A Crisis of Civilization

Today we witness the perils that accompany the insolence of might; one day the whole truth of what the sages have proclaimed shall be borne out - ‘By unrighteousness, man prospers, gains what appears desirable, conquers enemies, but perishes at the root.’ - Shabhyatar Shankat, Rabindranath Tagore

Rabindranath Tagore’s 1941 essay The Crisis of Civilization seems to be taking on a new significance more than 70 years after it was written. Social commentators are of the opinion that we are standing at a major crossroad from where we can choose to go towards prosperity and welfare, or towards strife and oppressive suffering. I am an eternal optimist, and I believe that what we are faced with is the greatest opportunity since the Industrial Revolution, to write the rule book for a fair and just world to pass on to our future generations.

My Father outside Rabindranath Tagore's House in Kalimpong

The last decade saw a recession caused by inadequate safeguards against uncontrolled greed. It is not only at a banking level that this recession occurred. The sub-prime mortgage bust, in many ways, was caused by the same mentality that causes people to get into a credit card mess, transferring balances to new cards without establishing good enough collateral for the credit. The same recessive trend has been experienced by the people who later found themselves at the receiving end of layoffs, governmental austerity measures, and revised contracts. In India, we are seeing double digit inflation, spiralling interest rates, wilting industrial productivity and export numbers, along with an overall slowdown in many sectors.

If we look at the corruption and the scams that have led to widespread protest not just in India but now the world over, the root of it is similar too. Short term gains are now leading to long term pains, but while the gains were shared by the few who had their arms and trunks in the till, the pain is being passed on to all, including those who never knew that there was a till to have your hand in. Along with the business corporations and the financial institutions, career politicians are now in trouble too, with skeletons coming tumbling out as toes get stepped on.

This never was and can no longer be brushed aside as merely a failure of governance. The paradigm of “people’s representatives” itself has to be revisited. While decisions that affect national and global economies are indeed made by governments, corporations, and financial institutions, the reason that they work is because at some level or the other they feed the needs of a large section of society. For example, a “liberal and open economy” feeds the need of a “consumeristic society.” And all of these decisions and policies are again made with the interest of profit making corporations and individuals in mind. Before passing the blame on to “people’s representatives,” it is essential that we look at what we, the people, intend through our lives and our actions. If we wish, as a civilization, not to perish at the roots, it is time we start looking at those very roots.

What are the values that you would want your child to imbibe in order to grow into a “human being.” I don’t mean the t-shirty “being human” type of human being who runs over sleeping pavement dwellers and shoots wild life for sport, but one who embodies those values that sets a human being apart from other living forms. I read that last sentence, and in some ways it smacks of arrogance, an arrogance that presumes that all other living forms have a less evolved moral structure. I am no one to judge, and I admit that I may be wrong on this count, but the core question still remains the same. What are human values?

Leaving all other concepts (like honesty, compassion, love, caring, etc.) aside, the one value that stands out is that of integrity. This is why sometimes human beings can choose conscious self destruction, something most other life forms cannot. I do not mean suicide, but taking action that jeopardizes ones well being because not to do so would jeopardize their integrity. For example, Anna Hazare and his fast against government inaction against corruption. Strangely, the same choice of self destruction can be seen in the likes of those esteemed members or our society who are presently behind bars or out on bail for having abused their public offices for personal gain and national loss. And the irony of this is that these are all people who are not driven to such action by need or poverty, but by greed.

This integrity expresses itself at the individual level as well as the collective level. What we are seeing the world over today is the collective integrity of mankind trying to re-establish balance in the system. While Tagore went a little overboard in his praise of USSR and Iran of his times, history has proven that those models were not to be, and the Soviet Union has had to crumble, and Iran has gone back to its fundamentalist defiance of International opinion. Similarly, the liberal world that the last century awakened too has allowed greed and decadence to attain social acceptability to a point that our entire culture has become distorted.

Look at the two women who have defined contemporary rock music for example, Lioness Amy Winehouse and Lady Ga Ga. I am a huge fan of the music that AW has created, but what an example  to be setting with her life and her lifestyle to the young people who listen to her songs? Her greatest hit single is a mixed message of the highest order (though I think it is a brilliant love song, something that most people miss out on), They want to send me back to rehab, but I won’t go, go go. Lady (Ms. Winehouse), in spite of my sympathies, the fact remains that if you had gone, you might have still been alive. The collective sigh of relief that the world media uttered when she finally did keep her date with the died-at-27 club was louder than the condolences that were put out for her tragic demise. I cannot claim to be a great fan of Lady Ga Ga’s music (I am guessing what she does is called music these days), but she is close to being the most popular female role model on earth (as well as the planet she comes from, I am sure). Forget about Barbie’s with tattoo’s, here is a living someone that your and my daughter wants to grow up into and you better take a close look. Take a close look before all of those chemical peels and hair colors turn her into mystic nothingness. This is what our daughter wants to become when she grows up, a name that is not her own, a mane that is not her own, a nose that is not her own, and who knows what else that is not her own. Enough of this depressing thought. Let me return to more pleasant stuff.

On the other hand, this integrity, the will to live in accordance with one’s principles or morality, is very easily corrupted. It takes very little for a parent to tell his child, if you see something wrong taking place, get out of there as fast as possible, don’t get involved. It takes very little to drive past the injured young girl who is lying bleeding on the roadside. It takes very little to change one’s mind and accept the speed money that will help your kid get through college. I am reminded of the Little Prince and his vain sense of ownership over his rose plant (till they become presidents, they are plants). The future that we are trying to create for our kids is that fragile. The will with which we hope to change the world is that fragile. The karmic view of life as expounded by Hindu and Buddhist religious thought tends to dismiss this sense of ownership as maya. We are told that it is our attachment that keeps us from seeing things as they are. 

I agree. 

But it is also this same attachment that leads to greed, that leads people to build homes that cost more than the GDP of some third world countries, that leads people to set up fictitious companies in Mauritius. So we might as well take the attachment that leads to greater good and use it so that we can “save the world.”

We have to begin by cleansing and strengthening our selves. Our selves as individuals, our selves as citizens of the nation that no man has created - humanity, our selves as public figures, and our selves as parents, spouses, siblings, and offsprings. As each one of refine our selves and attempt to lead lives based on spiritual principles (yes, Mom, that means listening to music using headphones), we will set off a domino effect, as we become models for others. As we eliminate hatred, jealousy, vindictiveness, selfishness, and greed from our lives, it will radiate outwards like a ripple of joy and contentment, and others will start questioning what we have for breakfast. As we polish our convictions each day, and leads lives of compassionate righteousness, we will become stronger, and our strength will be visible to others.

Every crisis, according to the masters of self help pop psychology, can be seen as an opportunity. The truth is that every crisis is really an opportunity that we feel ill equipped to take on. Tagore grieved over China’s soporific misfortunes in his essay. Yet China has turned her (or is she a he?) destiny around to become a dictator of global economic decisions. We, in India, are uniquely positioned with our depth of spiritual tradition and religious insights. We do not need a Deepak Chopra to tell us how to heal ourselves, we have grown up hearing about it from our grandparents and Ramanand Sagar. This crisis of civilization is an opportunity for us to show the generations to come what we are really made of, to tell them, like in the Terminator movies, that we did not give up.

We are a society that has grown out of Aryan insolence and Dravidian resilience, Islamic mysticism and Hindu tolerance, out of the gladness of the great river valleys, the madness of the hills of Garwal and Himalayas, and the sadness of those discriminated against. We have survived much greater inequities inflicted upon us by our selves than by invaders and colonialists. And we are once against faced with a similar battle. to rise against our selves in the battle for an ideal society, one that balances the Tughlaqs and the Chanakyas, the Shakyamunis and the Jamshedjis.


  1. Shubho, much as I liked going through your long winding arguments and your ironies, I am not very optimistic that by changing ourselves and becoming examples for others, we are going to change anything. However, at least we shall be at peace with our own values! :)

  2. Madhav Rao10:06 PM

    Your blogs are becoming more interesting and inspiring. Somehow I am feeling that your new blogs are miising the personal touch. I keep visiting your website to know more about how you are leading your life, which you would share very beautifuly earlier. All your new blogs are very good but they are more like proffessional articles, and not about your life. I liked when this blog was all about Subho's jejune diet, and not philosophy of blogging.


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