Comparative Studies of Indian and African Ethos

The civilizational ethos of mankind has followed man from the time of the cave dwellings and movements of the homo sapiens across the continents of planet Earth: until crossing vast oceanic spaces people settled down permanently in chosen nooks and corners of the globe which they made their own.

As they confronted the mysteries of the universe, such as the orbits of the planets around the sun, the changes in seasons and the adaptations to the vagaries of nature, they came to terms with space and time. They gave their interpretations in languages which they developed post cave paintings and line drawings. They communicated through speech, rites and rituals, oral customs and traditions, songs and dances, and gradually developed treatises, analyzing the phenomena of nature and its impact on their modes of living. They discovered symbols, totems and interpreted the rites of passages from birth to death. They founded “tenets” that suited their environments according to the climes and geographical morphologies and cosmologies which became the guiding commandments of their lives. Thus were developed religions.

Vedas – Pillars of Hindu Way of Life

In India, the Vedas (books of knowledge) have been the pillars of the Hindu way of life. Their teachings have been expressed in various forms, such as stories, treatises, epics and ballads. Similarly, In different parts of the world, different religions and beliefs developed.

Dr Veena Sharma, Fellow of the prestigious Indian Institute of Advanced Study, Shimla has brought out in illuminating and fascinating studies an inquiry into the Indian and African ethos in her recent book ‘Advaita Vedanta and Akan’ (2015) published by IIAS. This work was the result of her intense study while a Fellow at IIAS from 2010 to 2012.

Written in direct and accessible language, Advaita Vedanta and Akan brings in juxtaposition two worldviews from India and Africa. This book is a veritable bridge between India and Africa in as much as efforts are being made by India and Africa to re-establish ancient ties and engage in new cultural, economic, commercial, business and trade activities following the Third India African Forum Summit of October last year.

For Veena Sharma “there are many ways of approaching fundamental questions regarding the human condition, each valid in its own historical and geographical context.”

Veema Sharma delves deep in African Cultures

For this study, Veena Sharma made intense personal studies of the Advaitic Concepts of Vedanta (the Upanishads as commented upon by Adi Shankara) and the Ghanaian tradition. She did considerable fieldwork in India and Africa. While in Mauritius as the wife of the former High Commissioner of India, Shri K.D. Sharma in the early 1970s, she came in touch with Swami Venkatesananda who inspired and initiated her in the Divine Life. This allowed her to pursue in-depth studies of Hinduism and its multiple ways of looking at Truth and Life Divine.

She went to Benares, Rishikesh and Hardwar on the banks of the Ganges, and interviewed gurus and acharyas. She also pursued her way along the Bhagirathi River in UttaraKashi. Veena Sharma also made the Parikrama of the sacred Man Sarovar Lake in former Tibet now forming part of Chinese territories. During her fieldwork in Ghana in 2011 she conversed with eminent Ghanaian scholars and visited traditional Akan priests and practitioners, and shrines in remote places on the outskirts of Accra and Kumasi (southern central part of Ghana) far from the hub and din of urban centres.

She participated in some of the local African rituals and could interpret and understand her work as one from “within”. She also did intense empirical research at the University of Ghana under the guidance of Prof Kwane Gyekye. She attended the Akwasidae festival held every forty days at the Palace of the Ashanti King. Veena Sharma mentions her pleasant surprise in meeting with a Ghanaian Hindu Monk, Swami Ghanananda who runs the active Hindu Monastery of Africa in Accra.

Here a large number of African devotees who lead the Hindu Way of Life gather to chant Sanskrit slokas and bhajans regularly. It would be quite revealing to know that Swami Ghanananda was initiated into ascetic life by no other than Swami Krishnanandji Maharaj, founder of Seva Shivir and Human Service Trust. In fact Swami Ghanananda has come to Mauritius quite a few times.

These studies have enabled the author of Advaita Vedanta and Akan to discover that though the Advaita Vedanta may seem a distant intellectual tradition yet it permeates the collective consciousness of the common man of India and by extension the people of the Indian diaspora too.

Vasudhaiva Kutumbakam

Despite the vast linguistic and ethnic differences that make up the geographical space of the Indian subcontinent, she discovers that there is one single cultural ethos that connects all the people no matter in what part of India they are or what corner of the globe they have chosen to migrate to and inhabit. The inexhaustible manifestations, varieties of names, forms of Gods all in fact refer to “one entity”. There is but one Common Consciousness, undivided and which binds humanity – indeed life in its totality — leading eventually to the great Vedic statement “Vasudhaiva Kutumbakam” : the whole world is one family. The hospitality and openness of Indians to strangers, the capacity to absorb invading elements and accept them as “one of us”, the pluralistic views and “heterogeneity” of India emanate according to Veena Sharma from this “belief system that recognizes the right of others to follow their own ways of approaching the Divine.”

Commonalities in African Philosophical Systems

In Africa, Veena Sharma came in close touch with many countries in the mid 1970s such as Tanzania, Kenya, Zambia, Uganda, Zimbabwe, Ethiopia and others. The warmth, elegance of social interaction of the Africans was a discovery to her. While in Tanzania, Veena Sharma learnt and mastered Swahili. Indeed, this enabled her to be the Head of the Swahili Service at the All India Radio in New Delhi for quite a long time until her retirement. What impressed her most was “the collective responsibility with regard to caring for children, for the elderly and for the extended family.”

What also impacted much on her was the respect for the “ability to articulate” which was highly regarded by peoples of Africa. Most community leaders have “a repertoire of proverbs, maxims and idioms by means of which they connected to the people at large, held them together, and provided them a sense of solidarity and identity”. This sociological pattern of recognizing oral culture as being a mode of transmitting values brought and bonded people together and reinforced their strong sense of belonging.

In Ghana too, Veena noted that the same respect permeated life, with people being very deeply steeped in traditions. In Ghana, the strong pervading sense of the Divine was publicly visible whether at academic meetings or other institutions. In Africa too, as in India, the same sense of an underlying commonality of cultures could be felt, despite the huge linguistic and ethnic differences which leads Prof Kwane Gyekye to state that there is “a legitimate and reasonable basis for the construction of a philosophical system that may properly be called African”.

However, where Advaitic culture differs from Akan is that whereas Advaita is directed to a definite goal which goes beyond the social, orienting the individual searcher to align himself/herself with the Beyond and the Absolute, in Akan, on the other hand, there is an aspiration to morality that supports the collective – “The individual believes what others in his community believe.”

Veena Sharma did her PhD from African Studies Centre, School for International Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi.


* Published in print edition on 22 January 2016

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