The Meaning and Purpose of Culture

Jan - Feb 2003

<<   |   <  | |   >   |   >>

The word “culture” nowadays is used in so many peripheral contexts that its original meaning has been masked. For example, we have a “popular culture”, by which is meant the collective human intellectual achievements. There is a “consumerist culture”, which is taken by some as a determinant of the status of a person along with his educational success and/or financial strength. To be an integral part of this culture, one has to have a higher spending power, which yields a greater availability of materialistic pleasures and facilities. We also hear of an “emerging culture”, which reflects the attitudes and the behavioural characteristic of a particular social group. An emerging drug or pub culture among the youngsters of today is an example relating to this. Modern colleges and universities take pride in their “competitive culture” that helps to bring out the best in students and aid their intellectual development. However, none of these descriptions highlight the essential features of the true meaning of “culture”.

The concept of culture
Intellectuals and thinkers of the world have defined and analyzed “culture” in their own way. Prof. Edward Burnett Tylor, a famous 19th century English anthropologist, gave one of the first clear definitions of culture in the West. He defined culture as a complex collection of “knowledge, belief, art, law, morals, customs and any other capabilities and habits acquired by man as a member of society”.1 According to Matthew Arnold, a poet of the Victorian era, culture means “contact with the best which has been thought and said in the world”.2 He considered culture as a “study of perfection”. The views of Pt. Jawaharlal Nehru, the first Prime Minister of independent India, described culture as the outcome and basis of training, establishment and development of physical and mental potentials. Sri Rajgopalacharya, the first Governor General of British India, defined it as the collective expression of the thoughts, speeches and deeds of the learned, talented or creative members of a society or nation. In the 1950s, A. L. Kroeber and Clyde Kluckhohn collected over a hundred definitions of culture.

A modern definition of culture is given by anthropologist William A. Haviland in Cultural Anthropology as follows: “Culture is a set of rules or standards that, when acted upon by the members of a society, produce behaviour that falls within a range of variance the members consider proper and acceptable.”3 In other words, culture does not refer to the behaviour that is observed but to values and beliefs which generate behaviour. Some modern definitions of culture tend to be inclusive of the “emerging culture” of society. For instance, in Culture and Modernity, Roop Rekha Verma defines culture as “a system of the patterns and the modes of expectations, expressions, values, institutionalisation and enjoyment habits of people in general.”4 Note the inclusion of the term “enjoyment habits”.

What is the Vedic view on the concept of culture? Pritibhushan Chatterji in Knowledge, Culture and Man says that culture “means something cultivated or ripened… ‘Culture’ also refers to some kind of refinement which is born of education and enlightenment.” This seems to be largely in agreement with the Vedic interpretation of culture. The Vedic term for culture is sanskrati, which originates from the word sanskara. Sanskara in a linguistic sense implies the process of refinement and purification.

Thus, sanskrati means the assimilated treasure of the methods that:
(1) purify and uplift the human life;
(2) teach us the art of living happily with others, the etiquettes of civilization and the ethics of social benevolence; or
(3) encompass those values and practices which effectuate refinement and happy progress of the internal and external aspects of people’s life and instil sanskaras in their conduct along with natural enlightenment and strengthening of their mental and physical talents.

There are thus many viewpoints on culture and so it is difficult to find a universal definition. Actually, the meaning and purpose of culture is vast – they incorporate the genesis and expansion of the philosophy, values, goals and modes of life in any society or nation. In short, culture is the traditional yet evolving basis and nature of life of a social or national system that provides the support and atmosphere for civilized, liberal and illuminating progress of people. Indeed, culture is an ensemble of immeasurable trends and attempts that have gradually evolved and excelled since the ancient times and have contributed to the overall development and progress of humans. It represents those lines of thoughts and systems of the human society that aim to cultivate samskaras in every realm of human life. Cultural values and trends of a nation are therefore the foundational elements of its development and strength. The culture of a nation is its true wealth.

Characteristics of culture
William Haviland explains in Cultural Anthropology that there are four basic characteristics of culture.7 Culture is shared by a group of people (that constitutes a society); culture is learned rather than biologically inherited from parents; culture is based on symbols such as a cross, an image, an object of worship, etc; and culture is an integration of economic, political and social aspects.  

Culture has several other characteristics too. It is neither the outcome of individual attempts nor the impact of a particular phase of history but evolves through ages. It is an invaluable inheritance of uncountable experiences, experiments and endeavours. People, families, societies and civilisations develop, change or end with the flow of time but culture is not built or changed in one era. It is nurtured in the infinite lap of time, age after age. It enfolds innumerable phases of rise, fall, obstructions, destructions, reconstructions, trends and tides of the social, national and global history, and geographical, economical, political scientific, artistic, psychological and spiritual developments.          

Culture is the spine of any race or society. Social traditions, arts, festivals, rituals, the way of life and the values of community are shaped on the foundation of its culture. Any disruption in the flow of cultural values alters the structure of any society or civilisation. The abolition of culture shatters the roots of civilisation because civilisation is an external expression of culture. The traditions, conduct, behaviour and ethics of a society depict the external face of its culture. Therefore culture and civilisation are interlinked. Civilisation manifests the nature of culture while culture is the source of sustenance and expansion of civilization. The future of any society or nation thus depends upon the harmony between its culture and civilization.

Cultural values lay the foundations of growth, development and prosperity of human life. The place of the culture of one’s society and nation in the welfare of one’s life is as vital as the genes of one’s parents involved in the creation of one’s body. Culture nourishes and shapes the progress of human life. Remove culture from the life of a person and he will be no better than the beastly being of the Stone Age. It is only by the installation of samskaras  through culture that a human being displays humane qualities. It is the nectar of the perennial spring of culture that enables the healthy growth and blossoming of the tree of personal, social and national life. The flow of cultural values and civilisation orients the direction of one’s life; if he isolates himself or diverts from it, he would reach nowhere. Therefore knowing our civilization and cultural heritage and learning to adopt its values is necessary for every one of us.

Different races, societies and nations have their own specific culture because of variations in the historical circumstances, philosophies and modes of life, specialties of personal and social life, geographical conditions, the extent of the development of science and others fields of knowledge, etc. This cultural diversity is natural. Still each culture has certain foundational elements that are universal because of which it maintains its identity. The more these timeless, superlative values are present in the core of a culture, the greater would be its expansion and effects. A culture would exist and expand with immortal glory because of its universal relevance even though nations may be born on or wiped out from the map of the globe and societies and civilizations may rise and fall. Cultures emanating from selfish motives and fanatic or narrow ideologies cannot stand the test of time. They inflate and burst like bubbles in due course.

The worth of a culture depends upon the eternity, universality and absolute truth of its foundational elements. On their basis, it can propagate in all directions at all times. The enduring relevance of a culture also depends upon how progressive it is. Culture in its most natural form is like an ever flowing current of a river that embraces every obstacle and adjusts its direction accordingly without stopping its flow. It should be noted that some ancient convictions, rigid principles, traditions or customs alone couldn’t be regarded as culture. A culture, which is not open and adaptive to the progressive trends as per the needs of the time, remains backward and gets lost in the mist of time.

Culture in true sense is like a conscious and radiant aura of enlivened values and progressive principles that have been illuminating our lives since the advent of Nature. Our history, civilisation, ethics, philosophy, religion, literature, science, art, etc are its components and reflections. So vast are the folds of culture that it covers almost every horizon of our existence.  

We must know our culture and its origin and depth in the light of the above aspects.  We should also search new truths through experiments for the progressive expansion of our culture as per the need and call of the present era. Establishing and living with noble values of our great culture is our earnest duty and also a definite source of our glorious advancement.     

1. Tylor, Edward B. (1874). Primitive Culture. Estes & Lauriat, London. p.1.
2. See
3. Haviland, William A. (1990). Cultural Anthropology, Sixth edition. Harcourt Brace Jovanovich Publishers, Orlando, Florida. p.30.
4. Verma, Roop Rekha (1994). In the essay entitled The Concept of Progress and Cultural Identity in Culture and Modernity. Edited by Eliot Deutsch. Motilal Banarasidass Publishers Pvt. Ltd., New Delhi. p.530.
5. Chatterji, Pritibhushan (1976). In chapter entitled Language, Culture and Man In Knowledge, Culture and Value. Editors R. C. Pandeya & S. R. Bhatt. Motilal Banarasidass Publishers Pvt. Ltd., New Delhi. p.118.
6. Here sansk³ra refers to noble tendencies and habits, positive attitude and psychologically uplifting notions.
7. See the book cited in Ref. 3 above.

<<   |   <  | |   >   |   >>

Write Your Comments Here: