CULTURE AND HUMAN PROGRESS

Radha Burnier

(The T.R. Venkatarama Sastri Memorial Lecture delivered on

22 November 1986 at Madras.)

PROGRESS is deceptive. We live in a world of increasing knowledge; we have penetrated into the core of the atom and of the cell at one end and explored vast cosmic spaces at the other. This knowledge, extracted through patient research, subtle reasoning and interdisciplinary insights, has changed the contours of daily existence. The phenomenal advances in the technology of communication have an almost mythical note about them. Recent reports tell us that thousands of houses being built in the affluent world now play a role parallel to that of a household staff, for they are programmed to switch on lights on and off, heat the water, take messages, and report to the police in case of burglary. Technological advances have also brought new concepts of health and hygiene, and surgical miracles are every day extending the span of life.

In spite of all these advances, the world is in turmoil at every level. The armaments race has brought to our doorstep the prospect of a horrendous end to life on the planet. Within many of our national boundaries the spectres of terrorism, sectarian violence, and internecine conflict are casting their dark shadows on people’s lives. At the personal level, alienation, stress, and frustration have produced epidemics of mental perversity hitherto unknown. The drug-culture and the consequent increase in crime, the world-wide mafia operations, and violence on the streets are becoming part or our over-urbanized society. Widespread corruption is the inescapable concomitant of a society based on greed. Consumerism and competitive lifestyles go hand in hand with debasement of values. Personal discords, and tensions within the family, are made acute by the prevailing climate of social life.

The condition of the world clearly proves what Malinowski says, that technological sophistication implies neither moral superiority nor higher intelligence. The problem of contemporary man is neither political, economic nor sociological, for none of the solutions proposed in any of these three fields has been able to provide an effective remedy against these sinister trends. Because they ignore the underlying psychological factors and fail to invoke the deeper human potentials, they are unable to counteract the decadence of society.

At the heart of the present situation is the fact that we are not facing a technological, institutional or organizational problem; we are confronted with an acute cultural crisis. The crisis does not originate in the environment and structure of society but represents a profound inadequacy in the psyche of man. Finding scapegoats in one or other section of society or in outside causes only diverts attention away from the root of the problem which is in human consciousness. Hence the concept of progress needs to be closely scrutinized.

The question of culture has relevance only to the human mind. The significance of being human is the capacity to be aware of oneself and to assess the nature of man’s role in the movement of life. Distorted evaluation is responsible for the varieties of self inflicted suffering to which human beings are subject.

The Lord Buddha spoke of this. He says (in Edwin Arnold’s version):

           Ye suffer from yourselves. None else compels,

           None other holds that ye live and die,

           And whirl upon the wheel, and hug and kiss

           Its spokes of agony.

Culture implies a right perception of one’s own role and relationship with events, with people, and with the complexity which is life, and acting according to that perception with dignity and refinement. It is the conscious awareness of relationship and values. The cultured man mirrors values in his every thought and word and in his deportment.

In any society, large numbers of people unconsciously represent the current norms and patterns of behaviour. Such unconscious adaptation to conventional patterns is not a significant expression of culture. Ananda K. Coomaraswamy points out: ‘Man is indeed more than a merely instinctive and behaviouristic animal... the gambolling of lambs, however charming, is not yet dancing.’ For dancing involves a conscious direction of the body’s capacity for rhythm, grace, and so forth.

Nature, in all its diversity, embodies a marvellous harmony and order. The ancient seers of India perceived this and sang ecstatically of that divine Order which they called rita. Modern man, through his study of ecology and the intricacies of Nature, is discovering the amazing interdependence of the many forms of life and an equilibrium which sustains the universal processes. David Bohm, the physicist, propounds the view that order underlies the phenomenal world; biologists like the Nobel prize winner Wald also support this postulate. As harmony and order are the substratum of the natural processes of evolution, there are no relationship problems in this sphere. All creatures other than man fulfill their proper functions by an inborn instinct which is none other than intelligence at the heart of the cosmos itself. The harmony of interrelationships in Nature does not constitute culture.

It is the peculiar characteristic of the human being to discover harmony and order and to express them in his relationships and actions. This is the relationships and actions. This is the reason behind the declaration of the sages that to be born as a human being is an extraordinary and precious privilege. As the Dhammapada declares:

           Hard it is to obtain birth as a human being; hard to live the life of man; hard

           to listen to the good dharma teaching; hard for Buddhas to appear.

Human life is relationship. To be is to be related. Even one who withdraws outwardly from action continues to be inwardly related through his mind to be multiplicity of factors. Reflecting on the nature of relationships and the values involved in the expression of relationship is culture in the widest sense of the word.

In his celebrated book, The Phenomenon of Man, Teilhard de Chardin states:

Man, as science is able to reconstruct him today, is an animal like the others - so little separable anatomically from the anthropoids that the modern classifications made by zoologists return to the position of Linnaeus and include him with them in the same super-family, the hominidae. Yet, to judge by the biological results of his advent, is he not in reality something altogether different?...

If we wish to settle this question of the ‘superiority’ of man over the animals (and it is every bit as necessary to settle it for the sake of the ethics of life as well as for pure knowledge) I can only see one way of doing so - to brush aside all those secondary and equivocal manifestations of inner activity in human behaviour, making straight for the central phenomenon, reflection.

The network of human relationships is complex and subtle. Relationship embraces not only external contacts with other human beings but also unarticulated attitudes of affection or animosity, of fears, ambiguities, and so forth, and the numerous concealed motives which do not always find expression. Relationship, being diverse, comprises man’s response to nature, to trees, animals, the flowing waters, the mountain ranges, the earth, sky and stars. Even more significant are man’s relationships with his ideas and beliefs, his likes and dislikes - in other words, with the contents of his own mind. His relationship to himself to a great extent conditions his other relationships. Frustration within obviously vitiates his actions in respect of others. His vision becomes clouded. Therefore it is of vital importance that a person should be aware of his own responses and reactions.

To quote de Chardin again, ‘The being who is the object of his own reflection, in consequence of that very doubling back upon himself, becomes in a flash able to raise himself into a new sphere.’

When there is absence of self-observation, relationships bind and stultify a person’s outlook and understanding. All problems arise from a mind unaware of itself. Attachment to family or community, to wife or child, is often a barrier shutting out wider affinities. Sensitivity of feeling, which is essential for cultural development, is not enhanced by attachments. The human being becomes primitive or tribal when his attachments imprison him within a narrow circle. Refined forms of tribalism are concealed behind plausible fronts, adding to the conflicts in the world and even the community. When sensitiveness is free from barriers it manifests itself in relation to everything - to people, to animals, to the earth itself. In very thought, word and action, culture makes its presence or absence felt.

The word ‘aesthetic’ denotes the perception of harmony and beauty in nature and art. It is because a certain form of aesthetic sensitiveness finds expression in art, that the arts are often taken to be identical with culture. However, culture has an import which is much wider and deeper than art. It is intimately connected with the blossoming of inner faculties, which is the criterion of human progress. Culture can exist without art, while art is only a partial expression of that total sensitiveness which is culture.

Art, in the ordinary sense of the word, is a specialized aptitude for revealing some aspect of beauty through the cultivation of a particular form. All true art has harmony implicit in it. Each art form has its own limitations in manifesting beauty, the form itself being a built-in limitation. Art, in the widest sense, must include living, for then alone can it be equated with culture. The skills or even genius of an artist do not necessarily enable him to understand the art of living and often the lives of artists express this tragic inadequacy.

In the course of evolution, specialization of form or function is not desirable. The specialization of a species becomes its limitation, for it confines it within the boundaries of that specialization. For example, the bulkiness of the prehistoric animals led to their disappearance. Whether the specialization is speed or vision, or any other aptitude, it becomes a prison. The Chinese classic Tao-The-King warns:

           He who stands on tiptoe does not stand firm;

           He who takes the longest strides does not walk the fastest...

           He who boasts of what he will do succeeds in nothing;

           He who is proud of his work achieves nothing that endures.

The limits of specialization exist for the individual and the species as well as for a nation and a civilization. The door to wider perceptions and development is shut when energy is channelled in an exclusive direction. Specialization may be a mode of negating the as yet unknown and undeveloped potential for advancement.

It is interesting to note that every civilization advanced to a certain point and then began to decline. The very merits which gave it pre-eminence prevented its further development. Success in meeting certain challenges is based on specialized abilities. When challenges of a different kind emerge, the talents that had been useful before become impediments if those who possess them are unable to let go of their fixed patterns of thought and action in order to meet the challenges with fresh vitality. The decay of civilizations is characterized by such cultural failure.

As Toynbee states: ‘It looks as though it were uncommon for the creative responses to two or more successive challenges in the history of a civilization to be achieved by one and the same minority. Indeed, the party that has distinguished itself in dealing with one challenge is apt to fail conspicuously in attempting to deal with the next.’

Civilizations decline because of the infatuation of people with their past. Satisfied with their previous achievements, they display apathy and incompetence in coping with the challenge of the present. It is obviously important to keep the mind and heart free from past burdens and memories of achievement; specializations which may have been assets in the past no longer remain helpful for further progress.

Freedom of the mind is essential for the flowering of culture. A free mind looks not merely through one narrow window, but has an all-round vision with no frontiers. A civilization which imprisons itself within the known frontiers of knowledge and experience stagnates and brings about its own decline.

Toynbee observes that mutation from a primitive society to a higher civilization is the transition from a static condition to dynamic activity. There can be no dynamism in a people whose minds and faculties are crystallized in conservatism and intolerance. Indian culture lost is assimilative and synthesizing genius when its dynamism ebbed away and its social institutions became ossified. The caste system (originally based on guna and karma ) lost its mobility and, with the passage of time, it became a dead weight. Similarly, religion came to consist of empty ritualistic forms, and the quest for the unknown - which is the essence of the religious spirit - gave place to the worship of the known and hence to proliferation of idolatry.

Modern democracy in the West arose out of the passion for liberty, equality and fraternity which, it was thought, would usher in a new social order. But the nations soon got caught in the struggle for monopoly of resources and their imperial ambitions nullified the genuineness of their support for these ideals. Equality and liberty became casualties in the race for national supremacy. Similarly, revolutionary Russia which, with great fervour, sought to put an end to the private ownership of property as a means of domination and self-promotion, negated its ideals with its own particular brand of terror and regimentation. The state which was supposed to ‘wither away’ in favour of the freedom and well-being of the people, grew into a tyrannical monster.

Repeatedly, in different civilizations, institutions meant to be the means for releasing the capability of the people and promoting their welfare congeal into a rigidity which chokes their initiative, vitality and dignity. Institutions petrify and social structures become inflexible, thus hastening the decline of culture. Similarly, people who cling to habits of thought and actions and are held by their preconceptions and attachments to worn-out ideas and concepts, lose their dynamism and become incapable of meeting new challenges and situations in a creative spirit without which culture cannot flourish.

Thus history warns us against attaching importance and permanence to forms and against losing sight of the values that breathe life into those forms. Values which are real are imperishable, but the forms lose their relevance and must change with the times or decay. When the form becomes more important than the content, culture disintegrates.

There is an integral relationship between culture and values. The problem of values has received a good deal of attention in both the West and East. The concept of the purusharthas or the aims of life is concerned with values ranging from the purely materialistic ones which are artha and kama (wealth and pleasure) to the less material and more far-sighted one implied in the word dharma. But beyond this range of values, from the gross to the more refined, there are values of an absolute nature. The paramapurushartha is the quest for supreme value.

Values are either empirical or transcendental. The former, because they are linked to material benefits, belong to the field where scales of measurement apply. Each human society has its own scale, not necessarily right, but convenient for the power structure or congenial to the temperament of the people. Thus, obedience or success, contentment or conquest are inculcated into them and become part of their ethos. To each set of people and to every individual, one or more of the values in the scale appears to be more important than the others. The preference is based on convenience and immediate gain, born of short sightedness.

Transcending every measurement of this kind, and also personal and racial biases and limitations, there are values of a totally different order. These transcendental values are indefinable, for they can be known only experientially. Pleasure can be measured on a scale and linked to objects which yield more or less emotional satisfaction. But, happiness which has been described as the essence of being, cannot be measured or defined. A description of that inner state of release conveys nothing of the actual experience itself to one who has not shared it. A description of a chair may give an idea of what the chair is like, but a description of happiness, love or truth does not bring the taste of their reality. On the other hand, a definition often becomes a misleading substitute, taking the place of the real. Thus words become a barrier to direct experience.

Culture bestows the experiential awareness of those inexpressible values which the human consciousness at its best can realize. The awareness of what is supremely good, true and beautiful is culture at its highest. In the lucid words of J. Krishnamurti:

Indian culture is somewhat different from the European culture, but underneath

           the movement is the same... The movement to find happiness, to find out what

           God, what truth is; and when this movement stops, culture declines as it has

           done in this country. When this movement is blocked by authority, by tradition,

           by fear, there is deterioration. The urge to find out what truth is, what God is, is

           the only real urge, and all other urges are subsidiary. When you throw a stone

           into still water, it makes extending circles. The extending circles are the subsidiary

           movement, the social reactions, but the real movement is at the centre, this

           movement to find happiness, God, truth; and you cannot find it as long as you

           are caught in fear, held by a threat. From the moment there is the arising of a

           threat, fear, culture declines.

The discovery of these inexpressible, ultimate values restores to man his inalienable dignity and enables him to fulfill his destiny. In the words of Kabir; ‘More than all else do I cherish at heart that love which makes me to live a limitless life in this world.’ The sages, the holy ones, are supreme examples of culture at its pinnacle. Cultural awakening is the doorway to spiritual realization - a multidimensional unfoldment of human consciousness and the faculties inherent in man. Culture is the sensitive response that apprehends the subtle as well as the gross, the inner as well as the outer, the universal and not merely the particular.

Values of an exalted nature are not come upon by a sluggish, self-satisfied mind. The mind falls into a trap when it attributes value to concepts and actions based upon expediency and self-interest. A spirit of vigilant enquiry is essential for the cultivation of sensitiveness. Enquiry must not set a limit to itself, nor the mind deceive itself if it is to discover value in the truest sense. Conventions and traditions must not restrict the mind engaged in such a quest, whether it is the mind of the individual or of a people.

The modern scientist is engaged in the pursuit of knowledge, but his enquiry and researches are of necessity limited to the external environment. He ignores entirely the inward nature of life and therefore the scientific point of view has been described as being ‘value free’. Precisely because of its indifference to values the modern world, which is dominated by the scientific spirit, is a world of unbelievable cruelty and destructiveness.

Culture is concerned with knowledge of the essence of life - that essence which is hidden to the crude mind but reveals itself to the mind which learns to cultivate its perceptive power and which is not satisfied until it discovers what is at the heart of all things, animate or inanimate.

Culture has thus profound ethical implications. Obviously art does not automatically awaken ethical awareness. Art demands discipline, but the discipline is specialized. The discovery of essential values brings about a different kind of inner discipline which gives rise to right relationships. Outer disciplines, whether they take the shape of moral codes, social conventions, techniques, or other patterns imposed from outside, sooner or later collapse and the subconscious rebels against them, creating compulsive imbalances. On the other hand, the discipline which comes from within through clear perception of right values, provides stability and a state of release and happiness. It spontaneously regulates every thought, speech and action, for they all emanate from that harmonious state of consciousness.

Awareness of values is the realization of the intrinsic significance of all things in life and also of the totality of life. Our present-day pleasure-oriented, competitive lifestyle promotes the utilitarian attitude which converts everything into an object of pleasure, profit and possession. But the myriads of manifestations of life exist in themselves, not merely as objects for the pleasure and use of human beings. Each has its own intrinsic significance and purpose in the scheme of life. A lamb is not a culinary object, nor is a tree’s meaning limited to its timber. The self-seeking, self-interested mind, searching for its own satisfaction and fulfilment, misses the deeper significance of life. There is much to ponder upon in respect of the Upanishadic criterion which distinguishes preyas (the pleasing) from sreyas (the good). The pleasure-oriented consciousness misses the precious nature of being, its beauty value and truth.

Although ultimate values appear to be manifold, they are in fact one, for the one being appears as the true, the good and the beautiful. Love and intelligence appear to be at the root of manifestation. The eminent biologist, Sir Alister Hardy, speculating on the force which makes evolution work, postulates that it is love. The physicist Hoyle suggests that intelligence is inseparable from the universe. To the holistic view the highest value is that unity which comprehends all other absolute values.

Awareness of unity translates itself into self-effacing concern and action to bring about universal well-being. High and low disappear in the light of at-onement with everything, even the seemingly insignificant or inanimate forms of existence. A heart filled with such concern is protective of not only human beings, but of animals, birds, plants and even the earth, water and air. The perils of pollution, the ravage of the earth, the merciless decimation of the wild creatures would not exist in the world if culture, in its right sense, had permeated human consciousness. The general attitude all over the world is to leave it to the rulers, administrators and others to safeguard society. People take it that they are helpless because they do not wish to accept responsibility. The inward culture of any individual, on the other hand, makes him a centre of peace and happiness. Unless the members of a community bring to it their understanding and culture, society cannot enhance the quality of their lives. Society does not exist by itself; it is made up of the inter-relationships of all the people who compose it.

If existence is not viewed holistically the parts do not have right value for they are not seen as they are - as intrinsic aspects of the totality. It is as if one were to separate a note or a phrase from a piece of music and try to grasp its separate meaning. The essence of culture is to know the significance and the beauty of the all and also the intrinsic worth and meaning of every part.

The Theosophist 1987

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