“The Ancient Egyptians built the pyramids when Germans were living in caves. Arabs ruled the world in the Middle Ages – the Muslims were doing algebra when Germans princes could not write their own names…. Civilizations rise and fall…” One of Ken Follett’s characters says that in The Winter of the World.
We may like to think we are more civilised than our forefathers. One of the many illusions under which quite many people labour is that human civilisation improves with each passing day. The person speaking through his mobile phone with another who is sitting thousands of miles away is more civilised than the one who communicated sitting in a jungle with the help of the signals beaten on a drum. Is he really?
Historians and scholars like Prof Felipe Fernandez-Armesto will not agree. The professor says that “Societies do not evolve: they just change” [Civilizations]. The change need not be for the better.
Consider the following passage a while:
But the Beloved of the Gods does not consider gifts of honour to be as important as the essential advancement of all sects. Its basis is the control of one’s speeches, so as not to extol one’s own sect or disparage that of another on unsuitable occasions... On each occasion one should honour the sect of another, for by doing so one increases the influence of one’s own sect and benefits that of the other, while, by doing otherwise, one diminishes the influence of one’s own sect and harms the other... therefore concord is to be commended so that men may hear one another’s principles.
This is one of the edicts of Emperor Ashoka who lived more than 2200 years ago. Contrast it with what some of our contemporary political or religious leaders say and do. Then we will understand that civilisation is not at all a linear process. Civilisations rise and fall.
Are we living in a rising civilisation or a falling one? Reading about the speeches delivered by our prospective Prime Minister these days, I was provoked into raising this question to myself.
We may choose to push Hitler and Stalin into the backyard of history claiming that they were mere aberrations. We may similarly kick Osama bin Laden too with a moral boot labelling him a terrorist. But we should not forget that each one of them had thousands of followers. None of them would have been successful leaders without the support of a sizeable section of people.
Was George W Bush civilised? Was Ronald Reagan or Bill Clinton? Is Barak Obama any more civilised than his predecessors who unleashed so many battles and wars on nations that they perceived as inimical to their country’s interests?
Today I read about our emerging Prime Minister calling his predecessor “a night watchman.” What are the credentials of this man who keeps calling his political rivals all kinds of names? Why are we condemned to flaunt on our faces masks of leaders like him?
Every people get the leaders they deserve. Leaders are not born, they are made – at least largely so. In the words of Fernandez-Armesto (quoted above), “Heroes do not make history but history makes heroes. You can tell the values and trends of an age by the heroes it chooses. In the eighteenth century, for instance, the English idolized explorers and ‘noble savages’. In the nineteenth, their heroes were engineers, entrepreneurs and inventors....” Saints and kings were the heroes of the medieval period.
Are we letting frauds and pretenders become our heroes? Don’t we deserve better leaders? At least, leaders who can speak a civilised language?
After all the disillusionments with which the political history of independent India is studded – the triumphs of fraudulent leaders who divided the country in the name of caste and creed, tribes and lingos, outsiders and insiders... and those who stole from the exchequer to fatten their accounts in foreign banks... isn’t it time to throw our fists into the air and proclaim that we deserve real leaders?