We are living in a modern society today. At least, we prefer to believe that we are! We shun anything non-modern or so called orthodox. We would like to stay in touch with the contemporary rather than the traditional, be it home furniture or our way of thinking or our way of dressing or the way we perceive spirituality. If we are modern, we practice Yoga or meditation or at least claim to do so but reject any traditional custom or ritual, which does not fit in with our accepted definition of modernity.
In this essay, let us explore what exactly is modernity and how does it affect our way of thinking. Does modernity achieve what it sets out to do? And how do Indian culture and traditions fit into this. Where do Indian traditions stop and modern values begin? The main argument presented here is that the so-called modern values were already imbibed in our culture.
What is Modernity?
Modernity can be defined as connecting to the new and the contemporary, rejecting the old. According to The American Heritage® Dictionary of the English Language: the word modern was first recorded in 1585 in the sense `of present or recent times'. In Latin, modernus is derived from modo, meaning `just now'. The English word modern was not originally concerned with anything that could later be considered old-fashioned. Obviously, modernity often is used to reject old-fashioned ideas and traditions. In the cultural and social contexts, modernity is also interlinked with the values of equality, freedom, feminism and democracy. It is generally assumed that the modernity in 19th and 20th century unleashed the power of scientific and industrial progress, which led to social equality, freedom of downtrodden sections of the society, freedom to women. Democracy is also thought to be a modern concept of governance as against rulers and kings of ancient times. Modernity is also thought of as increasing the role of rationality in the public sphere and reducing the role of religion. Let us take these modern values one by one and explore them more.
Social Equality: One of the popular assumptions is that modernity provided equal status to downtrodden sections of the masses. Before the advent of modernity, people in the weaker sections of the society were controlled and oppressed by the landlords and the religious leaders. With modernity, all the sections of the society have equal rights. However, according to Professor Arvind Sharma, equality before law did exist in ancient India, especially in the sphere of criminal law. The Pali texts clearly allude to it, and the Nibandhas – legal digests of the twelfth century onwards – specifically eliminate unequal punishments. King Ashoka also tried to enforce it. The Nepala-Mahatmya (13.46) of the Skanhapurana also seems to recommend such egalitarianism. Moreover, even today in the 21st century, global spiritual movement Swadhyaya rooted in Indian cultural values has devised many innovative experiments and projects to ensure social equality in thousands of Indian villages. One of the novel Swadhyaya concepts is Amrutalayam, meaning house of immortality. This is similar to a village temple but its priests come from different castes of the village and every evening the entire village gathers here as a social/economical/spiritual family. Just a small example to show how social equality can be achieved by cultural values.
Democracy: Another popular assumption is that modernity gave rise to democracy, ending centuries of autocracy, and therefore governments for the masses, of the masses and by the masses were installed in many parts of the world. This gave tremendous power to the masses in choosing their own rulers and removing the ones they didn't like in the elections. But, contrary to this assumption, India in ancient times did have its own form of democracy and republics. The inscriptions on the walls of the Sundaravarada temple in Uttiramerur near Kanchipuram show how democracy was practiced 1000 years ago. History Professor Steve Muhlberger at Nipissing University has painstakingly shown several evidences of republic forms of government in ancient India. And, according to Hinduism Professor Arvind Sharma at McGill University, republicanism was as prominent a form of government as monarchy in the sixth century B.C. in India.
It is true that the Magadha empire rose at the expense of such republics, but when Alexander invaded India in the fourth century B.C., he had to fight against as many republics as kingdoms on his way to Punjab. Brahmana, Kshatriya, Vaishya and Shudra republics are attested to by Panini, the famous grammarian assigned to the fourth century B.C., if not earlier, and Alexander had to defeat both a Brahmana and a Shudra republic in the course of his conquest. Republicanism, in the form of the operation of guild-laws, common law, regional practices, etc. survived throughout, countenanced by the kings. The Rajatarangini, a historical narrative of Kashmir, informs us of cases in which the king's decisions were blocked and even reversed by the king's council. Rudradaman (c.150 C.E.) had to spend money from his privy purse to carry out repairs at Lake Sudarshana in Saurashtra because his council would not let him use public funds for the purpose. In addition, it is also often believed that modernity ended centuries of theocracy. But, at least within the Indian culture, theocracy was shunned millennia ago when Brahmans and Kshatriyas were assigned separate roles as religious and political leaders. We don't have a single incidence from Indian political history where a religious leader was made the king or vice versa.
Feminism: In the modern society, women are seen more liberated with their earning capacities and their role as career women rather than housewives or homemakers. It is believed that majority of Indian women committed sati in ancient times and widow-remarriage was not allowed. How far is this true? Most of the literature on the subject creates the impression of a general ban on widow-remarriage in Hinduism. According to the 1901 census, however, only 10 percent of the Hindu communities observed it. Professor Veena Oldenburg powerfully challenges even the usual portrayal of women being killed for dowry, which is linked with Indian culture. The British resolve to rationalize and modernize the revenue was particularly hard on women. From being co-partners in pre-colonial landholding arrangement, they found themselves denied all access to economic resources, turning them into dependents. In the event, they faced marital problems, and they were left with no legal entitlements whatsoever.
It is true that Indian society always has been a patriarchic society with males being the head of the family, but so is the case with all the other cultures -- eastern or western. But, it is the Indian culture that has the concept of Devi, goddess, which treats females also as divinely as the male gods, or Devas. Devi exists in various forms and powers. Laxmi is worshipped as the power of wealth. Shakti or Durga is worshipped as the power to be invoked in war. Saraswati is worshipped as the power of knowledge. Even the power of illusion is given a female identity in the form of Maya. Also, it is only South Asian countries that have no problem accepting women as the head of their states in the form of presidents or prime ministers. There are other dozens of social and religious female leaders in India.
Women who were given the sole responsibility to run a home are now being over-loaded to earn money also. In the modern world of judging everything by financial and materialistic rewards, are we reducing our mothers and wives also into moneymaking machines? And is that the only criteria for their freedom?
Science/Technology and Rationality: Modernity has negated the role of philosophical thinking and glorified reason-based thinking. Modernity also launched the era of science and technology with thousands of new inventions and discoveries about the outer world and the human body. This popular notion is already challenged by the scholarly work of Joseph Needham, which highlights the ancient Chinese contribution in science and technology. Similarly, many Arabic/Islamic scientific inventions are now accepted. Within India, we know that many scientific notions in the fields of Astronomy, Medicine, Mathematics, Metallurgy, Maritime and Linguistics were known to Indians thousands of years ago. There is a huge set of evidence about traditional knowledge systems as late as 18th century just before the advent of the British.
It is true that modern science has added tremendous inventions for human society but to claim that tradition or culture was non-scientific will again be misleading.
Environment protection: It is a popular notion that modernity also led to the awareness about environment protection and animal rights. However, it is also true that modernity has reduced the natural resources due to exploitation by human beings. Whereas Indian culture has the reverential concepts to worship natural powers and animals, modernity, while ridiculing such notions, claims to champion the cause of ecology. It is sad that the cultural values to regard the rivers as mothers, land as mother, cow as mother and trees as divine are ridiculed or rejected today in the name of modernity. Didn't these notions already combine eco-friendliness with popular culture?
Freedom: Modernity also is seen to be liberating dozens of nations from centuries of colonial rule. However, it can be argued that we have certainly achieved political freedom from colonial powers but how free are we intellectually and culturally from those powers? Did modernity free us or has it bounded us in new ways?
In this essay, we have seen that the so-called modern values were already present in ancient Indian culture. It is just that, in the medieval period of the last few centuries, they were corrupted under colonial pressures. With the advent of modernity, the same ancient cultural values are being presented to the human society in new western forms. We just need to apply our cultural contexts to them. Modernity devoid of cultural values will always be incomplete progress.
Teaching and researching religions, languages, literatures, films, and ecology of India: http://philosophy.unt.edu/people/faculty/pankaj-jain
Dr. Pankaj Jain
Pankaj Jain पंकज जैन
- Dr. Pankaj Jain is the author of Dharma and Ecology of Hindu Communities: Sustenance and Sustainability (May 2011), which won the 2012 DANAM Book Award and the 2011 Uberoi Foundation Book Award. His 2nd book is Science and Socio-Religious Revolution in India: Moving the Mountains (Routledge 2017).He is co-founder of American Academy of Indic Studies (www.AAIndicStudies.org) and is the editor of the Encyclopedia of Hinduism (Springer).He is Associate Professor in the department of Philosophy & Religion. He has published articles in journals such as Religious Studies Review, Worldviews, Religion Compass, Journal of Vaishnava Studies, Union Seminary Quarterly Review, and the Journal of Visual Anthropology. He also contributes to the Huffington Post, Washington Post’s forum On Faith, and Patheos.
His research has been supported by the Fulbright fellowship and by the Wenner Gren grant. His teaching interests include Religion and Ecology, Indian films, and Religions and Cultures of South Asia and South Asian Diaspora in North America. Before joining UNT, he taught at North Carolina State University, Rutgers, Kean, and New Jersey City University. Interested in connecting ancient practices with contemporary issues, he is exploring the connections between religious traditions and sustainability in Hindu and Jain communities in India and the Indian diaspora. He serves as a research affiliate with Harvard University’s Pluralism Project, as scholar-in-residence with GreenFaith, as a board member of the Society for Hindu Christian Studies, and as a board member of the Executive Advisory Council of Hindu American Seva Charities, an NGO working with the White House Office for the faith-based initiatives. He has presented his research at Columbia University, University of Massachusetts at Dartmouth, University of South Florida, Florida International University, University of Toledo, Texas Christian University, High Point University, Lancaster University (UK), Andhra University (India), Univ of Rajasthan (India), and several conferences, high schools, radio and TV stations, temples, churches, Yoga centers, and other community centers.
He holds a Ph.D. from the University of Iowa and an M.A. from Columbia University (both in Religious Studies). In his “previous life” he had also earned a B.S. in Computer Science from India and had worked as a software engineer in India and in New Jersey. Dr. Jain is an active member of several academic and community organizations, is fluent in several Indian languages, and has published poems in Hindi. He was born in Rajasthan and had also lived in Ahmedabad, Mumbai, Hyderabad, and Karnatak (in India) and in New Jersey, Iowa, North Carolina, and Texas (in the USA). Some of his papers and articles are at:http://unt.academia.edu/PankajJain/Papers and videos are at http://www.youtube.com/pj2017. The Facebook page for his book is at:https://www.facebook.com/DharmaAndEcology
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