INTRODUCTION

The cultural contact of the East with the West, made inevitable by Europe’s expansion into Asia, may be regarded as the most significant single item in the history of our own period. The consequences of this contact, we yet cannot escape; the problems stemming from it we have not finally solved or settled. In the circumstances the kind of accommodation with the West we decide upon will largely determine the future of generations still unborn. Today it is generally agreed that what is needed of us, belonging to the East, in the establishment of a satisfactory East-West Relationship, is a critical and constructive approach towards Western Culture. Such an approach is so well reflected in a statement of Mahatma Gandhi:

"I do not want my house to be walled all four sides; nor do I want my windows shut. I want the cultures of all lands to be blown about my house as freely as possible. But I refuse to be blown off my feet by any."

The same attitude has been expressed in more elaborate terms by Ananda Coomaraswamy:

"So, I say that if we are to weather the storm of the word’s flow we must stand our ground, above all in this matter of the relation of man’s life to his life-work. And if in face of the practical and immediate problem presented by the present crisis and conflict of cultures, you ask me what can be done, my answer would be to adapt from the Chinese what has been called the slogan of the later Manchu dynasty and to say; Make Indian culture your foundation, and Western technique (in so far as it makes for quality, and not merely for quantity) your means. Beg buy, borrow or steal modern inventions, if you must in self-defence, but do not imitate modern ways of thinking or forget that however novel these ways may seem to use they are already stale in their own environment. I warn you, to invert the well-known Indian and Stoic parable, that what you take for a rope may be really a snake, and that to weaken, however little, is to play with fire in a forest."

This however was not the attitude that prevailed at the beginning, when the East bowing low before the blast from the West, was dazed and dominated. A dichotomy was then posited in the minds of many that, ‘East is East, and West is West and never the twain shall meet.’ They identified whatever was old with the culture of the East and whatever new or modern with the West.
There were those who hated the old so intensely as to desire a clean sweep of it and there were others so worshipful of the old as to desire a clean sweep of the new – two seemingly irreconcilable attitudes:

"This Blimp (if he exists) may say
This thing is new. Take it away,
But is the Wimp’s a wiser song?
This thing is old. It must be wrong."

Those who hated the old were prepared to accept anything, provided it was new, newness being the only qualification or criterion demanded. To them Western culture was good, one hundred per cent good, good in all its aspects and in all manifestations. Their attitude is well portrayed in the words of Swami Vivekananda:

"On one side, New India is saying, If we only adopt Western ideas, Western language, Western food, Western dress, Western language and Western manners, we shall be as strong and powerful as the Western nations; on the other, Old India is saying, Fools! By imitation, other’s ideas never become one’s own – nothing, unless earned, is your own. Does the ass in the lion’s skin become the lion?….. Have we not then to learn anything from the West? Must we not needs try and exert ourselves for better things? Are we perfect? Yes, learn we must many things from the West – But there are fears as well. O India, this is your terrible danger. The spell of imitating the West is getting such a strong hold upon you, that what is good or what is bad, is no longer decided by reason, judgment, discrimination, or reference to the Shastras… The Western ladies move freely everywhere- therefore, that is good; they choose for themselves their husbands – therefore, that is the highest step of advancement; the Westerners disapprove of our dress, decorations, food, and ways of living – therefore, they must be very bad; the Westerners condemn image worship as sinful – surely then, image worship is the greatest sin, there is no doubt of it! The Westerners say that worshipping a single deity is fruitful of the highest spiritual good-therefore, let us throw our gods and goddesses into the river Ganges! The Westerners hold cast distinctions to be obnoxious – therefore, let all the different castes be jumbled into one! The Westerners say that child marriage is the root of all evils – therefore, that is also very bad, of a certainty it is! We are not discussing here, whether these customs deserve countenance or rejection; but if the mere disapproval of the Westerners be the measure of the abominableness of our manners and customs, then it is our duty to raise our emphatic protest against it."

They, who accepted the culture of the West in an uncritical or sycophantic manner, could not then be fully acquainted with some of the evil aspects of the West, unfolded during the years of the First World War and thereafter, which revealed that science had mastered nature but not human nature.

On the other hand there were others who had no use, absolutely no use, for anything new in the sphere of culture. They desired to stand still in the world, not knowing that either they must go forward or else they would inevitably go back. They often justified their position by invoking the name of Religion which had a powerful appeal on account of the identification in their minds of Western culture with Christian proselytization.

Later, it was realized that this equation was not correct for all the years and throughout the decades, and that Western culture was indeed composed, in proportions never constant, of several elements, nearly all of them imported and altered – e.g. Christian Religion, Parliamentary Rule, Social Justice, Imperial Domination, Science and Technology. And Imperialism itself partook of the same characteristic, of being constituted of various elements, mixed in quantities varying from year to year – sacrifice and suffering, discipline and devotion, law and order, peace and prosperity, power and profit, glory and gain, economic exploitation and cultural aggradisement.

When the culture of the West came to be appraised in its complex and kaleidoscopic nature, the attitude of either-or, total acceptance or wholesale repudiation, could no longer be sustained or justified. In some more years it lost its validity on account of the attainment of independence by many of the countries belonging to the East.

"In the nineteenth century empires were expanding: the whole continent of Africa and much of Asia was being divided by the European powers among themselves. Now there is an upsurge towards national independence and racial equality. Empires are evolving into commonwealths, possisions into partnerships, subjects into citizens. New problems – urgent, difficult, dangerous-press upon statesmen and peoples all over the globe. And the human race as a whole is faced by uncertainties as to its own subsistence… Fresh welfare problems appear as the old ones are solved. Shorter working-hours and longer holidays raise new questions as to use of leisure. Family ities have become less rigid; with the consequence that divorces and separations are many; a multitude of children grow up in broken homes; there is a sharp increase in juvenile delinquency. And crime in general is far too rife." – from the Hibbert Centenary Lecture – A Century’s Changes of Outlook, Viscount Samuel.

In view of these doubts and developments, it has become necessary to search for a new attitude towards Western culture, to reappraise the West in order that current demands are well met, to ensure that political independence will not be devoid of meaning for the underprivileged peoples of the East in their developing countries. In this quest, the knowledge that the East-West Relationship is as old as history and as topical as today should prove useful; it may be remembered that Hellenic Civilization owed a measure of debt to Egypt and Europe during the Middle Ages to West Asia that the West acquired the material power, through which it conquered the entire World psychologically, if not politically on account of the accidental marriage during the Eighteenth century of Natural Science with Technology. It may now be legitimately assumed that one culture need not dominate or supersede the other, in fact they could symbiotically exist and vigorously flourish.

To promote such a kind of symbiosis is by no means easy; the difficulties are many on account of the baffling choice of the several alternatives available in respect of nearly every important item; to separate the good from the rest of the culture concerned, whether of the West or East, is a task fraught with the special danger of mistaking the essential for the non-essential, the fundamental for the accidental. In the words of Toynbee, “if you once commit yourself to taking one element from some alien civilization you may find yourself led on, in unexpected ways, into being constrained also to receive other elements which, at first sight, might seem to have no connection with the element that you have originally taken intentionally and deliberately.” The same view has been more optimistically expressed:

“It was not the technological revolution in itself which determined the way in which the Western societies evolved, but the philosophy, the rationale, of the West which gave direction to the manner in which the new discoveries and new techniques were exploited. I do not believe that the acquisition of these techniques is necessarily inseparable from this Western philosophy. All that one can say with certainty is that they will set in motion the whole social machinery of the Eastern countries, and that they will bring about changes in social institutions and a realignment of social forces.

It is not, then, the institution and techniques borrowed from the West, however massive such borrowings may be, nor yet the external evolution shown in the last century, which will be of final significance, but the inward reaction towards the cultural values which are seeking to find their place within Muslim society under cover of these borrowings. Everything depends on the capacity of Muslim society to defend and protect its values and cultural traditions against the Western invasions. If it fails in this task, it is lost as a Muslim society. It will inevitably become a more or less faithful copy of Western society with secondary characteristics peculiar to the different countries and languages." –
H.A.R. Gibb on “the Reaction in the Middle East Against Western Culture.”

How then, and in what environment, could Western culture be shared in all its good aspects without the loss of those values and traditions that are essential to the culture of the East? This is the task of the present generation of every leading country of the East.

The remarks of H. A. R. Gibb, though of immediate relevance to Muslim Society, are of general application to the East:

“The task today will be no less difficult, and it would be absurd to expect it to be completed in any shorter space of time. The nature of the factors in the situation is much more complex than those in the medieval conflict; one cannot foresee any of its vicissitudes and only an astrologer would be so bold as to foretell the outcome. But I think we can already distinguish two signs of a conscious cultural revival in the Arab world. First in spite of the fact that technological progress in the East must depend for many years to come on the West, a new class of technical experts is in the process of formation. In intercourse with such men, I feel quite certain that in time energies and capacities which still remain latent will one day blossom forth, with consequent reactions not only on institutions and attitudes, but also on thought. At the same time I think we can see the emergence of a new generation of leaders of the community and of social thought, a generation which comes, not from the old ruling classes, but from strata of society which have remained Muslims, in the strict sense, up to the present day. These new elements, because they do still maintain their links with the old Islamic culture will be able to perceive and understand the values latent in Western civilization, and to come at last to grips, in concrete terms with the overriding problem of the Arab peoples.”

“It is in this fashion, and this fashion alone, that Muslim thought will be able to re-establish its position in this age of technological revolution, and impose its own values on the new institutions of social life. This will be a long-term undertaking and it has scarcely yet more than begun. But it has begun, and until it is successfully completed there will be no solution for the social and cultural problems of the Arab world.”

In the attempt to reconcile Eastern values with Western technology, the present generation will be immeasurably benefited by the experiences of those leaders, belonging to the East, who had focused their attention on this very problem of East-West Relationship. Ten of the chapters that follow are biographical sketches of such leaders. They lived to labour for their communities as guiding lights when their services were most needed.

“Then in such hour of need
Of your fainting, dispirted race,
Ye, like angels, appear,
Radiant, with ardour divine.
Beacons of hope, ye appear!
Languour is not in your heart,
Weakness is not in your word,
Weariness is not on your brow."

It will be clear from the texts that these chapters were originally prepared as addresses or articles, to suit special occasions; restricted thus by time or space they do not attempt to treat the subjects in a comprehensive manner. These observations would also apply to the three remaining chapters. The first deals with the great Event of Buddha Jayanthi which as far as Ceylon is concerned, may be rightly regarded in the contemporary history of East-West Relationship, as the dividing line, between the old and the new epoch – between the Age of Dazzlement and the Age of Discernment. The second of the chapters refers to the Golden Jubilee of an institution, which from its inception rejected the Macaulayan conception of an educational system designed to form a class of persons ‘Indian in colour, but English in tastes, in opinion, in morals and intellect.’ The third is an analysis, however incomplete, of the Grand Concept of Pan-Islam whose influence was felt throughout the Eastern World. All of them are of current relevance to the central theme of East-West Relationship and every chapter therefore, it may be claimed, provides a kind of case history for the Re-appraisal of the West.

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