Sunday, April 1, 2012

What is true civilization? Mahatma Gandhi's Answer

Civilization is that mode of conduct which points out to man the path of duty. Performance of duty and observance of morality are convertible terms. To observe morality is to attain mastery over our mind and our passions. So doing, we know ourselves. The Gujarati equivalent for civilization means “good conduct”.

XIII. What is true civilization?

READER: You have denounced railways, lawyers and doctors. I can see that you will discard
all machinery. What, then, is civilization?

EDITOR: The answer to that question is not difficult. I believe that the civilization India
evolved is not to be beaten in the world. Nothing can equal the seeds sown by our ancestors,
Rome went, Greece shared the same fate; the might of the Pharaohs was broken; Japan has
becomeWesternized; of China nothing can be said; but India is still, somehow or other, sound at
the foundation. The people of Europe learn their lessons from the writings of the men of Greece
or Rome, which exist no longer in their former glory. In trying to learn from them, the Europeans
imagine that they will avoid the mistakes of Greece and Rome. Such is their pitiable condition.
In the midst of all this India remains immovable and that is her glory. It is a charge against India
that her people are so uncivilized, ignorant and stolid, that it is not possible to induce them to
adopt any changes. It is a charge really against our merit. What we have tested and found true
on the anvil of experience, we dare not change. Many thrust their advice upon India, and she
remains steady. This is her beauty: it is the sheet-anchor of our hope.

Civilization is that mode of conduct which points out to man the path of duty. Performance of
duty and observance of morality are convertible terms. To observe morality is to attain mastery
over our mind and our passions. So doing, we know ourselves. The Gujarati equivalent for
civilization means “good conduct”.

If this definition be correct, then India, as so many writers have shown, has nothing to learn
from anybody else, and this is as it should be. We notice that the mind is a restless bird; the
more it gets the more it wants, and still remains unsatisfied. The more we indulge our passions
the more unbridled they become. Our ancestors, therefore set a limit to our indulgences. They
saw that happiness was largely a mental condition. A man is not necessarily happy because he is
rich, or unhappy because he is poor. The rich are often seen to be unhappy, the poor to be happy.
Millions will always remain poor. Observing all this, our ancestors dissuaded us from luxuries
and pleasures. We have managed with the same kind of plough as existed thousands of years
ago. We have retained the same kind of cottages that we had in former times and our indigenous
education remains the same as before. We have had no system of life-corroding competition.
Each followed his own occupation or trade and charged a regulation wage. It was not that we did
not know how to invent machinery, but our forefathers knew that, if we set our hearts after such
things, we would become slaves and lose our moral fibre. They, therefore, after due deliberation
decided that we should only do what we could with our hands and feet. They saw that our real
happiness and health consisted in a proper use of our hands and feet. They further reasoned that
large cities were a snare and a useless encumbrance and that people would not be happy in them,
that there would be gangs of thieves and robbers, prostitution and vice flourishing in them and
that poor men would be robbed by rich men. They were, therefore, satisfied with small villages.
They saw that kings and their swords were inferior to the sword of ethics, and they, therefore, and
the sovereigns of the earth to be inferior to the Rishis and the Fakirs. A nation with a constitution
like this is fitter to teach others than to learn from. This nation had courts, lawyers and doctors,
but they were all within bounds. Everybody knew that these professions were not particularly
superior; moreover, these vakils and vaids did not rob people; they were considered people’s
dependants, not their masters. Justice was tolerably fair. The ordinary rule was to avoid courts.
There were no touts to lure people into them. This evil, too, was noticeable only in and around
capitals. The common people lived independently and followed their agricultural occupation.
They enjoyed true Home Rule.
And where this cursed modern civilization has not reached, India remains as it was before.
The inhabitants of that part of India will very properly laugh at your newfangled notions. The
English do not rule over them, nor will you ever rule over them. Those in whose name we speak
we do not know, nor do they know us. I would certainly advise you and those like you who love
the motherland to go into the interior that has yet been not polluted by the railways and to live
there for six months; you might then be patriotic and speak of Home Rule.
Now you see what I consider to be real civilization. Those who want to change conditions
such as I have described are enemies of the country and are sinners.

READER: It would be all right if India were exactly as you have described it, but it is
also India where there are hundreds of child widows, where two year old babies are married,
where twelve year old girls are mothers and housewives, where women practise polyandry, where
the practice of Niyoga obtains, where, in the name of religion, girls dedicate themselves to
prostitution, and in the name of religion sheep and goats are killed. Do you consider these also
symbols of the civilization that you have described?

EDITOR: You make a mistake. The defects that you have shown are defects. Nobody mistakes
them for ancient civilization. They remain in spite of it. Attempts have always been made
and will be made to remove them. We may utilize the new spirit that is born in us for purging
ourselves of these evils. But what I have described to you as emblems of modern civilization
are accepted as such by its votaries. The Indian civilization, as described by me, has been so
described by its votaries. In no part of the world, and under no civilization, have all men attained
perfection. The tendency of the Indian civilization is to elevate the moral being, that of theWestern
civilization is to propagate immorality. The latter is godless, the former is based on a belief
in God. So understanding and so believing, it behoves every lover of India to cling to the old
Indian civilization even as a child clings to the mother’s breast.
Chapter 13 in HIND SWARAJ OR INDIAN HOME RULE by M.K. Gandhi, 1909
Original Knol - 2042

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