What Indian Youth Need to Know About Indian Culture

Before I  answer the question of what Indian youth need to know about Indian  culture, perhaps it is more pertinent to ask ‘what do Indian youth  know about Indian culture today?’ The typical response to this  question would be ‘very little’ or ‘nothing.’

An  undergraduate student at a school where I offer course on Indian  Culture, shared this new finding about Swami Vivekananda:  ‘Swami  Vivekananda spoke in Tamil at the World Parliament of Religions held  in South Africa!’ (sic)

Perhaps, I might across as a bit  cynical, but having taught Indian Culture to undergraduate students  for ten years now, I have learnt to be not just optimistic but more  realistic in my assessment of where the younger generation stands  today vis-a-vis Indian Culture.

The current  situation or problem is simply born out of choice. There are many  lifestyle choices available to Indian youth today. A hundred years  ago, Indians did not have to make cultural and lifestyle choices like  we do today.

Added to this  problem of choice, is the handicap of ignorance. Today’s youth are  not making a well- informed choice. It is not that they have examined  the pros and cons of the lifestyles they choose or reject, it is  simply a herd mentality which we all grow up with. We follow blindly  whatever our peers do.

The young Indian is obsessed with  the latest trends of globalization, to him what is new is cool and  fashionable and all that is old is not even worth trying. Whether it  is the latest fashion in clothing, be it a low rise jeans or a trendy  jacket, or a major lifestyle choice such as a ‘live-in’  relationship, the young Indian says newest is the best.

Therefore, it  is important that we create a system within the family, in the  schools and colleges and in our local societies, which can impart  knowledge of the foundations of Indian culture to the youth and  engage them in a dialogue to address their doubts, so that they can  make a wise choice based on a clear understanding of the stakes  involved.

Let us examine some ‘frequently  asked questions’ about Indian culture with the hope that the  resolution provided to these FAQs will help the readers to engage the  younger generation in a fruitful dialogue.

Is Indian Culture outmoded?

All that is  old or ancient is not necessarily outdated and all that is new may  not be good, even if it is fashionable. In this simple advice, lies  the key to understanding young India’s predicament.

The young  Indian wears a peculiar brand of tinted glasses on his eyes. When he  looks to the West, he sees only milk and honey. ‘Look at how  disciplined and civic conscious they are, look at their clean cities  and orderly queues,’ he says. When he looks at India with his  tinted glasses, he sees only dirt and squalor here. ‘Our  politicians and bureaucrats are corrupt, the situation is hopeless.  India is doomed unless we change and become like the West.’

If the West is  truly so progressive and faultless, why is there such seething  discontent and turmoil within? This discontent found expression in  the ‘Occupy’ movement recently which is seeking answers to the  economic inequality and exploitation created by a world controlled by  large corporations which disproportionately benefit a minority. Just  a hundred years of this western economic and technological advance  has the brought much of the earth’s natural resources to the brink  of an irreversible collapse.

And is there  no corruption or social evil then in Europe or USA today? If so, why  is that the leading intellectuals of the West are predicting their  own eventual implosion owing to social degeneration:

“Taking recent  rioting in Greece as my starting point… I argue that Western  nations are in terminal decline unless they can rediscover the true  meaning and value of marriage and of the blessing of children as a  gift to married couples and to society in general.”i

Let us listen to the sane voice  of Swami Vivekananda who diagnosed this disease of the young Indian  long ago and warned us against it:

“On one side, new  India is saying, "If we only adopt Western ideas, Western  language, Western food, Western dress, and Western manners, we shall  be as strong and powerful as the Western nations"; on the other,  old India is saying, "Fools! By imitation, other's ideas never  become one's own; nothing, unless earned, is your own. Does the ass  in the lion's skin become the lion?" On one side, new India is  saving, "What the Western nations do is surely good, otherwise  how did they become so great?" On the other side, old India is  saying, "The flash of lightning is intensely bright, but only  for a moment; look out, boys, it is dazzling your eyes. Beware! "  (CW, IV:477)

This is precisely our condition  today and nobody could have put it more poignantly than the patriot  monk of India who had great faith in the foundational values of  Indian civilization.

Young India  must understand that Swami Vivekananda was not being emotional or  sentimental in their defence of India. His intellect pierced through  the superficialities of external appearances and he had the  discrimination to see differentiate between the ephemeral and  eternal. Let us learn from the story of the rise and downfall of many  great civilizations and respect the fact that if India has not yet  succumbed to a similar fate, then there must be some strength in our  culture which has withstood the agni  pariksha of Time, the all-destroyer.

Can Indian  Culture guarantee success in the modern world?

Success for  the young Indians today is purely a materialistic term. An  individual’s success is measured by his bank balance. Only those  things are valuable to us which have a good market value. Young India  therefore wants a ‘culture’ which can guarantee materialistic  prosperity. Swami Vivekananda would look down upon us and perhaps  say, ‘Fine! So be it. Have your fill of materialism before you  understand success in a more subtle sense.”

Yes my dear  young friends, India was successful for more than a millennium in the  materialistic sense. According to the economic historian Angus  Maddison, India had the world's largest economy during the years 1 AD  and 1000 AD.ii And India continued to be a major economic power till the British  systematically reduced it to one of the poorest nations on earth.

Left to  ourselves, our cultural traits have aided us in creating wealth and  prosperity for society. Paul Johnson, a columnist for the Forbes magazines comments on these remarkable cultural traits which continue  to contribute to the success of the Indian Diaspora all over the  world:

“When left to  themselves, Indians always prosper as a community. Take the case of  Uganda's Indian population, which was expelled by the horrific  dictator Idi Amin and received into the tolerant society of Britain.  There are now more millionaires in this group than in any other  recent immigrant community in Britain. They are a striking example of  how far hard work, strong family bonds and a devotion to education  can carry a people who have been stripped of all their worldly  assets.”iii

Swami Vivekananda had more faith  in human beings than in all the material wealth of the world:

“First of all, try  to understand this: Does man make laws, or do laws make man? Does man  make money, or does money make man? Does man make name and fame, or  name and fame make man? Be a man first, my friend, and you will see  how all those things and the rest will follow of themselves after  you.” (CW, V:491)

Management gurus who are  predicting the implosion of Western economies are turning towards the  wisdom of the Bhagavad Gita and the Artha Shastra today. Success is  an unfoldment of the inner strength of individual. It is such  cultured individuals to make a society successful and not the other  way round.

What about India’s social  evils?

Young India wants to clean up all  the social ills of Indian society in a jiffy. Generation X and their  ancestors in social reform, in their hurry to clean up, have often  ended up creating more problems than solving any.

Swamiji was at  his humorous best when he sarcastically commented on pseudo-reformers  who considered the West as a benchmark in resolving the problems of  Indian women.  When one such reformer asked him about his views on  widow remarriage, Swamiji retorted,

“I am asked again  and again, what I think of the widow problem and what I think of the  woman question. Let me answer once for all — am I a widow that you  ask me that nonsense? Am I a woman that you ask me that question  again and again? Who are you to solve women's problems? Are you the  Lord God that you should rule over every widow and every woman? Hands  off! They will solve their own problems. O tyrants, attempting to  think that you can do anything for any one! Hands off! The Divine  will look after all. Who are you to assume that you know everything?”  (CW, III: 207)

Similarly, during his tour of the  US, an American lady made a reference to the British propaganda  surrounding the myth of Indian mothers throwing unwanted babies into  the Ganga.  Swamiji jovially replied, “Yes Madam! My mother also  threw me into the Ganga. But I was so fat that no crocodile could  swallow me, and here I am lecturing to you, having crossed the Indian  Ocean.” (CW, IV:161)

Swamiji repeatedly cautioned that  India should not accept ideas, reforms or social practices coming  from the West without critical examination and validation in the  light of the foundational values of Indian civilization.  He never  advocated throwing the baby out with the bath water.

This does not  mean that we are asked to go back to the traditional customs of the  past.  Customs and rituals are but expressions of the culture of  Bharatavarsha. Sometimes, the expression may become distorted over a  period of time owing to incursions and deviations. But as long as the  soul is untouched, the culture lives on and readapts itself to the  changing needs of the people. The Bhagavad Gita teaches us that when  the body becomes old and diseased, it is discarded like a piece of  old, worn out cloth and the soul finds a new body. So it is with  customs and social practices.

If some of our  customs and practices have become outmoded, we have the freedom to do  away with them as a gardener would chop off deadwood to prevent the  rot from spreading in order to save the tree.  But have gained the  eligibility to sit in judgement over Indian society or to reform its  complex mechanisms? Only a person who loves India deeply can gain the  authority to change it.

The Core of Indian Culture

So, what is  this soul of India which has survived in spite of many ups and downs  that we have witnessed over millennia? The core of Indian Culture is  the Vedic vision of life. As long as this spiritual worldview is  alive and handed down in tact from generation to generation, India  will not only survive but thrive in the ages to come with many new  expressions of creativity. Swami Vivekananda never tired of reminding  us about the core of Indian Culture in his spirited exhortations:

“…as long as  this principal function of our life is not disturbed, nothing can  destroy our nation. But mark you, if you give up that spirituality,  leaving it aside to go after the materialising civilisation of the  West, the result will be that in three generations you will be an  extinct race; because the backbone of the nation will be broken, the  foundation upon which the national edifice has been built will be  undermined, and the result will be annihilation all round.”

Will Young  India heed the advice of savants like Vivekananda or will it turn  away from its heritage and become an imitation of foreign cultures?  Swamiji had great faith in the younger generation and hence it does  not behove us to be cynical. But, having said that, it is important  to reiterate what was said in the beginning of this article – it is  imperative and urgent that we create systems to disseminate knowledge  of Indian Culture to the youth.

There is  perhaps no better way of spreading awareness of Indian Culture than  by making Vivekananda literature accessible to the youth. As we  participate in the 150th Jayanti celebrations of Swami Vivekananda, let us all take a resolve  to create at least one Vivekananda Study Circle in our local  societies to herald a silent transformation of the youth of India.iv

(This  article is an excerpt from the book ‘Model for Modern Youth’  released on 8th January 2014 at Chennai as part of the 150th Jayanti Celebrations of Swami Vivekananda organized by NSS chapter of  Anna University and Yuva Shakthi, a youth NGO. The author, M. Pramod  Kumar is an assistant professor in the department of cultural  education at Amrita University, Coimbatore.)

Title:  Model for Modern Youth
Author:  M. Pramod KumarFirst  Edition: January 2014, 56 Pages
Published  by Yuva Shakthi, New No. 3,
Parthasarathy Street, Vellala Teynampet, 
Chennai - 600 086.
Mobile : 9444801818, 9962689660,
Email: yuvashakthi.chennai@yahoo.in
Website: www.yuvashakthichennai.wordpress.com
Price: Rs.50/-

1. Keane, Eamonn. “Imploding populations and faltering economies,”
    URL:  http://www.renewamerica.com/columns/keane/100524
2. Maddison, Angus. Contours of the world economy, 1-2030 AD: essays in macro-economic history,
Oxford University Press. p. 379
3. Johnson, Paul. “Want to Prosper? Then Be Tolerant,” Forbes,    21 June 2004.
    URL: http://www.forbes.com/forbes/2004/0621/041.html
4. The Coimbatore Kendra of the Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan has taken up the wonderful initiative of launching 150 Vivekananda Study Centres in schools and colleges in Coimbatore district.

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