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Clash of values, not civilisations

Clash of values, not civilisations

Author: N.S. Rajaram
Publication: The Hindu
Date: December 31, 2002
URL: http://www.hinduonnet.com/thehindu/op/stories/2002123100030200.htm

Introduction: Terrorism is not a clash of civilisations. Vedanta describes a clash of dharmas, which is closer to reality.

Following the end of the Cold War, several thinkers proclaimed that the world had entered a new phase in which there would be no major conflicts; Francis Fukuyama wrote a book proclaiming that it was the "End of History." The idea was that in a unipolar world, with no superpower rivalry to fuel them, economic activity would be everyone's prime concern and any conflicts would be localised and brought under control. This utopian vision was soon belied by the outbreak of religious and ethnic conflicts in many parts of the world including Yugoslavia, the Caucasus, Kashmir, Indonesia and parts of Africa. These, especially the conflict in Yugoslavia seemed to indicate that old ethnic and religious rivalries that had been kept in check under superpower dominance were now coming to the fore. Faced with this reality, some political scientists in the West tried to explain them in terms of civilisations rather than economic and political terms or ideologies that dominated the Cold War era. The most popular of these is Samuel Huntington's clash of civilisations thesis expounded in his well-known book Clash of Civilizations.

According to Huntington the world may be seen as being composed of civilisations that overlay nation states. He identifies several of these civilisations including the Western-Christian, Eastern-Christian, Islamic, Hindu and others. In the case of nation states like Germany and France belonging to the same civilisation, there is little likelihood of conflict. On the other hand, when two or more civilisations meet on the ground, as in former Yugoslavia, it can give rise to conflict. The boundary where two or more civilisations meet is to be seen as a `civilisational fault line.' Yugoslavia furnishes a particularly good example as it is the meeting ground of three civilisations (as conceived by Huntington) - Western (Croatia), Eastern (Serbia) and Islamic (Bosnia-Herzegovina). This seemed to furnish a particularly elegant vindication of Huntington's thesis when it first appeared. It was assumed that future conflicts would follow the same model.

Unstated assumption

With the growth of terrorism in the world, there has been a rush to identify and explain it on the basis of Huntington's clash of civilisations thesis. The assumption in all this, though generally unstated, is that terrorism is to be equated with the Islamic civilisation. (Huntington himself rejected it, but it was too late to have much effect). There are several problems with this equation. To begin with, there have been and continue to be conflicts within Islam that make it difficult to identify it as a monolithic civilisation. Anyone who has travelled in West Asia can see that countries such as Iran, Egypt and Syria are worlds apart. In recent history, Bangladesh broke away from Pakistan and Iran and Iraq were engaged in brutal war that lasted nearly a decade. Also, with terrorism striking in places as far apart as New York, Kenya, Moscow, Afghanistan, Kashmir and Bali, there is no discernible `fault line' where civilisations neatly fall in place. The reality is that terrorism represents no civilisation and follows no boundaries.

Geopolitical theories like the clash of civilisations make the facile assumption that human beings everywhere think and behave the same way and have similar priorities dominated by economic interests. To scholars in the secular humanist West, it is inconceivable that people would lay down their lives for religious or cultural beliefs. So they tend to attribute economic and social motives to acts that lie beyond the realm of their experience and comprehension. As a result, their methods and models have a tendency to fail when applied to aberrant behaviour like terrorism or megalomania. There exist alternatives worth studying.

Alternative visions

The major drawback of geopolitical theories, like Huntington's clash of civilisations, is their failure to account for human behaviour, especially aberrant behaviour. Ancient Indian thinkers on the other hand have made a profound study of this aspect of conflict. It is surprising that Indian humanities scholars have by and large failed to take advantage of the vast body of knowledge available to them in their own tradition. Yoga, Vedanta and many other sources provide alternative visions based on insights into human behaviour. A study of Indian sources shows that conflicts like what we are faced with were not unknown to the ancients who had made a profound study of the causes and effects that underlie them. They analysed them from the viewpoint of human tendencies rather than as reflections of geopolitics. They characterised them as Daivic (divine) and Asuric (demonic) traits and saw conflicts as resulting from the clash of values (or dharma) deriving from them. In this context, it is a serious error to interpret dharma as religion or sect. Seen from this Vedantic perspective, what we are witnessing around us is no clash of civilisations, but a clash of values or dharmas. This is an age-old conflict, between the material and the spiritual. Most evil in the world is due to excessive preoccupation with the material wealth and power. This tendency is called Asuric by the ancients. The spiritual or the trait that seeks harmony is called Daivic. Krishna in the Bhagavadgita describes the Asuric traits as follows:

"The Asuric (demonic) traits are ignorance, deceitfulness, excessive pride, ego, harshness, and rough speech. Such people know not when to act and when to desist from action. They believe in nothing, have neither truth nor purity. ...Driven by desire and unsupported by beliefs these souls without enlightenment, with their terrible acts can destroy the world. ...Immersed in endless worries that only death can end, they know nothing beyond self-indulgence without limit. They think only of accumulating wealth through wrongful means... In the folly of their ignorance they think: `I got this today, I have that more to get. I have so much now but I'll get more. I have killed that enemy, but I have more to kill'."

It is not hard to see that the world today is in thrall to Asuric forces, no matter how we look at it. To counter the Asuric tendencies, what are needed are Daivic qualities, which the Gita describes as follows: "Fearlessness, purity, courage in seeking knowledge, generosity, restraint, learning, uprightness, gentleness, honesty, loyalty, compassion for the living, humility, fortitude and absence of excess pride - these are the virtues of the Daivic. The Daivic leads to freedom and the Asuric to bondage."

How are we to account for these traits, or what they stem from? The Vedantic view is that there are three fundamental tendencies (or gunas) that control human behaviour; the combined action of these on the people, especially the leaders, leaves an imprint on the history of any era. These tendencies are: sattva (light or purity), rajas (power or aggression) and tamas (darkness or ignorance). Any combination of these determines the history of an epoch. Particularly dangerous is the combination of tamas and rajas - aggression driven by ignorance. This is what we call fanaticism. Tamas sees sattva or light of knowledge as the enemy. Its goal is to destroy sattva and plunge the world into a Dark Age. This has happened many times in history. This is what forces of fanaticism are trying to do to the world today.

Use of force unavoidable

Tamas therefore is the great enemy of civilisation. This is also what ancient sages of India warned against. It is important to note that tamas cannot always be conquered by sattva alone. This means force or rajas must be employed, but employed judiciously. The ignorance of a child can be cured by education, but not the ignorance of a hardened fanatic. The use of force may be unavoidable though it always has to be the last resort. It is a serious error to think that fanatics bent on plunging the world into darkness will always respond to a gentle message. When faced with evil, sattva must always be backed by rajas, even if used only as a last resort. Sattva without rajas can only appease.

Most of us calling ourselves `rational' do not see the world in Daivic and Asuric terms. With that we have lost the rational basis for understanding the world that our ancestors possessed. Some modern sages like Sri Aurobindo had retained a vestige of it. This allowed them to see the forces of violence and ignorance engulfing the world. This is what we are seeing today in the war against terror - a combination of rajas and tamas ranged against civilisation. It is no clash of civilisations but a clash between Daivic and Asuric forces. For civilisation to survive, the Daivic forces - sattva and rajas - must combine to defeat the Asuric combination of tamas and rajas. This is the message of Vedanta.

(The author's latest book is Nostradamus and Beyond, Visions of Yuga-Sandhi, in which these ideas are explored further. It is published by Rupa.)

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