“We are in the midst of a civilizational moment.”
“We design the self-perpetuating civilizational moment.”
These are two statements we at Bṛhat frequently employ to articulate how we see the world. Contained in them are axiomatic notions on civilizational moment, civilizational consciousness, culture, tradition and associated terms. In this piece here, we detailed the anatomy of a civilizational moment, as we see it. And in creating a series of essays such as this one, we cover the ways in which our civilization has perpetuated itself in the past. Today, on the 75th year since Bhārata gained independence as India, we dive deeper with an exposition on an axiom fundamental to it all — the “Indian Civilizational Consciousness.”
Being of the same basic physio-neurological make, humans are largely the same everywhere, but human cultures are wildly different. The culture we are born to and/or internalize creates a sort of ‘operating system’ inside our minds. By a human OS we mean a set of code (lexical and semiotic memes, normative protocols, cultural motifs and more) that determines the nature of interactions with other individuals, with groups, and among groups. The prevalent OS for our species today is the Western one, of recent origin but widespread installation — built upon a trajectory of colonization, exploitation, slavery and conversion. Decolonization begins with the realization of this, which then proceeds through degrees of uninstallation, but must culminate in the installation of an alternate OS.
The key to this system “jailbreaking” is the reconnection to one’s civilizational language. For language is like code, and like code it can be hacked. A good way to discern the native OS from the acquired one is to examine any given notion in the original code. In light of this, when we say ‘Indian Civilizational Consciousness,’ what we speak of is ‘Bhāratīya Sāṃskṛtika Cetanā (भारतीय सांस्कृतिक चेतना),’ and in reverse order we unpack each term as follows.
Against the profusion of words to describe mental phenomena that can be generated from roots such as √man (√मन्), √budh (√बुध्), √jñā (√ज्ञा), and √cit (√चित्), we find the English words mind, consciousness and brain of limited potential in understanding the mind-map of our ancient ancestors. Anticipating the modern world’s notice of ego, id, free-will, free-won’t, compatibilism and more, the ancients perceived many aspects to Mind, or Mentality. To them, consciousness was not mere thinking, nor the presence of thinking activity; and neither was it simply the presence of understanding or comprehension alone. It was the feedback-loop that existed between these processes — the process of reflection and self-awareness. The mind that is aware of its thinking, that can reflect on it, and can contextualize what it comes to know or understand — is the conscious mind.
Modern cognitive sciences tell us that consciousness is “how information feels when processed in increasingly complex ways.” It is what information ‘feels like,’ to ‘itself.’ This evocation of self-awareness tallies with the Indian notice above, and it is captured by the root √cit (√चित्), which Pāṇini associated with saṃjñā (संज्ञा) — harmony or accordance. In other words, √cit is the faculty that makes sense of all the knowing, thinking, understanding, comprehension etc. that come through √man, √budh and √jñā. It is the information, feeling to itself. Thus, we use the word cetanā for consciousness, and not surprisingly, also the word saṃjñā.
But what allows us to speak of collective, civilizational consciousness? To satisfy the Western consensus, we only need evidence of information being processed in increasingly complex ways, at the aggregate of a civilization, to speculate on the presence of consciousness. But to satisfy the Indian consensus we must find self-reflection and awareness, and the itihāsa-purāṇa tradition provides this in droves. To quote Prof. Adluri –
Itihāsa represents the empirical world aesthetically to problematise both being-in-the-world and the relationship of ontology, text, and the world. In other words, itihāsa is history that has overcome historicism: history that has become critical and self-conscious.
That itihāsa is history that has overcome historicism; that it is self-conscious demonstrates that the Indian civilization is in conversation with itself; and so consummate is its saṃjñā that the same civilization is “encoded in multiple ways, like the same DNA is encoded in every leaf of a tree.” (Shri Rajiv Malhotra).
In other words, when we speak of Bhāratīya Sāṃskṛtika Cetanā we do not indulge in metaphor or analogy — we speak literally of a civilizational consciousness or self-awareness.
To use notions developed by Martin Heidegger and cardinal to philosophy — since we speak of an ontologic and not of an ontic. The difference, reductively phrased, is that an ontic is a thing or entity as described through its properties- a clinical analysis. But an ontologic is Being — or what that thing/entity is to itself. That a civilization could be self-aware is understood better with the next word.
Sāṃskṛtika (सांस्कृतिक)/ Civilizational:
Rooted in the Latin word ‘civilis,’ the word ‘civilization’ came into its current usage in the 1600s from the French word ‘civiliser,’ — to bring out of barbarism, to introduce order and civil organization. Civilization is then the deliberate process of removing barbarism and increasing civility in the collective aggregate. This gives more information to Huntington’s definition- ‘the highest cultural grouping of people and the broadest level of cultural identity people have, short of that which distinguishes humans from other species.’
To reinforce salient terminology, Huntington’s definition is an ontic one, while the etymological one preceding it tends to ontologic – describing civilization from its own point of view. This ontologic definition acknowledges an intent, a deliberation to civilization, and this is what’s evoked in the Indian word for it too. Saṃskṛti, or well-effected; well put-together. It is the result of saṃskaraṇa — to accomplish something with purification and consecration. Hidden within this is the word ‘samyak (सम्यक्), which means ‘in the same direction, in the same way, at the same time, together.’ In turn, samyak builds upon the prefix of ‘sam (सम्),’ which evokes the sense of togetherness.
There is thus a subtle but crucial difference between saṃskṛti and civilization. While both denote a deliberation to aspire to a ‘better’ state, one with more order or “proper”-ness, ‘civil-ize’ carries the added evocation of thrusting a certain way of life onto a people or a group. It implies a value judgement being made, a predetermination of what is more “civil”, what is the “better” way to live, and the imposing expansion of this on everyone else. In contrast, though also aiming for order and correctness, saṃskṛti is something done ‘together,’ or ‘along-with.’ It is our creation, our accomplishment, against the many teṣāmkṛtis (their creation, their accomplishment) out there. And it is accomplished together, augmented by our collective faith and adherence, and aligned to a in common goal — samyak.
Prof. Kapil Kapoor describes this as ekatva buddhi — being of one mind.
It is this kind of civilization that could plausibly emerge into consciousness- for in its samyak-orientation it is built with self-awareness and agency — or cetanā. The march of ‘Western civilization’ derives imperative from the claim it brings peace, progress and liberty to all humans and countries, that its specific paradigm for what constitutes ‘civilisation’ is universally applicable, and even that it has a moral duty to bring this “civility” to other cultures.
The churn of Bhāratīya saṃskṛti is that it is formed together, in collaboration, and has as its ideals not ‘civility’ or ‘liberty’ but loftier goals better understood with the third word.
Bhāratīya (भारतीय) / Indian:
Much ink still spills over the meaning and origin of ‘India,’ contention to the Sindhu/Indus derivation coming from the ‘Yin-tu/Indū’ of Chinese records. But as a recent book has reminded us — we are India, that is Bhārata. Reconnection with our civilizational consciousness will come not with an etymology of India, but with that of Bhārata —where the derivation from Bharata as patronymic is the mundane stuff of historia, of the ontic. But we seek the ontologic, and thus we notice the root- √bhṛ (भृ)- evocative of dhāraṇa, poṣaṇa and bharaṇa, or bearing, nourishing, supporting.
The Fire, Agni, the lamp of civilization. The continuity of felt-experience built through itihāsa and emergent in saṃskṛti.
This very saṃskṛti and its denizens, who as the product of the process are thus Bhāratīya – coming from Bhārata.
Dharma, the eternal tradition, the Yajña that kindles the unifying fire – from earth to sky, from tamas to jyoti, from asat to sat, from ātman to brahman. That leads us to mokṣa, the ultimate goal of it all.
These exalted actions are found reflected in the hands of the simple potter, who gives shape to clay, the pot in turn an instrument for carrying and sustenance. And the potter creates through simple rotation, through gently shaping the clay as it spins around the wheel — a metaphor for the ṛta that guides all of reality. To live life in consonance with ṛta, to spin with its motions yet not disintegrate to centrifugal entropy, is the Indian endeavor. To be a Bhāratīya is to uphold Dharma, to gently shape the river of tradition as we collectively spin under the yoke of ṛta. Suitably, bharaṭaḥ is a Sanskrit word for potter.
The word ‘Bhāratīya’ thus has a dual connotation. Anything produced on this wheel of Dharma is Bhāratīya, and the accretion of emergent civilization means that the potter is also Bhāratīya — imbibed of the ṛta-consonant consciousness. More precisely —
Over untold millennia of information being processed in increasingly complex ways developed a collective cetanā – a consciousness. The account of this development is remembered in itihāsa.
Since it is conscious, it contains dialogue and feedback, cogitation and reflection. It displays accretion of felt-experience and consistency of a coherent mind. The coming into coherence, which is but culture in action, is saṃskṛti, or civilization.
Consciousness is an embodied phenomenon. It is how information feels, but the information is contained in a vessel – the mortal and material form. The sāṃskṛtika cetanā discernable in itihāsa and definable as dharma has embodied in what we call Bhārata.
The coming together of these is what Shri KM Munshi referred to when he wrote of the “efforts of a people to will themselves into organic unity.” A civilizational moment is when this unity is of pure ekatva buddhi — when all awareness converges into one singular moment. The greater this convergence, the more clarified the awareness and more resolute the moment. At the apex of such a state, momentum takes over and the pot now spins seamlessly around the wheel. In balance with ṛta and in forward motion, unaided. This is the self-perpetuating civilizational moment. This is what we have come together to design — ie., methodically plan and arrange for.