[A Symposium on ‘Nation-building and Our Tasks‘ was held at the Ramakrishna Mission, New Delhi, in February 1954. Evolution of a National Culture is largely based on the learned speech delivered on that occasion by Dr. C. P Ramaswami Aiyer, till recently Member, Press Commission of India, and now Vice-Chancellor, Banaras Hindu University(in 1954). Published in the Prabuddha Bharata, Sep, 1954]
The word ‘culture’ has, especially recently, been so greatly used and abused that one does not really know what one is speaking about or is expected to dilate upon. I shall refer only, in passing, to the difficulty of deﬁning culture unless we fully appreciate the signiﬁcance of its universality and pervasiveness.
Not long ago, a great Western philosopher, speaking of the conditions in the West, spoke more or less in the following strain; that increasingly the meaning and value of life are getting to be obscured; the complacency, especially of the Western world, is receding; and people are getting more and more perplexed about what is the sum total of the meaning, the value, and the signiﬁcance of life. It is in the context or with the background of that reﬂection that the same philosopher went on to analyse the recent history of the Western world in comparison with the preceding epochs. He observed that in the medieval period, and up to almost the seventeenth century, in European history, there was a commanding purpose, and a meaning for civilization and or life; a reliance or dependence upon a definitive divine purpose in human life. That was succeeded in the following generation or epoch, the eighteenth century in European history, by what was called the age of reason, in age when doubt, questioning, inquiry, and constant investigation took the place of that abundant faith in a divine purpose which was the guiding principle of the preceding epoch. The nineteenth century—what was called the ‘Industrial Revolution Period’ — was a period of reliance upon industrial growth, upon the progress of manufacturing capacities for the purpose of solving human problems. At that time the quest was for economic progress. That age failed in its purpose because in its wake came a time when economic progress was equated with the misery of a large number of people who contributed to the so-called prosperity in the economic sphere. But the succeeding years questioned the wisdom of equating political with economic liberties. It was found that prosperity in the industrial and economic sphere, even though attended with political liberty or freedom, did not protect the underdog and there followed a search for freedoms, a freedom from fear and a reliance upon security. That period again has been succeeded by the present not very happy period of cold and colder wars and hot and hotter anticipations!
Now I may refer, at this juncture, to what culture really means and involves in this connection. It has been rightly pointed out that science means a curiosity about life, art means a wonder at life, philosophy means an attitude towards life, and religion means a reverence of life. Culture embraces and involves all these elements; it is a mixture of that never-ending curiosity towards the phenomena — physical, psychological, and spiritual, and the unceasing wonder and reverence at the ultimate facts of life. It is these things that make for culture. And then consider the etymological signiﬁcance of that word; culture is essentially connected with the word ‘cultivate’. How is a tree cultivated? How does it grow? It grows not in isolation; it requires the energizing properties of the soil and manure; it requires water; it requires the healing and curing capacities of the air. It is the result of a co-operative effort. And cultivation in the human sphere means the training of the body, of the mind, and of the spirit, conjointly and in a co-ordinated fashion, to view and to resolve the problems of the universe that confront man and woman.
Culture may thus be deﬁned as what life does for men and women, and what men and women do with their lives; that would be a not inapt deﬁnition of culture. Is there evolution in culture? Undoubtedly, yes. Let us take the history of this country. The culture that came with the Rig-Veda was a culture which meant certain things and it was added to, as the Aryans settled in India*, by contact with and assimilation of other elements, Greek, Arab, and Persian in the north, and Aryan, Dravidian, and aborigines in the south. It was a constant process of assimilation. Culture cannot be segregated or isolated. These contacts have also meant the development of culture. Evolution of culture in India has been one of the outstanding elements and characteristics of Indian life. What have those characteristics been? By and large, they may be divided into the contributions made by the Aryan, by the Dravidian, and by external sources. But whatever those sources were, whatever those contributions were, the genius of our culture has been its capacity to assimilate and to absorb.
It will be my aim here to present certain aspects of this culture, without going into great details as to whether the foreign or the indigenous source produced this or that particular character value of this culture. Look at its catholicity. Originally, the Vedas had insisted upon a certain attitude towards life and pronounced that great maxim: एकं सत् विप्रा बहुधा वदन्ति ।‘Truth is One; Sages call it variously’. Later on, there came other elements, elements typiﬁed and symbolized by the Upanishads. What did they stand for? Let me say, in passing, that the Upanishads were, largely, the contributions, not of the so-called priestly class, but of the Kshatriyas. As a matter of fact, the Upanishads made it clear that originally Brahma-vidya was the prerogative and the contribution of the Kshatriyas. That was one sign of tolerance and of assimilation. And it so happened that from time to time, whenever our culture weakened, there was some new contribution that was made to it, that made it stronger and more viable. Let me give one or two instances. There was a tendency toward formalism and ritual and the insistence on forms rather than the spirit. And thereupon came the contributions of two other cultures, the Buddhist and the ]ain. They were existing side by side, with the parent culture, but their inner spirit was assimilated and a new composite culture came into existence which embodied, assimilated, and combined the older and the newer cultures. When, for instance there was a period of doubt in oneself and sort of self-diffidence, there came the great saying: नायमात्मा बलहीनेन लभ्य: ।‘This Self is not to be attained by the weak’. What does this mean? It was a message which is especially typical of Indian culture, as it has developed through ages of triumphant progress. The supreme is attained not by the coward, not by the weak, but only by the strong. Abhayam, fearlessness, is the ﬁrst virtue enumerated by the Gita, basic to all other virtues and graces, Strength is the source of energy, i.e. strength of body ant then of mind. In the Taittiriya Upanishad we have the teaching: Let the student make himself ﬁrst strong in body, then let him make himself strong in mind through self-discipline and then revelation and realization will come to him. Strength of body, strength of mind, and strength of spirit are essential. The Supreme is to be attained not by excesses of asceticism or of over-emphasis on certain aspects or kind of life. ‘Not even by asceticism, if it be not one-pointed, can be attained’. When, after the Buddha period, there was a decadence in our life, there came a period, when action, knowledge and devotion had to be reconciled, as we taught in the Gita. The message of the Gita योगः कर्मसु कौशलं ।— i.e. that true Yoga true attainment, true culture, is efficiency in action — is an essential part of our culture.
It is wrongly claimed, in some quarters some friendly, some unfriendly, that our culture is a culture of quietism, it is a culture of dogmatism, it is a culture of defeatism. That is not true, because, wherever our great men have spoken or written, they have emphasized in distinct words the paramount necessity of work. Such exhortations were made many many times, but we have not always kept a steady eye on them. When Sri Krishna was asked by Arjuna on this very matter, he said: न कर्मणां अनारंभात् नैष्कर्म्यं पुरुषोऽश्नुते ।— i.e. A person, merely by being indolent, not doing his work, by merely following the policy of laissez-faire, cannot achieve any greatness. And that doctrine of work is an essential part of our culture.
Another aspect of our culture, which is not always borne in mind, is this: People say, the Hindu attitude towards life is one which, — in the language of one of our un- friendly critics, — makes the man and woman ﬁx their eyes on the tip of their noses or the navel, and to contemplate and dream away life, without purpose or without objectives. Such assuredly is not the case. In the greatest convocation address that has ever been delivered, as given to us in the Taittiriya Upanishad when the students take leave of their master, after having completed their years of instruction, the teacher says: धर्मान्न प्रमदितव्यं, कुशलान्न प्रमदितव्यं, स्वाध्यप्रवचनाभ्यां न प्रमदितव्यं ।— i.e. Don’t swerve from righteousness; don’t swerve from the pursuit of welfare, social and economic; don’t swerve from the pursuit and diffusion of knowledge. This certainly is not a negative, self-surrendering, self-nugatory attitude towards life.
Foreign invasions and many frustrations have made the country somewhat pessimistic. But there have always been cycles of resurgence in our national life. Our culture, let me assert and repeat, is a culture which depends upon the cultivation of the body, the mind, and the spirit; strength was of its essence. And that is why in the teaching of Yoga what is emphasized, initially and continuously, is the necessity to make the body strong as well as sound, believing, as our culture does, that without a strong body, there cannot be an energetic and active mind, and without a strong and energetic body and mind, there cannot be that true and concentrated aspiration towards the Supreme.
Our culture then is broad-based upon many fundamental principles. It is a culture of assimilation. Look at the music of the north, look at the racial assimilation of the south; it is an amalgam of many cultures. We have ever repelled the doctrine and advice of Polonius to Laertes in Hamlet. ‘Neither a borrower nor a lender be’. We have lent a great deal and we have made our borrowings our own; that faculty of assimilation of several cultures is a thing which is characteristic of our age-old culture and history. I would appeal, with all my strength, to my young friends to realize that in the future, as in the past, our culture is extensive as well as intensive, and thus will fulﬁl itself most thoroughly and profoundly. Let us keep to our original ideas of catholicity, of universality, and of reliance upon those doctrines of Rita, of Dharma, of Karma, the continuity of the never-ending panorama of life and existence, and the oneness of all life. Finally, if that culture also did not mean a fearless quest of truth, wherever and however it may be found, our culture would not be what it is. The evolution of our national culture in the future will depend upon the maintenance of those qualities, upon the adherence to those principles, which, in the past, preserved us as an integrated whole, and preserved us amidst the many cataclysms that the world has suffered.
*Editor’s note: The Aryan Invasion Theory has been dismissed by many scholars worldwide as a colonial-supremacy theory.
Chetpat Pattabhirama Ramaswami Iyer, KCSI, KCIE (12 November 1879 – 26 September 1966), also called “C. P.”, was an Indian lawyer, administrator and politician who served as the Advocate-General of Madras Presidency from 1920 to 1923, Law member of the Executive council of the Governor of Madras from 1923 to 1928, Law member of the Executive Council of the Viceroy of India from 1931 to 1936 and the Diwan of Travancore from 1936 to 1947.
Ramaswami Iyer was born in 1879 in Madras city and studied at Wesley College High School and Presidency College, Madras before qualifying as a lawyer from the Madras Law College. He practised as a lawyer in Madras and succeeded S. Srinivasa Iyengar as the Advocate-General of the Madras Presidency. He subsequently served as the Law member of the Governor of Madras and the Viceroy of India before being appointed Diwan of Travancore in 1936.
Ramaswami Iyer served as Diwan from 1936 to 1947; during his tenure, many social and administrative reforms were made. In his later life he served in numerous international organisations and on the board of several Indian universities, including the Benaras Hindu University.