Reflections on Culture - Insights of Swami Chinmayananda

Swami Chinmayananda

Pujya Swami Chinmayananda (1916-1993) grew up in the time of India’s freedom struggle. A young intellectual with an education in English Literature and Law, a freedom fighter and a journalist, he keenly felt the plight of the ordinary Indian under the British heel. A man on a quest, he sought out Swami Sivananda in Rishikesh and while attempting to find the answers to the questions of social justice, he found a deeper underlying layer of meaning that would reveal a more timeless Truth. Swami Sivananda directed the young Swami to Tapovan Maharaj of Uttar Kashi for intensive study in Advaita Vedanta.

Swami Chinmayananda was a path-breaker in many ways. Those who try to take stock of his life and works soon find themselves awe-struck with even a preliminary recounting and soon resort to ‘upamaa’, comparing him to Swami Vivekananda, carrying the mantle of awakening the sparkof interest for Advaita in the English-educated elite of the country who were being led away from the Indian wisdom treasure by the glamour and affluence of the ‘west’! There is also the missionary zeal of Adi Sankara, that led him to conduct what he liked to call Open-air University (the Geeta Gnana yagna) where over the years it would be no exaggeration to say that lacs of people had the opportunity of studying the Bhagvad Geeta. Besides. The setting up of Sandeepany Sadhanalaya, a modern gurukula for the study of Advaita in the early 60s, reveals his farsightedness keeping the parampara of jnana flowing fresh as the waters of the Ganga.

The article Reflections on Indian Culture provides a glimpse into the clarity of his thought and his precision in communication. His innovative methodology to build a bridge of understanding between the listener and himself the speaker, made him a very effective teacher – bringing the subtlest principles into the realm of application by the individual into their daily life.

What is Culture?

The word Culture is frequently used: one goes for ‘’cultural programs’’; performs in ‘‘cultural festivals’’; but when one probes, one realizes a serious lacuna in understanding the term.

The National Council Of Educational Research And Training (NCERT), the UN Roadmap for for Arts Education all talk of making children aware of cultural practices, to understand and respect cultural diversity etc.

If all this ‘cultural education’ is to be achieved it is imperative to understand the term.

A definition by Swami Chinmayananda has been crucial to my understanding of the term.

“When a group of people live together over a long period of time, in a particular geographical area, living certain values, the fragrance that emanates from that group is said to be their culture.” (Our Culture At a Glance, Chinmaya Prakashan, Mumbai)

Each of the four aspects to the definition needs to be thought of:

1. A group of people (i.e. not isolated individuals or families).

With respect to an individual, the person’s behavior and response is called their ‘nature’, with respect to the group or the community, the common characteristic modes of behavior and response stems from ‘culture’.

2. Living together for a long period of time

A culture does not arise in a day, a season, or a few years. What arises in a season is called ‘fashion’. Cultural characteristics have evolved through many generations are accepted as suitable and harmonizing by the community, having been time-tested with wisdom. At the same time, culture is a living response. It is not set in stone. Therefore, on occasions, a particular fashion proves its worth and passes into the domain of culture.

3. Living together in a particular geographical area

Many aspects of culture are direct responses to the geographical conditions. What one eats, wears, kind of celebrations, ceremonies, calendar of festivals of a culture can often be traced to climatic condition or geography.

4. Living certain (common) values

If there are no shared values in the group, one will never find any recognisable common culture emerging! Values are an intrinsic aspect of a culture. They shape certain core, strong beliefs and protect the culture from the whims of fancy. But values could also be a weak point. Even a couple of generations that do not live those values, the
very foundations of the culture could crumble. That is why every culture has heroes who have re-energised the values of the culture.

The keyword in the definition of Swami Chinmayananda is the ‘fragrance’ that emanates from the group. Culture is intangible, yet clearly recognizable. The sensitive can smell it a mile away and treasure its fragrance and the insensitive could miss it even though they are so near.

Cultural education would mean cultivating the right conditions for unfolding and blossoming by living, sharing, shaping and evolving the right values constantly. One of the essentials to be considered ‘educated’ is understanding one's ancestral culture. For children growing up within a culture, the essence is imbibed. When they grow up, they probe, they test and they adapt it to the needs of their times.

What is the ‘fragrance’ of the Indic Culture?

One will find many Indians proud of their ‘spiritual’ culture and contrast the modern/western as ‘materialistic’ culture. Is frequent visit to the temple spiritual and frequent visit to restaurants and clubs materialistic? Rarely do we probe such facile superficial conclusions or question the values that define these terms.

Pujya Gurudev Swami Chinmayananda once put it very simply [and for a couple of weeks now I’ve been arranging and re-arranging the idea to arrive at that simple explanation].  If you seek your happiness in the ‘objects of the world’ you are a materialist; if you seek your happiness within yourself, you are a spiritualist. In a material culture, the effort and striving is towards rearranging and adjustment in the things and outer circumstances in order to bring about a greater level of happiness. The values practiced in a spiritual culture instead strives to perfect the antaḥ-karaṇa (the inner equipment or the mind) bringing about samatva or equipoise despite the outer circumstances. The seeking leads within - to the very 'source' of Bliss or Happiness-  आत्मन्येवात्मना तुष्ट: (ātmanyevātmanā tuṣṭaḥ ) (BG Ch 2.55)

That is why the goal and achievement in Yoga practice is thought of so differently in the west versus in India. The most revered highest Yogi, is shown in padmāsana with eyes closed or semi-closed looking within – the epitome being Śiva, exemplifying stillness and simplicity. Another picture that springs to mind is Yogeśvara Kṛṣṇa, in the midst of battlefield, driving Arjuna’s chariot, the dhanurdhāri Arjuna, bow and arrow at the ready! Is that not a contradiction? Not really. Samatvam in the most extreme of imaginable outer circumstance, the midst of a battlefield, is precisely the reason for Kṛṣṇa being called the Lord of Yoga!

This imagery of total stillness of a tapasvi in the remote Himalayan heights, and battlefield action, an apparent contradiction, is another flavour of the subtlety of the culture and the manner in which the complexity is conveyed!

The other characteristic of Indian culture is its sheer diversity! Every aspect of life reflects innumerable variations and iterations from language and art, to cuisine and festivals, naming conventions and wedding ceremonies, to stories, legends, and popular myths. Even the weaves and motifs of the cloth produced in every area of the country varied. Many a superficial observer has made the hasty claim that Bhārata or India is several countries! To the Bhāratīya it is enough to say “sūtre maṇigaṇā iva” a reminder of the oneness, the underlying ‘thread’ that holds the myriad dazzling “maṇi” together. (BG 7.7)

How do we understand this oneness?

Swami Chinmayananda used to explain: there is one electricity running through all the various equipments the light bulb, the fan,  the refrigerator, the elevator, the TV, the microphone etc. There is one gold running through the gold ornaments, the bangle, the earring, the necklace, the anklet, etc. The one saptak of seven svara, and endlessly evolving rāgas with countless compositions. How many expressions can there be of that one-ness? Innumerable. The expression is limited only by human imagination! The Indian culture dazzles, fascinates, and invites one to a journey of exploration. The one ānanda pursued in all of its diversity.

Prakṛti - Vikṛti - Samskṛti

In Samskṛtam the word for culture is samskṛti. It is amazing that it is the same in most Indian languages. “Sam means very well and kṛtam means that which is done” [3]. Even the language Samskṛtam means that which is well-refined, perfected, or purified. The term samskṛti generally is applied only with respect to humans.

All beings live according to prakṛti. The word prakṛti means one’s innate nature. Animal and humans have the same natural need to eat, sleep, move, be secure, have shelter, to procreate, and seek protection from fear and insecurity. Yet, there is a vast difference between animal and human behavior. Animal behavior is guided and controlled by their prakṛti. They live within the bounds of their prakṛti. Whereas humans with their intellectual capability have the freedom of choice whereby they could choose to live without any regulation, transgressing nature. While most do not, some humans may choose to overeat or ‘eat whatever crawls, swims or flies’, get drunk, drive fast, or become sex offenders. Such transgression or perversion of agreed norms of behavior is termed vikṛti.  “To prevent prakṛti from becoming vikṛti, what humans need is samskṛti, or culture” [3] . Culture is not equivalent to education – one may be an educated person living a brutish, “uncultured” life.  Equally one maybe uneducated in the conventional sense living a noble life.


[1] Our Culture At a Glance, Chinmaya Prakashan, Mumbai

[2] The Holy Geeta, English translation and commentary by Swami Chinmayananda. Chinmaya Prakashan, Mumbai

[3] An Introduction to Hindu Culture by Swami Tejomayananda, Chinmaya Prakashan 2007




Dr. Arundhati Sundar currently works as the Academic Outreach for Chinmaya International Foundation at the Adi Sankara Nilayam, Kerala. Her study of the Bhagavad Geeta was kindled by her Guru, Swami Chinmayananda. She has been involved as a sevika of Balavihar, Youth and Adult Study Groups of the Chinmaya Mission in Mumbai, NJ (US), and Singapore. She served as a volunteer docent of the Asian Civilisation Museum in Singapore for over eight years, she describes herself as a storyteller and an educator with an objective of sparking the love for Indic Culture in the younger generation.

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