Indians in the house give me a cheer!!! We remember ourselves as Hindus, Muslims, Sikhs, Christians, Parsis and forgotten who we are together. Do we have an Indian culture? What is it?
While we talk about what is sensitive to our culture, let’s try and understand what we really mean by ‘culture.’
This is a feeble attempt at understanding culture. What forms culture? What are the sources of culture?
I have been asking myself these questions for a while now. I tried discussing them with friends and could not find answers which were very convincing from anywhere, yes, not even Google could tell me where culture originates from.
Nobody knows, and everybody follows it. Isn’t it funny, or rather, ridiculous?
I liked the following definition online:
‘The ideas, customs, and social behavior of a particular people or society”
The ideas, customs and social behavior have to have a source now. Don’t you think so? Look at yourself. There is a way you are dressed. It could be western clothing, which means, what they wear in the west of the world map. From the female dressing perspective, this could mean skirts, trousers, shirts or what you have. Alternatively you could be dressed in Indian suits, saris or kurtas, which are considered largely traditional wear in India.
You behave in a certain way. There is a way you greet people when you meet them. There is a way you talk to them. Different societies have different ways of greetings. In India, we say Namaste with our hands folded. Etymologically speaking, Namaste is derived from Sanskrit and means bowing to you. It is a sign of respect across the country. The archaeological findings from the Indus Valley Civilization have revealed many male and female terracotta figures in Namaste postures, as per Wikipedia.
So, history is one of the sources of culture. It has been happening for hundreds of years and so, it must be right. Well, for Namaste, it makes sense because Namaste is a sign of respect and when we think about it with our own minds, it is a wonderful gesture. It makes sense even in the context of the 21st century, not matter how old the tradition of Namaste has been.
I would like to quote the Buddha.
“Do not believe in anything simply because you have heard it. Do not believe in anything simply because it is spoken and rumored by many. Do not believe in anything simply because it is found written in your religious books. Do not believe in anything merely on the authority of your teachers and elders. Do not believe in traditions because they have been handed down for many generations. But after observation and analysis, when you find that anything agrees with reason and is conducive to the good and benefit of one and all, then accept it and live up to it.”
So, you think about Namaste and you accept it and make it a part of your daily behavior. You want to respect someone; you fold your hands and say Namaste.
What are the other sources of culture?
Religion is one of the biggest sources of culture. Religion, espoused is one of the greatest sources of acceptable behavior and one of the key sources of morality in our society. India is deeply religious society. All religions existing in the country tend to assert their own definitions of acceptable behavior, good acts to do and bad acts which should not be done, since they are not a part of the particular culture. This is what makes India complex. Unlike western civilizations and societies which are monotheistic, Indians, especially Hindus are a polytheistic people. Although Ram and Krishna continue to get better press owing to the mythological texts of Ramayana and Mahabharata, there are millions of Gods in the country and people travel far places to visit the ‘temples’ of their chosen Gods.
This is what makes the issue of Indian culture even much more complex. Let’s look at the practice of monogamy. It is a part of our culture. In some countries in the African continent, polygamy still continues as a practice. I learnt that even the president of South Africa Jacob Zuma has 3 wives and has 20 children from them.***
Polygamy is illegal in most civilized societies because it disrupts the institution of marriage and its existence since it leads to feelings of jealousy and immorality among other objections to polygamy.
Which side are you on? Well, it depends on which culture you belong to. In countries where polygamy is illegal and since the law states so, you cannot even think about it. So, you don’t think about it. In cultures they accept polygamy; the key argument is expansion of their own breed. You could argue that in order to do that, they don’t care about the physical and emotional exploitation of the women, which is a fair argument.
So, what is culture?
We are back to square one, I know. I have realized in the course of writing this piece, that I won’t be able to answer this question for you. I don’t think it is correct for me to answer this question for you.I can say one thing and it is this- question everything, accept nothing without having thought about it in your mind.
The state will do its own it to define what culture of the land is. To what standards do we hold ourselves to will define the culture that we choose to embrace or we choose to reject.
Religion and history are the key determinants of culture. That something is being done for a very long time makes it a case for being done in the future as well. That something was practiced by the Gods is another extremely potent and almost sacrosanct source of culture. But, wait, ponder, consider, think and then decide if a custom or a tradition which has been going on for thousands of years is a useful in the current context.
What are the standards do we hold ourselves to, when we think about the question of culture?
To my mind, it is the peace and happiness of the people involved. The practice of Sati- where a recently widowed woman would commit suicide by fire, typically on the husband’s funeral pyre existed for many years before it was outlawed. To what kind of a mind would such a practice attract? Why should a woman die because her husband has passed away? What was her fault? She has already been rendered unfortunate and now the society wants her to incinerate herself! What kind of society allows such a practice?!
So, what is culture?
Is culture what we individually believe in or what we collectively imbibe? By definition, it is the collective behavior. Our collective behavior must lead to the welfare, peace and joy to the people who imbibe and inculcate such a behavior.
Caste system is an ingrained part of the Indian culture. One day, hopefully, we will reach a point where it will cease to matter what your caste is. It will cease to matter what your origin was and which religion you were born into. That day, there will be joy.
I knew at the outset, that I will not be able to convincingly answer the puzzle of culture. However, I hope, I have been able to give you some snippets about a few it its sources and the underlining reasons.
Other sources of culture are our celebrities and our leadership. What they do becomes popular culture. What the king does becomes the culture of the masses. But, don’t accept it blindly. If you think what the king does is right, embrace it. If you think the king is wrong, question the king.
Culture is what we collectively do. Culture is what we collectively embrace. Culture is what we are known for. What would we like to be known for, years after we are gone?
Thanks for reading.