A discussion on cultural pluralism should necessarily be preceded by a clarification of what is essentially meant by culture. This invisible component of mankind starts becoming visible only when he acts. Thus, why a group of men acts in a particular way which is widely different from another group becomes the focus of study for culturelogists.
Most of these experts agree on certain basic factors about what constitutes culture, although there may be little agreement about how it works its way into human organization. It is agreed that all behaviour is not cultural but only those behaviours are cultural which are identically followed by a group.
In addition to this the group develops specific techniques by way of which it maintains extra- somatic inheritance of these behaviours. This enables one ethnic group to continue through time without major changes in its core attributes. Besides seeking an identity one of the major issues on which culture focuses itself is efficient adaptation within a given environment.
That is, unlike all other species human behaviour is not species specific, it varies from one environment to another. From the date of the origin of man, some 2 million years ago, hunting bands consolidated their individual cultural repertoire on the basis of the region and character of their subsistence base.
One of the most dominant artifacts of culture that crystallizes during this phase is language. This not only enabled man to execute internal ordering but also give them an identity. Till today this continues to form the basis of differentiating the understanding of “we” as opposed to “they” in human groups.
This long process of birth and progression of culture in human history shows several types of fine tuning as and when any form of stress occurred in the subsistence base. For the first time human culture required an altogether different re-arrangement when man sought to adopt agriculture around 6000 B.C. clearing of virgin forest for cultivation, sowing of seeds, harvesting and transporting the produce are labour intensive activities which a small natal band could never undertake on its own.
Consequently labour management from adjoining bands became a survival imperative for the chosen economy. In addition to this, man had to heavily depend on such forest produces as flesh, skin and honey. Having abandoned the forest he decides to set up some kind of symbiotic relationship with those forest dwellers who had chosen to continue with their earlier economy.
This had probably brought about a corporate form of organization which called for interacting with different languages and cultures. Conversely viewed, one can say that the key to the success of any large-scale economic change is the ability to replace competition between cultures with co-operation. How this co-operation is actually operationalised depends on several factors.
This may include demography, technology as well as social complexity and all these combining to construct what may be called the attitude of the communities in question. Cooperation can thus take the shape of a stratified system or just one of symbiotic kind. However, the moving out of one’s mother tongue (L1) to incorporate other tongues (L2, L3 etc.) must have been a certainty at this stage.
The rise of a state around 3500 B.C. possibly established these incipient attempts of cultural pluralism within a structured and regulatory manner. Here one needs to depend entirely on archaeological evidences to understand the nature of these structure patterns. Since we wish to focus on Indian situation we need to also warn ourselves about some built-in problem of Indian archaeology.
One of the challenging features for Indian archaeologists is that unlike in Egypt or Mesopotamia, Indian prehistory does not show any sharp (demarcating barrier with living traditions. In addition to this, the existence of rich and variegated myths with or without cultural memory renders much of the retrieved archaeological data a part of a continuous culture.
Interpretation of archaeological data within such a situation cannot be always without controversy. There can be no better example of this than the discussions that have gone around about the authorship of Indus Valley Civilization in both national and international academic publications.
The birth of Indus Valley Civilization can be archaeologically demonstrated as having developed from within the interplay of a large number of distinct local traditions. According to some experts and I quote them, “Archaeology documents a great deal of cultural developments in South Asia between 6000 and 1000 B.C. During the mid-third millennium B.C. one or more of these groups developed rather quickly into the Harappan culture.”
Shaffer and Lichstenstein further clarify this pluralistic nature of Harappans in the following way:
Earlier Harappan culture was described as the single, monumental social entity in the Indus Valley area. However, we now know that there were several contemporaneous cultural groups occupying the same and immediately adjacent geographic areas. These include the cultural groups of the Kot Dijian, Amrican, Hakran and final Mehrgarh occupations, to note but a few. Culturally, the Harappans was certainly the most impressive of these, but it was not alone, rather, it was part of a greater cultural mosaic in this geographic area which we are just now beginning to appreciate.
Within about five to six centuries after having consolidated in the Indus basin one can demonstrate large-scale population movement of the Harappans to various regions further south and east. One can archaeologically demonstrate Harappans moving into Rajasthan, Punjab, Haryana, and Gujarat also possibly reaching Maharashtra. Since none of these areas were cultural vacuums one has to assume that the Harappans were quite adept in incorporating diverse forms of cultures in the form of a multicultural tapestry.
Biological analysis of skeletons or fragments thereof retrieved from Mohenjodaro, Harappa or even from the R-37 context show a great deal of racial differences. This again confirms the possibility of a degree of pluralism which has been already emphasized from the archaeological data.
Kennnedy summarizes this is the following manner:
“Contrary to earlier theories of Harappan racial identity is the demonstration by several rigorous multivariate measures that Mohenjodaro individuals exhibit a unique pattern of regional phenotypic variability with striking differences setting them apart from skeletal series at other Harappan sites. For that matter the same degree of regional variability occurs at Lothal, Rupar and perhaps Kalibangan. Not only do these statistical data support an argument for Harappans were a single widespread and biologically homogeneous population, but they may help to account for the difficulties archaeologists face in attempting to date the skeletal remains at Mohenjodaro.”
Again without any intention of entering into a discussion on linguistic authorship of the Harappans or their relationship with the authors of Rigveda, it may not be entirely out of context to consider any clues linguists might provide towards indicating cultural pluralism existing in the larger area around Indus Valley Civilization. It is indeed interesting to note that Kuiper records as many as 26 names of Vedic individuals which are non-Indo-Aryan in origin.
Similarly Wtizel points out those 22 out of 50 Rigvedic tribal names are not Indo-Aryan. The fact that language is a powerful tool of culture renders all these evidences to indicate a strong case for the existence of cultural pluralism in India from as early as third millennium B.C. In fact if one can draw upon evidences of other contemporary Chalcolithic cultures from elsewhere in India one can see a total absence of the rise of a statehood or complex civilizational features comparable to the Indus Valley evidences.
It is also true that these sites show entirely indigenous development. (One can compare the features of Chirand in Bihar or Sangankal in Karnataka as examples of such developments). Consequently, it is quite tempting to draw upon our archaeological record to demonstrate that one of the important factors that contribute to the rise of a complex civilization is indeed cultural pluralism.
Progressing from the Vedic period one starts finding more direct and much sharper picture of plural society documented in Vayu Purana and Vishnu Purana. Rasheeduddin Khan comments that, “Today little is known of the Janapadas of Bharatvarsha the territorial communities identified by an admixture of ethnicity, dialect, social customs, geographical location and political characteristics … Bharatvarsha is reputed to have in its folds 165 Janapadas, of which probably about 120 may be located within the confines of the present day Republic of India.”
Das extends this argument of ever increasing cultural synthesis of contemporary India with such evidences as the emergence of “mosaics of distinct cults, deities, sects and ideas.” He cites numerous examples of Brahmanic Hinduism incorporating autochthonous deities within it. Jagannath of Orissa or Viththala of Maharashtra is but only a few of such examples.
In fact many Indologists believe that even Mahadeva is a metamorphosis of one of the Khtrapalas of pre-statehood date that is of Neolithic belief structures. Cultural synthesis has been a continuous process in India. Some of the latest of this process can be seen in the rise of Sufism and Bhakti traditions including the Bauls in Bengal in the late medieval times.
The arrival of the various invaders as also prospectors from the north-western border such as the Jews and the Parsees through sea are well documented historical facts. One needs to go back to these communities and study them to understand how this process of synthesis works to form the unique pluralistic society that today India is.
I propose to examine an excellent study on the Jews of India which provide a comparative evidence of the same community arriving in Europe and also India around the same time. The first mention of the Jews in the Indian context occurs in the Old Testament in the book of Esther. Apparently they settled in India at the turn of the B.C. era.
They must have arrived in several waves and settled along the western coast. The Cochini and the Bene-Israel among them were the ones who came through sea. The Baghdadis came the last as business men trading through the north western trade routes. The latter concentrated around the big trading centres and cities.
As against these urban dwellers the Cochinis and the Bene-Israel settled down as peasant’s during agriculture, horticulture and also doing business of oil pressing. The most numerous of the three groups today are the Bene Israel who were as many as 22,480 when counted in 1941. After the formation of Israel as an independent nation, large numbers of them seem to have migrated out.
According to one of the recent estimates, the number of people calling themselves Jews now left in India total only 5,271. A majority of them (62.49 percent) live in Maharashtra. Another 1067 belonging to Messianic Judaism and Enoka Israel are living in Mizoram. In other words the Jews in India form the smallest known minority known anywhere in any country (they form 0.006 percent of total Indian population).
What happens when two groups of people meet is hardly predictable. However, biological anthropologists believe that at the initial stage they either bleed or breed, but later on they breed even if they bleed. Regarding the status of the culture of the groups we have hardly any generally agreed hypothesis except mirroring of the same biological stand point of total and wholesale assimilation or miscegenation.
Social linguistics, however, provide some interesting insights into this problem of culture contact. Bloomfield believes that a minority immigrant group gradually shifts towards the language of the majority which also is the power group. Alternatively this can also promote a high level of bilingualism in case the minority group has a well-developed cultural niche within the merged group.
Proceeding with this premise as a working hypothesis one can examine the Jews migrating to north German region (usually referred to as Loter) and also to India almost around the same time. A comparison of the manner in which the language of the migrating Jews behaves can enable us to understand the mindset that encourages cultural pluralism at one place and rejects it in another.
At the time Jewish people were gathering together in northwestern Germany they had brought with them a language which was a mixture of Hebrew and Aramaic. Here they started adopting elements of Old French and Old Italian spoken by the Jews who were settled here hundreds of years earlier.
It is important to mention that these Romance dialects were already greatly Hebraised and local non-Jews never identified them with their form of French or Italian. Having a common religion enabled this new colony of Jews to amalgamate these languages with the German, which was the majority language of the region.
Thus a new language was formed. The written expression of this language was in the Hebrew script and not Latin script because of the religious barrier that existed between the Jews and the Christians. This synthetic language which was neither a Creole nor a Pidgin but a full-fledged language was later on named Yiddish.
While this language was being formed there was a lot of give and take of tales, legends, customs, folk beliefs and the like between the Jews and the non-Jews. Even borrowing of words and expressions went back and forth between them. Christians from the date of their origin held the Jews responsible for denying Christ and this created a strong animosity between them.
Consequently these borrowings could not penetrate the superficial layers. The separateness of the Jews not only crystallized a strong cultural distinctiveness in them but also enabled them to deliberately create this new language to underline this difference.
They developed a linguistic style of their own and a different vocabulary having its unique semantic ambit. Naturally stronger is the feeling of separateness, more is its barrier against external linguistic infiltration. So strong is this feeling of “we” that it creates its own distinctive linguistic expression.
Yiddish has been the created language of a certain people and there never has been any speaker of this language as a mother tongue, other than the Jews. It is not a naturally evolved but a consciously created spoken language. Thus, Yiddish does not fit any description of the linguistic outcomes of languages in contact. It is not a product of shift nor is it a manifestation of maintenance. It is certainly an ethnic marker but it spelt neither power nor popularity.
If acquired languages influenced it, inherited languages laid its foundation. Therefore, one can easily see that it was not created as a contact language not functional in connection with the majority as a “corridor language.” This phenomenon completely disproves all established linguistic theories. Consequently one can take this as a possible symptom of negative views towards accepting a pluralistic society.
As against the situation delineated above we can examine the status of the language and culture of the Jews migrating to India. Of particular importance is the case of the Bene-Israel of the Konkan coast. Some believe that they arrived around 175 A.D. fleeing from Galilee, others believe that they came as early as 960 B.C.
We have no record of the language or languages they spoke when they arrived. However, some authors believe that they were of Yemeni extraction and also possibly spoke the same language. A study of this community from the rural areas around Raigarh district of western coast of Maharashtra shows that there is a total absence of anything even remotely akin to Yiddish.
All along the coast these immigrants are settled as agriculturist and horticulturalist. Some of them have taken up businesses of one kind or the other as well. Most of them are totally indistinguishable from local non-Jewish population. They have taken up the dress of the local peasants as also their names.
Their first name of course is usually taken from the Old Testament but the second name by which they are normally addressed in the outside world is without any exception borrowed from usual high caste Maharashtrians. Examples like Dandekar, Malekar, Khemkar, Pezarkar, Mhatre and the like abounds among them.
Local non-Jewish population in this region recalls that they were referred to as Shanivar Teli or Saturday oil pressers meaning those oil pressers who do not work on Saturdays. Calling them oil pressers possibly indicates the profession they had originally taken up and may have continued until large-scale commercial production of oil started.
What is more interesting is the fact that by giving them a status of a caste group they were included in the village organization of Bara Balute or twelve occupation groups which are established components in the administration and economy of the village structure. It is not the least surprising, therefore, that they have adopted almost all symbols of rituals and customs of Maharashtrians.
Haldi Kumkum ceremony for married ladies, mangal sutra wearing by them, decorating doors with mango leaf chains and numerous other such practices are a part of Bene-Isreal custom everywhere. One can see them being practised even after they have migrated to Israel.
Hebrew-Aramaic for Bene-Israel was possibly never a spoken language because this was considered holy and was to be used only in prayers. So the only language they identify as their mother tongue is Marathi. They speak a Marathi which is more akin to the rural dialect in the Konkan region rather than the standard educated urban Marathi.
Here again is a symptom that they were totally accepted in the rural society—a phenomenon which is much more difficult than being a part of an urban anonymity. This certainly indicates the attitude and the ability of the Indian society to support cultural pluralism.
The case of the Parsees and their adoption of Gujarati as mother tongue are well known. But the case of the Bene-Israel taking to almost every symbol of Maharashtrian culture is indeed unique. There is no doubt that the multiethnic and multi-religious character of the Indian society provided a more suitable ground to accept exogenous populations.
They could get incorporated within the preexisting mosaic much more easily than they could in a mono-ethnic and mono-religious group. The situation of the Jews in European scene should be a classic example of the latter kind. In fact here Jews were not even allowed to own land because of which they took to business and became economically very powerful.
No wonder they had so strongly felt the need to underline their identity as a separate community. Interestingly the practice of the Bene-Israel of calling their synagogue ‘Mashid’ (mosque) or prayers as “namaz” is quite symptomatic of their attempt to fit within the existing variations of contemporary social groupings of the region.
Finally, one can see, a strong undercurrent of attitude that a community develops towards its own identity vis-a-vis the identity of “others” within a given historical, political and social reality. Cultural pluralism, therefore, requires an attitude of acceptance which has never been wanting in India from the day of her developing regional states.