Our Culture: Some Random Thoughts

                                                                      indian culture

The place where I live in is predominantly a Bengali refugee area. It would be no exaggeration if one calls it a Bangal Para. Bengalis who migrated from erstwhile East Pakistan are called Bangal in West Bengal. Some of them settled here (once a hub of small and medium industries—pottery, textile, chemical, engineering and others) following the partition of the country in 1947, and some others during the Bangladesh Liberation War of 1971. In fact, it is a settlement of Hindus, mostly poor, low-income, and toiling and, some—sadly—lumpen proletariats. The last decade witnessed 5-6 storey residential apartments raising their heads. A complex of private engineering, dental, pharmacy and hotel management colleges has been set up on a land which once housed a big cotton mill. As the promoter of these institutions did not bother to set up necessary hostel accommodations for the students, their failure came as a boon for some of the locals who have extra rooms to rent out to the students—a genuine success of percolation theory!

The English New Year is welcomed with much fanfare in our area. At twelve o’clock at night, the residents are greeted with the sounds of firecrackers all around, with the light of fireworks across the sky, with the roar of enthusiasts. Although the residents here have to struggle to make both ends meet, they do not mind to spend enough for the English New Year celebrations.

On the contrary, the holy Poila Boishakh, i.e. the Bengali New Year comes and goes much quietly, almost un-noticed like a Duorani (neglected queen). True, some shops are decorated on the occasion of Halakhata (opening of new account book), music is played, and sweet meats are distributed to customers. To be honest, if Poila Boishakh is treated as the Duorani, then 1st January is definitely the Suorani (the revered queen).

One can see cards and gift items (mostly cheap and fragile products from China) for the Valentine’s Day hanging or cakes for the Christmas displayed in temporarily constructed grocery shops along the street drains. The popularity curve of Valentine’s Day celebration is no doubt going north. I overheard my neighbour’s daughter telling her father: “I’m going to school. Don’t take this opportunity to celebrate Valentine’s Day with mom!” Although several government-run primary schools in the area have been closed or are on the verge of closure, Saraswati Pujo (the worship of the goddess of learning) continues with all vigour. They have also kept alive the pomp of Kali Pujo and Durga Pujo. Even the devastating Corona pandemic could not dampen their enthusiasm.

It would be logical to make one thing clear while proceeding with the present article: neither any attempt has been made in it to propagate ‘sadachar’ (codes of good behaviour) laid down in ‘Manu-Samhita’ as our culture, nor the readers have been asked to stop dealing with other cultures. Because, we all know, cultural exchanges are must for the development of any civilization. And India never was or is a country of one culture; she has given birth of many intertwining and at the same time independent cultures. The social codes that were once prevalent in a narrow geography named Brhmavarta, a land between the rivers Saraswati and Drishdavati, had been termed by Manu, a sage, as sadachar. They had no pan-Indian presence. So, even if the Brahmanical North Indian Hindu society tries to impose Manu’s teachings all over India, people in other parts of the country may not be interested in practicing them. Manu’s sadachar even includes cutting off the hands as a punishment for a petty thievery. As if, such a punishment would make the country free of crimes! One can only guess whether Brahmavarta had ever been free of theft. We are fortunate enough that the people of other parts of the country or our penal codes did not bother to obey such cruel sadachar. Yet the influence of Manu’s teachings cannot be underestimated even today. Tagore in his essay ‘Crisis of Civilization’ wrote with anguish, “The foundation of our rituals is such code—although there was as much cruelty as there was injustice in it. For this reason, in our conducts priority was given to conventional rituals which have indiscriminately usurped the freedom of the mind. The ideal of sadachar that Manu once saw established in Brahmavarta gradually took refuge in rituals.”(Translated from Bengali ‘Rabindra-Rachnabali’, Visva-Bharati, Vol.26. p 636)

We believe that Poila Boishakh is a part of our culture, so are the Pujo-Parvanas. However, the differences should not be overlooked. Observance of English New Year or of Poila Boishakh is very secular. Poila Boishakh is celebrated both in Hindu-dominated West Bengal and Muslim-dominated Bangladesh. True, people of different faiths, including the Muslims, take Durga Puja celebrations as a cultural affair and participate in it in various ways. But with a few exceptions, people of other faiths are not seen participating in its rituals. There are blockages, both psychological and religious, a fact that can hardly be underestimated.

No matter how much a large number of Hindus try to pretend to be liberal and secular, it is doubtful whether they treat people of other faiths on equal footings, more so when it comes to the Muslims. My friend sent a message to his friend wishing ‘Happy Eid’. The response was strong enough but not surprising: “I’m not a Muslim. There was no need of sending such message!” My friend replied, “If I send you a ‘Merry Christmas’ message, you don’t react the same way!”

Such a perception is not an isolated phenomenon. Not to mention the extremist Hindutva activists, even within a large section of the Hindus, who claim to be secular, such mental blockages or prejudices persist. Same is equally true of the Muslims, too. Incidentally, such blockages are almost non-existent among the Hindus as regards to their attitude towards the Sikhs, the Jains, the Buddhists, the Parsis and the Christians. Maybe because of such deep-rooted mental blockages, the Hindus are not often enthusiastic in celebrating the Eid.

Many argue that we have an innate weakness in anything foreign and, hence, do not hesitate much to celebrate English New Year or Christmas or Valentine’s Day. Despite English being a foreign language, it has practically become the second mother tongue of a large section of Indians. If one does not learn English, it becomes difficult for him to communicate with people from other parts of India or from abroad. Moreover, knowledge of English pays.

We cannot fail to notice that the English calendar is internationally recognized, while local indigenous calendars have taken back seats. Our hand, bighat, mond, ser, rati, or even the English foot and pound (both in terms of weight and monetary units) have given ways to American dollar, gram or meter. Our dhoti and sari have almost given in to pant, salwar, kameez as it is difficult to travel in the crowded train, metro or bus wearing dhoti or sari. Their higher maintenance cost also pinches. How can people deny the utility value?

Many believe that the Hindus’ prejudice against the Muslims was not so prominent in the past. Jodhabai, a Hindu, did not hesitate to marry Akbar, the Muslim ruler. Akbar also built a temple for his Hindu wife in the harem so that she did not have to face any problem in worshiping. The Muslim emperors had a good number of Hindu generals.

Then how surfaced such conflicts and mental blockages? The colonial rulers have to be blamed for that. James Mill fathered the theory that the Hindus and the Muslims are two separate nations. It is his “two nation” theory that has hatched the animosity between the Hindus and the Muslims. Hindu extremists and Muslim fundamentalists have hatched it, like a crow hatches a cuckoo’s egg, without knowing what is coming out of it. Many of us have adopted that theory knowingly or unknowingly. Historian Romila Thapar rightly says, colonialists have portrayed religion as a pillar of Indian identity, almost excluding other identities. As a result, extreme religion-based politics has emerged and we have unquestionably embraced this colonialist notion. (See the Introduction of the book ‘The Public Intellectual in India’)

If one claims that the past of Indians (Hindus) is great and glorious, he is right. But when he complains in the same breath that the Muslim invaders came only to destroy us, it is very difficult to swallow. Swami Vivekananda, a Hindu reformer and monk, was indeed proud of the glorious past of India. However, he saw the roots of degeneration among the Hindus somewhere else. Delivering a lecture to members of the Triplican Literary Society of Tamil Nadu on his return from the Chicago Religious Convention, he said: “Our country for the last few centuries has not been what she was in the past. We find that one of the causes which led to this degeneration was the narrowing of our view, the narrowing of the scope of our actions.” He lamented, “What can you expect of a race which for hundreds of years has been busy in discussing such momentous problems as whether we should drink a glass of water with the right hand or the left? What more degradation can there be than that the greatest minds of a country have been for sever hundreds of years, discussing about the kitchen whether I touch you, or you touch me, and what is the penance for this touching?”

Vivekananda reminded us that the exploitation, neglect and oppression by the upper castes of the society were mainly responsible for the conversion of countless people of India to Islam. Delivering a lecture on ‘The Future of India’ in Chennai, Vivekananda said in no uncertain terms, “Even to the Mahommedan rule we woe that great blessing, destruction of exclusive privilege. It was after all not all bad, nothing is all bad, and nothing is all good.” He further stressed, “The Mahommedan conquest of India came as salvation to the down-trodden, to the poor. That is why one-fifth of our people have become Mahommedans. It was not all the sword that did it. It would be height of the madness to think it was all sword and fire.” (See lectures of Swami Vivekananda, From Colombo to Almora)

Buddhism and Jainism originated as a protest against Brahmanism and the cruel ‘moral codes’ enshrined in the ‘Manu-Samhita’. Agnostics and atheists have also repeatedly challenged Brahmanism. How can we forget that Buddhism has dominated India for almost a thousand years after its emergence and spread? In the first millennium BC, the Chinese generally referred to India as a Buddhist kingdom. The last Buddhist dynasty in India, the Pala dynasty of Bengal, ruled till the twelfth century. At that time Muslims did not come to this country. Why the Hindus then failed to prove their worth, failed to revive their lost glory? How could the Muslims or later the British coming from the far-away lands conquer the country and establish their rules? The answer needs to be sought honestly. The Hindus cannot shrug off their responsibilities by blaming the Muslims and the Christians.

Historians have shown that socially disadvantaged groups, such as the merchants, the artisans and the oppressed ‘sudras’, resisted religious orthodoxy and malpractice in ancient India. The merchants and the artisans were indeed well to do, but the Brahmins deprived them of many opportunities. This was the basis of the rapid spread of Buddhism in India. Two-thirds of the people of India became Buddhists. The ideals of ​​social equality were at the root of the popularity of Buddhism and it weakened the social and moral strength as well as influence of Brahmanism.

In the fourteenth century, the Muslim Pathan rulers undertook excellent Bengali translations of the Ramayana and the Mahabharata. The contribution of Muslim rulers in the development of art and architecture in India was no less. Vivekananda knew these very well. So he could not accept the baseless allegation that everything was bad under the Muslim rule. It can be said without any hesitation that the purpose of translating the Ramayana and the Mahabharata was definitely not to destroy Hinduism. In fact, the Muslim rulers’ enthusiasm for these great ancient Indian epics is a testament to their respect for Hindu culture.

Jamshedji Tata once said that Indian students not only can compete with Europe’s best rivals on an equal footing, they can also win. In his book ‘Argumentative Indian’, Amartya Sen interpreted Jamshedji’s statement in a proper perspective: It is an expression of pride, perhaps even arrogance. But this is not the pride of a Persian who happens to be Indian. Rather, it is the pride of an Indian who happens to be a Persian. The Persians came to India from Persia. Similarly in ancient times Aryans and much later the Shakas, the Huns, the Pathans, The Mughals, the English, the French, the Dutch, the Portuguese also came from abroad. Some of them came to occupy the country, some to trade, some to loot, and some others to do business and eventually conquer the country. But all, barring the Europeans, became a part of this country. In other words, we also embraced them.

In fact, acceptance, tolerance, embracement and adoption of outsiders are inherent in our culture. We are for exchange of knowledge and ideas with others. That is our tradition. When we failed to learn from others and tried to shut our doors before others, we were doomed. We voluntarily entered into a dark age. So, let us ask ourselves: Is it wise to shut our doors before others? The only answer is, “No.” We have learnt from others in the past, and will have to learn in the future too. The question is how much should we take and how much should we discard? Should we not realize that only taking from others is not a matter of pride? Rather, it is a sign of weakness and incompetence. Let us ask ourselves, why we don’t have much to offer now to the world in science, in technology, in other fields of human endeavour? Demagogy won’t do.

One might claim that we are the inheritors of the great heritage of ancient Indian culture. Surely, we are. One may shout from the roof-top, “We have given the world a lot.” Indeed, we gave. The question is: Is it enough? Will the successes of the remote past pay us dividend in future, too? What are our present contributions? If we only talk of the past and forget about the present and the future contributions in culture, in science and technology, and in other fields, nobody will take us seriously as a nation. If our toiling majority feels that they are being deprived, then who is to be blamed? Communal rhetoric may help win elections temporarily; nation building is completely a different ball game. Let us not forget: The past may be sweet, but it does not help if the real world is very bitter and the future is uncertain.

We have no choice but to judge what to accept and what to discard. Should we only follow the outward behavior of others, or should we enrich ourselves by embracing and assimilating the eternal teachings of their civilizations? When a Rajhamsa (goose) is given milk mixed with water, it only consumes the milk and throws away the water. But if we fail to differentiate milk with water, the fault is ours. We must have our own wisdoms.

In conclusion, it would not be out of place to quote from Tagore’s essay ‘The Disease and the Remedy’, “If we adopt the outward appearance of European civilization, we will be wronging.… But if we assimilate the eternal ideals of that civilization, it will always be useful everywhere.”

Sunil Mukhopadhyay is a retired journalist and writer


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