Tuesday, 26 August 2014

Is it Really the Culture? (No to Generalization, Yes to Grounded-ness)

I am inspired to write this post in response to Rachna's post - Culture, Really? I am, however, not responding to any specific observations she makes in her post, but rather sharing my opinion and understanding about the larger issue, as I see it.

For some reason I find it quite troublesome when people confuse culture with some particular social behavioural pattern of individuals or small groups of people in a society.

To illustrate, I take the same example as Rachna about forming a queue.

Some Indians don't value the purpose of waiting in queue when they have to get their work done, say, in a bank or a government office or anywhere else. Not only that, when there are many people waiting to get their work done, some of them may not hesitate to shove and push their way through. This is by no means a general or generalizable observation. But we have all seen such behaviour, haven't we?

At the same time we have all seen (or at least I have seen) plenty of Indians in various contexts — government offices, banks, shopping mall, department stores, religious ceremonies, ashrams, charitable organizations, hospitals, doctors’ clinics, and many other situations — patiently waiting for their turn in queue. Not only that, we have perhaps all come across situations (or at least I have) when people have let some total stranger to stand before them in the queue because they were in a greater hurry or were senior citizens or some other factor. Such kindness is also quite commonly seen in Indian collective settings.

Both realities exist, simultaneously. Is one pattern a greater representative of Indian society than the other?

Somehow in my observation, those who don't prefer this queue business or those who go out of their turn in the queue are generally those who feel they are entitled to some special preference. And this sense of entitlement can come because of some real or perceived social or economic status they have assigned to themselves. What leads to such a sense of entitlement? This is a matter of individual/social behavioural psychology, not necessarily a characteristic of a culture.

Another possible reason why some people don't mind pushing or shoving to get their work done, at any cost, could be simply that they don't want to wait or they don't have time to wait for their turn. Or they may somewhat wrongly assume that only their time is precious, and other people waiting there have somehow more than 24 hours in a day. Or that only their work is important and others' works don't matter. What leads to such misguided assumptions? This is again a matter of individual/social behavioural psychology, not necessarily a characteristic of a culture.

Social behaviour is the result of many factors including but not limited to: individual and collective levels of literacy and general education in civic or collective life, the environment of upbringing, the sheer size of population (not to mention the mind-boggling diversity on all possible indicators that a census bureau can ever imagine), the extremely fast pace and mind-less nature of urbanization, the overall efficiency and effectiveness of the systems and organizations, and many others.

But the larger issue here is how we understand a culture. Culture is not social behaviour, culture is something much, much deeper.

In an earlier post, I shared the following definition of culture, given by Sri Aurobindo, the great Mahayogi of 20th century, who was also the pioneering Integral seer encompassing the completeness of everything in his spiritual realizations, and expressing the implications of this integral truth through all the possible domains of intellectual activity ranging from philosophy, sociology, cultural study, education, literature, poetry, arts, politics, everything.

Culture, according to Sri Aurobindo, is an expression of a consciousness of life which formulates itself in three aspects:
- Thought, ideal, upward will and soul's aspiration (philosophy, higher thinking, religion) - this is the SOUL of a culture
- Creative self-expression and appreciative aesthesis, intelligence and imagination (art, poetry, literature) - this is the MIND of a culture
- Practical and outward formulation (social-political-economic structures) - this is the BODY of a culture
Culture is about collective life. But it is also about individual life. It is important to understand that the Indian view of society or any collective group is same as her view of an individual.

In the Indian view, an individual is first and foremost a soul, a portion of the Divinity, a conscious manifestation in Nature of the universal self and spirit. This individual self or soul is enwrapped in mind and body. Mind and body in this view are important not because of themselves, but because they are the outer coverings and instruments of the true being inside, the soul.

In a way, this spiritual view of reality assigns much greater importance to the upkeep of mind and body, but the reason assigned for this upkeep and care is different from a materialistic view which altogether denies the existence of anything invisible like soul. (It is also important to understand that the soul is not simply deeper emotions, deeper thoughts, or a very high intellectualism or emotionalism. However, that is not a discussion meant for this post.)

Similarly, according to the Indian view, a society too has a group-soul which manifests or expresses itself through its outer formulations of group-mind and group-body.

According to the Indian view of things, when we want to understand a culture, including and perhaps especially our own culture, we should look at all its three aspects and the harmony among them. We should first aim to grasp how the soul of a people, their highest aspiration and thought are expressed through the best efforts and accomplishments of their collective minds and imagination, and through the outer forms, societal systems, organizations and structures of society.

It is true that in India for the last several centuries the outer BODY has suffered many serious damages and blows, an unbiased reading of India's history for the last 1000 years or so would reveal that. Some of these blows have been so severe that they left strong impact on the MIND too, and we are still suffering from those.

But there is something deep inside the SOUL of Indian culture which has time and found a way to exert its influence and revive the almost-hidden spirit of India. This revival hasn't been fully, or in some cases even partially, expressed in the outer body or even the collective mind of India. But to say that no change is seen in the outer form would also not be true. India's way, however, has always been — inner first, outer next. Only when the inner spirit is truly newly and harmoniously organized, the outer forms will begin to change and organize themselves. Only when the inner shines forth, the outer will renew itself.

Some of the outwardly chaotic and disorganized societal behaviour patterns that we see today are nothing more but a projection of the badly damaged and partly-revived outer BODY of the Indian spirit.

A study of inner history of India reveals that the deeper, truer Indian view of life which values the outer life because of it being the support, the base, the aadhar of the inner, truer life, suffered a serious setback when a certain spiritual truth of 'Illusionism' (Mayavaad - all world is Maya, so why bother with it) took hold of the Indian psyche. This led to much neglect of the outer life and became an important factor for the decline of Indian civilization. The outer historical events of frequent invasions and conquests that happened concurrently or subsequently added much to the ongoing decline, resulting in a severe damage to the Indian body and mind.

It is also true that in some other parts of the world we see examples of much more organized outer life. We also find there highly efficient systems in place that work almost automatically and make the day-to-day lives of citizens easy and convenient. This could be because of various historical reasons. And this could also be because the cultural view of life in these societies has perhaps put greater emphasis on the outer life of individuals and groups. Outer organization has outweighed the inner organization of life in these other societies. This is merely to point out a difference, not to place any value judgment. In a way, this diversity of views of life is what makes the life of humanity richer and allows for a richer and multifaceted manifestation of that One Eternal Life that is behind all life.

Certainly, the truly Indian way would be to learn these best practices from elsewhere on how to organize outer life, and to make the best possible use of them to revive the Indian outer body. But this must not be done at the cost of enslaving Indian mind and psyche to such 'borrowed' forms. Instead the outer forms must be adopted to the inner truth of Indian mind and spirit. That would be a true Indian revival.
India’s ancient and mediaeval political, administrative, military and economic organisation was no mean achievement; the records stand and can be left to contradict the ignorance of the uninstructed and the rhetoric of the journalistic critic or the interested politician. There was no doubt an element of failure and defect, almost unavoidable in the totality of a problem on so large a scale and in the then conditions. But to exaggerate that into a count against her civilisation would be a singular severity of criticism which few civilisations watched to their end could survive. Failure in the end, yes, because of the decline of her culture, but not as a result of its most valuable elements. A later eclipse of the more essential elements of her civilisation is not a disproof of their original value. Indian civilisation must be judged mainly by the culture and greatness of its millenniums, not by the ignorance and weakness of a few centuries. A culture must be judged, first by its essential spirit, then by its best accomplishment and, lastly, by its power of survival, renovation and adaptation to new phases of the permanent needs of the race. In the poverty, confusion and disorganisation of a period of temporary decline, the eye of the hostile witness refuses to see or to recognise the saving soul of good which still keeps this civilisation alive and promises a strong and vivid return to the greatness of its permanent ideal.
~ Sri Aurobindo, CWSA, Volume 20, p. 120 

One final point. But an important one. Many serious problems exist in many parts of the world. Many materially rich and so-called developed societies face the challenges of increasing violent crimes, racial hatred, excessive drug-abuse, neglect of children and the aged, and many many more. The Indian educated class, which generally likes to have an opinion on everything under the sun (and its opinions are primarily formed by others' opinions which are accessed through mass media and its cousin social media), doesn't rush to generalize and say that there is something wrong with these cultures because such things happen there. Why? Because the powerful opinion-makers and commentators keep reminding the Indian educated class (through mass media and its cousin social media) that these problems are not truly representative of the deeper merit or value of those 'other' cultures.

Let me be more blunt.

Have you heard an American opinion-maker cry "something is wrong with American culture" anytime a schoolkid takes a loaded gun to the school and starts shooting his peers and teachers? The commentators find fault with the gun-ownership law, the gun lobby, the school security systems, the parenting style, the profession of psychiatry, medical community, everything. But not with American culture. Maybe they should. I don't know. But in India, somehow we are so quick to criticize our culture for all the problems in Indian society.

A healthy self-critique is a good thing. But it shouldn't be at the cost of a healthy self-appraisal of our cultural strengths and merits. Why can't we see our own problems in the same 'rational' way? Why do we have to jump to a hasty and often ill-formed or mis-informed conclusion that it is somehow the 'Indian culture' that is behind all that is outwardly wrong with Indian society?

A society begins to disintegrate when it is no longer grounded in the timeless spirit of its culture. This is true of Indian society; this is true of American society, any society. This is also true of an individual. Because in the final analysis, the society is nothing more than a group of individuals. The first requisite is to find out how can you and I, individually, be grounded in the spirit of our culture. Only then the society will find its grounded-ness. And only then the outer body, our societal institutions and behaviour patterns will express or manifest the true spirit of the culture.

Linking this post with ABC Wednesday G: G is for: Generalization and Grounded-ness.

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