India, Culture and society

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India, Culture and society

IPRI Conference on India, Rio de Janeiro, 28th of August 2008

Marie-Caroline Saglio-Yatzimirsky1

India is so diverse, with so many different ethnic, religious and linguistic communities, that it is hardly possible to speak of its culture and society, better to speak of its multiplicity of cultures and societies. In the Fifties, Nehru2 was portraying India as 400 million distinct men and women, all different one from the other, all living in a universe of personal thoughts and feelings. Those 400 million people are today over 1.13 billion3.

There may be, however, a unity. As Nehru also said: “I was (…) fully aware of the diversities and divisions of Indian life, of classes, castes, religions, races, different degrees of cultural development. Yet I think that a country with a long cultural background and a common outlook of life develops a spirit that is peculiar to it and that is impressed on all its children, however much they may differ among themselves4.

Consequently this paper on Indian culture and society, in order to catch some of this diversity, consciously operates a selection in its object and orientation. That is a rational choice though Indian experience is almost always emotional, but hopefully this selection will offer some insight into what Nehru calls the “peculiar spirit” of India.

My main orientation will be, according to the theme of this conference, how present day India, with its social structures taking root over two thousand years, has been facing modernity. What social and cultural challenges has it been facing, what answers has it been offering? Nehru again said: “Ancient India (…) was a world in itself, a culture and a civilization which gave shape to all things. Foreign influences poured in and often influenced that culture and were absorbed5. What about today?

Our hypothesis is that India has the very capacity which gives it unity, always to come back to itself: even today it still presents a unique type of social structure, the caste system, and culture to the world. Here stands its unique way of answering the issues of the modern world.

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