When Age is Virility
By M J Akbar
India Today Column: Third Eye
October 11-18, 2010
In which year of Lord, or before the Lord, did India become civilised? According to the authoritative assessment made at the opening ceremony of year of the Commonwealth Games, Indian civilization is 5,000 years old. This means, obviously, that Government of India intellectuals have concluded, after careful scrutiny, that every Indian before that time was barbaric.
What is civilization? Is untouchability civilized? Was it civilized to make a fellow human being carry a pot around his neck so that his spit would not pollute the ground, and whip him if his shadow dared to cross the path of Brahmin? If not, then we may have started our trek towards civilization in 1932 when Gandhi and Ambedkar signed the Pune pact to forestall a social upheaval that would have left a still-dependent India in tatters.
Does the matrix of civilization include a full stomach? There are over 400 million Indians who still survive on a subsistence diet. How soon before we can declare our nation fully civilized? Is civilsation architecture? Is there a monument moment which marks a swivel point forward? Egyptians claim, with some evidence, that the Great Pyramid is 4,000 years old, so they have some right to the 5,000-years span: it requires a millennium of Knowledge in physics and mathematics, and much trial and failure, to attain pyramid-perfection.
The architecture of Indian antiquity is far more recent. As Tamil patriarch K. Karunanidhi has pointed out, in an oblique political manoeuvre that is by-product of a sophisticated mind, we have notbeeb able to trace the memorial of Chola king Raja Raja, who ruled between 985 and 1014, but there is at least one judicial pronouncement from the Allahabad high Court that places the birth of Lord Rama in the Krita yuga, which covers 17,28,000 years. The skeptical Karunanidhi believes that Dravidian civilization is about 3,000 years old, which leaves the Aryan north with 2,000 years of headway by Delhi’s calculation. He adds that Dravidians are descendants of a race that lived in Lemuria hundreds of thousands of years ago. Civilisation, then, forms only a small part of our heritage.
Is literature the alpha of modern civilization? The word is certainly more powerful than stone. Language bears the burden of time more easily, since it is consistently reinvigorated by popular invention. The finest expression of language is surely mystical. In the beginning, says the Bible, was the word. Irqa: read!, said the angel Gabriel to the Prophet Muhammad when the final message in the Abrahmaic tradition came down. Om is sound incarnate. Is organized religion, with its thesis of codes and plentitude of values, the starting point of civlisation?
A brave thought, for it moves the definition of evolution from the Darwinian template of incremental change through minute physical variations, caricatured in the progress of hunched, hairy ape to the semi-hairy biped called man, to the nuances of philosophy and belief. Alas: the theory of faith has rarely been in harmony with the behavior of the faithful. Every religion advertises the virtues of peace; each is consumed by a religiosity that engineers war. The ape kills as well, but for more rational reasons, and on a far smaller scale. Which forest has been denuded of life by animal war? It is only the human being who places a premium on existence over co-existence, and then compounds the arrogance by insisting that his version of behavior is superior to anyone else’s. Europe colonized the world in the name of civilising it. To be fair, this western march of greed was often provoked by Eastern folly.
However depressing and contrary the evidence, civilization remains the ultimate temptation, an umbrella identity that often rises above nationalism without disturbing its comforting limitations, a siren call to glory and its first cousin, war. Samuel Huntington was not particularly original. Selling the hunter as victim has been a familiar assignment for a certain kind of academic. He actually set out to justify a civilisational clash with China, but won a lottery with his back-up number, Islam.
For traditional champions of civilization, age is virility. 5,000 is not just a number; it is a cry of triumph. The Chinese seem to ignore the rivalry of claims as an inferior pursuit. There is only one reason why Indian and Chinese civilization have managed to stay alongside without too much conflict, the Himalayas.
Civilisation is a good idea, but with the Himalayas.