Defining Indian Civilisation

In the world of South Asian studies highly inflected with ideology and long-term political strategies, the word “civilisation” is rather out of date.

Published: 10th June 2018 10:48 PM  |   Last Updated: 12th June 2018 12:30 AM   |  A+A-

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In the world of South Asian studies highly inflected with ideology and long-term political strategies, the word “civilisation” is rather out of date. It is still applied to dead civilisations, such as those of ancient Egypt or classical Greece or the Mayans; however, pseudo-liberal and postmodern intellectuals are wary of a living civilisation such as India’s: the term implies a disturbing macro-phenomenon, when the current academic trend is towards micro-studies that make it easy to send subtle or not-so-subtle messages: focus on one dark spot (often retaining only the data that will fit your predetermined conclusions), and the student or reader will be hypnotised into trusting that the whole must be as dark as the part.

A couple of years ago, I attended in an Indian institute a class given by a visiting European anthropologist, who was also an old India hand. At some point, she stated (as would any historian or archaeologist worth their salt) that there was so much more to understand about India and Indian society than caste. A surprised student raised her hand to ask how India could be understood if not through the prism of caste — a telling but painful admission of abysmal ignorance about her own country. And indeed, caste and gender are the two omnipresent prisms in India studies, whether ancient or modern. In this blinkered view nurtured by highly biased curricula and textbooks, there is indeed no room for a “civilisation”.

I will not attempt to define the word; the general understanding of an advanced stage of human society with a complex state structure, scientific, technological, artistic and other cultural developments, will do for the moment. Soon after European Orientalists, in the eighteenth century, began to study India, they realized they were dealing not with a nation in the European sense of the world, but with something on a bigger scale than even ancient Mesopotamia or Egypt — bigger in historical, geographical and demographic terms, also in terms of sheer cultural and religious diversity that nevertheless built up to one coherent whole: precisely what goes by the name of Indian civilisation.

Those Orientalists, followed by generations of more rigorous Indologists, did attempt to grasp it, initially mainly by reference to its chief or most ancient texts: the Vedas, the Upanishads, the two Epics or the Puranas, along with the whole Buddhist literature. This produced a number of “textual” definitions, which do have their own value, but fall short when we move to the field of history: how far are the values or concepts spelt out in the texts reflected in actual events and social developments?

In fact, I once heard a well-known historian (and a fine scholar — the two not necessarily going together) declare in a conference in Kerala that there was nothing very different about Indian history from, say, European history: the two shared “bloody warfare”, social exploitation, and so on. It seemed to me that such a sweeping statement was untenable, but disproving it would take a book-size argument. Instead, in a series of monthly articles, I propose to try and make out the specificities of Indian civilisation: if the term has any validity at all, there must be something different about it from what would define, say, Chinese or Mesoamerican civilisations. What or where is that difference? And how has it found expression in the millennia-old developments on this subcontinent? I will not attempt a systematic scholarly study, but will try to extract a dozen “master ideas,” to use Sri Aurobindo’s term, which have been that civilisation’s prime movers — and which did find expression in historical developments.

In such an exercise, two extremes stare us in the face, those of glorification and demonisation. Glorification is what Europe’s first Orientalists indulged in, imagining India’s golden age of advanced knowledge, perfect non-violence and humaneness, a romantic view that persists with many enthusiasts who prefer facile shortcuts to serious study. Demonisation is what a certain class of historians and intellectuals (and many “South Asian studies” departments) have promoted, painting India as a land of primitive culture and unredeemed social abuse; besides, they have refused to acknowledge the integrating cultural roots of the land, proposing for India’s sole salvation the fate of a “multicultural” nation on the failed European model, instead of trying to understand premodern India’s own brand of multiculturalism and therefore her own strengths. This “idea of India,” as they call it, is little more than a reincarnation of the colonial diktats about ancient India, especially those about “Brahminism”, “elitism” (knowledge being supposedly denied to low castes), the “otherworldliness” of Indian philosophy, the absence of useful knowledge in premodern India (all of which therefore came to us from the West, and especially from modern science), the barbaric condition of Indian society, and so on.

Steering clear, therefore, of those twin pitfalls, I will take up those master ideas one by one, tracing their origins (whether textual or otherwise) and, whenever possible, their manifestations in history, sometimes all the way to our present times. This will amount, in effect, to an empirical definition of Indian civilisation — as the one that conceived those seminal ideas and attempted, at least, to give them a living reality. 

Their precise list is of my own choosing, the result of my personal studies and observations. Another student of India is bound to come up with a different list, unavoidably so. Remember the British economist Joan Robinson’s striking insight: “Whatever you can rightly say about India, the opposite is also true.” Perhaps there lies our first master idea, after all.

Michel Danino is a French-born Indian author and visiting professor at IIT Gandhinagar.


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  • mats

    Defining Indian civilization? Please don't. Please don't make it small.
    8 days ago reply
  • Murthy

    Looking forward to the main body of what Prof. Danino is going to publish in NIE. My limited readings in Indology confirm his point about the 'Romantic' view of Indian Society versus the 'blinkered' view of it as nothing more than 'caste'.
    10 days ago reply