Plural cultures mean the co-existence of many cultures in a given society. The people following different cultures have different ways of life. They live differently and their lives are also patterned according to their cultural set-ups. In this manner, cultural plurality also gives rise to cultural diversity. Some of the important constituents of cultural plurality can be delineated as follows:
1. Diversity of Physical Features
With an area of 3,287, 263 square kilometers, India is a vast country possessing diverse physical features. It has deserts, forests, snow-covered mountains, a long coast, and fertile plains. Being a big country, some parts of India are exceedingly fertile, whereas there are regions where virtually nothing grows. Thus, India is endowed with a wide variety of geographical landscape.
In the north we have the Himalayas which remain covered with snow throughout the year. It has acted as a protective shield to the cold winds coming from Tibetan and Central Asian region. The Himalayas have also been greatly beneficial in terms of being the source of some of the major rivers. Indus, Ganga and Yamuna are some important rivers that emanate from the Himalaya Mountains. These rivers have been the lifeline of northern part of Indian subcontinent. As we know, Harappan civilization flourished around river Indus. Similarly, the reference to sapta-sindhu region in the Vedic literature shows the importance of water bodies in the settlement patterns of the Aryans. The Ganga-Yamuna Doab has been another very fertile area which has sustained life through the ages.
In the western part of India we have the deserts. Unlike the productive soil of Indo- Gangetic plains, it is an arid zone where scarcely anything grows except a few shrubs.
India is also endowed with a long coastline. People living in coastal areas have distinct cultural patterns to that of the people living in the mountainous areas or interiors of land-locked regions. Here, life is organized more around seas such that they become more sea-oriented than land-oriented. For example, Harappans also had oversea connections with the Mesopotamians. The people in coastal areas are dependent on water spaces for their survival. In fact, water spaces even condition their festivals, faiths, food material etc. Water bodies also provide a connect with people coming from other countries and civilizations.
India’s climate also varies from region to region. It can range from some of the hot places to areas having low freezing points. If deserts can be the hottest places, then, then people in mountainous areas experience chilling cold. Monsoon also has a bearing on India’s climate. We have places which receive the highest rainfall in the world, then, there are areas in western India which receive less rainfall. These diverse physical and climatic features have led to a great variety of flora and fauna in India. It has played a crucial role in the creation and generation of a range of aesthetic sense among people in the country.
2. Racial Diversity
A race is a group of people with a set of distinctive physical features such as skin, complexion, type of nose, form of hair etc. A. W. Green says, “a race is a large biological human grouping with a number of distinctive, inherited characteristics which vary within a certain range”.
A large number of people from different races migrated to India. In fact, majority of Indians today are the descendants of such migrants. Over a period of time they spread across India resulting in regional/local concentration of a variety of ethnic elements. Today India has become an ethnological museum for its vast ethnic diversity. H.H. Risley (d. 1911) divided Indian population into seven racial types: the Turko-Iranian, the Indo-Aryan, Scytho-Dravidian, Aryo-Dravidian, the Mongol-Dravidians, the Mongoloid, and the Dravidian. However, today most of the historians do not accept the categorization done by Risley.
A.C. Haddon (d. 1940) did not agree with the classification of races given by Risley. He gave his own classification of races in India. He classified races in five categories: the Pre- Dravidian jungle tribes, the Dravidians who are long headed and brunette, the Indo-Aryans who are fair complexioned and long-headed, the Indo-Alpines who are broad headed, and the Mongolians.
J.H. Hutton (d. 1968) classified the races of India in five categories: (1) Negrito, (2) Proto-Austroloid, (3) Mediterranean: (a) East Mediterranean, (b) Mediterranean, (4) Armenoid branch of Alpine, (5) Mongoloid, (b) Indo-Aryan.
B.S. Guha classified the population of India into six racial groups: the Negrito, the Proto- Australoids, the Mongoloids, the Mediterranean or Dravidian, the Western Brachycephals, and the Nordic. Thus, India boasts a diversified ethnic population which adds colour to its cultural diversity.
3. Linguistic Diversity
India is a land of many languages and dialects. The constitution of India in its VIII Schedule recognizes 22 languages. These are Assamese, Bengali, Gujarati, Hindi, Kannada, Kashmir, Konkani, Malayalam, Manipuri, Marathi, Nepali, Oriya, Punjabi, Sanskrit, Tamil, Telugu, Urdu, Sindhi, Santhali, Boro, Maithili and Dogri. Hindi in Devanagari script is the official language of India. But the dialects spoken here run in several hundreds. This linguistic variety of India is aptly encapsulated in a popular saying in Hindi: “kos kos par badley paani, chaar kos par baani” which would mean that India entails such a diversity that whereas the taste of water changes after every kos (approximately 3 kms or 2.25 miles), the dialect changes after every four kos. It would not be an exaggeration to say that language is one of the manifestations of any society’s culture. Most of north Indian languages belong to the Indo-European family. South Indian languages, namely, Tamil, Telugu, Kannada, and Malayalam are called Dravidian languages. All these languages boast a very rich literary tradition. In the words of A R Desai, “India presents a spectacle of museum of tongues”.
Hindi is one of the widely spoken languages in the country. It is largely spoken in the Hindi belt of north India which includes Bihar, Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan, and Uttar Pradesh states. Hindi language is a collection of eighteen dialects. The Khariboli, Brajbhasha, and Awadhi are its most important constituents. The genesis of Khariboli can be traced to the 1st century of the Christian era when it was spoken in the Meerut region as Kauravi. The Brajbhasha developed in the Ganga-Yamuna Doab from Saurasheni Apbhransha. The Awadhi orginiated from Koshali, which was a local dialect spoken in the Koshal region.
The second half of the first millennium of the Christian era was a period when many languages other than Sanskrit developed in India. Emergence of bhakti tradition played a crucial role in the intensification of the process. The phase from 9th century to 18th century led to the development of various regional languages. Bhakti poetry and literature contributed immensely in its growth and expansion.
The advent of Islam further widened the canvas of Indian languages. Not only interaction between Islamic and indigenous cultures began at various levels, but many Muslim poets also contributed to the growth of a new kind of literature which was called as Indo-Persian literature. Amir Khursrau, Masud Saad Salman, Abul Faraz Runi, Tajuddin, Shihabuddin, and Aminuddin were some notable litterateurs of early phase. Sufism acted as a conducive bridge between these distinct cultures. Khwaja Moinuddin Chishti, Hazrat Nizamuddin, Sheikh Nasiruddin Chirag-i Delhi, Sheikh Salim Chishti were some of the famous sufis who were revered not only by Muslims but also by many Hindus.
At the same time, Bhakti poet-saints, namely Tukaram, Naamdev, Ramanand, Kabir, Guru Nanak, Sur Das, Meera Bai, Raidas, Tulsi Das were pivotal in not only disseminating the ideas of selfless devotion to god but also enriching the linguistic tradition of the country. The bijaks of Kabir, sakhis of Nanak, bhajans and compositions of Sur Das, Meera Bai, Raidas, and Tulsi Das are not only popular but they had deep impact on people’s minds.
In the 18th century Urdu emerged as the lingua franca of people. Originating in military camps in the Deccan region, by the 18th century it became popular even in Delhi. Mir Taqi Mir, Mir Dard, Sauda, and later the Mughal emperor Bahadur Shah Zafar, and Mirza Ghalib through their gazal—a form of poetry—further broadened the base of Urdu. Urdu over a period of time absorbed words, expressions etc. from various Indian languages and thus acquired a truly Indian foundation. Today, ordinary Hindi and Urdu have become nearly indistinguishable. The only difference is that Urdu has more Persian and Arabic words.
Modern Hindi began to develop from the time of Bhartendu Harishchandra whose efforts led to wide popularity/assimilation of the language. His popular saying shows his commitment to further the cause of Hindi. He had said,
“nij bhasha unnati aahey, sab unnati ko mool; bin nij bhasha gyan ke, mitey na hiye ko shool”.
It means that one can progress by following one’s native language as it is the source of all progress; and, without the knowledge of the native language, one cannot dispel ignorance and feel contented.
In the 20th century the works of famous writers such as Premchand, Mahadevi Verma, Jai Shankar Prasad, Suryakant Tripathi Nirala, Ramdhari Singh Dinkar etc. catapulted Hindi to significant literary heights. Thus, the prevailing linguistic diversity has been one of the powerful mediums of cultural plurality in the country. However, the unity can still be discerned in spite of linguistic variations because most of Indian languages have common roots which provides organic connect between the languages spoken in India.
4. Religious Diversity
One of the unique features of Indian culture is its religious diversity. India is a land of almost all religions. Indian state does not give primacy to any religion. The population of religious communities in percentage as per the 2011 census is as follows: Hindus is 79.80%, Muslim 14.23%, Christians 2.3%, Sikhs 1.72%, Buddhists 0.70%, Jains 0.37%, and others 0.66%.
The oldest religion in India is Vedic Brahmanism which found its expression in myriad texts of that time, such as, the Vedas, Samhitas, Dharmashastras, etc. But by the first millennium of the Christian era devotional form of worship began to gain ground. By the time of the Gupta phase, it began to be known as Hinduism. However, it was not a monolithic religion and had various sub-traditions within its fold. However, they all are bracketed under Hinduism.
Islam is another prominent religion which forms about 14.23 per cent of India’s population. India’s real contact with Islam took place after Arab invasion of Sind in the early decades of the 8th century. After the foundation of Delhi Sultanate and its expansion, Islam spread to different parts of India. Today, as per the census, Islam is the second largest religion in India.
Christianity is followed by 2.3 per cent Indians. Christianity came to India through St. Thomas in the first century of Christian era. The Portuguese who arrived in India in the late 15th century built churches. Roman Catholics and Protestants are the two dominant Christian denominations in India.
Sikhism is another important religious faith. The Granth Sahib is the religious text of the Sikhs which has several hymns of bhakti poets and Muslim sufis. The Sikhs go to gurudwara. The Sikhs can be identified by five noteworthy features: ‘Kesh (hair), Kangha (comb), Kachha (shorts), Kara (iron bangle), and Kripan (short sword)’. The Sikhs are mainly concentrated in Punjab and Haryana. But a sizeable population of the Sikhs also exists in Delhi and Uttar Pradesh.
Buddhism emerged in India during the 6th century B.C. It came up as a reaction to Brahmanical practices that were in vogue during the period. Gautam Buddha’s teachings are central to Buddhism. Later Buddhism spread to Sri Lanka, China, Japan, Malaysia and other Asian countries. Dr. B R Ambedkar, one of the founding fathers of our Constitution, adopted Buddhism in 1956. The move of Dr. Ambedkar gave a much needed fillip to Buddhism in the land of its origin where the Buddhist population was sharply declining. In this context A L Basham has aptly expressed that the “cherished dream of a few” once again became the “living hope of the millions”.
Jains constitute 0.37 per cent of Indian population. Jainism also originated in India in the 6th century B.C. Mahavir is the 24th tirthankar according to the Jain tradition. Jainism lays stress on non-violence and self-control. Jaina philosophy of non-violence also had great impact on Mahatma Gandhi who diligently followed it in his life. The Jains are largely concentrated in Maharashtra, Rajasthan, and Gujrat.
5. Caste Diversity
The fourfold division of the society as Brahmanas, Kashtriyas, Vaisyas and Sudras led to the emergence of many caste identities. This division finds first mention in the tenth mandal of Rig Veda. It placed the Brahmanas at the top of the social ladder. This class was largely constituted of learned people who had knowledge of the Vedas. Kashtriyas were warriors who ruled states and protected other people. Vaishyas pursued trade and commerce. Sudras, placed at the bottom in the hierarchy, served the people of upper strata and did menial works such as tanning, scavenging, etc. Such a system prevailed in India ever since it came into conception in the later Vedic phase.
When caste proliferation took place in early medieval times, a number of castes came into being. This process continued even in later times. Today, there are many castes in India. Whereas a majority of them fall under the broad four divisions mentioned above, there are many untouchables and outcastes also. Caste or jati refers to a hereditary endogamous status group following a particular traditional vocation. There are more than 3000 jatis in India. However, they are differently placed on social ladder in different regions.