Indian culture and Hinduism
Indian culture has been from the beginning and has remained a spiritual, an inward-looking religio-philosophical culture. Everything else in it has derived from that one central and original peculiarity or has been in some way dependent on it or subordinate to it; even external life has been subjected to the inward look of the spirit. 1.
It is this inward-looking religio-philosophical culture which goes by the name of Hinduism.
However, in modern times, both in India and abroad, it is under severe attack and is often branded as communal, narrow and reactionary.
Let us therefore take a close look at the true and deeper meaning of Hinduism; we will then be in a position to make a sound judgment and then follow it up by making the necessary corrections and remove all the misunderstandings, genuine and deliberate that have recently cropped up.
In one of his letters, Sri Aurobindo writes:
Hindu culture is not such a weak and fluffy thing as to be easily stamped out; it has lasted through something like five millenniums and is going to carry on much longer and has quite enough power to survive. 2
From where does this power to survive emanate? Wherein lies the secret strength that has enabled it to last so long and is even now considered by many enlightened persons both in India and abroad as a powerful instrument for the betterment of human life?
To understand this phenomenon of survival, let us cast a quick look at the history of civilizations and cultures. We see that all civilizations go through the cycle of birth, growth and death. As a matter of fact, most of the ancient civilizations have not survived and some have disappeared. This phenomenon has been explained succinctly by Sri Aurobindo in the following extract:
“A people, a great human collectivity, is in fact an organic living being with a collective or rather—for the word collective is too mechanical to be true to the inner reality—a common or communal soul, mind and body. The life of the society like the physical life of the individual human being passes through a cycle of birth, growth, youth, ripeness and decline, and if this last stage goes far enough without any arrest of its course towards decadence, it may perish,—even so all the older peoples and nations except India and China perished,—as a man dies of old age. But the collective being has too the capacity of renewing itself, of a recovery and a new cycle. For in each people there is a soul idea or life idea at work, less mortal than its body, and if this idea is itself sufficiently powerful, large and force-giving and the people sufficiently strong, vital and plastic in mind and temperament to combine stability with a constant enlargement or new application of the power of the soul idea or life idea in its being, it may pass through many such cycles before it comes to a final exhaustion. Moreover, the idea is itself only the principle of soul manifestation of the communal being and each communal soul again a manifestation and vehicle of the greater eternal spirit that expresses itself in Time and on earth is seeking, as it were, its own fullness in humanity through the vicissitudes of the human cycles. A people then which learns to live consciously not solely in its physical and outward life, not even only in that and the power of the life idea or soul idea that governs the changes of its development and is the key to its psychology and temperament, but in the soul and spirit behind, may not at all exhaust itself, may not end by disappearance or a dissolution or a fusion into others or have to give place to a new race and people, but having itself fused into its life many original smaller societies and attained to its maximum natural growth pass without death through many renascences. And even if at any time it appears to be on the point of absolute exhaustion and dissolution, it may recover by the force of the spirit and begin another and perhaps a more glorious cycle. The history of India has been that of the life of such a people”.3.
The decline of Indian culture
However, sometime in the middle of the 19th century, it seemed and was thought by many historians and observers that India was at the point of dissolution. The society was steeped in superstition, manacled by primitive customs, and it seemed that the sense of community had all but vanished. The country was facing a crisis of immense proportions. The situation was similar to what India faced in the 14th century. At that time, the question was the continuity of India’s life – whether her separate identity in culture, social organization, religion and thought would be maintained or whether she would be merged in the expanding commonwealth of Islam. Then, India was saved by the spiritual revival of the 14th and 15th centuries. This time the question was different – it was not the continuance of the Hindu culture. Rather, the problem facing India now was the confrontation of a superior, expanding and highly dynamic civilization with an old, static and as it appeared decaying culture. Here was a civilization, which was convinced not only of its own incomparable greatness, economic strength, and technological and scientific superiority but was moved by a firm belief that the form of life it represented was the final one to which all others must conform. Along with this there was another problem that confronted Indian culture – it was the relationship of Hinduism with Islam and the problem of their coexistence in the new circumstances under the domination of a people alien to both. It was at this critical moment that the Indian renaissance began and this was essentially due to the manner in which Hinduism reacted to the foreign domination. This reaction, which first started in Bengal, spread to all other parts of the country and included all the fields of culture. The sole exception was in the political field; for, till the end of the nineteenth century, British rule was accepted as a beneficent development. Raja Rammohan Roy publicly thanked God for having placed India under the British rule. Prasanna Kumar Tagore declared: “If we were asked what government we would prefer, English or any other, we would one and all reply English by all means, even in preference to a Hindu government”.
However that might be, India recovered its strength and consequently in 1947 India attained independence and formed its own government. We shall not go into the political developments that took place since then. Suffice it to say that for the last 40 years or more, the country has been badly divided between the so called secularists and those who are called the communalists. This division which has taken an acute form today and is creating serious political divisions in the country is not a new phenomenon. It was there right from the beginning of the twentieth century and was the root cause for the creation of Pakistan.
The creation of Pakistan has only intensified this unfortunate division within India. It now manifests itself as the clash between the force of secularism and the force of pseudo-secularism. This latter force has been branded as communal and is supposed to be represented by the ideology of Hindutva.
The aim of this article is to show that this clash is based on a misunderstanding between these two apparently opposing forces. This misunderstanding is in some cases based on ignorance and often on deliberate misinformation due to political reasons.
In this article we are not concerned with the political aspect of the problem; we shall try to get to the true meaning of Hinduism and try to dispel the ignorance that is so rampant in India and abroad. We shall then see that there is no incompatibility between the forces of secularism and Hinduism; on the contrary they complement each other. It should then possible to create a harmonious and unified political atmosphere in the country.
We have seen earlier in this article that a people and culture which learns to live consciously not solely in its physical and outward life, but in the soul and spirit behind,may not at all exhaust itself. Another point that must be noted is that India is what it is today because of Hinduism. As noted earlier, Indian culture is largely Hindu culture. In the early part of the twentieth century Sri Aurobindo wrote:
Our ideal therefore is an Indian Nationalism, largely Hindu in its spirit and traditions, because the Hindu made the land and the people and persists by the greatness of his past, his civilization and his culture and his invincible virility, in holding it, but wide enough also to include the Moslem and his culture and traditions and absorb them into itself”.4.
This is the line we must pursue and in order to do that we must first be clear as to what we mean and understand by Hinduism; we must be able to distinguish the permanent element in Hindu culture and those elements that need to change. As Sri Aurobindo wrote in the earlier part of the twentieth century:
“There is behind our imperfect cultural figures a permanent spirit to which we must cling and which will remain permanent even hereafter; there are certain fundamental motives or essential idea-forces which cannot be thrown aside, because they are part of the vital principle of our being and of the aim of Nature in us, our svadharma. But these motives, these idea-forces are, whether for nation or for humanity as a whole, few and simple in their essence and capable of an application always varying and progressive. The rest belongs to the less internal layers of our being and must undergo the changing pressure and satisfy the forward-moving demands of the Time-Spirit. There is this permanent spirit in things and there is this persistent swadharma or law of our nature; but there is too a less binding system of laws of successive formulation,—rhythms of the spirit, forms, turns, habits of the nature, and these endure the mutations of the ages, yugadharma. The race must obey this double principle of persistence and mutation or bear the penalty of a decay and deterioration that may attaint even its living centre”. 5.
Let us therefore try to disengage the fundamentals that make up the permanent spirit of Hinduism; next we shall try to see those lesser binding system of laws that belong to the external layers.
What then are the fundamentals of Hinduism? If we are asked, “But after all what is Hinduism, what does it teach, what are its fundamentals and what does it practise, we can answer that it is founded upon a few basic ideas or rather fundamentals of a highest and widest spiritual experience.
1. First comes the idea of the One Existence of the Veda to whom sages give different names, the One without a second of the Upanishads, the Permanent of the Buddhists, the Absolute of the Illusionists, the supreme God of the Theists whether it be Vishnu, Shiva, Christ or Allah ,—in a word the Eternal, the Infinite.
2. The second characteristic feature of Hinduism is that the highest aim of life and spiritual experience is to discover this Infinite and enter into some kind or degree of unity with the Eternal. To arrive at this unity there are many paths and disciplines.
3. The third feature is that there are manifold way of man’s approach to the Eternal and Infinite.
One can follow this great spiritual aim by one of the thousand paths recognized or even any new path which branches off from them and you are at the core of the religion. Thus it respects all religions and approaches to the Highest.
The next point to note is that Hinduism did not fix a gulf between the highest supreme Existence and our external and material way of being, it. It was aware that there were other psychological planes of consciousness and experience in between and the truths of these planes were as real and tangible to it as the outward truths of the material universe.
Each man approached God at first according to his psychological nature svabhava, adhikara and gradually increased his capacity for deeper experience. The level of Truth, the plane of consciousness he could reach was determined by his inner evolutionary stage. There follows the great variety of religious cult; but these are not imaginary structures, inventions of priests or poets, but truths of a supraphysical existence linking the physical world and the supreme consciousness of the Absolute. And here in the limitations of the cosmos, God manifests himself and fulfils himself in the world in many ways, but each is the way of the Eternal. This is the reason why there are so many gods and diverse forms of worship in the Hindu religion.
We have here two fundamental principles of Hinduism: the principle of diverse approaches to the Divine and the principle of graduality, which means that each man grows according to his nature and stage of development.
The final idea of strongest consequence at the base of Indian religion is the most dynamic for the inner spiritual life. It is that while the Supreme or the Divine can be approached through a universal consciousness, He can be met by each individual soul in itself, in its own spiritual part, in the heart, because there is something in it that is intimately one and intimately related with the one divine Existence.
The essence of Hinduism is to aim at so growing and so living that we can grow out of the Ignorance which veils this self-knowledge from our mind and life and become aware of the Divinity within us.
These things put together are the whole of Hindu religion, its essential sense and, if any credo is needed, its credo.
Once we have seen these fundamentals and grasped them clearly, it becomes evident that Hinduism is wide, tolerant and more important represents the true practice of secularism. There is really no opposition between true secularism and Hinduism.
The external layers
We shall now identify those elements which belong to the less internal layers, and then see how they can be changed, adapted and even removed where necessary to suit the new conditions of the modern world and its values. And all this has to be done without compromising on the fundamental values.
As an example, let us take the fourfold caste system. There is no doubt that the caste system as it is practiced now is a great obstacle to human progress and an insult to human values. However, whatever the degradation that has taken place today, it cannot be denied that it was a fine system in the earlier times. In the words of Sri Aurobindo:
“it was a well-devised and necessary scheme in its time; it gave the community the firm and nobly built stability it needed for the security of its cultural development,—a stability hardly paralleled in any other culture. And, as interpreted by the Indian genius, it became a greater thing than a mere outward economic, political and social mechanism intended to serve the needs and convenience of the collective life”. 6.
And once more in the words of Sri Aurobindo: “this profoundly conceived cycle gave a scheme which kept the full course of the human spirit in its view; it could be taken advantage of by all according to their actual growth and in its fullness by those who were sufficiently developed in their present birth to complete the circle. On this first firm and noble basis Indian civilisation grew to its maturity and became a thing rich, splendid and unique. While it filled the view with the last mountain prospect of a supreme spiritual elevation, it did not neglect the life of the levels. It lived between the busy life of the city and village, the freedom and seclusion of the forest and the last overarching illimitable ether. 7.
However, with the passage of time, this great institution became degraded and lost it inner meaning. In the words of Sri Aurobindo: “Apart from all phenomena of decline or deterioration, we should recognise without any sophistical denial those things in our creeds of life and social institutions which are in themselves mistaken and some of them indefensible, things weakening to our national life, degrading to our civilisation, dishonouring to our culture. A flagrant example can be found in the treatment of our outcastes. There are those who would excuse it as an unavoidable error in the circumstances of the past; there are others who contend that it was the best possible solution then available. There are still others who would justify it and, with whatever modifications, prolong it as necessary to our social synthesis. The contention is highly disputable. The excuse was there, but it is no justification for continuance. A solution which condemns by segregation one sixth of the nation to permanent ignominy, continued filth, uncleanliness of the inner and outer life and a brutal animal existence instead of lifting them out of it is no solution but rather an acceptance of weakness and a constant wound to the social body and to its collective spiritual, intellectual, moral and material welfare. A social synthesis which can only live by making a permanent rule of the degradation of our fellowmen and countrymen stands condemned and foredoomed to decay and disturbance. The evil effects may be kept under for a long time and work only by the subtler unobserved action of the law of Karma; but once the light of Truth is let in on these dark spots, to perpetuate them is to maintain a seed of disruption and ruin our chances of eventual survival”.8.
Similarly, we can take the example of the place of the woman in society. In ancient India during the Vedic times, man and woman were equal. One example is that there were a large number of Rishipatnis who had the same stature as the Rishis. But in the course of time there has been a general degradation. We now have to bring back the old glory where man and woman will be given their full rights to grow according to their own inner nature, their swadharma.
We can apply this principle to many other external rituals of Hinduism. We should however be careful in tackling these externals of Indian religion. The reason is that for most human beings, rituals and some form of external worship is indispensable. This is beautifully explained in the following words of Sri Aurobindo:
“The highest spirituality indeed moves in a free and wide air far above that lower stage of seeking which is governed by religious form and dogma; it does not easily bear their limitations and, even when it admits, it transcends them; it lives in an experience which to the formal religious mind is unintelligible. But man does not arrive immediately at that highest inner elevation and, if it were demanded from him at once, he would never arrive there. At first he needs lower supports and stages of ascent; he asks for some scaffolding of dogma, worship, image, sign, form, symbol, some indulgence and permission of mixed half-natural motive on which he can stand while he builds up in him the temple of the spirit. Only when the temple is completed, can the supports be removed, the scaffolding disappear.
The religious culture which now goes by the name of Hinduism not only fulfilled this purpose, but, unlike certain credal religions, it knew its purpose. It gave itself no name, because it set itself no sectarian limits; it claimed no universal adhesion, asserted no sole infallible dogma, set up no single narrow path or gate of salvation; it was less a creed or cult than a continuously enlarging tradition of the Godward endeavour of the human spirit. An immense many-sided many-staged provision for a spiritual self-building and self-finding, it had some right to speak of itself by the only name it knew, the eternal religion, sanatana dharma. It is only if we have a just and right appreciation of this sense and spirit of Indian religion that we can come to an understanding of the true sense and spirit of Indian culture”. 9.
Therefore while making any changes we must not remove the scaffolding; whatever changes are made should adjust to the modern values without touching the inner core.
Future of Hinduism
The final task that Hinduism has to fulfill is to bring spirituality into life itself. If Hinduism has to fulfill its true role in the renaissance of India, in the rebirth of the soul of India, it must insist much more finally and integrally than it has as yet done on its spiritual turn, on the greater and greater action of the spiritual motive in every sphere of our living. This does not mean eliminating religion; it simply means graduating from religion into spirituality.
When one studies the history of Hinduism, one will note that it has passed through two complete external stages; while a third has taken its initial steps and is the destiny of her future.
The early Vedic was the first stage: then religion took its outward formal stand on the natural approach of the physical mind of man to the Godhead in the universe, but the initiates guarded the sacrificial fire of a greater spiritual truth behind the form.
The Purano-Tantric was the second stage: then religion took its outward formal stand on the first deeper approaches of man’s inner mind and life to the Divine in the universe, but a greater initiation opened the way to a far more intimate truth and pushed towards an inner living of the spiritual life in all its profundity and in all the infinite possibilities of an uttermost sublime experience.
There has been long in preparation a third stage which belongs to the future. This movement of the Indian spiritual mind has a double impulse. Its will is to call the community of men, each according to his power to live in the greatest light of all and found their whole life on some fully revealed power and truth of the Spirit. But it has had too at times a highest vision which sees the possibility not only of an ascent towards the Eternal but of a descent of the Divine Consciousness and a change of human into divine nature. A perception of the divinity hidden man has been its crowning force. This is a turn that cannot be rightly understood in the ideas or language of the European religious reformer or his imitators. It is not what the purist of the reason or the purist of the spirit imagines it to be and by that too hasty imagination falls short in his endeavour. Its index vision is pointed to a truth that exceeds the human mind and, if at all realised in his members, would turn human life into a divine super-life. And not until this third largest sweep of the spiritual evolution has come into its own, can Indian civilization be said to have discharged its mission, to have spoken its last word and be functus officio, crowned and complete in its office of mediation between the life of man and the spirit.
Here is an extract from the Mother pointing to the direction that India should take:
The division between “ordinary life and “spiritual” life is an outdated antiquity. All human beings have it in their minds, the division between leading a spiritual life and leading an ordinary life, having a spiritual consciousness and an ordinary consciousness – it is not true , there is only one consciousness. If an opposition is still needed, we can have the opposition between truth and falsehood. For in all things, falsehood and truth are mixed everywhere. It would be better not to make any divisions .10.
Finally, a reminder to the Indian government that by following certain tempting directions she may conceivably become a nation like many others evolving an opulent industry and commerce, a powerful organisation of social and political life, an immense military strength, practising power-politics with a high degree of success, guarding and extending zealously her gains and her interests, dominating even a large part of the world, but in this apparently magnificent progression forfeiting its Swadharma, losing its soul. Then ancient India and her spirit might disappear altogether and we would have only one more nation like the others and that would be a real gain neither to the world nor to us. It would be a tragic irony of fate if India were to throw away her spiritual heritage at the very moment when in the rest of the world there is more and more a turning towards her for spiritual help and a saving Light. This must not and will surely not happen; but it cannot be said that the danger is not there. 11
1. The Complete Works of Sri Aurobindo, Vol 20 p 108
2. Sri Aurobindo Birth Centenary Library, Vol 26 p 168
3. The Complete Works of Sri Aurobindo, Vol 20 p 396
4. The Complete Works of Sri Aurobindo, Vol 8 p 307
5. The Complete Works of Sri Aurobindo, Vol 20 p 86
6. The Complete Works of Sri Aurobindo, Vol 20 p 172
7. The Complete Works of Sri Aurobindo, Vol 20 p 175
8. The Complete Works of Sri Aurobindo, Vol 20 p 89-90
9. The Complete Works of Sri Aurobindo, Vol 20 p p179
10. Extract from Complete Works of the Mother
11. Sri Aurobindo Birth Centenary Library, Vol 26 p 412