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Intercultural Dialogue

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By EMN Updated: Feb 27, 2015 9:05 pm
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Dr. Xavier P. Mao
Professor, Department of
philosophy, NEHU, Shillong

[dropcap]C[/dropcap]ulture has been defined in many ways. Some scholars make a distinction between culture and civilization. According to one version civilization stands for external and material objects whereas culture stands for meanings, value system, literature, art and music etc. I wish to accept and define culture as the totality of what human beings have created. In my paper I shall concentrate on this concept of totality. Seeing in this light culture includes science, philosophy, literature, religion, myths, drama, music etc. The next question is how to study culture? Some social scientists including historians of ideas accept the empirical scientific method of understanding. This method of understanding scholars concentrate on the origin, growth and evolution of various culture. The terms like origin, growth, and evolution become very important and crucial in the study of culture. Further, the concepts of decay, death and destruction of culture came into existence. Sometimes comparisons between cultures are made with the concepts like inferior, superior, regional and universal culture. Even in the so called modern times some scholars use the terms superior and inferior culture. Thus the growth and gradation between cultures are made. In this sense study of culture is bound to encounter with problems and difficulties. Further, a distinction is made between philosophy and science of culture. Some scientists argue that the methods and techniques used to study nature can be applied to the study of culture and society. But in my paper I shall pursue the technique and method of what is known as empathetic understanding of culture. What I mean to suggest is this: the scientific method and technique of causal understanding is unsuitable and inappropriate in study of culture. Natural sciences like physics, chemistry, biology etc. employ by and large what is known as causal mode of understanding. In other words, conceptual, cause and effect and statistical generalization play an important role in studying and understanding nature. Such method and technique are not only inappropriate but they cannot yield the desired result. Some scholars are influenced by the scientific method what is known as positivistic method of understanding in studying culture. Thus some social scientists tried to understand man and society by applying the so called scientific positivistic mode of understanding. Consequently such scholars treated society as mini nature. As a result, the positivistic method of understanding is treated as supreme. But gradually this view has changed. The autonomy of society and man cannot be underrated and any attempt to apply the so called scientific causal mode of understanding to the study of man is bound to have disastrous consequences. Culture and nature cannot be treated as similar. I wish to maintain in this connection that culture has both universal and particular dimensions to use Aristotelian terminology. There is a belief in the dominance of universal dimension of culture. There is only one culture: the particularities are eliminated and brushed aside. Further, those who highlight the particularities there are only cultures and thus there is bound to be conflict and tension among cultures. If we look at the world situation from historical perspective we find that scholars and social scientists accept one of the exclusive views. On the other hand, I wish to suggest and argue out that this type of study is defective. I shall advance the holistic, comprehensive and all encompassing method of studying culture.
The entire intercultural dialogue literally means dialogue between different cultural groups. But what does it mean? Dialogue means conversation between cultures or cultural groups. This point stands in need of being explicated here. Dialogue means understanding. Right understanding is necessary and is a must. For various reasons, understanding of other culture and even one’s own culture is not properly and impersonally done. By and large we glorify and highlight our own culture and belittle and underrate the cultures of other people. This is a great mistake and bound to lead to tragic consequences. A culture is an omnibus and contains both history and myths. There are such advocates of culture in every society. It is necessary to look at the cultural scenario of the world today. One cultural group apes other group and glorify one’s own and belittle others. It may not be out of place to mention the present religious fundamentalism particularly Islamic fundamentalism prevalent in the world today. This does not mean that other cultures and religious groups are very tolerant. Culture and religion get politicized in the hands of shortsighted politicians. Even political parties are formed on the line of religious groups. So religious fundamentalism is directly encouraged. If we look to history and evolution of religion we find that the founders of various religious systems were great men and prophets. Mahavir, Budha, Zoroster, Jesus, Mohamad, Bahaullah etc. were great human beings, saints and seers. But today throughout the world more or less one religious group cannot see eye to eye with another. This may appear as an exaggeration but none less it is a fact. I wish to point out that one of the basic reasons for vertical rise of religious fundamentalism is due to lack of understanding of religion. Religion is a system of myths, value system, rituals and ideals of life. To understand and appreciate another religion is very difficult subject. It is unlike the study and understanding of nature. For example, the concept of virgin birth of Jesus in Christianity, a non Christian may laugh at the idea and even caricature the faith of virgin birth. Such faith is not only unscientific but ridiculous. Similarly the Hindu idea of Lord Brahma who is the neuter gender laying a very big golden egg out of which the entire universe came into existence is ridiculous and laughable. These myths are very meaningful but this cannot be treated on par with scientific theories and theorems. It may not be out of place to mention in this connection that the mind that creates Euclidean theorems, theory of Relativity, matter and energy and motion also create literature, religion, various types of myths and so on. Myths are neither superior nor inferior, not above or below scientific truths. It is a creation of human mind. It has its own existential value. Most of the times, we take scientific truths as paradigm of all knowledge. As a result we try to evaluate other forms of knowledge by scientific standards. This is a kind of category mistake to use the word of Gilbert Ryle. To understand and appreciate myth one has to cultivate a particular mindset, tolerance and appreciation of other forms of life to borrow Wittgenstein’s terminology. A myth is a form of life and there are innumerable forms of life. To appreciate other forms of life, one has to cultivate and nurture a particular mindset. This mindset cannot be grown just in one day. It has to be grown, nurtured and cultivated from the very childhood in the family and educational institutions. This is most unfortunate that throughout the world there is nothing in the educational that includes such tolerant attitude towards other culture including their respective civilizations instead certain areas of study are nurtured antipathy and hatred towards others. Consequently me and my culture are great and unparallel. In this atmosphere I and grow. It is necessary to reiterate the point that the method and technique of studying culture are very different from those of nature. However, intercultural dialogue must begin with study and understanding of culture. Right understanding is likely to lead to right knowledge. Right knowledge is likely to lead to right type of appreciation. Cultures are as I expressed earlier are mixtures of history, myths, tradition, value system and on top of it likes and dislikes of people at various stages of civilizations. For example, the Hindu myth of Lord Krishna dancing and merrymaking with 16000 young ladies both married and unmarried may appear obnoxious to an outsider. How is it that a Hindu god like Lord Krishna does not have an iota of hesitation to mix and dance with ladies at midnight? On the surface of it appears that Krishna is a debauchee. He does not believe in sexual morality. He is shameless. But the inner meanings of such myths are really important and great. Krishna here represents the paratma(universal soul) and the gopies represent ordinary mortals. Man is a celebration and thus becomes a concrete man by surrounding and submitting to the universal soul. Prayer and surrender are the inner meaning. Even M.K.Gandhi believes in the efficacy of prayer and surrender to the Almighty. Gandhi did not believe in visiting places of worship such as temples, mosques, churches etc. His prayer does not aim at to placating gods and goddesses and getting benefits from them. It may be stated in this connection that there are varieties of religiosity, for some, the truth and the best form of religiosity is to worship them, placate them and get benefits. On the other end of religiosity is the idea of prayer and submission. In nutshell this means that one should not be proud of one’s achievement and surrender to the Almighty. This is an attitude towards life and the world. That is how like Jesus Gandhi used to say let us not hate the sinner but the sin. On certain other occasion Gandhi used to say do not hate the British people but the British rule, that is to say hate the oppression and exploitation of people. This clearly shows the basic feature of Gandhi’s philosophy of culture.
I may reiterate in this connection that culture is a conglomerate of myth, morality and history. There is a sense in which it can be said that man is a myth making animal and he keeps on creating myths. Sometimes certain words get obsolete and modified and new myths are created. It is inappropriate to say that with the rise of science and technology myths automatically get eliminated: rather science and the so called scientific temper create its own myths. The idea of one nation, one culture, and one language is one kind of myth. Even in nationalism the maxim that motherland is superior to one’s own mother is another kind of myth associated with pride of one’s nation. Most of the times, we are in the habit of glorifying our own culture and downgrading other cultures. Even some of the so called scholars and those occupying various chairs related for the study of culture are not free from this dogma. Therefore, it is necessary to develop and have a proper method of study and genuine attempt to understand other culture. The first and foremost thing in studying other culture is to have humility, sympathy and fellow feeling for others. Without this prerequisite the study of other cultures cannot be effective. Such virtues of fellow feeling and sympathy should be inculcated in both formal and informal education. It is very sorry state of affairs today in the world that the basic virtues are very rarely taught and practiced. In this connection it can be argued that family is the school and mother is the first teacher. Unfortunately the families are gradually disintegrated and otherwise mothers are very busy. There is a sense in which all virtues are familial and virtues are initially formed in the family only. Possibly because of this reason the great German philosopher E. Kant developed the idea of respect for every human being ipso facto respect for other cultures.
But at the same time in due course of time in the name of culture certain obnoxious ideas are created that some people are untouchable including their shadows. This institution of slavery and practice of sati came into existence. In due course of time such obnoxious practices have been abolished. Now new events are being injected gradually into body electoral politics based on party lines. Politics today is more or less a struggle to occupy power and position. Consequently political fight is a fight for selfish money and not social services. An elected member of a political party the first duty is for the party interest and the next is the interest of the masses or the nation.
Another important point to keep in mind while studying culture is the distinction between the text and the context. Most of the scholars who study culture do not make any such distinction. Further, they tend to forget the distinction between history and mythology. Let me now concentrate between text and context of a culture. The text of a culture means what has been said in the text or in the scriptures. Let us take some examples from Ramayana. The characters of Rama, Laxman and Sita have been idealized and idolized. Rama was an ideal king and ideal brother and an exemplar husband. Basing on this some scholars opine that Indian culture is great where renunciation has been advocated. But when we look at the context that is the actual situation we find totally a different picture of great violence and cruelty and so on. The great epic Mahabharata on the other hand aims to present the true pictures of human nature. Draupadi was disrobed in the presence of great men and warriors like Drona, Bhishma, Karna etc. The Kauravas and the Pandavas fought among themselves over the silly issue. Now which epic presents and depicts the true picture of Indian culture? The country where women are idolized and idealized and supposed to be on par with goddess, dowry deaths, sati, rampant female infanticide, frequent rape take place. This is travesty and tragedy of the study of culture. Further, guests and outsiders should be treated on par with gods and goddesses, Indians do not hesitate to steal money and valuables of the tourists visiting India. Foreign female tourists are also raped frequently. Further, the renunciation, giving away one’s own property, one’s own happiness and pleasure in the text is being contrasted by the actual happenings. The fact is that politicians including high ranking civil servants do not hesitate to accumulate wealth by means fair or foul. Rivers like Ganga and Yamuna have been treated as the abode of gods and goddesses. The river Ganga descended from heaven to serve and protect 10,000 sons of sagaras. They are very sacred as water flows down from Lord Krishna but the actual picture the rivers are thoroughly polluted so much so that Indians do not know how to purify them. The sacred forests have the same story to tell. Thus cultural historians most of the time are oblivious to these aspects and dimensions of culture. I wish to reemphasize the distinction between text and context of a culture must be borne in mind while doing any study or analysis of any culture.
I have already mentioned earlier that in due course of time history, mythology and social geography get mixed up for various reasons. This has played havoc in the society for instance, Rama Setu (embankment) and Ram temple. When the Government of India took a decision to clear the Ram Setu(coral reef) in the Indian ocean there were protests that since the embankment was constructed by Hanuman with the help of other monkeys they cannot be destroyed as they are sacred. It may be further stated in this connection that the present day Srilanka is not the abode of Ravana(Demon king). The two great epics of India are mixtures for history and mythology. Kurushetra, Dwarka, Mathura, etc, the puranic events associated with places perhaps are historically true. There is no evidence to suggest that L. Krishna who supposed to have engineered the battle at Kurushetra between Pandavas and Kauravas was not a historical figure. I wish to suggest in this connection that there is tendency in man to localize great events and episodes. Further, myths depicting in puranas which were composed during Gupta period in 5th century A.D have been localized and given historical twists. The churning of the ocean is one such episode. It is said in the puranas that gods and demons are cousin brothers. They fought among themselves over wealth and property so they requested Brahma to churn the ocean. The churning of the ocean is not a historical event. It is part of that myth. I have already said that man is a myth making animal. But once the myths are created they are confused with history. In study of culture one should make clear distinction myth and history.
To conclude I may suggest that cultural pride, cultural superiority and hatred towards other culture must go. A true cultural historian, it is expected that he or she should be a kind of Brahmagyani. But human nature is such that in due course of time social institutions and practices get degenerated. Naturalism as for instance political freedom is a value but nationalism should not lead to hatred towards other nation. Similarly, the cultural historian or a genuine cultural student should not propagate malice, hatred but should propagate or advocate fellow feeling, kindness, respect the views of others. Lastly but not the least is the advocacy of universal brotherhood and sisterhood.

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By EMN Updated: Feb 27, 2015 9:05:22 pm