Dialogue Among Civilizations


Madan G. Gandhi
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Dialogue as a method of cultural discourse has a hoary antiquity. It was a most favoured method of philosophical disquisition with the vedic and upanishidic seers who employed it for advancement of knowledge, enrichment of culture and refinement of philosophical reflections. It was a means of discovering the ultimate reality and of knowing the essence of things. Dialogue admitted of confronting this-worldly and other-worldly questions that agitated the human mind. Indian seers developed their systems of philosophy through dialogue and continuous interaction with their peers and pupils.
Dialogue (Shastararth or Sanwad) which means engaging in dialogic discourse on perennial questions of philosophy and metaphysics with emphasis on exegetical exposition was their distinctitive contribution towards the enrichment of knowledge, culture and civilization. They were the earliest exponents of the dialogic approach and encouraged a million flowers to bloom and a thousand schools to contend. This was an ennobling celebration of divergence, dissent, freedom and democracy in the realm of ideas.
In Indian philosophical tradition Shravan (listening) and Mannan (contemplation) were the pre-requisites of a cultivated and trained mind which is perpetually engaged in passionate ratiocination with a view to attaining an intuitive perception of the inmost meaning and essence of things. Dialogue was hailed the master key to unravel the mystery and considered stairway to a higher level of ideality. For the self to be able to speak unto one's own Self it is imperative to listen with rapt attention the waves of mentations surging within one's own being and voices coming from the beyond--the realm of the other.
Dialogue connotes an endless journey - the embarking on an endless adventure of ideas. The search would land a seeker in no absolute ground of being or Truth but unfold certain suggestive sign- posts on the road stretching unto infinity. There is always a possibility of greener pastures and valleys of flowers that he may come across as he marches on and on, higher and higher. Hence Na Itee , Na Itee (usfr&usfr). It is a state of consciousness that negates finality and continues to assert 'this is not', 'this is not'. Humility is considered the hallmark of a man of knowledge and wisdom. He realizes that the ultimate truth is like the loadstar ever unreachable but beckoning still the seeker on his unending quest. Any experience of self discovery or certitude is not of the Ultimate Reality but a gleam of the Light Divine blazing his path. There always remain still more vulture peaks to scale through confronting new challenges and odds coming on the way. The ultimate goal is seen ever receding into the unknown.
Dialogue is thus an ongoing process of renewal and resurrection. It involves coping with the living present as it has grown out of the past with a view to paving the way to a better future. Cutting one's self from the advances of civilization and culture as a result of the application of science and technology and fixing one self nostalgically on some imagined golden period of ancient history cannot be accepted the right approach for a growing organism. For the world around us is always in a state of flux and so is the mind of man which neither tires nor retires.
Dialogue is thus a potent means of obviating the prospect of clash of civilizations and the surest means of progress and peace in the world. Dialogue, in order to be progressive and dynamic, has to combine the perennial and innovative characteristics of a civilization. This is what will help resolve the dichotomy between the old and the new, tradition and modernity, continuity and change. Culture', 'civilization' and 'man' have to be interpreted in a framework that does not clash with the essence of the dialogue which would be very much facilitated by focusing on the collective aspect of man's existence and drawing on the vast and infinite range of human civilizations.
No major culture or civilization has evolved in isolation. Only through continuous dialogue they are enriched and become living and thriving entities. The power of communication entailing both 'speaking' and 'listening' have the capacity of contributing to their survival and growth.
The cathedrals of civilizations have been built by superhuman labours of creative minds of all times through reason, science, religion and tradition. Transcendence of any one of these whenever it starts cramping the creativity and questing spirit of man results in critical breakthroughs liberating the human mind caught in a bind. Constant dialogue and continuous questioning releases the forces of change and thus propels the world afresh on the rails of progress.
Samuel Huntington has propounded the 'clash of civilization thesis' for which there are quite a few takers on both sides of the political divide. As an indication of it, Huntington sees the rise of neo fundamentalist movements and describes them as the new movers and shakers. He looks upon them as locomotives of far-reaching changes in the world. However, his thesis founded as it is on several erroneous assumptions is flawed in many respects. First is that he identifies civilizations with nation-states and religious traditions. Also he considers neo-fundamentalist movements and organized terror the new global actors on the theatre of history.
The 'clash of civilization thesis' is suspicious of man's capacity to reason and innovate so as to finding a way out of any impasse. It is suspicious of man's infinite creative potential and negates his capacity to adapt and adjust to the changed environment. Huntington ignores the fact that civilizations are not static entities but ever in a state of flux, constantly evolving like other living and evolving organisms.
The binary logic tends to divide the world from the viewer's perspective as "we" and "they". This is the root cause of all clashes and contentions. The fear of the other is "the black godmother" of all conflicts and wars. This fear is engendered by the ignorance of the "other". Then comes into play the processes of forging alliances, coalitions, ethnic and religious groupings to confront the adversary perceived as the "other". Blinded by deep-seated prejudice and hate we fail to see the harmonizing threads that bind human beings belonging to various nation states, races, religions, cultures and civilization. Another contributory cause is that we fail to perceive the shared concerns and values which are always at work in each ones ground of being which is one for all mankind. We refuse to see that civilizations nurtured in exclusivism and privatized inwardness only yield hot-house plants of alien stock and stunted growth. They hardly yield spring-eyed blooms from the nature's bounteous garden which is full of diversity and variety of forms and colours. Nor do they permit clones of their original selves to be fashioned by man's ingenuity.
Dialogue is best fitted to unravel the commonality of human concerns and endeavors. Constant interaction and dialogue can enable us to weave strange and familiar strands of diverse cultures and civilizations into mosaic of a global civilization taking shape following the communication revolution. Dialogue is the surest way to transform the myriad discords into harmony of living -an art which each one of us can learn to contribute to the common wellbeing.
Dialogue creates the congenial climate of understanding and reconciliation, consensus and accommodation. It softens all sharp angularities and rough edges. As against this confrontation leads to civil strife and war. It causes colossal death and destruction of vast masses of mankind. Dialogue brings out the most often forgotten truth that in life there are far more threads that unite than those that divide. No man or a civilization is an island but a current in the ocean of mankind. Bound by fraternal bonds all human beings are sharers in one common indivisible destiny. Poverty, illiteracy, political violence, pollution, the danger of thermo-nuclear confrontation etc. are some of the obvious enemies of mankind. These problems are not peculiar to any one particular civilization but transcending cultural and national frontiers they affect every one.
If Indian civilization could survive the onslaughts of marauders of alien stock, it was because of its innate capacity for creative dialogue, its sense of tolerance, cultural pluralism and diversity in unity. After every encounter with an exogamous force or entity it was able to engage it in a dialogue and resultantly what came out of it was an amalgam containing the best of the both. The outcome was invariably a mosaic, a composite culture, a harmonic union in the ocean of its vast civilizational humanity.
Today when mankind is confronted with a grim scenario involving clashes of national self interest, religious fundamentalisms rooted in dogma and ignorance, ethnic and racial prejudices, dialogue can be a well trusted means of laying the groundwork of a new world order in which the least developed and most disadvantaged among the peoples can have an effective vioce. Dialogue holds the prospect of converting confrontation to cooperation, depleting environment to sustainable environment, sectarian clashes to harmonic co-existence, fratricidal strife to fratricidal harmony. Dialogue is promotive of civic culture, social capital, democratic freedoms, human rights and social justice. It fosters peaceful living among people belonging to different religions, belief systems, cultures, races and civilizations. Dialogue holds fast to the human dimension and re-inforces the humane values of civilization. It inculcates rational scientific temper and contributes to creativity, adventure of ideas, respect for dissent and diversity, values of democracy, humanism, peace, understanding, adjustment and a sense of human brotherhood.
How saddening a thought that wherefrom had flowed great streams of culture and light in all directions and which was once hailed as cradle of culture and civilization, the same effulgent and enlightner Asia today is in the grip of dependency syndrome reeling under the weight of foreign indebtedness. With hegemonism and unilateralism of the world's sole super power looming large over the entire Asian continent which accounts for 75 per cent of all the oil reserves the United States is not only seeking to extend its economic, military and political control over it but also using it as a testing ground for its military prowess and precision-guided missiles and new generation fire power. What is clearly and blatantly a pursuit of its national self interest and show of its unmatched technological, military and thermo nuclear supremacy is being presented in the garb of civilizational clashes in certain select areas of the world.
With its rich physical, material and human resources, its 60 per cent of the global population and 33 per cent of the earth's surface together with vast reservoirs of oil wealth, Asian continent can not only become self sufficient but also transfer its surpluses to those other countires in dire need. The Asian Economic Market can transform this world's currently most impoverished region into one of the world's most thriving and vibrant economies. Since Asia is a home to diverse religions and cultures, dialogue can prove a sure method of forging the bonds of unity that lie embedded in the commonality of its shared past, common origins, common destiny, and common aspirations.
Given the innumerable harmonizing strands within the hallowed civilizational heritage of Asia, dialogue can prove most effective in repairing what has been described as the civilizational fault lines. Dialogue has the potential of not only stemming the tide of global terror, proxy wars and cross border terrorisms but also paving the way for a viable and strong Asian Union.
In the newly emerging knowledge--based networked society at the global level several multi-national conglomerates are coming up through mergers and takeovers with the avowed object of capturing the global market. In the new game only the rich nation-states and the mega-corporations are entering as the greatest stakeholders and beneficiaries of the new fiscal regime having a global sweep. Their chief concern is to perpetuate their hold on the world capital and not to rock the boat of globalization which pays them dividends. They would not do it for the sake of such emotional entities as the nation-state, religion or civilization. Nor would they risk waging a war for territorial expansion or for self determination. Nor would they do so to alter the international borders and surely not to establish the supremacy of one civilization over another. Whatever clashes and wars that we see being unleashed from time to time in the current phase are designed to preserve and promote pure national self interest. This includes even preemptive strikes against the forces of global terror avowedly resorted to in self defence. There is broad agreement that war can not solve any problem and any adventurist move can spell the very doom of mankind in which there will be no victors, no vanquished.
Since all prejudice, hatred and fear proceed from the binary schism--'we' and 'they', dialogue emerges as the proven way of transforming discord and conflict into harmony and co-operation. By promoting a better understanding of the 'other', dialogue rids us of fear-psychosis emanating from nightmares and chimeras which are constantly being bred by fear and hatred in our brains. Dialogue, by drawing on the best in human cultures and civilizations, can help generate fresh impulses of creativity and self-sustaining effulgence in human societies. Tolerance of dissent and celebration of cultural diversity are the very pre-requisites of a civil society. They, by giving a fillip to decentralized and democratic decision-making at the local and global level, provide the guarantee of human rights everywhere in all spheres of human discourse. This can be India's greatest contribution for realizing a non-violent just and humane world order.
It is the fond hope of every peace-loving people that dialogue among civilizations--oriental and occidental--will contribute to peace and prosperity of all mankind. If this dialogue between the Islamic and Inidic civilizations blossoms into the dialogue among other civilizations for the greatest good of mankind, it will surely strengthen the bonds of fraternity and brotherhood among the peoples of the world and help counter the threat of neo-fundamentalism and terrorism.