Vedanta and Indian Culture
Indian culture is believed to be at least five thousand years old. It has been able to maintain unbroken continuity for such a long time, overcoming innumerable internal dissensions, many invasions by foreign hordes and two centuries of subjugation by a European power, mainly because of the spiritual vitality of the Hindu religious tradition which forms its living core. The Hindu religious tradition itself is a vast and complex confederation of religions which has no founder, no defining creed and no centralized authority. Nevertheless, it has maintained overall coherence, vitality and far-reaching influence for many centuries, mainly because it is based on a dynamic philosophy of life known as Vedanta.
Vedanta is not a religious creed or dogma which people accept out of fear of divine wrath or human wrath. Vedanta represents the timeless quest of the human soul for the Eternal and the Infinite. It is the outcome of the enquiries conducted by the ancient sages of India into the mystery of life, mystery of death, mystery of consciousness, mystery of Existence — much like the philosophical speculations of ancient Greeks and the researches conducted by modern scientists. But, unlike these Western thinkers who relied on external observations, the ancient Indian sages, known as Rishis, developed techniques of inner concentration, collectively called Yoga. The transcendental knowledge gained by the Rishis through Yoga was transmitted through the disciples who gathered around them. The records of this transmission of knowledge came to be known as Upanishads. The concepts of the Upanishads, most of which were articulated by the sages between 1,000 b.c. and 300 b.c., were systematized in subsequent centuries to form the Vedanta philosophy. Vedanta thus stands for the body of eternal truths and laws of the spiritual world which are universal, just as the truths and laws of the physical world discovered
by modern science are universal.
Another unique feature of Indian culture is the spirit of religious toleration and freedom which provided a hospitable environment for numerous sects, schools of thought and alien religions to flourish in India. Indian culture developed not by suppressing religious freedom or by destroying dissenting groups or alien cultures, but by integrating their best elements into its own body. Furthermore, at critical periods in the history of Indian culture, great personages like Sri Krishna, Shankaracharya and Sri Chaitanya appeared and facilitated this integration process.
At the beginning of the 19th century, Western culture, with its glorification of reason and science, and proselytizing zeal, posed a great challenge to Indian culture, while their secular values such as individual freedom, social equality and justice attracted the intelligentsia of the land. It was then that Sri Ramakrishna and Swami Vivekananda arose and met the challenge by revitalizing Vedanta and by incorporating the best elements of Western culture into it. Since the Western world itself has been in a critical situation caused by the erosion of moral and spiritual values owing to the onslaught of materialism, the lives and message of Sri Ramakrishna and Swami Vivekananda have significance for people all over world.