Culture is a word much before the public recently, very often qualified with adjectives denoting region or religion. We hear of Chinese Culture, European Culture, American Culture, Hindu Culture, Islamic Culture and so on. The indiscriminate manner in which the word is used raises a doubt whether the users have a clear conception of what Culture really means. Not very long ago, a leading politician submitted a representation to the States Re-organisation Committee protesting against the inclusion of Bellary in Mysore State. His argument (as reported) was as follows:


“Bellary was a part of Rayalaseema. Rayalaseema now belongs to Andhra State. The inclusion of Bellary in Mysore is a rupture of its Rayalaseema Culture.”


On this argument, the inclusion of the Civil and Military Station of Bangalore in Bangalore City is a rupture of its British Cantonment Culture. Srirangapatna, in being transferred to Mandya District suffered a grievous loss of its Mysore District Culture. If each State has a separate recognisable Culture, why not every village? Why not every house for that matter? It is easy to laugh at this fantastic folly, but sometimes the results are catastrophic. When the Muslim league raised the slogan of Islamic Culture being different from, and incompatible with, Hindu Culture, India split asunder as with an earthquake. Distrust deepened into hatred, and rivers of blood separated us and our former fellow-citizens.


What then is Culture? This paper is an attempt to furnish an answer.


Culture is an old English word, but it has not always had its present content. It is derived from the Latin ‘Culture’ which means tillage. Gradually it came to mean worship, physical exercise, cultivated lands, and education. To the best of my knowledge, it did not, before the nineteenth century, have its present meaning of intellectual, aesthetic and spiritual attainment. So far as I know, neither Chaucer, nor Spenser, nor Shakespeare nor Milton used it in this sense. Probably Wordsworth was among the earliest to give the word something of its present significance, and Matthew Arnold made the connotation ampler and more definite.


How did this word, which meant ‘preparation of the soil’ come to be able to carry its present rich and varied freight? What analogy is there between tillage and what we have come to understand by Culture? Tillage, we know, draws out the natural excellences of the soil, eliminates its faults, and enables it to produce food for man and beast. Culture draws out and develops what is best in human nature, eradicates defects, and makes it capable of raising the human race to its highest stature, and of making life richer and happier.


Sri Shankaracharya proudly proclaimed that Man is the noblest of living beings. Pascal not only re-asserts that claim but gives the reason for this primacy. Man is not first because of his physical qualities; for, in these, many animals are far superior to him. He is a reed in strength; but he is a thinking seed. Thought is infinitely superior to strength and the capacity for it has made man first among living things. Yet there is one quality of which he is capable, which is as far superior to mental power as the latter is to physical strength–and that is Goodness, the power to discriminate good from evil, and the desire to prefer the good to the evil at all costs.


An ancient Western philosopher called man a spirit burdened with a corpse, meaning by corpse, of course, his body, subject to birth, old age and death. A striking statement, no doubt, but the truth is really far worse. A dead body, poor thing, is harmless enough, and could be cast away at pleasure. The reality, however is that what the spirit carries is a wild animal, the heir of our animal ancestry of long ages of a grim struggle for existence. The qualities which make for survival in such a struggle are not mercy, kindness, patience, or divine knowledge; but physical strength, fierceness, and above all ruthlessness. Nature, without goodness, is “Red in tooth and claw.” It is this wild beast, the bloody conqueror of millions of pre-historic fights to a finish, that the human soul carries on its gentle wings. This beast breaks loose when wars are fought. Then the blameless Yudhishtira tells a lie, the chivalrous Arjuna slays a disabled foeman, and Bhima revels in an orgy of blood. Then, again, a so-called civilised country rains indiscriminate destruction on lakhs of non-combatants and reduces flourishing cities to ashes.


Even a more fitting figure is the famous text in our scripture:


“The soul is the rider in the chariot which is the body. The intellect is the chariot-driver and the mind is the controlling rein. The senses are strong wild horses which draw it, and the objects of sense are the course they have to travel.”


The function of Culture is to strengthen the intellect, which is the driver, and the mind which is the rein; to tame the wild horses which are the senses, and to keep the chariot itself, which is the body, in good order. As culture of the land is concerned with potentialities of the earth, human Culture is concerned with the potentialities of the soul.


The next question is, how should we set about it? Says Matthew Arnold:


Find out, study, admire, imitate, and excel, if you can, all that is best in what has been thought or said, or done by mankind. Make the best your leading light in life and follow the light without fear or faltering, and, above all, remember that it is not enough merely to  know what is good. We must live it and make it our constant endeavour to leave the world, were it but the merest trifle, better than it was when we entered it.


In this conception of Culture, thought, study, good conduct, service, strenuous endeavour at improvement, are all included Art, literature, philosophy, science, history and biography are all there, harnessed to the great chariot of existence. In another place Matthew Arnold calls Culture ‘Sweetness and Light’, and goes on to say that Culture is co-extensive with humanity, irrespective of region, race or colour. Anything which breeds difference, distrust or hatred is not Culture, but its opposite.


The social objective of Culture is to make human beings Aryas, that is to say, ladies and gentlemen. Cardinal Newman, in discoursing on Universities, has a beautiful description of what constitutes gentlemanliness. According to him, the chief excellence of a gentleman is that he avoids causing pain to others. With this should be combined modesty, compassion, benevolence and urbanity. Our own scriptures, with deeper analysis, thus define what constitutes a noble nature:


“Fearlessness, cleanness of life, steadfastness in the Yoga of wisdom, alms-giving, self-restraint and sacrifice, and study of the Scriptures, austerity and straightforwardness, harmlessness, truth, absence of wrath, renunciation, peacefulness, absence of crookedness, compassion to living beings, uncovetousness, mildness, modesty, absence of fickleness, vigour, forgiveness, fortitude, purity, absence of envy and pride, these are his who is born with the divine properties, O Bharata.”


Bhagavad Gita, XVI. 1-3. (Dr. Annie Besant’s translation) Sri Buddha has a similar numeration of the qualities of a gentleman.


Culture is not mere learning. The merely learned man is often vain, and scorns persons less accomplished than himself. It is not affluence, for, see the lives of some rich people, the way they use their wealth, the books they read, the things they admire. Nor is it at all orthodox piety, whose champions are often ready to send heretics–that is, people not accepting their own brand of religion–to eternal torment. It certainly is not power, for, man clothed with a little brief authority plays such pranks as makes the angels weep. But all these can become Culture. Knowledge is Culture if it strives to combat ignorance and illiteracy for the good of mankind. Wealth, if employed to relieve suffering, can achieve Culture. Even orthodoxy can do good, if it ceases to be fanatical superstition, and helps in spreading compassion and faith in God’s love. Power can become Culture if it upholds Justice and is employed in improving the lot of man. What is it that raises these earthly things to the divine plane of Culture? It is goodness, and love ‘in greatest commonalty spread’. Sri Shankaracharya’s prayer is–“oh! Vishnu, take away my self-conceit and bring all things within the range of my love.”


This paper may well close with Coleridge’s Testament of Faith:


“He prayeth well who loveth well

Both man and bird and beast;

He prayeth best who loveth best

All things both great and small,

For the dear God who loveth us

He made and loveth all.”