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Defining one's culture

Minakshi Maharaj
Monday, February 12, 2018

CULTURE is a word we use very frequently, often with pride and occasionally with disdain. What does culture mean? Is it the ability to perform classical dances and appreciate classical music? Or does it mean the ceremonies and practices we follow on various occasions such as death, marriage or the birth of a child? And most importantly, perhaps, is culture of any use whatsoever?

The exact meaning of culture is not easy to define. The English word culture comes from Latin and it originally meant to till, to cultivate. It is important to remember that although all human groups have "culture", their words for culture will not have this etymology.

UNESCO has a more comprehensive definition of culture as the "set of distinctive material, intellectual and emotional features of society or a social group" and states "that it encompasses, in addition to art and literature, lifestyles, ways of living together, value systems, traditions and beliefs" (

In his brilliant essay titled "Our Culture", the philosopher C Rajagopalachari explains that culture is an "instrument" of civilisation. He said "civilisation connotes the curbing of wildness, barbarity and over-indulgence of passions and appetites" (of human beings).

While we may never have considered this as a definition of culture, it is an extremely valid and illuminating definition. Just look around you, progress and prosperity are found where people are humane, controlled, and barbaric people create hell on earth.

So how is this control over human behaviour achieved?

"Civilisation", Rajagopalachari explains, "has two instruments, one is government that acts through laws, and the penal code. This is an external control which communities have imposed upon themselves for the good of all. The other instrument is culture which acts through family training, tradition, religious belief, literature and education. Culture puts down over-indulgence acting as an internal force, as distinguished from penal laws which operate from outside".

It is the second instrument, culture, which concerns us. In every group, certain codes for human behaviour have been developed over thousands of years to ensure the survival of the community and its peaceful co-existence.

Culture includes the codes of behaviour which are a part of "family training" — parents instil in children good manners, self-discipline, truthfulness, sincerity, non-violence, kindness and many more virtues. Society too, has a duty to model respect for people and social institutions, helpfulness, honesty, diligence, compassion, respect for the earth, obedience to laws and so on.

One striking observation made by Rajagopalachari is that the word civilisation is "an abstract noun and indicates a state of living and not things".

This is a very important distinction — it would not be wrong to say that at the present time, we humans consider ourselves to be very civilised simply because we carelessly assume that technological advancement, great big cities, and a plethora of state-of-the-art gadgets is civilisation.

We assume that because of these, we are civilised, despite the fact that our societies, from the richest to the poorest, are shamefully guilty of abuse of parents, children, women, and the poor, of delinquency among youth and a culture of corruption unrestrained by human values.

In the past, literature was an important aspect of culture. In fact, the world's greatest literature may be considered as treatises on desirable and undesirable human conduct.

We are told that Valmiki, the author of the Ramayana, did not know what and who to write about. He was told that the purpose of literature was to refine and elevate the minds and sensitivities of readers and listeners. In other words, the purpose of literature should be to refine and raise the culture of the populace.

He then wrote the Ramayana about the life of Shri Rama, an epic that has the unique distinction of influencing in a positive way, the culture of the entire South East Asia, arguably one of the most densely populated areas of the earth, over at least two millennia.

Culture establishes value systems and ideals, which not only give goals to aspire for but also a sense of direction. People feel pride and fulfillment in doing what their culture extolls. In this way, culture gives meaning to human existence. As Rajagopalachari says, culture is a "subtle instrument. It acts silently. It makes people feel they are not forced to obey, but do it of their own free will and gives them a sense of pride in good behaviour".

For example, both ethnic groups in Fiji used to value helpfulness and sharing.

They gained a sense of fulfillment by helping disadvantaged relatives, friends, and even village people, through financial support, self-denial, and by physical effort. Such behaviour won societal acclaim and imparted a sense of self-esteem which further encouraged such desirable behaviour.

At the beginning of this article, I mentioned that every nation and ethnic group has its own words for and definition of culture. For example, the Hindi words are sanskaars and sanskriti. Sanskaars are the practices, thoughts and beliefs which refine the human being psychologically and spiritually.

These collective practices and attitudes constitute the cultural tradition, sanskriti. For Hindus, sanskaars are more than forces of social control or good behaviour because the sum total of sanskaars and kusanskaars (negative, perverted culture) determines one's "next birth". Obviously, this makes sanskaars critically important for humans.

In Hindi, sabhyata means civilisation. Sabhyata makes one eligible to be part of a sabha, that is, an assembly of people. This entails having the appropriate social graces, body language, physical hygiene, language skills, and admirable behaviour.

Though we probably live in the most technologically sophisticated society, it would be apt to say that our technological advance has far outstripped the level of our sabhyata.

Present day societies are increasingly pluralistic which can present a bewildering array of cultural values leading to the erosion of our own.

And we may not necessarily acquire anything of equal value. Globalisation and media are creating an aped uniformity which deprives the world of the beauty of its myriad cultures. This could easily be avoided if we understood, appreciated and retained the best of our cultures.

Culture is not something to look down on or to dismiss lightly. It has been developed over the ages to enable peaceful co-existence for the group's emotional, material, and even spiritual progress. It is the backbone of societies and has held them together for thousands of years.

Almost everyone in Fiji has studied Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe. This book is a classic that captures the disintegration of a law abiding and organised society when the knife of European contact severs its cultural cords.

In subtle ways, every culture suffers such cultural genocide — smaller groups such as the Aborigines being most vulnerable.

James Ngugi, whose beautiful book, The River Between, is studied in Fiji, says that a tribe without its customs is like "a tree without roots".

It will not survive if it does not retain its rich and meaningful practices and beliefs while absorbing only the necessary and good aspects of other cultures.

Culture must meet the needs of changing times, by accretion to its own strengths, and not by abandoning them.

Gandhiji said, "I am an Indian — heir to the finest heritage of our sages through the ages".

All us should similarly value our cultural heritage and not denigrate it unthinkingly, which destroys its value in the eyes of the younger generation. Our cultures are the gift of the wisdom of our great ancestors. They give our lives uniqueness, meaning and guidance.

* Minakshi Maharaj has taught at FNU, The University of Fiji, Queensland Institute of Business and Technology, FIT and secondary schools in Fiji. Views expressed are hers and not of this newspaper.

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