What is Civilization?

-Periyar E.V. Ramasamy

Translated by Karthick Ram Manoharan and Vilasini Ramani

No matter how we approach the concept of ‘civilization’, we have to acknowledge the differences and changes in people’s activities, clothing habits, food habits, behavior, social relationships etc. in a large way. We cannot exactly say how this change has happened. Somehow everything adapts to change and keep going. 

Our women never used to wear blouses. Today, there are many styles of blouses. In the Western world, women’s clothing looked like one that swept the streets. To make their hip look thin, they wore dresses that looked like cones below their waist. Rich women used to have servants to hold their long dresses at the back. That was a time in civilization. Nowadays, the Western women wear much shorter clothes. This is also civilization.

When we talk about these things, we talk without any attachment, i.e., we should talk as freethinkers without having affiliation to caste, religion or nation so as to understand these changes better. Only then we will perceive the truth of it. 

Once upon a time, one needed to put sacred ash on the forehead and mutter ‘Siva Siva’ to pretend to be a person of good traits. We live in times where we make fun of such things. We ridicule such actions.

When we take husband-wife for instance, there used to be a time when only those wives who took abuse from their husband without complaint, who enslaved themselves to the husband and took care of his needs, were respected. But today, the wives challenge the husband if they are maids to do service to him, if they are enslaved creatures. The husbands should learn to behave well, else things won’t be nice. The wives of today who demand equal rights, equal freedom, and ask to be treated as equal partners are seen as cultured and civilized. 

Earlier, one had to talk about epics or religions to be known as learned and renowned. But today aren’t they ridiculed and seen as old-fashioned? Things that do not make sense were discussed before out of sheer ignorance and arrogance. But today we need rational explanations and we respect learned experts who can give scientific reasons for everything.

Civilization is nothing but what adapts to the context, the country and the times. It keeps changing. The behavior that evolves with the times is called civilized. And time does not hold on to old things. The new is born from the old and revolutionary change is inevitable. 

We talked about mustache, hair style etc. What we consider as civilization today eventually becomes indigestion. It moves towards another change.  

Such concepts sell through the smartness of speech. It can be anything – truth or lies, right or wrong. In the future there might be a situation where physical labor will reduce. It will be the way of life then. 

Why should we keep slogging always? Should rationally thinking beings slog? Should we earn our food only through hard labor? If we raise such questions, we can work for the progress of human society without much difficulty or sacrifice. This can be seen as a way of life and may benefit all. We used to think that nation-state, nationalism, patriotism were necessary for civilized behavior. But today civilization means we leave past all these things and talk about compassion and camaraderie among the world citizens.   

We ridicule today what was once a social practice. Man used to carry caste pride. He proudly claimed himself as either Nayakkan, or Mudaliar, or Vaishnavite or Saivite, and wanting to be up in the caste hierarchy through Saivite and Vaishnavite rituals, he wore the sacred thread, applied sacred ash in vertical or horizontal lines on his forehead and talked high of his beliefs. 

But today we condemn these practices as senseless and regressive. Once upon a time different thoughts were in practice. For example, vying for power by different castes and nations was appreciated greatly. But we started to realize today that anything that is good for one caste or one nation is evil for the other caste or the other nation.

Dear Comrades, I would like to stress on one particular thing here. We are growing as progressive beings through our matured experiences. We consider the wellbeing of all people through our informed thoughts. 

For example, we know that the businessmen hurt the welfare of others for their profits, that the usurers are the destroyers of humankind, and that religious fanatics bring misery to humankind.

I said earlier that civilization is a very complex thing. How could our women wear saree without wearing a belt to support it? How does it stay on their waist? And how could the women make a bun of their hair without a comb? Why are we spending money each day on our platter? We must be aware of Westerners who wonder at these things. If we do not realize what is right for us, we end up being mystified.

The affiliation we have towards our caste, relationships, language, nation – all of these make our thinking blunt. If this affiliation or affection is not gotten rid of, we cannot think of anything good. We cannot differentiate our right actions from the wrong. 

When Gandhiji visited abroad, he was adamant that he would only wear a knee-length dress. He suffered the cold in England (all for the pride of Indian values) without a proper dress. How is this even sensible? Can we call this an action of a sensible person? Can we make everyone do this? Is it even right to make everyone do this?

The world evolves with new thoughts and actions everyday. You should not fail to make use of what is best for you. Wear rationalism on your sleeves and think and strive for what is best for human kind. You will achieve success only through this.

Even those who were staunch believers of God started realizing that only hard work pays and they talk and act accordingly. Hence, you should be confident about yourselves and come forward to fight for the liberation of people with a rationalist approach.  

Those that are comforts, good deeds and necessities for the individual must be made available to every single person in the society, and this is what is called civilization. Such a concept of civilization can be seen as the yardstick to measure the progress of a society. This changes according to time and the scientific expansion of knowledge. What is civilization is nothing but that which makes peoples’ lives joyous.

Periyar’s 1933 speech on “The civilization that we see in India today” during his Europe tour. Published on Viduthalai on 9-2-1964.

Source: Periyar E. V. Ramasamy. 2013. Periyar Kalanjiyam 34: Pagutharivu, Paagam (2). [Periyar Repository 34: Rationalism Part (2)]. First Edition. Chennai: Periyar Suyamariyathai Prachaara Niruvanam, 155-159.