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Man in Relation to His Environment

Keshav Malik

Conditions influencing development or growth is how the dictionary defines the word environment. For the plant, as we know, sunlight, air and water are the environment. For insects and animals topography, climate, food resources as also the proximity of different animal species, or man, is the environment. Changes in the relationship or balance of any of these several factors determine the behaviour of the plant or the animal, although this becomes acutely evident only in the long run.

The real environment

Now the environments that influence or determine plants and animals also mould human nature. But for the purposes of this workshop, as indeed in any context, the generality of men are rather less concerned with these environments and more with the vital human forces or factors fatefully shaping man. If I may say so, manís real environment is men. It is social behaviour that conditions human development in any crucial sense of that term. And what is it that moulds social behaviour ó ideas, beliefs, notions, biases, presuppositions? A child is born to all these and his unfolding character and physical nature reflect his mental inheritance. This is his real environment. All outwardly observable behaviour, all notable action could be traced to habits planted or shaped by belief.

The record of nations with vast differences in flora and fauna and in climate has shown us amazing similarity in outlook, temperament and attitude. Nations close in the first factors have shown an equal diversity in characteristics. History is replete with instances of the so-called national characteristics of a people, at once ranging from peaceable to warlike, from earthy to other-worldly, at different periods of their existence. These notable changes are due to a great many factors, but here, as I said, we must pay attention to those factors that, for our purpose, are the prime movers. Changes in dynasties, foreign conquests, floods, the havoc of drought, all these go to condition and influence man. And the aggregate of thus influenced men perpetuate the attitudes and the characteristics of the single individual. But many of the above-mentioned factors are only the outer determinants that passively shape man. The active element is the conscious shaping of the individual from manís own beliefs about himself, his nature, his destiny. It is these attitudes that determine manís relations to his time and life. When a man believes in predestination, his attitudes and behaviour are complementary. When a man believes that man makes history he assists at or is crucial to his own becoming. In other words, the state and nature of human awareness at a point of time in a cultural milieu are all important in the moulding or adapting of man to the total environment.

Two states

Now manís beliefs are expressed not always directly but through institutions, rituals, cults, ceremonials, and through the assertion of a host of group identities. These cultural or social artifices are almost of a hydraulic chemistry and of far-reaching effect on human conduct. As if in keeping with animal reflexes and instincts, they can through usage over time get to be solid, icy, inflexible, unpliable. In other words, they are not amenable to easy change or renovation. They perpetuate themselves because, in turn, human beings themselves are prone to act out of two different natures ó the pre-rational and the rational, the one open to enquiry, prepared for adaptation. This second state, the fluid one, itself follows on a state of heightened awareness, of imaginative perception. It is to be in constant touch with essential human values, as also to be possessed of a realistic knowledge of the material means, in order so to effectuate those values. In the fluid state, as I term it, there is no sacrosanctity attached to means. Holiness inheres only in the essentials. On the other hand, in the Ďiced stateí of institutions the means themselves tend to become fixed, sacred; with the result that it becomes all but impossible to question them. Fresh adaptation, here, becomes quite improbable in relation to new environments. The truth of essential values is lost. Rigidity, inflexibility, conformity, these are the consequences.

Thus institutions, at once useful and inescapable in the pursuit of the necessary, the good or the truthful life, very often become ends in themselves. A great deal of human history is the chronicle of this predicament: that, on the one hand, without organizations and institution the fruits of human insight, ingenuity, intelligence cannot easily be handed down to the individual, and on the other, that once come into being the authority which organizations or those who hold power exert creates the logic of its own vested interest. But with luck, and given a degree of sophistication, these institutions remain what they are ó means to serve the individual, materially or spiritually. At these moments in history civilization has a chance of being at its peak. The too anarchical individual tends to be asocial, whereas the individual well ensconced in the vestments of social organization tends to be authoritarian. Either way there is faulty adaptation in the essential growth and development of the human self. As one knows, the visions and insights of seers, saints, savants often get to be stratified in the narrow religious orders that follow them, so there is not too much room here for the mind, heart or spirit to move about. Similarly political or social organizations often frown on freedom of thought. It is solitary men really, therefore, who keep the ship of life on an even keel. Captains of state, kings, others, are good enough to guide the destiny of a nation in its race for survival. But from the long-term perspective they function within the confines of settled ideas and established, stratified power. No matter how civilized, the rulers are unable to break new ground. It is for this that men without organizational power but only with the power of their spirit, heart or mind chart the longer path. It is from these sources that better adaptations related to the deeper values are consummated.

Necessity and freedom

If necessity rules the choices of state, freedom does the movements of the men who bring about fresh adaptations to the environment. This freedom of the savant is not born of caprice but is subordinate to his adherence to certain self-transcending values. It is a question of opting for something which is not yet, for which the majority is not, to which the state is often opposed. Now to exist in such a condition of ostracism, aloneness or solitude and yet without any hatred or contempt for mankind is itself one of the supremely important factors in human evolution, in other words in the revolution of manís inner being. It needs moral courage. And indeed courage, on a lower plane, is itself the means for animal survival. But, as we know, man does not live by mere survival; even when in a depressed state mankind lives for and by spirit. For no man is so abject that he is unaware of his human self; his pride or his sense of integrity is born of some trace of awareness, of consciousness ó that is, in his being able to reflect on lasting values in the context of time and death. Awareness of self stems from the human capacity to stand back from oneself and to imagine oneís life as a non-person, and to imagine the other man as oneself. This is the inner situation that makes man human, above his normally animal, self-possessive nature. This it is, too, which ushers in the conflict of values in the human soul and a moral split between thought and act, between emotion and reason ó which leads to a psychic sickness. But with self-discipline there may be a great inner joy, born of the conviction that goodness is its own reward, that to experience life intensely without possessing it is to live it richly enough. Now human history ever since settled society has been a saga of man attempting to transcend his narrower nature to attain the wider one. Since mankind at a certain stage of psychic development still does find life at the survival values good enough, but nevertheless comes to grief (meeting with the inevitable terrors of existence, destroyed in the endless conflicts of a divided mankind), the sensitive struggle to remind it either of a richer life as if offered by the arts and the life of the mind or of the religious one which helps draw men together. And it is in the light of this that new social orders are conceived. The fact is that the so-called self-surpassing values are far from practised. And yet, such is the logic of human evolution that they cannot be completely disowned, at least lip service needs to be paid to them. This is the reason for humansí lying to themselves and to others. But lying is a good adaptive device for the impersonal state or for the individual acting on behalf of state or party, though not for the individual who is a person, and moral. The individualís mortality, or rather his sensing of it, and a human organizationís relative immortality, makes the individual the moral agent of possible social conscience and deeper sentience. It is this state of richer awareness, of a loftier, more delicate perception, that is in constant danger of being destroyed by the collectivity. But then awareness is the sine qua non of human existence as distinct from the indifferent brute one.


A great many beliefs about nature, about man, about invisible phenomena are, with hindsight, seen as mixtures of pure truths and pitiable illusions, often providing hope and succour to mankind but without lifting it to the creative plane. Wherever the rational element is disallowed and knowledge becomes purely revelatory, to be dispensed by priests or spirituals, secular truth about man and nature cannot be further refined. In the end, the source of truth ó or its explorer ó is fallible man. A social order that realizes the importance of this fact ensures that the free process of truth recovery, or discovery, is continuous and that there is no monopoly on it. Now in human history several, if not most, political, social or religious orders have certainly not allowed this freedom with much pleasure. The result is that the individual, and with him the social order, often become hidebound. The overall environment and its relation to mankind then turns tyrannous, sterile.

But the baby should not be thrown out with the bathwater: there are those amongst us in todayís world who, sensing the malignant element in religious orders have, at the same time, disowned all insight, all self-transcending values. But the moral and spiritual perceptions of humanity must be separated from the unfortunate doctrinaire theologies, moribund rituals and narrow confining loyalties. The essential illuminations of old still remain valid. Here, thus, is the crux of the matter, that a technically proficient mankind becomes the lord of the earth but not his own master. For him heaven and hell and God are dead. And yet, the fact remains that hell, heaven and the idea called God and so on, since they are metaphors for inner human experience rather than for outward reality located in some other time or place, cannot be dismissed. The terms define the qualities of life, and qualities of life cannot be brushed aside, they can only be refined of erroneous elements, pruned of extraneous unscientific implications. Thus the significance of convictions remains, orders of values remain and, so, prayer and penance remain, in order so to give form and direction to manís life. Man, after all, lives by meaning, his life is incomplete without it, that is, without his having told himself of the point or purpose of his life. Asceticism is not necessary to this quest, nor a resignation from life, nor a disjunction of the life of the body from that of the spirit. But a primacy of values is certainly called for. There is no democracy in the realm of values, only an aristocracy. Without such priority manís life, no matter how ample the means of physical survival or physical locomotion, remains not much removed from those of his earliest primitive forebears.

Mastery of the environment becomes more significant with manís acquisition of inner reason, as distinct from his understanding of the chain of cause and effect in objective phenomena. There need be no conflict between the two faculties. Able to cope ideally with his own reactions to human institutions, as with his own emotions, the possibility of real freedom arises; contrariwise, the outer freedom of movement and material control frees man from nature but not as far as his contradictory desires and promptings are concerned. With a balance struck in his affective and cognitive life, the relation to his environment is brought to a higher point of perfection. This process, though, can never be complete, because man is finite and the universe, infinite.

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