Thursday, July 28, 2011

Culture Defined


It is extremely difficult to define the term ‘Culture’ as would be applicable universally. Though it is a term familiar to everyone, the term is evasive of strict definition. One can say about ‘culture’ what St. Augustine, a Christian Saint [354-430 A.D] and a Father of the Modern Church and the most significant thinker after St. Paul, said of ‘Time’—“ I know what it is if you don’t ask me; If you ask me, I don’t know” [Confessions].

The term ‘culture’ is used frequently in different senses in different contexts. The anthropological sense refers to the social heritage in a human society which is transmitted from generation to generation, mostly through language. In a wide sense, ‘Culture’ stands for the entire human heritage, including not only fine arts, philosophy and religion but also science and technology. It can be used for good as well as bad purposes. In this sense, it covers the whole civilization.

Another sense in which it is used is with reference to an individual in the sense of refinement, sensibility and wisdom. The famous English poet, Mathew Arnold [ 1869] in his book ‘ Culture and Anarchy’ says ‘ Culture is simply an awareness and practice of the best that has been thought and said in the world which helps in the dissemination of ‘Sweetness and Light’ A third sense of the term is with reference to the whole society and stands for artistic, literary, philosophical and religious content of its heritage and is often contrasted with ‘civilization’ standing for the material content namely scientific and technological achievements. Fine arts consisting of painting, sculpture, music, dance, drama, theatre, poetry, literature, architecture etc form part of culture.

Historians trace the concept of culture as having originated from Francis Bacon. It was in France that Voltaire and others started using the word ‘culture’ in an absolute sense. The word found a place in the present sense of good manners etc in the Oxford Dictionary in 1805.It was at the end of the 18th century that Herder and other German writers discussed it in its modern usage. The famous German philosopher Kant used it in the sense of civilization and as referring to the cultivation of social graces and refinements through arts etc.

Sanskrit has a beautiful word ‘Samskara’ to define what ‘culture ‘means. It belongs to two spheres, language, its refinement and its correct structure and man’s conduct in life and their refinement through a series of sacraments by which an individual is lifted up, so to say, from vulgar existence to a heightened role in life for the performance of Dharma. Our Dharmashastras and the various Smritis deal at length on these Samskaras. The great poet Kalidasa, known for his similes, likens Samskaras to the polishing of the rough stone of the mines into a dazzling gem. Even the language Sanskrit which is ‘Samskrutha’ in its correct usage means ‘that which has been well refined’

According to the Hindu thought, culture is basically a condition of the inner being. It is intellectual, inward and is based on the soul and spirit. Several philosophers and thinkers in our country are of the opinion that the modes of thinking and feeling including consequent behavior and action patterns constitute culture. This basic concept about culture has been beautifully summarized in a well-known Sanskrit saying which says “Manasyekam Vachasyekam Karmanyekam Mahatmanam’ which means ‘In a cultured man, there is total integration of the Thought, Word and Action”. Maharshi Aurobindo in his book ‘The Human Cycle’ says ‘Conduct is also a part of the cultured life”.

A cultured person can also be identified by his behavior pattern and interaction with the society and how far his actions help to add to the happiness of the fellow beings around him. There is a Subhashitha in Sanskrit which says “Santosham Janayeth Prajnah Tadeva Ishwara Poojanam’ which means ‘A cultured person is one who generates happiness in others by his virtuous conduct which is as good as his worshipping God with flowers’. In this context it may be recalled that in Hinduism there
is a devotional service called ‘Ashta Pushpa Seva’ [Service with Eight Flowers] which some devout religious persons perform as a part of their daily devotion and worship. On the analogy of flowers used in the worship of God, some eight spiritual qualities have been identified for the service of the society. These eight qualities are
1. Non- Violence 2. Control of Senses 3. Forbearance 4. Compassion 5.Knowledge 6. Austerity. 7. Truth and finally 8. Sincerity.
A possessor of these qualities who uses them to serve mankind is considered a cultured person.

Culture cannot be evaluated in terms of affluence. The growth of per capita income could never be the final arbiter in the matter of cultural values and psyche of the man. Atomic weapons were not manufactured and dropped by the uncultured tribes; neither the two world wars were fought between uncivilized and uncultured nations. The culture of a country can be determined only by a combination of its I.Q and its Emotional Intelligence. IQ is responsible for the development of physical sciences and material well being while Emotional Intelligence is responsible for the sublimation of animality in man. Unless there is a striking balance between the physical and the psychological, man can never be classified as a ‘cultured citizen’.

How a nation’s affluence alone does not determine its cultural growth was graphically illustrated by the Time Magazine from America a few years back. In its issue dated 15th Jan 1996, under the heading ‘Singapore; Rich Nation but Poor Manners ‘.The magazine writes and I quote:

“Citizens of Singapore might have expected congratulations on the New Year’s Eve on 1st January 1996. On 1st Jan 1996 Singapore moved into the ranks of developed nations, adjudged by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development [OECD.] Instead, they got a rebuke from the Prime Minister Goh Chok for uncultured behavior. Last month [in December 1995] a Santa Claus on the island of Sentosa was mobbed by adults who shoved children alongside to snatch the gifts he was distributing to them. A few days earlier, a school in the capital was besieged by parents who drove up in expensive cars and grabbed free text books, stationery etc intended for the poor students.
“Singaporeans are a migrant people descended from coolies, traders and merchants, not the cultured class” said the columnist Koh Buck Song in the Straits Times ‘Some of the old poison still continues through Singaporean blood even today’

. B.M.N.Murthy

Created: Friday, February 26, 2010 8:47 PM


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