Monday, December 22, 2014

The Ethos of a People:

In this context certain pertinent questions arise. If India is so culturally rich, how come she is materially so poor? If India has the credit of developing the high philosophy of divinity of the soul and oneness of life, how is it that some of the worst forms of social injustice, exploitation and discrimination have persisted in Indian society for centuries? How is it that a nation with the highfaulting motto 'Truth alone triumphs' has now come to be rated as one of the most corrupt and dishonest in the world? Even from ancient times in India nonviolence and contemplation have coexisted with incessant wars and thuggery and, now, terrorism and extremism. This paradox, and the
paradox of a nation which taught harmony of religions to the world being perpetually rocked by religious unrest and communal riots, need an explanation.

The explanation lies in the peculiar ethos of the Indian people, which has not been studied properly. However, before proceeding further,we have to understand what 'ethos of a people' really means. The
phrase was introduced perhaps by the German philosopher Hegel who spoke of every child being 'suckled at the breast of the universal Ethos.' According to Hegel, 'The wisest men of antiquity have given judgment that wisdom and virtue consist in living agreeably to the Ethos of one's people.'

The original German word used was sitten which means moral habitudes of thought and action. There is no English word that fully expresses this idea and, instead of having recourse to the German, it has become customary to use a Greek term ethos.

The word 'ethos' has been defined in Webster's dictionary as, 'the distinguishing character, sentiment, moral nature or guiding beliefs of a person or group or institution.' More simply stated, it means the
moral temper of a race, or nation, or community. It represents the sum total of the moral attitudes of a group, the way they react to various problems and situations in life. Mackenzie says that the ethos of a people 'constitutes the atmosphere in which the best members of a race habitually live... it constitutes the universe of their moral activities.'

India has an ancient culture rich in spiritual wealth unmatched by any other culture in the world. And its value system which is based on, and aims at, direct realization of the ultimate Reality, holds great
promise for the future welfare of humanity. However, we can't talk in the same vein about the ethos of the Indian people. For there are grave defects and drawbacks in the Indian ethos.

The Indian ethos favours the cultivation of certain values such as renunciation, charity, chastity, filial duties, and spiritual disciplines. People in this country can be more easily prompted to pursue these values. But the ethos has not been so favourable to the pursuit of some other values such as justice, equality, scientific objectivity, dignity of labour, and collective responsibility. The inadequacy of the ethos of this land is the main cause of this nation's loss of political power, loss of economic prosperity, loss of intellectual vigour and moral stamina, and dismal performance in international sports and games. Social tyranny, caste war, exploitation of the poor, bride burning, and corruption at all levels of administration still persist in modern India mainly because of the supportive nature of the ethos of the people.

Several factors have contributed to the creation of the Indian ethos the most significant of which are: the strange institution of caste which prevented vertical social mobility, the evils of priestcraft, the segregation of people caused by racial, linguistic and regional differences, prolonged submission to alien rulers, and the popularization of a philosophy of illusion among the masses. Whatever be the contributory factors, it is necessary to know the limitations of the ethos which have been the main cause of the nation's failures in several fields.

If India is to attain economic prosperity, social well-being, intellectual advancement, national integration, and the rejuvenation of her ancient spiritual culture and values, drastic changes in the
ethos of the people must be brought about. This was one of the major tasks Swami Vivekananda took upon himself. Swamiji himself pointed out that the reformers who had preceded him had made 'the serious mistake of holding religion accountable for all the horrors of priestcraft and degeneration' and tried to pull down the indestructible edifice of religion. The same mistake had been committed by the German sociologist Max Weber a few years before Swamiji expressed his ideas.In his book The Religion of India Weber raised the question why India, in spite of having an advanced culture and wealth, failed to develop a technological civilization, and he held the Hindu religion responsible for the failure. Swami Vivekananda, however, showed that religion was not at fault. The degradation of India took place not because of religion but because the life-giving spiritual principles of religion
had not been properly applied in practical life. Swamiji saw that India's spiritual culture was the repository of eternal values which could help to rejuvenate not only India but the whole world. This does not, however, mean Swamiji believed that everything was all right with India. The word 'ethos' had not become popular during his time but he never overlooked the fact that the individual temperament and social attitudes of the people of India were defective in several respects, and he never hesitated to apply the corrective wherever necessary.

Modern India is a bundle of contradictions. But if we keep in mind the distinction between values and the ethos of the people, it becomes possible for us to see the contradictions in the right perspective.

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