Sunday, October 1, 2023

Culture, collectivism and civilization: What the Upanishads say

Stone wheel engraved on walls of

Konark Temple

Collectivism is the fountainhead of culture and civilization. The more sophisticated the society, the more collectivist its institutions and philosophies are. In contrast, the primitive societies were simplistic; they were collectivist to a much lesser degree.

In the broad prehistoric period known as the Stone Age, humans lived in small groups of 5 to 100 individuals linked by ties of blood. The process of building large-scale civilizations began 25,000 to 15,000 years ago, when the concept of religion came into being and people started coming together in the name of God to build large groups. 

Religion was the first collectivist movement of mankind. The successful religions brought millions of people together and got them to cooperate for developing other collectivist philosophies and movements. Some of these collectivist movements became powerful city-states and empires where collectivist tendencies continued to grow.

The postmodern man is a product of tens of thousands of years of collectivism in the form of— religions, movements, philosophies and other civilizational forces. The antithesis of collectivism is individualism, which is anti-culture and leads to nihilism, immorality, atheism, anarchy, weakness and decay. 

Why is religion the fundamental force that binds civilizations? 

One of the teachings of the Upanishads is that to live a fulfilling life we need meaning and challenge. We have the natural urge try to understand our place in the universe and we want to achieve something that is challenging, perhaps impossible, something that we believe no one has achieved before. 

Religion is the fundamental civilizational force because it offers avenues for both meaning and challenge. 

The Upanishads preach that the urges for meaning and challenge are part of mankind’s collective evolution. We try to find meaning in the notion of divinity that our culture and civilization has bestowed on us and we try to excel within the framework of the society with which we identify. In the modern or postmodern age, some try to find meaning in the secular philosophies which too are products of thousands of years of collectivism and culture. 

The adventure of human life is to join the human struggle for discovering who we are, what is our place in the universe, what is morality, what is the significance of the life that we get to lead before we die—this is one of the key teachings of the Upanishads.

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