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Tuesday, April 12, 2016

Culture -its various dimensions


I shall be embarking on a very sensitive topic called culture from this issue.

Sensitive, due to the multiple connotations it has acquired with references as wide as traditions, tendencies, trends, taboos, traditions, tolerant attitudes, advanced torture techniques etc.

Before I start the series, in which I may include many things, I would like to define and describe in general what are the things the term culture could possibly refers to?

A peculiar problem visits all terminologies which refer to some abstract concept rather than a concrete entity or matter.

They acquire such a heavy carapace of connotations that you hardly see the original covering.

We cannot either rewind or reverse history or any of the evolutionary trends in any field be it biology, sociology, science, philosophical thoughts and so on or can we wish away the bad or inhumane aspects of them.

So, what is culture?

Etymologically from the Latin ‘Cultura’ or French ‘Culture’ primarily meaning “a cultivating, tilling agricultural activity” or probably from Latin ‘cultus’, which means 'care’ from thereon from late 18th  century it expanded in connotation with varying degrees of impact figuratively mostly to refer positively to tending ,guarding; and psychologically and socially creating a common social coherent identity based on certain activities, attitudes.

Predominantly originally culture had only a very positive connotation and this is evident from such writings as that of William Butler Yeats, “For without culture or holiness, which are always the gift of the very few, a man may renounce wealth or any other external thing, but he cannot renounce hatred, envy, jealousy, revenge. Culture is the sanctity of the intellect”.

However, now we have even many adjectives giving multiple meanings and nuances to the term culture like inherent culture, acquired culture, imported culture, gun culture, violent culture, cinema culture, material culture, Western culture, Oriental culture, criminal culture and so on and so forth.

Moving away from the verbal analysis, which can go on endlessly, if we peep into domains like anthropology, sociology, psychology, philosophy and religion wherein this terminology underwent its massive churning before it acquired all those above referred nuances, we come across various definitions and descriptions of what people meant by or inferred from the term culture.

This included also a good part of deliberate diversions to malign certain cultures as a political tool because certain cultures had very strong social binding because of a common culture which had been scrupulously preserved and practiced traditionally over several centuries and which in reality enhanced the quality of life or at least gave pleasure and entertainment to the soul, mind and body and which is what is of vital importance [enhancing the  quality of life] with anything that has something to do with human life.

If anything the name of culture does it, then, it is wonderful.

A typical anthropological definition of culture by Henry Pratt Fairchild in his Dictionary of Sociology:- “A collective name for all behavior patterns socially acquired and transmitted by means of symbols; hence a name for all the distinctive achievements of human groups, including not only such items as language, tool-making, industry, art, science, law, government, morals and religion, but also the material instruments or artifacts in which cultural achievements are embodied and by which intellectual cultural features are given practical effect, such as buildings, tools, machines, communication devices, art objects, etc”.

If this definition is dissected and analyzed it includes, involves, impacts, is impacted by, influences and is influenced by all these.

A] Patterns of behavior that are found in groups of people,

B] Socially acquired, i.e. we are taught these behavior patterns as we grow up in a family in some geographical location and are profoundly affected by the family we are born into, its religion, and all kinds of other matters.

C] The Distinctive Achievements of Human Groups. It is in groups that we gather a socially accepted and acquired identity as a human being and become indoctrinated, enculturated or acculturated (two words for the same thing, for all practical purposes). We may have our own distinctive natures but at least most of us in the initial stages of blossoming mind become part of society through these processes.

D] Artifacts in which cultural achievements are embodied. The artifacts we are talking about here are the popular culture contexts carried in the various realms of life such as fashions in clothes, food preferences, artifacts (what anthropologists call 'material culture'), language use, sexual practices and related matters.

We can see, then, that culture is a very complicated phenomenon that plays some kind of a role in shaping our consciousness and our behavior.

We may think we are immune from the impact of the local, traditional, religious, global and popular culture, but that is a mere delusion that is generated. We are all impacted in some way or other with varying degrees of intensities, participation, reactions etc

Culture, in its multiple avatars definitely affects us but it need not necessarily determine every act we do or define or confine anyone of us, especially if we are grown up adults who can make our own choice. We need not reject any culture but we also need not become susceptible guinea pigs for deculturization.

Thomas Crump writes in his wonderful book ‘Science as seen through the development of scientific instruments’ writes in the first chapter  , “ For humankind, what is remembered is as just as important as what is perceived” and goes on to elaborate, “An individual’s field of vision can be defined  in two stages: first, it consists of the whole of that part of  the environment which transmits light…. to his eyes; second, it consists of what he consciously perceives,[perception] which is that part of the whole to which his attention, consciously or subconsciously is directed. What David Hyndman has to tell of the Wopkaimin of New Guinea [who number only 700] is true of almost of any population: Their behavior is highly affected by that portion of the environment they actually perceive. They cannot absorb and retain the visually infinite amount of environmental information that impinges on them daily. Their culture acts as a perpetual filter screening out most information in a very selective manner…. Through mental mapping they acquire a sense of place by acquiring and storing essential information about their everyday spatial environment and using it to decide where to go, how to get there, and what to do with it”[Choice]
So, for most of us when we come across or focus on certain institutions, legends, myths, scriptures, music, dance, art, sports, literature immediately they all enthuse us emotionally , intellectually and socially with excessive pride in a particular identity. That’s why any culture is assimilated and appeals only to the culturally initiated. [Triad of Perception, Choice and Context]  

All cultures though obviously have a specific context but can and are subjected to outside influences and impacts.

Due to various factors certain cultures dominate and become predatory in certain situations or certain circumstances and times, while some cultures become a prey.

Some cultures wilt under the excessive pressure of their own exclusivist over protective or over possessive and ethnocentric pride in their identity and burden of tradition trampling over any outside influence etc.

But if we skim beyond the superficial surface in which the butter of culture is floating we find culture too, like many things in life, is the result of massive churning by perception, choice, circumstances etc and their life is sustained and sublimed by these three predominant factors.

What these three factors are and how narrow and /or nice they are, how apparently simple but in reality complicated they are please refer to these links:-
For information:-The term 'cult' which suggests some kind of a religious organization is also from the word culture, indicating a group identity.

Till now  we have touched upon definitions, certain primary factors or facets of what constitutes a culture etc.

Since it is going to be a series I would like to bring out the entire gamut of the kaleidoscope of cultures.

Now in this issue if we delve a little deeper, not merely intellectually, not based on any particular ideology or version of any particular institution of human civilization- be it social, political, religious etc- but based on pure unbiased observation, we shall find that culture impacts and influences various aspects of our life and is impacted and influenced by many aspects of living.

All cultures are contextual or at least survive based on certain conducive contexts/situations, acceptance, support and /or encouragement/promotion.

Culture is so inextricably entwined with life that in a way in the long run it becomes an intrinsic part of life itself and ends up almost as a second nature or automatic reflex/response/base for all our actions /attitudes/ attributes.  In this aspect it runs the same risks like our affiliation/addiction to beliefs.

These are all observations and not judgments and therefore there is nothing right or wrong with any culture.

 In short there is neither any universal panacea nor universal taboo or nor universal trend.
Certain things work in certain contexts/situations.

There are neither any axiomatic certainties nor any finality to life except perhaps the individual’s mortality.

Life is a beautiful river in constant flow, which does not stop for us to stand and deliver judgments about its quality, length etc “What's wrong with this world is, it's not finished yet.  It is not competed to the point where man can put his final signature to the job and say, "It is finished.  We made it and it works."  ~William Faulkner, address, Wellesley, Massachusetts, 8 June 1952

In this process life and culture [broader sense of the terms which includes everything from the type of food we eat to the way we eat to the way we respond to different situations in life and in short on the whole how we lead our life] engage in such cordial and reciprocal relationship that gradually the culture defines us, our identity, identity of our group [either in a clan, region, nation, religion etc] and sometimes ends up becoming our second nature.

There is nothing either right or wrong with such an identity or our getting glued to such an identity but then I mentioned earlier in this write up ‘it [culture] runs the risks like our affiliation/addiction to beliefs’.

What is the risk?
Doesn’t the very sentence sound rather starkly negative compared to the rest of the sentences which glide scrupulously on noncommittal cautiousness ensuring to avoid controversies?

This statement is well intended to avoid falling into the traps of exclusivist identity cages, but then very often the more intense is our relationship with our culture either consciously developed or involuntarily accustomed, the more likely we are to get trapped into such cultural identity cages.

Our modern society is engaged in polishing and decorating the cage in which man is kept imprisoned”.  ~Swami Nirmalananda, in Enlightened Anarchism .

There is nothing wrong with that either, but then when two diametrically opposing, ideologically/socially contrasting cultures/ or people professing such culture come into contact then the conflict arises. For example very calm and peace loving timid humane souls come in contact with trigger happy violent souls with murderous instincts.

Can we always blame it on some political ideology, national fervor, religious institution etc?

All political systems, national identities, religious institutions are developed to make organized social life better and not catastrophic or destructive.

No religious scripture anywhere in the world could possibly talk about guns because at the time of writing or recording any religious scriptures guns/bombs were not invented.

Being predatory, dominant, aggressive and violent have been and are part human nature. Only the methods/intensities/instruments of manifestation have changed over the ages.

So, what has all these to do with culture? Why bring in vague and not seemingly connected issues while writing about culture?

We have mentioned earlier that Culture permeates every aspect of life and the individual life is part of or at least participates or at least impacted by and influenced by prevailing culture either bad or good.

Certain well meaning ideological fanaticisms and the easy ways to avoid such cultural conflicts have always impelled human beings to resort to homogenizing [making/rendering uniform] variety /different cultures whose inevitable consequence has been the rat race to hegemonize. “The trouble with the rat race is that even if you win, you're still a rat”.  ~Lily Tomlin

Therefore, it is imperative that every culture has an in built important component of tolerance, otherwise, however, great or good any culture may be, it will suffer due to intolerance from other cultures and also be guilty of not inculcating tolerance. “Natives who beat drums to drive off evil spirits are objects of scorn to smart Americans who blow horns to break up traffic jams”.  ~Mary Ellen Kelly

All cultures must, preferably and consciously nurture tolerance and also allow every individual to tune in with the frequency of his soul.

That way the attributes and attitudes of the individuals will contribute to social happiness, harmony and peace because every culture/society has its strengths and weaknesses, but neither of it must impede the process of experience of the soul or cause feeling of uneasiness as expressed more lucidly here, “You're obliged to pretend respect for people and institutions you think absurd.  You live attached in a cowardly fashion to moral and social conventions you despise, condemn, and know lack all foundation.  It is that permanent contradiction between your ideas and desires and all the dead formalities and vain pretenses of your civilization which makes you sad, troubled and unbalanced.  In that intolerable conflict you lose all joy of life and all feeling of personality, because at every moment they suppress and restrain and check the free play of your powers.  That's the poisoned and mortal wound of the civilized world.”  ~Octave Mirbeau, Torture Garden, "The Mission," Chapter 8

There are of course clear cut cultural boundaries but these boundaries are beautiful fences. Here, I would like to quote
Brief reflection on a fence- by Miroslav Holub
[ translated from Czech to English by Ewald Osers]

“A fence

begins nowhere
ends nowhere


separates the place where it is
from the place where it isn’t.

unfortunately, however,
every fence is relatively permeable, some for


others for large things so that
the fence actually
does not separate but indicates
that something should be separated.
And the trespassers will be prosecuted.

In this sense 
the fence can
perfectly well be replaced with an angry word,

or sometimes even

a kind word, but that as a rule
does not occur to anyone.

In this sense therefore
a truly perfect fence
is one
that separates nothing from nothing,
a place where there is nothing, from 
a place where there’s also nothing.

That is the absolute fence, similar to the poet’s word”.

The best culture is the one that makes you a better person, without changing you into someone other than yourself.

Cultures must not make a person into a pendulum swinging between human slavery and advanced mechanical robots.

As Stephen Jones writes, “It is the fundamental right of every human being to be allowed to live their life as they wish. No person has the power to decide on the course another's life should follow, they may only give guidance when it is sought. All are integral parts of the Universe and have their place in the structure of life”.

We shall get deeper into what are the conducive contexts for cultures?

What are the components and characteristics of tolerance? 

How can we achieve peace, unity and harmony? Can we at all do it?

And/or what prevents such peace?

Culture requires Tolerance, Peace, Unity and Harmony.

 Of these we shall see what TOLERANCE is?

What must be our preferable attitude to inculcate tolerance?  

Why is tolerance eluding us though all of us feel the need for it?

Cultures must ensure at present a lovable society with lovely human beings and for posterity a livable planet and at all times ensure to consciously cultivate

C ompassion
U nity amid variety
L ove of all and for all
T olerance
U nraveling the
R elationships to
E njoy life as
S ocial beings.

Isn’t culture a sort of

C ollective
U nderstanding with
L ove and lively spirits to
T raditions, trends and tastes
U ltimately revealing and
R epresenting the socio psychological
E nvironment and experience of a group 

and our attitude must be to 

A pprehend and administer in
T une with
T raditions and trends which
I n principal are the results of
T astes and
U nderstanding of
D eep rooted socio-psychological cultural
E nvironment and experience

Unraveling the

Very interestingly an excellent speech whose script I got from a friend of mine gives excellent explanation about Culture.

Transcription of GREAT SPEECH which someone who recorded the speech did. There may be some typographical errors.
Culture, Philosophy, Literature and Religion Revisited.*
By Prof S.A.R.P.V Chaturvedi 
[* International Conference on Interfaith.7th and 8th Sep 2009, Somaiya Auditorium, Mumbai 

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