Salient Features of Indian Culture

  • By Dr V. Nithyanantha Bhat
  • August 27, 2022
  • This article quotes scholars and Gurus like Dr Prasad, Swami Ranganathananda, K Munshi, Dr Radhakrishna, Sri Aurobindo and K.M. Panikkar to simply and shortly explain the salient features of Indian Culture.

“There are three outstanding features of India's cultural and social life. First, its fundamental unity in the midst of the baffling diversity; second, its capacity to absorb and adjust; and third, its power to survive and consequent continuity.” Dr. Rajendra Prasad


Culture is often defined as the characteristic way of life of a people dominated by a central idea. Tracing the origin of India’s cultural heritage, Swami Ranganathananda said: “On this subcontinent of India a big cultural experiment was staged by the ancient Vedic and pre-Vedic people. They became unified into a single people. That is the beginning of India: a wonderful assimilation of two types of cultures - one urban, the other rural. The Aryan was rural and the Indus Valley was urban. There may have been certain conflicts in the beginning, but the greatest thing that took place was the huge synthesis of diverse elements, and that has continued to be the hallmark of Indian culture.... Behind this great blending and synthesis was a spiritual vision, a philosophical outlook which came to be known as ‘unity in diversity’. Diversity enriches a culture. We do not want to destroy diversity, but we shall subject our diversity to a central thread of spiritual unity. That was the vision of the ancient sages. The vision has continued to inspire India through the ages including this modern period” (“Our Cultural Heritage”, Prabuddha Bharata). 


Swami Ranganathananda added that Indian culture propounded a unity in religion, nature and also in the world of human beings. According to him, the Rig Vedic dictum Ekam sat vipra bahudha vadanti (Truth is one, sages call it by various names) is the best assertion of this unity. And it is from this wisdom of the ancient Indian seers that Indian people imbibed the spirit of harmony, tolerance and acceptance. Vedic seers believed that everything in this world comes from one original source. The first verse of the Rig Veda deals with the principle of fire as the supreme reality in this world. The whole universe is a manifestation of fire. It is the fire in your heart, fire in the sun, and the fire in your stomach digesting food. There is unity behind all these. The differences that we find among human beings are only external. There is a unity underlying all beings. There is one infinite in all beings. This unity in diversity is the contribution of Indian culture to the world. This one Self in all beings is explained in the verses of the Katha Upanishad: eko vasi sarvabhutantaratma* ekam rupam bahudha yah karoti** ‘The one (Supreme) Controller (of all), the inner Self of all beings, who makes His one form manifold.’ 


Spiritual and Political Wisdom

India is known for its spiritual and political wisdom. Swami Ranganathananda observes: “When you study Indian culture you find two dimensions to this culture, one is called the rishi vamsha, the other raja vamsha. The first is spiritual tradition and the second political tradition. And between the two the rishi vamsha is always strong, always continuous and unbroken. The spiritual succession of India from the Vedic times to Ramakrishna has been uninterrupted. But the political succession of India has been interrupted again and again, broken again and again” (“Our Cultural Heritage”, Prabuddha Bharata). 


Swami Ranganathananda adds that even in the most tumultuous period of its history, India produced Guru Nanak, during Babar’s invasion. During the most dismal period of history, in the nineteenth century under British rule, India produced gigantic personalities like Ramakrishna and Vivekananda, and others. 


Sri K.M. Munshi once remarked: “India has been revived, rekindled, and integrated from time to time. Vyasa, Manu, Yajnavalkya, Buddha, Panini, Valmiki, Kalidasa... are living influences operating our lives today” (“Bharatiya Culture,” The Quarterly Journal of the Mythic Society).


Dr. S. Radhakrishnan too observed that “it is the intense spirituality of India, and not any great political structure or social organisation that it has developed, that has enabled it to resist the ravages of time and the accidents of history.” 


Sri Aurobindo remarked: “India has never been nationally and politically one. India was for close to a thousand years swept by barbaric invasions and for almost another thousand years in servitude to successive foreign masters,... But in India at a very early time the spiritual and cultural unity was made complete and became the very stuff of the life of all this great surge of humanity between the Himalayas and the two seas.... Invasion and foreign rule, the Greek, the Parthian and the Hun, the robust vigour of Islam, the levelling steam-roller heaviness of the British occupation and the British system, the enormous pressure of the Occident have not been able to drive or crush the ancient soul out of the body her Vedic rishis made for her (The Foundations of Indian Culture, Fifth Impression, (Pondicherry: Sri Aurobindo Ashram Trust, 1985)).


Tolerance, Acceptance and Survival

K.M. Panikkar, erstwhile Indian statesman and historian, considered ‘wide tolerance’ to be the basic conception of Hinduism which separates it from revealed religions believing in the finality of their revelations. According to him, “It is this sense of tolerance and charity that gives harmony to the inner life of an Indian of culture, for, while he is firm in his own faith, he is prepared to approach them with an open mind (“Basis of Indian Culture—A Universal Outlook,” The Quarterly Journal of the Mythic Society).” 


“The second characteristic of Indian Culture, according to Sri Panikkar is its universal outlook. He observes that Indian thought has never accepted geographical, racial and other considerations as affecting ultimate values. This universality of approach is responsible for the unique characteristic of Hindu civilisation, its readiness to assimilate what is of value in other civilisations.”


“India’s inalienable faith in the worth of the individual, according to Sri Panikkar, is the third important characteristic of its culture. He explains thus: “The dominant European social doctrines from the time of Aristotle have held that the State is the primary conception and that the individual can have his being and find his fulfilment only through the State. While the claims of organised society are indisputable, the Indian doctrine sets definite limits to the authority of the State. The dharma, as representing the rights of the individual, was above the State. It is the good of the individual that is the supreme object of the dharma, and it safeguards the individual against the encroachments of the State. (“Basis of Indian Culture,” The Quarterly Journal of the Mythic Society). These three concepts— tolerance, universal outlook and faith in the worth of the individual —together constitute the essential elements of Indian culture, Sri Panikkar avers. 


Thus the salient features of Indian culture can be summed up as a cosmic vision, spirituality, an innate harmony, tolerance for all religious thought, and adaptability.   


This article was first published in the Bhavan’s Journal, August 15, 2022 issue. This article is courtesy and copyright Bhavan’s Journal, Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan, Mumbai-400007. eSamskriti has obtained permission from Bhavan’s Journal to share. Do subscribe to the Bhavan’s Journal – it is very good.


Also read

1. Our Cultural Legacy and Bharatvarsh

2. The Wonders of Indian Culture

3. The Spiritual Basis of Indian Culture

4. Dharma, the basis of Indian Culture

5. Indian Culture, its Timeless Appeal and Ageless Charm

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