• kewal sethi

what is culture?

what is culture?

kewal krishan sethi

august 2020


one of my friend has remarked as under.

“with the dust around the ayodhya celebrations settling down, i listened very carefully to the ayodhya speech of the pm. it was not divisive as the pm continued to speak about "sab ka saath aur vishwas". however, many interpreted this as the first step in the realization of the much sought after hindu rashtra. since the idea of this new brand of "bhartiyata" seems to many to be around the corner, i have been prompted by one of my most learned and respected senior colleague mr. k.k.sethi's critique of the existing composite culture. since composite culture is the term being applied to the ideology of nehru and the existing "secular" constitution, the question that arises is - what then does hindu (the true indian) nationalism signify? sethi makes it clear that this has "nothing to do with culinary habits and modes of worship". how then is it different from the existing ideology? are the taj mahal, the red fort, india gate, lutyen's delhi, rashtrapati bhavan, mirza ghalib, amir khusro, mehboob khan, k.asif, javed akhtar, qawwali, ghazal, sahir, dilip kumar, st. stephen's college, english, punjabi, tamil, telegu, the automobile, the internet, the cell phone part of indian culture. are mosques, churches and gurudwaras part of bhartiya culture? are different ways and rules of life practiced in this large and diverse country, part of hindu (bhartiya) culture? what then is not? if the indian way of life through ancient, medieval and modern times are all a part of india and indian culture, what then is not? if the different colours and hues of india define india, what then is the difference between the so called "composite" and the "bhartiya (hindu)" culture? if the new ideology is about proportional representation of different communities in power structures, few would have any dispute with that. if it is about a uniform rule for everybody, i believe the law today applies equally to all. however, law is about public life. if we try to invade personal lives with uniformity, then the very diversity we prize, would be destroyed. i urge ideologues of "bhartiya culture" to clarify their position. because it could be the case, that there is "much ado about nothing".”

since the question has been asked, let me explain. i would like to say that i have quoted my friend in full without any omission.

first things first. i have not talked about nationalism. i have talked about sanskriti as against the composite culture. the very phrase ‘composite culture’ is a misnomer. culture does not and cannot have parts, competing with each other for dominance. it is a whole without parts, indivisible.

“what is bhartiya culture” is the question asked by the friend. i had said that the culinary habits or the mode of worship do not constitute culture. i should have added architectural designs also since a few buildings are also cited as examples of composite culture (taj mahal, india gate, even rashtrapati bhavan). (incidentally taj mahal is a fine example of inlay which is truly indian and not islamic. not a single inlay work like this is found in any muslim dominated countries or regions). certain other materialistic things like internet, automobile, cell phone are also cited. there seems to be a lot of confusion about what constitutes sanskriti. are the articles of daily use part of culture?. is the style of clothes part of culture? is the culinary habits part of culture? does eating pizza, and liking it, makeitalian culture as part of our so called composite culture. i have even seen ridiculous statements like bhartiya janta (meaning rss people and the like) should stop eating potatoes because they were native of america and not indigenous. by such childish arguments, the bhartiya sanskriti is defined by them and then ridiculed. in my view, it only shows pettiness of their intellect. even worse is the comment like ‘bjp leaders should not use aiims because it was constructed by nehru/ congress’. (mind you word used is ‘constructed’ not ’got constructed’).

the friend says that proportional representation of different communities is not to be disputed point. he believes that law applies equally to all. these points are disputable. it is obviously the failure of the constitution that all citizens are not treated equally. some sections have special provisions for them. it is one of the main grievances against the nehruvian secularism (incidentally secular word was not even in the original version of constitution and was surreptitiously introduced during the emergency). if we are one nation, then talking in terms of communities is objectionable. the equality can be only of opportunity and not of status or representation. enforced proportional representation is against the basic principles of human rights and violation thereof.

from here we will go over to defining culture. culture is best defined in the website asanet.org which says “sociology understands culture as the languages, customs, beliefs, rules, arts, knowledge, and collective identities and memories developed by members of all social groups that make their social environments meaningful”.

some salient points can be seen

1. all the social groups

2. collective identities and memories

3. make social environment meaningful

however, to really define culture, i would rather go to its nearest hindi equivalent sanskriti which is closely linked with sanskars. (some sanskrit and hindi words have no real equivalent word in english and sanskriti is one of them, hence the use of adjective ‘nearest’)

indonesia is presently the largest muslim dominated country with 23 crores muslims in a population of 24.5 crores. (pakistan has 19 crores and bangladesh 14 crores) . its airlines is named garuda. it has a sugriv university. their currency note has ganesha on it. explaining it, the minister said, “we have not changed our ancestors”. now that is collective identities and memories. their constitution has the first principle as “state guided by the almighty”. it would be recalled that when indonesians were struggling against the colonial rulers, there were three contending groups viz. the nationalists led by seokarno and hatta; communists ; and islamists led by tanmalaka. when the japanese constituted a committee to draw up plans for independence, the constitution was written. the islamists demanded that state be constituted in the name of allah. but this was not accepted because seokarno and hatta were of the view that all communities have to strive for independence. the word adopted was ‘almighty’. the word used in the constitution is ”tuhan”. this has laid down the polity of the nation. article 29 allows every citizen to have his religion according to his/ her tradition. there have been islamic movements but the country has stuck to its principles since 1945. (it may be mentioned that first amendment to indonesian constitution was in 1999-2000 after 44 years, because the original was rooted in sanskriti of the nation).

in describing sanskriti of bharat, why should there be a reference to indonesia. it is because, to my mind, the ideal. collective memories are important. no one will deny that india was, has always been, and is a land of spiritualism. it has been free of all prejudices against propagation of any faith. (it is forgotten that islam came to india not with mohammad bin qasim, the invader, but with the arab traders who visited kerala regularly and who were not persecuted). there has never been compulsion to change. led by the purely colonial set of mind by the english people, the basic spiritual atmosphere was sought to be vitiated. earlier during the muslim domination, it was sought to be disturbed by force but it did not work very significantly. in 1941, the muslim population was roughly 4 crores out of 32 crores, bulk of them in areas which were carved out as pakistan in 1947. 1951 population of pakistan was 7.5 crores while there were 3.7 crores muslims in india (roughly ten percent of total population). christanity was as unsuccessful in changing the demography. in 1951 there were just 80 lakhs christians in india (roughly 2.3 percent). the basic spiritual principles have been the constant factor in india and form the foundation on which its sanskriti is based. there is no conflict of languages unlike france which forced the adoption of parisian dialect to be the standard and the only version of french. we have lived by the saying “das los par paani badle, bees kos par vaani”.

over the course of history, many tribes with different customs have come in. bharat has accepted all of them and assimilated them. they were the rulers but the rulers changed their attitude to align with the bhartiya sanskriti. their gods were accepted as venerable. nothing was changed, in manipur, a king known as garib niwaz (original name meidingu pamheiba) adopted vaishnavism and also commanded the public to adopt it but lord sanamahi continues to be revered as a god. there have been campaigns to extend the samarajya by various kings and bloody battles were fought but the basic tenor of polity did not change. the villages, the general public was left undisturbed. this can also be said of the muslim rulers who considered it their religious duty to propagate their religion but were not averse to letting the social structure remain inviolate. so through the centuries, bhartiya sanskriti continued to flourish. it would also be noted that most of the muslims were converts from hindu and other faiths. it is not the place to describe the reasons for such conversion but it is the fact of life. these converts carried their sanskriti with them and that accounted for the continuity.

why has this discontinuity come in npw?

there are two reasons. unable to shake the entrenched sanskriti, the british rulers sought to denigrate the basic scriptures on which this was based. motivated translations were introduced omitting the essence of teaching and introducing misleading so called equivalents. with the introduction of western notions of education, the native traditions were sought to be overcome. unfortunately the western educated and western oriented leaders got hold of the freedom movement and, despite their lip service, did nothing to rejuvenate the nation. independence did not make any difference. the net result is creation of sizeable minority who swear by the political, social and cultural thoughts introduced by the erstwhile british rulers.

the salafist movement is another new factor which came in during the previous century. the basic reason is the discovery of vast amounts of crude oil in saudi arabia and nearby areas. flushed with easy unearned money, they had the option to upgrade the life style of their citizens but this did not appeal to them as the rulers thought it to be dangerous to the continuity of their own lifestyle. they chose the alternative of keeping them ignorant and under control. flushed with money, they then thought of exporting this fundamentalism to other countries which had a sizeable muslim population. this has worked against the absorption. the tablighi jamaat is an instance of this export of fundamentalism. the way to prevent is to ban this inflow of funds. it will be seen that none of these funds have been used for spread of education. no engineering or medical colleges or even primary schools are established with these funds because education can only mean lessening of influence of those who are in command. madrasas, which teach fundamentalism, are encouraged.

some persons have claimed to be atheists (others go by the nomenclature –rationalists). it does not conflict with the basic principles of sanskriti. in the famous shad darshan sangraha, chaarvaak is described as a rishi, not heretic, the original sankhya did not refer to ishwar as the creator. it is silent on the subject. buddha never gave opinion about it. mimansaks also did not include ishvar in their original darshan. not believing in ishvar is no disqualification for being a follower of bhartiya sanskriti. so far as rationalism is concerned, the indian history is dotted with reformers through the ages. the only difference was that this was done politely rather than aggressively. bhartiya sanskriti owes as much to these reformers as the original writers of precepts.

reference has been made to writing of golwalker, who wrote " ingrained in this soil is love and respect for all faiths and religious beliefs. he cannot be a son of this soil at all who is intolerant of other faiths."

why has india not been able to absorb muslim faith in its sanskriti is often a question asked. the answer is simple. muslims did not come in one wave, they came is successive waves over four hundred years. ( the raid of mohammad bin qasim is not counted as it had almost no effect on bhartiya sanskriti or even interaction with it being more of looting than propagation of faith). afgans, turks, mongols were the main incomers. the competing outsiders tried to better each other about propagation of their religion which, to their duplicity, they attributed their raids and rules. there was never a settled muslim domination and that is why they had no time to study and absorb the basic points of bhartiya sanskriti.

here i recall a post on the facebook by a muslim woman who says

“1. i am culturally a hindu.

2. hinduism is the only culture which is nature centric.

3. hinduism is the only culture that not just tolerates or accepts but celebrates different ideologies.

4. a hindu who truly understands hinduism is everyone's friend, flexible, rational, logical and lives his life to his/her best potential.

5. hindus are brave. they can tolerate differences.

6. hindus believe in sanatan dharm which is eternal and the only 'dharm' that talks about performance of duty/कर्तव्य पालन and does not endorse 'one specific' faith, book or way to approach god.

7. sanatan dharm has many vaads and celebrates all faiths which include एकेश्वरवाद i. e. believing in one god. that's why i call myself a sanatani muslim.

8. to sum it all, my dharm is sanatan, my faith/पंथ is islam and my culture is hindu.”

to my mind that is the ideal situation. it does not suit many who would like to give preferential treatment to one sect or other on some actual or imagined grounds. sometimes the talk is about backwardness. by all means remove it but you have to overcome the hindrances that are placed in the way by those whose mainstay of livelihood is to keep their flock backward.

very often references are made to composite culture – the ganga jamuna tahzeeb and similar phrases like unity in diversity. as i have pointed out earlier, these are not the part of sanskriti. the sanskriti of bharat has always welcomed new ideas. the constant churning of mind is always beneficial. for this reason, we had and have different darshans – advait, vashisht advait, dvait advait, not to mention sankhya, vaisheshika, yoga, mimansa, shaiva sidhant, shakta darshan and so on.

this brings up the question whether islam or christanity have brought in any new precepts which could enrich the bhartiya sanskriti. islamists say that they have brotherhood of mankind as their basic tenet. was it a new idea when our sanskriti has talked of vasudeva kutumbam. sanskriti is enriched when there is mutual exchange of ideas. did islam adopt any of the principles of the lands they ran over? did they absorb anything of zorashartism of persia? sufism is said to be the philosophical flowering of islam. sufis played an important role in the formation of muslim societies through their missionary and educational activities. but in a broad sense, sufism can only be described as the interiorization, and intensification of islamic faith and practice. they have not benefited from the ideas of the lands where they prospered. all of them derive their strength from the original tenets of islam. of late, the salafist movement (at the instance of saudi arabia – as described above) has almost blanked out the sufi movement leaving only the ritual of visiting the mazars. in india, the one particular idea absorbed is that of urs, with music including the qawwalies and the nats. on the other hand, to the bhartiya sanskriti they have not contributed anything.

likewise the christanity. they do not even have the façade of mysticism which sufis gave to islam. there is a simple procedure – believe in christ and forget about your past. of late they are a little subtle in their proselytisation. they copy the festivals of hindu and introduced christ and mary, even worshipping them. in that sense they have absorbed bhartiya sanskriti rather than contributing to it. they have adopted the education and health as their modes of propagation and they target the isolated groups like tribal’s. their success is because of a well knit organization which keeps strict control over the rituals. once again the inflow of money from foreign lands is what sustains them. some states passed laws saying that force, allurements, fraud, deceit will not be allowed in conversion. this was totally unacceptable to them thus admitting that these are the mainstay of their propagation. thanks to a weak and wobbling judicial system, they get away with these unethical practices. but to come back to the point under discussion, they have not made any contribution to flow of ideas. which could enrich bhartiya sanskriti.

sometimes a statement is made that we should absorb the good points of all the religions and propagate them. it is a noble idea since a society must always be open to new ideas. that shortcoming in this plea is that they fail to point out the specific good points they want to be followed. bhartiya sanskriti refers to ten points which should govern the conduct of the citizen. they are -

सत्य, अह्रिसा, ब्रह्मचर्य, अस्तेय, अपरिग्रह, शौच, संतोष, स्वाध्याय, तप, प्रार्थना,


we can examine what other points can be added from these religions. there is nothing from the ten commandments which is not already mentioned. besides that they have nothing to offer in terms of principles. from islam, may be zakaat, charity, can be added. though it is indirectly included in the bhartiya sanskriti.

the obvious conclusion is that bhartiya sanskriti is hindu sanskriti and nothing else. as mentioned above, sects may be different. they may be called hindu, islam, christanity, budhism but the sanskriti remains hindu. if the objection is to this word ‘hindu’, by all means call it bhartiya. let us swear by the bhartiya sanskriti with its ideals of tolerance, accommodation and universality.

a question was raised whether mosques, churches, gurudwaras are part of bhartiya sankriti. obviously the way we have described sanskriti where many modes of worships are allowed, the places where this worship is done are also part of bhartiya sanskriti. their architecture, their interiors are not material part of the sanskriti, or even of worship.

it is unfortunate that sometimes participation in political structure is confused with sanskriti. reference is made to “secular” constitution. i have opined elsewhere that constitution is just a manual for running the government. it is not a substitute for sanskriti. let the government be run as per constitution. let the life of the citizens be as per sanskriti and sanskars. if some parts of the constitution violate the principles of sanskriti, they should be removed or modified. let the constitution be confined to the structure of the state and should not go for the regulation of society. sanskriti should be the ultimate criterion for polity. there is nothing sacred about the constitution but sanskriti developed over the millenniums is sacred. let the government be impartial to all the sects (and i emphasize the word sects) and let bhartiya sanskriti have its sway over the land.

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