As someone interested in ancient history, I have often noticed – and marveled – at the similarities and differences between the many ancient civilizations. The Maya Civilization, ancient Egyptian Civilization, ancient Indian Civilization, ancient Chinese Civilization, as well as the ancient Greek and Roman Civilizations (though similar at some basic levels, also) showed remarkable differences. Not just in the way that they constructed their buildings and built their cities; or in the costumes they used and food they ate, etc. (which is how many of us usually differentiate between various civilizations); but also, more fundamentally – in how they organized their societies and their approach towards life itself (or their ‘civilizational philosophy’).

With the increasing influence of Western nations, however, the definition of ‘civilization’ itself underwent a change. In a remarkable talk, titled Civilization and Progress, delivered in 1924 by the Nobel laureate Rabindranath Tagore during his visit to China (available in the beautifully compiled Talks in China); he highlights the uncritical acceptance of the ‘notion’ of Western Civilization by the Asian countries:

A Chinese author writes: ‘The terribly tragic aspect of the situation in China is that, while the Chinese nation is called upon to throw away its own civilization and adopt the civilization of modern Europe, there is not one single educated man in the whole Empire who has the remotest idea of what this modern European civilization really is.’ …The word ‘civilization’ being a European word, we have hardly yet taken the trouble to find out its real meaning. For over a century we have accepted it, as we may accept a gift horse, with perfect trust, never caring to count its teeth. Only very lately, we have begun to wonder if we realize in its truth what the Western people mean when they speak of civilization…Civilization cannot merely be a growing totality of happenings that by chance have assumed a particular shape and tendency which we consider to be excellent. It must be the expression of some guiding moral force which we have evolved in our society for the object of attaining perfection.

If we were to take a specific example – in India, civilization is often translated in Hindi, as ‘sabhyata’ – those familiar with Hindi would notice that sabhyata more accurately means politeness or good manners. Is ‘being civilized’ just about ‘being polite’? Or must it mean something more?

“The Sanskrit word dharma” says Tagore, “is the nearest synonym in our own language that occurs to me for the word civilization. In fact, we have no other word except perhaps some newly-coined one, lifeless and devoid of atmosphere. The specific meaning of dharma is that principle which holds us firm together and leads us to our best welfare. The general meaning of this word is the essential quality of a thing. Dharma for man is the best expression of what he is in truth. He may reject dharma and may choose to be an animal or a machine and thereby may not injure himself, may even gain strength and weal from an external and material point of view; yet this will be worse than death for him as a man…One who is merely a comfortable money-making machine does not carry in himself the perfect manifestations of man. He is like a gaudily embroidered purse which is empty. He raises a rich altar in his life to the blind and deaf image of a yawning negation and all the costly sacrifices continually offered to it are poured into the mouth of an ever hungry abyss”

Underscoring how ‘being civilized’ itself has come to mean ‘being civilized as per the norms and expectations of the colonial powers’ he says:

We have for over a century been dragged by the prosperous West behind its chariot, choked by the dust, deafened by the noise, humbled by our own helplessness, and overwhelmed by the speed. We agreed to acknowledge that this chariot-drive was progress, and that progress was civilization. If we ever ventured to ask, ‘Progress towards what, and progress for whom,’ it was considered to be peculiarly and ridiculously oriental to entertain such doubts about the absoluteness of progress. Of late, a voice has come to us bidding us to take count not only of the scientific perfection of the chariot but of the depth of the ditches lying across its path.

He then gives a particular example of the differences in what would be considered civilized in the West and in the East:

Lately I read a paragraph in the Nation…discussing the bombing of the Mahsud villages in Afghanistan by some British airmen. The incident commented upon by this paper happened when ‘one of the bombing planes made a forced landing in the middle of a Mahsud village,’ and when ‘the airmen emerged unhurt from the wreckage only to face a committee of five or six old women, who had happened to escape the bombs, brandishing dangerous-looking knives.

The airmen were taken to a nearby cave where they were kept in safety (even as the bombs were still being dropped by British jets), fed and looked after for 24 days – and then escorted to a safe city nearby from where they could escape.

In the above narrative the fact comes out strongly that the West has made wonderful progress. She has opened her path across the ethereal region of the earth; the explosive force of the bomb has developed its mechanical power of wholesale destruction to a degree that could be represented in the past only by the personal valour of a large number of men. But such enormous progress has made Man diminutive. He proudly imagines that he expresses himself when he displays the things that he produces and the power that he holds in his hands. The bigness of the results and the mechanical perfection of the apparatus hide from him the fact that the Man in him has been smothered.

Tagore compares this to an experience he had as a child:

A toy bought from an English shop was given to one of our companions; it was perfect, it was big, wonderfully life-like. He became proud of the toy and less mindful of the game; he kept that expensive thing carefully away from us, glorying in his exclusive possession of it, feeling himself superior to his playmates whose toys were cheap. I am sure if he could we the modern language of history he would say that he was more civilized than ourselves to the extent of his owning that ridiculously perfect toy.
One thing he failed to realize in his excitement — a fact which at the moment seemed to him insignificant — that this temptation obscured something a great deal more perfect than his toy, the revelation of the perfect child.

Those people who went to bomb the Mahsud villages measured their civilization by the perfect effectiveness of their instruments which were their latest scientific toys. So strongly do they realize the value of these things that they are ready to tax to the utmost limit of endurance their own people, as well as those others who may occasionally have the chance to taste in their own persons the deadly perfection of these machines. This tax does not merely, consist in money but in humanity. These people put the birth-rate of the toy against the death-rate of man; and they seem happy. Their science makes their prodigious success so utterly cheap on the material side, that they do not care to count the cost which their spirit has to bear.

According to a Mahsud, hospitality is a quality by which he is known as a man and therefore he cannot afford to miss his opportunity, even when dealing with someone who can be systematically relentless in enmity. From the practical point of view, the Mahsud pays for this very dearly, as we must always pay for that which we hold most valuable. It is the mission of civilization to set for us the right standard of valuation. The Mahsud may have many faults for which he should be held accountable; but that, which has imparted for him more value to hospitality than to revenge, may not be called progress, but is certainly civilization.

Recalling another incident, he mentions how when he was travelling to Calcutta from a place about 100 miles away and his car had developed a snag – requiring him to stop every few miles and ask for water – the people living in the countryside often took great trouble to get him the water but refused to be paid for it.

To be able to take a considerable amount of trouble in order to supply water to a passing stranger and yet never to claim merit or reward for it seems absurdly and negligibly simple compared with the capacity to produce an amazing number of things per minute.Yes, it is simple; but that simplicity is the product of centuries of culture; that simplicity is difficult of imitation. In a few years’ time it might be possible for me to learn how to make holes in thousands of needles instantaneously by turning a wheel, but to be absolutely simple in one’s hospitality to one’s enemy or to a stranger requires generations of training. Simplicity takes no account of its own value, claims no wages, and therefore those who are enamoured of power do not realize that simplicity of spiritual expression is the highest product of civilization. [1]

A process of disintegration can kill this rare fruit of a higher life, as a whole race of birds possessing some rare beauty can be made extinct, by the vulgar power of avarice which has civilized weapons. This fact was clearly proved to me when I found that the only place where a price was expected for the water given to us was when we reached a suburb of Calcutta, where life was richer, the water supply easier and more abundant, and where progress flowed in numerous channels in all directions.

Stressing how civilization is not just a ‘growing totality of happenings that by chance have assumed a particular shape and tendency which we consider to be excellent’ (and far more than a society whose members appear outwardly ‘civil’ or ‘polite’), Tagore notes:

A civilization remains healthy…as long as it contains in its centre some creative ideal that binds its members in a rhythm of relationship. It is a relationship which is beautiful and not merely utilitarian…In the course of the last two centuries, however, the West found access to Nature’s storehouse of power, and ever since all its attention has irresistibly been drawn in that direction. Its inner ideal of civilization has thus been pushed aside by the love of power.

Man’s ideal has for its field of activity the whole of human nature from its depth to its height. The light of this ideal is gentle because diffused; its life is subdued because all-embracing. It is serene because it is great; it is meek because it is comprehensive.

Talks in China is a beautiful compiled and printed little gem, that contains an introduction of Tagore’s visit to China in 1924 and seven of the talks that he delivered there – and chose personally for printing.


[1] Nipun Mehta, in his popular graduation speech on his experiences of walking a 1,000 Kms across India, Paths are made by walking, shares a similar experience in modern-day India.

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