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Of Culture and Anarchy

Who must set an example in following a cultured code of conduct for a national policy on culture to be feasible?

A regional version of the Mahabharata contains this story:

Because of continuous rain for days, a poor man who earned his living by supplying fuel for the village kitchens, found no dry wood to sell and was on the verge of starvation. Suddenly he remembered that the idol in the local temple was made of wood. He entered the shrine at the dead of night and raised his axe to reduce the idol to chips.

“Stop!” a voice told him. “If all you need is money, take a dip in the river at sunrise with a pebble in your grip. When you get up, you’ll find it changed into gold.”

The fellow spared the idol and did as directed and, lo and behold, began changing a pebble a day into gold. No wonder that he should become the richest man in the village.

His neighbour, a teacher as poor as the woodcutter once was, had a wife clever enough to discover the woodcutter’s secret. “Go and threaten the deity with an axe,” she told her husband. With great hesitation and trepidation of heart the venerable teacher stole his nocturnal passage into the shrine, but once before the deity, he fainted.

“Did you really believe that you could have done it?” a voice asked him while he lay in a swoon. “Your swadharma would not have allowed you that action. You have much more to live with besides your poverty. The only other thing your neighbour had was stupidity.”

The teacher reconciled himself to a life of meaningful poverty rather than running after a meaningless affluence – a position which the modern mind is likely to reject. But modern or otherwise, none can dismiss the truth underlying the story – that at least one of the roles of culture is to prevent one, spontaneously, from taking recourse to the false and the vicious.

And nobody can disagree with one of the standard-bearers of modernism, T. S. Eliot, when he says, “Culture is the one thing that we cannot deliberately aim at. It is the product of variety of more or less harmonious activities, each pursued for its own sake.”[1]

Something deep within man must be conducting this process of harmonious activities, something that accounts for the growth in man’s consciousness.

So far by culture we have meant the culture of an individual. But culture, in recent times, has assumed several connotations, anthropological culture, historical culture, etc. Pierre Bourdien, the French sociologist, exposed the contemporary bourgeois tendency for using as a capital (“Culture Capital”) to be passed on to their children, as an alternative to material wealth, for nothing but matter-of-fact gains: “By providing a home environment which encourages reading and stimulates an interest in the arts, through foreign travel and study, and by the general inculcation of the values of the educational system, bourgeois parents ensure that their children will perform well in the system, and so in society.”[2]

But, so far as the common use of the term is concerned, it can mean, apart from individual culture, man’s achievements in literature, art, music and dance – the fields covered by a ministry of culture in any government and, further, it means the collective social accomplishment and refinement of a people.

Obviously, it is in this last sense of the term that the Ministry of Human Resource Development (will the authorities consider reverting to its simple good old name, Ministry of Education & Culture?) had come out with an Approach Paper on National Culture Policy, some years ago, intending to secure a dignified level of culture for all. The pious objectives inspired caustic comments in certain quarters, but there could not be anything wrong in aiming high. There could certainly be a national policy on culture in order to educate all, even if to varied degrees, depending on peculiarities of different classes and communities, with the truth that our peace and progress depended on our effort to understand, tolerate and then appreciate our own differences and varieties – and our being conscious of the ultimate goal of life.

The document spoke of a holistic cultural upliftment, but its concept of holism seemed to be more external, concerned with roping in all segments of the society into its scope. But the collective culture is an issue demanding a holistic approach in a greater sense of the term – according to which culture is the projection of an average in idealism, humaneness and mutual conduct.

What happened to that study? Parties and individuals controlling the government have since changed a few times. But the government remains. Must a project of this kind, once undertaken, be dumped into the dark well of oblivion?

To expect decency and honesty to prevail in the markets and bazaars while the “Culture-vultures” and vampires of violence and vulgarity continue to have a field day is absurd. To expect truthfulness in literature or journalism while truthfulness is defined with a machine gun is unrealistic; to expect respect for education while the educated and the respected, one after another, are thrown behind bars for defrauding an unsuspecting people is vain.

Alas, the common man in the village (the readers have just to initiate a discussion with him to find this out) has lost all faith in the value of education and high position, thanks to a staggering array of scams at the sophisticated levels of the social hierarchy and mini occurrences of the same variety at lower and local levels. Once upon a time education and position, in the common man’s perception, were symbols of dependency and superiority that deserved respect. But he has learnt to suspect them and is now learning to hate them. There can be no culture without faith, respect and humility. The educated, the executive, the wealthy and the power-wielder, through their conduct, have destroyed these basic elements of a collective culture.

No new drive for cultivation of culture can succeed unless the society’s values are reversed. If one man is accused of bribe-taking and is convicted, a hundred who have bribed him roam free. The former will certainly be there as long as the latter hundred are there. It is difficult to conceive of an immediate decade when the hundred would have changed, but examples set by those in authority can go a long way to give the hundred a taste of culture in practice. The ancient Indian polity believed that the ruler’s sins or piety determined the nature of a state’s social climate to a great extent.

On a practical plane, there is no reason why all politicians, particularly candidates for Elections, should not go through a crash course – comprised of lessons in democracy, socialism, civics, constitution, etc. Further, it should teach them codes of conduct, impress upon them the fact that the legislature is not a coliseum for physical combat – for every time a representative of the people runs amuck in the Assembly or Parliament, rowdyism receives a shot in the arm and his example tickles the dormant or potential ruffian in a hundred voters.

A collective culture is an antidote to corruption and tyranny. That is why Georing is reported to have been fond of quoting lines from poet Heinz Johst: “When I hear the word ‘Culture’, I reach for my gun.” But we can grow enough to reach for our culture whenever we hear the word ‘gun’.

Manoj Das

(Manoj Das is an internationally known creative writer. He is the recipient of India’s national recognition, the Sahitya Akademi Award and the nation’s most prestigious literary award, the Saraswati Samman. As a social commentator,
his columns in India’s national dailies like The Times of India, The Hindustan Times, The Hindu and The Statesman, revealing the deeper truth and the untraced aspects behind current issues, have been highly appreciated.)

[1] Notes towards the Definition of Culture
[2] Modern Thought, ad. by A. Bullock, O. Stallybrass and S. Trombley