India has an immensely rich cultural tradition. Some of the distinctive features of Indian culture are its primordiality, continuity and heterogeneity. Accommodative cultural ethos has been another distinguishing feature of Indian civilization. All of these elements have collectively led to the evolution of a cosmopolitan culture and have imparted colossal variety to it.
A continuous cultural tradition in India can be traced from Harappan civilization (3000 B.C). Many of its elements can still be found in our tradition. Along with Mesopotamian and Egyptian civilizations, Harappan civilization was one of the earliest civilizations in the world. Since then India has witnessed a continuous influx of people in a variety of ways. It is this phenomenon which commenced in ancient times and still continues that lies at the core of Indian cultural heritage. Whereas Indian civilization has always exhibited cultural variety, in today’s era of globalization, culture, especially plural culture, has acquired immense importance. Globalization is bringing societies and cultures closer, and now, a cultural osmosis is underway across the globe. The growing popularity of terms such as ‘globalization’, ‘global village’ and ‘glocalisation’ displays plural cultural ethos spreading around the world. It is in this emerging scenario that plurality of Indian cultural tradition acquires center stage which has been its mainstay throughout history.
India’s cultural plurality is not a recent phenomenon. There is a great historicity to it. Indian culture is the outcome of a long process of diversified engagements and interactions among people spanning over more than four millennia. Thus, Indian culture has always been a melting pot which tried to accommodate and assimilate all that it came in contact with. We can trace this process of accommodation and absorption from the time of Harappan civilization.
The Harappans had extensive commercial and cultural contacts with Mesopotamia, Afghanistan, Persia, and Central Asia. The presence of Indus pottery and seals in Mesopotamian cities and a dockyard at Lothal testifies contacts that Harappans had with outsiders. Similarly, Mesopotamian texts refer to Harappa as Meluha from where various products such as carnelian, lapis lazuli, copper, and gold used to arrive in the region. From Shortughai in Afghanistan, Harappans imported lapis lazuli. Central Asia provided precious stones gems etc. to the Harappans.
We also find evidence of Harappans religious faiths. Various Harappan seals suggest how people worshipped manifestations of nature. Interestingly, some of such traditions have continued even in our times. For example, the reverence shown to humped bull is still practiced which is said to have been a Harappan culture. Similarly, a Harappan seal depicts people standing and performing obeisance in front of pipal tree. This tradition has again continued to this day when we see people worship and make offerings to pipal tree.
India witnessed a continuous stream of migration of diversified groups of people from different parts of the world after the decline of the Harappan civilization. The coming of the Aryans testifies how people migrated to India in large hordes and settled in different parts of India over a period of time. The entire phase of this process of migration, movement and settlement has been called as the Vedic phase. Initially they settled in the sapta-sindhu region and later migrated to the Gangetic basin. The phase is characterized by the writing of the Vedic literature, a process which was completed towards the end of the 6th century BCE. The entire cultural set-up of this phase is known as Vedic culture which can be gleaned from Vedic literature. We also come across remarkable similarities in Vedic and Iranian deities which is indicative of shared religious ethos. Similarly, the reference to the Yavanas, the term which was initially used for the Greeks but later on used as a generic term for all foreigners, also come in the Mahabharata showing multiple engagements among people.
The Aryans, for whom the widely held view is that they came from outside, introduced new life-style and cultural elements. They brought horse-drawn chariots and iron into India. Interaction with the natives led to new socio-cultural churning where the Aryans impacted and were influenced by indigenous culture. The Vedic literature provides a wealth of information on their cultural assimilation and transformation ranging from matrimonial alliances with the natives to adoption of local rituals, practices etc. Thus, the Vedic people’s culture evolved to be an amalgam of Aryan and non-Aryan elements—a more pluralistic in ethos rather than homogeneous.
After the Aryans, the Greeks, Sakas, Kushans, Huns, the Arabs, the Persians, the Turks, the Mongols, the Europeans came to India at different points of time. These people brought their cultural traditions to India, which over a period of time were absorbed and assimilated in Indian way of life. This fusion led to important changes. Firstly, it imparted diversity to Indian culture, and secondly, it led to the emergence of a composite culture. Today, these elements have become the cornerstone of the idea of India. Thus, the foregoing description shows that cultural plurality is an age-old phenomenon in India which has only enriched us culturally.