It has been reported that Mahatma Gandhi was once asked, “What do you think of Western Civilization?”, to which he replied, “I think that would be a very good idea!” Beyond the obvious wit is a serious statement which is worthy of study.
There is one way of looking at the passage of humanity: that we are forever improving as human beings and as society, that we are more competent today than yesterday, that we have far more knowledge than our fore-fathers, in fact we are superior to them, and that therefore we have little or nothing to learn from the past.
This need not be a stated opinion; in fact, usually, it is not spoken out or asserted, but the assumption is very much there – that whatever comes after is better than before, that we are on a linear timeline of continuous progress. This can be such a deep belief that mountains of evidence of flawed human behavior can be ignored; the fact that there is today more violence, more inequality, more poverty, more pollution, and more ecological destruction than ever before is also either ignored, or else denied. In this way of looking at the world, the belief that we are forever progressing is so etched in the sub-conscious that even those who acknowledge the problems are firm that we are on the right path. Even though it is that very path which created the problems in the first place; because the assumption, of course, is that things will get solved in the future.
This is the world-view of what is called Modernity, the dominant view of the West in the last 400 years. It celebrates the beginning of this period of material research as the Age of Enlightenment.
There is another way of looking at the passage of humanity: that the world is on a path of increasing disorder; that human society is sinking ever more into depredation, and that the human being has to transform his consciousness, to enable which, there is great inspiration and guidance available from wise people in the past.
This is the world-view of Indian civilization. It sees the unfolding of the universe, or existential manifestation, as a cyclical process within which it sees the present era as Kali-Yuga, the age of darkness, and prescribes correct behavior and study to overcome its obstacles.
So obviously, in the Indian world-view, today is not necessarily better than yesterday; in fact, because of a deteriorating world order, the reverse may be expected. This has also been interpreted by some as the ‘fatalism of Indians’ which is the reason for their ‘inertia and docility’, a charge which is not completely without basis. However, an important assumption of the Indian civilizational world-view is of karma – that prior ethical actions are determining the present, and therefore it is vital to act correctly now if we desire a better tomorrow. Correct action has also been defined: as that which springs from wisdom, which in itself is a result of self-realization or truth-realization, i.e., of the atma – soul, or consciousness – finding completeness.
This then is the crucial distinction which I feel Gandhiji was pointing towards: that while Modernity has focused on man’s exploits on the material world and makes those achievements as the basis of his future hope (that the technology will solve everything?); Indian civilization has focused on man’s relationship with man, and has made that the basis for both its clairvoyance of the present disorder, as well as for the solution to overcome the situation (self-realization).
Modernity operates from within the confines of human thinking ability, and feels that we shall somehow outthink the problems (even though our thinking created these problems). It seems to see humans too as an extension of material nature, and therefore looks at human and society problems as issues which can be worked out in the same way it controls and manipulates the stone, the tree, and the animal (eugenics, for example). Since this doesn’t work, there are problems. On the other hand, the Indian world-view rests on its paramount discovery of the attributes of human consciousness – that it is not material, that it lies beyond the thinking mind, and that it holds great harmonious energy which when unlocked is the key to freedom and happiness. So all action in Indian civilizational world-view is directed towards purusharth, our efforts for truth-realization.
In the Modernity model, the final answer – a wholesome truth (or complete knowledge) – is anticipated at the end of the journey, and till then we must blunder along the path of trial and error. The best is yet to come. No wonder then that Modernity finds its heroes in futuristic science fiction – Superman, Batman, Ironman.
The Indian civilizational view is that one starts the journey with a received truth, which is the basis of tradition, goes on to ascertain and re-discover it, and hence by living proof it is re-established again and again in society. Ours is a cyclical journey, and therefore the best can be in the past as well as the future. Indian civilization therefore knows its heroes from its history and historical epics – Prahlad, Rama, Krishna, Gautama Buddha, Mahavira, Adi Shankaracharya etc.
The brilliance of Modernity in the last 400 years has led to great advancement in material research and innovations in technology. It is primarily to the West’s credit that the entire globe has been measured and mapped, and that the world has new types and means of transportation and telecommunication. But in this process and pursuit of a material solution to all problems, a question arises as to whether there has been great distancing of Modern man from his soul; whether he has become terribly irreligious – in cutting off his roots, has he also cut himself from the goodness that defines a human being? Has the West become Modern by trashing its spiritual and civilizational past; seeing no value in it? Of course Christianity exists in name, but perhaps only in name, and it appears that the Modern European (which includes the settlers in America and Australia), has become trapped in an atheistic insecurity; and that true religiousness, an awareness of the soul, or consciousness, in man and the yearning for wisdom and inner freedom, has been subsumed in the heat of colonization, commerce and consumerism. This is possibly what Gandhiji was referring to.
The present Modern framework of the West is fast being globalized. In India, it has taken over our three major systems of economics, governance and education, made them elitist and oligarchic and totally contrary to the traditional Indian social economic systems and practices. The urban governing elite is consumed by the dazzle of Modernity and has little clue of Indian civilization, while the vast majority of those in the hinterland are holding on to values and beliefs of tradition, but nevertheless are feeling alienated by the change being forced from above. This is schizophrenia at the level of society. The full might of government is solidly behind the Modernity aspiration. This is causing deep psychological disturbances in communities.
In such a situation, it may be useful to revisit the Indian civilizational worldview which has its anchorage in the development of chaitanya, human consciousness; the purpose is not to ‘go back to the past’, but to help find resolution to the enormous problems of the present. For our friends in Europe, we may suggest a re-nurturing of their roots, and to re-discover the religiousness that is surely there in some form.
We must attempt to explore all this in some depth: why rediscovering the Indian civilizational world-view is important and how we may do so; what are the distinct attributes, if any, of the Indian way of thinking; how has modern political power created and dominated the area of knowledge and why that has to be resisted and the neglected issue of a cultural supremacist approach in education, in particular mathematics and why we need to undo this.
A final word about where we come from, because in these times of division, polarization and insecurity; people may wonder about the messenger before seeing the message. Let me answer that in the traditional Indian way, through negation, by underlining what we are not: We are not Left-Liberal, we are not Right-Nationalist, and we are not Revolutionaries. All three are modern thought-corners, reactions to problems that Modernity itself has created; they are still within that framework. Are we merely reacting to Modernity? I hope not; I feel our energy comes from something substantial that we see, but that is for you to evaluate. One thing I am certain about: there is no contradiction at all in seeing humanity as one and desiring a harmonious world, and in also seeing and understanding one’s own civilizational vision, one’s cultural roots and if found wanting, to perfect that vision and strengthen those roots. In fact, this may be the way towards achieving a harmonious new world, rather than uprooting everyone and throwing them in the cauldron of Modernity.
Please think about all this.
(first published as editorial in the journal Raibar – Volume 4, April 2016)