The Lost Civilisation

Looking at the recent week’s news, or rather the news of the past few months, along with the chatter on social media, I sat pondering what irked us so much as to show this level of anger or be such big antagonists. Is it our culture or our upbringing or the intervention of outside factors not matching our tastes? It makes one question the foundations and the basis of the word civilisation. Are we actually progressing to an advanced stage of social development or organisation? Or are we being hindered by our myopic vision and rather headed for regression?

The number of strife’s and conflicts worldwide has increased significantly, more of hate spurred wrongdoings and wilful law breaking is on the rise, and in some extreme cases even medieval sentiments and practices are also gaining prominence. We spend so much time on researches and development yet science is yet to formulate the perfect mi of ingredients for world peace and harmony.

Civilisations start with the birth of economics systems, culture, settlement patterns, forms of government, social stratification, literacy, livelihood, etc. But it ends with one of two ways – absorption into a single, bigger power through merging of cultures or collapsing into its previous form and returning to the dark ages. Today we call ourselves a modern people and a modern civilisation while at the same time we are unable to look or go beyond our own reaches. We are limited and limiting ourselves with our minds and mentalities. We do not think beyond or after – majority of us have lost that capacity.

Looking at India specifically, going over the history of the country, we see a lot of development and progress – in research, education, economic stability, social abuses restriction, etc. However, still India has a third of its population below the poverty line, corruption (though has abated a lot) shows signs of spiking, cases of hate or extremist ideology spurred activities on the rise, abuse against women and children going unpunished and rampant misuse of power by the citizens, elite and politicians alike. It makes one wonder and question – where are the signs of progression?

Political scientist Samuel Huntington has argued that the defining characteristic of the 21st century will be a clash of civilizations – conflicts between civilizations will supplant the conflicts between nation-states and ideologies that characterized the 19th and 20th centuries; though his views have been strongly challenged by others like Edward Said, Muhammed Asadi and Amartya Sen in recent years. In his book, Identity and Violence, Sen questions if people should be divided along the lines of a supposed ‘civilization’, defined by religion and culture only. He argues that this ignores the many others identities that make up people and leads to a focus on differences. Further, through his book Orientalism, Said emphasises on an important notion which perhaps defines western civilisation – justification and self-affirmation of their European identities rather than an objective academic study to impartially understand the impact of culture on the people.

A few thousand or even hundreds of years back, we were a thriving civilisation – pushing the boundaries of science, social stratification, economic systems and literacy. Today, it is becoming a distant tale of past heroics. We are quite below the average worldwide literacy rate with a wide disparity based on gender. On the social stratification factor, we are yet to emerge from our cultural and religious divides – starting from the partition riots of 1947, to the Gujarat riots of 1969 and 1984 Anti-Sikh riots, to the recent 2002 Gujarat riots and the 2010 Deganga riots; the religious and cultural flare-ups are still strongly scarred in the minds of the citizens – an constant reminder of our arrogance and reversion to our primal instincts despite all the literacy. And speaking on literacy, we still prefer paying a bribe to bypass the system and get the work done rather than urging for transparency and waiting our turn. Educated individuals make statements based on their limited understandings without grasping the full flow of information. Are these the signs of progression?

Compared to the Asian economies, India has consistently dropped in ranking based on the number of patents filed. The knowledge level and standards of education have deteriorated – students from primary schools are taught not to think beyond the basic requirements and to be more proficient at rote learning than at concept and understanding based learning. Our social structure is also not yet reformed and emerged from the medieval abyss of ignorance. Parents still prefer their children to be engineers, doctors, lawyers or the like, the promotion and furtherance of art and culture (the retainers of civilisation) is lost in the battle. People are more focused and attuned to pursuing short term objectives without envisioning the effect of those decisions on the larger picture. The internet and digital media savvy generation care more for the social activities of their “friends” rather than meeting the person or enquiring into their wellbeing.

As point out by renowned cultural critic and author Derrick Jensen, modern civilization is directed towards the domination of the environment and humanity itself in an intrinsically harmful, unsustainable, and self-destructive fashion. He defines civilization as “a culture… that both leads to and emerges from the growth of cities,” with “cities” defined as “people living more or less permanently in one place in densities high enough to require the routine importation of food and other necessities of life.”

Therefore, coming back to the sub-continent, are we really the advanced civilisation we make ourselves out to be – the dominant race, hurtling towards the unsustainable self destructive end? Or are we a rationally sound, logic based race understanding the value and implications of our culture and without criticizing able to build on the knowledge of the past for a sustainable, legacy driven, self-sustaining civilisation? The answer to that, I think will help us find the lost civilisation – an ever progressive complex society characterized by urban development, social stratification, developed forms of communication, and a perceived separation from and domination over the natural environment by a cultural elite. Or will it be something more simplistic – a developed urban and rural population with limited, rational social stratification and distinct cultural identities not conflicting with each other?

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