Indian Youth in Search of Icons

An icon means a model or an example one can emulate. Originally, the word icon mean meant a religious and sacred symbol, and in the latest computer terminology, it means a symbol used as a diagram or picture. But in the popular usage, icon means a charismatic person who can draw a good following and provide them an ideal and identity. To have a good example, an icon that appeals to heart, is one of the prime needs of a young person.

Is Our Culture Outdated?

Often we hear complaints from the younger generation that our culture has become outmoded. 'We are in the 21st century' is a sentence repeatedly flung at us. This is the age of electronic mastery of communications. Science and technology are fast subduing the unknown. So they say and turn away to what they consider new horizons, holding in hand the new icons of inspiration: the cellphone at the ears, the laptop in one hand and the glossy in-flight magazine in the other.

We do not blame them. In an attempt to show that Indian culture has had the strength to survive twenty to thirty centuries with ease, we have unconsciously made it appear as an oversized, ancient entity, out of touch with the modern world. Our scholars repeatedly try to push back the dates of our scriptures as if age alone is holiness. If our Vedas, Upanishads, epics and Puranas have survived all these centuries, it is because they have carried the power of knowledge in them, the powers of Savita (the Sun deity, symbolizing creation) whom we continue to evoke for gathering inspiration through the Gayatri mantra:

Om tat savitur varenyam bhargo dhevasya dheemahi
Dheyo yo na prachodayat

'We meditate on the glory of that Being
who has produced this universe;
may He enlighten our minds.'

Consider the above Sanskrit verse of 24 syllables and reflect over how it has been the mainstay of innumerable traditions, from the most orthodox Vedic religions to the Sufi traditions of dervishes. How can we put an 'age-tag' to it?  Another problem that has unconsciously affected the psyche of the younger generation in keeping away from our culture has been the visual representation of our sages in sculpture, painting, films. They seem to be always old people, having matted hair and long beards. Once again, the unconscious comes to the fore. What can this old fogy advice me about my problem today? The contrast is made sharper because of the association of wisdom today with 'a well groomed look' as a Master of Business Administration or the Director of a Multinational. The very richness of Indian culture ' so wide, so deep ' has also been a deterrent. What is Indian culture? Is there no single point on which I can remain focused? Hence Indian youth stands today somewhat perplexed about the phenomenon of our culture. The youth generation would like to know what constitutes the core of this tradition which could help them advance in life, material as well as spiritual. But battered by the visual media the answer seems to be elusive.

India's Cultural Awakening

Fortunately for us, a little over a hundred years ago, an event occurred which replicated the Upanishadic times. A guru was seen surrounded by his disciples in a temple at Kolkata. Not much went on except conversation. It was a conversation that was interspersed with devotional hymns. The guru himself was not very old and many of the disciples were just teenagers. That was a time when English education and the Western way of living had taken Indian youth in its vice-like grip. That was the time when precious palm leaf manuscripts were being thrown away in the Ganges or Cauvery as worthless scribbling of incomprehensible religious traditions. That was the time when British rule over India seemed destined to last for ever and ever. And the guru was Sri Ramakrishna.

Sri Aurobindo, a young man of twenty-two, educated at Cambridge returns home in 1893 and hears of this guru. By then Sri Ramakrishna has withdrawn from the physical and Swami Vivekananda, another young man of thirty is spreading India's eternal message of Vedanta in America. Sri Aurobindo, fired by an intense love of his motherland flings his challenge at the British Empire. Remember, he announces: Macaulay's victims have become devotees of Sri Ramakrishna!

Speaking to a large audience at Mahajan Wadi, Bombay on 19th January, 1908, Sri Aurobindo said quietly that if one had faith in God, God will find a way to speak to our heart: 'It is to the heart that God speaks, it is in the heart that God resides.' Some of the highly educated men of Bengal had not ceased to believe in God and when the time came, it was easy for them to recognize the voice of God.

'One of them, the man (Sri Ramakrishna) who had the greatest influence and has done the most to regenerate Bengal, could not read and write a single word. He was a man who had been what they call absolutely useless to the world. But he had this one divine faculty in him, that he had more than faith and had realized God.'

There were the scoffers who did say such men were 'useless to society'. What is the use of a temple priest who can only intone some ritualistic mantras? Even in our own times we have such myopic men who dismiss him as no more than a frenzied priest of a Kali temple. Did he know Kant? Did he invent any technological instrument? Would he have been able to handle the keys of a Remington typewriter that was on the market in his time? But in his own time, Sri Ramakrishna was recognized as a man of God by eminent intellectuals as well.

Sri Aurobindo writes of those times:

'But God knew what he was doing. He sent that man to Bengal and set him in the temple of Dakshineshwar in Calcutta, and from North and South and East and West, the educated men, men who were the pride of the university, who had studied all that the Europe can teach, came to fall at the feet of this young ascetic. The work of salvation, the work of raising India was begun.'

What the youth needed was faith in sanatana dharma which taught selflessness and courage, the needs of the hour. For Indians, faith in God has always meant a faith in sanatana dharma which is a faith in the glory and good that is man. Countless are the times when racial experience distilled thus has been brought to us as the Religion of Man with the refrain, esha dharmah sanatanah ' this dharma is eternal.

India's Eternal Search for Truth

This constant search for human perfection and the alignment of the individual and the community moving in tune with each other, is what is known as the sanatana dharma. In this very act of garnering the wisdom of the ages as the Ancient Way, we have been gifted with innumerable icons that suit individual characters and aspirations. There are plenty of Ideals and Icons in our culture that help us achieve a good life. What we need is faith in these Ideals that have an undeniable transforming power to make the today's youth ambassadors of the peerless Indian culture to teach others the significance of the word 'civilization'.

A hundred years ago Sri Aurobindo found such ambassadors who taught the whole nation how to rise against oppression and the debilitating effects of the Western civilization. He saw that the inspiration set in motion by the presence of Sri Ramakrishna and given an active thrust by Swami Vivekananda taught the youth of Bengal to have faith and gain the strength that faith gives to suffer for the good of the nation.

Why should the youth be worried that things seem to be bad all around? In truth, it is not so. Dharma continues to thrive among the common people and that is why mankind continues to move forward. To recognize this and push onwards, one needs along with faith and selflessness, courage. In fact Sri Aurobindo finds selflessness and courage to be extensions of one's faith. So he addresses the youth of his time (and the youth of all times):

'When you believe in God, when you believe that God is guiding you, believe that God is doing all and that you are doing nothing, -- what is there to fear?' What is there that you can fear when you are conscious of him who is within you? Courage is then a necessity, courage is natural and courage is inevitable.'

Returning to Our Own Roots

With this firm faith secured, we have to find out how best to make of ourselves invincible warriors by getting trained in sanatana dharma. But I can hear my young readers protesting: Where are the leaders to inspire us with such faith that brings in its wake selflessness and courage? That is why we place before the youth of India this ancient heritage, the sanatana dharma. Interestingly enough, in this the centre is everywhere, the circumference nowhere. Why not make a beginning with Panchatantra and Hitopadesa instead of wasting our time in purposeless meanderings of violence in the name of magic projected in the latest best-sellers? Come then to our treasures of commonsense, our scintillating baskets of wit and humor, our precious caskets of faith and spirituality, our hard disks of noble living. Make a beginning with two of the finest icons Indian youth can reach out for, the Panchatantra and the Hitopadesa! Even if you do not study anything else but simply master and imbibe the whole of these two works and act according to the tenets, victory will be yours in all your undertakings!

To Hitopadesa, then. A book which is ageless, ancient and never palls. A work which is down to earth, but high in instilling soulful faith. The opening section places before us the importance of learning, and what it does to gain for us fortune and faultless-ananda:

'Learning, although possessed by a low man, introduces him to the king who is (ordinarily) inapproachable, just as a river, although flowing through a low region, takes one to the inaccessible sea: (sources) from which floweth great fortune.  Learning endows one with modesty; from (having) modesty one passes on to (gets) worthiness; being worthy one obtains riches; from riches religious merit and from that happiness.'

Sanatana dharma does not teach simply with such moralistic formulae. The practice always is to make you think for yourselves. What is good for the individual? What is beneficial to the community? Which is the right path to achieve the best of living for both the individual and the society? This is how parables became the rich granary of Indian culture and Hitopadesa contains one of the oldest and richest collections of such stories. It is amazing to know that for several millennia we have learnt the values of self-sacrifice for loyalty from Viravara, of discrimination from the tale of Chudamani and the barber, of the power of intelligence in the fall of the elephant Karpuratilaka and of the evil of arrogance in the suicidal leap of the lion Durdanta. Painlessly wisdom was injected into the young mind by Pandit Vishnusarman who taught the sons of King Sudarsana of Pataliputra. Indeed, throughout Hitopadesa pellets of good judgment are strewn about with a prodigal hand.


Indian youth who are in search of icons to lead a gracious and virtuous life and become achievers, ought to hold on to one or two of these and they would never feel the lack of inspirations in their life. Yes, life on earth is never smooth-sailing. But our foundations have placed before us heroes and heroines like Arjuna and Damayanti who have suffered, endured and overcome. It was inspirations like these books and characters that gave us a Swami Vivekananda, a Mother Sarada Devi, a Sister Nivedita. Hold on fast to our cultural foundations and all will be well. Haven't we the widely known Vedic chant to sculpt our lives and fare well and fare forward? Satyam vada, dharmam chara!

'Speak the truth.
Practice virtue (dharma).
Neglect not study (of the Vedas).
Having brought an acceptable gift to the teacher,
Cut not off the line of progeny.
One should not be negligent of truth.
One should not be negligent of virtue.
One should not be negligent of welfare.
One should not be negligent of prosperity '
Be one to whom a mother is as a god
Be one to whom a father is as a god.
Be one to whom a teacher is as a god.
Be one to whom a guest is as a god.'

Where else can we find better guidelines to live fulfilling lives? Why not dig into our own ancient ageless heritage and make these our own? The choice is ours. 


More by :  Dr. Prema Nandakumar

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