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VITASTA ANNUAL NUMBER: Volume XXXII (1998-1999)

ON THE IMPORTANCE OF CULTURAL HERITAGE

Surendra Munshi

Culture is usually understood to mean improvements that result from the refinement of thought and action. Just as one cultivates a garden, one may also cultivate one's abilities, including physical abilities. A cultured person is typically an educated person with refined ways of thinking, talking and acting. A social group is considered to be cultured in the same manner. An important consideration here is whether the members of a social group have acquired the ability to live together harmoniously, a skill most needed among the inhabitants of a city who by necessity live in larger numbers and in closer physical proximity than people living in rural areas. Culture is often understood for this reason to be the 'city' of human beings. If the city is the centre of culture as compared with the village, a nation may be viewed as more cultured than other nations. This was the view that dominated the world in the era of colonialism when the 'white man's burden' as Rudyard Kipling put it was to 'better' the rest of the world. Culture thus created a divide between nations, groups and persons in terms of the presence or absence of culture of at least in terms of the level of culture that had been achieved.

This view is unacceptable in the current social scientific usage. Culture now means the way of life of a people, a whole society or a particular group within it. It includes not only beliefs, values and rules of conduct but also the material resources of a society or a group. The emphasis now is on differentiating human beings from animals, for much of our behaviour is supposed to be socially learned. Culture is socially acquired and is passed from one generation to the next. It is thus our social rather than biological inheritance. A Kashmiri boy or girl, for example, if taken away at the time or birth and brought up by different parents in an alien culture will grow up acquiring that culture, including the language of that society. There will be nothing to show by way of Kashmiri culture in that child. Language plays a significant role in our attempt to communicate with each other. What is not noticed often is that language organises our experiences. If a word does not exist for an object in a language it is likely that the object does not exist in that society or if it does it is not given any importance in the cultural world of the people speaking the language. Bengalis do not have a differentiated vocabulary for snow in their language, and Kashmiris do not have such a differentiated vocabulary for snow as exists among Eskimos. Eskimos are thus in a position to share understanding and communicate with each other in a differentiated manner about snow, something relevant to their physical existence.

It is now recognised that all societies are cultured and not just those who claim superiority for themselves. Culture has thus become a descriptive term, not evaluative as it was earlier. It becomes the task of a researcher then to study the culture of a society or a group in a descriptive manner. Each culture has its own inner principles that govern it. To eat in the Western style then is not to be considered superior to the way we in India usually eat without such tools as knife and fork. To uphold the standards of one's own culture in relation to the culture of others is to be guilty of ethnocentrism which is not acceptable any longer. What provides then the standard of evaluation for a culture? The standard is provided by the principles of values internal to a culture. This allows for greater tolerance.

The modern concept of culture in the social sciences takes into account several principles for understanding social behaviour. One of them has already been identified. This is the principle of social learning. Not all of this learning though takes place consciously. A good example once again is language. The best way to learn a language is at the knees of one's parents as a child. This learning takes place naturally, with lasting impact. It is also recognised that culture patterns our perception and also our thoughts. To behave 'naturally' or 'honourably' may mean different things in different societies. Beauty does not lie only in the eye of the beholder but also in the eye of the culture to which the beholder belongs. All of us take over the ways of our culture to a large extent, consciously or unconsciously. Is a woman beautiful if she is slim or if she has a more rounded form? Different cultures give different answers to this question. We are often so tuned to the positions of our culture that it becomes difficult to even recognise that others may have different preferences. It should be understandable to us that those who are not used to salted tea may not quite be able to relish the shir chai of which we are so fond.

Culture is inherited and that makes it our heritage. Every society or group lays claim to its heritage. Even though in principle it is possible to think of heritage as inherited circumstances which may include benefits as well as burdens, it is usual to emphasise positive aspects when cultural heritage is discussed. Why do we need this heritage? We need this heritage as our shared resource for communication and for common identity. Something needs to be said now on the issue of identity. Sociologists have shown that identity is socially bestowed, and many lament the growth of self-absorbed selfishness in the modern world that has arisen due to the weakening of common cultural bonds. Can there be a celebration of the self in this situation? Many plays and novels show the breakdown of the self in a world of fragmentation and homelessness. Culture is a resource that provides us with our home that is more secure than the one provided by a house of four walls. It helps us to stabilise our identity by establishing our links with our forefathers from whom we inherited it and also with our successors on whom we are going to bestow it. This is not all. Culture helps us to channelise our desires in the form of values and also to regulate them by prescribing acceptable norms. It has given us abilities that have been developed over generations to live and live well in our surroundings.

Does it mean that all we have to do about culture is to acquire it and pass it on? Are we passive recipients of our cultural heritage? To answer these questions in the affirmative will be misleading. It is now recognised that culture is best viewed as a process which involves the active participation of every generation in creating and recreating it. The way a particular cultural heritage is interpreted, accentuated or even neglected depends on the attitude of the generation that has a central role to play during a particular period. We have a real problem here that needs to be seriously considered. We are losing our language, for our children are not learning it. We need to take care of this problem as a task. Each generation sets for itself an agenda and a course of action suitable for it, even if implicitly or without clarity. A wise generation does it consciously. Yet another point that needs to be kept in mind is that a country like India has not one but many sources of its rich tradition. A decision then has to be taken on the tradition that we reject and the heritage that we carry forward. The task is to relate with different sources of tradition in a creative and positive manner. This has to be done in an informed manner, for unthinking rejection is as lamentable as unthinking acceptance.

It was Toynbee who propounded the thesis that cultures develop in societies in response to challenges. This old-fashioned view acquires significance for us. It is for us to turn the challenge facing our community and our country into an opportunity for significant advance. It is for us to prove that no matter how great the challenge is we are capable of meeting it together with resolve and resourcefulness.
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