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TOP        =======UNDERSTANDING HINDUISM========

Culture and Civilization

By Swami Smaranananda Maharaj
[Swami Smaranananda is a senior monk of the Ramakrishna Order and the Vice President of Ramakrishna Math and Ramakrishna Mission]

The words 'culture' and 'civilization' have been often used synonymously, though they have clearly defined meanings differentiating them. 'Civilization' means the betterment of ways of living, making Nature bend to fulfil the needs of humankind. It includes also organizing societies into politically well-defined groups working collectively for improved conditions of life in matters of food, dress, communication, and so on. Thus a group considers itself as civilized, while others were looked down upon as barbarians. This has led to wars and holocausts, resulting in mass destruction of human beings. Therefore civilization by itself cannot be the goal of life.

On the other hand 'culture' refers to the inner man, a refinement of head and heart. One who may be poor and wearing cheap apparel may be considered 'uncivilized', but still he or she may be the most cultured person. For 'culture' concerns itself with the inner refinement of a person. This includes arts and sciences, music and dance and various higher pursuits of human life which are also classified as cultural activities. One possessing ostentatious wealth may be considered as 'civilized' but he may not be cultured. Therefore when we deal with cultural yardsticks, we have to make clear our definition of 'culture'.

We would prefer to call it the 'higher levels of inner refinement' of a human being. Man is not merely a physical being. He lives and acts in three levels: physical, mental and spiritual. While better ways of living socially and politically and better utilisation of nature around us may be termed civilization, they are not enough to be a cultured individual. Only when the deeper levels of human intellect and consciousness are brought into expression can we call a person 'cultured'.

Looked at in this perspective, modern man may at once be called civilized, but not cultured, though cultural expressions in art, music and literature are there. But if culture in a deeper sense had penetrated the human psyche, the modern world would not have had to witness two world wars besides innumerable smaller ones. To add to this, whole communities have been wiped out in vast genocides. All this destruction cannot be called expressions of culture, though they are, to be sure, characteristics of modern civilization. More efficient methods of destruction do not take man far away from his animalism. If anything, they make him more brutish. Only such qualities which raise the human being from the animal level to the human level, and thence to the divine level could be called culture. From this point of view we may say that humankind will have to travel a long way before being culturally transformed.

Throughout history while humankind is all the time getting more and more 'civilized', we also find this struggle to transcend one's animalism. Simultaneously there have been cultural transformations at the micro level. Great intellectuals and poets, composers of profound music and various art forms and, above all, spiritually transformed saints and prophets, have transcended the limitations of societal living and have become world citizens, for they represent the highest pinnacle of human transformation. Such persons have been described by Acharya Shankara as 'There are good souls, calm and magnanimous, who do good to others as does the spring, who having crossed this dreadful ocean of birth and death, help others to cross the same without any selfish motive whatsoever!'1

Shanta mahanto nivasanti santo
vasantavllokahitam charantah
Tirna swayam bhima bhavarnavam
janan ahetunanyanapi tarayantah

Ramakrishna Mission's
Contribution to Cultural Transformation

When we consider the question of Rama-krishna Mission's contribution to cultural transformation, we will have to understand, first of all, the contribution of Sri Ramakrishna and Swami Vivekananda to world thought. For they belong to the last class mentioned above--the saints and prophets who represent eternal values and who refurbish the image of the emancipated man, in every age. For them the whole world is their home and their only aim is to awaken the Reality within all human beings.

In an age of scepticism and agnosticism, keen on throwing overboard religion and all that were associated with it, Sri Ramakrishna appeared in a remote village. He had no modern education worth the name. But he was absorbed in the Divine. He followed almost all the known paths to God and proved to the modern world that God is true and He can be realized. In fact, that is the supreme Goal of life. He further taught that all religions are like so many paths leading to the same destination. Quarrels in the name of religion were not only irrational, but a bar to spiritual progress. These words were not mere intellectual convictions, but were expressions coming from the depth of his spiritual experiences. Though these ideas were uttered only before some intellectuals and young men of Calcutta, the then capital of the British empire, they penetrated deep into the psyche of the human race within a few decades of the Master's passing away.

Some excerpts reproduced below from the writings of some of the great men of the twentieth century, will bear testimony to this:2

'The man whose image I here evoke was the consummation of two thousand years of the spiritual life of three hundred million people. Although he has been dead forty years, his soul animates modern India.' --Romain Rolland

'Not only the everlasting value of the teaching of Good affirmed by Ramakrishna, but precisely the necessity of these words especially for our time is unquestionable. When spirituality, as such, is being so often refuted through wrongly interpreted formulae, then the radiant constructive affirmation as a beacon becomes especially precious. One has but to know the colossal number of editions of the Ramakrishna Mission.' --Nicholas De Roerich

'Sri Ramakrishna made his appearance and delivered his message at the time and the place at which he and his message were needed. This message could hardly have been delivered by anyone who had not been brought up in the Hindu religious tradition. Sri Ramakrishna was born in Bengal in 1836. He was born into a world that, in his lifetime, was, for the first time, being united on a literally world-wide scale.' --Arnold J. Toynbee

'I pay tribute to Sri Ramakrishna's device to attain intimacy with Buddhist, Muslim, and Christian life. He demonstrated his own kind of desires and overtures, as against other possible ways of going about the enrichment and broadening of experience. He went about it in a certain mystical way. It is valid, interesting, and meaningful because its motivation was pure.' --Muhammad Daud Rahbar

Two opposite forces have been always at work in history: one trying to unite all humanity and the other trying to divide it into narrow domestic fragments. The greatest minds have always worked for the unity and synthesis of humanity so as to make it one family--'Yatra viswam bhavati ekanidam', as the Vedic rishi put it. As against it, the divisive forces work for bringing about dissensions bringing misery to humanity. In the twentieth century, apparently it seems that the latter forces succeeded in a great measure. Two world wars and innumerable smaller ones bear testimony to it. But, nevertheless, these very wars and the advance of science and technology seem to have brought nations nearer to each other. Faith--faith in God, faith in higher values, faith in humanity--which seemed to be evaporating before the fire of scepticism and so called rationality, appears to have returned. The voice of reason itself is hearkening to the call of the Spirit. It is in this respect that we find Sri Ramakrishna's message being heard by more and more thinkers in the East and the West. It is therefore that Romain Rolland, the French savant, rightly called Ramakrishna and Vivekananda, the 'prophets of New India'.

Many of the values taught by Sri Rama-krishna are necessary in today's world, if a certain amount of sanity and freedom from hatred and violence is to prevail. These values are: renunciation of lust and lucre, tolerance and acceptance of all pathways to the Divine, service to humanity as service to God and also truth, love, broad-mindedness etc.

Swami Vivekananda, his chief disciple, who had been commissioned by the Master to teach the world, traversed the world East and West and broadcast his Guru's message in modern terms. Though his ministry was only for 10 years, it was so intense that it left its imprint on the minds of thinkers everywhere. Thus the seeds of Vedanta, the main thrust of his teaching, were sown wide and deep, and we find today a universal interest in Vedanta and other similar creeds of the East. Swamiji described his life's work in these words: 'To put the Hindu ideas into English and then make out of dry philosophy and intricate mythology and queer startling psychology a religion which shall be easy, simple and popular and then meet the requirement of the highest minds--is a task only those can understand who have attempted it. The abstract Advaita must become living--poetic--in everyday life; out of hopelessly intricate mythology must come concrete moral forms; and out of bewildering Yogism must come the most scientific and practical psychology_and all this must be put in a form so that a child may grasp it. That is my life's work!'3

Over and above that, Swamiji, on his return from the West in 1897, started and set in motion the 'Ramakrishna Mission'. He set before its members the ideal, 'Atmano mokshartham jagad- hitaya ca'--for one's own salvation, and for the welfare of the world. Since then the Ramakrishna Mission has been growing and has been intensely active in the field of human service in various forms--anna-dana--services at the physical level, vidya-dana--educational and cultural work, Jnana-dana--work in religious and spiritual field. Its branches in India and in many other countries have been propagating the message of Vedanta, harmony and peace through publications, lectures, classes and other kinds of preaching, besides the three types of services mentioned above. The work of the Mission is silent, unostentatious. Its influence in cultural transformation is imperceptible, like the dew that falls silently, yet brings into blossom the best of roses. It is difficult to assess it quantitatively, for the influence of Ramakrishna and Vivekananda has penetrated into so many minds in different walks of life. Even critics could not be indifferent to their life and message--they are perforce compelled to take notice of them and then accept or reject it. . However, we may point out some areas where cultural transformation in Indian society has been directly influenced by the Ramakrishna Mission. The much maligned caste system is one such. The evils of malpractices based on caste and also untouchability have been denounced in no uncertain terms by Swami Vivekananda. But his Master whose approach to everything was positive said that caste can be removed only by one method: that of Bhakti, devotion to God. He cited the examples of some of the great saints of India who were born in the lowest classes, but ultimately earned the reverence even of those belonging to higher castes.

The Ramakrishna Mission, in its activities applied this principle in a broad way and the results were remarkable. In many centres of the Ramakrishna Mission during community lunch or dinner on festive occasions, people belonging to all castes sat together. They were devotees. Nobody asked who belonged to which caste. Again, admission to monastic life is not determined by caste. In fact, the candidates have not to mention to which caste they belonged. All this proves Swami Vivekananda's assertion that all healthy changes in Indian society have to come through religion. He told the social reformers of his time not to criticize, not to destroy, but to bring about transformation imperceptibly.

Similarly, the creed Siva-jnane jiva-seva-- 'service to man is service to God', enunciated by Sri Ramakrishna and given a working shape by Swamiji, has caught the attention of the Indian society. This explains why so many social service organizations have sprung up all over the country. Whenever any natural calamity happens, the country as a whole comes forward to help. Even orthodox orders of monks have recognized the importance of this ideal, and are trying to introduce service activities, in some way or other.

One more area where the influence of the Ramakrishna Mission can be felt is that of religious harmony. Though, due to political reasons, communal clashes and hatred have erupted in various parts of India from time to time, the voice of reason advocating religious harmony is also heard prominently above the noise of communal turmoil. This is particularly so with regard to intellectual classes.

Abroad, it has been the policy of the Ramakrishna Order to bring into focus the broad and universal teachings of Vedanta, as exemplified in the lives of Sri Ramakrishna and his disciples. Here too these teachings have imperceptibly penetrated into the intellectual elite of western society during the last century. Mention of Vedanta, Ramakrishna and Vivekananda finds place in most of the books on religion, spirituality and mysticism that are being published in various countries.

While the twin organization--Ramakrishna Math and Ramakrishna Mission--spearhead the Ramakrishna Movement, there are other organizations which play a supportive role. Prominent among them is Sri Sarada Math started in 1954 and its service wing Ramakrishna Sarada Mission, which came into existence in 1960. These twin organizations are entirely managed by nuns. Though independent and separate, they are run on the same lines as the Ramakrishna Math and Ramakrishna Mission, and they serve the cause of women and children in various parts of India.

Another aspect of the Movement also needs mention. All over the country and even in some foreign countries, Ramakrishna-Vivekananda associations are organized and run by devotees. There are hundreds of them, small and big,silently propagating the message of the Master and working with the same ideal, Atmano mokshartham jagad hitaya ca.

Thus as the Ramakrishna Movement grows slowly and steadily, but surely, this process of cultural transformation, bringing the loftiest of ideas to the world at large and to India in particular, is bound to capture the imagination of the people all over the world. We have to remember, as mentioned earlier, that cultural transformation is a slow process and only after a considerably long time its deeper impact would manifest itself in tangible form.


1. Vivekachudamani, Shloka 37
2. World Thinkers on Ramakrishna-Vivekananda, Ramakrishna Mission Institute of Culture, Calcutta, 1983
3. Complete Works of Swami Vivekananda, Advaita Ashrama,  Volume V, pp 104-5

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