Culture, Civilisation, and Values

— Swami Vireshananda —

The evolution of human society from primitive tribes to modern civilisation makes an interesting study. It is also the history of material and intellectual progress of human beings, if not spiritual. Civilisational history is a testimony to the extraordinary perseverance of humans in struggling against nature—enduring untold hardships, encountering dangers at every moment, and striving relentlessly in improving the standard of both individual and social lives towards excellence in every sphere.

The history of civilisation is the history of evolving human aspirations and perennial endeavours to achieve them. It is also the story of human failures, miseries, and drawbacks leading to starvation, death, pandemic, and persecution of hundreds of thousands of people from the immemorial period. With all its positive and negative aspects, we find three prominent features that make up human evolution in history. These intertwining characteristics are Culture, Civilisation, and Values. These shape the quality and substance of every human being and also of society, which is the offshoot of the grouping of many individuals for certain common purposes under definite conditions. Also, they are the ingredients that have shaped the entire human history on earth.

These three factors operate in several milieus: History, Anthropology, Sociology, and Behavioural science. History has always been the story of the external expression of culture, civilisation, and values. Also, they are anthropologically significant being the accumulated traits gained through hundreds of years by genetic means along with other factors. They influence the role that an individual plays in society and also the structure and goal of a society created in a specific time and space. The attitude, behaviour, and psychological responses of people in a society to various situations in history depend upon the nature of culture, civilisation, and values prevailing then. This is the subject of study pertaining to behavioural sciences.


Culture is a way of life. Oxford Advanced Learner’s Dictionary defines culture as involving ‘customs and beliefs, art, way of life and social organizations of a particular country or group’. Will Durant in his Story of Civilization says that ‘culture will mean… either the practice of manners and the arts, or the sum-total of a people’s institutions, customs and arts’.1 Human nature is the chief factor in historical development. Anthropologically, physical evolution is the evolution of human culture. In relation to psychology, we find human behaviour and its variations form an important part of the culture. As such, the culture is such a behavioural pattern found common among a group of men and women, transmitted from generation to generation and takes the form of common customs, traditions, and the like. The common characteristics found in culture are shared among the members of a social organisation, a religion, group life, or an institution. Such social life strengthens the character of a person and develops in him or her new capabilities with innovative ideas and activities. Culture is also considered as ‘crystallised phase of man’s lifeactivities’, in which a human experiences pleasure in material objects and techniques.2

Culture can be classified into: 1. Physical culture, 2. Intellectual culture, and 3. Spiritual culture. Matthew Arnold, in this sense, calls ‘culture’ as ‘a study in perfection’ in which humans pursue perfection in these realms.3 Physical culture is that in which one finds precision in physical conditions including health, work one is engaged in, and the like. It also represents the modes and methods by which the human society has adjusted itself to the external environment. Intellectual culture is popularly called ‘the culture’, which signifies the excellence that humans have achieved in their intellectual and aesthetic pursuits. It is expressed in several ways including literary works, sculpture, fine art, drama, and the like, in which the ingenuity of the human intellect manifests with a high standard of finesse and precision.

However, the spiritual culture marks the ultimate achievement of a human being. Religion caters to the spiritual aspiration that is intrinsic in every person and provides the ambience and tools for spiritual advancement through which one finds the Truth behind all phenomena—internal as well as external. This realisation liberates one from the shackles of all limitations that cause suffering, and bestows eternal bliss and fulfilment through the knowledge of the Infinite. The term Sat-Cit-Ānanda, Existence-Consciousness-Bliss, is indicative of the supreme Reality, the realisation of which is the ultimate goal of spiritual culture.


There are three stages in the development of the human race: 1. Savage society, 2. Barbarian society, and 3. Civilised society. Savage means that which is wild, untamed, and primitive. It refers to an uncivilised group of people living in a forest. The term barbarian refers to a group of people who are less orderly or less civilised. The word barbarian is derived from the Greek bárbaros, used by the early Greeks to describe all foreigners, including the Romans. Historically, the continuous invasions of Germanic people on the Roman Empire ultimately destroying it in the Medieval period are termed barbarian invasions. A civilised society is that which is in the advanced stage of human development following a long period of savage and barbarian societies.

In short, civilisation means making people ‘civil’, that is, suited to the condition of city life. Will Durant says cryptically that ‘Culture suggests agriculture, but Civilization suggests the city’.4 He also suggests that ‘Civilization is the habit of civility; and civility is the refinement which townsmen, who made the world, thought possible only in the civitas or city’ (ibid.). Civilisation is also a process involving progress in organisation and mechanisation.

There are several definitions of civilisation. Immanuel Wallerstein, an American sociologist and economic historian defines it as ‘a particular concentration of worldview, customs, cultural structures and culture’.5 David Emile Durkheim and Marcel Mauss—both French sociologists, define civilisation to be ‘a kind of moral milieu encompassing a certain member of nations, each national culture being only a particular form of the whole’ (ibid.).

We find many civilisations in the course of history, the major among them are Sinic, Japanese, Hindu, Islamic, Western, Latin American, and African. Samuel P Huntington says that civilisations are the enduring human associations which evolve and adapt. ‘They are dynamic; they rise and fall; they merge and divide and as any student of history knows, they also disappear and are buried in the sands of time’ (ibid., 44).

Culture and Civilisation—A Comparison

The above definitions take into account the cultural setting of the society in determining civilisation. Hence, it is important to dwell on the differences between the concepts of ‘culture’ and ‘civilisation’ to understand how both affect and interweave each other to bring about a metamorphosis in the historical process. Oswald Spengler, a German historian, says that culture is the common theme in virtually every definition of civilisation (ibid., 41). Culture is an objective element of civilisation. The division of people by physical characteristics is called ‘race’ and the division by cultural characteristics is termed ‘civilisation’ (ibid., 42).

In the course of history, civilisations provided the broadest identification for the people. That identification in terms of values, norms, institutions, and modes of thinking of successive generations is the culture. Though both culture and civilisation refer to the way of life of a group of people, a civilisation is culture writ large (ibid., 41). In this context, Fernand Braudel, a French historian, says that ‘a civilisation is a cultural space, area; a collection of cultural characteristics and phenomena’ (ibid.). In all, a civilisation represents the broadest cultural unity of people in a geographic territory despite the heterogeneity in several aspects.

However, in his article in Prabuddha Bharata (October 1953), Dr Abinash Chandra Bose, a Vedic scholar, makes a sharp distinction between culture and civilisation. According to him, ‘while civilisation is motivated by the urge for survival, the culture is led by the dynamics of growth. … While civilisation is the pursuit of utility, understood in terms of the fitness of survival, culture is the pursuit of values having their bearing on human perfection’ (p. 404). All that is sublime and beautiful in civilisation is the gift of culture. However, Dr Bose laments that ‘culture is powerless against civilisation, which strides over the earth today, Samson-like, ready to destroy itself and the world in a mighty blast of ruin’ (p. 405).


Values represent human aspirations and goals that an individual or society endeavours to actualise in a cultural and civilisational milieu. They are the cherished goals that humans endeavour to attain, to intensify their happiness exponentially. If a majority of people in a civilisation are aiming towards a certain objective, that will ultimately become the ‘civilisational value’. For example, the Roman Civilisation is branded as martial, as the military conquests to acquire new frontiers shaped the main value of Roman rulers for hundreds of years. Though this ‘civilisational value’ alone does not determine the structure of a culture or civilisation, it definitely is prominent among several other values cherished by the populace.

We have individual values as well as collective values. Also, values can broadly be classified into two: 1. Primary values, and 2. Secondary values. The aesthetic values, ethical values, and cultural values are considered primary values; while material values, communal values, and spiritual values are the secondary values.6

Aesthetic Values: Beauty, proportion, and harmony are the aesthetic values, which Plato in his Republic says are not only important in art and music but also to the ‘good life’, which itself should contain ‘form’, ‘variety’ and ‘balance’.

Ethical Values: They include happiness, virtue, pleasure, satisfaction, and contentment, which traditionally belong to the domain of ethics. Both Plato and Aristotle believed that ethical values are the means of pleasure, which they consider a primary value of life. According to Aristotle, value is ‘the proper activity or functioning of things according to their nature’ and it is the ‘active exercising of man’s faculties that give rise to pleasure’.

Cultural Values: Knowledge, understanding, and wisdom are the cultural values. According to Jesse J Prinz, a distinguished professor of philosophy, culture is a complex whole including knowledge, belief, art, morality, and custom in which the value associated with these things is acquired by people as members of society. The secondary values:  The material values include life, health, strength, wealth, and the like, which William Klaas Frankena, an American moral philosopher says, are instrumental or contributory ‘things that are good because they contribute to a good life or parts of it’. Love, friendship, mutual affection, and cooperation are some of the communal values. Plato says that the human soul, being the seat of love and affection, recognises ‘the community of feeling among mankind’. In the Western context, according to Frankena, values of power and achievement, freedom, adventure, and novelty are some of the spiritual values. The freedom, Kant says, lies in the absence of coercion either from external agencies or from internal ‘sensuous impulses’. Plato also recognises the contemplation on God and on such other good things, to be of value to one’s life.

The Uniqueness of the Indian Civilisation

Indian Civilisation from time immemorial, has a sense of unity, despite its variegated castes, creeds, and customs. There is a deep underlying unity generally missed by a casual observer that has been beautifully expressed by Jawaharlal Nehru in his Discovery of India: ‘The unity of India was no longer merely an intellectual conception for me; it was an emotional experience which overpowered me. The essential unity had been so powerful that no political division, no disaster or catastrophe, had been able to overcome it.’7 R C Majumdar in his An Advanced History of India states: ‘The fundamental unity of India is emphasised by the name Bhārata-Varṣa or land of Bharata, given to the whole country in the Epics and the Puranas and the designation of Bhāratī Santati, applied to its people. … the sense of unity was ever present before the minds of the theologians, political philosophers and poets.’8 He also states that it is a mistake to suppose the sense of unity among Indians to be wholly the outcome of recent events, which was non-existent in ages gone by.

The sense of unity prevalent in India from a very early age, is the offshoot of Indian culture, which has maintained outstanding unity amid enormous diversity. Dhirendra Nath Roy, a professor of philosophy, says that ‘the Indian mind has freely sought to explore all spheres of thought, from the grossest to the finest, from the most devotional to the most sceptical, and opened up all the possible ranges of human perspective so that life could determine itself without being thwarted from any direction’.9

The ideal of God-realisation has always been the central ideal of Indian civilisation. Swami Saradananda writes in his magnum opus Sri Ramakrishna and His Divine Play: ‘Because India’s national life was based on religion, its civilization was constituted in a unique way. To put it briefly, self-control was the life force of this civilization. … in Indian society each individual had equal right to the highest goal of life—liberation.’10 Further, Swami Saradananda asserts that India’s religion is based on the direct experience of God: ‘Thus, from ancient times, India’s national life has been firmly based on spirituality, and this has created a unique society with social customs aimed at the direct realization of Truth’ (ibid., 69).

Culture and Values in the Indian Context

Spiritual liberation is the national ideal of India all along in its history. Hence, this nation has its own exclusive ideas of culture and values. Saṁskṛti is the common word used in Indian parlance to indicate culture. However, its suggested meanings have different annotations from that of culture. The word saṁskṛti is derived from the word saṁskāra which indicates ‘pre­paration’, ‘perfection’, ‘determination’, and ‘refinement’. Hence, the word saṁskṛti stands for ‘consecration’, ‘refined’, ‘determining’, and ‘hallowing’. For example, the ancient language of India is called saṁskṛta as it is the most refined and exhaustive in both grammar and expressions and has an extensive collection of literature.

The values in the Indian setting are grouped in three headings: 1. Empirical values: a. Artha (wealth, money), b. Kāma (fulfilment of desires); 2. Ethical value: Dharma (virtue); and 3. Spiritual value: Moksha (spiritual liberation). Dharma is the medium through which one is encouraged to attain other values. The pursuance of values should always be undertaken through the performance of dharma. It is the core of the way of life that Indian culture and civilisation instils in every Indian mind.

The acquirement of artha and kāma, though not condemned, is relegated to inferior status compared to moksha, the supreme blessedness, because of the intrinsic spiritual nature of Indian culture. The Indian civilisation looks upon this spiritual goal to be not only superior, but also the only real lasting value, worthy of striving for.

In simple terms, India, from the inception of history, was deep-rooted in a spiritual endeavour that involves a search for the Reality, while other cultures and civilisations always strove to accomplish empirical goals. This makes Indian culture and civilisation stand apart in the comity of ancient civilisations. It is the eternal search for spiritual Consciousness of the entire universe that has facilitated this earliest of the civilisations to continue living, flourishing, and expanding its horizon of influence, even in the 21st century.

Sri Ramakrishna—The Embodiment of Indian Culture

Sri Ramakrishna is the living illustration of Indian culture at its best in modern times. He re-established the ancient Indian ideal of God-realisation and showed that one can have a direct experience of the transcendent Reality. He also proclaimed harmony of religions, another great ideal that India stood for since the dawn of history. He said that ‘as many faiths, so many paths’ (to God) after having practised spiritual disciplines of various religious traditions which resonate with the age-old Vedic dictum ‘Ekam sat viprāh bahudhā vadanti; the truth is one, the wise call it by different names’. Sri Ramakrishna also represents the ever-fresh nature of Indian culture, which always reinvents and resurrects in new forms during history. He reinvented the spiritual path to God suited for the modern age, which was gripped with unbridled worldliness and pleasure-seeking. Through this, the Great Master has become, in the real sense, the bridge between ancient and modern.

The significance of Sri Ramakrishna’s advent in the backdrop of Indian culture and civilisation cannot be spelt out more admirably than what is expressed through Swami Vivekananda’s words:

Then it was that Shri Bhagavan Ramakrishna incarnated himself in India, to demonstrate what the true religion of the Aryan race is; to show where amidst all its many divisions and offshoots, scattered over the land in the course of its immemorial history, lies the true unity of the Hindu religion, which by its overwhelming number of sects discordant to superficial view, quarrelling constantly with each other and abounding in customs divergent in every way, has constituted itself a misleading enigma for our countrymen and the butt of contempt for foreigners; and above all, to hold up before men, for their lasting welfare, as a living embodiment of the Sanatana Dharma, his own wonderful life into which he infused the universal spirit and character of this Dharma, so long cast into oblivion by the process of time.11


1 Nirmal Kumar Bose, Cultural Anthropology (Calcutta: Arya Sahitya Bhavan, 1929), 23. 2 Will Durant, Our Oriental Heritage (The Story of Civilization: Part I) (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1954), 5. 3 Dr Abinash Chandra Bose, ‘Civilization and Culture’, Prabuddha Bharata (October 1953), 403. 4 Will Durant, Our Oriental Heritage, 2. 5 Samuel Huntington, The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order (New Delhi: Penguin Books, 1996), 41. 6 See <>. 7 Jawaharlal Nehru, The Discovery of India (Calcutta: The Signet Press, 1946), 53. 8 R C Majumdar, An Advanced History of India (Madras: MacMillan, 1996), 7. 9 Dhirendra Nath Roy, The Spirit of Indian Civilization (Calcutta: University of Calcutta, 1938), 98. 10 Swami Saradananda, Sri Ramakrishna and his Divine Play, trans. Swami Chetanananda (St Louis: Vedanta Society of St Louis, 2003), 78–79. 11 ‘Hinduism and Sri Ramakrishna’, The Complete Works of Vivekananda, 9 vols (Calcutta: Advaita Ashrama, 1–8, 1989; 9, 1997), 6.183–84.

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