About five months ago I was in conversation with a group of Americans. One of them asked me a very intriguing question, how did the Indian civilization survive thousands of years unlike the Greek or Roman ones?
I found the answer in a book by Shri K M Munshi titled “Foundations of Indian Culture”. The author was founder of the Bhartiya Vidya Bhavan, eminent lawyer, scholar, writer of modern Gujarati literature and one of those involved in framing the Indian Constitution. Munshiji was also behind the eleven volume magnum opus titled History and Culture of the Indian Peoplepublished by the Bhavan.
This article was compiled in 2001 and edited in 2017. It is completely based on the above book for which I deserve no credit. Wherever necessary, I related it to current events.
Significance of Culture
Last fifteen years or so have brought forth many questions - Where do Indians come from? Why is family such an important part of India's social structure? Why did India not export its culture by the power of the sword or why do followers of Indian religions not convert? And so on.
Unless we have knowledge about Indian culture, we will not be able to understand who we are, why we behave in a certain way and what do we yearn for. Instead of letting these ideas take branches of their own, we’ll try to explore these questions ourselves and present a sound answer for each one. People from foreign lands find Indian culture fascinating and often ask intriguing questions which compel us to think.
What is Culture?
‘It is the sum total of values expressed through art, religion, literature, social institutions and behavior, the overt acts of individuals and mass action inspired by collective urges.’ Its first characteristic is continuity.
A distinctive culture comes into existence when people develop a continuous way of life. This is expressed in many ways like common traditions and norms of conduct /institutions (marriage, family) /memory of triumphs achieved (Mahabharata fought at Kurushetra between the Pandavas and Kauravas). For e.g. where ever we go in India there are certain accepted norms of conduct.
The most important characteristic of a vital culture is a common outlook among the people, who when faced with adversity, difficulty, can generate a collective will to action. However, when the collective will to resist is weak the culture starts decaying.
You might realize that a common will to tackle the country’s problems seems to be lacking in India today. We have Hindus who look up to Maharana Pratap or Guru Gobind Singhji for inspiration while Muslims look up to Akbar and Aurangzeb. How then can a collective will develop unless common heroes bind us all together? Nations are formed by amalgamation of identities and not by harping on differences continuously.
With the passage of time scenarios change, society-cultures come under pressure to respond. When such an event occurs, it is up to the more prominent members among the dominant minority to adjust their outlook, institutions in accordance with its Central Idea. The majority should also become tolerant of other minorities. When this does not happen the culture dies and with it the people. (note that minority does not mean Muslim as is understood in India today).
Take the case of a modern Greek or Roman. Both these cultures were overwhelmed by the West and are nowhere near the spectacle of their ancient culture.
The vitality of a culture cannot be passed down from father to son through a Will. Its values have to be recaptured afresh by every generation and would be subject to constant reinterpretation. If a culture is living the young would be impacted by it.
At the outset must state that I do not believe in the Aryan Invasion Theory even though the respected Shri Munshi might have referred to it. This book was written in 1962. In the last ten odd years the invasion theory has been debunked, a fact i.e. widely accepted today.
Gathering of Elements – The Vedic Aryans
What is important in the understanding of a culture is the way it is approached.
A humble way would be to ask the natives, how did it come into existence? What was the central idea behind it? Another way would be to look at the conditions of the time in which it is studied. What changes are to be made in the old forms to adjust with present times? Another approach is that of the modern. If I had been Vyas of 3,000 years ago with the outlook of today, how would I have shaped this culture?
To get a true understanding of Indian culture we need to understand the conditions under which it evolved, understand how it came into existence, the forces that led to its growth etc.
How did Indian culture come to be founded?
Millions of years ago, the land north of the Aravillis was under a sea named the Tethys. Gradually, the Himalayas arose out of the sea. As time passed a huge land mass arose with rivers flowing out of the mountains bringing silt down along with them. In this way modern day North India was created, with silt deposited plains. Its immense fertility attracted people from distant lands. The prosperity of North India is linked to the Himalayas.
Unfortunately forest fires coupled with deforestation have lead to lower rainfall and warmer climate. Unless this trend is reversed, we have a problem on our hands. In Kumaon was told that the British popularized the growth of pine trees, which catch fire easily.
Indians are a combination of various tribes. Negritos came from Africa, Proto-Australoids from Early Mediterranean, Mongolians, the Later Mediterraneans identified with Dravidians, the Alpines considered pre-Vedic and Vedic Aryans. U.P. and Bihar were occupied by a race called Copperheads. It is believed that the Nagas, Asuras belonged to this stock.
The languages they use are Kol limited to hill tribes, Sino-Tibetan limited to East India and the Aryan and Dravidian languages.
Before 2000 B.C. the Aryans entered the face of history and spread over Asia and Europe. Indo-Iranians entered India through Afghanistan. Zend Avesta, the sacred book of the Parsis contains several verses that are found in the Rig Veda. The Vedic Yama is the Zend of Avesta and so on.
According to Bhagwan Dass Gidwani, author of the book “Return of the Aryans,” Aryans were originally from India and migrated to various parts of the world. Swami Vivekananda too said that Aryans were from India.
Aryans are believed to have re - entered India around 1500 B.C. For about the next five centuries they fought a war within themselves and with the Dasas, Asuras etc. During this period there was an intermingling of customs, beliefs and a new harmony evolved.
The Aryans brought with them cultural vitality and influence. Their culture flourished in the Vedic Ashrams that were situated on the banks of river Saraswati and in the heart of Sapta Sindhu, the land of seven rivers.