Being Human is not holding on to any cultural Identity
Anand Amaladass S. J.
Indian culture has always been multicultural, pluralistic by nature. Whenever an attempt was made to make it mono-cultural, there was conflict, fight and even murder. Holding together has been its strength. There has been always protest movements in the history of India whenever one group absolutized its cultural identity as the defining factor expecting others to fall in line with this thinking. This has not been successful, though there was a semblance of it for a short period of time, but of course with great loss of lives and resources of the country. Holding-together is a value sociologically and economically.
Francois Jullien in his book There is no cultural Identity (2016) analyses why European Union is breaking down. His argument holds good also for Indian and for that matter for any civilization. What is at stake at the moment is the misperception of the notion of culture. No dominant culture can exist without at the same time giving rise to the dissident or ‘underground’ trend. We do not speak of the identity and difference, but of variation (or dissenting deviation) in the sense of alternative mode of thinking as resource and fruitfulness. Both difference and variation mark a separation. But while the ‘difference’ focuses on sorting out and demarcating, deviation or variation shows the distance. Difference is a classificatory by nature where the analysis functions pointing out the differences and similarities, but still its accent is on isolated identity. But variation, deviation which is a thought process not of identification, but of exploration which brings to light other possibilities.
Any living culture is always dynamic and it cannot just be identified with a few elements that remain as monuments and enumerate some fixed characteristics defining its essence. The attempt to deal with the pluralism of culture in the form of differences has the consequence of isolating and fixing it in its identity. A culture that does not change any more is dead, just like the language that is no more spoken is dead.
Transformation is the origin of culture and so it is impossible to fix cultural characteristics or to speak of the identity of a culture. How do we for example characterize the Tamil culture and present its identity? Is it the poet Ilanko or Kampan, Bharati or Bharatidasan, who is the leading figure? One does not characterize the Tamil culture better than the other. It is much more in the variations between them, this tension in-between them, which makes the richness of Tamil culture. They are the resources of a culture. These resources are available for all. The ‘difference’ is fixed and essentialized. But a stage of deviation is a part of the evolutionary process of development.
Any wrong understanding of the concepts will lead to political disaster. If one considers the pluralistic culture in terms of difference and identity, then we end up in “clash of civilization”, as Samuel Huntington portrays. Of course it has its advantages of clear demarcation of different traditions, specificities of each nation, as the author has perceived it. But is there a core element or the nucleus of a culture? If everything is seen in clear framework isolated from each other, well-guarded in its specialties, without any interaction or any mutual relationship, they then would end up in clash to assert who is better or superior.
There are many components which have down the centuries shaped the culture which we call Indian culture. There are differences between these contributive traditions. But these differences need not be considered as opponents. They are rather resources, which complement one another, enrich, inspire and activate other traditions to bring forth new dimensions that have not been perceived before, when they are juxtaposed in a given social context.
So in India the Vedic heritage and other wisdom traditions are the resources of the common Indian culture. The Buddhist and Jaina wisdom heritages, the Islamic initiatives in history to build a forum of dialogue beginning with Al Biruni who translated Patanjala Yoga into Arabic synchronizing it with Quran, Akbar’s initiative to bring different religions into dialogue, Dara Shikho’s Persian translation of the 50 Upanishads spread further to the West among others; the Christian service to the poor and the downtrodden through education and medical help; the Iranian religion of Zarathustra that influenced Indian culture — (the Mauriyas, the later Pallavas) even before the Parsis came to India as migrants in the 7th century; the theosophical ideas that helped Gandhi to develop his strategy like satyagraha communicated through the Jewish members; the brotherhood of the Sikh tradition — to mention a few of the components of Indian culture- all these are not to be seen as divisive factors, but contributory forces to the common heritage. If you remove one element, the whole is affected. That is the nature of pluralism — not simply plurality in the sense of containing multiple entities.
Thus we do not defend any cultural identity, whether it is Tamil or Indian, which would presuppose that one can define it by differences, so that we possess our culture. We would rather defend much more the cultural fruitfulness of the Tamils or of India, how they have developed it by their creative diversities. Defending the resources means to activate them. One explores them and makes use of them. That is the meaning of activating. What characterizes resources is the ability to promote something. It places itself outside this limited world and begins to ex-ist in the real sense. The political aspect of this resource which is valid again to leave it free, the freedom of the subject.
A culture always arises and develops itself in a particular area, in a particular milieu. It takes place always locally, in a nearness and in a landscape, in a language and in an atmosphere which makes out its precision or uniqueness. We could even more appropriately say ‘focally’ rather than ‘locally’: culture develops itself always from something like the ‘hearth’, ‘fireplace’, by the singular — for only the singular is creative. Its development is dependent on various factors: like the classification of the land (‘interior landscape’) of the Tamil five Tinais.
Finally, the key question is posed: What holds a community together? Is there not a danger of disintegration, when there is mushrooming of inclusive groups, which seem to dissolve what is common. The Greeks taught already that the polis is more than mere a common place, that it is not founded merely in order to support the individuals, but that it was a conscious decision for the common life, which presents its goal and therefore its purpose (telos). What does this living together consist in? It demands that everyone in his values and convictions, in his uniqueness of his experiences makes curtailments, in order to diminish the difference of opinions, so that it will be possible to live together without greater collisions.
Everyone contributes to the common good, without trying to cross or remove the distances. It is the distance between the landscapes that makes the land or any city beautiful. If at all dialogue should make any sense, then it does not serve merely as a protective mantel to avoid a clash. We should think of it much more in the sense of a creative tension between polarities, to bring out the commonness through differing variations and juxtaposition.
About the Author:
Anand Amaladass S. J., after his retirement as professor of philosophy and religion, devotes his time to research and publication. His present research focuses on aesthetic spirituality and option for the least, Jesuit history in India and Tamilology.