Culture-vulture and all that

Culture. Hmm, deep one.

Ok, I’m trying to find my own personal answer to this. What is culture. Is there a “definition” ? Whats the “list of things” we can arm ourselves with to respond to the Selvams and the Muthaliks of the world ?

Well, here the definition (I like Wiki’s combination of the more common ones, so quoting that)

Culture (from the Latin cultura stemming from colere, meaning “to cultivate”)[1] is difficult to define. For example, in 1952, Alfred Kroeber and Clyde Kluckhohn compiled a list of 164 definitions of “culture” in Culture: A Critical Review of Concepts and Definitions.[2] However, the word “culture” is most commonly used in three basic senses:

  • excellence of taste in the fine arts and humanities
  • an integrated pattern of human knowledge, belief, and behavior that depends upon the capacity for symbolic thought and social learning
  • the set of shared attitudes, values, goals, and practices that characterizes an institution, organization or group.
Part I is something I doubt occurred to Muthalik or Selvam or their ilk when they repeated what they’ve heard so often from others who wanted to use it as a blunt object to beat other people on the head with, or stop from this or that.

The second/third: Wow, those are deep and complex. What’s the “pattern” for India – land of extreme vegetarianism as well as cannibalism, country of the devout and the atheist – not just now but in recorded history and given an appropriate place in the texts as well, social behaviour that stresses on idealism, is pragmatic about politics and corruption, includes in its ambit both polyandry and polygamy, and proudly tells tales of ferocious gods, and more human kings who started out bloodthirsty but overnight became persistent role models for peace mongering ?

Is it the rigid rules in the Vedas that define us, or the moral strictures, or our codified caste system, thats been handed down to us as collected knowledge ? Is it the subtle sarcasm in the extremely open minded Upanishads that define our philosophy, and the tradition of tark-vitark and recorded accepted disagreements ? Was there a reason for a personal God for every Indian, while the texts simultaneously speak of “inclusive monotheism, which acknowledges a personal form of God as the Supreme God, with all other forms of God as plenary expansions or aspects of the Supreme” (source) ?

Are we trying, too often, to define our beliefs, religions, culture and traditions by what is disallowed (often for a convenient truth in a political or social power struggle), illegal and considered profane ? Are these not better defined by their positives – what they enable, what they help better/improve ? Is culture not a concept that aims to define some set of ideals that works towards a more refined, tasteful goal ? Is that served well by fear, and a demand to adhere, or else… ?

To me, India and its culture is about not just tolerating, but embracing and adopting the strange and new, respecting the different even if one doesn’t necessarily understand it, and celebrating life in all its myriad forms. What its never been, certainly, is homogeneous, or a one “best” thing to do, to follow. Gods, clothes, customs, traditions, beliefs, philosophies – we have numerous cores, and even more forms of packaging of each. Like a Buddhist Lama explained to me when I wondered about the gazillion sects of what started as a simple message – different folks accept the same truth presented differently. Its the same end goal. That, to me, was Indian culture. Be what you are, be comfortable, and expect to be comfortable with your truth though there are others who have a different truth and a different take on things.

Often this exists at an individual level as well. The west and western trained minds consider it hypocrisy – our extreme politeness with folks known to us, yet some very crude/rough edges in our behaviour with strangers, our patience in certain contexts when we cannot even queue up for a bus – but its the same comfort with multiple truths and acceptance of opposing concepts that co-exist simultaneously – that defines our culture.

If there’s any one thing its never been about – any one negative you want to define it in – its rigidness. India is an old, mature adult who’s seen it all, and is pragmatic yet pious, comfortable with its blemishes and revels in its grace. It certainly does not seek to define itself narrowly, or through intolerancle of this set of beliefs or that. And certainly not intolerance of tongue, or attire, or faith.

[ The song from “Phir Bhi Dil Hai Hindustani” captures it quite nicely 😀 ]


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