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by Jyoti Sahi
Art Ashram India, November 2001.

The terrible events of Sept. 11, 2001, and the subsequent "war on terrorism" has raised a number of questions concerning what we mean by civilization. The leaders of the West were quick to characterize the present conflict as the struggle between civilized values, for which Western democracies claim to stand, and forces that are inimical to civilization as understood by the West. Inevitably this dichotomy of "those who are not with us, are against us" has tended to polarize the world into those who support the "West" and its cultural values, and the "Rest", by which we are led to believe that all other cultures, and great civilizations to which they have given rise, are little better than barbaric. Added to this very simplistic view, which seems to have come out of a prevailing globalization of a market economy, and western cultural systems, we have the concept, proposed by Mr. Samuel Huntington, that there is a "clash of civilizations". What is meant by this doctrine, which seems to underlie much of what is taking shape in the strategic war against Terrorism remains quite confused.

Many thinkers are relating the rise of a certain kind of militant fundamentalism to the phenomenon that we are now calling terrorism. In fact one could argue that the real terror to any form of true civilization, is contained within that approach to religious identity that is characterized by fundamentalism. But before we can proceed to look more carefully at that nexus of inter connecting ideas which relates religion to a fundamentalist doctrine which supports terrorism as a form of sacrifice, or martyrdom, we need to be much clearer about the meaning which we give to civilization.

Religious fundamentalism has emerged as a powerful political tool over the last fifty years, and has served the interests of what might be called "rightist" and very authoritarian governments. The fact that this terminology linking religious identity to civilization, is a marked shift from an earlier ideological discourse which took little interest in either Religion or Culture, is itself a sign of a new kind of popularist thinking which has once again used religious identity as a political tool. Here we may note how fundamentalism, which itself has many guises, is not so much a theological position, as a very political and confrontational stance.

Civilization is viewed in two ways. One is an ethical perspective which understands civil society as emerging out of certain basic human values ( Dr. Albert Schweitzer, for example, speaks of "reverence for life") which links the individual to a community, and the community to a sense of responsibility for the whole society, and the natural environment. Intellectually, this highly moralistic and rational approach to civilization is supported by a world view which is spiritual and humanistic. A thinker like Albert Schweitzer stresses that a civilization pre-supposes an understanding of the Universe, and how it functions according to certain rational laws, and the relation of the Universe to a Creator. What characterizes a civilization is the way in which it gives rise to centralized institutions and governance, and naturally produces a civil society focused on not only the City, but also the University as the educational hub of an informed, and rational republic. The other perspective on civilization is more focussed on the way in which it enhances a public and also individual sensibility, or taste for Beauty. Here civilization becomes almost synonymous with a cultural elite who are also the civil servants, but primarily artists, poets, philosophers and aestheticians. Here great value is given to the gifted individual, the creative mind, or the contemplative thinker.

These two ways of describing a civilization, and what it stands for, assume that civilization arises out of an aspiration towards what is good, and is distinctive of a socialized community, as well as giving support to individual qualities, arising from a fundamental belief in what is considered human. An art critic like Clive Bell, writing in the years just after the first world war, stressed on the hierarchical nature of a civilized society, in which a leisured class is essential, as those who are concerned with survival cannot become truly civilized. Here civilization is a very artificial state, in which high value is given to works of art and craft, over and above what is merely useful. Culture is distinguished from civilization, in that culture is more instinctive, closer to what is almost animal and unthinking-the tendency to follow the herd. For such thinkers, nationalism can never give rise to a real civilization, which always goes beyond national boundaries, aspiring towards universal ideals.

A civilization need not be restricted to the very artificial life style that we find in our modern cities. In a way, the kind of city culture that we now observe in our big metropolitan conglomerates, is the opposite of civilization. A true civilization ennobles the life of those who live close to nature, and far away from urban and crowded centres. But never-the-less, there is no doubt that the kind of economy which binds together a civilized community produces the need to communicate, and exchange ideas which brings about the ideal city. Here in this kind of "city of the mind," artists and craftspeople, philosophers and statesmen, can live together, and influence each other. Here again we might point to different perceptions of the future city, depending on which perspective is taken regarding civil society. Some have seen the temple city as the best, in which the place of worship takes pride of place. Others look at the market as providing the natural city centre, or again as we mentioned earlier there is the University city where intellectual life is all important.

It is important perhaps to remark here on the important symbolic value of the city in all civilizations. The city is ultimately a "Holy City" which itself is a reflection here on earth of a Divine or Heavenly City which provides the prototype for all earthly cities. We will return to think about this when we come to discuss the cosmopolitan city as a microcosm, in which the whole universe is reflected. The connection between civilization and empire building is another aspect of the human and social organization which we are calling a civilization. Like an empire, civilization goes beyond national boundaries, bringing together many cultures. Many empires have been created with the intention of spreading a civilization, as much as a particular religion. A civilization, however tends to collapse when an empire with which it is associated, enters into a condition of political and moral decay. However, civilizations need not necessarily be confused with empire building . The civilization that flowered in Athens, did not, at its intellectual height, intend to bring about a political empire. In the same way one might point out that world religions have also spread with those who have tried to colonize other cultures. Christianity came to Asia with the colonialists, and we must remember that one of the ways that western Christian powers justified their military adventures, was to say that they were helping to civilize, and humanize those whom they were attacking. One is reminded of the fact that just now Western powers always stress that the reason why they are attacking one of the poorest countries in the world, is because they want to help the country to modernize, and become civilized. In a similar way religious movements have also spread abroad in tandem with the secular quest of those who want power.

Civilizations have a close link with the emergence of great religions. In fact the theological idea that conceives of a God who lies beyond the Cosmos, and is the Lord of the Universe, seems to have arisen at the same time that great civilizations were being born. Often the foundational texts on which great religious systems draw their inspiration, also constitute the cultural turning point when a new consciousness that leads to a civilization comes into being. The Old Testament books of the Pentateuch, and later Prophets, the Vedas, and later Upanishads, the Dhammapada, Gospels, and Koran, are all in their own way as much great pieces of literature, giving birth to rich civilizations, as moments of Divine Revelation. However, we need to distinguish between civilizations that have their sources in a new perception of reality, and new ways of expressing experience, and the doctrines of Faith that are the basis for a World Religion. In the same way that we might distinguish between metacosmic, or Universal Faiths, from local forms of spirituality, and a vision of the Divine present in a particular place, a great civilization goes beyond local cultures, giving rise to new forms of Science, and speculative thought, as well as providing new standards of beauty with which to judge the intrinsic value of art forms. It is in this context that we are to understand such terms as Indian Civilization as related to Hindu and Buddhist thought, or European Civilization as arising out of a Christian world-view.

If we look at what is being called "Islamic civilization" it is not so easy to draw a clear line between this civilization and elements going back to Egypt, Phoenicia, and the Arab world, not to mention the Bible as it developed among the Jews, and was finally interpreted by the Prophet Mohammed and given definitive expression in the Holy Koran. Nor can this civilization be understood in isolation, without taking into account its impact on European and Christian civilizations. Turkey, and the Ottoman Empire, was both European and Asiatic. In fact, in the present debate, when people speak of Central Asian or Slavonic cultures, we must imagine a melting pot of many cultures, from which certain civilizations blossomed at certain periods of time.

Here we might consider the relation between a civilization and different cultures, or a gain at the relation of a civilization to particular epochs in time. Civilizations tend to shift, they are not rooted to national or geographical boundaries. Christian civilization has travelled beyond Europe, and today much of what we are calling Christian art is to be found not in Europe but rather in Africa, Latin America, and Asia. In the same way Islamic culture cannot be thought of only in terms of Arabia. Islam has travelled to Africa and Asia, and increasingly we find many Muslims in Europe. It is in fact this movement of civilizational ideas, which is contributing to the present sense of conflict. In the cosmopolitan cities of the West we find a mingling of not only many cultures, but also those ideas about the Universe, and the relation of the human being to the environment, which earlier characterized civilizations. Global culture is a mingling of many different cultures and civilizations which are having to learn more about each other, and come to terms with their differing world views.

A civilization transcends a national identity, means that it exhibits features which are more similar to the way in which we understand great religions. World religions have a sense of "Mission" for example, and therefore move out to engage with different cultures and civilizations. The nature of this engagement differs, in that cultures cannot simply be equated with civilizations. Civilizations, like World religions, interact with different cultures. So we really need to understand the way in which these three entities inter-act: local or national cultures, civilizations, and finally world religions. It is because these different elements of modern society represent different interests, and yet are constantly interacting, that there is the constant danger of conflicts arising. The theologian Hans Kung recently made a statement that in the future wars will be fought over religious identities, unless we can create a theology of religions which understands how a diversity of Faith systems can co-exist together. Another prediction is that increasingly wars will be fought over water-resources, rather than over artificially contrived boundary lines. In fact the importance of water to life as a whole, is similar in many ways to civilization. Civilizations have often come into existence in relation to river systems. Civilizations have a tendency to flow, and irrigate many lands, just as water cannot be restricted or possessed by one group of people, but needs to find its way back to the oceans.

According to Ananda Coomaraswamy, a civilization expresses a world view which is founded on a whole understanding of the relation of the human to the Divine, human history to Eternity. We can talk about a Christian, Buddhist, or Islamic civilization, because each of these religious systems have provided a civilization with an underlying vision of reality. Each civilization expresses through art, architecture, music, drama, dance and so forth a world view, which derives its meaning from a network of ideas emanating from a religious experience of the world. As Dr. Albert Schweitzer stresses, a civilization is essentially something spiritual. It's power lies in the spiritual meaning it is able to give to cultures. In fact one might even say that the way in which a Faith system interacts with a culture, is through a civilization. When we speak of Christian art influencing different Asian cultures, we are not meaning that it is a body of texts or dogmas, which touch local cultures. Rather it is the influence of Christian civilization which inspires cultures through music, art, liturgy and so forth. The same is true of the way in which Islam has spread---not simply through dry formulations of Faith, but through the living spirit of Islam, with its tremendous sense of Unity, and the Transcendence of God. It is this spirit of a living civilization which has brought people to experience a living Faith.

A Hindu Temple, or a Christian Church, or an Islamic Mosque, are not simply "functional" buildings, which provide a roof over the heads of worshippers. Each place of worship is a symbol, a microcosm of a whole Universe, which is the way in which a Hindu, or a Christian, or a Muslim understands Creation. There is a unity in every civilization that derives from its primary insights into the Spiritual. That is why you cannot just borrow bits and pieces from here and there, and create a kind of mixture. There is an integrity, a sense of wholeness, and consistency, in every great religious civilization, which is its unique gift, its "way of seeing" and not only of believing

. The built forms or poetic images which express an integral understanding of the position of the human being both in relation to the Creator and Creation, represent the foundations of a civilization ; cultures become the ornaments in which such civilizations are clothed. But does this mean that civilizations can never meet, can never interact or share common insights ? As a Christian I can go to a Temple or a Mosque and have a deep sense of the Spiritual present in these places of worship. I can appreciate the great beauty which radiates from these expressions of Faith. But I cannot appropriate, colonize, or domesticate these features. Every civilization has a truth of its own, and it is only by respecting this truth, and valuing it, that we can hope to create a more human world in the future, in which civilizations do not clash, but rather stand together to express the mystery and diversity of the human experience of the Divine.

The process of expressing one's Faith in the light of one's culture is different from one's relation to another civilization. This difference needs to be understood better. As an Indian I might try to use various forms of Indian culture to express the way in which I have experienced the Gospel Message. But this would be an effort which is essentially a different process from that of relating a Christian civilization to other forms of civilization. In other words, when we approach a culture which has arisen out of a particular landscape, and a local community having its own history, language, and way of expressing its identity, the effort to communicate the vision of reality which is found in the Gospels, represents an extension of the Incarnation of the Word into the world and history. But when we are concerned with the dialogue which has always existed between Christian culture and other world civilizations, having different world views from the Christian one, it is the work of the Spirit which is being manifested-a Spirit which proceeds from the inner experience of the Godhead to be found in all Faith Systems. Here once again we encounter what has always remained the two principles of a sense of Mission---on the one hand a sense of Mission which is Christo-centric, and on the other hand, an expression of Faith which is Theo-centric. In Christian art we find both these impulses. But the one does not cancel the other. I might see my art as an expression of my belief in the Incarnation. But it is also an expression of my sense of the Transcendence and Immanence of God in the whole of Creation. It is this spiritual sense of Transcendence and Immanence that all civilizations share. All civilizations are an expression of the spiritual meaning of Beauty. The trouble is that we have thought Religion is only about Truth, and have forgotten Beauty.

Here we are confronted with the aim, and scope, of that need to communicate an inner experience of reality through outer forms, which we call Mission. Every Faith system has a sense of Mission, in the same way that we also find civilizations spreading through a desire to transform cultures, which is empowered by its own missionary drive. In fact one could even say that a civilization is a mission, and as soon as this intention to spread, and influence cultures ebbs, the civilization itself begins to decline. The two motivations, one to spread a Belief system, or Faith, and the other to act as a civilizing agent, are often both aspects of the same impulse, like two sides of the same coin. Many Missionaries who travel to distant lands to bear witness to their Faith, also claim that they are trying to civilize those who they encounter. And this is often a statement made, quite oblivious of the fact that the people who are being "civilized" have often a civilization of their own !!

The Gospels contain within themselves the seeds of a future Christian civilization, which we also have to say has never been fully realized. The same is also true of the Koran, or the Bhagvad Gita; the Tao Te Ching, or the Dhamapada. These inspired texts which have been born out of a deep religious experience, are pregnant with future civilizations, which still have to be realized. No civilization so far can claim to truly represent Christianity, or Islam, or Buddhism. A great religion is a civilizing force, despite the fact that those who are its agents are often not civilized. A civilization aspires towards what is profoundly human, and also towards what is divine. All civilizations have a spiritual goal, in the same way that all great religions have a civilizing influence on cultures. However elitist, however prone to a deadening quest for power, civilized society, as long as it remains alive and vital, longs for the spiritual. Thus we can say that civilizations and Great Religions, need each other, complement each other. Ananda Coomaraswamy, in his essay "What is civilization ?" remarks that the word Purush, meaning the Divine Person in Hindu religious tradition, comes from the root Pur, meaning the City. The concept of a civilized human being, derives from a cosmology which recognizes in the microcosm of the earthly city, or Pur, a cosmopolitan ideal. As the human individual is an embodiment of that Self, which is the essence of the whole universe, so too the city which this individual inhabits, is also made in the image of the Cosmos.

What we urgently need to ask ourselves today is how different civilizations, born out of the rich diversity of living Faiths, can interact without turning into a "battle for God", which will spell the ultimate destruction of all that we mean by civil society. We began by linking a new kind of religious fundamentalism which claims to represent the only true way of understanding God, as not only the source of clashes between civilizations, but also as presaging the ultimate end of the ideal of civil harmony and peace. Fundamentalism represents a kind of blindness both to what is beautiful, and also to what is true. It turns away from the search for a liberated humanity, and claims that it knows the answer to everything. If by being human we mean a person open to the Spirit, to the unknown which calls us to a reality which we have not been able to grasp, then fundamentalism stands for something very inhuman, because it pretends that it is already in possession of the Truth. As an artist, I would say that I am also searching for an experience of Truth. But this Truth cannot be defined, it can only be loved, like something infinitely beautiful.

The reason why the clash of civilizations has become such a problem for us today, is a result of globalization. People who have come from different Faiths, different civilizations of the past, are mingling together in the modern nation state. Our modern world is increasingly multicultural, and a citizen of today's cosmopolitan city has to daily interact with people who come from different civilizations, and believe in different Faith systems. A purely secular ideology does not really answer to a deeply felt longing for spiritual identity. In the face of so much diversity, the easy and inhuman option is to become a fundamentalist. The very scientific knowledge, and communications networking which has given rise to globalization, has also given the individual fundamentalist a technology which has the power to terrorise. Terror is the shadow side of our post modern world---its inhuman face. Instead of pointing to the clash of civilizations, it is important at this point in time to once again affirm all that is human in the quest for civil values. We must never abandon civilization, but only try to understand again its relationship to spirituality.

Behind the clash between civilizations there lies a real clash of interests. This relates to the way in which civilizations have often represented power, and wealth. A civilization has often emerged out of a powerful elite who have taken on the role of representing a "dominant" culture. This culture has often tried to colonize, and even destroy other cultures. It is against this dominant culture that the marginalized revolt. Instead of talking about the conflicts between civilizations, we need to focus on the fact that civilization can only grow through a meeting and interaction with other cultures and civilizations. Every great religion carries within it seeds of a civilization, which remain potent images of a future society based on Justice and Peace. Because of the inherent imperfections in human beings, and the structures which they create, we have to also admit that these hopes for a perfect civil society of the future, are never fully realized. But the real sign of a living civilization is to be found not in what it boasts to have achieved, but rather in a kind of humility that remains open to that which lies beyond the worldly domain of here and now, and to a deep respect for the insights, and creative energies that are to be encountered in the Other.

Jyoti Sahi Nov. 2001

Some Book referred to :
1. Samuel P. Huntington : The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order. (London Touchstone Books. 1996)
2. The Decay and the Restoration of Civilization by Albert Schweitzer. London : Adam and Charles Black 1932
3. Civilization by Clive Bell
4. What is Civilization ? and other Essays, by Ananda K.Coomaraswamy,
with a forword by Seyyed Hossein Nasr. Indira Gandhe National Center for the Arts, O.U.P. 1989
5. Islamic Art and Spirituality by Seyyed Hossein Nasr. Indira Gandhi National Centre for the Arts. O.U.P. 1990
6. Myths and Symbols in Indian Art and Civilization by Heinrich Zimmer, Bollingen series VI, 1946
7. The Battle for Godby Karen Armstrong, Ballentine Books. 2001-11-17
8. Leisure the Basis of Culture, by Josef Pieper, with a preface by T.S.Eliot. Fontana Library,1965


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