India is a vast country with great diversity of physical features. Certain parts in India are so fertile that they are counted amongst the most fertile regions of the world while some other regions are so unproductive and barren that hardly anything can be grown there.
The regions of Indo-Gangetic Valley belong to the first category, while certain areas of Rajasthan fall under the latter category. From the point of view of climate, there is sharp contrast. The Himalayan ranges which are always covered with snow are very cold while the deserts of Rajasthan are well known for their heat.
The country also does not get uniform rainfall. There are certain areas like Mawsynram in Meghalaya which is considered to be the world’s wettest place. On the other hand, Rajasthan gets hardly 3 inches of rainfall per year. This variety in climate has also contributed to a variety of flora and fauna. In fact, India possesses the richest variety of plants and animals known in the world.
Diversity is, however, only one side of the picture. One feature that is most often noticed about India is its Unity in Diversity. This overworked cliché has become a part of India’s self-identity. India is a country of sub-continental proportions. From north to south, east to west, people from diverse backgrounds have mixed cultures due to centuries of intermingling. Nevertheless, there has been an underlying continuity in identity. There are very few countries on the earth which have such enormous cultural diversities that India offers. In the past, foreign travellers – among others, Megasthenes (315 B.C.), Fa-Hsien (405-11 A.D.), Huen Tsang (630-44 A.D.), Alberuni (1030 A.D.), Marco Polo (A.D.1288-93) and Ibn Batuta (A.D. 1325-51) – observed and recorded this diversity.
As per Herbert Risley, “Beneath the manifold diversity of physical and social type, language, custom and religion which strikes the observer in India there can still be discerned a certain underlying uniformity of life from the Himalayas to Cape Comorin”. There are bonds of unity underlying all this diversity. These bonds of unity may be located in a certain underlying uniformity of life as well as in certain mechanisms of integration. The bonds of unity are described as geo-political unity, the institution of pilgrimage, tradition of accommodation and tradition of interdependence.
(a) Geo-political Unity
The first bond of unity of India is found in its geo-political integration. India is remarkable in its geographical unity marked by the Himalayas in the north and the oceans on the other sides. Politically India is now a sovereign state. The same Constitution and a Parliament govern every part of it. Indians share the same political culture marked by the norms of democracy, secularism and socialism.
Although it has not been recognised till recently, the geo-political unity of India was always visualized by our seers and rulers. The expressions of this consciousness of the geo-political unity of India are found in Rig-Veda, in Sanskrit literature, in the edicts of Asoka, in Buddhist monuments and in various other sources. The ideal of geo-political unity of India is also reflected in the concepts of Bharatvarsha (the old indigenous classic name for India), Chakravarti (emperor) and Ekchhatradhipatya (under one rule).
(b) The Institution of Pilgrimage
Another source of unity of India lies in what is known as temple culture, which is reflected in the network of shrines and sacred places. From Badrinath and Kedarnath in the north to Rameshwaram in the south, Jagannath Puri in the east to Dwarka in the west the religious shrines and holy rivers are spread throughout the length and breadth of the country. Closely related to them is the age-old culture of pilgrimage, which has always moved people to various parts of the country and fostered in them a sense of geo-cultural unity.
As well as being an expression of religious sentiment, pilgrimage is also an expression of love for the motherland, a sort of mode of worship of the country. It has played a significant part in promoting interaction and cultural affinity among the people living in different parts of India. Pilgrimage can, therefore, rightly be viewed as a mechanism of geo-cultural unity.
(c) Tradition of Accommodation
Indian culture has a syncretic quality i.e. its remarkable quality of accommodation and tolerance. There is ample evidence of the elastic character of Hinduism, the majority religion of India. It is common knowledge that
Hinduism is not a homogeneous religion (a religion having one God, one Book and one Temple). Indeed, it can be best described as a federation of faiths. Polytheistic (having multiple deities) in character, it goes to the extent of accommodating village level deities and tribal faiths.
What it shows is that Hinduism has been an open religion, a receptive and absorbing religion, an encompassing religion. It is known for its quality of openness and accommodation. Mechanisms of coexistence of people of different faiths have been in existence here for long.
Take for example, the case of Hindu-Muslim amity. Hindus and Muslims have always taken part in each other’s functions, festivities and feasts. They did it by evolving the mechanism of providing for a separate hearth and a set of vessels for each other so as to respect each other’s religious sensibility. This always facilitated mutual visits and sharing each other’s joy and grief. They have also done so by showing regards for each other’s saints and holy men. Thus, both Hindus and Muslims have shown reverence to the saints and Pirs of each other. And this holds as well for the coexistence of other religious groups like Sikh, Jain, Christians and so on.
(d) Tradition of Interdependence
There has been a long system of interdependence, which has held us together throughout centuries. One expression of it is found in the form of Jajmani system, i.e., a system of functional interdependence of castes. The term “jajman” refers generally to the patron or recipient of specialised services.
The relations were traditionally between a food producing that supported them with goods and services. These came to be called the jajmani relations. Jajmani relations were conspicuous in village life, as they entailed ritual matters, social support as well as economic exchange. The whole local social order was involved (the people and their values) in such jajmani links.
A patron had jajmani relations with members of a high caste (like priest whose services he needed for rituals). He also required the services of specialists from the lower jati to perform those necessary tasks like washing of dirty clothes, cutting of hair, cleaning the rooms and toilets, delivery of the child etc.
Those associated in these interdependent relations were expected to be and were broadly supportive of each other with qualities of ready help that generally close kinsmen were expected to show. The jajmani relations usually involved multiple kinds of payment and obligations as well as multiple functions.
No caste was self-sufficient. It depended for many things on other castes. In a sense, each caste was a functional group in that it. rendered a specified service to other caste groups. Jajmani system is that mechanism which has formalised and regulated this functional interdependence. Furthermore, castes cut across the boundaries of religious communities. We have earlier mentioned that notions of caste are found in all the religious communities in India. In its actual practice, thus, the institution of jajmani provides for inter linkages between people of different religious groups. Thus a Hindu may be dependent for the washing of his clothes on a Muslim washerman. Similarly, a Muslim may be dependent for the stitching of his clothes on a Hindu tailor and vice versa.
Efforts have been made from time to time by sensitive and sensible leaders of both the communities to synthesise Hindu and Muslim traditions so as to bring the two major communities closer to each other.
The contributions made by Kabir, Eknath, Guru Nanak and more recently Mahatma Gandhi, are well known in this regard. Similarly, in the field of art and architecture we find such a happy blending of Hindu and Muslim styles.