Notions of civilisation and terms like ‘Clash of Civilisations’ and the ‘civilisational state’ have staged a comeback in ‘right wing’ political discourse, referred to as ‘civilisationalism’ in the first few decades of the 21st century.
They are sought to reinforce the civilisational basis for states like China and Russia, in order to assert their essential difference from the western model of nation states. By claiming an essential difference of the state-society relation in these states, the civilisation argument seeks to explain their exemption from the international regimes of human rights and other expectations of democratisation.
Hindu nationalists, both in India and abroad, have also shown their keenness to jump on the bandwagon of the new civilizationalism, by seeking to establish a Hindu identity for India in the global arena.
The common element in these approaches is the appropriation of the idea of civilisation for purposes of establishing an identity for the specific regions and for staking claims to sovereignty and autonomy.
The most prominent historian of the concept of civilisation, Norbert Elias, believes the initial idea of civilisation in the middle of the 18th century was marked by ‘the self-consciousness’ of superiority in the West. This led to ‘civilising missions’ which were then used to legitimise colonial expansion and occupation of different regions by western powers.
These missions in the Age of Enlightenment paraded the ‘moral and material progress’ and prowess of the West in the fields of science, technology and the emerging industrial capitalism. They also advocated reforms in the religious and social practices of the colonised.
The idea of civilisation therefore became central to the response of all prominent Indian intellectuals and social reformers to the colonial situation. One form of response was to present the West representing material achievements and the East representing spiritual wealth. This was the well-known response of Swami Vivekananda in the last decade of the 19th century.
Gandhi and Tagore’s response to this intellectual predicament went much deeper in questioning the West’s claim to civilisational superiority. Gandhi’s Hind Swaraj, published in 1909, frontally attacked the model of modern civilisation and remains a landmark in anti-colonial thought.
Tagore’s critique begins with his essays on nationalism written and published in the middle of the First World War and continued to develop in the next two decades.
Both Gandhi and Tagore refused to rehash the material-spiritual binary. Their emphasis is more on the industrial civilisation and the devastation it had wrought on the world. At the same time, the intellectual and spiritual sources of their respective critiques came as much from the Western world as from the ancient and medieval Indian traditions.
Gandhi’s acknowledgement of Ruskin, Tolstoy, and Thoreau for his ethical and political practices is well known. Further, while there definitely was a sense of uniqueness of India’s civilisational heritage, neither Gandhi nor Tagore was in favour of taking uncritical pride in it.
They had very different approaches to organisation of Hindu society. Tagore’s critical approach went much further than Gandhi’s, particularly on the question of caste inequalities and injustices. But for all that, what differentiated their approach to India’s civilisational identity is that for them, civilisation did not merely become a basis for unity of a nation-state.
Both of them went into the semantics of civilisation while trying to translate the term into Indian languages. In Hind Swaraj, Gandhi employs the distinction between civilisation and ‘true civilisation’ — kudharo and sudharo in the original Gurarati text — to drive home the semantic distinction he makes. For Gandhi, civilisation i.e. modern civilisation (kudharo) is defined by its ability to increase physical comfort and material prosperity. This civilisation, he noted, didn’t care about ethical questions of good and bad or good and evil. It is just a quantitative measure of material progress.
But the main characteristic of a ‘true civilisation’(sudharo), Gandhi believed, was promotion of good conduct and mastery over mind and passions.
Similarly, Tagore reflected at considerable length on the semantics of the term and the difficulty of translating it into Indian languages. One of the most disturbing aspects of a commerce based civilisation for Tagore was its tendency to reverse the hierarchy of human values.
While in earlier civilisations, ‘lower passions’ like selfishness were subordinated, the modern civilisation respected no such hierarchy, often glorifying the lower passions instead. Tagore believed that such fundamental reversal in the hierarchy of human values had a deadening impact on human sensibilities and led to the loss of touch with what truly made human beings ‘human’.
For Tagore, the term dharma was the best translational equivalent of civilisation. But the term dharma in this usage did not represent a term for identity but stood for the ‘moral force’ for perfection of human personality.
Last but not the least, both Gandhi and Tagore identified the true source of evil in modern civilisation in its emphasis on speed. The glorification of speed, on which the West’s claims of superiority were based, could not be taken as an unquestionable virtue, they felt. Consequently, both Gandhi and Tagore put a great deal of emphasis on slowness as a necessary element for furthering a true civilisation.
For Tagore, the most exalted feature of a true civilisation is the ‘simplicity of spiritual expression’ manifest in ethical virtues such as offering help to the needy without expecting anything in return. But such ethical conduct takes centuries of acculturation to become part of social habit.
Gandhi’s emphasis on slowness as a necessary element of ethically oriented civilisation comes across powerfully in Hind Swaraj and in the well-known axiom: ‘Good travels at a snail’s pace…But evil has wings.’
Isabel Hofmeyr’s recent book Gandhi’s Printing Press shows in great detail how Gandhi placed emphasis on inculcating the practice of ‘slow reading’ in the readers of his newspaper in order to get them out of speeded up rhythm of everyday life produced by the industrial society and to make them more reflective and thoughtful.
Gandhi’s and Tagore’s approaches to civilisation were fundamentally universalist, both in terms of their sources and inspirations and in terms of their implications.