What does Indic Culture or the Indic Way need?

Culture is defined as a lived experience of people and changes ever so gently through time. The impact of the past, including ancient history on current culture, cannot be denied. Constant study and testing against lived experience knock away the needless exigencies and nudges a people forward. This progress further refines the philosophical foundation of that culture.

The entire western civilization is significantly influenced by Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle's ancient Greek Philosophies. An in-depth and Socratic study of these philosophies continues to date, past research providing a foundation for further thought and refinement.

The culture of continuous study, building over the foundation of the past, remains a distinct feature of the western world. It creates an evolving cultural continuum that enriches and gives intellectual heft to their world view. The over-reliance on using that one view makes it almost imperative to integrate every thought and study every philosophy from that viewpoint.

What is the influence of this lens on people born in another cultural tradition? Would there be a conflict between education and inquiry done through a wrong lens on another cultural continuum, which is also a lived experience and transferred from generation to generation? One can argue, and with enough reason, that such a conflict must deliver an extraordinary impact on the way we perceive the world. It would not escape attention that our cultural influences are significantly absent from the world we inhabit. This feeling of being culturally insignificant in a modern society substantially impacts how we perceive our heritage.

Let us now turn our gaze towards India, specifically to its culture and the way it is studied. There seem to be two distinct arguments. One considers ancient Indic Literature as a representative of theology and irrelevant to modern times. The other side believes all knowledge, whether contemporary or classical, is almost like a déjà vu. Thus, one can magically attribute anything current to some unknown scroll in antiquity.

The problems of apathy or exaggerated belief stem from the same common trait, lack of academic rigor. The debate between these two positions can be very engaging. However, it only derails the effort at a better understanding of India.

Surprisingly, a country with as many ethnicities, languages, and a history of being ruled as separate kingdoms has many common traits, mostly cultural. Some cultural features have been debilitating for creating a just society. Many other features ensured that Indic Civilisation survived continuous onslaughts over centuries.

It is a modern myth that the Indic Civilisation did not reduce much into writing and is predominantly an oral tradition. The truth is quite to the contrary. Among the ancient civilizations, Indians were prolific in producing written manuscripts. The problem seems to be the lack of scholarship to read, translate, and propagate these writings. Nothing escaped the written word in the Indic way, theology, philosophy, statecraft, economics, astronomy, mathematics, and medicine.

For the sake of making a cogent argument, let us turn our gaze to Philosophy. Most philosophical traditions do intersect with theology. They present an argument for and against some theological propositions. This intersection is not surprising as it stems from the same desire ; to know the reason for existence and understand the purpose of life. The need to define or explore a raison d’etre remains a challenge to human cognitive abilities.

At the very foundation of all theology is the “creation myth” or a cosmogonic myth. This myth answers how the world began and how people came to be upon it. Indic Culture also has a creation myth; it is the “Nasadiya Sukta” in the Rig Veda. In total contrast to the Judeo-Christian creation myth, which is a definitive story of creation, the Nasadiya Sukta is contemplative. At its end, it states, “But, after all, who knows, and who can say, Whence it all came, and how creation happened? the gods themselves are later than creation, so who knows truly whence it has arisen?” it goes even further in its contemplation “Whence all creation had its origin, the creator, whether he fashioned it or whether he did not, the creator, who surveys it all from highest heaven, he knows — or maybe even he does not know.” The difference between definitive answers and contemplative questions is undoubtedly a foundational difference between two world views. This contention is not to glorify one culture over the other but to highlight a critical difference, the foundational difference in world view.

The problem of promoting an Indic culture is not a problem of a lack of philosophical insights relevant to the times. In current times there is a greater desire to find oneself, especially peace and happiness. This quest for individual meaning cannot be satisfied by absolutist assertions. The need is for an intellectual pursuit based on an exploration of the unknown and individualistic. Most Indic philosophies are based on the premise, “ I do not know.” Instead of claims, it is based on keen observation, insights, and searching questions driving one deeper into oneself. The belief seems to be that the discovery of self “atman” leads to the discovery of God “Brahman.” In non-theological terms, the discovery of self leads to finding more significant meaning in the world. This method dovetails perfectly with the modern, liberal world view.

One of the problems with promoting the Indic way is the excessive focus on rituals, specific lifestyle choice recommendations, promotion of gender biases within lifestyles, trying to defend the scripture from serious social issues like caste discrimination, and many such problems. These problems are self-imposed by otherwise well-meaning proponents of the Indic way. We need not shun ritual but have to move it away from the center stage.

The other thing peculiar to the way we propagate Indic Culture is the excessively obsequious behavior couched under the garb of culture. At a subconscious level, the assumption is that there a particular dress code and body language. This body language comes across as excessively obsequious and quaintly funny, an act not in line with our everyday behavior.

Let us go back to the point of exaggerated belief, which wants everyone to believe that all knowledge, whether contemporary or classical, is almost like a déjà vu. The contention that space travel, jet planes, plastic surgery existed in the past in a glorious age that disappeared does not have any evidence. However, what the proponents of this end up doing is give ammunition to the other side to mock genuine achievements in Astronomy, mathematics, and medicine that are part of the Indic Civilisation. The absence of academic rigor that checks and verifies sources and then lays a claim based on evidence diminishes the greatness of the scientific achievements. The mocking opponents win, and both sides contribute equally in creating a peculiarly self-loathing, rootless populace. The genuine achievements of Aryabhatta, Sushruta, Pingala, or Brahmagupta get lost in this din.

Paradoxically, educating the new generations in the Indic Way requires taking a genuine step back into antiquity and re-discovering real philosophical foundations and contributions to science. The effort is not to enhance propaganda but to fund academic study and encourage debate. The focus has to be on a) philosophical discussions on dharma, karma, atman and brahman and the various schools of thought, b) recognizing that each school of thought evolved by questioning a status quo, i.e., a proposition that hitherto was immutable c) not imposing uniformity in the name of behavior, whether it is what we wear, the language we speak, gender behaviour because the essence of the Indic way is the freedom to explore d) to understand that rituals may represent cultural continuity but are not a vital ingredient of the Indic Way e) excessive reverence bordering on obsequiousness is definitely not part of a culture which is based on questioning the very existence of God and does not shy away from challenging any philosophical premise f) academic study of the actual scriptures and scientific treatises on which debates have to be based upon g) and finally to predicate all of the above to discuss, debate and propagate the building of a progressive liberal society based on the Indic view.

The Indic way is ideally a culture built less on rituals, rooted in philosophy, subject to critical scrutiny, progress in science, confident of its heritage but free of dogma and discrimination. This cultural package not based on dogmas would not just appeal to Indians or those with Indian roots but a global audience. This appeal would translate into greater interest and more study as the treasure trove of literature and manuscripts that await them is almost inexhaustible. More importantly, we will build a confident generation, connected to the past, and that which helps in building a modern, liberal world without losing its connection to the Indic Way.


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