The Meaning of Culture

Jawaharlal Nehru's speech at the inauguration of the Indian Council of Cultural Relations, New Delhi, 9 April 1950. SWJN/S2/14B/183-88

I have come here with pleasure and yet with a great deal of confusion in my mind. The pleasure is that I have always looked forward to furthering the cause of cultural association of India with not only the neighbouring countries to the East and West, but with the wider world outside. It is not merely a question of wanting such cultural association, or considering it good, but rather one of the necessities of the situation which compel one to do it or else the result is infinitely worse. I earnestly hope that the formation of this Indian Council of Cultural Relations will lead to a better understanding between our people and the peoples of other countries.

Having said that, let me state quite frankly the confusion that arises in my mind. All kinds of questions crop up, rather basic questions, questions which arise from what one sees going on in the world around us. We talk of understanding each other, nations, individuals and groups, and it seems an obvious thing that people should try to understand each other and to learn from one another. Yet, whether we look through the pages of history or study current events, I sometimes find that people who know each other most quarrel most. Countries which are next door to each other in Europe or in Asia somehow rub each other up most and while knowing each other very thoroughly, that knowledge itself does not lead to greater cooperation or friendship. So what is wrong about our method or this procedure?

That is not a new thing. Even the long pages of history show that. Has there been something wrong in individual nations or in the approach to this question or something else that has not worked as it should have done? Then again, we talk about cultural relations and immediately the question arises in my mind what exactly is this thing culture about which people talk so much. I remember when I was younger in years reading about German kultur and of the German people of those days trying to spread it by conquest and otherwise, and there was a big war to spread this kultur and to resist it. Every country and every individual seems to have a peculiar idea of culture and so when there is talk about cultural relations, while in theory that is very good, actually what happens is that those peculiar ideas come into conflict and instead of leading to friendship they lead to more estrangements. It is a basic question—what is culture? And I am certainly not competent to give you a definition of it because I have not found it. At any rate, I do not know.

One can see each nation, each separate civilisation developing its own culture, and civilisation having some roots in generations past, hundreds and thousands of years past, and being intimately moulded by that initial conception which started the civilisation going along its long path. One sees that conception affected by other conceptions, action and inter-action between slightly varying conceptions. There is, I suppose, no so-called culture in the world which is absolutely pristine and pure and unaffected by any other culture. It simply cannot happen, just as no person can say that he belongs one hundred per cent to a particular racial type, because in the course of hundreds and thousands of years changes and mixtures have occurred more or less.

So culture will get a little mixed up and the basic element of a particular national culture possibly remaining dominant and yet its being affected by and affecting other cultures. If that kind of thing goes on peacefully there is no harm in it. But it leads often enough to conflicts. It leads sometimes to a fear on the part of one group of what they consider their culture being rather overwhelmed by an outside or alien influence and then drawing themselves into a shell which isolates them, which prevents other thoughts and their ideas going out. That is an unhealthy situation because in any matter, and much more so in what might be called a cultural matter, stagnation is the worst. Culture, if it has any value must have a certain depth, but it must also have a certain dynamic character. After all culture depends on a vast number of factors. If we leave out what might be called, perhaps the basic mould that was given to it in the early stages of a nation’s or a people’s growth, it is affected by geography, by climate, by all kinds of events that have happened. 

The culture of Arabia is intimately governed by the geography and the deserts of Arabia. It grew up in that. Obviously the culture of India in the old days was affected greatly, as we see it in our literature, by the Himalayan mountains and the forests and the great rivers and other things in India. It was a natural growth from the soil. The two may mix together and produce a happy combination as they often did in various domains of culture, architecture, music, literature, etc. But where there is an attempt to impose something on the other which does not naturally grow or which does not naturally mould itself, without uprooting itself, then comes conflict. Then unfortunately something also comes which is basically opposed to my mind, to all idea of culture. And that is the isolation of the mind, the deliberate shutting up of the mind to other influences. My own view of India’s history is that we can almost measure the growth and the advance of India and the decline of India from the point of view of when India had her mind open to the outside world and when it wanted to close it up. The more it closed it up the more it became static. Life, whether of the individual or of a group or a nation or of a society, is essentially a dynamic, changing, growing thing. Whatever stops that dynamic idea of growth injures it and makes it deteriorate.

If I may with all respect say so and without meaning any ill to any person, we have had great religions and they have had an enormous effect on humanity. Yet those very religions, in the measure that they made the mind of man static, dogmatic and bigoted have had an evil effect according to my thinking. The things they said may be good, but the effect of saying anything and adding on to it that there you stop as the last word has been said, makes society static and therefore it stops the growth of culture.

How are you to balance these two essential factors? One is that the human being, individual or race or nation, must necessarily have a certain depth and a certain root somewhere. Otherwise if the individual is just superficial, he may be outwardly cultured in that superficial sense, but does not count for much. A race or a group does not count for much unless it has roots in the past, which past after all is the accumulation of generations of experience and some type of wisdom.

It is essential that you have that. Otherwise you become just pale copies of something else which has no real meaning to you as an individual or as a group. On the other hand one cannot live in the roots alone. The roots even wither unless they come out in the sun and the free air and then the roots give you the sustenance, and they branch out and flower. And then one might say that you have achieved balance. It is very difficult to balance because some people think a great deal about the flowers and the leaves in the branches, forgetting that they only flourish because there is a stout root behind them. Others think so much of the roots that no flowers or leaves or branches are left, only a thick stem somewhere. So how is one to balance that and which part of it is real culture and which is not?

Does culture mean some inner growth of the person? Of course, it must. Does it mean the capacity to understand the other person? I suppose so. Does it mean the capacity to make yourself understood by the other person? I suppose so. It means all that. A person, who cannot understand another’s viewpoint, is to that extent limited in mind and culture because nobody, barring may be some very extraordinary human beings, can presume to have the fullest knowledge and wisdom; the other party or the other group may also have some inkling of knowledge or wisdom or truth and if we shut our minds to that, then we not only deprive ourselves of it, but we cultivate an attitude of mind which I would beg to say is opposed to that of a cultured man, because the cultured mind, having roots in itself, should have its doors and windows open, imbibing other things. It should have the capacity to understand the other’s viewpoint fully even though it cannot agree with it always. It may sometimes agree, sometimes not. The question of agreement or disagreement only arises when you understand a thing. Otherwise it is a blind negation which is not a cultured approach to any question.

I may use another word, say, science. What is the scientific approach to life’s problems—one of examining everything, of seeking truth by trial and error, by experiment, never saying that this thing must be so, but trying to understand why it is so and if one is convinced of it, accepting it, and the moment some other proof comes, changing one’s notions, to have an open mind, not a mind which is floating about with every gust of wind, nevertheless an open mind trying to imbibe the truth wherever one finds that. If that is culture, how far is it represented in the modem world and in the nations of today? Obviously, if it was represented more than it is, many of our problems, national and international, would be far easier of solution.

Almost every country in the world thinks that it has some special dispensation from Providence, that it is of the chosen people or race and others may be good or bad but secondary, somewhat inferior human beings. It is extraordinary how this human feeling persists in all nations without any exception, whether of the East or of the West. The nations of the East are strongly entrenched in their own ideas and convictions and sometimes in their own sense of superiority in regard to certain matters in life. Anyhow in the course of the last two or three hundred years they got many knocks on the head and they were humiliated and they were debased, they were exploited. And so, in spite of sometimes thinking that they were rather superior in many ways, they were forced to admit in other ways that they could be knocked about and be exploited. To some extent this knocking about process brought a sense of realism. There was a slight attempt to escape from that realism. Oh, yes, it was said, may be we are not so advanced in the material things of life, in the technical things, in the superficial things; nevertheless, we are superior in the essential things, in the spiritual things, in moral values. I have no doubt that spiritual things and moral values are more important ultimately than other things, but the way one finds escape in the thought that one is spiritually superior-simply because one happens to be in the material and physical sense inferior is surprising and is not easy to follow. It is a mere way of escape from really finding out the causes of one’s deterioration.

Nationalism, of course, is a curious phenomenon which at a certain stage in a country’s history gives life and growth and strength and unity; and at the same time it has a tendency to limit one because one thinks of one’s country as something rather out of proportion with the rest of the world. The perspective changes, and one is continuously thinking of one’s own struggles and virtues and failings to the exclusion of other thoughts with the result that the very same thing, that is nationalism, which is the symbol of growth for a people becomes a symbol of stopping that growth of the mind. Sometimes, again, nationalism when it becomes successful goes on spreading in an aggressive way and it becomes internationally a danger.

So whatever line of thought you follow, you arrive at the conclusion that you must find a certain balance between these things. Otherwise something that was good turns into evil. Culture that is essentially good looked at from a wrong point of view becomes essentially not only static but aggressive and something breeding conflict and hatred. How you are to find a balance, I do not know. And perhaps that is the problem of today apart from the great political and economic problems of the age, because behind it there seems to be a tremendous conflict in the spirit of man today, some search for something which it cannot find. They go to economic theories and those economic theories have an undoubted importance because it is just folly to talk of culture or even to talk of God, when human beings starve and die. The first thing that one has to do is to provide the normal essentials of life to human beings before you can talk about anything else and there economics comes in, and human beings today are not in a mood to put up with this suffering and starvation and inequality when they see that the burden is not equally shared. Others profit while they only have to bear the burden.

So inevitably we have to deal with these problems economically and in other ways, but I do think that behind it all there is this tremendous psychological problem and question in the minds of people. It may be that some people think about it consciously and deliberately, and others rather unconsciously and dimly, but there is this conflict in the spirit of man. How it will be resolved, I do not know. One thing that troubles me is this, that often enough people who understand each other more and more begin to quarrel more and more. Nevertheless, you cannot say from that that we should not try to understand each other because that will be completely limiting oneself and that is something which really cannot be done in the modern context of the world. Therefore, it becomes essential that we must try to understand each other in the right way. The right way is important. The right approach, the friendly approach, is important, because a friendly approach brings a friendly response. I have not a shadow of a doubt that it is a fundamental rule of human life that if the approach is good the response is good. If the approach is bad, the response is likely to be bad too. So if we approach our fellow human beings or other countries in the right way, not in any sense of surrendering anything that we consider of essential value to truth or to our own genius, but nevertheless in a friendly way with our minds and hearts open and prepared to accept whatever good comes to them, then that will lead not only to understanding, but the right type of understanding.

So I shall leave you to your own labours and to determine what is culture and what is wisdom. We grow in learning, in knowledge, in experience, till we have such an enormous accumulation of them that it becomes impossible to know exactly what we know. We are overwhelmed by this and at the same time somehow or other one has a feeling that all those put together do not necessarily represent a growth in wisdom of the human race. I have a feeling that it may be that some people who did not have all the advantages of modem life and modern science were wiser perhaps in the essentials than most of us are. Whether we shall be able, in later times, to combine all this knowledge and scientific growth and betterment of the human species with true wisdom or not, I do not know. It is a race between various forces. I am reminded of a famous Greek poet, the saying of a very wise man:

What else is Wisdom? What of man’s endeavour,

Or God’s high grace, So lovely and so great?

To stand from fear set free, to breathe and wait.

To hold a hand uplifted over Hate,

And shall not Loveliness be loved for ever?

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