Thursday, September 15, 2005

Our culture
Dr. K.Rohiniprasad

Culture is a very complicated concept. In the social context it keeps changing with time. By definition the word culture comes from the Latin root colere (to inhabit, to cultivate, or to honour). In general, it refers to human activity; different definitions of culture reflect different theories for understanding, or criteria for valuing, human activity.
Anthropologists use the term to refer to the universal human capacity to classify experiences, and to encode and communicate them symbolically. Cultures are both predisposed to change and resistant to it. Resistance can come from habit, religion and the integration and interdependence of culture traits. Cultural change can be caused by the environment, inventions and other internal influences, and contact with other cultures. For example, the end of the last ice age helped lead to the invention of agriculture."

Tradition is what we try and NOT change. But new traditions keep cropping up. By definition it "is an inherited pattern of thought or action or custom and a specific practice of long standing". It is also called "The unwritten or oral delivery of information, opinions, doctrines, practices, rites, and customs, from father to son, or from ancestors to posterity; the transmission of any knowledge, opinions, or practice, from forefathers to descendants by oral communication, without written memorials". The stress is on the unwritten aspect.

The visible Indian cultural symbols like sari, muggulu (rangoli) are part of our culture and give us an identity. There are of course more important things like classical music, literature which give more detailed definition of Indian culture. But change is inevitable. Saying Thanks, Sorry etc was not a part of our culture before the Westerners came but now it is UNCULTUTRED not to say these words! Other things like modern brahmins not shaving their heads clean, not wearing dhotis are all obvious changes. People still go back to these 'traditions' during death ceremonies or marriages since they feel they should not forego what are obviously traditions of a bygone era. Inevitably, the hair grows back and men become 'modern' once again!

It is easy to lose touch with culture. If our children cannot read/write/speak their mother-tongue, it is happening right in front of our eyes. But if we don't know how to perform pujas or other religious ceremonies, does it mean we have lost touch with our culture/tradition? Is it necessary to indulge in dated rituals to re-establish our credentials? Our ancients performed yagnas and animal sacrifices routinely. One cannot do such things these days without violating laws. When the king of Nepal performed animal sacrifices in India there was a hue and cry. It is one thing to KNOW the significance and beliefs that led ancients to indulge in animal sacrifices (or worse) and to undertake to do them today. To what era can we hark back in the name of culture and tradition? One millennium old, two millennia? What if we go all the way back to our primitive, cave-dwelling ways? Where do we draw the line? It is therefore necessary to discriminate between the acceptable and unacceptable parts of our culture and traditions. Home remedies and eco-friendly architectural practices are being re-examined in view of the damage to our health and environmental by rapacious consumerist-capitalist forces that do not hesitate to resort to any trick in the name of profit. There is a lot to learn from our past without resorting to ridiculous and obscurantist practices.

In India (and only here) do religion and culture look inseparable. People don't seem to understand the difference. The modern Greeks and Romans are as proud of their past as we are about ours, but they don't worship Zeus and Apollo today. It is only in India that we continue to indulge in elaborate and age-old religious rituals and sing praises of Venkateswara as if in competition with Annamacharya of 15th century! Our temples are in continuous use for the last 1000 years or more. It is amazing to realize that we are reluctant to take a sober, dispassionate and critical look at our past.

Cultural identity is important though. It need not be confined to religion. We have several regional languages and art-forms in India and regional cultures should be strengthened. Imposition of Hindi culture on the other regions is a big mistake because most of them have much stronger roots and richer heritage. Nationalism will improve with the strengthening of sub-national cultures.

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