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What kept Indian culture alive despite so many invasions? || Acharya Prashant, with SPA Delhi (2023)
Author Acharya Prashant
Acharya Prashant
12 min
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Question (Q): Good evening, Sir. My question is about India's culture. We are proud of India as a country of rich cultural heritage, but in the last thousand years, there were several invasions by the Persians, the Arabs, the Mughals, the British etc.; still our culture is relevant, and we are known worldwide for it. I wish to know what kept Indian culture alive despite so many invasions?

Acharya Prashant(AP): Maybe I need to append the question a little. Maybe we lost out to so many invaders just because of the culture, maybe. See, what is culture? Kindly define.

Q: The way we live our lives.

AP: Which is the way your beliefs are organized in your head, right? The way you talk to each other, common beliefs, way of communication, way of celebration, way of eating, way of dressing up, even your architecture, your language—all that comes in culture, right? Mostly beliefs is what constitutes culture—shared beliefs. Now, what is more important—Truth or belief?

Q: Truth is important, but it's not completely black and white. Like, if a person is not able to have something to believe in, the Truth is just objective, it's not a motive. We have a purpose because we have a belief. So, that's what keeps us going.

AP: So, if that belief is not rooted in the Truth, then you will have a purpose, but that purpose will have nothing to do with the Truth. What's the point of having such a purpose? If your purpose is coming from your beliefs and not the Truth, what good is the purpose? Just because you are following certain practices since long, do those practices become equivalent to the Truth or a substitute for the Truth?

Also, what you call as your culture varies from city to city. I am not even talking of North and South, I am saying it varies city to city. Also, what you call as your current culture is simply the culture you have been following since last fifteen hundred years; before that, the culture was very different. And if you go five centuries back, the culture was entirely different. So, what do you mean by 'your' culture? You mean the culture of the nineteenth and the twentieth century, right? Believe me, you don't follow the culture of the seventeenth, eighteenth century. Why don't you follow that culture? If value lies in everything that is in the past, why don't you go further back in the past? Why go back only one century? Why not ten centuries?

Clothing, for example, is a part of culture. Look at the stuff you are wearing. Where did it come from? It is not in your culture. Why are you wearing this? The language we are talking in, is not a part of your culture. Why are you communicating to me in this alien language? In fact, even the pose you are sitting in is not coming from your culture; it is very Western. Why are you sitting in that pose?

Chips, where have they come from? Pizza? Okay, chips and pizza we anyway scoff at because of their western origins. How about the dress that you wear in your festivals? Where is Kurtā pyjama coming from? It was not there ten centuries back. It is coming from the same invaders. Oh, so bad. Ālū , potato and tomato—they were not there in the Vaidika times. Invaders brought them very recently, both tomato and potato. But you enjoy Ālū like anything. “ Ālū was not a part of our culture?” No sir, no Ālū . For all those who keep talking only of Sanskṛuti , keep Ālū away first thing; Ālū is a foreign thing, the invaders brought it actually.

What do you mean exactly by rich culture? What is this richness in culture? To me, only Satya is rich, only Truth is rich; all else is nothing. The fireworks that you celebrate so much in Diwali, do you think you were having fireworks three centuries back? Again, that is something that has a foreign imprint on that. But today you say it is an inalienable part of my culture. What do you mean by your culture? What you call as your culture is largely the culture of those who invaded you, but today you worship that as your own culture. And the thing that deserves to be worshipped— Satya , Truth, you have totally forgotten that.

When a woman wears saree and covers her head, you say, "Look, Lajjā , this shyness, this modesty is Indian culture." Were Indian women covering their heads in pre-Islamic times? Figure that out. How is it your culture now? It is the culture of the invaders, the same invaders that you hate so much. And you use your culture to hate them, the fact is even your culture is coming from the invaders.

Pulao (a rice dish)—where is Pulao coming from? Most of the food items on your plate today, you will not like it when you hear where they are coming from. And many food items that you do not like today, they were originally a part of your culture, for example, Somras . Today you say, all the Sanskṛutivādī will say, "Alcohol is so bad, alcohol is so bad." The thing is, if you go to the Vedas , continuously even the Ṛuṣhis are praising Soma . Indra is especially fond of Soma . It was Islamic morality in which alcohol was banned. It is Islam that detests alcohol a lot—"Alcohol is bad, alcohol is bad."

So, do you know where your aversion to alcohol is coming from? It is coming from the invaders. In your culture, alcohol was great. Not that everybody was a drunkard, but nobody was taking the issue of alcohol very seriously. It is alright, let there be some Soma , and it used to be a part even of religious offerings. So, Ṛuṣhis have gathered and there you have Somras .

What is your culture? The real man, the man of Truth is devoted to Mukti and Satya , not to Sanskṛuti . In some sense, entire Bhagavad Gītā is a struggle of Mukti against Sanskṛuti . Arjuna is quoting all the things related to Sanskṛuti , culture. He is saying, “You know, if we fight, then all the Kṣhatriyas will die. So, all the Kṣhatriya women will then marry people from the lower castes, lower varṇas , and varṇasankara babies will be born.” This is Sanskṛuti . “And if those are born, then the homage that they will offer to the dead ancestors will not be accepted, and the souls of the dead ancestors will remain thirsty and restless.”

And Kṛṣṇa says, "Keep all this trash aside. To hell with your culture. I will tell you that the only thing that matters is Mukti , liberation. And liberation is what I stand for. So, be devoted to me and do as I say. Keep all your misogyny and superstition aside." And do you see all these things in what Arjuna is saying? He is saying, “Women should not marry lower castes.” Men were allowed to marry lower-caste women, but women, they should not marry non-kṣhatriya . And superstition, a lot of superstition in what Arjuna is saying. All that is in chapter 1 of Bhagavad Gītā .

So, what you call as your culture has a lot of superstition as well. Why do you want to venerate that? Culture is man-made, and it should keep getting refined episodically, timely—continuously rather not even episodically. Culture is something that pertains to a particular place at a particular moment in time. Culture is time bound and must change with time, and it is already changing with time. Hundred years back, you would have said caste system, untouchability, not even untouchability, unseeability—there are certain people you were saying, they cannot even be seen. These are great parts of our culture.

Didn't you change that? Weren't there social reformers? Today we worship those social reformers. In their time, those social reformers, you threw mud at them, and you abused them, and you even wanted to kill them. And you said these people are destroying our culture because they are talking of abolishing child marriage, and they are talking of widow remarriage. “And No, no, no! Widow remarriage cannot be done, in our culture, no widow remarriage. And in our culture, kids should be married at the age of five; and in our culture, the woman should be burnt on the pyre of the husband.” These things were part of your culture. No?

We are proud that we reformed and refined our culture. Aren't you proud of that? We are proud that we have a better culture today. Similarly, culture should always keep getting refined with a view towards the Truth. Do not take culture as sacred or holy. Satya is holy, not Sanskṛuti . Are you getting it? Satya is Sanātana ; Sanskṛuti is not Sanātana . Sanātana means timeless. Sanskṛuti is time-bound.

So, I am not discounting the importance of culture. What I am saying is remember the place of culture vis-a-vis the Truth. Culture should be a shadow of the Truth. Culture should be a follower of the Truth. Do not place culture in a position where it becomes the Absolute. Only the Truth is Absolute. Culture is not Absolute.

The Upaniṣad do not sing of Sanskṛuti , they sing of Satya . The saint poets didn't sing of Sanskṛuti , they talked of Satya . Unfortunately, in today's India, there is a very unfortunate kind of cultural aggression taking shape. Everybody is talking of culture and nobody is talking of the real thing— Satya , Truth. They have started equating culture with religion, but religion is not culture; religion is something in service of the Truth. Are you getting it?

Have great traditions and always be careful that your traditions are pointing towards the Truth. Only then the traditions have life; otherwise, the traditions fall dead. And there is no point carrying dead load over the centuries. I am not discounting traditions. There can be beautiful traditions, but only when you know the meaning of those traditions, only when those traditions arise from your heart. Just ritualistically and blindly obeying traditions will take you nowhere. If traditions have to exist, let there be lively traditions.

In fact, with an eye on the Truth, with a mind devoted to the Truth, you can even begin new traditions. Because all traditions began at some point in time, so why can't new traditions begin today? New, great, sacred traditions can begin today. And even the traditions that begin today must end at some other point in time. Because today's traditions will be applicable to today's man, today's environment, today's society, today's economy. Two hundred years later, those traditions might not be useful. So, then those traditions can be reformed or totally disposed away, and then new traditions should come up.

Traditions are not sacred; traditions can be dropped and new traditions can be started. And even ancient traditions can be continued, if there is meaning in them. And that meaning you don't need to superimpose on the tradition, because that's also a trend these days—take some random tradition and superimpose meaning on it. Say, "No, no, no, this tradition is not random, it has this meaning." The tradition has no meaning at all. You are needlessly imposing meaning on the tradition. That kind of pseudo-scientific thing, don't attempt please. Let the tradition have real meaning and then it can continue for long. Otherwise, drop it.

Q: Is there a fundamental difference between tradition and culture, or they are the same thing?

AP: Culture proceeds on tradition. The way our culture is, it is feasting on tradition. Culture need not be very strongly tied to tradition, but in our country that is not the case. In our country, mostly what you call as ‘cultural’ is also ‘traditional’. Is that not so? When you say cultural, it almost immediately and completely means traditional; which is not an equality that is necessary. Culture need not be definitely equal to tradition. You can have new culture arising in light of a fresh, devoted, sacred consciousness.

So, culture is amenable, culture can be changed. That does not mean I am saying everything that is traditional has to be dropped. But there is a lot in our traditions that deserves to be dropped, and let's please drop it. Let's not try to needlessly defend it.

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