The Mother Divine
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Dr. Rajeshwari V. Pandharipande
Dr. Rajeshwari V. Pandharipande

What is culture? And what is the relationship between culture and language? These are some of the questions which have intrigued human beings across the globe for a long time! Whorf, a well-known anthropologist, very beautifully outlines the role of language in shaping people’s perception of the world and of everything within it including themselves!

“--- the linguistic system of each language is not merely a reproducing instrument for voicing ideas but rather is itself the shaper of ideas, the program and guide for the individual’s mental activity for his analysis of impressions, for his synthesis of his mental stock in trade---we dissect nature along lines laid down by our native languages.” (Whorf, B. Collected papers on Metalinguistic, 1952:5)

The following quote from the language of one of the native American Indian tribes in the US, eloquently tells the story of the perspective of their culture on life, death, and the inevitable renewal of all in the world including human beings and their natural identity with nature.

“We live; we die, and like the grass and trees, renew ourselves from the soft earth of the grave. Stones crumble and decay, faiths grow old and they are forgotten, but new beliefs are born. The faith of the villages is dust now... but it will grow again... like the trees (Chief Joseph, Nez Perce (91840-1904).”

There are many characteristics of a culture which set it apart from other cultures- its music, language, art, literature, religion, among other. However, a deeper exploration of these features reveals a worldview which underlies these features and which marks the culture as unique. It is the understanding of the world (with its myriads forms animate and inanimate) and the relationship of human beings with it which can be viewed as “world view.” The people who belong to the same culture see and experience the world through the lens/framework of their worldview. They give meaning and value to their life and everything within it according to the worldview. The world view is commonly shared and expressed in everything the people think, feel and do. If we consider language as a set of conventionalized patterns of meaning (grammar) encoded in words, syntax, and semantics, then, an analysis ofthe linguistic patterns in a language should allow us to reconstruct the underlying “meaning structure” and the world view of the people who belong to the same culture. The grammar of a language is indeed the grammar of culture which is internalized by the people and expressed in conventionalized linguistic patterns. In this sense, language is the DNA of a culture. By understanding the underlying meaning of the language, we can understand the meaning of a culture. There is a symbiotic relationship between language and culture. They sustain each other’s existence. Change in one is reflected in the other. Language is transferred from one generation to the next, and provides a road map, a set of linguistic/cultural categories with which to analyse and synthesize the world around and understand the meaning of it. These categories influence the way the people think, act and interact in the world. Through the analysis of linguistic categories, a culture’s identity can be reconstructed.

We can ask a question, “What indeed are the cultural categories which define Indian culture?” There have been and there will be many answers to this question-ranging from Indian food, dress, languages, diversity of religions, music, art, etc. I am looking into one category, which I believe, is deeply embedded into the Indian psyche and marks Indian-ness. I describe Indian culture as “Happen culture.” What this means is that the people in India divide their experiences and actions into two categories, those which they perceive as the results of their own actions, and the other which happen to them (without their effort). The former can be called intentional and the latter unintentional actions or experiences. There are actions over which they believe, they have control and then there are actions which they believe, are beyond their control. Furthermore, the Indians believe that the events and experiences they value most in life “happen” to them as opposed to those which are caused by their own intentions/actions. Those actions /experiences/events are unintentional, and human beings do not have any control over them. Human beings are recipients and not actors in those events! This assumption about Indian culture is supported by even a cursory look at the structures of Indian languages. For example, it is believed in the Indian culture that birth, love, friendship, marriage and death “happen” to people. Examples of this are many. In Hindi, the verbs which express unintentional acts are: shaadii honaa, for “marriage to happen”, janam hona,for “birth to happen”, mrityu honaa, for “death to happen”, pyaar honaa, for “love to happen” etc. These are perceived as unintended events/acts/ relations which should happen naturally as the wind blows, the sun shines and it rains. Human beings do not control them. These experiences (which happen) have a special aesthetic texture when they are not intentionally sought! However, similar to English, Indian languages also have parallel verbs which express intention. For example, shaadi karanaa “to marry”, janam denaa, “to give birth”, pyaar karnaa, “to love”. While in the first set of verbs the supporting verb is honaa “to happen” which expresses an unintentional act/event’, the second set of verbs have karnaa “to do” and denaa “to give” as supporting verbs which express intentionality. While the use of the verbs which express intentionality in the above contexts are not ungrammatical, the use of the verb honaa is preferred since their unintentional occurrence is viewed as natural and is valued more! Thus merii shadii huii “my marriage happened” and maine shaadii kii “I got married, (literally, “I did the marriage”) do not express the same meaning.

There are many more pieces of evidence which show beyond doubt that Indians believe that most of the basic experiences in life “happen” to them! For example, the set of “experience- verbs” in Indian languages indicate that the subject of the verbs is the recipient of the experiences expressed by the verb. People “receive” those experiences, they “happen” to people or they “come” to people; people do not intentionally seek them out. For example, human beings “receive” aanand “joy”, dukh “pain”, which is indicated by the Hindi verbs aanand milnaa (also, khushii honaa) “to receive joy” (“joy happens”), dukh milnaa “to receive pain” (dukh honaa) . Similarly, in Marathi, aananda hone “for happiness to happen” or duhkha hone “for pain to happen.” These “received” experiences have a different cultural accent, feel, and quality in contrast to those which are performed/done intentionally. For example, compare the two sentences-one with honaa (Hindi) “happen” as opposed to the one with karnaa “do.” Usko khushii huii, “he became happy (literally, “joy happened to him”, as opposed to maine usko khush kiyaa (Hindi), “I made him happy.” The first sentence with honaa “happen” refers to the state of happiness of the person (without referring to the agent/agency responsible for the state) while the second sentence with karnaa “do” explicitly refers to the agent “I” who is responsible for the resulting state of happiness and, the speaker takes credit for causing it! The difference between the two is of perception. The use of the verb honaadownplays the agency of any particular agent while the verb karnaa clearly indicates it. This phenomenon is very common in Indian languages. The verb yaad aanaa (literally, “for the memory to come”) “to remember unintentionally” expresses unintentional act of remembering while yaad karnaa (literally, “to do memory”) expresses the conscious/intentional act of remembering. To say, ”tum mujhe bahut yaad aate ho” “I miss you a lot”), with the verb yaad aanaa implies that the memory “comes” without any conscious effort on the part of the one who remembers. In contrast to this, a statement such as, main tumhen bahut yaad kartaa huun expresses intentional remembering. Therefore, it is best translated as, “I think about you a lot”. This assumption is supported by a very simple sentence in Hindi (with the verb yaad aanaa “for the memory to come) which clearly indicates lack of intention of the speaker in the action! Main tumhen bhuulane kii bahut koshiish karataa huun, phir bhii tum bahut yaad aate ho! “Even if I try hard to forget you I remember you (literally, your memory keeps coming to me).”

To say that something “happens” is to acknowledge that there are other agencies beyond the obvious actor/agent which are also instrumental in bringing about the result. Implicit in this acknowledgement is the perception that this is an interconnected universe where nothing happens independently of other existences. An event is a result of many visible and invisible forces, energies or agencies working together! The use of honaa in usko khushii huii, “happiness happened to him”, places the event at the same level as baarish huii “the rain happened”, where many forces such as evaporation of water and then condensation of it and the right temperature, are implicitly accepted as causal forces. Thus “honaa” does not deny agency per se but rather the agency of a singular agent with the exclusion of other possible causal forces. In contrast to this, the use of karnaa “do” indicates the speaker’s claim to the result to the exclusion of other possible causal forces! A striking contrast to this vision of the world is the view in the culture in the US. While in India the “babies happen” in the US, it is a fine statement, “we are starting the family soon” (a euphemism for having babies) or in the modern US culture, a husband can ask his wife, “do you want to make babies?(Are you ready to have children?)” Also, if one gets injured, in India, the normal question is, “what happened?” while in the US, the question, “what did you do?” is perfectly fine! The former implies the lack of control over event while the later implies control.

To the Indian mind, “happen” is natural, “do/make” is intentional and therefore, not valued as much as that which happens naturally! Indian culture celebrates un-intentionality, and downplays agency of the human subject even when it is clear that the event would not have happened without human action! If someone says, “This is indeed a great achievement, congratulations!” The normal and traditional answer is not “thank you” but rather, “aapkii dayaa hai”. (it is your kindness!) or “it’s god’s grace” (Bhagawan kii kripaa hai). Downgrading one’s agency is viewed as polite and dignified! In Hindi, when someone asks, “kyaa aap meraa itnaa kaam kar denge?” (Would you do this work for me?). A fine answer is “haan, kaam ho jaaegaa.” (Yes, the work will happen) where one’s agency is downplayed. Not attributing agency to oneself is viewed as a sign of humility and politeness in this culture. Some expressions in Hindi such as khaanaa ban gayaa hai), “ food is cooked,” kapde dhule hain “Clothes are washed”, do not mention any agency of the actions of cooking and washing respectively, but rather, refer to the product of the actions. The verbs used here, banana, “to be cooked,” and dhulnaa “to be washed” are intransitive and so do not express any agency explicitly.

I suggest that not claiming credit for the result of one’s desired actions is the consequence of accepting a larger network of agencies beyond oneself which is responsible for anything that happens in the world! Can we take credit for the rain? For the spring flowers? For the sunsets? One of the most profound categories which marks Indian culture (forthcoming 2013) and is related to the category of unintentionality, is rita literally, “thus gone-the course which everything takes in the universe“ “cosmic order.” The belief in ritadates back to the Vedic period (2000-3000 BCE). Implicit in rita is the belief that the universe with its infinite forms goes through the course indefinitely according to the laws of nature. Everything in the universe happens according to these laws. No one controls rita. Nothing can transgress rita. The animate as well as the inanimate existences must exist and operate according to rita. The rivers flow, the sun rises, the wind blows, the rain pours according to rita. Embedded in this belief is the belief that we do not control actions in the ultimate sense. We perform actions because we must since that is human nature! That is rita. But the result of the actions is not guaranteed! Result is the consequence of many forces operating simultaneously and finally, it is rita! Krishna’s advice to Arjuna is relevant to understand this view of “non-control,” where Krishna tells Arjuna that his control and right is only on the actions but not on the results of them, “karmanyevaadhikaaraste maa phaleshu kadaachana” (Bhagavadgita 2;47-details forthcoming 2013). The Bhagavadgita is one of the most poignant scripture of Indian culture where this category of “happen-ness” of events is very strongly emphasized!

The discussion here raises many questions regarding the moral and ethical responsibility, the duty of human beings and the role of human beings in the world! If all is predisposed, predetermined, is there any need to act at all? If the result of actions is due to many forces other than the actor, why should we assume responsibility for the actions we perform? Does the culture promote inaction and lack of responsibility? Are these not the questions which Arjuna had asked Krishna? At this point I will close the discussion with Krishna’s answer, ahamkaaravimuudhatmaa kartaa iti manyate, “deluded by egoism a man says,” I am the doer.” (Bhagavadgita 3:27). The point is, in this culture, assuming full agency for the result of an action is not considered polite but rather an expression of egoism!

I will take up this discussion in the next article.

*An earlier version of this paper was presented at the International conference on “Language and Culture held at IIT Hyderabad, February 7-8 2013.