Brief Essay on the Traditional Value of Indian Culture

Traditional Indian values must be viewed both from the angle of the indivi­dual and from that of the geographically delimited agglomeration of peoples or groups enjoying a common system of leadership which we call the ‘state’.

The Indian’ state’s’ special feature is the peaceful, or perhaps mostly peaceful, coexistence of social groups of various historical provenances which mutually adhere in a geographical, economic, and political sense, without ever assimilat­ing to each other in social terms, in ways of thinking, or even in language.

Modem Indian law will determine certain rules, especially in relation to the regime of the family, upon the basis of how the loin-cloth is tied, or how the turban is worn, for this may identify the litigants as members of a regional group, and therefore as participants in its traditional law, though their an­cestors left the region three or four centuries-earlier. The use of the word ‘state’ above must not mislead us.


There was no such thing as a conflict between the individual and the state, at least before foreign governments be­came established, just as there was no concept of state ‘sovereignty’ or of any church-and-state dichotomy. Modern Indian ‘secularism’ has an admittedly peculiar feature: it requires the state to make a fair distribution of attention and support amongst all religions.

These blessed aspects of India’s famed tolerance (Indian kings so rarely persecuted religious groups that the excep­tions prove the rule) at once struck Portuguese and other European visitors to the west coast of India in the sixteenth century, and the impression made upon them in this and other ways gave rise, at one remove, to the basic constitution of Thomas Moore’s Utopia.

There is little about modern India that strikes one at once as Utopian: but the insistence upon the inculcation of norms, and the absence of bigotry and institutionalized exploitation of human or natural re­sources are two very different features which link the realities of India and her tradition with the essence of all Utopias.

Part of the explanation for India’s special social quality, its manifest virtues and compensating shortcomings, lies not in any prudent decisions by any men or groups of men, but in the traditional concept of the society in which praja (the subjects) and raja (the ruler) were the two principal elements, one might say, polarities; and part again lies in the fact that, though the ruler was a guardian of morals, the ’cause’, as it was put, ‘of the age’, the power of penance was immeasurably more vigorous than any service the state could perform-even granted the fact that the prerogative of corporal or capital punishment (danda) served also as a penance for the guilty, and granted, too, that it was in theory one of the king’s tasks to see to it that penances were actually performed.


Ideals were expressed in terms of ethics, and are related, some to people in general, and some, more specialized, to the principal classes, in particular the brahmans, whose inherited religious and magical powers, and responsibility for the spiritual and even material welfare of the state-, marked them out for respectful treatment, financial patronage, and, if they were suitably conscientious, cramping taboos. Special ideals were naturally developed for the raja, the key figure in leadership, whether he was a head of a clan, or an emperor.

Culture and Language Context | John Edwar González Arias

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The ‘twice-born’, to whom we shall return, reached, according to Manu (vi. 92), supersensory bliss by obeying a tenfold ‘law’, which was a mixture of moral and intellectual requirements Harita, who goes into greater detail, gives the constituents of sila (good conduct) as ‘ piety, devotion to gods and ancestors, mildness, avoidance of giving pain, absence of envy, sweetness abstention from injury, friendliness, sweet speech, gratitude for kindnesses, succoring the distressed, compassion, and tranquility’.

Dharma, a term we shall discuss, in its wider sense of a general moral ideal (it is also used of a ‘law’ as such), requires of every man truthfulness, abstention from stealing, absence of anger, modesty, cleanliness, discernment, courage, tranquility, subjugation of the senses, and (right) knowledge.

This attitude towards moral qualities and forms of behaviour introduces us to the fact that equilibrium rather than equality, peace rather than liberty, were the fundamental ideals. These notions can be interpreted partly as an escape from, and partly as an attempted insurance against the primeval chaos which was supposed to lurk in the background, the chaos which was believed to justify indirectly, and positively to require, the state itself.

Unseen benefits hereafter and prestige in this life were not to be attained merely by moral qualities and good behaviour. The quality of absolute ‘goodness’ consists also in the study of the Vedas, austerity, pursuit of knowledge, purity, and control over the organs of the body, performance of meritorious acts, and meditation on the soul.

These properly belong to brahmans or brahmanized classes, but the opposite, the state of’ darkness’, is demonstrated by covetousness, sloth, cowardice, cruelty, atheism, leading an evil life, soliciting favours, and inattentiveness, and these were not confined to the upper classes. A similar arrangement of ideals is found in the maxim that one falls from caste (i) by not observing what is laid down (in law or custom), (ii) by observing what is prohibited, or (iii) by not bringing the senses under control.

Civilized life required that all three sources of ‘fall’ should be eliminated-an object no individual’s power could achieve. The leading themes are well evidenced in that distinctively Indian, if non-brahmanical, sect, Jainism, which combines venerable age and longevity.

The ideal Jaina householder is characterized by spiritual virtues, namely a spiritual craving, tranquility, aversion from the world, devotion, compassion, remorse, repentance, and loving-kindness; and by social virtues, namely non­violence, abstention from unrighteous speech (of which lies and slander are illustrations), abstention from theft or unrighteous appropriation (including embezzlement), chastity, avoidance of covetousness, and non-attachment.

Since many Jainas have been commercially minded the significance of these virtues is apparent. How the social and personal intermingle is revealed in these standard characteristics of the Jaina householder: possessing honestly earned wealth, eulogistic of the virtuous, wedded to a well-guarded spouse who is of the same caste but of a different patrilineage, apprehensive of sin, following the customs of the locality, not denigrating others (particularly rulers), dwelling in a secure house (affording no temptations to in-dwellers or strangers), avoiding evil company, honoring elders, eschewing sites of cal­amities, eschewing occupations that are reprehensible according to family, local, or caste customs, economical and making a right use of his income, of controlled diet and balanced aims (following righteousness (dharma), wealth (artha), and physical pleasure (kama), the three Purusharthas or aims relevant to this life, in due proportion), charitable to monks and the afflicted, mindful of his dependants, and victorious over the organs of sense.

We find through­out that the most reprehensible misdeeds arc theft and adultery, and a com­mentary on Indian ethics could be woven on these items alone. Insistence that women must not be exposed to even a nominal risk of unchastely, the require­ment that marriage should sub serve the family’s interest and not primarily that of the spouses, and the disfavor in which anything resembling ‘court­ing’ before marriage is held, have developed an attitude towards women, and a level of expectation on the part of women themselves, which set special limits to Indian social behaviour and give a peculiar quality to Indian life.

Concern for the chastity of their womenfolk has, at least in the last millen­nium, been at the summit of every Indian family’s prime concerns, and when hatred boiled over, the females were the immediate targets. Obedience to rulers, as such, we do not find amongst the typical virtues: but it is inculcated elsewhere.

Avoidance of sin and social disgrace was a primary obligation, while duty to the ruler was secondary and dependent upon the first, for the ruler’s function was to facilitate such avoidance. Respect for the caste-system is implicit in the scheme outlined. ‘Honestly earned wealth’, ‘reprehensible occupations’ are terms referring to an established, if theoretical, apportion­ment of activities amongst the castes (jati). To search for social and political ideals anterior to the caste-system would be fruitless.

No Indian ideal could be inconsistent with dharma, ‘righteousness’. This word tends to bring cosmology down into touch with the mundane details of private law. One who follows his dharma is in harmony, and attains bliss, though it remains doubtful how far his contemporaries’ behaviour should guide him in his understanding of his dharnja.

Without dharma, in however etiolated a form, fertility, peace, civilized life are considered to be imperiled. Dharma is in one sense natural, in that it is not created or determined (though in practice in obscure cases its exponents determine what its sense is), and in another it is always to be striven for.

Dharma is unnatural in that to achieve it one must put forth uncongenial efforts of self-control, irrespective of popular reactions. If dharma (as contrasted with positive legislation) only in part re­sembles natural law it is nevertheless a code of moral obligations to which this, uninstructed nations innocent of brahmanical learning, cannot attain. Dharma, indeed, means duty (kartavyata), and the study of dharma in­volves a discovery of the duties of individuals, groups, and, among them, their political leaders.

For dharma, in the sense which predominates in politi­cal theory, is an abstraction of sva-dharma, the ‘own dharma’ of each caste and category of person as D. H. H. Ingalls, the Harvard scholar, has neatly put it, the ‘essentially isolationist society’ recognized a religious sanction be­hind an infinite variety of personal laws.

Perhaps the categorization and tendency to division was overdone in the writings, but they are faithful to the essential character of that society. Nominate the man, state his age, caste, and status, and one can be told what his dharma is. He deviates from it at his peril, his spiritual peril in any case, his physical or financial peril too if the king is as alert to deviations as he ought to be.

But this is not to suggest that dharma was a ‘natural law’ in the European sense: the ruler’s conduct could not be tested by reference to dharma and invalidated thereby, and, though it justified, it could not delimit his administrative authority.

Adharma (unrighteousness) is the forerunner of chaos. Man has a natural tendency to decline into chaos. In one myth chaos required the invention of kingship and the appointment of a semi-divine king. Dharma and kingship are thus inseparable. Dharma derives linguistically from a root meaning ‘to hold’. A loose hold is no hold.

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