(Article published in the December 2012 special edition of The Vedanta Kesari, monthly journal of Sri Ramakrishna Math)
Before I answer the question of what Indian youth need to know about Indian culture, perhaps it is more pertinent to ask ‘what do Indian youth know about Indian culture today?’ The typical response to this question would be ‘very little’ or ‘nothing.’
An undergraduate student at a school where I offer course on Indian Culture, shared this new finding about Swami Vivekananda: ‘Swami Vivekananda spoke in Tamil at the World Parliament of Religions held in South Africa!’ (sic)
Perhaps, I might across as a bit cynical, but having taught Indian Culture to undergraduate students for ten years now, I have learnt to be not just optimistic but more realistic in my assessment of where the younger generation stands today vis-a-vis Indian Culture.
The current situation or problem is simply born out of choice. There are many lifestyle choices available to Indian youth today. A hundred years ago, Indians did not have to make cultural and lifestyle choices like we do today.
Added to this problem of choice, is the handicap of ignorance. Today’s youth are not making a well- informed choice. It is not that they have examined the pros and cons of the lifestyles they choose or reject, it is simply a herd mentality which we all grow up with. We follow blindly whatever our peers do.
The young Indian is obsessed with the latest trends of globalization, to him what is new is cool and fashionable and all that is old is not even worth trying. Whether it is the latest fashion in clothing, be it a low rise jeans or a trendy jacket, or a major lifestyle choice such as a ‘live-in’ relationship, the young Indian says newest is the best.
Therefore, it is important that we create a system within the family, in the schools and colleges and in our local societies, which can impart knowledge of the foundations of Indian culture to the youth and engage them in a dialogue to address their doubts, so that they can make a wise choice based on a clear understanding of the stakes involved.
Let us examine some ‘frequently asked questions’ about Indian culture with the hope that the resolution provided to these FAQs will help the readers to engage the younger generation in a fruitful dialogue.
Is Indian Culture outmoded?
All that is old or ancient is not necessarily outdated and all that is new may not be good, even if it is fashionable. In this simple advice, lies the key to understanding young India’s predicament.
The young Indian wears a peculiar brand of tinted glasses on his eyes. When he looks to the West, he sees only milk and honey. ‘Look at how disciplined and civic conscious they are, look at their clean cities and orderly queues,’ he says. When he looks at India with his tinted glasses, he sees only dirt and squalor here. ‘Our politicians and bureaucrats are corrupt, the situation is hopeless. India is doomed unless we change and become like the West.’
If the West is truly so progressive and faultless, why is there such seething discontent and turmoil within? This discontent found expression in the ‘Occupy’ movement recently which is seeking answers to the economic inequality and exploitation created by a world controlled by large corporations which disproportionately benefit a minority. Just a hundred years of this western economic and technological advance has the brought much of the earth’s natural resources to the brink of an irreversible collapse.
And is there no corruption or social evil then in Europe or USA today? If so, why is that the leading intellectuals of the West are predicting their own eventual implosion owing to social degeneration:
“Taking recent rioting in Greece as my starting point… I argue that Western nations are in terminal decline unless they can rediscover the true meaning and value of marriage and of the blessing of children as a gift to married couples and to society in general.”
Let us listen to the sane voice of Swami Vivekananda who diagnosed this disease of the young Indian long ago and warned us against it:
“On one side, new India is saying, “If we only adopt Western ideas, Western language, Western food, Western dress, and Western manners, we shall be as strong and powerful as the Western nations”; on the other, old India is saying, “Fools! By imitation, other’s ideas never become one’s own; nothing, unless earned, is your own. Does the ass in the lion’s skin become the lion?” On one side, new India is saving, “What the Western nations do is surely good, otherwise how did they become so great?” On the other side, old India is saying, “The flash of lightning is intensely bright, but only for a moment; look out, boys, it is dazzling your eyes. Beware! ” (CW, IV:477)
This is precisely our condition today and nobody could have put it more poignantly than the patriot monk of India who had great faith in the foundational values of Indian civilization.
Young India must understand that Swami Vivekananda was not being emotional or sentimental in their defence of India. His intellect pierced through the superficialities of external appearances and he had the discrimination to see differentiate between the ephemeral and eternal. Let us learn from the story of the rise and downfall of many great civilizations and respect the fact that if India has not yet succumbed to a similar fate, then there must be some strength in our culture which has withstood the agni pariksha of Time, the all-destroyer.
Can Indian Culture guarantee success in the modern world?
Success for the young Indians today is purely a materialistic term. An individual’s success is measured by his bank balance. Only those things are valuable to us which have a good market value. Young India therefore wants a ‘culture’ which can guarantee materialistic prosperity. Swami Vivekananda would look down upon us and perhaps say, ‘Fine! So be it. Have your fill of materialism before you understand success in a more subtle sense.”
Yes my dear young friends, India was successful for more than a millennium in the materialistic sense. According to the economic historian Angus Maddison, India had the world’s largest economy during the years 1 AD and 1000 AD. And India continued to be a major economic power till the British systematically reduced it to one of the poorest nations on earth.
Left to ourselves, our cultural traits have aided us in creating wealth and prosperity for society. Paul Johnson, a columnist for the Forbes magazines comments on these remarkable cultural traits which continue to contribute to the success of the Indian Diaspora all over the world:
“When left to themselves, Indians always prosper as a community. Take the case of Uganda’s Indian population, which was expelled by the horrific dictator Idi Amin and received into the tolerant society of Britain. There are now more millionaires in this group than in any other recent immigrant community in Britain. They are a striking example of how far hard work, strong family bonds and a devotion to education can carry a people who have been stripped of all their worldly assets.”
Swami Vivekananda had more faith in human beings than in all the material wealth of the world:
“First of all, try to understand this: Does man make laws, or do laws make man? Does man make money, or does money make man? Does man make name and fame, or name and fame make man? Be a man first, my friend, and you will see how all those things and the rest will follow of themselves after you.” (CW, V:491)
Management gurus who are predicting the implosion of Western economies are turning towards the wisdom of the Bhagavad Gita and the Artha Shastra today. Success is an unfoldment of the inner strength of individual. It is such cultured individuals to make a society successful and not the other way round.
What about India’s social evils?
Young India wants to clean up all the social ills of Indian society in a jiffy. Generation X and their ancestors in social reform, in their hurry to clean up, have often ended up creating more problems than solving any.
Swamiji was at his humorous best when he sarcastically commented on pseudo-reformers who considered the West as a benchmark in resolving the problems of Indian women. When one such reformer asked him about his views on widow remarriage, Swamiji retorted,
“I am asked again and again, what I think of the widow problem and what I think of the woman question. Let me answer once for all — am I a widow that you ask me that nonsense? Am I a woman that you ask me that question again and again? Who are you to solve women’s problems? Are you the Lord God that you should rule over every widow and every woman? Hands off! They will solve their own problems. O tyrants, attempting to think that you can do anything for any one! Hands off! The Divine will look after all. Who are you to assume that you know everything?” (CW, III: 207)
Similarly, during his tour of the US, an American lady made a reference to the British propaganda surrounding the myth of Indian mothers throwing unwanted babies into the Ganga. Swamiji jovially replied, “Yes Madam! My mother also threw me into the Ganga. But I was so fat that no crocodile could swallow me, and here I am lecturing to you, having crossed the Indian Ocean.” (CW, IV:161)
Swamiji repeatedly cautioned that India should not accept ideas, reforms or social practices coming from the West without critical examination and validation in the light of the foundational values of Indian civilization. He never advocated throwing the baby out with the bath water.
This does not mean that we are asked to go back to the traditional customs of the past. Customs and rituals are but expressions of the culture of Bharatavarsha. Sometimes, the expression may become distorted over a period of time owing to incursions and deviations. But as long as the soul is untouched, the culture lives on and readapts itself to the changing needs of the people. The Bhagavad Gita teaches us that when the body becomes old and diseased, it is discarded like a piece of old, worn out cloth and the soul finds a new body. So it is with customs and social practices.
If some of our customs and practices have become outmoded, we have the freedom to do away with them as a gardener would chop off deadwood to prevent the rot from spreading in order to save the tree. But have gained the eligibility to sit in judgement over Indian society or to reform its complex mechanisms? Only a person who loves India deeply can gain the authority to change it.
The Core of Indian Culture
So, what is this soul of India which has survived in spite of many ups and downs that we have witnessed over millennia? The core of Indian Culture is the Vedic vision of life. As long as this spiritual worldview is alive and handed down in tact from generation to generation, India will not only survive but thrive in the ages to come with many new expressions of creativity. Swami Vivekananda never tired of reminding us about the core of Indian Culture in his spirited exhortations:
“…as long as this principal function of our life is not disturbed, nothing can destroy our nation. But mark you, if you give up that spirituality, leaving it aside to go after the materialising civilisation of the West, the result will be that in three generations you will be an extinct race; because the backbone of the nation will be broken, the foundation upon which the national edifice has been built will be undermined, and the result will be annihilation all round.”
Will Young India heed the advice of savants like Vivekananda or will it turn away from its heritage and become an imitation of foreign cultures? Swamiji had great faith in the younger generation and hence it does not behove us to be cynical. But, having said that, it is important to reiterate what was said in the beginning of this article – it is imperative and urgent that we create systems to disseminate knowledge of Indian Culture to the youth.
There is perhaps no better way of spreading awareness of Indian Culture than by making Vivekananda literature accessible to the youth. As we participate in the 150th Jayanti celebrations of Swami Vivekananda, let us all take a resolve to create at least one Vivekananda Study Circle in our local societies to herald a silent transformation of the youth of India.
M. Pramod Kumar
(The author is Assistant Professor and Coordinator of the Department of Cultural Education at Amrita University in Coimbatore, Tamilnadu.)