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How Is Indian Culture Spiritual? – Swami Ranganathananda Answers

Writers and speakers generally say that Indian culture is spiritual. What does it mean? Does it mean that all the people of India are spiritual? India has its own share of wicked people, non-spiritual people, evil people. But if this statement has any meaning, it means this: that the direction of Indian culture is towards the high spiritual Truth hidden in every human being and that the honor the nation gives to any person depends upon the spiritual quality of that person.

You can study a culture by asking the question: What is the highest human excellence that is appreciated in that culture? In one culture it is the military power, in another culture it is the intellectual strength, in another, it may be money.

In India, all these are respected, but the highest respect goes to a person of God, one who has realized oneness with all through spiritual development. Throughout history, India has maintained this quality; the highest person in India is a person of God, a person of spiritual realization. Indian hearts recognize in that person someone great and in this recognition there is no distinction of creed, no distinction of religion any religion showing high spiritual quality will receive adoration from the people of India. It is not credal, it is not dogmatic, it is just spiritual; that person whatever may be his or her origin in a particular race and particular religionhas gone beyond the many. That is why many Muslim mystics and mystics of other religions are honored in this country. They represent the spiritual development of the human being, the spiritual fulfillment of humankind.

This was the background of the developments in Indian culture, commencing from the Vedic period. Very few cultures have received this philosophical and spiritual stimulus from behind. That is why there has been a succession of great teachers, great spiritual luminaries, throughout Indian history. Even in the most difficult and tumultuous period of history, India did not fail to produce great spiritual teachers. Take the sixteenth century Babar’s invasion. The whole of North India was shattered. There was so much suffering and killing, so many men and women were taken away as slaves at that time. In Babar’s history, you will find the story. At that very time, in that very Punjab, where these events largely took place, India produced a Guru Nanak. He could see all the problems going around, the sufferings of the people; and he had referred to those issues in his own songs as well.

Guru Nanak provided a new type of approach to the challenge that India faced at that time, harmonizing the new elements that had come. Several times has India achieved this harmony. New people come. When the Greeks came, India took from the Greeks their great ideas and developed a synthesis of Indian and Greek cultures at that time. Foreign invaders came, they brought their culture. Slowly India assimilated them and became richer with such assimilation. Then came the Muslim period, the great invasion.

In the beginning, it was all a good way of India’s religious relationships; missionaries came, spoke of great ideas. Then came invaders. It is when invaders came that the challenge became very big. To meet that challenge India had to produce great personalities, great movements. Guru Nanak represents that tremendous response of the very spirit of India. If there is anything good in the new system, India shall take it in. So he became a harmonizer of the Hindu and the Muslim traditions, and in all the bhakti movements that came thereafter, there is the impress of these twothe spiritual heritage of India and the social heritage of Islam. That is why they were democratic. This democratization took place in the middle ages. It was needed because from ancient times India classified the humans in society into the four varnas: brahmana, kshatriya, vaishya, and shudra. It is an old classification. Originally it never meant anything more than certain capacities, certain talents, certain roles that people play. But slowly it became ossified. All evil elements began to enter into it. It was at that time that India faced Islamic invasion, Islamic influence; and the essential influence of Islam is that social democratic experiment in which there is no distinction between one human being and another.

So, the democracy of Islam strengthened Indian society at that time, though conditions were markedly unpropitious. There was violence and destruction everywhere destruction of temples, destruction of holy places even then India had that wonderful mind to take what is good from any system that came from outside. All the religions that took birth in India were living side by side in harmony and cooperation; and there were many such religions. First came the Vedic religion, and this religion itself contains many facets. Then arose, in the sixth and fifth centuries BC, the great Buddhism and Jainism. These were all wonderful developments great spiritual teachers instructing people how to live in peace with oneself, in peace with others.

Swami Ranganathananda (December 15, 1908 – April 25, 2005) of Ramakrishna Mission – 13th president of Ramakrishna Mission