Institute for Social Justice

News & Events

Taking pride in our culture

Professor Rajeev Bhargava, Institute for Social Justice and Centre for the Study of Developing Societies

This article was originally published in The Hindu

The right way of doing so is to show how we contribute to worldwide, historically connected, cultures of humanity

Who must have legitimate cultural pride and why?

Should humans take pride in their respective cultures? Yes! Why not? All Indians must be proud of the absence of major wars of religion in India, of no significant instance of religious persecution and, at least until the 19th century, no large-scale communal violence.

Should we all have pride in each and every aspect of our past and present culture? Of course, not! How can Hindus take pride in socially sanctioned untouchability or the confinement of women to household chores? So there must be a distinction between legitimate and illegitimate cultural pride.

And how assertive must we be about cultural pride? Should we shout from the rooftops that ‘we are the greatest’, always wear our pride on our sleeve, or instead, with humility and calm self-confidence, allow it to shine through in our actions and achievements?

Appropriate and inappropriate

After all, assertive cultural pride is understandable, even justified only when a group is breaking away from prolonged cultural subjugation and humiliation, as was the case in mid-19th century India, when profound distortions were introduced by cultural imperialism in our self-understandings. But already by early 20th century, in the expressions of Vivekananda, Tagore and Gandhi, we see an articulation of legitimate cultural pride that behoves a confident cultural community. What then is the need for such vociferous assertion now?

And why invent originality or greatness in the face of all evidence to the contrary, when there is much else to be legitimately proud about? Why have false pride in Pushpak Vimaans or plastic surgery when there are real things, ideas and values in our own culture to give us profound self-satisfaction? The great Indian epics, Buddha’s and Upanishadic teachings, Panini’s grammar, Aryabhatta, the magnificent Kalidasa, Kabir’s poetry, to take just a few examples.

Finally, what precise form must cultural pride assume, particularly in a religiously and culturally plural world? I would put it like this: we are all proud participants in a historically connected, worldwide flow of cultural resources; we too contribute in our own distinctive way to the rich, large, complex and variegated cultures of humanity.

Cultural communities must mutually recognise their historically grounded and validated contribution. This collective achievement is not an illusion or exaggeration but very real.

Allow me to illustrate. We know that Leo Tolstoy had a profound impact on Mahatma Gandhi. Now Tolstoy, a Russian aristocrat at birth, an army officer in his youth and later, a great writer and thinker, underwent a radical spiritual conversion, culminating in a dramatic renunciation of worldly success, to an ascetic life of non-violence and social service.

Apparently, the catalyst for this change was his reading of a Georgian fable which captures human predicament as that of a man running away from a maniacal beast and falling into a well, but who escapes instant death by somehow clinging to a creeper. But alas, the creeper itself is being persistently nibbled at by white (day) and black (night) mice. The man’s death is overdetermined.

This story made Tolstoy realise that in the end, despite wealth, fame and power, life in itself is meaningless. His response was to turn away from the material world of pomp and power.

The fable was part of Christian hagiography on the lives of saints Barlaam and Josaphat. It spread from Damascus, Baghdad, Greece and Rome throughout western Europe and became a part of medieval Christian consciousness. Its dominant motif was the renunciation of worldly power and wealth by a young prince, Josaphat, who, coming under the influence of a hermit from the Sinai desert, Barlaam, abdicated his throne in order to seek moral and spiritual truth.

The narrative loop

But here is the interesting twist in this Christian story. The prince in the tale woven by Georgian monks from Greek, Latin and Arabic sources was Indian! Georgian Christians received it from Arab Muslims, who had taken it from the Manichees in central Asia, who in turn obtained it from Buddhist sources, for this is the story of none other than Prince Siddhartha Gautama, the Bodhisattva, the future Buddha!

In Manichean versions, Bodhisattva became Bodisaf, in Arabic, Yudasaf, in Georgian, Iodasaph, in Greek, Ioasaph and in Latin, Josaphat! But the story of origins does not stop here. Wilfred Cantwell Smith, a great admirer of India’s religious diversity and founder of the department of world religions at Harvard University, from whom I get this account, goes on to say that the Buddhist story itself may have Jain and ancient Hindu roots.

So, a story that originated in India returned to it via Greece, Rome, Baghdad, Georgia and Kiev, through the vehicle of Buddha, Tolstoy and Gandhi. Millions such stories can be found originating in the West Asia, China, Europe or Africa and finding their way to different parts of the world.

If this is how things, ideas and values circulate, virtually nothing belongs wholly to any one group. This is why the only right way of expressing cultural pride must be to not claim greatness for oneself but rather for each cultural community to show that it too contributes to worldwide, historically connected cultures of humanity. Deep down, the real subject of cultural pride is invariably a host of interconnected cultural communities!

Back to news