period, and it is associated with the transition from the Vedic civilisation to the later Hindu civilisation.
Aryan influence in the Deep South, in Dravidian India, was mostly a matter of cultural penetration, not of conquest and settlement. Legend has it that Agasthya, who wrote the first Tamil grammar called Agathian, was an Aryan missionary who had come to the south to propagate the Vedic religion.
The same period probably saw the epic traditions, later to crystallise into the Mahabharata and the Ramayana, taking shape. There were also new developments in religion that contrasted in many ways with the Vedic religion—developments which eventually shaped the later Hinduism.
In social life and material culture, there was the crystallisation of the four varnas of Hindu society, the introduction of iron, the domestication of the elephant, and the development of kingdoms out of tribal chieftainships.
It may be pointed out that the increasing complexity of the caste system which characterised later Hindu civilisations owed much to the fact that a large variety of previously independent tribes had somehow to be accommodated within the framework of Aryan society, for in many of the newly conquered areas they formed the majority of the population.
The Aryan culture, though based on the Vedic culture, from now on became subject to non-Aryan influences. By the end of this period the entire subcontinent was united by a common culture—a culture which the Aryans no doubt founded but to which the Dravidians and others made indelible contributions.
The sixth century BC was a period of strong intellectual ferment. While the cultural unity of the country was for a while disturbed, the result of it all was an enrichment of the Indian mind with new ideas. Buddhism and Jainism were heterodox sects which challenged and stimulated the minds of Hindu thinkers.
But Hinduism held its own. This was mainly because philosophical thinkers ventured into new avenues of speculation on metaphysical questions, and there was a willingness to make the Hindu religion elastic enough to accommodate major religious trends of the time. Original speculation resulted in the six systems of Hindu philosophy.
The Bhagavad Gita which came to be considered a part of the Mahabharata was expounded. It explains the fundamental principles of Upaiushadic philosophy. If the Upanishads theorise on the nature of the Brahman and the atma, the Gita presents the practical approach on how to realise Brahman and attain salvation.
The Gita further clears up certain misunderstandings about the Upanishads in that it gives importance to love or devotion, and action performed from a sense of duty, besides expounding the importance of the way of knowledge in gaining salvation.
New forms of devotional religion appeared, centring round Vishnu and Shiva. The Vedic concept of unity was reconciled with the older Indian belief in the multiplicity of gods with the help of the theory of incarnation. The soul of the universe. Brahman, is one, but we can conceive of Brahman in three ways—the creator (Brahma), the preserver (Vishnu) and the destroyer (Shiva). All gods and goddesses are symbols of qualities of the Brahman.
Thus did the new Hinduism try to accommodate all sects and all classes to broaden its base and make it acceptable to a larger section? However, basic Vedic doctrines of karma, punarjanma, and vamasrama dharma were not lost sight of.
It is also possible that the stories of the Mahabharata and the Ramayana, which had been current among the people in the form of folk songs, were compiled and edited in the second century BC to remind the people of glorious deeds of heroes of the Vedic times.
Buddhism may not have caused caste distinctions to disappear but it rendered them less important. What is more, the vaishya castes gained some importance. Animal sacrifice was given up by the bulk of Hindu society as a result of the influence of Buddhism and Jainism.
Vegetarianism was another contribution of Jainism to the Hindu culture. The doctrine of ahimsa is also to be traced to Jainism and Buddhism. Art, architecture and literature were deeply influenced by Buddhism and Jainism.
The renewed Hinduism, however, managed to regain its hold over the people. And this culture could be said to have reached its zenith in the Gupta period. To quote A.L. Basham, the “period from the rise of the Guptas to the death of Harshavardhana can truly be called the classical period of Indian civilisation”.
Great sculpture was produced, fine literature was written, mural painting reached to great heights as witnessed at Ajanta, and knowledge grew. What is more, even though religion still dominated life and society, the various departments of life began to be more clearly differentiated. Secular literature made progress. Science moved outside religious confines and the scientific thinkers of the day made a mark not only in India but in countries beyond its shores.
If Aryabhatta, Varahamihira and Brahmagupta excelled in mathematics and astronomy, Charaka and Susruta were leading lights in medicine. In this period began the recording of ancient legends and traditions in the Puranas.
Stone-built temples appeared all over the land. It is to be noted that Sanskrit once again became the language of learning and court literature.
(Under Buddhist influence earlier, the language of the common people had eclipsed the glory of Sanskrit.) It was an age in which experienced metallurgists minted beautiful coins and developed iron of such quality that it did not rust. However, the reassertion of Brahmin superiority had its negative side.
Society was rigidly ordered, the educational function was appropriated by the Brahmins, and technical knowledge was gradually relegated to the position of a craft tradition practised in the guilds. Formal education was to become entirely scholastic, resulting in intellectual in-growing (Romila Thapar). While the sudras had a slightly better position now than in the Mauryan period, the position of the untouchables had deteriorated sharply.
Political disintegration in North India set in with the weakening of Gupta power, when the Himas, Shakas and Gurjars made heavy inroads in the north-western region. A temporary effort at empire-building was witnessed in the reign of Harshavardhana about whose period we get to know from Bana’s Harshacharita and Hsuan Tsang’s Records of Western Countries. But after Harsha, an empire was no longer possible: the northern region was broken up into small warring kingdoms, each one trying to establish itself as a sovereign power.
The disturbance also led to changes in the caste structure, with several new sub-castes emerging. As historians point out, the warlike adventurers who set up their kingdoms did not maintain their cultural identity, but adopted Hindu ways and carved out a fresh identity for themselves by tracing their origins to heroic Kshatriya clan they called themselves Rajputs.
From the ninth century onwards till the eleventh century or so, the Rajput courts became centres of cultural life with developments in art, poetry and drama. The forts and temples built under Rajput patronage are noteworthy: Chittor, Ranthambor, Gwalior, Khajuraho and Bhubaneswar exemplify their glory. However, the Rajputs with their fierce tribal consciousness inculcated a divisive outlook in society to the detriment of vinity of a large area. Hindu culture started looking “inwards and backwards—inwards to the private life of the spirit and backwards to the hallowed norms of the distant past,” as A.L. Basham observes. In this sense the period had a negative influence.
Certain socio-religious practices, obnoxious to modem sensibilities, became prevalent, the most striking of these being child marriage, female infanticide and burning of widows on their husband’s female pyres (sati). Also in this period, Buddhism and Hinduism became influenced by what is known as Tantricism.
It was South India which experienced political and cultural vigour in this period. Free both of overcivilisation and the consequences of foreign invasions, powerful kingdoms arose in the Deccan and in the Tamil plain. The Chalukyas, the Rashtrakutas, the Pallavas, the Cholas and the Pandyas spread, preserved and developed Aryanised culture in the peninsula.
Developments took place with thinkers and religious philosophers like Shankara, Ramanuja and Madhava putting forward their theories based on the Upanishads, the Gita and the Brahma Sutras. Equally striking was the development of bhakti, simple popular devotionalism, first among the Tamils with the hymns of the Alvars and Nayanars. The Bhagavata Purana was composed in the Tamil land, and was soon to spread the cult of Krishna as the divine lover all over the country. Fine schools of bronze casting appeared in the region now known as Tamil Nadu (and in Bengal).
The Pallavas and the Cholas as well as the Chalukyas and Rashtrakutas developed distinct and memorable styles of art and architecture. The Cholas also achieved fame as a wartime power reaching out as far as Sumatra, Malaya and Burma.
Contact with Islam began earlier than the invasions of Sind and Multan; Arab traders were given freedom to profess, practise and even propagate their religion when they came and settled on the coast of Malabar. But interaction between the Muslim and Hindu cultures really began with the establishment of the Delhi Sultanate. Architecture saw fresh developments with the introduction of new styles incorporating the dome and arch. Painting in the miniature style flourished.
Music too received a fresh impetus and brought the two cultures together. Sultan Hussain Sharqui of Jaunpur and Ibrahim Adil Shah of Bijapur are well-known as connoisseurs of music. Sufi teachers spread the doctrines of Islam and created a religious climate in northern India receptive to the winds of bhakti from the south. Bhakti cult and Sufism “could not merge the currents of Hinduism and Islam on the surface, but they showed that the springs which feed them do meet somewhere below it.
They created an atmosphere of religious harmony in India which was not to be seen anywhere else in the Middle Ages,” says S. Abid Husain. The introduction of paper led to the replacement of traditional writing materials like palm-leaf and birch-bark. Poets began composing in the everyday languages instead of classical Sanskrit. Urdu began to appear as the lingua franca of northern India.
The Deccan states showed generally cordial and even close relations between the Hindus and Muslims. The sultanates which rose on the break-up of the Bahmani kingdom continued a liberal tradition. Some of the rulers themselves showed literary talents even as they patronised local languages.
Indeed, it was in the Deccan that Urdu grew to be a literary language. A reference to Zainul-Abidin, the king of Kashmir, is inevitable in the context of harmonious relations between Hindus and Muslims. Besides getting Sanskrit books translated into Persian for a wider understanding of Hindu culture, he was a great patron of the arts and crafts. He could be called a precursor of Akbar.
It was under the Mughals and especially under Akbar that a true Indo-Islamic synthesis took place to give rise to a ‘composite culture’.
The system of administration, the use of a common language, Akbar’s enlightened liberalism and the development of Indo-Persian literature—all contributed to the growth of this Indo-Islamic culture. Akbar brought into being what S. Abid Husain calls the new Indian nation based not on the community of religion but on the citizenship of the same state.
The concept of a secular and non-communal state was quite clear in Akbar’s mind. He revived certain traditions of the old Indian state in order to broaden the degree of attachment of the people to the ruler. Charity and moral reform under the state extended to all citizens without discrimination.
Socially obnoxious practices were sought to be controlled irrespective of the community practising it; in this context it may be worth remembering that Akbar tried to put down sati long before Raja Rammohan Roy and William Bentinck came on the scene. There were common schools with a secular syllabus which helped to create an intellectual atmosphere to foster unity besides cultural understanding.
A special note may be made of the several translations of works from Sanskrit to Persian in which Hindu and Muslim scholars cooperated. Persian poetry was cultivated by Hindus as well as Muslims.
Architecture saw the blending of Hindu and Islamic elements in a harmonious style under the patronage of Mughal emperors—especially Akbar, Jahangir and Shahjahan— who showed a striking originality of mind and breadth of vision.
The Mughal style, exemplified in the Jama Masjid in Fatehpur Sikri, Akbar’s tomb at Sikandra and other buildings, shows the “cooperation of the Indian mind with the Persian”. The “bold experiment with Indian material created a new style in which the various elements are so completely blended into a harmonious whole that now their analysis into Indian and foreign, even if it were possible, would make no sense,” as S. Abid Husain observes.
In painting too a new style evolved, blending the Turco- Iranian with the old Indian style. Under Akbar’s patronage, a kind of academy of painting was founded at his court where Indian and Persian artists worked together. Under Jahangir, Mughal painting reached great heights.
In the reign of the Mughals, the first Europeans arrived, establishing trading stations at various ports. The Portuguese introduced new crops into India—potato, tobacco, pineapple, the chilli. It was in this period that the Sikh religion was born and later reborn as a martial brotherhood.
The Sikhs were soon to play an important part in the political life of the eighteenth century. The disintegration of the Mughal Empire and the expansion of the power of the British East India Company took place in a period marked by a general cultural decline. But pockets of cultural development existed—poetry at the courts of Delhi and Lucknow, and painting at the courts of local maharajahs in the Himalayan foothills.
Western influence manifested itself in full force in the subcontinent in the nineteenth century. It was really in the technical field that Western civilisation had a significant impact on Indian life. Steamships, railway, telegraph—these certainly changed the outlook of Indians and their way of life. However, the spirit of Western culture did not quite come to India.
The intrinsic merit of Western culture S. Abid Husain points out, “lay in its modem scientific attitude of mind and practical efficiency. But unfortunately the way in which the fresh blood of modernism was transfused into the anaemic body of Indian society deprived it of just these vital ingredients and on the whole did more harm than good”.
To the British, India was never a home; their racial arrogance and aloofness prevented Indians from appreciating the basic qualities of the English character, and it was the superficialities of dress, food and manners that a few educated Indians absorbed.
The impersonal approach of the British rulers could make no direct contribution to Indian culture. But it created conditions of peace and order, gave an idea of individual and national freedom and training in the democratic conduct of public life.
The negative aspects of British rule—economic exploitation, racial arrogance, growing educated unemployment, the alienness of the rulers of which the Indians increasingly became conscious—combined with the positive impact—the contact with the world outside, liberal Western thought, reawakened interest in the past—to shock the weakened, demoralised Indians out of their stupor.
Individual reformers came on the scene—Rammohan Roy, Dayanand Saraswati, Vivekananda, Aurobindo—who sought to extract the best from India’s past and modify Indian culture to suit changed conditions. But the contact with the West did not produce a fusion of the two cultures.
After independence, efforts were made to maintain a sense of unity and nationhood. Social legislation and voluntary efforts have brought about some change in people’s attitudes, especially towards the weaker sections, women and the downtrodden.
But there are several socio-cultural problems, that seem to threaten national integrity—communal, casteist and linguistic. The continuous stream of Indian culture has always exhibited weak periods when the diversity of Indian culture becomes so manifest that the sense of unity seems to fade off. We are again passing through a phase in which our infinite variety seems to challenge and dominate our sense of unity.
Today we are witnessing in India neither the continuation of all the traditional norms nor the complete institutionalisation of the newly introduced values, but an intermediate situation containing elements of both tradition and modernity. A cultural crisis, too, is evident.
The publicly recognised values of life in India are Truth, Goodness and Beauty—Satyam, Shivam, Sundaram. Few, of course, follow in practice the values. There is a clear contradiction between professed beliefs and those implicit in actual behaviour.
There seems to be a general dehumanisation, a desensitisation in the individual of today. Honesty and integrity are at a discount today, and this adversely affects every aspect of life—economic, social and political. The crisis of the value system and distorted and contradictory norms and behaviour are the ultimate causes of the present-day problems.