THOSE "WHO WEAR COTTON CLOTHES, use the decimal system, enjoy the taste of [curried] chicken, play chess, or roll dice, and seek peace of mind or tranquility through meditation," writes historian Stanley Wolpert, "are indebted to India." India's deep-rooted civilization may appear exotic or even inscrutable to casual foreign observers, but a perceptive individual can see its evolution, shaped by a wide range of factors: extreme climatic conditions, a bewildering diversity of people, a host of competing political overlords (both local and outsiders), enduring religious and philosophical beliefs, and complex linguistic and literary developments that led to the flowering of regional and pan-Indian culture during the last three millennia. The interplay among a variety of political and socioeconomic forces has created a complex amalgam of cultures that continue amidst conflict, compromise, and adaptation. "Wherever we turn," says Wolpert, "we find . . . palaces, temples, mosques, Victorian railroad stations, Buddhist stupas, Mauryan pillars; each century has its unique testaments, often standing incongruously close to ruins of another era, sometimes juxtaposed one atop another, much like the ruins of Rome, or Bath."
India's "great cycle of history," as Professor Hugh Tinker put it, entails repeating themes that continue to add complexity and diversity to the cultural matrix. Throughout its history, India has undergone innumerable episodes involving military conquests and integration, cultural infusion and assimilation, political unification and fragmentation, religious toleration and conflict, and communal harmony and violence. A few other regions in the world also can claim such a vast and differentiated historical experience, but Indian civilization seems to have endured the trials of time the longest. India has proven its remarkable resilience and its innate ability to reconcile opposing elements from many indigenous and foreign cultures. Unlike the West, where modern political developments and industrialization have created a more secular worldview with redefined roles and values for individuals and families, India remains largely a traditional society, in which change seems only superficial. Although India is the world's largest democracy and the seventh-most industrialized country in the world, the underpinnings of India's civilization stem primarily from its own social structure, religious beliefs, philosophical outlook, and cultural values. The continuity of those time-honed traditional ways of life has provided unique and fascinating patterns in the tapestry of contemporary Indian civilization.
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