Kabir Chowdhury (National Professor, Bangladesh)
The concept of culture can hardly be encapsulated in a brief, neat and comprehensive definition. The multiplexity of culture is truly mindboggling. Culture is a loaded word carrying different meanings and overtones for different persons. It has been variously defined and interpreted by different people. One thing, though, is clear. The concept of culture has not remained static. It has often changed and with the passage of time acquired new dimensions. At one time and at one stage of history culture was much too closely associated with blood, heredity and race. Adolf Hitler considered the blue-eyed, white skinned people of the Nordic race as the most cultured people on earth. Others considered geography, physical nature, climate and environment especially important in shaping the culture of the people of a particular land. However, environmentalists erred in one respect. They did not pay enough attention to the fact that not merely racial characteristics or physical environmental factors but social customs, religious beliefs, means of earning one's livelihood etc also played a very important part in shaping the culture of a people.
Now we do not view culture from a narrow perspective. Now when we talk of culture we take the extended meaning given to it by sociologists, anthropologists, psychologists, behavioural scientists and scholars of several other disciplines. By culture we now mean the total way of life of a people, their eating and drinking habits, the modes of earning their livelihood, their language and literature, music, dance and art-works, their religious faith and practices, the way they tend their sick and the old, the way they treat their women and children, christen their new-born and bury their dead, all go to make up the culture of a people.
Of the various and multiple elements of culture which particular one will play the predominant role at a given point of time will depend on the configuration of many factors, historical, political, economic etc. For example, in the case of Bangladesh in 1948 and in 1952 the cultural component enshrined in the Bengali language played a crucial role. The love of the Bengali-speaking people for their mother tongue with their strong attachment to this element of their culture not only provided them with the raison-d-etre and the motive force for resisting the domination of Pakistani cultural, political and economic neo-colonialists but also considerably helped in the flowering and consolidation of Bengali nationalism in their psyche.
Apropos of the difficulty of precisely defining culture let me quote Raymond Williams who says: "Culture is one of the two or three most complicated words in the English language. This is so partly because of its intricate historical development, in several European languages, but mainly because it has now come to be used for important concepts in several distinct intellectual disciplines and in several distinct and incompatible systems of thought". The complexity of culture is further complicated when we realize that it is never static, either as a concept or as a fact. There is another difficulty.
Can culture be ever fully known? According to Raymond Williams: "A culture, while it is being lived, is always in part unknown, in part unrealized. The making of a community is always an exploration, for consciousness cannot precede creation, and there is no formula for unknown experience. A good community, a living culture, will, because of this, not only make room for but actively encourage all and any who contribute to the advance in consciousness which is the common need".
I consider the above observation of Williams extremely important. What we are all deeply interested in is the advance in consciousness. Only thus can we move forward to building a one world, an international civil society. And an unbiased study of culture both as a concept and as a fact has the potential to fuel that journey.
At this stage of my talk let me say one thing. Notwithstanding the difficulties of fully comprehending culture as a concept we know quite well what an ordinary person means by a man of culture. By and large he will call someone a man of culture if he is educated, well-read, well-mannered, if he appreciates music, painting, theater-arts etc., if he never or rarely loses his temper etc. etc. A learned man,an erudite scholar, is not necessarily a man of culture. One can be a very distinguished scholar and yet remain a boor. And boorishness is antithetical to culture. Knowledge is not culture. Tagore once said in his inimitable way that knowledge was like a stone. It had weight. Culture was the radiance that emanated therefrom when light fell on it. Culture gave light but had no weight. Mathew Arnold, the English Victorian writer, also emphasized the elements of sweetness and light while discussing the subject of culture.
This view of culture is all right as far as it goes, but it does not help us much in conceptualising culture as a tool for enhancing our consciousness referred to earlier. Hence the need to explore more.
In conceptualising culture sociologists, anthropologists, and litterateurs have used many metaphors, such as culture as law, as philosophical proposition, as language, as drama and so on, but each metaphor has its limitations from an ethnographic viewpoint. Ethnography has been defined as a branch of anthropology dealing with the scientific description of individual cultures. Even now after extensive researches in various cultures many scholars of other disciplines consider the concept of culture as outdated, as something representing the unexplained residium of laborious and carefully conducted empirical analyses. But this is not correct. For some time past, specially during the last quarter century, quite sophisticated conceptions of culture have been put forward by various scholars, particularly in the field of anthropology, and they have been found most useful by ethnographic researchers.
The ethnographic view of culture helps us to understand both social processes and the development of the individual person. This view leads us to define culture as a shared organisation of ideas that includes the intellectual, moral and aesthetic standards prevalent in a community. We can see the similarity of this approach with the particular view about the nature of culture which takes into consideration culture both as accumulated and shared knowledge and as constructed reality.
It is important for a student of culture to recognize the collective nature of culture. He must see that culture represents a consensus on a wide variety of meanings among members of an interacting community. For example, in the matter of language a broad consensus exists beyond any dispute or controversy among the members of a speech community. Each individual of that community may speak somewhat differently, as indeed they often do, but the speakers of a given language have no difficulty in understanding each other on their first meeting, though they cannot understand speech in other languages unless they had been exposed to them earlier. This happens because there is a remarkable consensus about the rules of the language concerned, such as pronunciation, syntax etc in the relevant community. What holds good for language holds good for culture, too. As a matter of fact language is a very important part of culture. As we the Bengalees know very well.
Because of the collective nature of culture there is a consensus in a community about the meanings of symbols, both verbal and nonverbal, and that consensus is substantively related to the importance of communication in social life. Moving one's head sidewise in a certain community means ‘no’ while in another community means exactly the opposite, that is 'yes'. One can think of other nonverbal symbolic actions, such as rubbing noses as a gesture of greeting, touching an elder's feet as a way of paying respect, repeatedly bowing as a courteous acknowledgment of greeting or taking leave, shaking hands and then placing the right hand on one’s bosom etc.
Besides its collective nature, we should keep in mind another fundamental property of culture, It is the organised nature of culture. At one time American empiricist anthropology viewed culture as independent and separate traits cutting across societies, which coincided only in particular historical circumstances. But that view is no longer accepted. Now customs are not viewed as discrete traits detached from others. Not only the communication connections of a people but also their version of common sense, the framework of ideas from which they view and act upon the world, the organised set of contexts from which customary practices derive their meaning are of the greatest importance.
Today we view culture more as an organisation of ideas than an aggregate or conglomeration of independent traits. If we can understand the organisational contexts in which the members of a particular society act in a particular way it will be easier for us to find sense in the customs followed by members of that particular community. And, undoubtedly, it will promote international understanding and good will.
Another factor that contributes to the multiplexity of culture lies in the integration of rational and nonrational elements in the ideologies and beliefs of the people of a given society. There is a combination of what is and what ought to be. Both play a role in creating a culture. In the case of what is, the rational approach is all right. This we can call models of reality where we find descriptive statement of what is. In the case of what ought to be, the rational approach has severe limitations. This we may call models for reality, that is, a normative statement of what ought to be. The fusion of what is and what ought to be gives distinctive cultural ideologies their singular psychological power and their intimate linkages with individual emotion and motivation.
In talking about culture we should also focus our attention on its variability across human populations. The concept of the person varies cross-culturally. We arc all aware of the diversity of human understandings. But how should we understand the understandings of other persons and compare those understandings with ours?
Anthropologists have generally relied on three interpretive models for making understandable the diversity of human understanding. These models can be referred to as universalistic, evolutionary and relativistic. The universalists consider the intellectual diversity among peoples as more apparent than real. They tend to minimise cultural variability. According to them the differences are only on the surface. In their view other people, in spite of their apparently exotic idea systems, are more like our own than they initially seem to be. The universalist emphasizes homogeneity. The evolutionist on the other hand considers that the alien systems of other people are truly different from our own. They think that they are not only different but also are at a less developed stage than ours. They are in favour of hierarchy and ranking. Relativists, however, consider that the alien idea systems, though different from our own, have an internal coherence which can be understood. They do not approve of ranking and making a judgment. They opt for pluralism. They accept diversity but emphasize equality.
In studying cultures if we keep in mind the concept of the person varying cross-culturally and avoid dogmatism and the tendency of making sweeping generalisations with no reference to contexts we may avoid many wrong conclusions that we often make.
There is no scope of taking a dogmatic position in the study of culture. We have to realize that different peoples started from different positions. Historical, social and political circumstances of different peoples contributed to the particular growth and development of their culture. In comprehending the culture of a people, therefore, we must keep in mind their starting position which is often very different from others.
No people, however primitive, is without culture. It is impossible for an individual to live without culture. In order to understand or study culture we must make various approaches and not a unilateral one. For example, we can look at culture descriptively.
In other words, we can simply talk about the differences in material culture by describing the different tools in making different things. This is a valid approach, but not the only one, not even the most important one. Again, we can look at certain social institutions like marriage, burial rituals, child rearing practices, manner of praying etc. But as we suggested earlier, culture does not consist only of certain traits and elements. More importantly, it is their organisation and interrelationships that give it flesh and blood, bone and marrow.
We know that religion, nationality and language are important aspects of culture. Their interrelationship, however, is not the same everywhere. In the case of Bangladesh we know from our practical experience how they interacted and how language surfaced as the prime element, and the motivating and cohesive force in the growth and consolidation of our nationalism. Another thing. Cultures should be studied as wholes and not as isolated segments. Considered out of its social or cultural context no custom, belief or behavior can be correctly understood. Unless we view an item of behavior, a tradition or pattern in the light of its meaning to the people concerned and its relationship to other elements of the culture our assessment is bound to be wrong.
Another problem that the term culture brings up lies in the fact that culture has a sense as process as well as elements of shared knowledge. These two aspects of the term as a process and as shared knowledge at a given time could coexist neatly, but sometimes they do not. As a process culture is, in part, what is passed on through learning to succeeding generations, but certain things are learned and shared which most anthropologists would not consider culture.
Referring to the complexity involved in dealing with culture Clifford Geertz says, “The elements of culture are not like a spider’s web. It’s more like an octopus, a rather badly integrated creature; what passes for a brain keeps it together, more or less, in one ungainly whole”. However, he goes on to add that as anthropologists they must search for as much coherence and connections as they can find.
Culture, it is now universally acknowledged, is both acquired and learned. Some aspects of culture are acquired interactively, through tradition and environment, by way of the collective unconscious of a people, while others are learned through deliberate and conscious efforts. Each culture features a set of roles that are followed by individuals in each generation and then passed on to the next. These individuals may be mothers, teachers, friends who are widely revered and loved. We know this, yet we really know very little about how a mother or a teacher or a friend, for that matter any position that commands respect and appreciation, learns to be a mother or a teacher or a friend. We do not have a theory of the acquisition of culture, though the desirability of having such a theory is obvious.
Howard Gardner, recognizing the need for developing a theory of culture acquisition has attempted to do so. At the outset he has made some basic assumptions. Culture, according to Gardner, should not be approached as an indivisible whole. It should be seen as divided into several discrete domains. The domain approach assumes that initially the young organism within the society has a very limited and imperfect competence within the domain, but after being exposed to examples of cultural competence in others and perhaps after getting some explicit training the young child acquires successively higher degrees of skill. Chomsky, however, believes that the acquisition of various competences is largely a genetically determined process, while there are others who believe that a competence is essentially a learned process. There are others, again, who favor an intrinsically interactive approach.
The interactive approach is particularly favored by developmental psychologists. Gardner feels that in spite of these divergent points of view it is desirable and possible to develop a theory of acquisition of culture. He suggests that in order to do so we should look at culture from different perspectives or vantage points, two of which arc diametrically opposed to each other. One view looks at culture as whole with its domains, beliefs and values, the historical and geographical unit providing the agenda of what needs to be acquired by individuals within the culture. The other view emphasizes the individual, who equipped with his genetic inheritance and various psychological mechanisms will achieve in time the competencies that are essential or desirable within his culture. A third view explores the symbol systems within the culture, such as forms of dress, dance, salutation etc. To be a competent member of the culture the individual must become facile in appreciating such symbol systems and their structures. A fourth vantage point in approaching culture is centred on the various loci and models of transmission of cultural competence. There are institutions devised by the culture where younger members of the society are exposed to various models of culture and given the opportunity to attain the required competences.
Of the four aspects involved in the acquisition of culture Gardner draws attention to three different realms. Firstly, there is the physical world that is the world of clement and natural objects. Secondly, the man-made world, that is the world of tools and equipments, of artifacts, and also of ideas propagated by man. Thirdly, the social world, that is members of one's family, one's community and finally the people of the rest of the world.
Before winding up the discourse on culture 1 must say a few words with regard to folk culture which has been receiving the attention of anthropologists, sociologists, linguists, litterateurs, archeologists and scholars of some other fields for nearly two hundred years, and yet controversies still rage over what really constitutes folk culture, what really is folklore, what is the importance of folk literature and various other issues related to folkloristics.
Nevertheless, folk culture, fostered by the unanimous people at the dawn of civilization, is now considered an essential clement of the superstructure of culture. Folk culture with its multiple forms like folk dance, folk music, folk tales, folk drama, folk art, riddles, proverbs, folk games, folk beliefs and folk science has continued to survive in spite of the phenomenal growth of city-based urban culture. As a matter of fact, folk culture has percolated into urban culture in innumerable ways, sometimes consciously, sometimes unconsciously, sometimes in a positive way injecting new vigour into and enriching the urban culture, sometimes in not so positive a way, making the interaction dysfunctional rather than functional. Now one can hope, with reason, that folk culture will continue to flow through the class-divided societies of today's world towards a higher superstructure of culture of the unanimous people of the future, continually reshaping itself with new experiences and contributing at every stage of the development of societies. Folk culture should not be considered in dichotomous terms as the culture of the civilized-uncivilized, or literate-illiterate, or metropolitan-rural. The study of folk culture is not simply the study of primitive culture or of the culture of simple or indigenous people living in hilly or forest region, away from the industrialised urban centers. Truly speaking, we should look at folk culture as the main driving force for the building of the culture of the completely exploitation-free society of the future. Let me quote at this point an illuminating observation made by the famous Indologist and scholar of folklorislics, Professor Dr. Heinz Mode, in his book Highway and Byway. Dr. Mode says, “Folk culture is the Highway of culture, beginning in the distant past, prehistoric, unanimous society and continuing right up to the present. The recognition of folk culture is marred during historical periods of class divided society. That society offers the main view of a much refined but historically limited culture, which does not cover the entire aspect of the culture of a people. The continuity of folk culture within such periods can be detected mainly by indirect methods, conclusions being drawn as well from the later development of folk culture, as also from its basic impact on contemporary general culture, which in its main aspect is the culture of the ruling classes. In the further advance of human society folk culture is bound to be the culture of an unanimous society again, on a higher and far more developed level, enlarged and enriched by the whole series of the development of civilization. The Highway of folk culture is not identical with the contiguity of religious creeds. Religion may add to the humanitarian values of cultures in various ways during periods of class divided society but it may as well do damages to cultural development and even oppose its advance. It is the scale of humanitarian values to which religion may or may not add its contribution. Thus folk culture is nothing else than human emancipation which originates from locally limited areas, goes the ever-broadening highway of increase in quantity, to evolve the new quality of an unanimous folk culture”. Almost in a similar vein, but embracing the present along with the past, Russian folklore scholar Sokoloff said in his book Russian Folklore, “Folklore is an echo of the past, but it is also the vigorous voice of the present.”
The folk culture of Bangladesh is rich and varied. It is a vital, living force in the flowering of the total culture of Bangladesh. It is particularly rich in the domain of folk literature. Folk songs and ballads of Bangladesh have perceptively influenced many Bengali poets, lyricists and playwrights, including the Nobel Laureate Rabindra Nath Tagore and the Rebel Poet Kazi Nazrul Islam.
While speaking of folk culture it is important to realize that in spite of its being rooted in the beliefs and traditions of a remote past it is not static or automatically backward looking. It undergoes inevitable changes with time because of the changes that take place in the world around the rural people. The creations nurtured and brought to life by folk artists undergo changes due to spread of education, growth of cities, impact of radio, television etc., and the interaction of rural and urban culture. Rural people imbibe new ideas, develop new tastes and they are reflected in the creations of folk artists, poets, singers, potters, scroll-painters, weavers of embroidered quilts, doll-makers etc. Their creations acquire a new flavor. And instead of being the creations of a clan or a close-knit society they increasingly tend to reflect the aspirations of one or more individuals. Again, because of the changes in the tastes of the clients of the creations of folk artists changes take place in the various creations of the latter. The economic factor cannot be ignored or dispensed with. This may not necessarily be regrettable. Healthy adaptation and creative assimilation are not bad. However, any authoritarian imposition on folk culture by the more dominant culture of the industrialised city based culture in the name of improving and refining the former, or on the plea of the unavoidable impact of science and technology and the irresistible globalisation process should not be permitted or tolerated. For one thing, who is to decide what is low or crude or vulgar and needs to be improved and refined? What is the criterion for making such value judgments? What is the context?
This brings us to the important question of the aesthetics of folk culture. We should realise at the outset that folk culture has its own aesthetics, which is not the same as that of the sophisticated city based culture. Marx and Engels at one time, and later Leo Tolstoy, made significant contribution toward building a theory of the aesthetics of the people, different and distinguished from the aesthetics of society's privileged upper classes. However, no universally accepted aesthetic of folk culture as a theoretical formulation has yet been evolved. One fact has become clear, though, by now. Folk culture and its creations demand an aesthetic standard different from that of the industrial-urban culture. Unless we keep this in mind and constantly remind ourselves of the autonomy of folk culture and its aesthetic and if we try, instead, to apply to it in a wholesale fashion the aesthetic standard of urban culture we shall be doing gross injustice to folk culture. We have to realize that folk creations are never devoted to creating beauty alone in the abstract. They are always related, in one way or another, to the living circumstance of life, to utility, to functions. While catering in some ways to the utilitarian needs of life folk artists endow their creations with beauty, grace, charm, humour and joy.
It is the focus on life and its real needs, combined with a feeling for beauty and a sense of joy, that gives vitality to folk culture and enables it to survive through all the vicissitudes of time and circumstances, albeit with modifications. Before concluding my discourse on folk culture and its aesthetic let me draw your attention again to the importance of context in folk tales, folk songs folk plays and ballads. Judged out of context something may appear crude, even vulgar in a folk creation, but viewed in the context of the particular situation or mood it may strike one as not only appropriate and acceptable but also aesthetically satisfying. The text is, of course important, but without the context it often remains lifeless.
Religion may be viewed as an element of culture. Unlike culture it is not a very complex concept. Nonetheless, different people mean different things by religion and controversy over it has raged through the ages. Religion is said to exert an ennobling influence on people. This is very largely true, but it is also true that many bitter and bloody wars have been fought between the followers of one religion and those of another from the middle ages right up to our own time.
Considered conventionally, the way most people do, the major religions of the world today are Islam, Christianity, Hinduism, Buddhism and Judaism. But there are quite a few sects and subdivisions among them. For example, among the Muslims there are Shias, Sunnis and Ahmedias; among the Christians there are Catholics and Protestants. Besides, we have Sikhs, Bahais, Parsees and other small communities who have their own religions, deities, religious practices and life styles.
All religions emphasize peace, love, fellow-feeling and other virtues aimed at making man’s stay on earth happy and joyful. If we consider the lives and teachings of Prophet Mohammad, Jesus Christ or Goutama Buddha our attention is unmistakably drawn to the beneficial role of religion. But what many of us find upsetting is the devaluation, deemphasis, even distortion of the basic, practical, humanistic teachings of religion and the overemphasis on the observance of the forma! rituals of religion. The concentration on the mechanical observance of rituals, throwing to the wind the essential values of all religions like tolerance, love, truthfulness, charity etc., has led to the growth of fundamentalism. There is little of true religion in a fundamentalist's attitude and action. Fundamentalism thrives on bigotry, superstition, intolerance and violence. It paves the way for communal strifes. Over a hundred years ago Swami Vivekananda in his famous address delivered at the Parliament of Religions held in Chicago in I893 had said, "Sectarianism, bigotry, and its horrible descendant, fanaticism, have long possessed this beautiful earth. They have filled the earth with violence, drenched it often with human blood, destroyed civilization, and sent whole nations to despair. Had it not been for these horrible demons human society would be far more advanced than it is now”.
Vivekananda hoped that the bell that tolled that morning on September I1, 1893 in Chicago in honour of the religious convention would be the death-knell of all fanaticism, of all persecutions with the sword or with the pen, and of all uncharitable feelings between persons winding their way to the same goal. We recall instances galore of religious fanaticism, religious wars, and persecutions in the name of religion. The cases of Socrates, Bruno, Copernicus, Galileo, among others, come to our mind. We remember the Crusades, and the thirty years war between the Catholics and the Protestants in the seventeenth century Europe. Vivekananda in 1893 hoped that man had left such savagery behind, but he was sadly mistaken. On the concluding day of the convention he said, “If the Parliament of Religions has shown anything to the world it is this: It has proved to the world that holiness, purity and charity are not the exclusive possessions of any church in the world, and that every system has produced men and women of the most exalted character. In the face of this evidence, if anybody dreams of the exclusive survival of his own religion and the destruction of the others, I pity him from the bottom of the heart, and point out to him that upon the banner of every religion will soon be written, in spite of resistance, ‘Help and not Fight’, ‘Assimilation and not Destruction, Harmony and Peace and not Dissension”. Unfortunately, his vision did not materialise.
In 20th century in spite of the tremendous advance in science and technology religious fanaticism persisted in many societies in many countries. Nobel Laureate poet Rabindra Nath Tagore was greatly pained by the communal disturbances in India fanned by religious fanatics. In a letter written at the age of seventy he revealed his disgust at these occurrences. He said, "No spiritual lifeblood flows in any communal religion today. Rituals, customs, institutional practices and creeds of an age-long past are the props on which religious communities are still kept standing somehow. But all this is an imposition of the past on the present, holding back the current of history and practically reversing its course; communal religions are definitely remnants of the past”.
In 1926 Tagore saw with his own eyes the horror that religion could unleash. Upset by the sight of the communal carnage of 1926 he wrote despairingly to Pramatha Chowdhury, “I do not see where the solution of the Hindu-Muslim problem lies. No problem can be solved by riots. There is no way out except that genuine education which will radically cure all religious fanaticism”. A few days later in an address delivered in Santiniketan the poet said, "We pride ourselves on having made religion the basic principle of our life, and so we see that brutality in the name of religion is widespread in this country. In the name of God Hindus and Muslims are killing each other like ferocious beasts. Straightforward rejection of all distortions of religion is far better than this blind and horrifying attachment to religion ---. Apart from burning down all religious perversions in the fire of atheism and making a fresh start --1 do not see any other solution."
This may sound strange coming from Tagore who was a deeply religious man. But we must remember that his was the Religion of Man. He had emphasized again and again in his life time that what was known from the outside as a man's religion was only the religion of the community he happened to have been born in.
He once said, “I cannot say that what is commonly called religion ever assumed any clear-cut well-defined form in my mental development. But I often feel that something very much more alive is gradually taking shape in my mind. It is not a definite creed or faith; rather it is a profound awareness, a new insight. What the scriptures say is often out of tune with what I feel ... In fact, scriptural religion hardly means anything to me”. Tagore asserted that man was defeated when the authority inside him, his sovereign heart, was curbed and diminished -- curbed and diminished by the externals of religion, by custom, by tradition, by scripture, by mere form and ritual.
This is not to say that religion cannot ennoble and enrich a man's heart. Religion is often a great reservoir from which a man gathers strength and sustenance that helps him bravely to face the storms and stresses of life. However, religion plays this role only when a man penetrates its outer trappings and reaches its inner core. If and when a man is enamoured of and enslaved by religion's rituals it no longer serves a positive role in a man's life. Then it becomes a drag rather than a help. Instead of expanding the horizon of a man's mind it then narrows it. Overemphasis on the ritualistic aspects of religion, ignoring its basic universal truths, tarnishes a man's heart, robs religion of its power to do good, encourages fanaticism and backward-looking obscurantist attitudes, and brings to the fore the dysfunctions of religion. There is little merit in reciting, parrot-like, some verses from a holy book unless one's heart is illuminated by the glow of their meaning and implication in one's daily life. In fact in such circumstances religion enchains rather than liberates man's heart. One final quotation from Tagore in this context. In one of his letters he wrote. "When the mind is obsessed by the belief that a particular set of words has supernatural power then it does not like to rise above those words. Then his intellect bids him goodbye and he falls into the trap of mere utterances.... Where holy words go astray in this fashion man's misery is inevitable.... Ideas always crave forms, but if forms throttle ideas and want to reign supreme then, by God's stern decree, they are sure to disintegrate and die".
Kazi Nazrul Islam, the great rebel poet of Bengali literature, also voiced similar ideas in many of his poems, songs and essays. When Nazrul saw religion turned into a tool of exploitation by false priests and hypocritical devotees he lashed out at them in his inimitable fashion without mincing words. We recall his famous lines:
"Friends, hammer away at the closed doors of these mosques and temples and hit with your shovel mightily. For, climbing on their minarets the cheat today glorify selfishness and hypocrisy."
Nazrul rightly felt that what needed to be glorified were not rituals or the outer trappings of religion. Instead, one should glorify the human heart and proclaim its autonomy and supremacy. Nazrul unequivocally proclaimed the supremacy of the heart in ringing words:
"Listen, your heart is the shrine of all gods.
Why should you then wander in search of saints and hermits
Or bow your head over the carcass of dead scriptures?
My words, comrade, are not false.
Princes bow down before this temple, this heart.
It is the sublimest shrine of all.
It is Benares, Mathura, Vrindavana, Bodh-Gaya, Jerusalem,
It is Medina and the Kaaba, whatever you call.
There is no greater temple than this heart of man."
In a similar vein Thomas Paine had asserted over two hundred years ago that he placed no faith on any religion preached by any organised religious establishment, be it Jewish, Roman, Greek, Christian or Muslim. All the organs and institutions of established religious organisations, he felt, only terrorised and enchained the human race. He thought that they were mere inventions of man so that the religious coterie could exercise power and obtain maximum advantage by exploiting simple common people. Paine clearly said that his own heart was his church.
In the Indo-Pak-Bangladesh subcontinent the non-communal, secular and humanistic aspect of religion held sway in the minds of the people for a long period of time. Great men,saints and poets like Guru Nanak, Kabir, Tukaram, Mira Bai, Sheikh Farid, Sri Chaitanya, Lalon Shah and innumerable Sufis and Bauls propounded the concept of a loving God. By their words and deeds they laid the greatest emphasis on service to mankind.
However, the situation changed in course of time due to a number of sociopolitical reasons. Many individuals and groups now use religion for purely selfish purposes. During, the liberation war of Bangladesh in 1971 indescribable atrocities took place in the name of religion. Muslim freedom fighters of Bangladesh were branded kafirs, infidels, by Muslim soldiers of the Pakistani occupation army and mercilessly butchered. It was only natural that when Bangladesh emerged as an independent nation-state in December 1971 it would try to banish religious fanaticism for good. With a view to that the Constitution of the newly liberated country adopted in 1972 categorically mentioned secularism as one of the four pillars of the State, the other three being democracy, socialism and nationalism. But after the killing of the Father of the nation, Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, by counterrevolutionary reactionary forces secularism was dropped from the constitution. Fundamentalism had a field day. Religion was blatantly made a tool of politics and state power.
Religious fanatics, whether Jamat-i-lslami in Bangladesh, Siva Sena or Viswa Hindu Parishad in India, their Musim, Jewish or Christian varieties in Europe or Asia, are threats to peace, progress and stability. These people do not love religion but make use of it to achieve their fascist goals. Not harmony but dissension, not peace but violence, not love but hatred is their goal. In Bangladesh the evil that fundamentalists like Ghulam Azam, the former Chief of Jamat-i-Islam, and his camp followers like Nizami and Delwar Hossain Saidi perpetrated is known to all. In India men like Advani and Bal Thackeray played no less a vicious role.
Alas, how far backward we have travelled from the days of Akbar and Dara Shikoh, of the Sufis and Bauls and Vaishnavas, even of Gandhiji, Mounlana Abul Kalam Azad and Pundit Jawharlal Nehru.
But the picture is not all dark. Movements for resisting fundamentalism are gaining ground. Religion is being seen more and more as a private matter between an individual and his God. People are increasingly realising that all kinds of problems arise when the state or society as an organised force acts as a controlling body with powers to direct and oversee the performance of religious duties by an individual or a group of individuals. The progressive elements everywhere are trying to check the growth of fundamentalism, and promote tolerance, rationality, peace and universal humanism, in other words, the essence of true religion. The victory of these forces will place religion in its proper perspective and allow it to play freely its humanising, civilizing, liberalising role. Religion, then, will be able to become an important component of the culture of a people in a positive way.
Now I have to turn to the subject of civil society. Civil society has now become almost a household term. Many people talk about the need for building a civil society. As a term civil society is much less complex than either religion or culture. Nevertheless, not everybody means the same thing when he speaks of civil society. At one level there is nothing difficult about understanding what a civil society means. It is, clearly, a society not ruled by the military. It is a society where democracy prevails. But the concept of civil society embraces many other things.
Civil society, most importantly, refers to people, to people's movements, to people's initiatives and to people's participation. When we talk of democracy we generally think of certain institutions and certain principles and procedures of governance. We think of state machinery, of periodic elections, of parliaments where rules are framed and decisions taken about the running of a nation. This is all right as far as it goes. The problem is that it does not go far enough. In most South Asian countries democracy is not operating as it should. Large scale poverty and illiteracy among the people often make a mockery of free and fair elections. Money and muscle power interfere with the free choice of the individual. The result is the increasing empowerment of the state and not of the people in any real sense.
An attempt is now going on in many societies to redefine democracy not so much as a system of governance through free, fair elections and free market, but essentially as a system of self-governance by the people. This redefinition of democracy aims at the increasing empowerment of the people through the progressive decrease of the power of the state to interfere with and control the lives of individuals. In the now emerging view of democracy the concept of civil society is widening and the expectations from civil society are increasing. Civil society now must face the various crises in social order, such as erosion of moral values and breakdown of long accepted traditional paradigms of growth and development.
Civil society concept revolves around ordinary common people who are separated from the decision-making processes. It does not refer to those people who traditionally make and enforce decisions. It does not refer to the state or the market. Instead it refers to those who are subjected to the commands of the state and the market. It is an ideology, but it goes beyond an ideology. As an ideology it places trust on people's capacity to create and puts people before party and religion. It is committed to ensuring transparency in decision-making.
Above all, civil society refers to the individual who feels threatened today by the growing power of organized community-based religions, mass-media, political parties, bureaucracy and the market. Civil society refers to the individual, articulated in terms of individual freedoms, rights and responsibilities. Civil society creates conditions not only conducive to but also essential for the development of the individual, and the individual's development paves the way for the society's collective development.
Civil society movement in South Asia, particularly in Bangladesh, is being organized and led by cultural activists, students, teachers, journalists, feminists and NGOs. The base of civil society is being strengthened through organized programmes aimed at making the common people aware of their rights. A strong civil society makes it possible for the common people with common interests to unite beyond boundaries set by religion, culture, belief systems and societal norms.
At the heart of the civil society movement lies the question of empowerment of the common man. Power, basically, is the authority to make and enforce decisions. The state, through its various organs, plays this role. It is the politics of power, articulated in terms of decision-making capacity that determines the nature of the state and its capacity to serve the people. When the state largely leaves the common man outside the decision-making process and arrogates to itself the authority to take decisions the people are marginalised economically, politically and culturally.
Students and cultural activists in many parts of the world have played an important role in the development of civil society. We notice it in both pre-independent and post-independent Bangladesh.
Sometimes an identity crisis inhibits the growth of civil society. Taking advantage of such crisis military dictators and authoritarian rulers usurp power and destroy the possibility of the emergence of civil society. In Bangladesh the students and cultural activists greatly contributed to the resolution of the identity crisis of the citizens of this land. Overcoming the religious divide we now want to see ourselves as Bengalees first. Mr. Jinnah with his artificial two-nation theory had undercut the role of culture. Later in independent Bangladesh, after the killing of Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, the Father of the nation, counterrevolutionary reactionary forces preached the strange doctrine of Bangladeshi nationalism, which drew its ideological nourishment from Mr. Jinnah’s divisive two-nation theory. This had a negative effect on the growth of civil society as it tended to renew the question of identity. However, the people resisted this backward trend. The common people, especially students and cultural activists, have rejected the concept of Bangladeshi nationalism, although its proponents still persist in their attempt to impose it on the people through various devious means, specially by exciting religious sentiments. In order to build a viable civil society we have to organize the people outside the government, the bureaucracy and the parliament. We have to create independent platforms of the people, which can address specific problematic issues in society with clearsightedness and vigour, rising above political party or religious affiliation. The civil society movement is not an anti-state movement. It is not a movement that favours anarchism. It is a movement for creating a free space for the people to enable them to act in concert for the realisation of certain well-defined specific goals which include building of democratic institutions and instruments for empowerment of the people, alleviation of poverty, abolition of illiteracy, women's liberation and other agenda of this nature. Naturally civil society activists have to fight religions fanatics, cultural chauvinists, power-hungry military chiefs and civil bureaucrats and corrupt politicians. Building a civil society is a challenging task but it is achievable. Perhaps the actual power relations cannot be easily or very quickly changed, but Civil Society can help restructure them from within through collective and participatory people's action programmes. When rule of law, emancipation of women, freedom of expression, freedom from hunger and economic exploitation, ordinary common people's access to justice, coexistence of various ideologies without any conflict and responsible bureaucracy with definite accountability to the people prevail, above all, when people can effectively take part in the decision-making process at the grass root level we may say that a meaningful civil society is about to emerge.
Two things may be noted here: (a) the situation with regard to culture and civil society movements prevailing in the different countries of South Asia is largely similar; (b) culture in its broadest sense and the universal religion of man, not the formal religion of various communities, are the two most important components for building an effective civil society.