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ArticlesCulture in Evolution - C.M Bhandari, Gujarath

Culture in Evolution – C.M Bhandari, Gujarath


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 A1GPR9Things derive their being and meaning from mutual dependence, and are nothing in themselves –  Nagarjuna

Truth is Contextual

We begin with a short story as it displays reality more clearly than a statement. This is so as every story has a context. This story of Chinese origin is about a king who was very fond of learning; he had built a library with books from all over the world. Among his courtiers were some of the wisest men and women. During his youth he was rather busy with conquests and with worldly pleasures and could find little time to study. As he grew old it was time for him to spend with his books. However, he found that reading was not pleasant with failing eyesight. He asked his courtiers to condense the entire knowledge in few volumes. This was done and when he tried to read he felt uncomfortable and tired.  He wished the entire knowledge be condensed to one volume. That too was done in a couple of years and by that time the king became ill and was confined to bed. He wanted someone to read the book for him but he was unable to concentrate. The volume was reduced to a chapter size but by that time the king was on his death bed. He wished that someone condense the essence of all knowledge in one sentence and whisper the same in his ear. The wisest among the courtiers stood up and whispered in king’s ear:

“Man is born to suffer and to die”.

Truth is contextual. The statement portrayed the truth for the king and for the situation.

We now consider another case with a different context vital for all of us in the long run – that of civilisation and our understanding of it.

“Wilderness is the raw material out of which man has hammered for himself the artefact called civilisation”.   – Aldo Leopold [1]

Not only civilization but life itself has originated from wilderness. In words of Leopold again:

“Wilderness is never a homogeneous raw material, it is very diverse, and the resulting artefacts are quite diverse. These differences in the end products are known as cultures.  The rich diversity of world’s cultures reflect a corresponding diversity in the wilds that gave them birth.”

There seems a contradiction between the two – wilderness and civilisation or wilderness and culture; they appear to be at the opposite ends. A deeper look into the matter shows that things may not be exactly what they appear to be, that the opposites often, if not always, complement each other.  Culture is essentially a human trait born out of human intelligence that gradually distanced him from the rest of the animal world. The emergence of human society with its excellent communication skill, ethical and moral codes, social and cultural norms, cultivation of arts and sciences, and the systems of governance – all these are part of what man is. Cultural growth is often seen in proportion to the distancing of humans from their earlier way of life and marks man’s onward march; literature of all sorts provide a written account of that march. Differences between cultures too are significant and throw light on the complex working and weaving of mind, both individual and collective; on the other hand it was the wilderness that nourished various aspects of life and mind.

 All life as also cultures had their origin in wilderness, and this is amply demonstrated in their ancient traditions. The wilderness that gave birth to Indian civilisation has shown pronounced connectedness with it. However, rising population, ever-growing needs, and overall pressure of living have put severe strain on the connectedness. Diversity arising from the same wilderness has been the hallmark of India’s diverse traditions and languages. This has thoroughly pervaded Indian psyche and acceptance of the same has been built into the scheme of things. The bio-diversity which originated from the wilderness has been a victim of cultural march, and all over the world this shows signs of severe strain. The cultural diversity [2] in its wide panorama is existent amply in this land although here too it is a likely victim of globalisation. Human history often shows a tendency to reject all that has been different from the familiar; this has been the hallmark of most societies; this is particularly evident from the behaviour of fundamentalist groups, a phenomenon which has been gaining momentum during recent decades. In this context we in this land have something to cheer about.

  Indian way of life has shown glimpses of a close proximity and connectedness with nature.  Rivers and mountains had a special place and most rivers were assigned a motherly status. Mother earth is common to most cultures but assigning that status to rivers is purely an Indian phenomenon. Some of the plants (such as tulsi, or holy basil) species too acquired the same high status.  The great Himalayan wilderness have for the same reason acquired a mythical status which has pervaded the cultural ethos of the land reflected amply in mythology and in literature and arts too.

Northward lies the king of mountains

The Divine majestic Himalaya

Stretching from east to west

Like a scale for entire earth. – Kalidasa

The Himalayan wilderness has been everything for the land; a protector from northern chilly

winds as also likely invaders, abode of glaciers and glacial rivers that formed the lifeline of much of the land. In addition the Himalayas have been place for spiritual experiencing. Culture is not only born out of wilderness, it is constantly fed and sustained by it. In this scenario diversity was accepted and flourished until the age of imperialism knocked at its doors and conquests became a part of everyday life. The diversity at this stage became a liability rather than an asset. Invaders and conquistadors found it relatively easy to subjugate a people with diverse cultures.

In spite of this the connectedness with nature was never lost and its mythological acceptance too has been in abundance. Two among Indian deities – Lord Shiva and Krishna – the most colourful and appealing – have close connections with nature. Shiva lives on mountains, serpents hanging down his neck and dresses scantily, his body covered in ash. Totally unconventional, but still a figure of greatest reverence and relevance. In Nataraja we see him as a dancer par excellence performing his dance of destruction and creation. Krishna’s childhood as a cowboy forms a nucleus around which numerous stories, verses and plays are woven, and Indian arts and literature would be poorer without it.  Lord Vishnu’s ten incarnations from time to time took various animal forms: a fish, a tortoise, a boar, a lion-man, a man  – as if you were looking at the evolutionary scale much before Darwin came up with the Origin of Species. Not that evolution has been known and understood scientifically, it only points to the fact that there was an unbiased mind at work. While chanting Shlokas from Saptshati one invariably comes across these words:

The Goddess who has endowed all beings with eyes of consciousness….

Is this not remarkable that a verse from a religious text considers all creation at par.

This is the cultural evolution at its most sublime and most realistic encompassing the biological reality of evolution along with the culture and its transformation. This all-encompassing stand was in harmony with scientific findings in course of time. Charles Darwin did not mince words to state his understanding of the status of man:

 “Man with all his great qualities and exalted powers still bears in his bodily frame the indelible marks of his lowly origin.” This was a clear hint that the present human race has descended from earlier stages that included reptiles and apes.

It could not be a mere coincidence that Charles Darwin and his family, including his both grandfathers, were known for their dislike and opposition to slavery. The firm conviction in the essential unity of all humankind might have been the primary driving force in Charles’ mind to look for the facts on a scientific basis [3, 4]. This clearly was the case of a cultural stand leading to a scientific work whose outcome re-enforced the stand taken. This could well be considered a big forward leap in the cultural evolution.

 The purpose

What is the purpose behind nature’s grand plan culminating in biological evolution, emergence of the humans, the amazing human brain supporting the all-encompassing mind? No one knows for sure although there are several speculations. The Anthropic Principle somehow connects this with man. Stated in different ways the principle admits that the universe must have properties which allow the life (as also intelligent observer) within it at some time in its history. The conscious observer in man is central to the theme. There are many statements for the principle. There are some who support the view while many others oppose it.

The design of the human brain and mind in Nature’s plan could as well have been a chance, else it could possibly be part of grand design. Perhaps, the argument could be extended further, universe wished to see and understand itself, and this was possible by designing humans who could act as eyes of the universe. No  one can tell for sure, but one may speculate! The purpose of the universe may have been the creation of intelligent life in the form of man but the fact remains that man has done irreparable harm to the Nature that created him. One does not have to go far to see the degrading effect of man’s actions. A lot has been said and written about this but there does not seem any possibility of an implementable action plan to even partially repair the damage. The bio-diversity is at the receiving end of man’s march forward. Man’s greed and irresponsible actions have played havoc with the flourishing diversity in living world and several species are either completely extinct or are on the verge of extinction. Some examples will be useful. There were around 400 species of sharks a hundred years ago but now half of them are either extinct or nearly so. The sharks are killed ruthlessly for culinary satisfaction and also for steroids which are mainly obtained from them. The same is true of some species of whale. The case of birds is no better. In many areas it has become difficult to spot the sparrow which was so abundant everywhere three decades back. Many plant species too are likely to meet the same fate, and the list is almost endless.

The supposedly cultured society has more often shown traits of barbarism and sickness; it seems as if the wild, almost vanished out there, has found a place in the deeper layers of human psyche.  The animal stages of his evolutionary journey get reflected in the psychic wilderness, so often evident in daily news items: human trafficking, bonded labour, child labour, forced prostitution and various brands of fundamentalism.  Often I think of the great historic voyages undertaken by Christopher Columbus and his contemporaries that culminated in complete subjugation of the Americas. How easily we forget that these conquests were accompanied with unsurpassed brutality and complete decimation and destruction of cultures of the conquered lands. Man’s cultural journey is not forward looking all through; there have been reversals and dark eras which cannot be set aside.

 Culture Shocks

Most scientists and philosophers believe that there may not be a purpose behind evolution in general, and emergence of a conscious human being in particular. Following the principles that are obeyed by nature’s processes this may have just happened. It is truly depressing to note that we are here for no laudable purpose, and there are greater shocks in store. Genetic copying continues from generation to generation but every copy may have some copying errors [5]. These errors go on multiplying and in a large time interval the outcome could be very different from the original. That amounts to saying that we are here as an outcome of genetic copying errors  –  a great complement indeed!  Had there been no errors we would still be at the stage of amoeba – perhaps. What an irony? The great human race is a descendent of apes and at an earlier stage, that of reptiles. And add to that the understanding that it was because of genetic copying errors we are there. We humans appear to have appeared as a freak. However, these shocks could have a chastening effect on us. This could bring us very much down to earth with our highly inflated ego punctured. And make no mistake, such a shock was very much needed to teach us some degree of humility. And let us also remember this chastening in essence has been due primarily to science. Arts do give us a sense of aesthetics, literature in general provides with a notion of possibilities. It is to the credit of science that we find ourselves connected to everything around us. Yes, everything including the stars in the sky, as atoms that compose us have long ago been cooked inside the stellar furnaces. And add to this the innumerable stages we had to pass through in the passage of biological evolution.

Let us revisit our earlier idea of a purpose. Even if there has been no purpose in nature’s design it is up to us to ascribe some purpose. Our cultural journey must take note of the significance of wilderness and our connectedness with it, and beyond  – with all life. Man’s intellectual capacity is unfathomable, and we should make use of it without any arrogance. Recent neurological researches have shown that human intelligence too is not a human achievement. The brain’s evolution has everything in it. By default or otherwise it was in the scheme of biological evolution or as some scientist call it, bio-cultural co-evolution.  Even man’s literary and artistic excellence owes much to the neuronal connections and cross connections. The use of metaphor is an integral part of literary design and the basis of this is laid out in a part of the brain known as TPS junction [6]. Human ego should by now be fully punctured, I suppose. However, as a race we do not possess the humility and psychological maturity. Nevertheless, we have to look forward continuously with occasional glimpses backwards too to manage necessary corrective steps.

We said in the beginning that man’s onward march has been proportional to his distancing from  previous nomadic existence. This is true only up to a certain point. Beyond that point we need to stop and assess the meaning and purpose of the march based on our own value system, our common sense and above all our understanding of culture itself.  This will depend upon our collective wisdom as there are no unified homogeneous rules of the game. “ You are what your deep driving desire is”, ( Upanishad  ) Whose desire will dominate? Whose desire will carry weight? Or is this possible that we shall be mature enough to take a wise decision collectively? There are at present only possible trajectories. For most of us the driving desire is to seek comfort. Few among us think a little bit more and try in some indirect way to seek connectedness with the nature; only very few take it seriously even at the cost of comfort. On the average man will continue to seek comfort at the cost of everything around.

Wilderness has been responsible for all life and civilisation and culture. Cultured man has done everything to undermine the connections. Humans will have to live with the contradiction for a long time to come.

In Conclusion

Last few decades have seen an intense activity in the context of ecological issues. Much of it is rhetoric, part of it is genuine, but without an action plan. However, there has been some serious thinking (if not action) which needs to be considered [7,8, 9]. The notions of deep ecology [7] presented by Arne Naess refers to deeper ecological wisdom than is usually understood. W Fox coined the phrase Transpersonal Ecology [8] which emphasizes the need for a wider understanding of issues hitherto focussed around human concerns; these are steps in the right direction although their impact on the ground situation has been minimal. From a different perspective Gandhi’s world view was fairly close to these eco-perspectives [8]. Whatever be the outcome one thing is quite obvious. The culture cannot be de-linked from deeper issues of connectedness including wilderness and deeper ecological perspective.

The truth, we stated earlier, is contextual; quite like the story in the beginning much of the knowledge in the present context too can be condensed in just one statement:

Ability to see the cultural value of wilderness boils down,

in the last analysis, to a question of intellectual humility.     (Aldo Leopold)

Most of us have been losing life in living. Few of us sometime think of the ecological issues. A small fraction gets really obsessed with it –  that is, survival of life and the entire planet along with its fragile eco-system. There may not exist definite answers to their queries and concerns. Let me conclude with another short story:

The International Conference on Nature-Man Relationship and its Survival was attended by delegates from all over the globe. A large number of invited lectures were followed by almost a hundred papers and finally a group discussion. The old philosopher never spoke a word. He was finally persuaded by organisers to utter a few words. He stood up reluctantly and said:

Let us worry about ourselves, not about nature. Nature will repair her own long after we are dust. (From Ruskin Bond [10])                  

[1] Aldo Leopold, Sand County Almanac, Oxford University Press, London, 1949.

[2] C M Bhandari, Diversity, Life and Culture, Mainstream Weekly, August 2011.

[3] Thomas Hayden, What Darwin didn’t Know, Smithsonian, February 2009.

[4] A Desmond and J Moore, Darwin’s Sacred Cause, Penguin Books, 1992.

[5] Richard Dawkins, The Selfish Gene, Oxford University Press, 1976.

[6] V. Ramachandran, The Emerging Mind, Profile Books, London, 2003.

[7] Arne Ness, The shallow and the deep: Long range ecology movement, Inquiry 16: 95 – 100 (1973).

[8] W Fox, Transpersonal Ecology: Psychologising Eco philosophy, Journal of Transpersonal Psychology, 22(1), 59(1990).

[9] C M Bhandari, Deep Transpersonal Ecology: Gandhian Connection, Mainstream Weekly, October, 2009.

[10] From Ruskin Bond’s poem: Too late to do a thing now/For we are too many, and/The earth is no bigger.

Do–gooders! Don’t despair/Nature will repair her own/Long after we are dust.

Editorial Team of Indian Ruminations.


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