A rather well-researched feature on iO9 caught my attention recently. It had to do with the Harappa culture of the Indus valley civilisation. The article wondered how a civilisation existed for millennia without engaging in war or conflict.
The Harappan civilization dominated the Indus River valley beginning about five thousand years ago, many of its massive cities sprawling at the edges of rivers that still flow through Pakistan and India today. But its culture remains a mystery. Why did it leave behind no representations of great leaders, nor of warfare?
I find this a typically Western/’modern’ conundrum (and by this phrase, I mean the tendency to habitually and indiscriminately equate Western sensibilities with modernity). Where is it written that a civilised society can’t find it within itself to stay away from war and conflict? Who says the only way for societies to interact is through conflict? Why is there no little or no space for the idea that a civilisation could very easily have survived for millennia by being… well… civilised?
Part of the reason these ideas may seem preposterous is because we have all gotten used to the idea of violent encounters being the default value as far as cultural encounters are concerned. Even one of the finest scientific minds of today, Stephen Hawking, has fallen into the same trap.
Hawking claims that, while most alien life is likely to consist of small animals or microbes, it is entirely possible that species also exist which are far more intelligent and aggressive than humans. Trying to interact with such beings would be “too risky” and would inevitably lead to an invasion of Earth. (The Week)
Professor Hawking said: ‘We only have to look at ourselves to see how intelligent life might develop into something we wouldn’t want to meet. ‘I imagine they might exist in massive ships, having used up all the resources from their home planet. ‘Such advanced aliens would perhaps become nomads, looking to conquer and colonise whatever planets they can reach.’ It would be ‘too risky’ to attempt to make contact with alien races, he concluded. ‘If aliens ever visit us, I think the outcome would be much as when Christopher Columbus first landed in America, which didn’t turn out very well for the Native Americans.’ (Daily Mail)
The error here of course is coming to conclusions regarding what alien civilisations might behave like in their interactions with us, on the basis of what we human beings have behaved like in our interactions with each other.
The even greater error here is that Hawking does so on the basis of his historical understanding of a very slim slice of human history — that of the people who lived on one side of the meditarranean sea in the last couple thousand years. America was ‘discovered’ (apparently it did not exist before that point in time) by Europeans as recently as in 1492. Vasco da Gama ‘discovered’ (the sea route to) India in 1498.
What Western memory considers events of epochal value are, in truth, mere footnotes in the history of humankind. To base our understanding of the future, or of the greater universe on the basis of this limited understanding of the past is unintelligent and therefore bound to be counter-productive.
In any case, before I end this, here is an account by Greek ethnographer Megasthenes of what he observed regarding warfare in ancient India. I think the conclusions drawn from it can be brought to bear on the question of culture and conflict raised by the iO9 article mentioned in the beginning of this post. Megasthenes says:
Whereas among other nations it is usual, in the contests of war, to ravage the soil and thus to reduce it to an uncultivated waste, among the Indians, on the contrary, by whom husbandmen are regarded as a class that is sacred and inviolable, the tillers of the soil, even when battle is raging in their neighborhood, are undisturbed by any sense of danger, for the combatants on either side in waging the conflict make carnage of each other, but allow those engaged in husbandry to remain quite unmolested. Besides, they never ravage an enemy’s land with fire, nor cut down its trees.