Sunday, March 22, 2015

I am an Indian - What is my Culture?

This post is written for Indiblogger IndiSpire #57

Religion? Tradition? God? Language? Scripture? Food? Attire???????????

What is Indian Culture…..?

What is Indian culture? I brood and brood and brood. I cannot find a conclusive answer.

I remember my mom narrating stories about the time she was in Europe. She was a child then. My grandfather worked in Indian Foreign Service. My grandmother was an epitome of beauty and grace. She was also the carrier of 'culture' from India to Europe. My mom used to show me pictures of my grandmother wearing the most beautiful Indian sarees and she always wore a big red bindi on her forehead. She was an expert in exquisite Indian dishes. That made me think of culture as the clothes we wear and the foods we eat. 

Then I was reminded of the religious rituals we followed every year. There were certain festivals we celebrated in our own peculiar ways. So, maybe culture is the religion we follow, I thought. But then, it was my culture. I thought about the people who had different belief-systems and celebrated different rituals and festivals while living in India. It was their religion, their culture. Maybe, the fact that we co-existed, and were tolerant as well as respectful to others' faith made us Indian. That was Indian culture.

The question kept on prodding and poking my brain. My mind went on a roller-coaster ride from mythological stories to the good as well as the infamous practices of our ancestors. Everything had been assimilated as Indian culture. If there was sati, there was reform. If there was casteism, there was a Gandhi. At different times, at different places, traditions and practices had defined the values of the society and that had become part of a mega-term which came to be called Indian culture. The notion of 'Indian' came only after the aftermath of colonialism, I guess, when the concept of nationhood emerged. 

So culture was a conglomeration of the many and myriad sub-cultures of the varied section of society. It became a matter of pride and definition when my grandmother donned the traditional Indian attire in front of her European counterparts and made them drool over the mouth-watering 'Indian' delicacies she prepared. But then my grandfather wore 'western' clothes, and that did not make him a non-Indian. In fact, he too was carrying the idea of a welcoming 'Indian' abroad. They both were doing their bit of carrying forward the idea of being an Indian. One stood for assimilation and the other for differentiation. 

I thought about the many languages we speak. I thought of  the scriptures we have read. I thought of the Brahmavadinis who had defined ancient India and the hidden muted women behind the veil in the Mughal era. I thought of the journeys that our ancestors had made at different points in history. These journeys had caused a further mishmash of practices. I pondered over the recent news I had read about Asian men carrying the DNA of the Mongolian ruler Ghenghis Khan.

History abounded in stories of creation, disruption, recreation, rebellion and redefinition. Past narrated stories of change, stories of regression and progress. There was so much that was part of the Indian history that had defined what we are today.

Then, there was the architecture. The caves of Ajanta and Ellora, that monument of love - Taj Mahal, those great centers of learning - the ancient universities of Nalanda and Takshila, the havelis of Rajasthan, the great temples of South, the Sanchi Stupa of Buddha, the great Ashoka pillar of the Mauryan emperor who preached that 'Contact (between religions) is good. One should listen to and respect the doctrines professed by others. Beloved-of-the-Gods, King Piyadasi, desires that all should be well-learned in the good doctrines of other religions.'(Source - Wikipedia, Edicts of Asoka)

I could not find a single, all-encompassing definition for the term 'Indian Culture'. What this investigation did to me however was very uplifting. It made me dig deep into who we are. It made me feel that the people who create divisions in our society in the name of 'Indian Culture' are actually the one who lack the knowledge of what constitutes Indian identity. These are the people who taint the 'culture' by malicious thought. They are not the receptacles of  culture. They are not the custodians of our past. The more they harp on restrictive ideologies, the more our identity will shine. Because we have resilience. Because we can fight back. After all, as Iqbal says

'कुछ बात है कि हस्ती मिटती नहीं हमारी' 

There is something in us that fights back and does not let us die.

I am a flow….I am a process….I keep defining myself….I am what you were and what you will be…..I am your culture.

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  1. You make several excellent points regarding "custodians of the past" and "journeys of the past" having contributed to Indian culture. There were also conquests and civil wars until the "emergence of nationhood". Culture is not objective. It is not defined by shaastras or siddhantas or any such weapons of oppression for the maliciously "righteous".These ancient words of wisdom lose meaning outside the context of culture and become twisted in the hands of self-serving "godmen" and politicians and such.
    Great piece!

    1. Thank you so much Purujeet......I am so glad you got the right message out of this post....We are forever evolving....I see that you are into science fiction....Why don't you write something on this - What is the culture of science in India?...From ancient to the present times?....I mean how have scientific thoughts evolved over time....?

  2. I have always pondered over the answer for the same. What is Indian culture? And I don't think if anyone really has a conclusive answer. You are right when you say that the people who create such a fuss over Indian culture are the ones who have little knowledge on what it really is.

    Thanks for this article, maybe time has come for me to explore this as well.

    1. Yes Uday. It is a very difficult question. My post itself is more of a query rather than an answer. Thanks for stopping by. Do share your thoughts on the topic when you explore more on it.