The term culture is variously understood, often encompassing different manifestations of human and other intellectual expressions, especially ideas, beliefs, customs and social behaviors. At a more granular level, this design incorporates different art forms, languages and literatures, traditions and values, and even religious norms and practices. Sometimes urban lifestyles and demanding tastes in material subjects are also seen as the archetype of what the culture embodies.
India, with its nearly continuous history of over 5000 years as an evolving civilization, has a vibrant and vibrant culture. It is rightly proud of this unique heritage which is often considered a key element of its own national identity. However, there are questions as to what the true Indian culture is and what hue in this multitude of cultural chromas can be considered quintessentially representative of Indian civilization. But this begets further questions, as to what civilization is, what is the broader realm of culture, how did it evolve in India, how inextricably linked is it to our thoughts and religious practices and, above all, what is the nation itself. To capture even a glimpse of the dynamic Indian culture, it behooves the conceptual appreciation of these integral institutions. But first, what is culture?
The connotation of the word culture is vast and cannot be limited to a single definition. However, it can be understood as the collective values of a society, manifested through its many institutions as well as in the disposition, attitudes, mannerisms of its individual members. These in turn find expression in various material objects, abstract ideas and beliefs of individuals and society.
Thus, culture includes certain aspects of collective institutions, such as morals, religion, spirituality, law, custom, art, etc. which are not limited to an individual and which are transmitted from generation to generation. Clearly, the institutional elements of culture are evolving and dynamic.
Culture also includes intellectual and knowledge elements relating to languages, literature, human learning, social norms, customs and behaviors. Human and social aesthetics is another key aspect of culture, encompassing within it the many manifestations of tangible and intangible art forms, namely music, dance, sculpture, painting and architecture, etc. . New-age theater and cinema are as much a reflection of modern culture as are the cave paintings of a prehistoric society, of which we know so little. The Bhakti and Sufi movements were the embodiment of the spiritual elements of medieval culture, as were the imposing forts and grand palaces of that time, a reflection of its societal and bodily cultural constituents. Sangam literature was the manifestation of the human intellectual and socio-ethical elements of a culture at its zenith nearly two millennia ago. Folk art and traditional ways of life are as indicative of a society’s culture as the urban way of life and passing tastes. Thus, our habitat, our kitchen, our costumes, our physical objects, apart from performing arts and architecture, are all the reflection of the material or tangible elements of the culture, just like the religions, the customs, the festivals , traditions, social practices and ethics, philosophy and law, reflecting immaterial or immaterial elements.
But Culture itself is never static or an isolated mass of homogeneous attributes. It is permeable and dynamic, with new waves of socio-cultural influences sprouting pristine cultural environments. Inclusiveness and evolution are its inherent and integral traits. It is this very indispensable characteristic that is reflected in the words of Mahatma Gandhi: “No culture can live if it tries to be exclusive.
But given its ephemeral nature, what is this permanent essence that provides a continuum and support for a culture, to maintain its integrity over time? At the very heart of the myriad cultural manifestations is the element of goodness in civilization and its people. This is the durable element. The narrow canons of the self do not restrict it, and its domain is not limited to a specific society. It is all-encompassing and its philosophy is best exemplified in the ambitious Upanishad hymn, sarve bhavantu sukhinah (may all be happy).
Indeed, its universality extends even beyond human dominion, to all sentient beings and in its noblest manifestation, striving even for the sustenance of the biotic world and the abiotic realm. Civilizations may somehow equate this element with ethics and law, while religion may perceive it as the tenets of morality or the essence of spirituality. But goodness, however classified, is the only and truly eternal soul of all culture, devoid of which, its trappings, however glorious and glitzy, are little more than a lifeless mass. .
The author is an IRS officer and the author of the book “Indian Heritage, Art and Culture”. The opinions expressed are personal.