I’m almost certain that there is hardly any educated person who has not heard or thought or talked about the impact of westernization in our society today, and rightly so. But it is disheartening to see that often westernization has been confused with modernization and vice versa. Obviously, one cannot be understood fully without the other. However, there is a thin layer of difference between westernization and modernization. It is true that “modernization,” commonly understood, was born in the west, but it is incorrect to attribute all aspects of modernization to the western worlds. Each society has evolved its own form and style of modernization with the passage of time, in certain cases distinct and distinguishable from that of the west. I’ll try to highlight some of my points here.
Let us take a brief tour to history and try to understand how modernism was born before we go into more details of westernization. We know that modern age was immediately preceded by feudal age. The question to be asked is ‘What led to this transition?’ On this, different people will have different things to say, but for the present purpose we will limit our discussion to what I feel is most relevant and worth considering; it concerns the notions of power and knowledge. By power, we mean mainly political power, the power to take decision, control and regulate the actions and activities of the people living in a society. People who exercise such power derive their authority from some source; and this brings us to the question of knowledge.
Feudalism, or feudal life and culture, was characterized by a strong appeal to faith. Metaphysical and religious belief systems were inevitable part of day-to-day feudal life. Let me explain this in more concrete terms: The Bible was the source of power not only for justifying the action of the people but also for regulating their actions and activities. It was the standard for judging the actions of the people – to say that an action was right or wrong, good or bad, worthwhile or useless etc. The power (authority) of the Bible was absolute. No one could even doubt it or question it. There was no provision for such inquisitive spirit in the feudal age. The Bible became the source and backbone of the Divine Origin Theory of kingship and of the state. This theory empowers the rulers to such an extent that no one can question the behavior or authority of the rulers! They were the representatives of god on earth. Their words were law and they were revered as the fountain of justice. To go even a little further, biblical knowledge was used to explain natural phenomena as well. Everything that happens is purposeful. Without reference to God or something mysterious or supernatural, no explanation was meaningful or adequate. This gave a lot of space for the few learned people with twisted minds to discriminate and exploit the common mass to the maximum. Common people were made to believe all kinds of tainted teachings blindly. The Bible was not accessible to the common people then; not until the arrival of Martin Luther in the 16 th century. So it used to be the case that knowledge and power were concentrated only in the hands of the privileged few, people belonging to the state or the church. The life of the common people was characterized by different kinds of obligations whereas the higher strata of people enjoyed maximum rights or liberty. There existed in any society a great divide between the rulers and the subjects. Simply put, people were not born equal. No wonder this age is also called in history as the Dark Age in Europe. Dark Age in a different cultural mask was also prevalent in the East, particularly in the Indian sub-continent. However, we will skip the Indian case here.
We will now come to modern age or modernism. Descartes, known as the Father of Modern Western Philosophy, a renowned 17th century French philosopher and mathematician, is known for his famous philosophic dictum: ” I think therefore I exist.” He was the first person to say that one’s existence can be proved only by thinking. Humorously put, a Cartesian would say that when one stops thinking one ceases to exist. To him, only thinking as such is indubitable. Descartes asserted that everything else can be doubted. That means not even the Bible or one’s own body is self-evident. The point to mark here is that Descartes introduced a rigorous reasoning method into knowledge seeking and knowledge acquisition activities. Nothing is to be accepted as knowledge without examination and subsequent validation.
Central to the idea of modernism, then, is reason. The source of power for the early modern age was reason as opposed to faith in the feudal age. Thus there was a shift of paradigm from faith to reason, from God-centeredness to human-centeredness. Man, not God, became the measure of everything. Reason became the main tool for acquiring knowledge. From then on, human actions and ideologies needed to be justified not in terms of Biblical principles but on the basis of humanistic principles. For instance, stealing is bad and condemnable not because the Bible says it is, but because it is harmful for peaceful social existence. Extreme belief in the power of human beings replaced the faith in God. A rainbow occurs not because God wants to show a miraculous sign of His benevolence to human kind but because of the laws of nature – laws of optics and other related theories. A natural phenomenon is mechanical in character following specific laws and not teleological in nature. The demand of the time was the urgent desire to discover such laws in nature, laws which can explain and predict natural phenomena. Discoveries of laws of nature obviously led to industrial revolution. Since then, there has been unceasing technological development till date. In other words, human actions were explained and justified in terms of humanist or enlightenment principles, and likewise natural events were explained and predicted in terms of laws of nature. If there was no theory to explain an action or event, then it was not accepted as valid knowledge. Thus, then as now, to have a law for explaining something is termed science. The gist is that ‘ to be modern is to be scientific.’ Modernization means theorization. Science became the epitome of knowledge. The term ‘science’ thus became the in thing in the academic circles of eighteenth and nineteenth century Europe. By the end of the nineteenth century, there was a trend to convert every academic discipline in social studies to social ‘sciences.’
Let us now do some thought experiments with this historical background in mind. It is said that the practice of terrace cultivation among the Nagas is highly scientific in nature. If so, the question is, ‘Is terrace cultivation a modern or a western practice?’ I wouldn’t part with this achievement of our forebears by attributing it to the westerners. The diet of the Japanese people is considered to be highly nutritious. Does it mean that it is scientific? Yes! Is it modern? Yes and, perhaps, no. “No” because it is ancient and “Yes” because it is scientific. But can we say that it is western? Definitely not! Again, is the principle of non-violence struggle for freedom, satyagraha, started by Gandhi against British colonial rule modern? Yes, because it happened in the twentieth century and the movement was not violent or barbaric. But was it western? I certainly doubt it! We do talk about folk or indigenous knowledge of medicine that are very ancient. But we can modernize this knowledge by interpreting them in terms of modern scientific tools or theories. But we would not speak of them as an act or process of westernization. It is worthwhile to note that scientificity or modernity has a universal appeal and is not confined to western culture or regional culture alone.
Not everything western even today is modern either. I mean, look at some of their dirty languages and their messy-horny-scanty dresses, especially those of the so-called celebrities who we are very apt to emulate! Such lifestyle is driven not by ‘necessity’ but often by reasons of sexual proclivity. How can we forget some of their music? They can be very disgusting. Their fast food life is not healthy at all (despite its attractive ads). It is sheer ignorance of the philosophies of the west, coupled with blind desire to imitate them, that actually resulted in the decadence of many of our ethos. Through various forms of mass media, especially Hollywood production, we only get to see their outer superficial world. We don’t know what really drives them. The point is, they are rich and we are not rich like them; their youth can afford to party, dress in style and drive expensive cars because they earn. How many of us, the Naga youths, earn money to enjoy? How many of us drive our own cars? Countable! It is indeed pitiful or rather painful to see some of our youths going to fish market in attires fit for a party at a star-studded hotel. We just don’t know when to start and when to quit the art of copying!
In the meantime, as seen above, we should also note that not everything about modernism is compatible with our social and religious beliefs and practices. Thus, any thinking religious person will not remain unperturbed if conclusions were to be drawn from the above reflections. Due to excessive belief in scientism and humanism, for instance, Darwinism and social ideologies have come to replace the creation theory and biblical values. To be known as an atheist among the intellectuals has even become fashionable in the universities and other centers for higher learning.
Formal system of modern education and Christianity are two forces that have come from the west to our society. They have come to stay, and they should, as a matter of fact, for our own good. If our society has to catch up with the fast changing world, it is imperative that we forego part of our traditional beliefs and practices to meet the demands of the time and at the same time embrace many promises and packages of the west. We should not be so worried about part of our cultures being transformed by the modern or western lifestyles. In saying this, I don’t mean that we should reject our culture in favor of modern or western culture totally. Rather, we should be more concerned about aping the outside cultures without really knowing their meanings and implications. We should be geared to encounter the western negative aspects of individualism, materialism, capitalism etc., which are almost alien to our cultures. These forces can be extremely harmful to our society as our societal structure is predominantly communitarian and spiritual (non-materialism). I am aware that in recent times, certain elements have come out in the open to criticize the impact of Christianization in our society. However, I would rather see our animistic beliefs and practices fade away than reject modern education and Christianity in the name of preserving our traditional ethos. On the contrary, I am convinced that we need these two things to enhance the quality of our present and future living and also to preserve and appreciate our past life (culture and tradition) better.
What follows naturally from the discussion above is that our immediate task should be to sharpen our knowledge of modern education so as to interpret and understand the western world better, which may, at the same time, help us to cope with the needs and desires of the fast changing world, the unstoppable age of globalization. I feel that our urgent concern should be to fill the communication gap between the west and the east, between foreign culture and our cultures. Otherwise, our cultures would soon dissolve into foreign cultures even without our realization, and our own cultures would, as a result, become things of historical interest only. We will thus lose our authenticity and originality. This will have adverse effect on our Naga identity, especially the upcoming generations. Finally, any talk on westernization vis-à-vis modernization would not be complete without involving issues and concepts such as individualism, materialism, capitalism, liberalism, or humanism and enlightenment, or even globalization and post-modernism, and for those who have are ultra current, post-post modernism or trans-modernism. But it is not practical to touch all these in such a short time and space. And, I’ve not even started to answer which of the two is preferable – a westernized trigopan or a modernized hornbill. A bold, adventurous reader and thinker would therefore certainly not end his or her reading here. I hope you are one!