Oriental people and great civilisational ethosby Sarwar Jahan Chowdhury
THE title may sound a bit loaded but I struggled to find a simpler one. However, it matches the points I want to make in this piece. There is a host of scholarly pieces and extensive sociological literature that has already elaborated on similar themes; yet, there is a need to understand in an easy way, for wider consumption, how our societies in this half of the world struggle to cope with the great ethos of time.
Communities and societies all around the world have some sort of cultural distinctiveness but that, of course, is no fixed thing; they evolve like many other socially constructed features of human beings. More importantly, the intellectual evolution along the historical path diverged, chiefly from the mediaeval ages. Europe and America, boosted by the Age of Enlightenment thoughts, went on to usher in the advent of modernity. Asian civilisations, on the other hand, stagnated from that period and got the big push in embracing the new ideas through worldwide European colonial expansion. Colonisation was bad perhaps, but import of great ideas for modern society wasn’t.
Ideas, new or old, and their diffusion or prevalence, shape societies. Great thoughts, appropriate for an epoch, have always travelled from regions to regions, continents to continents. New progressive ideas challenge aspects of old culture, thoughts and values. We often forget the genesis of new world and its moulding in the hurly burly of our new found and modernity shaped cultural conscience leading up to things like political nationalism and state building in the modern way. Our invented pride invents traditions which weren’t there back in time as they are narrated. A Vedic or Islamic or Buddhist boasting may satisfy our fashionable ego of today but will surely tell the half-truth.
It’s true that there were substantial cultural and ideological basis for Asian civilizations, which were later naturally fused in their new identity formation. It is also true that the structures of thoughts were supplied by Enlightenment in Europe. The Mughal administration or the one of the Chinese emperor would have taken a long time and a tumultuous course to emulate something like impersonal and rational Weberian bureaucracy. For us, the oriental people, it’s always about striking a right balance between embrace and preserve. East Asians do it well supposedly.
Concepts of nation state in place of kingdom, sovereignty, nationalism, representation, democracy, fundamental rights, civil liberty, free speech and freedom of actions all have their essential links to the Age of Enlightenment in the 17th and 18th century Europe and partly America. Rationality or reason came forth as the final worldly arbitrator. Enlightenment and Industrial Revolution in these two regions changed the world forever for the good. There is no going back. There shouldn’t be any going back, although there are efforts by ignorant and bigoted people to reverse the wheel of time.
We have in our societies pre-existing and primitive values that contradict the essential Enlightenment ethos. A fine balance is becoming increasingly harder these days with the rise of the ancient titans with some utilisation, surprisingly, of modern tools like electronic media, printing, financial services, banking, mail, transportation, various technologies etc. Fukuyama was wrong. Modernity didn’t bring about the ‘End of History’; rather we witness, I hate to state it, some vindication of Huntington’s ‘Clash of Civilizations’ as things stand now.
The nature of oriental religions and spiritual traditions, at their present state, play an important part in figuring common people’s lives, leaving their imprints in popular culture, social norms, value systems etc. The same people also witnessed the spectacle of modernisation endeavours in their societies and perhaps grasp a limited element of it, if not entirely the core spirits. A religiously conservative community can hold on to their ways of life to a great extent at the cost of their natural humanly expressions and aspirations. It’s a zero sum game.
It doesn’t look like that we would see some conclusive shift of eastern people’s ethos in line with reason. The existing mixture would continue. Containing the resurgence of the reverse is a challenge across regions. A finer balance of rationality and oriental values is perhaps the best we can expect in foreseeable future.
Sarwar Jahan Chowdhury is a commentator on politics, society and international relations. He is currently an associate research fellow at the Bangladesh Institute of Peace and Security Studies. He is a School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London alumnus. firstname.lastname@example.org.
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