I have come here with pleasure, because I have always looked forward to furthering the cause of India's cultural association, not only with the neighboring countries to the East and West but with the wider world outside. It is not a question of merely wanting such cultural association or considering it good; it is rather a question of the necessity of the situation which is bound to worsen if nothing is done to prevent it. I earnestly hope that the formation of the Indian Council for Cultural Relations will lead to a better understanding between our people and the peoples of other countries.
There is a great deal of confusion in my mind and I shall state quite frankly what it is. All kinds of basic questions crop up from what is going on in the world around us. Nations, individuals and groups talk of understanding one another and it seems an obvious thing that people should try to understand one another and to learn from one another. Yet, when I look through the pages of history or study current events, I sometimes find that people who know one another most, quarrel most. Countries, which are next door to one another in Europe or in Asia, somehow seem to rub one another up the wrong way, though they know one another very thoroughly. Thus knowledge, by itself, does not lead to greater co-operation or friendship. This is not a new thing. Even the long pages of history show that. Has there been something wrong in individual nations or in the approach to this question? Or is it something else that has not worked as it should have done? When we talk of cultural relations, the question that immediately arises in my mind is – what exactly is the 'culture' that people talk so much about?
When I was younger in years, I remember reading about German 'kultur' and of the attempts of the German people to spread it by conquest and other means. There was a big war to spread this 'kultur' and to resist it. Every country and every individual seems to have its peculiar idea of culture. When there is talk about cultural relations - although it is very good in theory – what actually happens is that those peculiar ideas come into conflict and instead of leading to friendship they lead to more estrangement. It is a basic question - what is culture? And I am certainly, not competent to give you a definition of it because I have not found one.
One can see each nation and each separate civilisation developing its own culture that had its roots in generations hundreds and thousands of years ago. One sees these nations being intimately moulded by the impulse that initially starts a civilisation going on its long path. That conception is affected by other conceptions and one sees action and interaction between these varying conceptions. There is, I suppose, no culture in the world which is absolutely pristine, pure and unaffected by any other culture. It simply cannot be, just as nobody can say that he belongs one hundred per cent to a particular racial type, because in the course of hundreds and thousands of years unmistakable changes and mixtures have occurred.
So, culture is bound to get a little mixed up, even though the basic element of a particular national culture remains dominant. If that kind of thing goes on peacefully, there is no harm in it. But it often leads to conflicts. It sometimes leads a group to fear that their culture is being overwhelmed by what they consider to be an outside or alien influence. Then they draw themselves into a shell which isolates them and prevents their thoughts and ideas going out. That is an unhealthy situation, because in any matter and much more so in what might be called a cultural matter, stagnation is the worst possible thing. Culture, if it has any value, must have a certain depth. It must also have a certain dynamic character, After all, culture depends on a vast number of factors. If we leave out what might be called the basic mould that was given to it in the early stages of a nation's or a people's growth, it is affected by geography, by climate and by all kinds of other factors. The culture of Arabia is intimately governed by the geography and the deserts of Arabia because it grew up there, Obviously, the culture of India in the old days was affected greatly, as we see in our own literature, by the Himalayas, the forests and the great rivers of India among other things. It was a natural growth from the soil. Of the various domains of culture, like architecture, music and literature, any two may mix together, as they often did, and produce a happy combination. But where there is an attempt to improve something or the other which does not naturally grow and mould itself without uprooting itself, conflict inevitably arises. Then also comes something which to my mind is basically opposed to all ideas of culture. And that is the isolation of the mind and the deliberate shutting up of the mind to other influences. My own view of India's history is that we can almost measure the growth and the advance of India and the decline of India by relating them to periods when India had her mind open to the outside world and when she wanted to close it up. The more she closed it up, the more static she became. Life, whether of the individual, group, nation or society, is essentially a dynamic, changing, growing thing. Whatever stops that dynamic growth also injures it and undermines it.
We have had great religions and they have had an enormous effect on humanity. Yet, if I may say so with all respect and without meaning any ill to any person, those very religions, in the measure that they made the mind of man static, dogmatic and bigoted, have had, to my mind, an evil effect. The things they said may be good but when it is claimed that the last word has been said, society becomes static.
The individual human being or race or nation must necessarily have a certain depth and certain roots somewhere. They do not count for much unless they have roots in the past, which past is after all the accumulation of generations of experience and some type of wisdom. It is essential that you have that. Otherwise you become just pale copies of something which has no real meaning to you as an individual or as a group. On the other hand, one cannot live in roots alone. Even roots wither unless they come out in the sun and the free air. Only then can the roots give you sustenance. Only then can there be a branching out and a flowering. How, then, are you to balance these two essential factors? It is very difficult, because some people think a great deal about the flowers and the leaves on the branches, forgetting that they only flourish because there is a stout root to sustain them. Others think so much of the roots that no flowers or leaves or branches are left; there is only a thick stem somewhere. So, the question is how one is to achieve a balance.
Does culture mean some inner growth in the man? Of course, it must. Does it mean the way he behaves to others? Certainly it must. Does it mean the capacity to understand the other person? I suppose so. Does it mean the capacity to make yourself understood by the other person? I suppose so, It means all that. A person who cannot understand another's viewpoint is to that extent limited in mind and culture, because nobody, perhaps, barring some very extraordinary human beings, can presume to have the fullest knowledge and wisdom-. The other party or the other group may also have some inkling of knowledge or wisdom or truth and 'if we shut our minds to that then we not only deprive ourselves of it but we cultivate an attitude of mind which, I would say, is opposed to that of a cultured man. The cultured mind, rooted in itself, should have its doors and windows open. It should have the capacity to understand the other's view- point fully even though it cannot always agree with it. The question of agreement or disagreement only arises when you understand a thing. Otherwise, it is blind negation which is not a cultured approach to any question.
I should like to use another word-science. What is a scientific approach to life's problems? I suppose it is one of examining everything, of seeking truth by trial and error and by experiment, of never saying that this must be so but trying to understand why it is so and, if one is convinced of it, of accepting it, of having the capacity to change one's notions the moment some other proof is forthcoming, of having an open mind, which tries to imbibe the truth wherever it is found. If that is culture, how far is it represented in the modern world and in the nations of today? Obviously, if it was represented more than it is, many of our problems, national and international, would be far easier to solve.
Almost every country in the world believes that it has some special dispensation from Providence, that it is of the chosen people or race and that others, whether they are good or bad, are somewhat inferior creatures, It is extraordinary how this kind of feeling persists in all nations of the East as well as of the West without exception. The nations of the East are strongly entrenched in their own ideas and convictions and sometimes in their own sense of superiority about certain matters. Anyhow, in the course of the last two or three hundred years, they have received many knocks on the head and they have been humiliated, they have been debased and they have been exploited. And so, in spite of their feeling that they were superior in many ways, they were forced to admit that they could be knocked about and-exploited. To some extent, this brought a sense of realism to them. There was also an attempt to escape from reality by saying that it was sad that we were not so advanced in material and technical things but that these were after all superficial things; nevertheless, we were superior in essential things, in spiritual things, in moral values. I have no doubt that spiritual things and moral values are ultimately more important than other things but the way one finds escape in the thought that one is spiritually superior, simply because one is inferior in a material and physical sense, is surprising. It does not follow by any means. It is an escape from facing up to the causes of one's degradation.
Nationalism, of course, is a curious phenomenon which at a certain stage in a country's history gives life, growth, strength and unity but, at the same time, it has a tendency to limit one, because one thinks of one's country as something different from the rest of the world. The perspective changes and one is continuously thinking of one's own struggles and virtues and failings to the exclusion of other thoughts. The result is that the same nationalism, which is the symbol of growth for a people, becomes a symbol of the cessation of that growth in the mind. Nationalism, when it becomes successful, sometimes goes on spreading in an aggressive way and becomes a danger internationally. Whatever line of thought you follow, you arrive at the conclusion that some kind of balance must be found. Otherwise something that was good can turn into evil. Culture, which is essentially good, becomes not only static but aggressive and something that breeds conflict and hatred when looked at from a wrong point of view. How you are to End a balance, I do not know. Apart from the political and economic problems of the age, perhaps, that is the greatest problem today, because behind it there is a tremendous conflict in the spirit of man and a tremendous search for something which it cannot find. We turn to economic theories because they have an undoubted importance. lt is folly to talk of culture or even of God when human beings starve and- die. Before one can talk about anything else one must provide the normal essentials of life to human beings, That is where economics comes in. Human beings today are not in the mood to tolerate this suffering and starvation and inequality when they see that the burden is not equally shared. Others profit while they only bear the burden.
We have inevitably to deal with these problems in economic and other ways but I do think that behind it all there is a tremendous psychological problem in the minds of the people. It may be that some people think about it consciously and deliberately and others rather unconsciously and dimly but that this conflict exists in the spirit of man today is certain. How it will be resolved, I do not know. One thing that troubles me is this: people who understand one another more and more begin often enough to quarrel more and more. Nevertheless, it does not follow from this that we should not try to understand one another. That would amount to limiting one-self completely and that is something which really cannot be done in the context of the modern world. Therefore, it becomes essential that we try to understand one another in the right way. The right way is important. The right approach, the friendly approach, is important, because a friendly approach brings a friendly response. I have not the shadow of a doubt that it is a fundamental rule of human life that, if the approach is good, the response is good. If the approach is bad, the response is likely to be bad, too. So, if we approach our fellow human beings or countries in a friendly way, with our minds and hearts open and prepared to accept whatever good comes to them - and that does not mean surrendering something that we consider of essential value to truth or to our own genius-then we shall be led not only towards understanding but the right type of understanding.
So, I shall leave you to determine what culture and wisdom really are. We grow in learning, in knowledge and in experience, till we have such an enormous accumulation of them that it becomes impossible to know exactly where we stand. We are overwhelmed by all this and, at the same time, somehow or other we have a feeling that all these put together do not necessarily represent a growth in the wisdom of the human race. I have a feeling that perhaps some people who did not have all the advantages of modern life and modern science were essentially wiser than most of us are. Whether or not we shall be able in later times to combine all this knowledge, scientific "growth and betterment of the human species with true wisdom, I do not know. It is a race between various forces. I am reminded of the saying of a very wise man who was a famous Greek poet:
What else is wisdom? What of man's endeavor or '
God's high grace, so lovely and so great?
To stand from fear set free, to breathe and wait,
To hold a hand uplifted over Hate,
And shall not Loveliness be loved for ever?
Speech at the inauguration of the Indian Council for Cultural Relations, New Delhi, April 9, 1950