M S Murali Krishna traces India’s rich cultural tradition over the years and deplores present-day attempts at dismissing our heritage.
In simple terms, as per the dictionary meaning ‘culture’ is the arts, customs, institutions of a nation, people or group. ‘Composite’ means ‘made up of various parts’. S Abid Hussain, a well-known scholar, in the introduction to his book— The National Culture of India says, “Culture is a sense of ultimate values possessed by a particular society as expressed in its collective institutions, by its individual members in their dispositions, feelings, attitudes and manners as well as in significant forms which they give to material objects.”
Composite culture has been the mainstay of our society for ages. Experts point out that this is our unity’s raison d’etre. This has made modern India a model nation. While some countries have suffered from the process of balkanization, India has remained on a strong edifice. Of course, before India became a nation-state, partition took place. But that was the result of divisive communal politics that ripped apart our polity, leaving deep scars. Even after this, India’s composite culture remained largely intact. A foray into the making of this composite culture reveals its fascinating facets.
Many external influences have shaped our society. They have come in the form of trade, commerce, conquests, religion, culture, etc. The various processes involved are rather intricate. First, the making of composite cultural society goes back to the era when the Dravidians, Mangoloid and the like lived. Then came the Aryans. Later, conquests by the Sakas, the Yue-chi, Kushans, Bactrians, Scythians and the Huns followed. The medieval ages saw the advent of the Uzbeks, the Turkomans, the Tajiks, the Iranians, the Turanians, the Afghans and the Pathans. Obviously, there were skirmishes between the invaders and the natives. In culture, many exchanges took place resulting in cultural assimilation and synthesis. Blending of disparate cultures was not a smooth affair. Rather, it had a roller-coaster ride.
Scholars opine that composite culture took a definite and clear shape between 12th and 16th century AD. During this period, there was amalgamation of the Indian, Iranian and Arabian heritages. They represented Hinduism, Zorastrianism and Islam religions and philosophies respectively.
The intermingling of Hindu and Islamic religious beliefs gave rise to Sufism. Sufi saints and poets effectively established a bond among common people of both these communities. They were held in high esteem. Kabir, Sheikh Salim Chisti, Hazrat Baba Farid Ganj-Shakkar, Hazrat Nizam-ud din Auliya are some of the outstanding sufi saints of this period.
The Bhakti movement also endeared itself to large sections of people by questioning some of the obnoxious practices and beliefs prevailing in the society. Sultan Zainul-Abidin of Kashmir till today is remembered as ‘Bud Shah’ meaning great monarch, for his policies of religious tolerance, peace and bonhomie. Dara Shikoh wrote Majma-ul-Bahren (The influence of two cultures). Akbar established a new religion— ‘Din-e-ilahi’ based on syncretic foundation.
Down south, the Adil Shahi sultans who ruled from Bijapur did not practice religious bigotry. Many Hindus held high posts in their courts. Ibrahim Adil Shah II was called ‘Jagadguru’. He was a connoisseur of the arts, sculpture, music and culture. Kitab-e-Nauras one of his works on music has hymns in praise of Saraswati and Ganesh. In Karnataka, there are many shrines which signify the religious amity between Hindus and Muslims. Shirahatti’s Fakiraswamy and Bababudan Giri shrines among many and most of the darghas attract devotees of both these communities in good numbers. The jathras (fairs) of Hampi, Kottur, Keragodu, Koppal, Gulbarga and Moharrum festival of Mudgal and other places also see the participation of people of various communities.
Raja Rammohan Roy, the social reformer of the 19th century, had deep knowledge of both Hindu and Islamic scriptures. In addition, he was attracted by Christian charity and European rationalism.
The national liberation struggle also had ingredients of composite culture. Many people of various communities rallied around and participated in large numbers braving many odds.
In recent times, concerted efforts were made to topple this edifice of composite culture. They were represented by forces of communalism and fundamentalism. Throwing proper historical analysis to the wind, they distorted facts and incited communal passions for their nefarious interests. They scoffed at our multi-cultural past. Their strategy was aimed at the establishment of a theocratic state.
We need not see far to know the plight of people in such a state. It is necessary for progressive people to close ranks and combat forces opposed to composite culture. Only then, can our fledgling democracy hope to survive.