These are excerpts from a series of speeches by one of 20th Century’s greatest Indians, C Rajagopalachari. Rajaji, as he was more commonly called, rendered yeoman service to India, as a freedom fighter, as the first Chief Minister of Madras Presidency, as Home Minister of India and as the first and the only ‘Indian’ Governor General of independent India. Mahatma Gandhi called him ‘my conscious-keeper’. His equally great contribution was his works on Indian philosophy, epics and culture. His books, Mahabharata, Ramayana and Bhagavat Gita, with total sales of 3 million copies, have remained, for over 50 years, the most popular introductions to the subjects, especially for children: a profound scholar, he could still interpret them in very simple way and relevant to current times. While chairing these lectures, Vijayalakshmi Pandit, sister of India’s first Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru and herself a great statesperson, rightly said ‘It is difficult to think of anyone better suited for the task than the unusually versatile Rajaji’.

This is not a discourse on music, dance, or theatre, as the word culture often implies.

Instead, ‘culture’ on which I shall attempt to say something is the sum total of the way of living built up by groups of human beings and transmitted through generations. People each with their own long history build separate patterns of culture. There is much that is common across nations but there is also a great deal that is particular to each nation.

What is Culture

Man is endowed with various senses: the eyes, the nose, etc., and these senses give him the power to find pleasure in life and incentive to live. Like all power, this power also is liable to corrupt him and overindulge. Civilizations seek to curb this tendency. When the total conscience of people living together seeks to curb such indulgence and direct their activities into refined channels, such people, we say are civilized. Civilization is the development of restraint.

Civilizations have two instruments to achieve their purpose. One is Government, which operates on individuals from outside. What is deemed overall good sense takes the shape of Government and prevails over individual appetites. The other instrument is culture, which acts through family training, tradition, religion, literature and education. Government laws are enforced through force and penalties attached to non-observance. Culture is a subtle instrument. Force often generates a reaction of obstinacy. Subtle forms of displeasure of society over one’s behavior are very effective.

Indeed, it may be truly said that culture is the habit of successful self-control. It is a social virtue and distinct from character which is more internal for an individual. Although different, culture and character go together. Self-restraint in expression and conduct is essential to what we call culture, but, self-restraint in thought is at the root of both.

Mahatma Gandhi and Rajaji

What distinguishes Indian culture?

First, ‘Atma upamyam’, or, figuring out what is right or wrong by putting oneself in the position of another person. Gita says ‘atma upamyena sarvathra samam pasyathi’ (Chap VI, 32): ‘atma upamya’ is yoga of the highest type. Consideration for the feelings of others, for the rights of others, for the faults of others, these are high marks of culture.

Humility is the second essential part of our culture –‘vidya vinaya sampanne braahmane’ Gita V 18. Vidya or knowledge, and, vinaya, or humility, the two together form the sampat or wealth for the truly great person. Humility should be honest and reflected in behavior.

‘Atma upamanam krithwa’, or, putting oneself in the position of others, is reflected in both action and words. When even the noble Rama says cruel words to Sita, on the occasion she is brought before him after Ravana is vanquished, Sita says ‘why do you utter these harsh words like an uncultured man speaking to an uncultured woman?’. Praakrta is uncultured – samskrtam is culture and the result of discipline and enlightenment. The cultured man avoids harsh words. Tiruvalluvar, the Tamil saint-poet, says ‘the speech of the cultured man consists of truth soaked in affection’. Even the act of giving, which is very good, should be accompanied by genuine kindness. The sweet manner touches the heart of the receiver even more than the gift. Speaking of a good housewife, Tiruvalluvar says, ‘Not jewels, but, courteous deportment and gentleness of speech are the things that truly adorn her’: it is applicable to all of us. We all experience the marvelous effect of the kind words of others – yet, when we speak, we forget it and indulge in harsh speech. Is it not foolish to attempt to pick unripe berries when ripe ones are easily available? Why should we choose words that hurt, when gentle words are available?’

Another aspect of our culture is deliberate preference for simplicity, in everything we do, especially in how we live, and a conscious rejection of complicated life and multiplication of wants.

Family and Community

Large joint family is a special cultural pattern of ours. Family in India is not just the individual, spouse and children, but, comprises grown up sons, their spouses, children, etc., and includes cousins and their families. The joint family is a social institution in itself. We have a ‘family’ dharma, that is to say, there are obligations in regard to ‘family’.

Our marriages are entered into and arranged very differently from the Western cultures. Changes are inevitable in this as a result of international contacts and economic developments, but, the basic premise is simple: marriage is not an affair between two individuals, but a family affair. Also, while the wedding rituals, if vernacularized, would indicate a simple contract, it is an inviolable contract of lifelong partnership. Arranged marriages do not exclude considerations of individual preferences, but, the general pattern in India is: one should lead a married life and take all our obligations, in regard to life partnerships, very seriously.

Beyond the immediate family, the community of which we are a part is an important feature of how our society is organised. It is a larger circle than the joint family. Obligations of mutual help and respect through the community are real, although they thin out as the circle gets wider. Gandhiji developed his concept of trusteeship from this. Individualism is just selfishness. We should be - but in practice we are not always - careful in what we say. Helping just oneself is actually selfishness, but, we do not criticize it. But, helping one’s family, we say is, nepotism; helping a community is communalism; helping others in a territorial unit is called parochialism. We should instead actually encourage everyone in prosperity to share it with as large a circle as they can.

Influence of Theology and Bhakti

Vedanta, and its profound theological basis, is a matter of Indian pride, but, its philosophy and deep truth are far too removed from the illusions of the reality of our daily life. As a result, it is the Bhakti school of theology that has left a far greater imprint on our conduct. The doctrines set out in in the Upanishads are sublime but it is the doctrines of karma and transmigration that have shaped and influenced Indian culture far more.

Tenderness towards life of all grades and status afforded to vegetarianism (for horror of being responsible for any killing), philanthropy and charity, all these stem from our notion of karma and transmigration. It is this that leads to the fundamental concept of ‘ahimsa’.

The philosophical teaching by which we are brought up, namely that God resides in the heart of every living being, has a profound effect on our attitude towards animals. Polytheism stems from our belief ‘Isaavaasyam idam sarvam, yat kinch jagtyaam jagat’.

In Summary

Let me summarise the general aspects of Our Culture.

Self-restraint, ‘atma upamanam krithwa’ or putting ourselves in the position of others, humility, courtesy and kindness in what we do and say, all round tolerance including religious, family and community dharma, preference for marriage and chastity, preference for simple living, austerity, sharing our substance with the poor, and, tenderness and kindness to all forms of life: all these are significant aspects of Our Culture.