5,000 Years of Indian Culture

Article excerpt

THE development of Indian culture can be compared to the progress of a river from its Himalayan home, through forests and wastelands, orchards and farms, villages and cities. The river assimilates the waters of many tributaries, its environment changes, yet it remains the same. Indian culture shows a similar combination of unity and diversity, continuity and change. In the course of her long history, India has witnessed many changes, made many adjustments, and assimilated elements from many sources, without breaking the continuity.

India is a land of varied landscapes and climates, of many races, religions, languages and cultures. But they all have an unmistakably Indian flavour. The source of this unity is elusive. It can be felt, but it defies analysis. In his famous book, Discovery of India, jawaharlal Nehru gave a sensitive and fascinating account of his search for the unity at the root of India's amazing diversity.

The Indus Valley civilization (3000-1800 BC) shows anticipations of ideas and art-forms later regarded as typically Indian. This is clear from the artefacts yielded during excavations at Harappa and Mohenjodaro. A statue of a man in meditation suggests the practice of Yoga. The smooth surfaces of a male torso in stone suggests, by its absence of muscular tension, the classlcal Indian concept of inward energy. A deity depicted on a clay seal is very similar to some later images of Shiva. And a little copper dancing-girl wears bangles of a kind that can be purchased today at a wayside bazaar in India. Recent research has shown that the influence of this culture extended to distant regions of northern and western India, and that the Indus Valley people had close contacts with the Dravidian civilization which flourished in southern India long before the coming of the Aryans.

Some time between 2000 and 1600 BC, a branch of the vast Aryan family, usually referred to as Indo-Aryans, migrated to India. They brought with them the Sanskrit language, and a religion based on sacrificial ritual honouring deities symbolizing elemental forces of Nature, such as Indra, god of rain and thunder, Agni (Fire) and Varuna, lord of the seas, rivers and seasons. Hymns addressed to these and other deities were collected in the four Vedas. The oldest of the Vedas is the Rigveda (1500-1200 BC) in which there is a quest for the Supreme Reality underlying all multiplicity. This trend was strengthened in the dialogues of the Upanishads (900-600 BC). Vedic poetry is marked by lofty ideas, literary beauty and a movement from external ritual to inward experience.

Two religions outside the Vedic tradition emerged in the sixth century BC. The Buddha's personality, and his emphasis on love, compassion and harmony, profoundly influenced Indian thought and culture, though Buddhism as an organized religion struck deeper roots outside India. Jainism, founded by Mahavira, stressed truth and non-violence, and made significant contributions to Indian art and philosophy.

In 326 BC, Alexander of Macedon crossed the Indus and won a decisive battle. Although he soon turned back, his invasion influenced Indian culture by initiating contacts with the Graeco-Roman world. Six years later, Chandragupta Maurya tried to unite the scattered kingdoms and republics of India in a centralized empire, with the capital at Pataliputra (modern Patna in Bihar). His grandson, Ashoka (reigned 273-237 BC), recoiling from the horrors of war, became an ardent Buddhist. The message of compassion and gentleness was inscribed on rocks and highly polished stone columns. The capitals surmounting the columns are fine pieces of sculpture.

Kings of the Shunga dynasty (185-149 BC) were orthodox Hindus, but there was a strong Buddhist revival under Kanishka, the Kushan kling who ruled in north-western India (78-101 AD). The Gandhara style of Buddhist sculpture, strongly influenced by Graeco-Roman art, developed under the Kushans. …