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Vol: 34  No: 01


01 August 1987

European Humanism in Indian Culture

Rev. Fr. Jerome D’Souza

The original Indian base which has facilitated the healthy assimilation of later humanistic ideas is the sense of the moral responsibility of the individual which is one of the cardinal tenets of Hinduism.

What do we mean by humanism when we employ the word in relation to culture? Culture itself has been defined as the intellectual and artistic expression of a civilization. Civilization is the attempt by a people or a group of peoples to outgrow primitive instincts and reach out to some higher kind of life, more refined on the material plane, and more lofty in its spiritual aspirations.
Now it is clear that any attempt to live a higher life such as indicated in this definition of civilization must include a philosophy of life, a well-defined attitude to the world, to the nature of the Universe, and to man’s relations with the Universe.
In other words, civilization involves a particular concept of view of human destiny.
This philosophy will necessarily be reflected in the culture, namely, the intellectual and artistic expression, of that civilization. Now the prevailing attitude of the Indian mind in regard to the Universe has been its “other worldliness”. The Indian imagination has been impressed most powerfully by the transience and impermanence of the phenomenal world and Indian intelligence has been dominated by the conviction that real existence must be absolute and self-subsistent and that contingent existence is illusory in the profoundest sense of the term. There was, therefore, a certain indifference to the world as an objective, autonomous entity worth studying for its own sake and capable of giving us a scientific knowledge as objective and truthful as metaphysical knowledge.
On the other hand, an attitude towards the universe which gladly recognises not only its objectivity but also its essential goodness and worth may be described as a humanistic attitude.
This is particularly true with reference to man. Humanism emphasises the worth and beauty of his personality, his fundamental liberty and therefore his inalienable rights and obligations whatever be the nature of the Absolute which has brought him into being.

As we study the evolution of Indian culture we see how a certain primary humanistic impulse, which was native to it receives strength from external sources till today. Let me indicate briefly the primary native stream and the three external currents that have enriched it in the course of the centuries.
The original Indian base which has facilitated the healthy assimilation of later humanistic ideas is the sense of the moral responsibility of the individual which is one of the cardinal tenets of Hinduism.
There is no minimising the tremendous insistence which Hinduism has placed on the idea of each man bearing the consequences of his action; that “as he soweth so he shall reap,” and that consequently personal moral effort is of capital importance. There is, no doubt, that this notion of personal retribution, this strain of irreducible individualism has served as an admirable prologue to the ever-widening recognition of human dignity and the grandeur of human personality.

Artistic Humanism
The first notable strain of European humanism which came to India was in the form of artistic humanism. It came from sculpture and gave a new orientation to Indian sculpture. It gave to the depiction of the human form that loving attention to exact detail, that appreciation of physical beauty, that sense of proportion in outline and form which are the glories of Greek Art. I am referring, of course, to the achievements of the Gandhara School which has given us some of the most enduring monuments of Indian art. This is one of the supreme examples of the impact of cultures in the history of the world.

Religious Humanism
The second stream may be called the stream of religious humanism illustrated by the development of the Bhakti cult which became a very powerful element in Indian religion with the growth of the Vaishnava movement. Leaving aside for the moment the simpler polytheistic cults of the masses we may say that before the Vaishnava movement, the predominant type of Indian spirituality was the discipline of meditation

Bhavan's Journal

01 August 1987

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