Many years ago, at a village meeting in Garhwal, a colleague pulled out some pictures from typical garment advertisements and asked the audience what they could tell about the men in the pictures simply by looking at them.
‘They are city folks’, ‘They are affluent’, ‘They are educated’, ‘They are decent men’, ‘They are good human beings’, were the predominant answers.
The colleague then asked those present, what they would do if a man from the pictures were to suddenly be seen in their village, having lost his way to Mussoorie? ‘We will invite him home, offer him water, maybe a glass of milk, and then show him the way onward’ they said. ‘And what if it was getting dark and the last bus or jeep had left?’, they were asked. ‘He could spend the night at our home, have dinner with us,’ they said. ‘And what if he had lost his money?’ ‘Oh, we will send him with someone going to Musoorie,’ they said nonchalantly.
And, what do you think would happen if you were lost in the city and knocked on a door and this gentleman were to be face to face with you? ‘He would shut the door on our face,’ they admitted candidly.
So, asked my colleague gently, who is educated and decent? Who is a good human being?
We must remember that colonisation has given us the word Civilization. The colonisers saw their own evolving society and its structure as merits of their domination. Four hundred years of living in a particular way; by being invaders, occupiers and plunderers, gave European society an urbanised lifestyle of acquisition and consumption which they considered an advanced stage of human living.
It is useful to know that the origin of the word “Civilisation” is distinct from ‘civil’ or ‘civility’ (polite or courteous behaviour). This is a word taken from the French (meaning ‘society’) and first used as an abstract noun – Civilisation – only in the mid-19th century, to denote new industrial urban settlements.
The real danger of the Civilisation story is the equation: civilization = urbanization = modernization = something that is superior / better. This has gone deep into the psyche of the modern educated class (which of course includes us). To question this is to question a gravely wrong assumption, which lies very deep in our subconscious; it will take some courageous introspection to reach and reflect upon this.
When the English came and colonised this part of the world, Indian society did not have a word-concept akin to ‘civilisation’. For us; परंपरा, सामाजिकता, संस्कार, संस्कृति, सौंदर्यद्रष्टि, कर्म, धर्म and व्यवस्था were the key word-concepts to describe the society and its combined spiritual-social-aesthetic splendour. सभ्यता was a word to describe goodness, the epitome of good conduct which flows from a संस्कार aimed at the perfection of the human being. Unfortunately, this word सभ्यता was offered as translation for Civilisation, which is so ironic because ‘civilisation’ was built upon a rampaging and diabolical mindset and behaviour.
It is this rampaging mindset that is behind modernisation and its cities, and this mindset is being globalised. As a result, असभ्यता, i.e., bad conduct, has become the mainstay of modern society; its systems demand bad conduct, and all of us, slaves to comfort and conveniences and living on unearned or only partially earned incomes, are direct or indirect participants in a very exploitative system which turns brother against brother (poverty, inequality), which destroys nature’s treasures (pollution, adulteration), and which has brought the planet itself to the brink of demise (ecological crisis).
It has been a long-standing myth in India that we can take the methods of western civilisation but retain our goodness and ethical standards, but the fact is that one cannot have Civilisation and सभ्यता both.
Spiritual guidance tells us that goodness, or the epitome of good conduct, carries with it the flame of wisdom. Goodness and Wisdom go together, they thrive where Civilisation is not.
(First published as editorial in the journal Raibar, Volume 9, July 2017)