“India is a mixed pot of races.” – Jawaharlal Nehru

Culture and civilisation are two such concepts, which are devoid of any concrete definition. The word ‘culture’ broadly covers the sum total of a nation’s aesthetic and intellectual achievements. India from time immemorial has been regarded as a land of composite culture and prosperity – thus attracting intellectuals and adventurers alike – may they be the Romans, who traded with the Tamil kingdoms of the south or the Christian missionaries of the 1st Century A.D. landing in Kerala or the persecuted forefathers of present day Parsis who sought asylum in the Western coast of India.

Thus, culture can be regarded as the widening of mind as well as of spirit. The essence of our composite culture through the ages has been its capacity to absorb various streams of cultures. The core around which other cultures took shelter and eventually got absorbed has resulted in the ‘compositeness’ of our culture. The essential feature of this composite culture is broad-based, which focuses mainly on tolerance, adaptiveness with an unique individuality. It is, therefore, amazing to note that the same essence that existed before many millennia has continued till today and is continuing.

Very few things in history are more astonishing than the wonderful stability of the social structure in India, which has withstood the test of time. It has withstood foreign cultural invasions, because it always sought to absorb them as well as tolerate them. As one turns the pages of Indian history, one observes that culturally nothing alien was exterminated, but an equilibrium was always reached with essence as core even with the alien, by extracting their goodness.

India through the ages was never isolated from the rest of the world. It came into contact with almost every great civilisation the world has witnessed. However, it never met with the same fate as other great civilisations did, like the ancient Egyptians or the Mesopotamians or the Romans. All this could be boldly attributed to the ‘dynamism’ of our great past – which ultimately gave rise to ‘composite culture’.

Indian culture through the ages

“To know my country, one has to travel to that great age, when she realised her soul and thus, transcended her physical boundaries when she revealed her being in a radiant magnanimity….,” once said Rabindranath Tagore. Truly, unless we understand the greatness attained by our forefathers, we would fail to understand the depth of our composite culture. As a noted poet aptly said – ‘without past there is no present and there cannot be any future too’.

The sensational discoveries made in the beginning of 20th century in Harappa and Mohenjo- Daro throw light on the ancient, unknown culture that existed as far back as third millennium B.C. This urban culture was dated to be Pre-Aryan in age and the essential features of ‘Hindu religion’ like tolerance, love for peace and nature, high and unmatched intellect etc., are clearly visible here.

Then came the Aryans – their place of origin and their exact age of arrival in India is, even today, shrouded in mystery. But one can be sure than, theirs was a culture which was certainly different in many aspects than that already existed here. There was no bloodpath and slowly the two alien cultures intermingled with each other to give birth to an ‘enriched culture’. There was a great passion for life and zeal for inquisitiveness that resulted in immortal texts like the Vedas and the other epics. Dating back to a remote antiquity, these texts continue to have a perennial appeal even today. “Age could not wither their charm nor could custom stale their infinite appeal”.

With the passage of time, with several socio-economic changes around, the system began to rot. The result was the birth of new off-shoots from Hinduism viz., Buddhism and Jainism. However, it would be a mistake to regard them as new religions for, they were ‘new revelations’ of truths that already existed in Hinduism. Their simplicity and honesty appealed even a commoner. Both these religions received great royal patronages.

The composite cultural elements of Indian in general, and Buddhism in particular were not confined to India alone, but crossed the land and ocean frontiers to various parts like Kambuja (now Cambodia), Siam/Champa (Thailand), Srivijaya, Java, Sumatra (Indonesia) – which later came to be called as ‘Greater India’. It is really astonishing to find through the pages of history that Kambuja was a famous centre of Sanskrit learning in the early years. It is significant to note that the largest Hindu temple is not found in India, but in Cambodia and even today – the Indonesian island of Bali is dominated by Hindu majority. Buddhism though originated in India, slowly migrated to other Asian countries and today, the followers of Buddha are more in numbers in other countries compared to its land of birth. Yet Buddhism has left its unique features in composite culture, again not altering the essential features of the original.

Even in the extreme tip of Indian peninsula i.e. in Kerala, long before the birth of Hindu revival saint Adi Sankara, two significant events occurred – one, the arrival of Jewish exiles and the other, the arrival of St. Thomas, the Apostle. However, there was no clash between any of these different cultures but they merged with the existing culture. Buddhism which crossed over the North-western frontiers not only influenced the Greek dynasties there, but resulted in new Indo-Greek art forms like the ‘Gandhara school of art’. All these added dimensions to our composite culture.

Many great rulers who ruled across the Indian sub-continent were always famous for their ‘tolerance and respect’ to other religions irrespective of their own culture and religion. Thus, this age could be regarded as “the Golden Age of Indian culture”, where our composite culture attained the highest watermark.

With the birth of Islam and advent of Muslim rule in India, more beautiful colours were added to the greatness of our composite culture. Though the initial few hundred years were very turbulent – then slowly, turbulence calmed down and the wonderful power of assimilation and absorption – the inherent strength of our culture came into force. The Afghan and the Turkish rulers slowly intermingled and adopted our culture, with their dynasties being Indianised and Delhi became their own home. The result was again a ‘wonderful mixed culture’. Many Sufi saints came to India during this period and were influenced by virtues of our culture, which they adopted into their culture. Even the Bhakti Movement of the 15th and 16th centuries aimed at revival of our ancient culture paving the way for composite culture.

The rule of the Mughals in India was no less great event. The great Mughal ruler Akbar believed that “every religion leads to the same end” and formulated a new religion ‘Din-i-Elahi’ or ‘Divine monotheism’ – which however was a futile exercise. Nevertheless, no one can disregard the impact of this new religion on our culture.

The British Rule and the ‘Renaissance’

The Europeans, particularly the British who came to India as traders – slowly converted the country into their colony. Though, a school of thought favours the idea that – ‘the loss of political freedom led inevitably to cultural decay’; the idea is not favoured by all. It does not even appear reasonable to say that a highly civilised nation like ours succumbed to external aggression so easily – which led to its cultural decay. Most reasonable idea seems to be the one, which says that ‘there was an internal decay prior to colonisation which spread rampantly after aggression’. But even during this period because of its assimilative power, Indian culture absorbed many good things from the West like science, literature, art, administration, etc.

The 20th Century witnesses the renaissance of our composite culture. Raja Rammohan Roy, Swami Vivekananda, Dayanand Saraswati and the likes are regarded as the ‘catalysts of Indian recovery’. Not only Indians, but many Westerners also worked for the revival of our ancient culture, which had much to offer like painting, sculpture, archaeology, religion, philosophy, linguistics and much more. This opened the floodgates for the visit of many scholars, thinkers, writers, philosophers and the likes from Europe.

The work of archaeologists, epigraphists and art critics like James Fergusson, Dr. Fleet, Percy Brown, Sir John Marshal revealed the glory of our ancient past. Renowned historians like Sarcar, Bhandarkar, Ranade, Todd, Elphinston wrote about glories of the India’s past. Many European scholars mastered ancient languages of India like Maxmuller, Charles Wilkins, William Jones, Kittel and others. They translated many classical Sanskrit and other language works into European languages, that acted as an eye-opener to neo-literate Indian masses. This kindled a sense of national pride and nationalist feeling in the minds of our upcoming educated middle classes.

Even after independence, many Tibetans were given refuge in India and once again the magical spell of our composite culture is at work to amalgamate the goodness of Tibetan culture.

Behind the entire dynamism and progress, there lies a philosophic ideal of ‘composite culture’ that again revolves around the integration of mankind, the stress on goodness, beauty and truth – but never ‘acquisitiveness’. Our basic culture itself is a blend of ‘tolerance and reasonableness’, the acceptance of free thought in matters of faith, a strong will to live and let live – which may be a truth behind our progress. Henceforth, we can proudly claim ourselves to be the part and parcel of a common culture – whether we are Hindus, Muslims, Christians, Jains, Buddhists, Sikhs, Parsis and anyone, for they were all party to creation of this unique culture, ‘endemic’ to India alone. However, it is impossible for anyone to conclude the cultural survey of India – as he does with the Greek or the Roman or the Babylonia, for, Indian culture is still vibrant, still very much alive as it was in the past, as it is today and surely will continue till mankind lasts. The biggest setback to India’s concept of composite culture came from the poison spread by Muslim League propagating the two-nation theory resulting in the partition of Indian subcontinent. Even after formation of Pakistan – the land of the sacred – a majority of Muslims living in India still do not believe in “composite culture”. This is a big challenge to this lofty idealism of which all politicians boast day in and day out.

The same zeal and great ideals that drove us through the darkest of dark days will certainly continue to guide us in all adversities as this invocation from the Upanishad goes –

“Asato ma sad gamaya Tamaso ma jyotirgamaya Mrutyorma amruthangamaya”. Which means,

“Lead me from unreal to the real; Lead me from darkness to light; Lead me from death to immortality”.

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