I remember in High School my history class civilisation was defined “scientifically” by the presence of writing, monuments and religion.and social structure.
True, The early social scientists of Europe were heavily indebted to Greece, with all its monuments, democracy and history. Still, civilzation was defined by exclusion. Non Greek’s were Barbarians, the Chinese described them selves as wise, holy and civilised, the rest uncivil. Islam sees Mohommads light revealled to a darkened world. The Brahman of Banares may believe others too inferior to be touched. We seem to define civiisation in terms of them and us. In terms of our own ethnocentric culture.
We may be civilised but act anything but civil. We are human – but regularly forget to be humane. Humanity is found in all societies and so cannot fit the classification schemes of social scientists. The result was that in the West at least an apparently benign classification scheme tended to define Europeans as civilised, Asia as semi civilized with black peoples unworthy of the term. We may see ourselves as less racist, still, textbooks tend to present the dominant ideology to an impressionable audience. The Media adds to division even more since complete analysis is impossible in 600 word news grabs. Once labelled the process of difference – which seems to divide us further. Is a monument creating civilisation with no written language uncivilised? By at least one definition yes. To the British Australia’s inhabitants had no monuments – their apparently miserable lot justified to many a belief that survival of the fittest required white society to let them die out. African archaeology was often driven by a need to prove racial theories.
It of course works both ways, the Khoikhoi of South Africa were denigrated by the Portuguese as some of the lowest human beings on Earth. Yet, the term Khoikhoi means ‘Men of Men’ or the ‘Real People’ was as a collective name for themselves. This implied that only cattle owning people like themselves were real men while the stockless bushmen tribes were not . We are reminded by Pandit Ganga Prasad Upadhyaya that in all the conflicts of the twentieth century, aggressors used defence of culture to give a while face to make an offender appear less selfish and cover his dark interior (Vedic culture, Vijaykumar Govindram Hasanand, 2001, Dehli).
What interests me here is Upadnhyaya’s understanding of a more inclusive use of the terms culture and civiliiztion that has been perhaps lost in millennia of tradition and layered in historical pain. Upadnhyaya asks us to question the militant social model by asking us to consider the hardship of motherhood. The ancient Shatapatha Brahmana describes a mother as ones first guru and preceptor. “This is the germ of civilisation which nature has put into our mothers” he writes quoting the vedic phrase “Ekoham Bahusyam‘ ‘I am one, let me be many.’ A model of selflessness that supports the weaker babe for the future. Civilisation should be defined not by antisocial conquest but by the act of becoming civil or social. The word civil means to become social. Go back to that ever so misused word ‘culture’: From the Latin colere it means to till or to worship. Within is found the word cult. We may not immediately link culture to the idea of tilling a field. We do however, talk of agriculture, or horticulture.The tiller of the field seeks to maximise his efforts and efficiently harvest from the sees he has planted. In Sanskrit krishi means to till. Another related Vedic word is Krishti meaning a fully cultured man – but also it can mean the common man.
Upadnhyaya reminds us that the word man is traceable to the Sanskrit Manu or Manushya – the thinking being.
“Culture includes all the things, big and small, from beginning to end, which contribute to the actualisation of a sentient beings potentialities or seed power… It is a sum total of many things which play their part in their own places, but whose function is severally and jointly to turn the seed into a full grown tree. Krishti or man is that tree, and all those small or great things which help the fullest development of this man go by the collective term ‘culture.’ “
Of course the term is less well used in practice – much as there are good and bad agriculturalists. Point is that civilisation is one of the seeds that that helps actualise the seed potential of our humanity.
This point of innate humanness is not unique to the Vedas.The Dalai Lama also suggests the maternal instinct of mammals evidence the innate compassion within our design. We are not, says the Dalai Lama in The Art of Happiness, the egocentric Freudian Id driven by nothing than a destructive inner animal. We are a social animal but we are not just society. We are individuals and there is a tension in growing and building each to synergistically grow the other.
I know that at this point many of my Western friends will critically suggest this is not the India they read in history or see described in documentaries. British social policy from 1857 realised the only way to rule India’s teaming millions was divide and conquer – flare up divisions between Hindu and Muslim even where they were not been before.
However, the oldest Vedic texts describe a more monotheistic and egalitarian world before caste and sexual domination took hold. Monotheistic reformers like Dayandanda Sarawasti decried what they saw as a corruption of a pure faith that preceded the caste system and promoted equal rights for women including their education, and making Sanskrit texts available in Hindi. Earlier, Ram Mohan Roy was a prime mover in having the British ban sutee as “cruel murder, under the cloak of religion” (1830, Abstract of the Arguments regarding the Burning of Widows Considered as a Religious Rite) arguing women were as morally strong – if not stronger – than men. His belief of a Divine Unity inspired a dream of a universal religion inspired Rabindranath Tagore to observe that Roy “realized that a bond of spiritual unity links the whole of mankind.”
Sadly theory often differs from practice, and many researches rather see Hinduism as a changing amalgam of many naturalistic cults overan and merged into the cult of the invading Aryans.
But I am not arguing here for any religious view. Rather, I make a simple request for a Western reader to look beyond what (s)he thinks (s)he knows of India and the Vedas. In this, I include myself. When exposed to a new culture, there is a neurological necessity to link to what we know. To gain our bearings in terms of past experience – especially at first. Sadly, it limits the questions we seek to ask. I want to focus on an older ideal to see if it is useful in our modern world.
Consider Upanhyaya’s image of culture as a tree again. Another Sanskrit word for culture is sanskriti from kri (to do) and sam meaning well literally meaning “purification and refinement which ultimately means growth” like a seed buried in the ground the outer husk decays, its obstruction removed and growth begins.
“The soul is also covered so to speak with outer coatings, a non -soul matter, so to speak” writes Upanhyaya. These obstacles are to be removed. “Saskriti means its elimination, so thjat the inner qualities may be allowed the fullest play without any hamper.’Krishi’ and ‘Sanskriti’ both mean culture because culture does not mean the outer covering. It deals directly with inner essence. ”
The elimination of what is foreign to our refinement. My thoughts are do our cultures promote the greed and lust, or refinement? Or is this part of a greater teleological plan to force us to realise the folly of our ego? Or do we misuse a word to justify our greed? Should culture mean we be a cultured individual. Is it that just as there are good and inneffective agriculturlists there are refined and poor culturalists – or tillers – of the soul?
It is too large a task to assess every aspect of ancient Vedic ideas here. Gurucharan Das analyses the moral dilemnas the complexity of Vedic debate with a modern bent in his book The Difficulty of Being Good in the Mahabharata epic. A text where karma catches up with everyone in complex ways just as it does the Greek epics of Homer. Individual characters challenge even basic assumptions most make of India life. No one is black or white but entwined with karmic shadows driving the unconscious with a sympathy that reminds me of Leo Tolstoys works.
Still, I think we can agree civilization implies communing together. You can herd sheep into a group as you can people, but civilization implies a shared intent. Consider the word for society: Sabha. The related word Sabhyata is called ‘for all practical purposes’ a synonym for civilization, the process of making social. Sabha may be derived from bha, to shine, and sa, meaning together which Upadhyaya describes as ‘wonderfully illuminative”. ” Sabha means that the individuals of which try to make others shine, so that the lustre arising out of each individual may collectively form a centre of light. ” Like light rays that individually not sun, but each makes a contribution to the whole.
This requires we go beyond ourselves. Capitalism sin is Greed says professor Amarya Sen in The Argumentative Indian, the sin of socialist societies is envy. Enforced equality rarely works. To be truly civilized a society we must be inspired to grow within if we desire to make others shine. If like a mother we have the compassion to be the guru and preceptor to make our one many.
Many of the esoteric traditions believe in a teleological purpose leading man back to a spiritual source, A return that socially mirrors the personal return to meaning after we have exhausted the increasing demands of our ego. Will we mature as a society? Can we go beyond ourselves, or self destruct. Nobel Lauriat for Chemistry, Ilya Prigogine, demonstrated that we, societies and peoples, grow in direct proportion to the amount of chaos we can sustain and dissipate. All systems go through different life stages. Each time a system is overwhelmed by too much energy it becomes more and more chaotic, being unable to dissipate the excess. Pushed to the brink, the system either breaks down or breaks through. If it breaks through it reorganizes at a higher level and the adjusting system grows dynamically.
In other words, we are forced to do better or we collapse.
I don’t know if you believe are we being pushed to redesign ourselves the collective good. It my seem a fantasy to a secular mind. So, I ask you, what to you is a usable and civilising model of Civilization? To be more than a collective mob – to be civil – requires a looking above and beyond ourself. We may like to look at that in some practical, even political terms.
But it is all to easy to see the differences, and contrast others, and then condone and justify our own inequalities. We forget we live in a Universe.
“It is called a Universe” writes Upashyaya “because here is a particular unity pervading it – a factor which harmonizes all its different constituents.”
A Persian proverb reminds us “God did not make five fingers equal.” Why was this inequality designed? The answer is quiet clear. to give them a harmony. Exactly five fingers could not have worked harmoniously. In the garden of ideas and people we call culture, we need to remember that plants and animals come in all shapes and sizes and evolved to fill a niche that services the whole while filling an individual need. When diversity is reduced by mass agriculture other problems surface.
Similarly, we need to respect our differences and see power in diversity. Homogeneity only crushes the creative innovative spirit. Living in two worlds I am convince there is more that unites than divides us. What we value collectively and individually guides what we see in ourselves and what we think is different in others. Unfortunately, we glance at those differences and do not spend enough time to see the whole picture.
For example, I know full well that many from my Western home will scream that there tradition of freedom extends back to Grecian democracy. They object: What about the Indian caste system?, although untouchability was outlawed in 1950. Remember, Athernian Democracy extended only to the 20 percent free male population of Hellas. They forget, or do not know, that Emperor Ashoka, who died 332 BCE, decreed equality for all citizens, 100 percent, of his kingdom of all castes, male or female even animal.
Even in Modern India, with all its flaws, all citizens were legally given legal equality when the constitution was published 3 years after Independence. It took 150 years for Negroes to be recognised in the USA.
We all know it: both East and West have had moments of tolerance and inhumanity. Both East and West have preached for the benefit of all mankind and equally drifted into selfishness. Many of the corruption issues plaguing the growing India were issues that plagued the West just as grossly up to World War II. Perhaps to be civilised requires that we should be prepared to accept truth and reject untruth. To seek and learn from the whole picture.
The objective of society should be to do good for the whole world – physically, spiritually and socially, claims the Arya Samaj, founded by Sri Dayananda mentioned earlier. Most other religions and societies agree.
But this must start on a personal level – when we act according to our dharma, after considering both right and wrong. What a Christian may call following his conscience, after considering the rights and wrongs of the case. To be led by the dictates of love and justice and look for ones welfare in the welfare of all.
This requires looking beyond ourselves. To see the interconnectedness of all things. We may call this a spiritual goal. But then, in the Vedic system, says Upadhyaya, “culture begins with the gradual realisation of ourself as a non-material spirit. The more we realise this fact, the more we are cultured.”
What do you think?