Rediscovering Indian Culture : The Imperatives of Progress

-Mr. M.S. Srinivasan, Senior Research Associate, Sri Aurobindo Institute of Research in Social Sciences, Sri Aurobindo Society, Puducherry, India.

Another key factor which has to be kept in mind is that culture, like any other human organism, is also capable of evolution and progress. The cultural vision of a nation can undergo expansion and enlargement, constantly enriched by new insights from the succeeding generations of seers, prophets and thinkers from within itself or from a cross-cultural fertilization. This fact applies not only to art, science, philosophy and literature but also to religion and spirituality.

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Spiritual experience and spiritual thought are also capable of progressive evolution in the form of new discoveries and revelations in the realm of the Spirit and new forms of creative self-expression and synthesis in spiritual thought. So the spiritual intuitions, revelations and discoveries of our modern seers like Sri Aurobindo, the Mother and Swami Vivekananda are also as much a part of our priceless cultural heritage as the revelations of our past seers. This is something which the orthodox exponent of Indian culture still refuses to acknowledge. He is ready to accept a new spiritual teaching if it does not cross the boundaries of the ancient teaching. He is also ready to accept innovations within these boundaries. But when the new revelations go beyond the ancient revelations and enter into unexplored vistas of the Spirit, he becomes suspicious and protests and complains. But is it wise to set such limits to the possibilities of the spiritual quest which is a quest for the Infinite? As Sri Aurobindo points out in one of his letters:

“Truly, this shocked reverence for the past is a wonderful and fearful thing! After all the Divine is infinite and the unrolling of the Truth may be an infinite process . . . not a thing in a nutshell cracked and its contents exhausted once for all by the first seer or sage, while the others must religiously crack the nutshell all over again, each tremblingly fearful not to give the lie to the ‘past’ seers and sages (Sri Aurobindo, Sri Aurobindo Birth Centenary Library (SABCL), Vol. 26, On Himself, Sri Aurobindo Ashram, Puducherry, p.135).

Swami Vivekananda also said something similar in one of his lectures:

“Is God’s book closed? Or is it still a continuous revelation going on? The Bible, the Vedas, the Quran and all other sacred books are but so many pages, and an infinite number of pages remain yet to be unfolded.  I would leave it open for all of them. We stand in the present but open ourselves to the infinite future. We take in all that has been in the past; enjoy the light of the present and open every window of the heart for all that will come in the future. Salutations to all the prophets of the past, great ones of the present and to all that are to come in the future (Swami Vivekananda, The Complete Works of Swami Vivekananda, Vol. 2, Adwaita, Ashrama, Mayavathi, p. 374).

The above inspiring words of Sri Aurobindo and Swami Vivekananda reveal the right attitude in dealing with the past and future of Indian Culture. Spirituality is the essence of our national genius: it is the “distinctive compe­tence” of our nation and the source of our national vitality. If the vitality of Western culture lies in its creative and progressive endeavour in secular sciences and the application of science to social progress, the vitality of Indian culture and civilization lies in its creative and progressive endeavour in spiritual science, thought and practice. The future of Indian civilization and culture depends on maintaining this creative and progressive attitude to our unique national genius and harnessing its potential for the progress and development of our own nation and humanity as a whole.

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Imparting Indian Culture : A Global Perspective – II

Continued from Part-I

The Inwardness of Indian Mind

How to convey this idea of Indian spirituality to the student of Indian Culture or to an audience? Perhaps through the second characteristics “inward looking” or inwardness. Inwardness means to live from within outwards both individually and collectively. Individually it means not to live in the surface physical, vital or intellectual being but in inner subliminal or spiritual mind or soul, which can intuitively see or feel or perceive the inner invisible realities behind the outer visible forms. Collectively it means to create a society based on psychologic and spiritual principles, which felicitates the inner psychological and spiritual development of the individual towards his spiritual destiny.

Every outer activity, even something mundane like economics, is the outer expression of some inner psychological needs or forces, and these psychological forces are in turn the expression of some cosmic and spiritual truth or forces. The Vedic social ideal is to make the whole collective life of man a conscious expression of these deeper and higher psychological, cosmic and spiritual forces. We may convey the idea of the spirit as the source and goal of this inwardness and spirituality as the quest for this deepest and innermost truth of the spirit in every activity of human life.

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In ancient India, philosophy for the sage and seer is the intellectual expression of his spiritual experience.  For others or for the collectivity, philosophy is a means for the intellectual being of the individual and the collectivity to receive, hold or assimilate the truth of the spirit as much as they can, with whatever limitations or imperfections. Religion in ancient India is the attempt to communicate the truth of the Spirit to the instinctive and emotional being of the masses through concrete symbols, images and legends.  Through philosophy and religion, the spiritual truths discovered by sages through spiritual experience were made accessible to the intellectual and emotional being of the community or in other words, we may say light of the spirit descends into the intellect and emotions. This may lead to much dilution of the spiritual truth, but at the same there is a greater diffusion of the truth of the spirit into the masses.

Towards a Balanced Approach

However the student of Indian Culture should not be given the impression that ancient Indian Culture is a total success or something perfect or complete. It was a great attempt to create a civilization based on a spiritual vision.  But the attempt was only a partial success with some glaring failures. It was a great success in religion, philosophy and culture. But in society and politics, the attempt broke-down and went astray somewhere in the middle. In society, Indian attempt achieved only what Sri Aurobindo describes as “half-aristocratic, half-theocratic feudalism” (Sri Aurobindo, Collected Works, Sri Aurobindo Ashram, Puducherry, SABCL, Vol.14, Foundations of Indian Culture Pg.335) with the caste system as its last result. In politics and government the attempt to govern politics by dharma couldn’t be sustained after the epical age. As Sri Aurobindo describes this attempt to govern outer life by Dharma –

“But the difficulty of making the social life an expression of man’s true self and some highest realization of the spirit within him is immensely greater than that which attends a spiritual self-expression through the things of the mind, religion, thought, art, literature, and while in these India reached extraordinary heights and largenesses, she could not in the outward life go beyond certain very partial realisations and very imperfect tentatives,—a general spiritualising symbolism, an infiltration of the greater aspiration, a certain cast given to the communal life, the creation of institutions favourable to the spiritual idea. Politics, society, economics are the natural field of the two first and grosser parts of human aim and conduct recognised in the Indian system, interest and hedonistic desire: Dharma, the higher law, has nowhere been brought more than partially into this outer side of life, and in politics to a very minimum extent; for the effort at governing political action by ethics is usually little more than a pretence” (Sri Aurobindo, Collected Works, Sri Aurobindo Ashram, Puducherry, SABCL, Vol.2 Karmayogin, Pg.210).

 The main aim of the political thought of Ramayana and Mahabharatha is to uplift politics to a higher level by harnessing it to the yoke of Dharma or in other words, dharmic elevation of the political life of the community. But in later ages Dharmic aims were subordinated to the practical and economic interests, Artha. This Indian term Dharma is a pregnant concept with a multidimensional significance. But in general we may define Dharma as the values, ideals or ways of living derived from the higher laws of life or Nature, which leads to the higher evolution of humanity in the mental, moral, aesthetic and spiritual domains of consciousness.

So while it is necessary to highlight our past achievements, the student should also be given a very unbiased and objective assessment of our past failures. In fact our emphasis should be neither on our past achievements nor our failures but on the future work to be done by India. The factors or causes behind our achievements and failures have to be brought out in such a way that it gives a clear direction to the future work to be done.

So our aim in the education of Indian culture should be not to create a narrow-minded and sentimental patriot, but someone who is imbued with the essential spirit and genius of India but at the same time with a broad global outlook which can understand and appreciate the greatness in other cultures.

-Mr. M.S. Srinivasan, Senior Research Associate, Sri Aurobindo Institute of Research in Social Sciences, Sri Aurobindo Society, Puducherry, India.

Imparting Indian Culture: A Global Perspective – I

-Mr. M.S. Srinivasan, Senior Research Associate, Sri Aurobindo Institute of Research in Social Sciences, Sri Aurobindo Society, Puducherry, India.

MS Srinivasan Profile PhotoThe main theme of his studies and research is to evolve an integral-spiritual approach to human development and its application to various fields of knowledge and activities of life with a dominant interest and focus on Management, Psychology, Social Sciences and Indian Culture. He is the editor of e-magazine in management published by SAFIM: Fourth Dimension Inc. Towards Integral Management.  His blog page: https://integralmusings.aurosociety.org & https://gnosticpsychology.aurosociety.org

Culture is the expression of the Mind and Soul of a Nation and the source of its true genius. A Nation can play its true role in the evolutionary progress of humanity only when it discovers its deeper Mind and Soul through an awakening of its cultural values and ideals. So, if India has to recover its greatness and fulfill its mission, there must be a widespread cultural awakening through education. However, culture should not become an instrument for promoting narrow-minded religious or cultural chauvinism. The culture of a Nation has to be understood in a global context of the evolutionary destiny of humanity as a whole.  This article examines some of the basic concepts and attitudes, which have to be inculcated in the mind of the learner to create such a deep and broad understanding and appreciation of Indian Culture in a global perspective.

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The Fundamentals of Indian Culture

What are the fundamental and unique features of Indian Culture?  Sri Aurobindo says, Indian Culture

“Has been a spiritual, an inward-looking, religio-philosophic culture.” (Sri Aurobindo (1972), Collected Works Vol. 14, Sri Aurobindo Ashram, Puducherry, CWSA.42, Pg. 335.)

 Here are the three essential characteristics of Indian Culture, the meaning of which has to be conveyed to the student.

The Spiritual Genius of India

India is well-known all over the world as a land of religion, philosophy and spirituality.  But not many has a clear perception of what is precisely the essence of Indian spirituality or the spiritual genius of India.  We will not enter into any detailed discussion on the rich and many-sided vistas of Indian spirituality.  But a student of Indian culture, must be awakened to the two most important and central aspects of Indian spirituality. The first one is the quest for a spiritual reality beyond Mind as the ultimate source of the Individual and the Universe and the highest goal of human life. Second is a scientific and experimental approach to the inner realization of this spiritual reality based on a deep understanding of psychology or a Science of Consciousness.  This predominantly scientific, psychological approach to spiritual growth is the essence of India yoga which is nothing but Applied Psychology.

Thus, the essence of Indian spirituality is the systematic application of a spiritual psychology for psychological and spiritual development of the individual, culminating in an inner union or identity with an eternal and infinite Reality beyond mind.

The driving spirit behind the secular enterprise of the modern West is the application of an externalized science, technology and organization for the progress and perfection of the outer life of man. The driving spirit of the Indian spiritual enterprise is the application of an inward-looking Science of Consciousness for the progress and perfection of the inner being of humanity. But these two endeavours of the East and West are not contradictory or mutually exclusive. They have to complement each other and ultimately fuse into a synthesis, which leads humanity towards its integral perfection. This is the future evolutionary enterprise in which India’s mission is to awaken and manifest the crucial and life-giving spiritual dimension in the individual a well as the collectivity. So in imparting Indian Culture, even while emphasizing the unique spiritual genius of India and its importance for the future evolution of humanity, it must be placed in a global perspective, so that admiration for the spiritual greatness of India does not lead to any disdain of or sense of superiority over other cultures.spirituality-word-cloud-concept-26405959

Spirituality, Religion and Philosophy : The Indian Equation

However, spirituality in ancient India, remained at the summit of the civilization, like a Sun in the sky, enveloping it like a luminous penumbra, infiltrating into the society in a more or less diluted form through religion and philosophy. But spirituality never took direct control of the society, sitting on thrones of power, life and action and ruling it, except perhaps for a brief period in the upanishadic age when most of the kings were yogis. So spirituality at the summits and religio-philosophic in the mass is the structure of Indian culture. But, in Indian Culture, Religion and Philosophy worked in tandem, mutually complementing each other, with religion illuminated by philosophy and the ideals of philosophy made dynamic and living by the disciplines and practice of religion. This brings us to some clarification regarding the terminology. Swami Vivekanada, makes no distinction between religion and spirituality and uses the term religion as the spiritual quest for the Divine. But Sri Aurobindo makes a distinction between religion and spirituality and regards religion as the external form of worship or expression like symbols or mythology. And spirituality, according to Sri Aurobindo, is the inner quest for an inner community with the divine Reality. This distinction has a practical validity because most people who belong to traditional religion do not go beyond external worship towards inner communion.  Moreover Religion in ancient India is not entirely outward and external. Most of the fundamental ideals and practices of Indian spirituality like for example indwelling divinity, unity of the divine, timeless transcendence of the Absolute, many paths to the divine, meditation, paths of yoga are incorporated into the religious system and communicated to the masses through epics, mythology, symbols, religious discourses and wandering teachers. As a result a pervasive and enduring religious, philosophical and spiritual temper was implanted in the consciousness of Indian masses.  Spirituality remained behind or at the top as a general inspiring influence.

It is perhaps for the future of India to create a truly and entirely spiritual civilization and culture.  In this higher spiritual culture, spirituality or spiritual consciousness will remain no longer behind as an inspiration and influence, acting through the higher mind, or religion or philosophy, but takes direct control of every activity of the society, giving a total spiritual direction to life, with spiritually illumined leaders appearing not only in religion or culture, but also in politics, business, economics, media and the masses.

to be continued…..

Rediscovering Rama (Part-II)

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Continued from Part-I

Even if, for the sake of argument, we do take into account the interpolation of the Uttara Kanda as part of the Ramayana, the story of Sita’s banishment cannot be read to be sexist or oppressive.  It is rather a tale of pathos, tragedy, and sympathy for the plight of both Sita and Rama.

Nowhere in the Ramayana do the main characters truly doubt Sita’s purity. What is being shown, however, is the fickleness of public perception, and the lesson being taught is the need to pay heed to the words and concerns of a king’s subjects, the duty to put the interests and desires of the subjects of one’s kingdom above the desires of the king and queen themselves. Lakshmana in many ways fills the role of everyman in the poem: his anger at the agni pariksha and banishment of Sita, his anger at Dasaratha for depriving Rama of his crown, his sense of despair when he must leave Sita at the forest, these are what we all feel upon reading the Ramayana.  This is indeed what the poet Valmiki intends us to feel.  The ability of Rama to, however, transcend these feelings, to put Dharma first, above his own heart and heartbreak—that is what makes him stand apart as the Maryada Puroshottam and what makes his reign forever hallowed as Rama Rajya.

Even in the worst moments of Uttara Kanda, the cruel, heartless Rama that others would have us believe hatefully cast away Sita simply does not exist.  There is a beautiful passage that describes the bliss shared by Sita and Rama during their time back in Ayodhya after Ravana was vanquished:

Rama and Sita would spend the second half of every day together in Rama’s Ashoka-grove, enjoying heavenly music and dance and partaking of gourmet food and intoxicating drinks.  It is said, Taking in his hand the pure nectar of flowers as intoxicating as the Maireyaka wine, Rama…made Sita drink it, just as Indra does Sachi…Seated in the company of the celebrated Sita, [Rama] shone with splendour like Vasishta seated along with Arundhati.  Rama, steeped in joy like gods, afforded delight thus day after day to…Sita, who resembled a divine damsel.’ (Srimad Valmiki-Ramayana (With Sanskrit Text and English Translation), Gita Press, Gorakhpur (Sixth Edition 2001), Book 7, Canto 42, Verses 19 and 24 (Volume 2, p. 819))

It is at such a moment that one day Sita informs Rama that she is pregnant.  Delighted at this revelation, Rama asks her to name a desire of hers that he will immediately fulfil.  Sita responds, O Raghava! I wish to visit the holy penance-groves and to stay, O Lord!, at the feet of sages…living on the banks of the Ganga … This is my greatest wish that I should stay even for one night in the penance-grove of those who live only on fruits and (edible) roots’ (Id., Verses 33-34, (Volume 2, p. 820).  Rama promises that she will be taken there for a visit the very next day.

Immediately afterwards, in the evening, Rama is informed by a spy of negative gossip surrounding Sita.  Rama is told that he is being rebuked by the people of Ayodhya as follows:  ‘Why does not Rama censure [Sita], who formerly had been forcibly carried away by Ravana? … Such conduct of our wives shall have to be suffered by us also, since whatever a king does, the subjects follow’ (Id., Canto 43, (Volume 2, p. 821).

When the gossip has been confirmed by others, Rama summons his brothers and tells them of the news.  He attests to his own certainty of Sita’s purity:  ‘To convince me Sita at that time entered the fire:  before you, O Lakshmana (son of Sumitra), Fire-god, the bearer of oblations to gods declared that Sita was free from sins, so also Vayu, who dwells in the sky, (so also) proclaimed the two—sun and moon, before the gods, Sita free from sins, before all the Rishis.  In Lanka, Sita, (Pure of conduct), has been handed over to me by Mahendra (the lord of gods), in the presence of the gods and the Gandharvas and my inner conscience bears testimony to her purity and nobility’ (Id., Canto 45, (Volume 2, p. 824).

However, it is the danger of infamy and the risk it poses to his ability to rule effectively that causes Rama to drive away Sita.  He tells his brothers, ‘O heroes among men, afraid of ill-report, I can even give up my life or all of you together, O bull among men, how much it is incumbent to leave Sita.  All of you see me submerged in the ocean of sorrow.  I do not see any greater misfortune than this’ (Id., Canto 45, Verses 13-16 (Volume 2, p. 825).

It is not doubt about Sita’s chastity that drives Rama towards this terrible deed but rather the dread realization that in order to safeguard his kingdom and his reputation among his subjects, he must go against what he knows to be true in the depths of his inner conscience.  The takeaway here is not that wives are easily discarded but rather the terrible price Dharma often exacts upon us, and more specifically, how beholden even the most powerful of kings are to the most humble of subjects.  It is after all in Rama Rajya that even a dog has a voice in court.  (Once, a dog appeared in Rama’s court to complain of being beaten by a man, and Rama duly gave the dog justice and punished the perpetrator).

One may also speculate that in accordance with the ancient principles of Garbhasamskar (prenatal education), Rama may have wanted to protect Sita from the distress of being surrounded by such poisonous rumours.  Stress and anxiety is not desirable during pregnancy, as every thought, feeling, emotion, action of the mother has tremendous impact on the child in the womb.  It may be that the ashram of Vasishtha was the best place for her during this part of Sita’s life and the best environment in which to raise Lava and Kusha to become the great heroes they grew up to be.

The Ramayana shows us that the king is beholden to the lowest of his subjects, even a crass, gossip-mongering person.  The cost of infamy, of earning a bad name before his subjects no matter how unfairly, is too dear to pay for a sovereign whose first duty must be to safeguard the interests of his kingdom and to preserve his reign.  A celebrated Sanskrit shloka proclaims, yatha bhumis tatha toyam, yatha bijam tathankurah / yatha deshas tatha bhasha, yatha raja tatha praja (As the land so the [ground] water; as the seed so the sprout; as the region [country] so the language; as the king so the people).  This is the entire theme of the Ramayana.  Rama must always hold himself to the highest standards, to be above reproach (even unfair reproach), to serve as the role model that the king is meant to be.

As  Sri Aurobindo advises in his writings on the Epics of India, while dealing with the human personality of Rama, one must take into account the  spirit  of his age and race:  I  consider myself  under  an obligation to enter into the  spirit,  significance, atmosphere  of  the Mahabharata, Iliad, Ramayana and  identify  myself with  their  time-spirit before I can feel what their heroes  were  in themselves apart from the details of their outer action’ (Volume: 22-23-24 [SABCL] (Letters on Yoga), 419).  It is of utmost importance that we must have a thorough knowledge of the yugadharma of the age of Ramayana and interpret the events accordingly.  We create needless confusion and conflicts when we interpret ancient texts in the context of present times and present yugadharma.  When interpreted in light of the yugadharma of the age of the Ramayana, it is clear that every action of Rama was flawless and he followed the maryada of the yugadharma.

Indeed, Rama’s life is meant to exemplify that of Maryada Purushottom.  He is the best among men who scrupulously observed and honoured the relevant ethics, customs and mores of the society in which he lived.  He is the one worthy of emulating—an ideal son, an ideal husband, an ideal brother, an ideal king, an ideal protector of Dharma, an ideal friend, who placed Dharma and honour above all else.  In this, Rama is different from Krishna.  Rama is Maryada Purushottom, whereas Krishna is the Sampoorna Avatar who often had to break the strictures of Dharma in order to protect Dharma.  Both are Vishnu, but their roles are different.  It is said that to approach Krishna, one must first worship and follow Rama.  Only then is one qualified to worship Krishna.

This is the worldview of Dharma that underpins Hindu thought and literature.  It is in stark contrast to Western individualistic romanticism that valorises the story of King Edward VIII of England who abdicated the throne in order to marry Wallis Simpson, an American divorcee.  In Hindu Dharma, a kingdom is not a toy or privilege to be thrown away at whim.  The totality of a king’s life must be devoted to his kingdom above all else; that is his svadharma that he must perform at all costs.

While the plight of Sita is truly terrible—she is perhaps Hinduism’s most famous and revered single mother—Rama is no less a victim.  He never takes another wife, so devoted is he to Sita.  Rather than take a second wife, he has an image of her constructed to be placed next to him during yajnas (because yajnas can only be performed by a man in the company of his wife).  Nor is his action in any way misogynistic.  It is not that Sita is badly treated because she is a woman and therefore inferior; in fact, later on in the Uttara Kanda, even Lakshmana is banished for the sake of preserving Rama’s honour and Dharma.  His entire life, Rama had to sacrifice that which was most beloved to him for the sake of Dharma—in order to protect his father’s word, he gave up the kingdom; similarly, when taking into account the Uttara Kanda, Rama has to sacrifice Sita and Lakshmana, those who were the closest to him.  As the Mahabharata instructs us, “For the sake of the family, the individual may have to be renounced; for the sake of the community, the family may have to be renounced; for the sake of the country, the community may have to be renounced; for the sake of the Self, the whole world may have to be renounced.”

My reading of the Valmiki Ramayana transformed my life.  I now turn to Rama for comfort, solace and peace, and always find it in his tender, compassionate gaze.  To know the love of Rama, simply chant the divinely powerful mantra, ‘Om Sri Ram, Jai Ram, Jai Jai Ram’.  This is one of the most powerful mantras, and the reason it is so often recited at the time of death is because of the ultimate peace it bestows upon the atman.

Do not just take my word for it.  Rediscover Rama on your own.  Dive into the ocean of the primary sources of the Ramayana.  It is a travesty that today the publication of our primary source texts and their authentic translations are languishing, while popular but unauthoritative interpretations or retellings are proliferating, leading to confusion and misperceptions of the truths of our shastras and Hindu tradition.  We must learn the Ramayana from the lips of Valmiki himself; the likes of Devdutt Pattanaik and Amish Tripathi cannot suffice or substitute.  We must go back to the source texts and traditions of Dharma to rediscover the glories of our Itihaasas and our deities.  With respect to Valmiki Ramayana, I would recommend the following as English sources (much better sources are available in Hindi and other vernacular languages; unfortunately, the choice in English is still rather limited): the Gita Press, Gorakhpur English translation of the unabridged text; the verse-by-verse translation provided on www.valmikiramayan.net; Kamala Subramaniam’s English translation (which although abridged is quite comprehensive) of the text; and Lectures on the Ramayana by V.S. Srinivasa Sastri.

– Ms. Aditi Banerjee, Board of Directors, World Association for Vedic Studies