Enduring Values in Indian Society
The Indian society of today largely derives its attitude to life and the world at large, from the broad cultural framework suggested in the old texts. The guidance provided by the Rig Veda and the texts that followed it, including the Buddhist and Jain texts, was never rigid. The framework was suggestive and flexible. The two principles of quality of life and the individual freedom were at the heart of their message. These were addressed to the society at large including its subcultures.
The framework was woven around three concepts viz. rta, rna and purusharthas. As I mentioned earlier, rta recognizes our oneness with our environment and our unity with all life on earth; while rna underlines the responsibility of man to his family, his community, his environment and to himself as a human being. It signifies natural or universal order and integrity of all forms of life and ecological systems,
An outflow from the above two is the notion that aims to set values in a normal day-to-day life. These related to the acquisition of wealth (artha), pursuit of pleasure (kama) guided and governed by Dharma. They form a group of three (tri-varga), as called by Gautama and Manu (2,224).This is common to all segments of the society.
[The fourth one, seeking liberation from phenomenal ills (moksha) is optional and is outside the set of three (apa _varga). It is not considered an ordinary human aspiration. Those who pursue this option are beyond the pale of the society and its disciplines.]
It is essential that pursuit of wealth and pleasure is guided and restrained by Dharma. It is the violation of this requirement that sets apart the not _so_ virtuous from the virtuous in the epic stories
Dharma in this context is characterized by human values like truth, compassion, self-restraint, non-enmity, forgiveness etc. It provides ample scope for individual conscience and liberty.
Upanishads or its earlier texts did not at any time lay claim for discovering the ultimate truth nor did they prevent anyone from questioning their opinions. On the other hand, they encouraged the seekers to think, contemplate, question and find their own solutions.
The Buddha articulated the fundamental sprit of the Upanishads. He discouraged his disciples from borrowing ideas. Through his famous saying, “Live as a light unto yourself” Buddha encouraged his disciples to be mature, and independent.
Ashoka (d.483BC) who followed the Buddha brought focus on human dignity, purposeful life and human values.
Shankara valued personal experience (anubhava) over other means of knowledge. He used in this context a peculiar expression and said, “Be guided by what is “presented to one’s own heart (sva-hrudaya-pratyayam).”
Thus, the fundamental Indian outlook developed and nurtured by the ancients has set the tenor and tone of Indian cultural history. The freedom of the individual to choose his way of life, to follow his conviction and to pursue interests close to his heart is a distinctive feature of the Indian ethos.
If India’s culture tended to become tolerant, accommodating, open minded, opposed to organized regimentation, spiritual but not fanatic; it is largely due to the pervasive but unobtrusive influence of the seers, thinkers, and ordinary people of this country, down the ages.
There has never been a central agency or an organization in India to monitor or diffuse cultural values among its people. The spread of cultural values has always been, at the grass root level, by countless iterant, unassuming bards, fakirs, saints many of them outlandish and exotic. They came from all segments, all divisions of the society. They came from different regions, different religions, different sects and sub sects. They roamed about the countryside without any expectation or reward .They preached and lived what they believed. Those nameless, non-conforming selfless savants have been the guardians of Indian culture.
Over the centuries, India has absorbed the various influxes that flowed into the country. It has tempered the cross currents that blew across it .These have collectively rendered the Indian culture not only colorful but also complex. Yet, the country and its people have retained the essential Indian ethos and plurality of its values.
This is reflected in our increasing assimilation with the global community, which I view as a sign of healthy growth. This present generation of Indians is comfortable both at home and abroad. They are not afflicted by the pretensions of the colonial era nor or they timidly self-conscious as in the “Hindu growth rate” years. For instance, when I lived in London for a short while (that was a very long time ago), those of us on the fringe nicknamed the inner circle of Indians as “the coconuts”- brown out side and white inside. They were Indians in appearance but more English than the English in their behavior and thinking. Now, looking back, I realize it was a defensive mechanism necessary to survive in an unfriendly society. The present day Indians there, I learn, are Chikkoos – brown outside and slightly less brown inside. That is ok..They are comfortably integrated into those societies they live and yet retain their identity.
Gandhi summed it up for all of us when he said, “I want all the cultures of all lands to be blown about my house as freely as possible. But I refuse to be blown off my feet by any.”
Today, the young Indian is trying to internalize various influences and to chosen a path of his own. He is striving to become “mature and independent” as the Buddha asked of his disciples. It is however essential that, in this process, he does not loose his identity and he retains his core spirituality. It is only then we can say, with confidence, the ancient framework woven around sturdy commonsense, which was suggestive and flexible, is still in operation.
I append the following which I posted in response to comments from the members. This complements the main article.
I do not hold a dim view of the present generation.
When I compare the present day youths to the youths of my generation, I find them better informed ,more aware of the world/s around them and better equipped to choose their options and take decisions relating to their education , carrier and to life in general..
Growing up is dynamic process. We are the children of environment. Civilization creates the environment in which it operates. This blends Man’s mind with the social and economic surroundings and brings about a uniquely dimensioned continuum. This is relevant in all periods, over riding the changes in administration or economic distribution.
Denigration in a society is marked by the absence of acknowledged excellence in the field of academics, literary output, and expression in art, economic activities, social organizations and political administration.
Let us see how we are faring, today, in those areas.
I readily agree we fall far short of excellence in political administration and social organizations. Good governance is still not in sight. The administration in many ways is tied up with avoidable layers of bureaucracy and nepotism. We still have a long way to go. Nevertheless, even in these fields, one has to acknowledge that the public awareness is on increase and some accountability is nudging into the public domain, though haltingly.
The most frightening aspect of the present India is the alarming vivisection of its society into castes and sub castes and the internecine pitched battles to gain the tag of “backward class”. The Supreme Court of India observed “Nowhere else in the world do castes, classes or communities queue up for gaining backward status….No where else in the world is there a competition to assert backwardness and then to claim we are more backward than you.” It is this Frankenstein that is India ’s real nightmare. All other ills flow from this malady. I am not going into the genesis or the pros/cons of it. I hope and pray sanity will prevail and “this too will pass.”
As regards technology, economic growth and global awareness India has made rapid strides mainly due to the initiative, hard work and excellence of its young persons. The literary output has grown rapidly especially when you take into account the richness of the literary works of various forms in the regional language.
There is now a growing awareness of art and art expressions. A more number of young persons are pursuing various art forms than ever before.
Ancient India ’s strength was in the fields of mathematics, logic and philosophy. India was the premier civilization in these fields. There is an anxiety; understandably, the best of our young minds are not entering into these fields. I am confident things will improve.
The young persons we are talking about are first generation that brought affluence in to the Indian middleclass families. There was, therefore, a natural initial urge and anxiety to take off and climb up the economic ladder. The technological base as it gets wider, in due course , is bound to throw up a felt-need for advancement in pure sciences. Many more bright minds will eventually take up to pure sciences. The increase in the number of scholars entering into the Indian Institute of Sciences and other research organizations is a witness to this healthy trend. The next generation of educated young Indians having emerged out of the shadows, hopefully, will have a broader perspective. Even in USA , the pure sciences did not take root until after the end of the first war and most of it was grafted from Europe . (This is no consolation to India .It is just a way of saying it is never too late.)
The excellence in pure sciences, as in art, is related to the general well being, stability and affluence of its society.
A reference is made to aping the western style of living. With the moving of the Indian communities to the West and before that, with the advent of West into India , the “Indian ness” in day-to-day living is definitely diluted. In fact, no nation today is free from the “Western” influence. I think we have to make, here, a distinction between the idiom of day-to-day living; and ones core faith and identity. The urban India has certainly become western in its orientation. I doubt if India has become “western” in spirit.
In case this Forum is taken as a micro sample of young Indians, you will be amazed to find here the interest shown in Indian texts, thought, traditions etc. As I mentioned elsewhere, some of the articles written on these subjects are remarkably good and would make any scholar proud. It enhances the merit of the writings when you consider the authors were not trained or professional historians or Indologists. These persons have other calls in life; but they devote a precious segment of their life to studying, writing and discussing ancient Indian texts, history, thought and way of life for the sheer joy of doing so.
As regards pursuit of Artha, the pursuit by itself was never decried, even in ancient texts. The only requirement was that the process of acquiring wealth should not breach the limits of tolerance set by the Dharma. I presume even our Civil Laws carry the same prescription. There is nothing wrong in trying to earn more or to be competitive so long as you respect the ground rules.
There was a mention about young Indians going away from India . Let me elaborate this a bit. Until about 70s, most of us went to Bombay in search of jobs, careers, dreams and fortunes. This was motivated not merely by a need to earn a living but also by an urge to extricate oneself from the limited confines and to move on to a broader arena that provided scope and opportunities to discover and to realize ones potential or dreams.
I presume the westward movement by the younger generation was driven by similar urge. It may sometimes be important where you are placed. That certainly is not as important as who you are and what you aspire to become.
In matters of technology, economy, global presence and academics, India has done well thanks mainly to the enterprise and hard work of its young Indians. It is also remarkable it has held on to democratic values amidst encircling chaos. The administration and governance have to improve. However, the social and economic disparities are the cause for worry.
Let us hope, as Mr. Micawber said,”something will turn up”
I am not suggesting the task is done and we are there. We are far from that.
The fact there is dissatisfaction about our growth is by itself a good sign. It signifies hunger for better growth
The challenges ahead of young persons of today are many, beginning with the one of finding their own identity. That includes reorienting their way of living, balancing their priorities and lending a sense of direction to their life. This does not come easy. It calls for compromises, sound common sense coupled with flexibility in approach and a willingness to abide by a set of ground rules that safe guards the interests of the society, the family and the individual. It is in this context a look at the evolution of values in the Indian society becomes relevant. India has survived several strifes and torments that threatened to disrupt its social fabric. It has survived those challenges and managed to retain something of its own. This was mainly because India always appreciated the plurality of the identity of its people and their affiliations. This was an out flow from the ancient framework, I mentioned earlier.
There are a number of other contentious issues that have their roots in the social and economic disparities among sections of its society. These have direct impact on the opportunities available to young persons for their growth and development. They are, therefore, serious issues and have the potential to harm the social harmony, if not handled carefully. A sane, suggestive and a flexible approach that appeal to the reasoning of the sections of the society may alone show the way.
Thank you for the comments. Excuse me for the delay in posting the response.
You have made a number of points. Some of them are beyond my ken. I will therefore sum up my position.
I was trying to say about the role of cultural freedom in social living and in the human development, particularly of the young persons. I confined the view to the Indian context. I tried to trace its evolution from the ancient texts to the present day.
When I talked about the cultural freedom, I had the following at the back of mind
— The freedom of human decisions is important.
— Our ability to understand the choices ahead of us, to consider alternative options and to decide what we have reason to want is also important.
— Education is also about helping the children develop this ability; and to help them take decisions any grown up person may have to take.
— The freedom to question the automatic endorsement of past traditions when young people see a reason to improve upon them is essential for the growth of a society. And
— valuing cultural conservation is as important as cultural freedom.
The instances you cited where the children were discouraged from asking questions, and where they were ordered to lock up their minds and obey implicitly ; I agree, are definitely not the signs of our “enduring values”. These aberrations wormed into our society during the periods its decadence. Some of it is still with us. The instances you cited were from an earlier generation. Those tendencies have not disappeared yet, but surely, they are on decline. The youngsters of today, I believe, have a better awareness of the world around them and they cannot so easily be cowed down, as in the past. I am happy about that.
Aithareya Brahmana says the purpose of education (called in the text, as “addha_vidya”) is to transform a child into one who is useful to society and to himself
As regards respect shown to Gurus etc. let me say that respecting your teacher/guru is one thing but not questioning him at all is quite another. This tradition of questioning the teacher has always been there with us and I hope it will continue to be there. If your view were to be accepted, our Acharyas in the past would have merely followed their Gurus and would not have taken the courage to think on their own and come out with their own new messages.
Whenever the tradition kept the common man wrapped in assailing doubts and gnawing indecisions, an Acharyas or a leader arose as in fulfillment of the needs of times. The first step in his quest was to question his teacher.
When we talk of cultural freedom, it also involves the question of valuing cultural conservation. This is where the enduring nature of our values comes into being. You mentioned about the arranged marriages, I do not see it as a cause for embarrassment, so long as the boy, the girl and families are comfortable with the arrangement and all of them are happily united in the decision-making. In addition, you have to view it in the context of the family system that is still working in India. In Love a boy and a girl alone matter. Whereas in a marriage in the Indian society, the families do get involved rather closely and are there forever. The trends of life in the present society are throwing up more justifications/need to keep the system going. Another way of looking at the issue, you mentioned, is that it signifies the regard the young persons have for their parents , especially the mother, and do not like to see their marriage turn into a source of pain to the families. After all, leaving the town in a hurry, catching the next available flight or train is not the only way to/out of your wedding venue.
As regards the matrimonial column, you are right. It is an embarrassment.
The problem of old parents left to fend for themselves is a growing problem.. More often, the necessity of earning a living at a far-off place is at the root of these problems. Most of us are its victims. But, I do not see this as a deliberate neglect. There are no quick fixes here
I do not take a dim view of our literary and art put. They are doing well than in the past.
As regards Dalits and others, the social equations are changing, they are aware of it. They learnt to assert their rights. Things have definitely improved and will.
Arnold Toynbee defined civilization as a pattern woven by the interaction between challenges and responses. Those challenges may come from many quarters including social and cultural stresses. The response will always have to be creative, individually satisfying and socially relevant, if the society were to have a healthy growth.
Growth is a dynamic process, there will always be challenges and, eventually, we have to come up with right answers willy-nilly. Nevertheless, at the end there will always be a few unanswered questions. That is what Sharath _Chandra, the great novelist, called Sesha _ Prashna. He said that was another name for life.