Cultured and The Philistine: Is There Any Difference? – M.S. Srinivasan

(Is there any great difference in the consciousness of the common man and the elite?)

The word “Philistine” is a derogatory term used by the “cultured” elite like the artist, scholar or thinker to denote someone who is “uncultured” or the “common man” lacking in aesthetic sense. Oxford dictionary defines the word as “uninterested in arts and culture”. This brings us to the meaning of the word “culture”. What is culture or who is the “cultured”? Here again Oxford dictionary describes culture as “arts and other instances of human intellectual achievement regarded as a whole” and the cultured as “well educated and able to appreciate art, literature, music, etc”. The “cultured” look down upon the “common man” as a philistine because he doesn’t have any intellectual, literary or aesthetic sensitivity or capacities. This brings us to the question how far this sense of superiority of the “cultured” is valid? It depends on how much or to what extent the “cultured” like for example, an artist, are truly or entirely cultured? In one of her conversations, the Mother made the following interesting observations about some of the elites of humanity.

So many remarkable scholars, writers, artists who produce remarkable things, once they enter their homes, become detestable husbands, unpleasant fathers, intolerable people for those who are around them. And I am speaking of an ´elite, those who make special studies, discoveries, who run big institutions: outside, they are uncommon people, men of great abilities; back home they become commonplace and often unbearable—they have a nice time, they take rest, relax themselves. And if they begin to amuse themselves, that’s the end of it all! I knew people of great intelligence, admirable artists who, as soon as they began to “relax”, became utterly foolish! They did the most vulgar things, behaved like ill-bred children.”

But why this happens? Why these artists’ slip lower when they relax instead of rising higher? Because, there is not much difference in the consciousness of the elite and the common man, the cultured and the philistine. These elites, who look down upon the common man as the philistine, are cultured or above average only in a small part of their being or in some specific faculties- artistic, intellectual or literary- but in other parts of their being they are as much or more philistine than the common man. So, when they are not dealing with their faculties, and live in the other part of their being they become worst philistines. In other words, in their consciousness in general or as a whole they are more or less in the same level as the common man.

This doesn’t mean there is no one who is truly cultured. There may be a few who are able to integrate their whole being and every activity of their life around a higher mental, moral, aesthetic or spiritual ideal. They are the true elites of humanity. When this integration is achieved around the spiritual centre of our being we attain the highest level of culture. We can say we are above the common man only when we are able to achieve this higher integration of our being.

But there can also be something reverse: someone who appears to be “a common man” may not be so in his inner being. There are many people whose inner being are much more spiritually advanced than their surface self. Outwardly they may appear to be like any other common man in the street or in a very humble position in society but inwardly very advanced in their consciousness, growing towards the light, knowingly or unknowingly. For example, the Buddhist yogi Ashwagosha, in one of his books on Buddhist yoga comments on the deep spiritual experiences of one of his disciples who was a humble fan-wielder to the king in the royal court. Similarly, there is a beautiful and illustrative story in Mahabharata.

Ramana was one of those high-caste brahmin sanyasis who were in ancient India spiritual elites of the society. He was walking through a forest and a crane at the top of a tree shits on his head. Ramana looks up angrily at the bird and it falls down dead. Ramana was amazed and also proud. He thought “all my meditations and spiritual practices are not in vain. They have given me some power.” As was the custom for sanyasis in ancient India, he goes to a house for alms and asks for food in the traditional way. He hears a female voice from inside the house which says, “Please wait, I am serving my in-laws and my husband. I will come with the food after I finish with it.” But it gets delayed and Ramana becomes impatient. After sometime the lady in the house comes with food. Ramana looks at her with anger. But the lady says with a smile “Oh Sanyasi, I am not the crane.” Ramana was surprised and thinks “How does she know.” The lady, reading his thoughts says, “These powers came unasked to me by just seving my husband and in-laws faithfully. But I am nothing in comparison to the greatness of Saravana who was one of the wisest men in the world. You go to him and he will enlighten you on the right path.” As directed by the lady, Ramana goes to the house of Saravana and there he was again surprised to see an uncouth butcher, slicing a goat. “How can this man who looks like a barbarian be wise”, he thinks. But Saravana welcomes Ramana and says “So that noble lady has sent you.” Ramana was stunned. Saravana gives a long and enlightened discourse on the duties and responsibilities of a human being and the path of yoga of works. Swami Vivekananda says that the butcher’s discourse in Mahabharata, called as “Butcher’s Githa” is one of the highest flights of Vedantha philosophy.

So, there can be something uncommon behind the appearance of a “common man”. This is probably the reason why many wise teachers counselled not to judge people by outer appearances. The Mother said in one of her conversations-

“All those who have truly and sincerely had the experience of the divine presence, all those who have been in contact with the Divine have always said the same thing: that sometimes, even often, it is what is most decried by men, most despised by men, most condemned by human ‘wisdom’, one can see the divine light shining.”

So to equate culture with aesthetic sense is a false notion. For example, how can you call someone who is simple, kind, humble and sincere in his heart as uncultured just because he doesn’t have any aesthetic sensibility? He is perhaps much more cultured than a great artist who is proud, arrogant, selfish and ruthless.

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