Progress versus Security

We have been an exclusive people, proud of our past and of our heritage and trying to build walls and barriers to preserve it. Yet in spite of our race-consciousness and the growing rigidity of caste, we have, like others who take such pride in the purity of their racial stock, developed into a strange mixture of races — Aryan, Dravidian, Turanian, Semitic, and Mongolian. The Aryans came here in repeated waves and mixed with the Dravidians; they were followed in the course of thousands of years by successive waves of other migratory people and tribes: the Medians, Iranians, Greeks, Bactrians, Parthians, Shakas or Scythians, Kushans or the Yueh Chih, Turks, Turco-Mongols, and others who came in large or small groups and found a home in India. ‘Fierce and warlike tribes,’ says Dodwell in his ‘India,’ ‘again and again, invaded its (India’s) northern plains, overthrew its princes, captured and laid waste its cities, set up new states and built new capitals of their own and then vanished into the great tide of humanity, leaving to their descendants nothing but a swiftly diluted strain of alien blood and a few shreds of alien custom that were soon transformed into something cognate with their overmastering surroundings.’

To what were these overmastering surroundings due? Partly to the influence of geography and climate, to the very air of India. But much more so, surely, to some powerful impulse, some tremendous urge, or idea of the significance of life, that was impressed upon the subconscious mind of India when she was fresh and young at the very dawn of her history. That impress was strong enough to persist and to affect all those who came into contact with her, and thus to absorb them into her fold, howsoever they differed. Was this impulse, this idea, the vital spark that lighted up the civilization that grew up in this country and, in varying degrees, continued to influence its people through historical ages?

It seems absurd and presumptuous to talk of an impulse, or an idea of life, underlying the growth of Indian civilization. Even the life of an individual draws sustenance from a hundred sources; much more complicated is the life of a nation or of a civilization. There are myriad ideas that float about like flotsam and jetsam on the surface of India, and many of them are mutually antagonistic. It is easy to pick out any group of them to justify a particular thesis; equally easy to choose another group to demolish it. This is, to some extent, possible everywhere; in an old and big country like India, with so much of the dead clinging on to the living, it is peculiarly easy. There is also obvious danger in simple classifications of very complex phenomena. There are very seldom sharp contrasts in the evolution of practice and thought; each thought runs into another, and even ideas keeping their outer form change their inner contents; or they frequently lag behind a changing world and become a drag upon it.

We have been changing continually throughout the ages and at no period were we the same as in the one preceding it. Today, racially and culturally, we are very different from what we were; and all around me, in India as elsewhere, I see change marching ahead with a giant’s stride. Yet I cannot get over the fact that Indian and Chinese civilizations have shown an extraordinary staying power and adaptability and, in spite of many changes and crises, have succeeded, for an enormous span of years, in preserving their basic identity. They could not have done so unless they were in harmony with life and nature. Whatever it was that kept them to a large extent to their ancient moorings, whether it was good or bad or a mixture of the two, it was a thing of power or it could not have survived for so long. Possibly it exhausted its utility long ago and has been a drag and a hindrance ever since, or it may be that the accretions of later ages have smothered the good in it and only the empty shell of the fossil remains.

There is perhaps a certain conflict always between the idea of progress and that of security and stability. The two do not fit in, the former wants change, the latter a safe unchanging haven and a continuation of things as they are. The idea of progress is modern and relatively new even in the west; the ancient and medieval civilizations thought far more in terms of a golden past and of subsequent decay. In India also the past has always been glorified. The civilization that was built up here was essentially based on stability and security, and from this point of view it was far more successful than any that arose in the west. The social structure, based on the caste system and joint families, served this purpose and was successful in providing social security for the group and a kind of insurance for the individual who by reason of age, infirmity, or any other incapacity, was unable to provide for himself. Such an arrangement, while favouring the weak, hinders; to some extent, the strong. It encourages the average type at the cost of the abnormal, the bad or the gifted. It levels up or down and individualism has less play in it. It is interesting to note that while Indian philosophy is highly individualistic and deals almost entirely with the individual’s growth to some kind of inner perfection, the Indian social structure was communal and paid attention to groups only. The individual was allowed perfect freedom to think and believe what he liked, but he had to conform strictly to social and communal usage.

With all this conformity there was a great deal of flexibility also in the group as a whole and there was no law or social rule that could not change by custom. Also new groups could have their own customs, beliefs, and practices and yet be considered members of the larger social group. It was this flexibility and adaptability that helped in the absorption of foreign elements. Behind it all were some basic ethical doctrines and a philosophic approach to life and a tolerance of other people’s ways.

So long as stability and security were the chief ends in view, this structure functioned more or less successfully, and even when economic changes undermined it, there was a process of adaptation and it continued. The real challenge to it came from the new dynamic conception of social progress which could not be fitted into the old static ideas. It is this conception that is uprooting old-established systems in the east as it has done in the west. In the west while progress is still the dominant note, there is a growing demand for security. In India the very lack of security has forced people out of their old ruts and made them think in terms of progress that will give more security.

In ancient and medieval India, however, there was no such challenge of progress. But the necessity for change and continuous adaptation was recognized and hence grew a passion for synthesis. It was a synthesis not only of the various elements that came into India but also an attempt at a synthesis between the outer and inner life of the individual, between man and nature. There were no such wide gaps and cleavages as seem to exist today. This common cultural background created India and gave it an impress of unity in spite of its diversity. At the root of the political structure was the self-governing village system, which endured at the base while kings came and went. Fresh migrations from outside and invaders merely ruffled the surface of this structure without touching those roots. The power of the state, however despotic in appearance, was curbed in a hundred ways by customary and constitutional restraints, and no ruler could easily interfere with the rights and privileges of the village community. These customary rights and privileges ensured a measure of freedom both for the community and the individual.

Among the people of India today none are more typically Indian or prouder of Indian culture and tradition than the Rajputs. Their heroic deeds in the past have become a living part of that very tradition. Yet many of the Rajputs are said to be descended from the Indo-Scythians, and some even from the Huns who came to India. There is no sturdier or finer peasant in India than the Jat, wedded to the soil and brooking no interference with his land. He also has a Scythian origin. And so too the Kathi, the tall, handsome peasant of Kathiawad. The racial origins of some of our people can be traced back with a certain definiteness, of others it is not possible to do so. But whatever the origin might have been, all of them have become distinctively Indian, participating jointly with others in India’s culture and looking back on her past traditions as their own.

It would seem that every outside element that has come to India and been absorbed by India, has given something to India and taken much from her; it has contributed to its own and to India’s strength. But where it has kept apart, or been unable to become a sharer and participant in India’s life, and her rich and diverse culture, it has had no lasting influence, and has ultimately faded away, sometimes injuring itself and India in the process.



The Discovery Of India – Pt. Jawahar Lal Nehru



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