Aspects of Modern Culture

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Part Four

The culture of money is obliterating all other cultures; even spirituality itself has become a commodity that can be sold and bought and even mass-produced during weekend retreats in 5-star hotels. This spread of the mono-culture of brand names, blue jeans and stereos is taken as raising ‘living standards’ but this threatens to devastate the inner landscape of art, culture and spirituality. This threatens to be a disaster of an even greater magnitude than the destruction of our ecology.

Global business presents a challenge to spirituality everywhere because the mono-culture it promotes is a materialistic culture. With its sponsoring of junk food, movies saturated with sex and violence and a naïve adulation of athletes and movie stars as the most adorable and desirable human types, it impresses on the minds of people only two of the four purusharthas, namely, kama and artha, enjoyment and the making of money to the total neglect of dharma (righteous living) and moksha (spiritual liberation).

Sri Aurobindo was never dazzled by this Western culture. Granted that he lived in the West at a time when the external life had not yet been transformed by technology to the extent it has been since, but he knew the spell of this culture and the direction in which it was moving. His critique of this culture is worth reading even today, more than nearly 90 years or so after it was written in the Bande Mataram days.

He said: Was life always so trivial, always so vulgar, always so loveless, pale and awkward as the Europeans have made it? This well-appointed comfort oppresses me. The perfection of machinery will not allow the soul to remember that it is not itself a machine.

Is this then the end of the long march of human civilization, this spiritual suicide, this quiet petrifaction of soul into matter? Was the successful businessman that grand culmination of manhood toward which evolution was striving? After all, if the scientific view is correct, why not?

An evolution which started with the protoplasm and flowered in the orangutan and the chimpanzee, may well rest satisfied with having created hat, coat and trousers, the British Aristocrat, the American Capitalist and the Parisian Apache. For these I believe are the chief triumphs of the European enlightenment to which we bow our heads. For these Augustus created Europe, Charlemagne re-founded civilization, Louis XIV regulated society, Napoleon systematized the French Revolution. For these Goethe thought, Shakespeare imagined and created, St. Francis loved, Christ was crucified. What bankruptcy! What a beggary of things that were rich and noble!

It is a very pleasant inferno they have created in Europe, a hell not of torments but of pleasures, of lights and carriages, of balls and dances and suppers, of theatres and cafes and music halls, of libraries and clubs and Academies, of National Galleries and Exhibitions, of factories, shops, banks and Stock Exchanges. But it is hell all the same, not the heaven of which the saints and the poets dreamed, the new Jerusalem, the golden city. London and New York are the holy cities of the new religion, Paris its golden Paradise of Pleasure.”

The onslaught of the aggressive Western pop culture that is sweeping all over the world, has already caused an upsurge in religions, particularly in Islamic and Christian countries. “Christian fundamentalism in America itself,” as David Frawley reports, “is a pop religion of TV preachers accompanied by Country and Western singers, with instantaneous conversion at football stadiums or even in front of the television, with wild prophecies, and make believe miracles. Its preachers are often found to be involved in financial and sexual improprieties of various types. Such religion is hardly the piety of the Middle Ages and is accompanied by little soul searching. And no real spiritual practices, much less any asceticism.” Frawley also mentions in this context Islamic fundamentalism which he describes as “more militant and traditional, and perhaps more dangerous as it does not hesitate to resort to violence, not only in Islamic countries but all over the world.”

The fundamentalist reaction may have a justifiable cause – the fear that with its lack of spiritual values Western pop culture can change life into a spiritual and moral wasteland. But religious fundamentalism is not a proper answer to the aggressive Western pop culture. Religious fundamentalism is an anti-evolutionary force because it makes the religious cultures regressive and sterile. In fact, as David Frawley points out, it makes materialism look more human and progressive by countering it with a force of superstition.

The Hindu revivalist movement so far has not become fundamentalist in its mainstream. This in itself is a miracle when we consider that very grave provocations abound. Take, for instance, the peculiar role the English language press in India has been playing in this regard. Time and again, it has raised certain issues in a way that provokes and incites the Hindu revivalist; it has at the same time tended to marginalize the influence of the spiritual leaders of the Indian renaissance such as Swami Vivekananda and Sri Aurobindo. It has thus the peculiar distinction of turning Hindus into fundamentalists in their own country. Some credit for this should also go to our electoral politics. The magic wand that is used to belabor the majority community in India is called secularism.

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