Foundations of Indian Culture

Kula and Yajna, Rita and Tapas as the Central Idea

The Aryans who founded Indian culture had certain basic social institutions like Kula (family) and Jana (tribe). The Aryans brought some important elements with them namely the horse (an imp instrument of warfare), powerful social institutions and a collective will to action.

Among social institutions was the Patriarchate. The father was the head of the family, its members and properties. The departed ancestors were bound in an intimate relation with the family. Grand-fathers, sons and so on were one in spirit, traditions and property.

The family or Kula led to the concept of Gotra or a group of families from common descent. A federation of gotras made the Jana or tribe. Therefore, the father provided the bonding to a family passing down traditions from one generation to another. Thus, the family became central to every person’s existence. It molded members from infancy, inspired by love, sacrifice, pride of parental action.

Unlike in the West, where an individual is given more importance than society, family functions as a support mechanism in India and, hence is an important part of our culture. The above also explains why the father is the head of the Indian family. Another important characteristic of Vedic culture was lifelong unity of husband and wife. This explains why divorce rate amongst Indian couples is lower as compared to the West. In fact, a recent survey carried out in England confirms that divorce rate amongst Indians is the lowest there.

Another socio-religious institution was Yagna, the ritual of sacrifice that brought men, their ancestors and gods into an intimate relationship. Behind yagna was the spirit of sacrifice. Every human is to offer his precious possessions (greed, fear, anger, hatred, and ego) to the Cosmic Law, releasing creative energy, that can be used for productive purposes. If performed in true spirit it was a means of uniting men with gods not only to meet desired ends, but to secure lasting creation.

The ordinances according to the yagna were prescribed by Rita, the Eternal Law, which upheld the Cosmic Order. Rita was all pervading, omnipresent from which creation sprang and by which life was regulated. Everyone, Gods included had to conform to its ordinances. It was independent of gods and men. The gods were its guardians, they were mighty because of it. Rita was not merely the source of strength but also of beauty. Ushas the goddess of dawn was beautiful because she was true to Rita. One could taste immortality only on the lofty heights of Rita.

Satya was that aspect of Rita that gave conduct the power to yield desired results. It produced results only when there was a complete accord between thought, word and deed of an individual. When men prayed to God, their blessings had to be satya ie true to expectations.

Tapas yagna could be fruitful only if it is performed with the spirit of sacrifice or Tapas. This meant offering of life through prayer to the gods in order to conform to Rita. Tapas is self- discipline for attaining purity of mind and body. Scorning human comforts, it gives self control to man. It transforms weaknesses into strength and inspiration. Sublimation of the ego releases energy which can be used positively.

Therefore, the central idea underlying Indian culture is Rita, the cosmic order that is one and indivisible, operating in spiritual and moral fields. It governs and regulates life and its evolution. Its Divinity is represented by God. The manifestations of Rita have many aspects, its fundamental values being Satya, Yajna, and Tapas.

It is a tribute to the Rishis of four thousand years ago who saw this Central Idea in all its universality and through it sought to coordinate all values of life and shaped, vitalized institutions, norms to fulfill it.

The Vedic Rishi and his Ashram

Rita was translated into life through social institutions, norms of conduct and discipline which lifted the daily conduct into an act of Yajna. The ashram was the key institution where the Vedas were learned and practiced. The Rishi lived with his pupils. He taught them the message of the gods through mantras, how to worship them through sacrifice and inspire men to follow the ordinances of Rita. Each ashram was a closely knit family. It rested on the collective support of the community who looked up to it as a source of inspiration for life well lived.

In Vedic India, the Rishi was a not a priest. He was a teacher whose life was dedicated to the Gods and Rita. The first step in translating Rita in life was through training in self-disciplined behavior under an Acharya (a rishi of repute). He was a spiritual guide to the student. At an early stage of consecration (diksha) a young person had to learn how to conform to the Rita through vratas or pledges of disciplined behavior. Diksha stood for a life of discipline dedicated to prayers, learning and teaching. When an Arya was consecrated he became a Brahmachari.

In succeeding ages our culture maintained its vitality because it depended on this class of dedicated, self-disciplined students for its creative vigor. A culture flourishes only when its educational system imparts a sense of mission to the youth and trains them to lead a disciplined life. If the new generation is self-indulged, then that means the system has failed to capture the values of the culture. Consequently, decay follows bringing with it social, moral, and cultural disintegration.

The above para explains two things. First, why has the Indian civilization survived inspite of many foreign invasions? The rishis and students passed on the knowledge of Rita from generation to generation. Since they were spread throughout the country, even if an invader destroyed 25 ashrams there were thousand others that survived.

Secondly, what is the reason for the current decay in our society? It is to do with the failure of the current educational system. I am no expert but feel that mass based education has failed to deliver. It is bookish, impersonal, continuously harps on acquisition of material objects, does not teach us how to handle life and ignores personality development. Instead of reading about Indian books, we study European literature in Shakespeare and Macbeth. This has made a substantial part of the urban population ignorant about Indian culture.

A recent issue of The Outlook pointed out that a number of urban Indians, between 20-30 years, use religion / spirituality to cope with Stress.

Now days some of us turn spiritual after the age of fifty. Do we get the maximum benefit out of doing so? The answer is No. After having lived most of our lives in ignorance and suffered we turn spiritual. Having realized the benefits of turning spiritual in my thirties, sometimes wonder how much I have lost because we were not taught spirituality in school.

Brahmacharya was during training period only. Marriage and children were part of the tradition. The student of a Rishi, dedicated to Rita was looked upon as a leader and was to play the role of a dominant minority in society providing insight, judgment to translate values into life.

The highest function which the Rishi had to perform was to compose, preserve and transmit the sacred hyms. The divinity of the Vedas became one of the fundamental values of Vedic culture. It was a unifying factor and a source of perennial inspiration. Note that chanting of the Vedas was not the exclusive privilege of the Brahmins.

The Rishis extended their sphere of influence throughout India. In the process Aryan traditions mixed with Dravidian and tribal traditions to become a composite culture. Aryan culture started moving South/Westwards. One of the rishis, Agastya is credited with being the father of Tamil grammar and poetry. Namboodiri Brahmans of Kerala claim descent from Parashurama.

There were a number of wars between the Aryans themselves and with the Dravidians like the Battle of Ten Kings. Such protracted wars appear to have ended the Vedic period.

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