India is a country of many ethnic groups, over 1,650 spoken languages, dialects, regional variations—a land of myriad tongues—numerous modes of apparel and countless mannerisms. For the most part, the continental size of the country accounts for the variations and diversities.
Besides, there are many religions, sects and beliefs. At times the wide differences seem to predominate, and the resultant disharmony is regarded by many as irremediable, a phenomenon that the 100 crore people (ours is the second most populous country) have to live with, whether they like it or not.
The cynics even regard the Indian people as quarrelsome, often at each other’s throat, denouncing others as if they were inveterate enemies holding irreconcilable ideas and subscribing to ideals totally different from theirs.
But those who stick to this impression ignore a vital factor there is a basic unity which runs through the Indian mainstream of life and thought. There is a traditional culture which is truly oriental and which conforms to the teachings and precepts of our saints and sages.
Culture and civilisation are admittedly difficult to define, though both these signify certain identifiable trends and traits of character, especially restraint, consideration for others and a high degree of tolerance.
The lack of culture becomes evident even from the language and the dialect one uses, the conduct and manner of living, one’s gestures in social life, the tendency to have a closed mind, with doors and windows shut as if to disallow the inflow of fresh ideas and other viewpoints.
Every process of exclusion betrays lack of culture, just as every trend indicating a willingness to broaden one’s outlook shows a commendable cultural trait. The same idea is often put in different words: static culture envisages decay, just as dynamism ensures survival.
It is the dynamism and the flexibility that have enabled Indian culture to survive despite its many diversities and heavy odds. Through these diversities runs a common stream, as it were, and the similarity and unity of outlook can be noticed from North to South and East to West. Indian culture is actually a continuous synthesis, and has absorbed many external influences in the course of history.
A significant recognition of the fusion of cultural trends comes through t he Constitution (Article 51-A), which says, interalia, that it shall be the duty of every citizen of India to value and preserve the rich heritage of our composite culture.
Among the other Fundamental Duties mentioned in that Article is “to promote harmony and the spirit of common brotherhood amongst all the people of India, transcending religious, linguistic and regional or sectional diversities, to renounce practices derogatory to women…” All these are indicative of cultural development.
Calm reflection will show that attempts to enforce complete unity and disallow any differences of thought and approach in a large country like India would prove counter-productive and self-defeating. People can hold different views on life, religion, social, economic and political systems and yet they can be cultured.
Who, can deny that the people of India have throughout history honoured saints, sages, religious preachers and philosophers, seldom showing veneration for military heroes, triumphant warriors and commanders, except transitory praise and adulation. Those who have fought for cultural freedoms and political independence, which ensures such freedom and the implicit liberties to pursue cultural pursuits, have commanded large and loyal following.
Had it not been for the tolerance shown by the people of India during the rule of the Mughals and other outsiders, who brought in their own traditions and sought to impose them on this country, the amorphous, flexible Indian culture would have lost its moorings.
The Indian mind has assimilated much of the thinking of other cultures, thus enriching itself and making itself durable and virtually indestructible. The Western concepts and modes of dress, the English language, the study of English classics and European philosophers’ works, even though they emphasised thoughts and beliefs different from those of the Indian people, have not been spurned. Rather, a good part of these has become almost a part of the Indian way of living and thinking, especially in the urban areas.
The English-knowing elite exist alongside the Indian language enthusiasts, without tensions. The Western culture has always laid stress on materialism, while the Eastern, especially Indian, culture has been closely linked with spiritualism, simplicity, filial duty and affection, austerity, tolerance and harmony. Both are tolerated in this country.
It is, however, a pity that in recent years the communal clashes, the increasing evidence of intolerance and disharmony, the apparently endless discord, the open clashes at public meetings, and the all-too-frequent denunciation of each other have increased so much as to indicate that the people are forgetting their, true culture, and are allowing themselves to be exploited by selfish, uncultured people who seek to disrupt and destroy rather than build and consolidate.
The real strength of Indian culture lies in basic unity, vigour and the ability to contain an amazing diversity within itself. In this country there are people who belong to opposite schools of thought and who never seem to agree on anything. And yet, the concepts of one basic culture and one nation have continued.
Another notable characteristic of Indian culture is that it has always been based on moral and religious values; on these values the outlook shows an amazing similarity, almost throughout the country. Of course, there are groups which seem to be always on the war-path, and there are dissidents who question the basic framework on which the Indian polity is based, but they constitute a very small fraction of the total population.
Moreover, in every large country there are always people who are virtual rebels in thought and deed, and who wish to demolish rather than construct. Even in the advanced countries, such as the U.S.A., there are people who are outside the pale of law, who do not subscribe to the distinct American way of life. The same holds good of the British people.
Some Britons are opposed to the centuries old institution of monarchy and regard it as superfluous and an anachronism in the modem age of democracy. But they are as loyal to their country as the others, and they not only stick to the British culture, but are proud of it.
India is a secular State, and the people, with a few exceptions, have reverence for every faith; there is no effort to impose one religion on other. The Constitution itself, framed with the full consent of the people, guarantees the freedom of thought and expression. The Constitution does not recognise distinctions based on religion, sex or caste, or any other factor.
Modernism co-exists with orthodoxy, as does progressive thought with conservatism, and even reactionary trends. The broad features of the Hindu culture, (which is not linked to the Hindu religion but is broadly Indian culture). It is not fixed or static but is constantly adapting itself to changed conditions, thus responding favourably to new challenges; tolerance of conflicting beliefs, liberalism and broadmindedness; emphasis on ethical conduct and spiritualism; control of passions and temper; justice and truth, and disdain of wealth and the pleasures of the senses.
Spiritual perfection is eagerly sought and preached; moral principles, duty and “dharma” are assiduously propagated, especially at pilgrim centers.
Indian culture, in fact, represents a synthesis on many strains. It contains the best features of many traditions of other lands. Undoubtedly, certain corrupt influences and distortions have crept in, but these aberrations have not affected the basis, which is solid, not shaky in any sense.
Absorption and assimilation have been responsible for the lasting qualities of Indian culture; the diversities seem to disappear in course of time, leaving behind the basic beliefs very much intact.
Mahatma Gandhi’s view that veneration for other faiths is a part of our own system holds well because of the recognition that each religion has truth and honesty as its basis. Most people have a wide, universal outlook. All these factors account for the unity in diversity that is an outstanding feature of this country.