October 6, 2014

Introduction to Dinkar’s Sanskriti ke Char Adhyaya

Nehru wrote the introduction below in 1955. Two major events in India reflect in the concerns Nehru displays below – the Dravida Nadu movement results in him making an extra effort to show the contribution of South in composing India, and the opposition to Hindu Code Bills might be the reason he spends a significant part justifying that no tradition is static. Also, below are concerns that a weak nation is under grave danger in the nuclear age. After US, Soviet Union had already turned nuclear and China embarked on its Nuclear program in 1954-55. Nehru makes a case for understanding one’s history, emphasising on its importance to survive in the world today. – Translator’s note


The topic that my friend Dinkar has chosen for his book is very endearing and interesting. This is a topic that has often overwhelmed me, and whatever I have written, has had its imprints. I often ask myself this question – what is India? What is its essence? What are those forces that have shaped India and what is their relationship with major trends in the past and present that affect our world? This topic is vast and contains all of mankind’s business in or outside India. And I think it would not be possible for any one person to do justice to this entire topic. However, we can make an attempt to understand some aspects in it. At least, it is possible that we try understanding our country, even if without the context of the world, the India specific knowledge that we glean will be partial.

What is culture? If we peruse the dictionary, we get many definitions. One famous writer has said that – “Culture is to know all that is excellent in this world”. Another definition says that – “Culture is the training and development of the body and mind and the conditions that result from it.” It is the “refinement of thought, behaviour and interests”. It is the “enlightenment of civilisation”. In this sense, culture is something that is fundamental and universal. Then, there are some national aspects of culture too. And there is no doubt that many nations have a distinct character and have developed within them some original qualities and culture,

Where does India lie in this landscape? Some folks discuss Hindu culture, Muslim culture and Christian culture. I don’t understand these terms; even though it is true religious movements have impacted the culture of nations and communities. Looking at India, I feel, as Dinkar has also emphasised, that the culture of Indians is composite and it has developed gradually. On one hand this culture’s origin reaches before Aryans to the civilisation of Mohanjodaro et al and the great civilisation of the Dravidians. On the other hand, this culture has a deep imprint of the Aryans who came to India from Central Asia. Looking back, this culture has been influenced repeatedly by those coming from the Northwest or from sea route in our West. In this way, our national culture has slowly taken the shape it has. This culture had an amazing ability to integrate and internalise new things it encounters. Until it had this quality, this culture remained alive and dynamic. But later it lost this dynamism due to which this culture atrophied and all its aspects became weak. There are two opposing and competing forces that we see operating in India’s history.  One force is that which assimilates outside influences, creating integrity and harmony, and the other that encourages division; that which reinforces the tendency to separate one from another. In a different context, we are still facing the same problem even today. There are many powerful forces today that are trying to create not just national unity but a cultural unity as well. But there are those forces also that create a rupture in our lives; that encourage discrimination between people.

Finally, the question in front of us today is not merely one of principle, it deals with our entire existence and our future depends on properly diagnosing and solving it. Generally, the leadership to deal with such problems comes from the intelligentsia. However, they did not come handy in this case. In fact, amongst the intelligentsia many don’t even understand the nature of the issues. The rest are resigned to being defeated. They are tortured by defeatism and spiritual anxiety and have no clue as to which path we should take.

Many intellectuals have become attracted towards Marxism and its branches, and there is no doubt that Marxism has presented an analysis of historical progress that has aided our understanding of issues. But, in the end, it has also become narrow dogma and whatever is its value as an economic system, it has been a failure in answering existential questions. It is true that economic growth is fundamental to living and progress but life doesn’t end there. It is much greater than mere economic growth. We see two principles working in history. One is permanence and the other is change. These two principles seem opposite but are not. Permanence has elements of change inside it. Similarly, change has elements of permanence inside it. Actually, our attention goes only to those changes that erupt suddenly in the form of violent revolution or an earthquake. However, every geologist knows that the large-scale changes on the earth’s crust happen extremely slowly and the changes that earthquakes cause are considered minor in comparison. In the same way, revolutions are outer manifestation of slow changes and metamorphosis at a micro level happening over a long cycle. Seen like this, change itself is a process that continuously works under the garb of tradition. Even seemingly fixed tradition, if not totally dead and fossilized, is continuously changing.

Sometimes in history the process of change and its velocity is more obvious. But mostly, from the outside, one can’t sense this velocity. From the outside, change mostly appears like stillness. When nations remain in the state of inertia they lose their vitality by the day, their weaknesses increase. This results in decay of its creative arts and abilities. And, often, this can lead to political subjugation.

Plausibly, the most effective instruments of Indian culture developed with the union of Aryan and Indians before Aryans, most importantly Dravidians. This union, mixture, integration created a mega-culture, that is represented by our ancient language Sanskrit. Sanskrit and ancient Pehalvi, both languages have their common ancestor in Central Asia but Sanskrit became the national language after coming in India. Sanskrit developed by the efforts of both the north and the south. In fact, as time progressed, the contribution of South in developing Sanskrit was prime. Sanskrit did not just become a symbol of people’s thoughts and religion but India’s cultural unity was also realised in this language. It has not been a popular spoken language since the time of Buddha; even then, it has had ample influence over the entire sub-continent. Some other influences also reached India and that also gave new directions to thoughts and expressions.

For most of its history, geography shaped India into a country with its doors shut on the outside. It was not easy for anyone to come from outside due to the ocean and the grand Himalayas. For centuries people came in hordes into the country but after the Aryans no one ever came into India in large numbers. Contrary to this, across Asia and Europe large human immigration and exodus happened; one tribe would displace another one and in this fashion the population underwent major changes. In India, the arrivals after Aryans were limited in scope. They had some impact but did not create any fundamental change in the composition of the population. But we should remember some changes did happen. For instance, Scythian, Hun and some other later tribes came, joined Rajput clans and claimed that they too were ancient Indians. After being isolated from the outside world for long, Indians also developed some unique traits, different from other nations. We became a people that were too full of themselves. We also developed some traditions that people outside neither know and cannot even understand. The countless manifestations of the caste system are an example of this strange Indian trait. No other country knows what untouchability is and why anyone should object to eating or marrying with a person of any caste. All these things have made our worldview narrow. Even today, Indians find it difficult to mix up with other nationalities. Even when Indians go abroad, they want don’t want to mix up with other castes. Most of us feel these things are self-evident and we fail to realise how astonished people of other countries are at them, and how much we hurt their feelings.

Two things simultaneously gained traction in India. On one hand, we claimed to be increasingly liberal and tolerant in thought and principle. On the other, our social behavior turned very parochial. This tattered personality, the contradiction of principle and behaviour, is still with us today and even today we are fighting against it. How strange is it that we want to overlook our parochial worldview, faults in our habits and traditions by saying that our ancestors were great people and we have inherited their high-mindedness. But there is a huge contradiction in the knowledge we received from our ancestors and our actions and till we remove this contradiction, our personality will remain in tatters.

In the days when life was not as fast, the contradiction of principle and behaviour did not seem as violent. But as the pace of political and economic change has increased, this contradiction is becoming more obvious. Today we are standing at the dawn of the nuclear age. The circumstances of this age are so potent that we must quell these internal contradictions. If we fail in this task, then this will be a failure of our whole nation and we will lose all the goodness too that we are proud of till date.

In the same way as we are facing huge political and economic challenges, we need to face this spiritual challenge in front of India. The country is changing in multifarious ways due to the industrial revolution underway. It is an unavoidable outcome of political and economic changes that they result in social changes too; else we won’t have integrity in either our personal lives or as a nation. It can’t be that we want political and economic progress but believe that we have no need for any social change. The burden we will find ourselves under by not creating social changes in line with political and economic changes will be beyond our limits and will break us.

The picture of India that we see in the first millennia after Christ and years preceding it is quite different from that we see after that. In those days, Indians were carefree, jovial and with an amazing zest for life, and they would take their message to countries far away. When it came to philosophy, they climbed huge mountains and conquered the sky beyond. They developed a glorious language and demonstrated excellent in creative arts. Indian life in that era was not parochial and the society was not in stasis. From one end to another, the entire nation was full of cultural enthusiasm. In that age, people from the south went and colonised Southeast Asia. Buddhism also spread towards China from South India. In that glorious expression of life, North and South India were one and nurturing each other.

Then came the later centuries when the decline started. Artificiality in language and overtly ornamental architecture are symptomatic of this decline. In this age, our philosophy also became a mere echo of the past and creative faculties weakened. Courage of the body and mind both left us, caste system developed even more and society closed its doors. We still continued to talk with lofty ideas but our actions departed from our convictions.

It astonishes how lofty our thoughts and words are compared to our actions. We talk of peace and non-violence but our actions are something else. We preach tolerance but want that everyone should think like we think and we couldn’t bear if anyone has differing thoughts. Our pronouncements are to be steadfast but our actions are in the pits and the increasing indiscipline will take us down in both personal and social sphere.

When the westerners crossed the seas to come here, India’s doors opened in a particular direction. Modern industrial civilisation slowly entered this country without much hullabaloo. New thoughts and philosophies attacked us and our intellectuals started practicing thinking like the English intellectuals. This mental movement, opening of a ventilator, was good in its own way, because it helped us understand the modern world. But this also created a problem that our intellectuals alienated themselves from our masses, because the masses were unaffected by this new wave of thoughts. The traditional continuum of Indian intellectualism was interrupted. Even then, some people are attached to it in a way that has neither progress, nor creative force and which is completely unaware of the new circumstances.

Now even the confidence that western philosophy instilled in India is shaken. The result is that now we have neither old values nor new, and we are flowing directionless and aimless. The new generation has no yardstick or any other device using which it can calibrate its thoughts and actions.

This is a dangerous situation. If we don’t stop and improve upon it then the outcome will be disastrous. We are going through revolutionary changes in economic, political and social arenas. It is possible that this is an unavoidable outcome of that situation. But, the nuclear age will not give too many chances to any country. And in this age, to miss a chance might mean complete annihilation.

It is possible that we don’t fully understand the forces at work in this world but we should still understand what India is and how this nation developed its integral personality; what are the various aspects of this personality and wherein lies its unity. No one community in India can claim monopoly over its heart and philosophy. Whatever is there in India, every Indian has contributed to its creation. If we don’t understand this fundamental fact, we will fail in understanding India. And if we don’t understand India, our thoughts, philosophy and actions will all be half-baked and we won’t be able to serve our county in any solid, effective manner.

In my opinion, Dinkar’s book will help, to an extent, in understanding these things. Hence, I appreciate this effort and hope that many people benefit on reading it.

Jawaharlal Nehru
New Delhi
20 Sept, 1955

Photo: Ken Douglas 

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