Modern Civilisation and its Fruits
After many centuries of civilised life, mankind have not yet arrived at any final settlement of the question, ‘What is civilisation ?’ Each nation knows for itself that it belongs to a civilised race : the rudest barbarians would feel insulted at the slightest hint to the contrary. Every individual man seems also to be quite sure as to what is meant by civilisation and yet would fail to point to any one quality that constitutes the test of civilisation, or to enumerate a list of qualities included in that comprehensive term. Added to this difficulty about the exact significance of the term ‘civilisation,’ is the other difficulty of defining the precise point of time from which what we call modern civilisation may be said to commence. This twofold difficulty becomes a threefold one in India, for in India the epithets ‘ancient’ and ‘modern,’ as applied to civilisation, have a meaning different from that they bear in the west. For India had a civilisation of her own in ancient times, long before the most ancient of the European nations had emerged from barbarism ; and now in these days India is imbibing another kind of civilisation from the west.
Inspite of the vagueness which must necessarily attach to the meaning of the term “modern civilisation”, a brief comparison between the characteristics of the present age and those of the bygone days will at once reveal some of the most striking points of difference sufficiently to enable us to discover some of the distinguishing features of modern civilisation. The very first point which attracts our notice is the value that is now attached to the material comforts of life. The phrase “material comforts of life” is another of those terms which are constantly on our lips, but of which we cannot give an accurate definition. However in a general sense it means good food, good clothing, good shelter, good company, good looks. Far greater value is now attached to these than in the past ages when man cared more for spiritual good than for material well-being. Whatever tended to the peace and happiness of the soul was considered to be a more desirable object of pursuit than anything that promised only power or pleasure for the body. Acts of piety, such as the construction of temples, the foundation of alms-houses, the digging of wells and tanks, were much in favour among people who had any wealth to dispose of. Pilgrimages to holy shrines were deemed more necessary for the salvation of the soul than foreign-travel now is for the proper cultivation of the mind. Modern civilisation has revolutionised these ideas. What is now deemed valuable is that which ministers to the wants of the body and the capacities of the mind.
One direct result of this tendency is that the pursuit of wealth has become an all-engrossing, all-embracing pursuit. The pursuit of wealth does not mean quite such a bad thing as that which is condemned under the name of “Mammon-worship.” It means a manifold line of activities implying and involving the promotion of industries and the expansion of commerce. It means the utilising of the resources of a country for the satisfaction of the various wants of its inhabitants ; it means, therefore, the providing of employment to workmen, of means of investment to capitalists and to landlords, and of revenue to the state. The setting up of a steel factory employing ten thousand workmen is now deemed an act of greater “piety” than the foundation of a poor-house affording food and shelter to as many indigent. Indeed, gratuitous relief is now considered as almost a crime, inasmuch as it encourages idleness, and lessens the total output of work on the part of a country. It thus diminishes the aggregate stock of national wealth, and makes the country poorer by so much every year.
Both these tendencies of modern civilisation—the importance attached to material objects and to the pursuit of wealth—are, however, tendencies that lie somewhat below the surface, and do not strike the eye of the casual observer. There is a third tendency which does appear on the surface, and this tendency is the importance attached to matters of dress and fashion. Dress has never been a matter of much concern to the genuine Indian in any age prior to the present and the probable reason of it is that India has ever been a tropical country. It is only at the present day that India has undergone a change, not, of course, in geographical situation, but in the importance attached to dress and manners. She has learned this directly from the English, from whom she has learned so many other things. This does not mean that all Indians have learned to dress themselves in English style, but only that Indians have become more particular about their dress, both at home and when out on a visit or to a social party, than they were ever before. An educated Indian cannot escape a blush if a formal visitor happens to catch him in a dhoti ; while for high officials, it is considered a serious offence if they do not dress in European style,-an offence serious enough, some think, to debar them from that high office. These remarks are not intended either to command or to condemn this modern tendency—they only aim at stating a matter of fact and common observation.
There are numerous other matters in which the effects of modern civilisation can be observed in India ; but only two more deserve mention here, because they are so common, so plainly perceptible everywhere. One is the importance attached to education, the other is the expansion of sympathy. Education is now considered a matter of supreme importance, so much so that a popular agitation is afoot to induce Government to make elementary education not only compulsory but free of all cost. Of course this education is to be on western lines ; it is English education that is regarded as so valuable that a university degree is a passport not only to Government service, not only to the learned professions, but also to social esteem. A raw young B.A. is considered not only a better educated scholar, but also a better type of man, more worthy of individual reverence, more worthy of social regard than even a hoary-headed Pandit or Maulvi of the old school. The result is that educational institutions for imparting instruction on western lines are continually springing up in the country, and the number of pupils receiving instruction in these institutions is increasing every year, until at the present day, doubts have begun to be entertained in some quarters as to whether this constantly-swelling mass of English-educated youth is an asset to the country or rather a liability, and whether the kind of education so strongly in vogue in the country is the type best suited to the needs of the people.
The other tendency, which is an outcome of the above, is more in the direction of moral improvement. Western education has had one marked effect on the character of the people. Their sympathies are not now confined to the narrow bonds of their community, or their district, or even their state, but ex-tend over the whole country, and in fact embrace foreign lands as well. If there is a famine in Bihar or in Japan the people of the Uttar Pradesh are as much for it as they would for a famine in their own State. Subscription lists are immediately opened for the relief of the distressed, and the people contribute as willingly as though the people to be benefitted belonged to their own town or village. Quite recently there was an earthquake in Latur, and subscriptions poured in from all parts of India for the relief of those who had suffered loss in consequence of that natural calamity. Instances like these show that modern civilization has fostered a feeling of sympathy and brotherhood between state and state, and tended to link together the different parts of India in one beautiful chain of sympathy and fellow-feeling. But with this strengthening of the bonds of nationality there has, it is feared, been a proportionate weakening of the ties of family. The old joint family is everywhere becoming disjointed ; people now care to take charge of no relatives beyond their wife and children. Relations who are even a degree removed from the direct line are severed from the once common home, and are encouraged to set up a new home ; distant kinsmen, if they happen to be poor or uneducated, are absolutely disowned sometimes; collaterals are relegated to the position of mere acquaintances. The old banyan tree which sheltered a hundred heads under its wide-branching boughs, and stood four-square to all the winds of heaven for many generations, has been now gone, and in its place now grow a number of slender plants, with thin foliage, and no strength to withstand the shock of storms. The ancient joint family which he used together a hundred inmates under a single roof, and stood firm as a rock against the flows of fortune for many centuries, has been bro-ken up into a number of small families, living from hand to mouth, and with no stamina to resist the attacks of disease or distress.
On the whole, the tendencies of modern divinization have made for progress and improvement in almost every direction. Men there are who have not felt quite satisfied with the results achieved so far, but such men are in a small minority and are generally looked down upon as blind conservatives or con-firmed pessimists. One fact cannot be denied, that India is now taking her place in the community of nations, and though she is still far behind in the race of progress, the very fact that she is now fit to join the race is enough to be thankful for.