Education is a subset of culture. So, it is to be expected that cultural issues will be addressed by academicians. But culture is not written in stone. It is being made and remade continually, like the river that remains the same although changing minute by minute. If that were not the case, cultures and civilisations would not have risen and fallen and we would still have been living in the “ancient” culture, which is an oxymoron.

The Sanskrit department of Delhi University is keen to prove that India had a technologically advanced past, with means of supersonic movement and weapons of apocalyptic scope like the A-bomb. It is surmised, for instance, that the civilisations of Harappa and Mohenjodaro could have been obliterated by something similar to a nuclear attack.

Well, if archaeological evidence and scientific investigations prove this hypothesis, we should have no difficulty or embarrassment. We should only worry. The worry is that the final outcome of so-called technological progress is total self-annihilation. Surely, the extinction of Harappa, if it was indeed the outcome of a nuclear explosion, is not a cause for celebration or pride. If the truth that emerges – and I am no one to quarrel with such findings – is that a whole civilisation perished under the burden of its own (or someone else’s) technological progress, we need to worry.

Spreading such deep-seated anxieties is, surely, not the motive – hidden or otherwise – of the protagonists of this seminar, who seem to be unaware of the irony that looms large – much like a nuclear mushroom cloud – over the exercise. What is the burden of the song? That we had attained technological progress thousands of years ago, comparable to what the West boasts of now?

Culturally a no-people

Reduced to its essential, the exercise seeks to establish parity. Hum kissi se kum nahin. And that is meant to be a matter of pride. But there is, nonetheless, a problem. The categories of comparison are incomparable. The comparison is between the past and the present. The past too could have counted, provided there is an unbroken continuity with it. If the present-ness of our past were comparable to the present of the West, such exercises would carry meaning and conviction.

The most significant point of irony is still something different. What is the “present” or the context in which such exercises are being undertaken? It is radically different from the past as it ever existed. Thanks to globalisation, we live in a present which is globally shared. The total domination of western culture ensures that we do not live in our present, but their present, second-hand. Or, our present is being amputated from our past. We have consented willingly to be culturally a no-people. We have seriously compromised our identity. The fact that this is done voluntarily and gratefully does not make this process any less embarrassing, or self-paralysing.

That brings us to the heart of the matter. Individually, we are consumers. Collectively, we are Indians. But consumerism, as we know and live it today, is the soul of western culture. It is not our “past” culture. The custodians of Indian culture and national pride – cultural nationalism – know only too well that they have lost the agenda. Such a realisation will necessarily bring in its wake the psychological need to seek compensatory means for sustaining illusions of selfhood and identity. That being the operative logic, the more we renounce our native culture and allow ourselves to be enslaved by the invasive, incoming culture, the stronger will be our compulsion to glorify the past and claim parity or superiority with the present of others on the basis of our past. (“Our forefathers were living in well-planned cities when theirs were living on trees.”)

Obsessed with the past

There is, alas, a logical fallacy here. The need of the hour – the only thing that will help us – is not to improvise quasi-fictions of similarity with the West based on achievements in our dim, distant past. What will help is to be more authentically and distinctively Indian. Admittedly, we had a glorious past. Let us concede that as the given. But do we have a glorious present? Now, this is not a matter of material resources. The secret of the glory of our culture was that it was not solely dependent on the resources of matter. Our culture was holistic. It recognised the resources of body, mind and spirit. This was – and I hope still is – our essential identity. But we seem to be losing our nerves precisely in this respect. We are far more enamoured of the West now than we were in the days of our colonial subjugation.

Cultural parity is not proved through hypotheses of similarity but dissimilarity. We were surely equal (more than equal) to the West in our achievements. But our achievements do not have to be identical. Muhammad Ali and Sachin Tendulkar are great. They didn’t play the same game. Our core achievements were not violence, or the genius to exploit others, based on the tyranny of technology over the spirit. Consider this. How shall we prove that women and men are equally great? By insisting that they are the same, identical in all respects? The truth is that men and women can be the same – i.e., being human – only being absolutely different. Human species gets cheapened and threatened by man-being-woman and woman-being-man. Both are aberrations. Women must be fully developed as women, and likewise men. It will help if we could be a little less obsessed with the past and a little more mindful of the needs and opportunities of the present.

Rev Valson Thampu is the principal of St Stephen's College, Delhi.