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Relentless materialism has undermined the cultural strength of people everywhere, fragmenting society into haves and have-nots. Now it's time to remove disparities and achieve cultural synthesis.

by Acarya Pranaksrnananda Avadhuta 

For the past twenty five years I have been living in countries with families and in cultures which are outside my native experience. I was born and lived in the United States until I was twenty-seven, for the last twenty-five years, I have lived in India, Philippines, Thailand, Malaysia, Singapore, Indonesia, Germany, Sweden, Holland and now Italy. I have been teaching meditation to the interested people of these countries and cultures. However it was always necessary for me as a teacher to understand the surroundings in which I was teaching.

When I was a boy I grew up in an environment of people whose country of origin was not the United States, that is to say that many of the people who lived near my home were descendants from parents who came from Europe to the United States. Many of the children with whom I went to school had grandparents who found it difficult to speak in English and needed help from their children to communicate. Many read the newspaper in their native language. The food cooked in their homes depended upon their country of origin. I could travel the world just by going to visit my friend's homes and enjoying the delicious dishes of many parts of the world.

When our grandparents and parents would speak together, they would speak in their native tongue. We children could not understand them since our parents gave importance only to English in our education. Many of the customs which were popular during those days are no longer practised in the United States. They have been replaced by the culture propagated by television advertisements. We can call it pseudo-culture.

Whenever we would ask our grandparents why they left their native land to come to the United States, they would reply that they wanted to give a better life to their children. Whenever there was conflict between the desires of the children and the desires of the parents, the parents would invariably argue that they wanted to give to their children what they themselves did not get. However there was also a conflict in their own minds because to give something to their children materially, they had to lose something culturally. So they would also lament over this dilemma which they faced. However since we children grew up in the United States, we never could really understand what actually was being lost.

When I went out of the United States for the first time, I realized that the experience of the United States was different. In most of the countries in Asia in which I travelled, the culture and language of the people within a particular country were the same. If there were any differences, then the differences were usually in different parts of the country. Those people who spoke that language or followed those customs lived in a particular part of the country. Especially this was true in the town and village areas. As people migrated to the cities for economic reasons, they met people whose language, clothing, food habits and religious practices were quite different. In the villages or towns because of their smallness it was easier to know the neighbours and understand their difficulties. In fact, in many small communities the people got involved in each other's problems to try to find a solution.

In communities where television and private cars were not popular and people spent most of their time outdoors mixing with their neighbours, there was more communication. Mothers meeting at the market or on the road, talking about the family news. Fathers meeting at the restaurants and pubs exchanging news and views. Children playing together in the streets, playgrounds, etc. People taking interest in each other's lives.

However as television became popular and more and more programs were added and families had their own cars to move around (in some cases two cars per family), then there was much less communication between neighbours.

At the same time there was an accelerating movement away from small local businesses to large centrally located businesses. In small shops people met, exchanged news, talked about family, marriages, new babies, graduations, etc. The shop owner knew all the customers by their first names and knew everything about their families.

However as businesses grew these close relationships between customers and shop owners were also lost. Everything could be purchased under one roof, conveniently and for lower prices. Materially we could get more and cheaper, but the price included some cultural loss, a distance from one another. To get more, people had to move to the cities because that which was available in the cities was not available in the villages or countryside.

Meanwhile certain countries were more successful at the game of big business. They were also being advertised in various ways on television. One only had to turn on the television to see movies, programs, soap operas, where the characters were wearing the latest fashions, driving the nicest cars, using the newest technology, having the most beautiful and the most handsome bodies etc. Anyone who watched television could see the advanced material well-being of those successful countries.

Of course, if you want to enjoy these wonderful material achievements, you can come to the biggest and best supermarkets in the biggest and best cities. Or better yet, you could move to those materially successful countries and become a citizen there so that you could always enjoy a higher standard of living. But the price you pay is also cultural.

So as material wealth became more and more concentrated in the hands of a few, people from the rural areas left for the cities and people moved from one country to another. As places became more crowded, communication became more difficult. As communication depended more on machines, people were more isolated. We were more careful about our own problems and less aware of others needs. Now it seems that it is difficult for two people to live together because of our individual needs. Many prefer to live alone, coming together when it is mutually convenient.

At the same time, we find that people from other cultures are bringing with them some of their own cultural practices which help people to get back in touch with each other and themselves. Perhaps if we look back at our own cultural past we might find something there that we should reawaken. Materialism has taught us very well how to get, but our cultures have universally taught us, also, how to give. The "getting" has been developed at the expense of the "giving".

It is the collective responsibility of human society to remove social and economic disparities. As long as there are economic disparities, it is impossible to establish the bonds of friendship. The gap between rich and poor has to be reduced. Some say that there should be a minimum and a maximum wage. Because material wealth is limited, it is not possible for the income of a few to continue to rise without the loss of income of the majority.

Controlling the tendency to exploit depends on the capacity of the society and the individual to control greed. So a sentiment should be created against exploitation. There are many individuals and groups around the world who are broadcasting the anti-exploitation sentiment. However, anti-exploitation sentiment is not enough. There should be a collective effort to guarantee the minimum essentials of life to all and to increase the wealth of the country.

There should be no small groupings within society claiming unjustifiable economic and social privileges. Throughout history we have seen people trying to maintain their group integrity by marrying their sons and daughters to members of their own religious, cultural or economic group. Belonging to a particular group or section of society is not necessary for marriage.

The great ideals are disappearing from social life and disunity is increasing among people. The biographies of great saints, sages and personalities from all cultures can be taught to the children in schools. Dramas, movies, television programs showing the lives of outstanding personalities from different countries of the world can be shown. Great ideals can be expressed through the lives of great personalities and the human values of various cultures.

Collective celebrations of various cultural activities can be conducted in the cities for all people to attend. Many of the ills of society develop because people do not care to know other members of society. By holding certain functions collectively, all the participants are engaged for some time in doing the same thing and this brings about a feeling of commonness and interest in others. There is an opportunity to share the conditions and difficulties of others.

As long as the feeling of nationalism remains alive, mutual conflicts are inevitable. Human welfare depends on the degree of psychic expansion. When nationalism cannot embrace every human being, that nation cannot attain perfect well being. The inculcation of the spiritual outlook will not strengthen the boundaries between nations but will lead to the establishment of a universal state, a global nation with a common thread of unity and aspiration - the human nation.

Aspects of unity should be encouraged. Aspects of disunity should be discouraged. Whenever differences arise, it is wise to ignore them. When human beings come close to one another with a genuine feeling of unity, when they share the common joys and sorrows of life, those external differences gradually vanish as a matter of course, they are removed through natural fusion. It is not possible to eradicate them by force.

Let us take the necessary steps to implement cultural synthesis by organizing a collective social function regularly, where all cultures have a venue for their expression. Let the streets become alive with cultural songs, dances, dramas, parades and food stalls for all to see and enjoy. Let us project the great ideals of all cultures for all to see. Let us celebrate the Universal Family of Humanity.