Dialogue  July-September,  2011, Volume 13 No.1

Indian Culture: A Phenomenological Discourse

Arun Kumar Ojha*


This paper aims at elaborating Indian culture in phenomenological perspective. In the very outset itself I would like to make it clear that I am applying phenomenological method to spell out the transcendental essences which constitute the structure of Indian culture. In Indian culture, to my mind, it is self-realization or consciousness which works as an abiding substratum to the immanent components on one hand and bestow the meaning of self-identity on the other. Thus, the whole thesis more or less, would try to understand the nature of self-realization or consciousness and its directedness-towards- society as whole in terms of Indian culture. I will take an account of the concept of Lokasamgraha in Bhagavadgita to comprehend the phenomenological method with special reference to Indian culture.     

Culture in its Broad Spectrum

The modern use of the word culture goes back to the late eighteenth century. Anthropologists and sociologists, historians and archeologists, philosophers and men of letters, journalists and politicians have used the word in different senses. Thus, Tylor has described culture as the whole way of life when he says: “Culture is that complex whole which includes knowledge, belief, art, morals, law, custom, and any other capabilities and habits acquired by man as member of society”1. Anthropologists generally tend to use culture as a descriptive and unifying concept for identifying distinct communities or traditions. Sociologists concentrate on recurrent processes and general laws rather than on unique patterns of culture. Historians attend to the particular causal events constituting the formation of particular patterns of culture.

        Archaeologists sometimes used the word culture narrowly to indicate an assemble of ‘industries’ or more generally in the sense common in anthropology. Philosophers of different shades have looked on culture in the light of their theories of human nature, values, meanings and symbols. Men of letters have been much concerned with the fact that culture must indicate an ideal standard and at the same time the common life of the people. Journalists tend to identify culture with cultural events and policies. Politicians use culture as a cause to draw strength from or be in opposition to.     

Not only is culture viewed differently in different disciplines, each discipline shows diverse approaches and interpretations. Culture, thus, does not stand for any meaning which would be rich and also universally acceptable. To fathom the depth of culture as a meaning-construct, one must be willing to investigate its varying shades and examples.  

Culture, as I know, rules virtually every aspect of life and like most people, we are completely unaware of this. If asked, you would likely define culture as music, literature, performing and visual arts,2 architecture or language, and you would not be wrong. But you would not be entirely right either. In fact, the things produced by a culture which we perceive without five senses are simple manifestations of the deeper meaning of culture-‘what we do, think or feel’. Culture is taught, learned and shared. There is no culture of one. Meaning thereby, culture is not monolithic. Individuals exist within a culture. Finally, culture is symbolic. Meaning is ascribed to behavior, words and objects and this meaning is objectively arbitrary, subjectively logical and rational. For example, a ‘home’, is a physical structure, a familial construct and a moral reference point which is distinct from one culture to another.

Culture is vital because it enables its members to function one with another without the need to negotiate meaning at every moment. Culture is learned and forgotten, so despite its importance we are generally unconscious of its influence on the manner in which we perceive the world and interact within it. Culture is significant because as we work with others it both enables us and impedes us in our ability to understand and work effectively together. Thus, it is clear that the essence of a culture is not its artifacts, tools, or other tangible cultural elements but how the members of the group interpret, use, and perceive them. It is the values, symbols interpretation, and perspectives that distinguish one people from another in modernized society; it is not material objects and other tangible aspects of human societies. Therefore, it can be said ‘Culture emerges as a revelation in the individual psyche and enters social tradition creatively as a symbol. The determinants of culture thus lie not only in the diverse ‘vehicles’3 in terms of which consciousness attains self-consciousness, but in the dialectic interplay of seeking, experiencing, reflection, symbolizing and communication. The understanding of culture involves understanding the working of ideal processes of human self-realization within a historically given context of symbols and meanings.’4    

Phenomenology of Indian Culture

Phenomenology is interested in the subjective aspect of the human conduct as expressed in and by the essential features of the world of everyday life. This requires attentiveness to the constitutive, inter-subjective, and inter-actional processes by which human beings in society sustain and create shared meanings.5 It would be better to explain that phenomenology in general, is used as the systematically pursued comparative endeavor to interpret and understand (not explain) cultural phenomena of the same category i.e., self-realization, social-welfare, sacrifice etc., appearing in different culture to get their inner meaning.

Self-Realization, Social-Welfare and Sacrifice: As the Essence of Indian Culture

In India, the traditional word which corresponds to culture is dharma, âgama or pâramparya. While discussing culture, one must be aware of the concept that there is basic distinction between what is given by nature and what is added to it as a spiritual idée- force. Culture is not a part of nature. It is something acquired, not instinctive. Thus, sanskşti has an inevitable transcendental aspect. In Indian tradition, culture is termed as sanskrti and this sanskrti is not ethnic6 but universal.7 A true happiness in this world is the right terrestrial aim of an individual, and true happiness lies in practicing dharma. Dharma is the expression of Şit in human life, both as the apprehension of ideals and as the practice of norms or institution aliased conducts. It is remarkable to note that in its historical aspect dharma is not simply an ideal order but the order of the actual pursuit of values and interests8

India’s social system is built upon this above conception; her philosophy formulates it; her religion is an aspiration to the spiritual consciousness and its fruits; her art and literature have the same upward look; her whole dharma or law of being is founded upon it. Progress she admits, but this spiritual progress, not the externally self-unfolding process of an always more and more prosperous and efficient material civilization. And it is her fidelity, with whatever human shortcomings, to this highest ideal that has made her people a nation apart in the human world.

In Indian culture spirituality and temporality have indeed to be perfectly harmonized, for the spirit works through mind and body. No doubt material comforts, material progress and material efficacy are entertained in Indian culture but have never become the gods of its worship9. Nucleus of Indian culture is the spirit of sacrifice in which, because all is known as the one self, each gives himself for the good of others. It is the Indian culture where an individual reaches the highest stage; the perfect sanyâasin, the liberated one, the soul that knows all being as himself and for him all self-defense and attack are needless10.

The Concept of Lokasamgraha in Bhagvadgîtâ

As it is obvious in the above lines that cultural phenomena like self-realization, social-welfare, sacrifice etc., are to be considered as the essences of Indian culture. Therefore, to my mind, it is necessary to take an account of the concept of lokasangraha of Bhagvadgîtâ. It is because the concept of lokasamgraha can be well thought-out as the best blending of all the three i.e., self-realization, social-welfare and sacrifice11

It is a world view that the chief latent feature of Indian culture is self-realization or self consciousness. A self-conscious being, due to some yogic practice, reaches to a higher mental level. At this level he can realize the sense of equanimity (samatvam)12. At this level (self-realized), self-satisfaction or other actions relating to personal gratitude are completely abandoned. In this state, according to Bhagvadgîtâ, an individual reaches to the plane of ‘niskâmakarma’ (desire-less action)13. It is significant to note that niskâmakarma does not ask for the renunciation of action but pleads for renunciation in action14. It is because ‘no one under any circumstances can remain even for moment, without undertaking acting; everyone is compelled to act, by the modes born of nature’15. A niskâmakarma-yogi performs all the actions but without being attached to its fruit (phala). Krishna says that ‘he, who controls his senses through the mind and engages himself in the path of action, with the organs of action and sense, without being attached, is superior’16. One thing that remarkable in the concept of niskâmakarma, is that at this level, one is completely free from all self-interests and self-satisfaction. He or she performs action only as their duty for the well-being of the other or society as whole. At this level his or her personal (first-person) view is changed. Now he or she intends to work for the well-being of others only (lokasangraha). As Bahgvadgîtâ says, ‘It was by action alone, that Janaka and others attained perfection. Thou should perform selfless action, also for the good of the world’17. Thus, we see that an individual being self-realized or self-conscious creates a kind of intentional relation to society as whole. He or she, being in the state of lokasangraha, can construct the inter-actional processes by which human beings in society sustain and create shared meanings. In this regard Bhagvadgîtâ sys, ‘Whatsoever an ideal person does, he is followed by others, as well. Whatever standard he sets, the world follows the same’18.


The phenomenological approach that vacillates between the ‘subjective and objective dimensions of human life’19 can be well-observed in the notion of lokasamgraha in Bhagvadgîtâ. In this regard Bhagvadgîtâ says: “He, who perceives inaction in action and action in inaction, has among men attained real knowledge; even performing all action he is doing yoga”20. Therefore, we can claim that it is misrepresentation to articulate that Indian culture rebuff all value of life and detaches from terrestrial interests. It never insists on the unimportance of the life of the moment. It is utterly erroneous to comprehend that in all Indian thought there was nothing but the nihilistic school of Buddhism21 and the advaitic illusionism of Sankara22 and that all Indian art, literature and social thinking were nothing but the statement of their recoil from the falsehood and vanity of things. European and others like them could never understand the real color of Indian culture. They cannot even imagine that there is the best blending of vayavahâra (phenomenal) and parmârtha (spiritual)23. In Indian culture phenomenal progress (abhyudaya) as a means is important to clasp the spirituality (nih±reyasa) as an end. The critics of Indian culture should look over the ancient civilization of India that founded itself very expressly upon four human interests; first, desire and enjoyment, next, material, economic and other aims and needs of the mind and body, thirdly, ethical conduct and the right law of individual and social life, and lastly spiritual liberation24. These critics are advised to discover a little more of Indian culture by going through the language, literature, religion and philosophy, performing arts, visual arts, recreation and sports, clothing, cuisine, festivals, and rituals of ancient as well as modern India.    


*   Arun Kumar Ojha, Department of Humanities & Social Sciences, IIT Bombay, Mumbai.



    1  Robert Bierstedt, ‘The Meaning of Culture’ Philosophy of Science, Vol. 5, No. 2. (Apr., 1938), p 205.

    2  Music, dance, martial arts, drama and theatre are considered as performing arts while painting, sculpture, and architecture are regarded as visual arts.

    3  ‘Vehicle’ is a modern theosophical translation of Upanisadic Kośa. The ‘self’ is, as it were, sheathed in different substances –physical, vital, mental, rational, etc.; It appears and functions differently in each sheath (kośa).

    4  Govind Chandra Pande, ‘Consciousness Value Culture’, Allahabad, Raka Prakasan, 2006, p. 13.

    5  Review: Dwelling on the Everyday World: Phenomenological Analysis and Social Reality, American Anthropologist, New Series, Vol. 78, No. 3. (Sep., 1976), p. 585.

    6  Relating to a sizable group  of people sharing a common and distinctive racial, national, religious, linguistic, or  cultural heritage.

    7  Sâ prathmâ sanskrtir viúvavâra. [Govind Chandra Pande, ‘Consciousness Value Culture’, Preface, viii.].

    8  The word dharma is derived from the root Dhr-to hold- and its etymological meaning is that which holds this world, or the people of the world, or the whole creation from the microcosm to the macrocosm. Dharma is generally defined as righteousness or duty, Dharma is the principle of righteousness. It is also the principle of unity.

    9  Sri Aurobindo; ‘The Foundations of Indian Culture’, Pondicherry, Sri Aurobido Asharm Trust,1998,p. 7.

  10  This very concept of sannyâsin is found in Upanisad, it is as –‘ puttesanâ, bittesanâ, lokesanâ mattah parityakâh sarv bhűtebhyah abhayamastu’.

  11  The word ‘loka’ includes three aspects—human world, creatures of the world and all the scriptures (except the Vedâs). Performance of actions (of daily routine) for the human world and its creatures, according to the ordinance of the scriptures is ‘Lokasangraha’. [Srimad Bhagvadgîtâ by Swâmi Ramsukhdâs, S. C. Vaishya (Tr.), Gorakhpur, Gita Press, 2005, p. 326.]

  12  Srimad Bhagvadgita, 2: 48.

  13  Satya P. Agarwal, ‘The Social Role of the Gita: How and Why’, Columbia, Columbia University Press, 1993, pp. 426-33.

  14  M. Hiriyanna, ‘Outlines of Indian Philosophy’, Delhi, Motilal Banarsidass Publishers Pvt., 1994, p. 121.

  15  Srimad Bhagavadgîtâ, 3:5.

  16  Srimad Bhagavadgîtâ, 3:7.

  17  Srimad Bhagavadgîtâ, 3:20.

  18  Srimad Bhagavadgîtâ, 3: 21.

  19  Review: Dwelling on the Everyday World: Phenomenological Analysis and Social Reality, American Anthropologist, New Series, Vol. 78, No. 3. (Sep.,1976), p. 586. Srimad Bhagvadgītā, 4: 18.

  21  Concept of ‘sarva ksanikam’, and ‘sarva dukham’.

  22  Concept of ‘jagat-mityātva-vāda’ of Śankarāchārya.

  23  Na sansārasya nirvanāt kincadasti viseśanam, na nirvānasya sansārāt kincadasti viseśanam. [nirvśnaparikŗa of Mādhyamakasāstra, Swāmi Dwārikadās Śhāstri (Ed.), Bauddha Bharati Series-16, Varanasi, Bauddha Bharati, 1989, p. 29.

  24  Robert Bierstedt, ‘The Meaning of Culture’ Philosophy of Science, Vol. 5, No. 2. (Apr., 1938), p 205.


Dialogue (A quarterly journal of Astha Bharati)

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