Culture of India: Introduction


Definition of culture

Culture has been defined in a number of ways.

“culture is that complex whole which includes knowledge, belief, art, morals, law, custom and any other capabilities acquired by men as a member of society”.

“culture is the acquainting by ourselves with the best, that has been known and said in the world.”

“culture is an organized body of conventional understandings manifest in art and artifacts, which persisting through tradition, characterizes a human group”.

K.M.Panikkar defines culture, “as the complex of ideas, conceptions, developed qualities and organized relationship and courtesies that exist generally in a society”.

Thus culture, broadly speaking, consists of languages, ideas, beliefs, customs, taboos, codes, institutions, tools, techniques, works of art, rituals, ceremonies, and other related components and development of culture depends upon man’s capacity to learn and to transmit knowledge to succeeding generations.

Evolution of Indian Culture

The cultural history of India, as of other countries, can be divided into three periods:  the ancient, the medieval and the modern.  But it is necessary to remember that these three periods in Indian history to do not correspond to those in the European in point of time.  The ancient period in India begins about 5000 B.C. and continues up to the end of the tenth century AD, the medieval period continues up to the start of the eighteenth century, and so the modern period is only two and three – quarter centuries old.

India is the country in the world which has a very ancient culture and civilization that is, continuous till date without a break.  Though there were more ancient civilizations, notably in Egypt and Iraq, these have been virtually forgotten by the inhabitants of those lands and overlaid by new intrusivecultures.  India’s cultural history of several thousand years, on the other hand, shows a subtle but strong thread of continuity, epitomized in the assimilative power of the culture and unique display of ‘unity in diversity’.  In respect of the length of continuous cultural tradition China comes second to India and Greece makes a poor third.

Until the beginning of the twentieth century the historians believed that the secondary stage of culture began in India after the advent of the Aryans about 1500 B.C.  so that Indian culture was regarded as the youngest among the ancient cultures. However, the excavations at Harappa in West Punjab and Mohenjodaro in Sind established that there existed much earlier, in the Bronze Age, i.e., around 3250 B.C., a fairly advanced urban civilization in the valley of the Indus.  This culture is believed to have reached its zenith in around 3000 B.C. and continued till about 2000 B.C. when it was destroyed probably by barbarous hordes from the West.  Some of the main features of Indian culture are as old as this prehistoric culture.  The pre-Vedic Harappa culture bequeathed to later times sacred animals and trees, the Mother Goddess, the preoccupation with personal cleanliness, and, less certainly, other aspects of Indian culture.

About 1500 B.C. while the Dravidian culture was flourishing in the south, the dark period following the destruction of the Indus valley civilization was coming to an end in the north-west and immigrant Aryans were laying the foundation of new culture, called the Vedic culture (2000 B.C. -1000 B.C.) infused with vigour and vitality.  From the Vedic Aryans came many of the gods, the Vedic Hymns, some of the most important personal rituals of Hinduism, the patriarchal and patrilineal family system, and the horse.  Later Vedic-times (c.1000-600 B.C.) saw the crystallization of four classes (varnas) of Hindu society, the introduction of iron from Western Asia, the domestication of elephant, and the development of kingdoms out of Tribal Chieftainships.  It also brought the passion for speculation on ultimate causes, the search for the absolute, the doctrine of transmigration, and the search for release from the cycle of rebirth, and mystical gnosis.

In following three hundred years coined money became common, and writing known in the time Harappa culture and later forgotten, became widespread.  Heterodox teachers, chief of whom was Buddha, spread new doctrines which bypassed the gods.

During 600B.C. – 200B.C. new current of religious and philosophical thought sprang up of which Buddhism, Jainism and six schools of Hindu philosophy are worth mentioning.  From the point of view of cultural history this was a period of debate in which Hinduism, Jainism and Buddhism were the major contender.  Finally, it was Hinduism that emerged victorious from the struggle and Buddhism practically disappeared from the country, but it left a deep and lasting impression on the Indian life.  Also, this period marks the real beginning of Indian history.  About the preceding period, our knowledge is semi-historical, because its major source is the Vedic literature which gives us only some glimpses of social and cultural life of the time and that to not in chronological framework.  Whereas, for the first time, for 600BC-200BC period we get a more or less authentic historical account of events through Hindu, Buddhist and Jain literature and the writings of the Greeks who had contact with India during the period.  Political developments over this period led to the first great empire India, that of Mauryas, when for the first time most of the subcontinent was united under a single government.  It was in the period 320 B.C. – 185 B.C. the Machiavellian system of state craft associated with the minister Kautilya, the author of the Arthasastra, was produced.  The earliest surviving stone sculpture of India, the oldest artificial caves and the most ancient Buddhist stupas also belong to the Maurya period.  Under Asoka (c.272-232B.C) Buddhism increased its influence and was taken to Ceylon.

Tremendous developments in Indian civilization occurred during the 500 years between the Mauryas and the Guptas (c.184 B.C. to 320 A.D.), partly due to fresh influences brought in by various invaders and traders, and partly the result of internal developments.  New forms of devotional religion centering round the gods Vishnu and Siva emerged, leading to composition of the Bhagwad Gita.  Buddhism developed a theology, the Mahayana, which was carried to China.  Schools of law appeared, codifying in written from earlier traditions.  The two great epics of India, the Mahabharata and the Ramayana, were composed.  Courtly literature began developing out of vanished prototypes.  Logically reasoned philosophical schools emerged, as distinct from the older religious teachers, most of whose arguments were analogical.

The period from the rise of Guptas to the death of Harshvardhana (320-647) can truly be called the classical period of Indian civilization.  This period witnessed the making of the greatest sculpture of ancient India and the composition of the finest literature, in the poems and plays of Kalidasa.  This was the time of the best surviving ancient Indian mural painting, typified by Ajanta.  Knowledge also grew in this period.  India’s most important practical contribution to the world, the system of place notation of numerals, with nine digits and a zero, was also known by 500 AD, and led to the great development of Indian mathematics and astronomy.  The Mother Goddess, after centuries of neglect, became an important object of worship again.  Stone-built temples appeared throughout the land.

Between the death of Harshvardhana and the coming of Islam (647-c.1200) ecstatic devotional religion (bhakti) associated with the singing of hymns in the common tongue, appeared in Tamil Nadu, later on spread it all over the subcontinent.  Temples became larger and grander, with spiraling towers.  The system of hathayoga was developed and tantrism, with its sacramentalisation of sex, spread both Hinduism and Buddhism.  Sankara and Ramanuja emerged as the greatest teachers of Hindu religious philosophy.  Some of the finest schools of bronze casting appeared in Bengal and Tamil Nadu.  Bengal also developed a fine school of miniature painting.

With the advent of Islam fresh cultural influences made themselves felt.  The Sultanate period (1192-1526) saw the introduction of new styles of architecture, bringing the dome and arch.  New school of miniature painting, both Muslim and Hindu, emerged.  Sufi teachers disseminated the doctrines of Islam and helped to make the religious climate of northern India favourable to the spread of popular devotional Hinduism from the South.  Paper was introduced, slowly replacing the traditional Indian writing materials – palm leaf and birch bark.  Urdu language began to appear as lingua franca of northern India and poets began to compose in the everyday languages instead of classical Sanskrit.

The period of Mughal Empire _1526-1707) witnessed the perfection of the schools of Muslim architecture and miniature painting with the production of such splendid buildings as the Taj Mahal at Agra.  Cannon and smaller fire arms began to be used in warfare.  European established trading centres at various ports, and through them, especially the Portuguese, new crops were introduced into India such as potato, tobacco, pineapple, spices, chilli peppers etc.  The Sikh religion was born just as this period began, as a small devotional sect, and at about the time when the period concluded it was reborn as a martial brotherhood, to play an important part in confused political life of the following century.

The eighteenth century saw the break-up of Mughal Empire and steady expansion of the power of the British East India Company.  It was a time of general cultural decline in India, but the genius of the land was till at work.  Urdu language, little used hitherto as a medium of literary expression became the vehicle of great poetry at the decadent courts of Delhi and Lucknow; while in the Himalayan foot-hills, at the end of the century at the petty courts of local maharajas, by some unexplainable miracle, there worked painters who produced works of unprecedental beauty and sensitivity.  With the nineteenth century the sub-continent was exposed to the full force of Western influence, and innovations are too numerous to list.

Thus   the survey of the history of cultural change in India shows that, as long as civilization has existed there, the country has never been stagnant, but has steadily developed through the ages.  India has enjoyed over 4000 years of civilization, and every period of her history has left something to the present day.