[Published in Shraddha, Aug 2009]
Key Perspectives: Nation and its Culture; Essence of Culture; Essence of Culture
In the traditional conception, culture is viewed in terms of art, aesthesis, literature and refinement. The modern social scientist and management thinker conceives culture as a source of values, customs, behaviour and patterns of living. This article, while accepting and incorporating these views, presents a perspective based on Indian thought and looks at culture as a source of development. The article begins with the organic view of Indian thought, which corresponds to the modern systems concept of the collective mind. It proceeds further to explore the pragmatic consequences of this Indian perspective for motivation, human development and nation-building.
The Nation and its Culture
First of all we have to be clear about the meaning of the word “Culture”. Let us begin with the dictionary meaning and proceed to the deeper Indian vision. Webster’s Dictionary offers several interesting definitions. One of them which corresponds to the orthodox view is “the act of developing the intellectual and moral faculties by education” and the second one which reflects the modern anthropologist’s view is “the total pattern of human behaviour embodied in thought, speech, action, artifacts and dependent upon man’s capacity for learning and transmitting knowledge”. As used in modern social sciences, especially in the field of anthropology, culture is defined as “man’s entire social heritage; all the knowledge, beliefs, customs and skills he has acquired as a member of the society;” it is the “distinctive way of life of a group of people, their complete design for living.”(1)
But the Indian view of culture proceeds from a deeper spiritual vision of a nation. In this perception, a nation is not a unit occupying just a piece of earth but a living organic being. Just like the individual, a nation also has a Soul, Mind, Life-force or Vital Energy and a Body. Let us imagine the Nation as a great Goddess. Culture with its religion, philosophy, science, art and literature forms her mind; the economic, social and political life of the nation is the energy of life-force animating her being; its ecology and geography, that is, its rivers, mountains, natural environment and material resources and her people form her body. Behind all this is the soul of the nation which is an aspect of the divine Power of the universal Spirit and Self, embodying the deepest spiritual self of the nation and expressive of its unique genius and its mission, purpose and destiny in the evolution of humanity. Culture is the first and the most direct expression of the mind and soul of the nation. It is the expression of the inner being of the nation whereas its economy, society and polity which are the expressions of its vital energy, and its geography and ecology, which form her body, constitute the external being of the nation. This Indian concept of a nation can no longer be dismissed as “mystical”. Modern scientific thought is moving closer to it. Some of the latest developments in system sciences admit the possibility of a collective or group-mind, which in turn is embedded in the cosmic Mind. As Fritjof Capra writes in his famous book, The Turning Point:
“In the system concept of mind, mentation is characteristic not only of individual organisms but also of social and ecological systems. As Bateson has emphasised, mind is immanent not only in the body but also in the pathways and messages outside the body. There are larger manifestations of mind of which our individual minds are only subsystems…. In the stratified order of nature, individual human minds are embedded in the larger minds of social and ecological systems, and these are integrated into the planetary mental system-the mind of Gaia-which in turn must participate in some kind of universal or cosmic mind.” Elaborating further on the system concept of Mind, Capra writes:
“Because the systems view of mind is not limited to individual organisms but can be extended to social and ecological systems, we may say that groups of people, societies, and cultures have a collective mind, and therefore also possess a collective consciousness. We may also follow Jung in the assumption that the collective mind or a collective psyche also includes a collective unconscious. As individuals we participate in these collective mental patterns, are influenced by them and shape them in turn. In addition the concepts of a planetary mind and a cosmic mind may be associated with planetary and cosmic levels of consciousness.” (2)
The Essence of Culture
In the Indian view, culture is not only the “social heritage” but primarily the mental, moral and spiritual heritage of a community. The culture of a community expresses its highest ideals and aspirations, its governing values, its unique aesthetic, moral and psychological temperament, and its distinctive and special genius. The unique and essential features of a nation’s culture can be discerned in the vision, values and ideals revealed in its religion, philosophy, art, literature and the values of its social organisation. There is an external dimension of culture made up of its customs, habits, norms, rituals etc., but this is only the outer form and not the inner core of culture. We may include society and politics also as parts of culture, but they belong to the vital dimension of a collectivity and the practical outward frame through which the cultural ideals of a society are worked-out in the external life. Sri Aurobindo describing the Indian vision of culture says:
“The culture of a people may be roughly described as the expression of a consciousness of life which formulates itself in three aspects. There is a side of thought, of ideal, of upward will and the soul’s aspiration; there is a side of creative self-expression and appreciative aesthesis, intelligence and imagination; and there is a side of practical and outward formulation. A people’s philosophy and higher thinking give us its mind’s purest, largest and most general formulation of its consciousness of life and its dynamic view of existence. Its religion formulates the most intense form of its upward will and the soul’s aspirations towards the fulfillment of its highest ideal and impulse. Its art, poetry, literature provide for us the creative expression and impression of its intuition, imagination, vital turn and creative intelligence. Its society and politics provide in their forms an outward frame in which the more external life works out what it can of its inspiring ideal and of its special character and nature under the difficulties of the environment….Together they make up its soul, mind and body.”(3)
A major difference between the modern anthropological and the Indian approach to the study of culture is that in the former the predominant stress is on the social and external aspects of culture like behaviour, customs, habits, rituals, skills and the outer way of life while in the Indian view the primary emphasis is on the psychological and subjective dimensions of culture, like its insights, ideals, values, temperament and genius.
Utility of Culture
What is the pragmatic utility of Culture for development? Lasting success in any collective human endeavour depends on four factors: right discipline, right motivation, right aim and unity of purpose. For all this, culture holds the key. Let us look at the first factor, discipline. Nothing can be achieved without discipline, individual and collective. But if the discipline is to be effective, it must be natural and spontaneous, to be spontaneous it must be in harmony with the natural temperament of our being. It is culture which reveals the natural temperament of a group of people. So in any organised human endeavour, a collective discipline which is in harmony with the cultural temperament, genius and values of the group has the greatest chance of success in achieving its aims.
The second factor is motivation. The culture of a nation is the expression of the inner being of the nation whereas economics, society and politics form the more external part of a nation. The cultural values, because of their deeper origin, have a greater power of motivation than the economic, social and political motives and values. They can touch the deeper self in man and evoke a deeper, nobler and more spontaneous response from human beings; they can invoke the moral imperative in man and inspire him towards selfsacrificing action; they can release the dormant moral and spiritual force in human beings and release a tremendous amount of creative energy of a higher kind into a group or a nation. The role of Sri Aurobindo and Bankim Chandra Chatterjee in the freedom movement of India is a typical example to prove this point. The Indian freedom movement picked up momentum and gathered a cohesive strength only after Sri Aurobindo and Bankim gave a spiritual turn to the movement by bringing into it the Indian spiritual and cultural values. They gave an inspiring ideal to the movement based on the unique spiritual ethos of our nation. Sri Aurobindo’s idea of the nation as an aspect of the divine Mother and his conception of nationalism as the sacrifice and service to Mother India and his far-seeing vision of the future of India as the spiritual guru of the world and the inheritress of the Asiatic destiny turned a slumbering nation into a volcano of nationalistic fervour. The eminent historian Dr. R. C. Majumdar writes in one of his books on the Indian freedom movement:
“While Tilak popularised politics and gave it a force and vitality it had hitherto lacked, Aurobindo spiritualised it and became the high-priest of Nationalism as a religious creed….The freedom movement was specially or more directly inspired by the teachings of Bankim Chandra, Vivekananda, and Aurobindo who placed the country on the altar of God and asked for suffering and self-immolation as the best offering for His worship.”(4)
The third factor is the right aim. In the Indian view each nation-soul has a mission and purpose to fulfill in the evolution of humanity and is endowed with a special capacity or genius to fulfill this mission. To discover and develop this unique genius and fulfill this mission is the aim of all national development. Here again it is culture, which reveals the national genius and indicates the destiny of the nation. When we examine world-history, we will find each major civilization, in the course of its historical evolution, had developed its own mental, ethical, aesthetic, and spiritual temperament and genius, with a unique and distinctive competence for enriching human consciousness and life in some dimensions, like for example Indian civilization in religion and spirituality or the Gaeoko-roman in the rational, aesthetic and the pragmatic organization of life. So each nation, by examining deeply the unique genius of its historical and civilisational roots, can discover its unique and distinctive competence and the nature of contribution it can make to the evolutionary progress of humanity. When each nation organizes its corporate life around this civilisational goal and work together in synergic harmony for the progress of humanity, then we can say humanity is moving safely towards its destiny.
The fourth factor is the unity of purpose. Here again it is cultural unity, which can create a lasting and stable unity among a group of people. For culture binds the heart and mind of a people through an inner unity of consciousness based on a common conception of life and shared values whereas economic, social and political unity can create only an uncertain external unity forced by outer circumstances. As Sri Aurobindo points out:
“After all, the spiritual and cultural is the only enduring unity and it is by a persistent mind and spirit much more than by an enduring physical body and outward organisation that the soul of a people survives.” (5)
The modern example of a successful implementation of culture-specific development strategy is the case of Japan. Postwar Japan, like independent India, opted for western technology and production technique and the basic principles of the management theory developed in the West but with a crucial difference. She has selectively absorbed and assimilated them into the unique values of her cultural ethos. For example, in the field of management Japan took over all the productivity techniques of the West but rejected the values of the organisational culture of the West like individualism, competition, toleration of conflict and its motivation system which encourages personal self esteem, achievement and ambition of the individual ego. The Japanese have evolved an organisational culture which is in harmony with their unique collectivistic cultural values like group-harmony, subordination of the individual to the group, co-operation, loyalty, service to the nation, gratitude, humility, respect for elders, etc. Japanese companies have rejected the rigid, cold, formal businesslike and impersonal organisational climate of the West and have evolved a warm, filial and flexible organisational environment based on brotherly relations between superior and subordinates, job security, life-long employment, loyalty to the company or the “Organisational family”, national service, etc.-all these features reflecting the unique cultural values of Japan.
The lesson we have to learn from modern Japan is that while the “hardware” of development for maximising the productivity and efficiency of the outer socio-economic machinery can be imported from other cultures, the “software” of development for motivating, inspiring and developing people or the “human resources” has to be drawn from the roots of our own culture.
Culture is not merely a matter of art and aesthetics or patterns of behaviour, customs or values. It is a resource for development. The ideas and values of a Nation’s culture can be a source of discipline, motivation, and unity of purpose. So national governments must give careful consideration to these cultural factor in evolving the developmental strategies of a nation.
Published in Shraddha
- Leonard Brown and Philip Selznick (1963) ed. Sociology, Text with adopted readings, Harper and Row, New York, p.52.
- Fritjof, Capra, (1982) Turning Point, (Fontana Papebacks, London), 316, 317, 322.
- Sri Aurobindo, (1972) Collected Works, vol.14 Foundations of Indian Culture, (Sri Aurobindo Ashram, Puducherry), pp.51-52,
- Rishabchand, (1981) Sri Aurobindo, Life Unique, (Sri Aurobindo Ashram, Puducherry) pp.192-93.
- Sri Aurobindo, Collected Works, vol.14 Foundations of Indian Culture, pp.367