Indian culture is deeply rooted in her glorious past, yet it adapted to the changes over the period and flourished while keeping its essence intact. Today it can be described as a beautiful kaleidoscope of several sub-cultures, intertwined by threads of customs, traditions and values which have many elements in common.
The fountain source of the Indian culture is the world’s oldest literature composed in the form of the Vedas, which are the treasure house of knowledge and wisdom. Rigveda is the first literary document in the human history. Rigveda together with later Vedas, Yajurveda, Samaveda and Atharvaveda touched almost every aspect of human life. Rigveda provides knowledge and concepts of both spirituality and material science – universe, sun, moon, air etc. Yajurveda deals more with rituals, Samaveda with the science of music and Atharvaveda with political science and the art of governance. Bhagwat Gita, which describes the science of consciousness has left deep impact in the intellectual minds the world over. The epics like Ramayana and Mahabharata through their stories teach us practical aspects of the right living and applying knowledge and wisdom to our daily conduct. The stories of Puranas, Panchatantra, Katha Sarita Sagar and many other literary works of the past teach us morals and wisdom.
In the words of German philosopher Gottfried von Herder, “The origin of mankind can be traced back to India where the human mind got its first shape of wisdom and virtue.”
Despite several invasions and attempts to destroy Indian culture, it survived through the ages. This is because of its strong spiritual foundation which gets manifested in different aspects– customs, traditions, philosophy, religion, values, art, literature, music, theatre, architecture, etc. From generation to generation, we have inherited the tenets of our culture from our predecessors. New cultural traits emerged and got assimilated as the new generations gained new experiences, but the essence continues to endure till today. Indian culture preserved the core values of spirituality. And so the religions originated in India commonly had faith in the principle of karma, reincarnation, moksha or nirvana, truth, tolerance and non-violence.
The scholars unanimously agree that the Indian culture in its various aspects influenced the cultures of various geographical regions of the world, from SE Asia to Central Asia, West Asia and even Europe. Through constant travels between India and West Asia, Indian culture and its ethos reached the West Asian region thousands of years ago. The trade relations between the Indus Valley and Mesopotamia are traced back to 3rd Millennium BCE. Indus pottery and seals have been found along the sea routes between the Indus and Mesopotamia. Evidences support that before Christianity, both Vedic religion and Buddhism were present in West and Central Asia. Rigveda has strong linguistic and cultural similarities with the Iranian Avesta. The boundaries of Chandragupta Maurya’s empire in the 3rd century BCE touched Iran. In that period, the rituals of Iranians were very similar to that of Indians.
It is a historical fact that one of the world’s oldest surviving international peace-treaties dating back to 1380 BCE, which was concluded between the Mittani and Hittites powers in the Anatolia and Northern Syria regions was in the name of Vedic gods Indra, Varun, Mithra and Ashwin. The language spoken by Mittanis was close to Vedic Sanskrit.
The excavations in El-Amarna in Egypt brought out that in the 2nd millennium BCE, kings with names akin to Vedic and Aryan names – such as Artamanya, Aryavirya, Yashodatta and Suttarna – ruled the region of modern-day Syria.
The Greek philosophy was deeply influenced by India. Socrates, Plato and Pythagoras believed in reincarnation. European languages containing cognates to Sanskrit words suggest strong Indian influence on that part of the world.
Ancient Indian culture and religions deeply influenced China, Japan and South East Asia – Cambodia, Thailand, Indonesia and Myanmar. Both Buddhism and Sanatan dharma are still practiced in many parts of the Eastern world.
The spread of Indian culture beyond the subcontinent was the result of its natural acceptance by the people in view of inherent appeal of the tenets of Indian philosophy, spirituality, and value system. Indian kings and religious preachers did not resort to cultural imperialism or use of force to impose their views on others. Indian travellers went far and wide primarily for trade taking their culture abroad, and in return also brought customs and beliefs of others to their motherland. The ancient universities and learning centres such as Nalanda, Taxila and Vikramshila became the meeting grounds for scholars and students from different countries and thus led to cultural exchanges and acceptance of Indian culture– and all this happened in an environment of scientific and logical understanding.
There is an interesting legend that Emperor Mingti of Han dynasty of China saw in dream a god whose body had the brilliance of the sun and who flew before his palace. On enquiring from his officials, he was informed that what he saw once lived in India and is called Buddha. That is how it led to invitation to Buddhist monks Kashyapa Martanga and Dharmarakshita by the Chinese Emperor in AD 67. They took with them Buddhist scriptures also.
They were followed by a number of teachers from universities like Nalanda, Takshila, Vikramashila and Odantapuri. When Acharya Kumarajiva, whose father is believed to be from Kashmir, went to China in 4th century AD, the king requested him to translate Sanskrit texts into Chinese. Acharya Kamalasila and Acharya Santaraksita of Nalanda went to Tibet at the invitation of King Trisong Detsen. Santarakṣita oversaw the construction of Samye monastery in Tibet around 775 CE on the model of the Indian monastery of Odantapuri.
Buddhist monks and missionaries travelled to the countries of Central Asia via ancient silk routes. Along with the goods and valuables, they took with them the Indian religion, customs, philosophy, languages, literature to Central Asia. The resting places of these travellers gradually developed into the centres of Buddhist learning. Ancient stupas, temples, monasteries, and paintings which have been found in these countries, primarily along the trade routes, tell the stories of these ancient travellers and spread of Indian wisdom by them.
It is well known that Buddhism reached Sri Lanka through a mission sent by Emperor Ashoka under his son Mahendra who delivered a Buddhist sermon to king Tissa. The king invited him and his followers to the city of Anuradhapur. Later Ashoka’s daughter Sanghmitta arrived in Sri Lanka with a branch of Bodhisatva tree. The tree still survives in Sri Lanka. Ashoka also sent missionaries to West Asia, Egypt, and Eastern Europe to spread the message of Buddhism. The great Sage Bodhisena from India visited Japan to perform the Eye-Opening Ceremony of the Great Buddha Statue in 752 AD in the city of Nara.
This proliferation of Indian wisdom continued till the advent of Christianity and Islam which affected eastern religions, but could not suppress their philosophy and associated culture. Though, Islam is the majority religion of Indonesia, Ramlila is fondly performed there by Muslim artists who revere Lord Rama as their own ancestor. Ramlila is part of their integral culture.
One can pretty well see the majestic exhibition of Samudra Manthan as one goes through the corridors of Bangkok Airport after one’s arrival. It is besides the Hindu- Buddhist temples of Angkor Wat in Cambodia, Borobudur in Central Java and several Hindu temples in Bali.
India with its belief in the principle of Vasudhaiv Kutumbakam i.e. the world is one family, which was also the motto of G-20 this year has spread its philosophy and culture across the world since ancient period.
Even in the modern times wherever Indians went, they took their culture. The Indian culture is thriving in the distant places, to name a few – Mauritius, Fiji, Suriname, Caribbean Island nations.
The European powers – Dutch, Portuguese, French and British, in their endeavour to establish their supremacy, tried to deride Indian culture. Lord Macaulay’s Minute on education in 1835 intended to create a pool of Indians who would be able to serve British interests and be loyal to them. He envisaged creating a class that would be “Indian in blood and colour, but English in tastes, in opinions, in morals and in intellect.” For Macaulay, “a single shelf of a good European library was worth the whole native literature of India and Arabia.”
The generations of Indians proved Macaulay wrong. Despite adopting the western dress, taking higher education in English and learning modern science, Indians preserved their culture, and more so resolutely in the countries they migrated to and settled down. The new generation Indian migrants to the USA, Britain and other European countries, SE Asia, Japan and so on are practicing more rigorously their religion and have built a number of temples and Gurudwaras abroad. Many Indian spiritual and religious organisations are working globally and have high level of acceptance.
The German philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer said, “There is no study in the whole world as beneficial and so advanced as the Upanishads. It is the consolation of my life; it will be the consolation of my death.”
The scientific community the world over is greatly influenced by Indian culture and philosophy. Julius Robert Oppenheimer, who led the development of the atomic bomb, described the Vedas as the greatest privilege of this century. During the explosion of the first atomic bomb, Oppenheimer quoted several Bhagavad Gita verses, the famous one: “Death I am, cause of destruction of the worlds…”
लोकान्समाहर्तुमिह प्रवृत्त: |
ऋतेऽपि त्वां न भविष्यन्ति
सर्वे येऽवस्थिता: प्रत्यनीकेषु योधा: ||
Carl Sagan, in his book, Cosmos has drawn a parallel between Tandava, the Dance of Nataraja and the cycle of evolution and destruction of the cosmic universe i.e. the Big Bang Theory. He writes, “The Hindu religion is the only one of the world’s great faiths dedicated to the idea that the Cosmos itself undergoes an immense, indeed an infinite, number of deaths and rebirths. It is the only religion in which the time scales correspond, to those of modern scientific cosmology. Its cycles run from our ordinary day and night to a day and night of Brahma, 8.64 billion years long.”
Indian culture is eternally relevant, timeless and time tested. It has deeply influenced the world cultures, religions, philosophies and again finding increasing acceptance among the rational and intellectual minds the world over. Swami Vivekananda had truly said about India: “Her influence has fallen upon the world like that of the gentle dew, unheard and scarcely marked, yet bringing into bloom the fairest flowers of the earth”.
*Mayank Agarwal is a former civil servant who has served at various senior positions in the Government of India. Prior to his retirement, he has also worked as CEO Prasar Bharti and Principal Director General of Doordarshan News.
Disclaimer: The views expressed in this article are the personal opinion of the author and do not reflect the views of raagdelhi.com, which does not assume any responsibility for the same.